MANAGING RADIOACTIVE WASTE SAFELY: DESK-BASED IDENTIFICATION AND ASSESSMENT OF POTENTIAL CANDIDATE SITES FOR GEOLOGICAL DISPOSAL
A PUBLIC CONSULTATION SEPTEMBER 2011
RESPONSE OF THE BLACKWATER AGAINST NEW NUCLEAR GROUP (BANNG)
The Blackwater Against New Nuclear Group (BANNG) is a Citizens Based Organisation primarily concerned about potential developments of new nuclear reactors and associated radioactive waste storage at the Bradwell site in Essex. Our support is drawn mainly from communities around the Blackwater estuary but we also have support from people concerned about Bradwell in other parts of Essex and beyond. Since its formation, BANNG has sought to raise public awareness and knowledge about the implications of new reactors at Bradwell through public events and the face-to-face gathering of 10,000 signatures for a Petition that was presented to the Minister for Energy. We have maintained close contact with local councils, MPs, media and other organisations and have participated in meetings with government officials, regulatory bodies and national groups concerned about nuclear issues.
The primary aim of the Group is to seek to protect the people and environment of the River Blackwater estuary and its surrounding area, now and in the future, from the risks and dangers of radioactivity by preventing the further development of nuclear activity in the estuary. BANNG takes a broad perspective on the wide range of issues that affect new build and has responded to government consultations on siting strategy, Justification, National Policy Statements, financing of decommissioning and plutonium stocks. Altogether we have made twelve submissions, many of them covering aspects of radioactive waste management. In particular, we have raised concerns about the long-term storage of spent fuel at coastal locations vulnerable to sea level change and coastal processes in the absence of firm or credible plans for its management.
This response is concerned with the process for identifying a suitable site for a geological repository for legacy wastes. BANNG has an interest both in the proposed method of long-term waste management and in the process of site identification and asssessment. Our comments are organised around issues of concern rather than as answers to the specific questions posed which we consider rather limiting. However, we will cover the ground reflected in the questions as well as other matters of concern to us.
1. Limitations of the Process
Lack of consideration of new build wastes
The process described in the consultation document elaborates on the voluntarist staged process proposed by CoRWM 1 and essentially accepted by government. However, the process was originally related only to legacy wastes, that is wastes that were avoidable rather than committed, and CoRWM made it clear that for any wastes arising from new build there should be ‘a quite separate process to test and validate proposals for the management of the wastes arising’ (CoRWM, 2006, p.15). Nonetheless, in various consultations relating to new build, the Government has repeatedly made it clear that it is satisfied ‘that effective arrangements will exist for the management and disposal of wastes produced by new nuclear power stations’ (DECC, 2011, p.15). In this consultation, it appears to be assumed that a national repository will cater for all wastes, legacy and new build, in a co-disposal facility.
BANNG is concerned that the policy of disposal is being covertly implemented without extensive consideration of either the technical issues involved in the disposal of high burn-up spent fuel or the need for a separate process to consider the social and ethical implications of managing new build wastes. The need for a separate process is important for two reasons. One is that the size of the new build programme is unknown; the Government in the NPS on nuclear energy disarmingly argues that ‘new nuclear power should be able to contribute as much as possible to the UK’s need for new capacity’ (DECC, 2011a, p.28). Consequently, there is considerable uncertainty as to the volumes of wastes that will need to be managed. It seems disingenuous, therefore, to state in the consultation document that in principle the Government ‘sees no case for having more than one geological disposal facility’ (p.11) since the future volumes of wastes are unknown.
The second reason for a separate process is that new build wastes are not covered by the voluntarist principle. Potential host communities have no idea of the volumes and composition of the inventory destined for the repository. Further, given that a repository will not be able to accommodate new build wastes until around 2130 at the earliest (DECC 2011b, p.13) communities around new build sites will be hosting spent fuel and other wastes without having the option of volunteering. Indeed, it is by no means certain that a repository capable of taking new build wastes will materialise at all, thus leaving these communities as hosts for the indefinite future.
BANNG considers the scope of the process of identifying and assessing potential candidate sites for geological disposal should be broadened explicitly to consider new build wastes. For these wastes a separate process, as proposed by CoRWM 1, is needed that takes account of the uncertainties involved including the different timescales, inventory and social and ethical considerations involved. Furthermore, BANNG believes that the voluntarist principle should apply to those communities near new nuclear power stations where wastes, including spent fuel, will be stored for the indefinite future. These communities should be offered a willingness to participate in the process and the right of withdrawal supported by the development of siting partnerships and community benefits packages.
