Thursday, February 21, 2002

Financial compensation, or a shopping list of benefits for any community which might take a nuclear waste repository, should be discussed before any decisions are taken, says the new Nirex boss.

Chris Murray, new managing director of Nirex, the company behind the failed Sellafield repository bid, said: "It should be agreed at a national level - that's the only legitimate way. It could involve substantial amounts, maybe not."

"We shouldn't leave it to the developer, it should be decided, up front, what the whole picture is going to be."

At a forum in Cleator Moor Civic Hall, the Nirex chief was addressing local community representatives and members of the public to get their views on the solution for dealing with the country's highly radioactive waste as part of a government consultation paper. Most of the waste produced and stored from reprocessing at Sellafield.

Mr Murray said there should be some recognition of a "contract" as part of the consultations, unlike things which were felt, but unspoken, while Nirex was carrying out its investigations around Sellafield.

It was important to know what a community, anywhere in the UK, might get.

The Nirex chief asked: "Should they get blight money? - Yes, there is hardly any debate about that.

"Planning gain? That is a different matter and needs to be discussed up front."

Should that planning gain be toilets at Gosforth which was the level Nirex worked at, and which was ridiculous, or should it be something very substantial like regional development?

If it's regional development or something like that isn't that a bribe? I don't have the answer but this should be debated and not left until the last second.

Another issue is whether local communities should have a veto to say 'no' as they do in Sweden to any proposal. That is not a normal thing in this country but all these things should be discussed before anyone starts doing anything about sites. All the technical options need to be gone through with a fine tooth comb."

Mr Murray, who admitted that huge lessons had been learned in the need for openness and transparency, said that it was crucial to have an open site selection process.

"People simply said it was a fix last time. This time everybody has to be involved. Sellafield was one of the sites and Dounreay the second but there were another 10. Next time round names the sites. That's what's done in Sweden and Finland, so people can see it.

The faster we went the more we annoyed everybody. We were not listening, when concerns were brought to us, we patted people on the head and said 'don't worry about it.' We published more information than anyone could believe but we did not involve the public."

For Friends of the Earth in West Cumbria, Jill Perry said there was still an inevitable feeling that the waste would "end up here" although, if the consultation process was carried out fairly, all of it might not.

She also warned that the public consultations could be a complete waste of time because of proposed government legislation to change the planning system for major infrastructure projects. It meant that the need, principle and location of a nuclear waste facility would be unchallengable at a public inquiry - "The kind of inquiry we had into the Nirex rock characterisation facility would not take place in the same way."

She said that all that members of the public would be able to comment on would be things like how the actual site was laid out, mitigation measures and planning conditions; no issues of substance, "So that is a real concern to Friends of the Earth and lots of other people, a real threat to democracy civil rights and the real anxiety for the whole nuclear waste consultation process."

After the events of September 11, FoE said it would be developing its policy over next few months on methods of disposal or storage, but Ms Perry said: "We don't want West Cumbria or Sellafield to become the world's nuclear dustbin"

She said that de-commissioning of plants at Sellafield would add very high amounts of waste to the stockpile.

Adam Scott, from DEFRA's Radioactive Substances Division, said that September 11 had concentrated people's minds on risks associated with nuclear reactors and waste.

He thought the Nirex failure to get planning permission to build an underground rock laboratory at Longlands, near Gosforth, a good thing because the government had then to re-examine all options for dealing with radioactive waste.

"We are desperately keen to get the public's views on the consultation paper. What we did not get right last time was the right way of dealing with this issue. Should we bury the waste deep underground or lying around on the surface in safe storage until future society knows about the perils of the material and what to do with it?"

He said the trickiest question would be where a new disposal or storage facility might be, but he added: "There is no mad rush."

Part of the consultation ends on March 12. Mr Scott said a recommendation to government was needed by 2004, by which time there may have been another public consultation.

n Views from the forum will be used by Copeland Council as part of its response to the consultation. Brian White, head of development, said: "What came over strongly from the group discussions is that we have an expert community and, without it being taken as read that the waste should remain here, we need a strong voice in what happens to it."