By Jenny Barwise

Last updated at 17:51, Friday, 13 September 2013

Nuclear workers hope a change that sidelines the county council will pave the way to create a massive underground atomic waste store in west Cumbria.

Stewart Young photo

Stewart Young

The authority stopped Cumbria being considered as the site of a huge store for high-level radioactive material earlier this year – despite Allerdale and Copeland councils both wanting to stay in the process.

But its right to say no could be removed if a new Government process comes into force which would give district authorities the final say.

Plans were revealed yesterday by the Department for Energy and Climate Change, which launched a nationwide consultation on a revised process to find a site for a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF).

The Government wants to give powers to district councils – such as Copeland and Allerdale – which would be the representative authority. This would mean that only these councils would have the powers to withdraw from the process as well as having the final say on whether the community should volunteer to host the facility.

The county council would have only an “advisory” role as part of a Consultative Partnership board.

All the councils affected are playing their cards close to their chests following confirmation of the consultation yesterday. In similar statements Copeland and Allerdale said the future of radioactive waste storage and disposal was of “great interest” to their areas.

Both said they would be taking their time to consider the Government’s proposals before responding.

But groups representing atomic industry workers have welcomed the development.

Craig Dobson, of the Sellafield Workers’ Campaign, said: “It’s imperative that the drift and delay of the last 30 years is not allowed to continue.

“The announcement of this new consultation so soon after the last process failed to find a suitable site is encouraging because there was always the risk that this could have been kicked into the long grass.”

GMB Union national officer Gary Smith argues Sellafield should be at the centre of any new development, adding: “The best long-term solution is to manage the waste at Sellafield.

“However, our support for a repository at Sellafield wouldn’t be unconditional. We aren’t going to support turning Sellafield into a nuclear graveyard and nuclear dump.”

Garry Graham, deputy general secretary of Prospect, said: “Investigations into the suitability of a site in Cumbria were terminated prematurely earlier this year in a blow to the industry. I hope we can learn the lessons of that process and ensure that the Government clearly states the benefits and support any host community will receive.”

Eddie Martin, the man who led the county council when it ruled Cumbria out of the last stage, today described any prospect of the authority’s right to veto being removed as an “affront to democracy”.

He told the News & Star: “To remove the input of the county council is, in my view, foolish.”

Energy Minister Baroness Verma has, however, insisted the county will still have a “significant role” to play, adding: “The county council would still hold the controls over planning.”

She said hosting a site would bring lasting economic benefits with jobs, opportunities for businesses, and a “generous” benefits package to support the community.

As part of the revised process, which the three-month consultation covers, communities would be provided with more information at an earlier stage in the process; a positive community-wide demonstration of support would be required before a community could host a GDF; and communities would have an on-going right to withdraw.

Copeland MP Jamie Reed said that had this process been in place when the county council failed to back the two districts in January, the wishes of Allerdale and Copeland would have “been respected”.

He welcomed the launch of the consultation, saying managing radioactive waste safely is one of the “most important” environmental and economic challenges facing the country and the community, adding it was “morally indefensible” to leave the problem for future generations to solve.

Cumbria County Council has said it will be “responding fully” to the new proposals in due course.

Current leader Stewart Young, a member of the pervious cabinet under Mr Martin, said the authority expressed its concerns about the earlier process when the cabinet decided not to proceed to the next stage.

He said: “Those concerns included uncertainty on the right for communities to bring the process to a halt if they are not happy, a complete lack of detail about the timing and quantum of any community benefits package, and the lack of a ‘plan B’ for more robust interim surface storage plans for the high-level radioactive waste currently kept at Sellafield.

“We will be looking closely at these revised proposals to see whether our concerns have been addressed.”

The process to select a site would vary according to the specific needs of the community, but could take about 15 years, with construction a further 15 years, the Government has said.

Bruce McKirdy, managing director of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority’s Radioactive Waste Management Directorate, said: “As the body responsible for the design, development and delivery of a geological disposal facility, we look forward to working with communities, stakeholders and the Government to take responsibility for our past.”

Consultation on the Government’s new approach runs until December 15, with the re-launch of the national site selection process next year.

First published at 17:50, Friday, 13 September 2013
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