Alternative sites and comparative assessment
There is a requirement under SEA legislation to develop and apply the process ‘in a manner which identifies and assesses reasonable alternatives’ (consultation paper, p.15). This is interpreted as applying to ‘reasonable alternative sites within the decision to participate area’ (pp. 15-16). It is unclear what this requirement refers to and how it will be applied. It may presumably apply both to sites for surface facilities as well as the area of the host rock for the underground facility. While it is conceivable that alternative locations for surface facilities might be assessed it is not so readily applicable to the underground location which may be confined to a single (possibly large) rock formation. Comparative assessment is clearly possible, at least for surface facilities, in the scenario where one or more large areas have been chosen in which alternative potential sites may be identified. But, it is conceded that under another scenario a Decision Making Body may decide ‘to participate with a smaller area which could already be equivalent to a Potential Candidate Site/s’ (p.14). In such a case there may be only one viable location for both the surface and the underground facility. In this situation it is unclear how the requirement for alternative assessment can be undertaken.
Apart from comparative evaluation of sites within the same decision to participate area there is also the issue of comparing sites between different areas. The comparative methodology which is the core of the consultation might well be applied to different sites in different geographical regions with different types of host rock. Indeed, this was evidently the expected intention of the process as originally envisaged. It is also the common practice in other countries searching for an underground disposal facility. For example, Finland refined its final selection down from three sites to one and Sweden made a choice between two candidate sites. In other countries the comparative principle has been adopted. In France, there is now a focus on Bure but this is the product of a long and chequered effort at comparative siting evaluation including latterly a comparison between Bure, a clay site, and a generic site in granite. In the United States the withdrawal of Yucca Mountain resulted, in part, from the failure of the process of comparative assessment.
In the case of Britain the reality appears to be that there may only be one candidate area declaring its willingness to participate in the siting process. So far only West Cumbria through its local authorities has got as far as setting up a siting partnership but has yet to take the decision to participate. No other areas in any other parts of the country have expressed any interest and it seems unlikely any will do so. Consequently comparative assessment may be confined to sites within the West Cumbria area. Should the process fail for whatever reason in West Cumbria the possibilities for pursuing the voluntarist principle would appear to be bleak.
BANNG is concerned about the limitations of the comparative assessment approach as indicated in the consultation document. It seems likely it will be confined to comparison of specific sites within one area. Comparisons of sites between different regions or host rocks is unlikely. BANNG believes public confidence and acceptability achieved through the voluntarist principle to be of paramount importance. We urge the NDA and Government to consider ways of achieving a credible and convincing comparative analysis so that a final choice of site, if one is taken, is both scientifically convincing and publicly acceptable.
Alternative approaches to managing wastes – storage and disposal.
This consultation is on siting for geological disposal. It is important to put this into the wider context. Geological disposal is, as CoRWM 1 suggested, ‘the best available approach’ for the long-term management of wastes ‘within the present state of knowledge’ (CoRWM, 2006, p.12). It is important to remember that geological disposal is potentially the final stage. It cannot be available for many decades and must be preceded by a robust programme of interim storage as well as a commitment to an intensified programme of research and development. Moreover, there is no certainty that geological disposal will ever be developed. It may prove impossible to find a site that is both scientifically and socially satisfactory or there may become available other preferable approaches for the long-term management of wastes. Given these uncertainties we believe this consultation takes geological disposal out of its context presenting it as an end state rather than as an integral part of a more complex set of possibilities and uncertainties for the long-term management of solid radioactive wastes. This decontextualisation may lead, intentionally or not, to a perception of geological disposal as the only and inevitable way forward.
Alternative methods of managing wastes, notably long-term storage, can be both in competition with and complementary to deep disposal. It is conceivable that the problems of proving a concept and finding a site for deep disposal make long-term, indefinite storage a safer and more acceptable option. In any event it is quite possible that there will be long delays in the process so that storage becomes the de facto method. One of the contingent factors that might be considered in siting assessments for a repository is the viability of potential sites for long-term storage.
Options for storage should be an integral part of the siting process. As things stand, the greatest volume and radioactivity of wastes in store is at Sellafield, with significant stores of long-lived wastes at Dounreay and spent fuel in store at Sizewell with wastes also scattered around the country at various sites. Proposals for new build envisage spent fuel and radioactive waste stores located at each of the eight potential sites. As we have pointed out in several submissions most of these sites are vulnerable to inundation and coastal change especially in the far future when stores may still be present on site. There have also been suggestions, but no proposals, for regional or central stores. In effect, there is no long-term strategy for the development, maintenance or siting of stores. The risks to health, safety and security from interim stores suggest the need to address the siting strategy for stores is rather more urgent than the need to find a suitable location for final disposal.
