The ultimate NIMBY challenge

The government’s Energy Review marked a return from the wilderness for nuclear generation. It will never exactly be loved, but clear and repeated explanation of the need for nuclear as part of the UK’s future energy mix has already ensured that the public understands why tough decisions need to be taken.

Opponents of nuclear energy often ask the question ‘would you want a nuclear power station in your back yard?’ In fact, there are communities in the UK in which nuclear facilities are not merely tolerated but hailed as significant, and in some cases dominant, components of the local economy.

There is one element of the nuclear equation, however, that is certain to find its relationship with the local community challenging, to say the least. It is also, arguably, the most important piece of the nuclear energy jigsaw. We are talking about the deep geological repository for high-level nuclear waste that is almost certain to be the main recommendation of CoRWM, the government-sponsored committee established to look at the UK’s long-term strategy on the issue.

The repository, sometimes also known as the deep dump, would be designed to safely contain the very nastiest material created by the country’s nuclear past and future.

The UK is by no means the only nation looking at deep geological disposal as a solution to the growing level of nuclear waste currently sitting around on the surface.

The US, Finland, Sweden and most recently Spain are all at various distances down the same road, creating in the process a formidable base of global expertise in the considerable engineering and technological issues connected with deep repositories.

The engineering implications may be awesome and the technology needed to, for example, safely encase the waste for centuries hugely challenging, but they are unlikely to be insurmountable.

The real question will be where to site any repository. In its draft recommendations a few months ago CoRWM highlighted the need to offer potential ‘host communities’ a package of measures that would convince them to ‘support participation’.

The problem facing the UK, as a small, densely populated island, is that nowhere is that far from what could be described as a ‘host community’. Unlike in the US, Australia or even Finland, the remote regions of this country are not really that remote at all. If you think we’ve seen people up in arms over planning issues before, we ain’t seen nothing yet.

Convincing a community that the most enduringly dangerous material on earth should be buried in its back yard is a rather from selling it the idea a wind farm, a new branch of Tesco or even an airport. See what a few thousand tonnes of plutonium buried up the road do to house prices.

If we want a specific region of the UK to accept nuclear waste on behalf of us all the case for the technology to be used must be watertight. In fact, the deep repository, if it happens, is likely to add up to engineering’s greatest ever public relations challenge.

Andrew Lee, editor