Nirex didn't like the words "waste dump"

"PERMANENT and irreversible". A "potential source of conflict"

"PERMANENT and irreversible". A "potential source of conflict". A "bone of contention between these islands which share a common boundary". Such was the rhetoric employed by the Minister of State for Energy, Mr. Emmet Stagg, earlier this month in his latest appeal to the British government over the proposed Nirex waste dump near Sellafield.

Not that Nirex, the British national nuclear waste agency, liked to call it a dump. Just as Windscale became Sellafield, so semantics were engaged in the public relations battle over the £2 bill ion proposal. The agency applied for planning permission for an "underground rock laboratory".

Described as a research facility, the laboratory was designed to test the suitability of the geology on the site at Gosforth Farm, west Cumbria. Objectors quickly dismissed it as a "Trojan horse" which would cost so much to develop that a nuclear waste facility would become inevitable.

Nirex's planning permission, submitted in August 1994, was turned down by Cumbria County Council that December. The appeal was heard at a six month public inquiry, which ended last year, and at which this Government, through Mr Stagg, was represented.


At the inquiry, this Government signalled it might take legal action if initial rock testing by Nirex was approved by the British "Environment Secretary. The Department of Energy also lodged a formal complaint with the European Commission, claiming Nirex failed to comply with the EU directive on impact assessment by not disclosing what alternative sites were examined.

Nirex said it aimed to establish whether the area at Gosforth arm, some two miles inland from the Cumbrian coast and on the edge of the Lake District National Park, would be suitable for storing up to 400,000 cubic metres of low to intermediate level radioactive waste in a vast rock cavern over 70 metres below ground, for thousands of years. This was "not part of a deep waste repository development" and did not commit it to any such plan at Sellafield, the company insisted.

However, Greenpeace said the facility would be built on the precise location of the final dump, and would form its backbone.

One of Cumbria County Council's prime reasons for turning down planning permission in December 1994 was its belief that the laboratory would represent a "significant pre commitment to eventual repository development in economic terms" and that it should not be viewed in isolation.

Local authority was "not available geological, hydrogeological and safety assessment information" that the proposed area held "sufficient promise".

Significantly, the public inquiry was not permitted to address the wider issues related to the dump, particularly safety. Its terms of reference confined it to addressing "local planning matters only".

The Royal Society in Britain added its voice to mounting concern. It said the Sellafield site had been selected before Nirex knew enough about rocks and patterns of underground water movement.

Ireland said economic factors influenced the choice of site - being close to Sellafield where some 17 per cent of the working population depends on British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNLF) for its livelihood. The Minister of State demanded a full scale public inquiry. Britain pledged that such a hearing would take place if Nirex decided to go ahead with a deep waste repository.

In July 1996, a British government watchdog, the radioactive waste management committee, warned that access shafts designed in the company's plans could form the main route for radionuclide emissions.

This was echoed later last year by a team of geologists from the University of Glasgow, who said radioactive waste could leak in as little as 40 years. The Scottish geologists claimed Nirex had been aware of the potential hazards for the last two years.

Generation of gas in the repository was identified as another hazard in January of this year, a leaked memo from Nirex cast doubt on its own site. The company's senior scientist, Mr John Holmes had stated in writing that the company might "struggle to make a case".

Writing to The Irish Times last month, Nirex's chief executive, Mr Michael Folger, defended the project. Radioactive waste existed, whether "we like it or not", in both Britain and Ireland, he said. The international consensus was that the best way to dispose safely of the more difficult material was underground - an approach planned or already under way in Sweden, Finland, Germany, Japan, France and the US he said.

Earlier this month, the British Irish Inter Parliamentary Body expressed "some real anxiety" about the plans. The relevant British authorities and the nuclear industry itself had a "credibility problem", the committee chairman, Sir Giles Shaw, MP, said, while Senator Joe Lee criticised BNFL for its "mandarin disdain for the concerns of lesser mortals".

The SDLP's environment spokesman, Mr Eddie McGrady, MP, last night welcomed the British government's announcement and said that the people of the east coast of Ireland, and particularly of South Down, would be "very relieved".

Mr McGrady, who represents South Down at Westminster, said he hoped the decision would lead to a re examination of the whole nuclear industry, and consideration of the problems of these isles and humanity in general".

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins is the former western and marine correspondent of The Irish Times