Geological disposal should be recognised as one component in an integrated process of long-term management of radioactive wastes. BANNG is concerned that the consultation elevates disposal to the position of a singular strategy and thereby diminishes the importance of other components in the process, notably long-term interim storage. With the potential emergence of new build the need for a comprehensive process and strategy for safe and secure storage in the long-term is of paramount importance and should be developed alongside the process and strategy for deep disposal. The principle of voluntarism should be adopted in the search for suitable sites for storage. BANNG recommends that the NDA provide a consultation paper on the Identification and Assessment of Potential Candidate Sites for Long-term Storage to complement the consultation on geological disposal.
2. Voluntarism, Partnerships and Participation
The consultation focuses on Stage 4 of MRWS Decision Making, the period once a decision to participate has been made and the search for candidate sites begins with desk-based studies and comparative assessment. The NDA, following CoRWM 1 and the White Paper, places considerable emphasis on the role of Community Siting Partnerships in this process. These partnerships comprise local stakeholders working with the NDA to carry forward the site identification phase. It would be helpful if more detail could be provided about the composition, representativeness and working of the Partnerships. CoRWM 1 in its Proposals for Implementation set out ideas for the working of Partnerships which ‘should be based on an open and equal relationship between the potential host community and the implementing body’ (CoRWM, 2007a, p.19). The consultation document provides very little information on how Partnerships will work in practice. The Partnerships clearly have a pivotal role in representation, participation and decision making in relationship to three other participants in the process, namely, the NDA, the Decision Making Body and the Potential Candidate Sites. These relationships are important for the successful implementation, public acceptability and legitimation of proposals and the absence of any consideration of these matters in the consultation document is disappointing. CoRWM 1 made considerable effort to explore the issues surrounding decision making both in its Report on Implementation and in its report on Implementing a Partnership approach (CoRWM, 2007b). We consider the NDA and Government should draw on this work to provide a much fuller consideration of how Partnerships are expected to work in practice. We consider just a few of the issues below.
Role of the NDA
It is envisaged that the NDA will work closely with the Partnerships in the implementation phase. The NDA is a government body responsible for carrying forward the MRWS process. Ultimately it is accountable to government and not to the local community through the Partnerships. It is, therefore, important that the Partnerships representing the local community are in principle and in practice independent of the NDA. The terms of reference, membership and purpose of the Partnerships need to be reviewed and explicitly considered in order to establish their independence and integrity. They must have sufficient resources to undertake community surveys and relevant associated research
Role of the Decision Making Body
It is evident from the consultation document that the Decision Making Body is the local authority or authorities that cover the territory within which Potential Candidate Sites will need to be identified. This may be one authority or more if the territory crosses administrative boundaries or if the territory falls within an area covered by two tiers of authority. In the example of West Cumbria two district and one county authority are involved. There may also be local authorities called ‘wider local interests’ in the White Paper, affected by the decision who must be given some involvement in the process.
The local authorities provide representative democratic ratification of key decisions at key stages in the process. In particular they will ratify the willingness to participate and the right to withdraw from the process. However, they will no doubt be closely involved in a number of decisions, for example, identification of candidate sites, distribution of community benefits and so on. They will exercise considerable, if not dominating, influence through their membership of Partnerships. More consideration needs to be given to the role of the Decision Making Bodies in respect of: which decisions must be referred to them?; which authorities take key decisions?; what is the role of neighbouring or affected authorities?; what proportion of the membership of Partnerships should be drawn from Decision Making Bodies?
Role of Potential Candidate Sites Communities
Very little attention is given in the consultation document to the participation of potential host communities in the process. One problem is defining these communities which clearly will be much smaller than the areas covered by Partnerships and Decision Making Bodies. These communities, villages or small towns, will be identified through the siting process described. They will bear substantial risks and costs associated with the project should it go ahead. Moreover, the risks will extend over a very long time-scale down the generations into the far future. From the consultation document it is not clear what, if any, say they will have in the process. There needs to be consideration of how they will be consulted and enabled to participate in the process. In particular, how far will the principle of voluntarism apply to these communities? To what extent will their views and attitudes influence a decision to proceed or a right to withdraw? It would seem appropriate that the host communities are informed and involved in the process as soon as they are identified in order that they may participate in a process in which they are directly affected.
