I spent Friday afternoon at the Inn in Keswick, as you know, and then rushed home for supper: a fabulous spread of pizza, garlic bread, and peppery salad with an intense mustard dressing. Afterwards, Randy drove Matt and I to Queen's Hall in Keswick School where he dropped us off. We were there for a public forum/discussion of the UK government proposal to build a geologic disposal facility (GDF) for nuclear waste in West Cumbria.
In the maps they showed, the facility was depicted as a large cavern somewhere beneath the mountains. The cavern would be filled with spent nuclear fuel—which can take tens of thousands of years to degrade to the point where it is no longer radioactive—and someday, presumably, sealed. Of course, it's vital that the storage facility be in the appropriate type of rock to prevent radioactive materials from leaking out over time.
The UK's been looking for something to do with its waste since the 01970s, with several previous studies conducted. In the current round of trying to figure out what to do with it the government put out a call of counties willing to volunteer to host the facility. Only one county volunteered: West Cumbria.
At the meeting, the anti-facility faction pointed out that this is the opposite method of that used in any other country. Typically the appropriate geology is sought and then nearby communities are offered concessions for their willingness to accept the presence of a disposal facility. The anti-facility faction further pointed out that international guidelines for GDFs stipulate that it is best to find areas with little to no relief (flat) and very simple geology; the Lake District has some of the greatest relief in England and is riddled with faults, making the geology very complicated and difficult to evaluate. In response, the government man merely said that the process cannot succeed without a willing host community. Both geologists present were of the opinion that the odds of finding a suitable location in West Cumbria were low.
But on top of this, the government's assessment report indicates that approximately 75% of the area under consideration for the facility is within the Lake District National Park. The area will be mapped using seismic readings generated by numerous explosions from boreholes which must be drilled. It's difficult to imagine how this drilling will take place in a low-impact manner.
Access to the GDF would be via tunnels. In the event that the facility were located within the National Park, new roads would have to be made to handle heaevy traffic as removing the rock material for the facility would take a truckload every four minutes for over twenty years. Alternatively, at the cost of billions of additional pounds, several 10km tunnels could be drilled from the Sellefield reprocessing facility.
One of the speakers termed it right in saying that it seems as though most of the benefits of the facility would be felt by the more populated areas of West Cumbria while the costs would be borne by the Lake District.
The evening progressed through three anti-facility speakers who were supposed to cover the project, its legal implications, and its branding/tourism implications. The speakers were generally long on emotions and philosophy, but short on facts. The lawyer's speech lasted about thirty minutes, but the actual legal background could probably have been covered in five. The marketing man's speech about branding effects had a similar ratio of content to fluff.
But you got the idea that the facility would probably be a Bad Thing™. Next, two invited speakers, a government man and an “independent” geologist were offered a chance to speak. But whoever had arranged the forum had allotted each of them only five minutes. Thus, they both came across as shifty and lacking convincing arguments.
A Q&A followed during which various members of the crowd stood up and gave long-winded introductions designed to benefit their various political factions. The Green party candidates were particularly memorable. These people then tended to ask four or five questions at once, each with long lead-ins.
But it was really of no matter. The crowd of maybe 600, standing-room only, had been responsive the whole night, applauding and cheering that which they liked and booing statements they didn't. The sentiment was obviously in the anti-nuclear camp. One had the idea, though, that they'd been done an injustice. Given their strong sentiments, they didn't need an hour-and-a-half of convincing, but could have benefited from an hour-and-a-half of time to grill the government representatives.
For reference, the United States has about 70,000 tons of nuclear waste and produces an additional 2,200 tons per year. This amount of waste could be reduced if the U.S. reprocessed its spent fuel, but it doesn't out of nuclear proliferation concerns. The U.S. government had promised to beginning accepting waste a permanent facility in 1998, but that facility never got built. And, with the postponement of plans for the Yucca Mountain facility, may still be years off. As a result, the government is regularly sued by utilities trying to cover the costs of storing the waste in their own temporary facilities.
After the meeting, Matt and I walk down by the lake along a series of paths I haven't used before, leaving me completely confuddled as to where we are. The lake is like a polished mere reflecting mountains the surrounding mountains, which are dark and anonymous by night. Then we walk over a dike and I instantly recognise the area as being next to the Theatre by the Lake.
In the wake of these meetings, online petitions, and other forms of protest, the Cumbria county council voted against continuing to participate in the siting process for the nuclear dump facility, alluding to the lack of a legally-guaranteed right-of-withdrawal in later stages of the process. The Guardian has coverage here.