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U.K. Seeks Sites to Store the Nation's Nuclear Waste

At a briefing held yesterday to outline plans for an underground repository for high-activity nuclear waste in the United Kingdom, Bruce McKirdy of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) said the U.K. government had learned from past mistakes to be open and transparent with the public. To this end, NDA has released a new report today detailing the amount of nuclear waste that needs to be stored and how they will use a "volunteer system" to select a suitable site.

The last attempt for such a facility in the United Kingdom came to a halt in 1997 when a planning application for construction at Sellafield in Cumbria was refused due to opposition by the local community. "The site selection had been done behind closed doors, as the government was worried about adversely affecting house prices," McKirdy says. "If you choose a site that would be geologically suitable and then impose these plans on a community, projects like this fail." A recent high-profile example of this is the abandoned plans for an underground nuclear waste disposal facility at YuccaMountain in the United States.

To avoid a similar fate, NDA is currently asking communities to volunteer to host the facility in exchange for a currently undefined benefits package. However, local communities are far from champing at the bit to store the nation's nuclear waste.

Only three neighboring counties have so far expressed interest: Cumbria County Council, Allerdale Borough Council, and Copeland Borough Council. And even then, these communities can easily withdraw their interest at any point before construction begins—in a best-case scenario, NDA hopes this will be in 2025, with the facility potentially ready to accept nuclear waste by 2040.

NDA hopes the report released today will help communities make an informed decision about hosting the site. It "highlights what we know now and what we can assume we will need to achieve this mission safely, securely, and effectively," McKirdy says. The report analyzes the amount of waste that needs to be stored and the barriers that will be used to prevent harmful levels of radiation from being released at the surface of the chosen site.

But what will happen if no community volunteers beyond the initial interest stage? "Plan B is to make sure that plan A works," says Alun Ellis of NDA.