Scientists urge Defra to amend plans for nuclear waste repository

UK scientists have urged the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to amend its plans to ask the public to volunteer to host an underground nuclear waste store. They say Defra hasn’t allowed enough time to prepare detailed plans and briefing materials; and that potential volunteers will not be adequately informed about the strategy. 

In June this year, Defra published a consultation document explaining its idea to invite local communities to volunteer to host the nuclear waste repository. The proposals included compiling a radioactive waste inventory ’as a basis for discussion with potential host communities’. This inventory and Defra’s policy are to be finalised for the public discussion in the first half of 2008.

But a joint response, signed by four independent scientists and representatives from learned bodies including the RSC, the Geological Society and the Institute of Physics, says Defra’s proposals are not sufficient. The deadline is too close, ’especially if the material is to be fully subjected to independent scrutiny to ensure that it is unbiased and accurate’, and the government must provide full and explicit details of radioactive waste management before engaging communities in discussion, the scientists say.

’We think the deadline should be set when the material is ready, not before,’ said Jeff Hardy, the manager of the RSC’s Environment, Sustainability and Energy Forum and one of the response’s signatories. ’There is no point setting an arbitrary date for its completion - the most important thing is that it is complete, accurate and clear.’   

Hardy told Chemistry World that the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) and the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM), which will be responsible for preparing all of the briefing material - have little experience in disseminating such complex, scientific information to the public. ’Defra should engage with learned societies that have this expertise,’ he said.    

Hardy also pointed out that it wasn’t clear when a community would be ’locked in’ to an agreement to host the repository. ’This is essentially digging a hole in someone’s back yard and putting nuclear waste in it, so people will need to know up front exactly how it all works,’ said Hardy ’No one should walk into this with any doubts.’ 

Gently does it

Gregg Butler, professor of science and sustainable development at the University of Manchester, UK, agreed that Defra had set a premature deadline for public discussions to open, but told Chemistry World it was too early to demand a detailed plan for the whole process   - saying that an ’initial gentle step’ was required to open the discussion.   

Butler and a group of associates from UK-based Integrated Decision Management, an organisation which provides independent scientific advice on policy making in the energy and environment sectors, drew up an earlier response to Defra’s consultation document.   

’This is entirely new ground - public dialogue in the decision-making process is not something we do in the UK,’ said Butler. ’If all of the conditions of this process are fixed from the beginning, people will be afraid to enter into discussions with the government just in case the door slams and they’re unable to back out.’ 

Defra replied that it would ’consider all of the points raised in the consultation and respond in due course’.   

Victoria Gill

Updated 5 November 2007. The original version of this article published on 2 November stated that the deadline for Defra’s inventory and policy to be finalised was February 2008. This is incorrect - this deadline has not been fixed.

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