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The case study was presented by Mr John Hetherington, planning manager at Cumbria County Council, Dr Rachel Western, Friends of the Earth, and Mr Chris Murray, Managing Director of NIREX.

In 1997 a public inquiry was held to scrutinise the proposal by NIREX to build a Rock Characterization Facility at Sellafield, close to the BNFL reprocessing plant and surface stores for intermediate and high level waste. The inquiry was held in two parts. Part A dealt with the impact of service development on the countryside and the national park which is adjacent to the proposed site, and part B dealt with the technical issues, the geology and the safety assessment and site selection.

During the process the local authorities - Cumbria County Council and the concerned district (Copeland Borough) - got deeply involved in technical arguments. While accepting the fact that Sellafield could be mentioned in a list of several potential sites, the local governments made the view that Sellafield was “a poor site chosen for the wrong reasons”. It was suspected that NIREX had focussed on Sellafield from 1991 because of an expected local support from the community which is familiar with nuclear industry. The concept of a Rock Characterization Facility introduced late in the process was viewed as a Trojan horse so that a repository could be built there. Friends of the Earth hired several experts to review the planning permission files and built a case that developed from site specific Sellafield issues to generic issues that would apply whatever site was chosen. From the local authorities and the NGOs’ viewpoint, the difficult point in this process was the limited resources compared to the proponent’s and the lack of involvement from the regulator. Nonetheless, the UK confrontational planning inquiry system with its independent inspector brought all the basic background and issues out into the open, and provided an almost complete review of what NIREX had done up to that point.

The Secretary of State’s decision to refuse NIREX planning permission following the inquiry was announced on the 17th of March 1997. This refusal referred to poor design, layout and adverse impact on the national park, but was mainly related to the geology, the safety assessment and site selection aspects. In his statement, the Secretary of State noted with some concern that the site selection process had singularly failed to impress the Inspector in terms of its transparency and the rigor of its scientific logic. He accepted the need for full disclosure of site selection in any future rock characterisation facility stage.

For the UK nuclear waste management system, and more particularly for NIREX, the refusal made clear the cost of failure to engage local communities effectively, but this was equally an opportunity to stop, draw back and learn essential lessons.

A study group of the two advisory bodies to Government on radioactive waste management (RWMAC/ACSNI) had already produced in 1995, before the inquiry, first reflections on how to open the process and introduce a step-wise approach. The House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology issued a report on March 1999 on the general question of the management of nuclear waste. The latter report prompted the Government to start to develop a comprehensive policy that would be subject to wide consultation and requested that a nuclear waste management commission be set up with an open approach. The Government released a Consultation Paper “Managing Radioactive Waste Safely” in September 2001.

As far as NIREX is concerned, following the result of the 1997 public inquiry, the organisation went through important management and objectives changes. It was asked to try and learn the lessons of what was recognized to be a huge policy failure in the UK. As regards the process, it came clear that there were no clear road marks or decision points that people could refer to. Moreover there was a low involvement from regulators which can be explained by the very conceptual nature of NIREX project at the time of the inquiry. From the NIREX perspective a stepwise process needs to be identified up-front and published. A policy framework is required which would embrace both national and local issues. There is equally a need for checks and balances, and for a review of options. Stakeholders should be involved in setting up the criteria by which any site would be chosen, at the beginning of the process. In terms of behaviour, it was acknowledged that the programme was driven too quickly with a ‘just in time’ approach to the science, and a questionable separation between the Rock Characterization Facility and the repository. The lack of openness in publishing the results and lack of dialogue meant that there was insufficient clarity over what was being done, and made NIREX appear as an element of the problem, rather than as a solution provider. Since then NIREX took a commitment to achieve transparency in the organisation, notably by introducing traceability of decisions and involving a transparency panel. The structure of the nuclear waste management system is also an important aspect: the insufficient differentiation between NIREX and the nuclear industry and the low involvement of the regulators were damaging the clarity of the system and of the process. This question is to be addressed in the consultation process and will result in new nuclear waste management structures.

As a stakeholder in the 1997 inquiry and because it hosts surface stores for intermediate and high level waste Cumbria County Council has also developed its own views on the strategy for nuclear waste management, and intends to get involved in the consultation process started in September 2001, together with other local constituencies such as Copeland Borough Council.

Find additional information on this case study in the report of the Oskarshamn conference, September 2001


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