Role of Government
Government has delegated to the NDA and the Decision Making Authority the effective powers to continue the process towards identifying a site. However, government has a direct interest in progress being made especially as the absence of a long-term solution to the problem of radioactive wastes could prove an impediment to its new build programme. Government would become concerned if progress towards identifying a suitable site were slowed or halted. A community’s right to withdraw can be exercised at any point up to the end of Stage 5/ beginning of Stage 6 when underground operations begin. After that it is still possible that that the project could be aborted if the geological conditions foreclose a satisfactory safety case being made. Thus, the project’s progress faces considerable uncertainties. In the event of the process coming to a halt, the decision making process will obviously revert to the government. In this eventuality the government would face choices which include: remaining committed to the voluntarist process and trying to restart it; abandoning deep disposal, at least for some time, and focusing on long-term storage or possibly another option if one becomes available; renouncing the voluntarist approach in favour of imposing deep disposal on a community in an area where geological conditions appear to meet the relevant geoscientific criteria. Some discussion of these options and the advantages and drawbacks of each should be explored now in order to reach a measured conclusion. It will be helpful if participants have a clear idea of what constraints the government will place on the process in the event of a failure to make progress.
Engagement and Community Benefit Packages
An integral element of the voluntarism process proposed by CoRWM 1 and supported by government in the White Paper was the concept of ‘packages’, resources designed to facilitate and encourage participation. These are of two kinds: engagement packages to enable communities to take part by providing information, surveys, meeting costs; and community benefit packages which could include a whole range of resources such as research, community facilities, provision of infrastructures, investment, employment and training. The basic intention of such packages is to contribute to enhancing the well-being of communities that are chosen to host a disposal facility. ‘Well-being’ is a vague but important concept embracing more than simply material benefits. In CoRWM’s words, ‘By well-being we mean those aspects of living which contribute to the community’s sense of identity, development and positive self-image’(CoRWM, 2007a, p.12). There are interesting discussions on how this might be achieved both in CoRWM’s implementation report (2007a) and in the AkEnd Report produced by the expert group considering site selection for a repository in Germany (AkEnd, 2002). We believe it would be worth revisiting these reports in order to consider the nature and deployment of community benefits packages.
The role of packages in Stage 4 is obviously important in facilitating engagement of communities and stakeholders. While community benefits packages may not be employed until later in the process the concept and contents are obviously important components in seeking to attract interest and support from communities. There is a total absence of discussion of the role of packages in the consultation document. The identification of communities who are willing to participate is in large measure a social process and so the role of packages should be clearly explored as part of the identification and assessment of sites in Stage 4.
The consultation document fails to consider in any detail or depth the decision making process that is fundamental to the successful identification and assessment of sites in Stage 4. BANNG considers much more work needs to be done to clarify and define the roles, responsibilities and relationships of the participating bodies. Among the issues that need to be explored more fully are: the size, composition, resources and relationship to the NDA of the Community Siting Partnerships; the designation and powers of the Decision Making Body(ies) and the role in decision making of wider local interests (neighbouring and affected authorities); the definition, involvement and participation in decision making of the communities around the Potential Candidate Sites; the options to be considered by government should the voluntarist process fail; and the deployment of engagement and community benefits packages in the enhancement of community well-being.
3. Identification and Assessment of Potential Candidate Sites – some methodological issues
The consultation document is rather technocratic focusing on methodology for identifying and assessing sites and neglecting the social, political and ethical considerations that are integral to a holistic process. Consequently, the multi-criteria decision analysis (MCDA) appears to be the critical tool of site assessment. Although it is stated that MCDA is an aid to decision making, not a means of taking the decision (p. 27), it is the only approach explored in detail and is clearly elevated to a central role. It is recognised that it is not the only approach and that many decisions are made without using MCDA, yet there is no indication of what other approaches are used. Thus question 5 which asks ‘what approach do you think should be used?’ is rather gratuitous since no evidence is offered on which to base an answer.
MCDA is undoubtedly a useful tool in that it enables comparative assessment using a wide range of criteria allowing for scoring and weighting which can be varied to reflect different valuations. It thus combines a rational, objective approach with subjective interpretation to reach conclusions based on evidence and values. It is a quasi-numerical and ranking process manipulating masses of data to reach quite precise answers. It is best employed in a comparative context such as CoRWM’s assessment of different radioactive waste management options. It may be less useful where the comparisons are narrowly based as in the case of assessing specific sites contained within a small and relatively socially and physically homogeneous territory. MCDA may prove more useful comparing difference than comparing sameness for which less sophisticated approaches may be preferable. In the likely event that there will be very few and possibly only one site identified, an approach using a wide range of criteria to assess suitability rather than the full panoply of MCDA to try to gauge optimality may be desirable.
In any case MCDA, if used, should be complemented by other approaches. CoRWM used MCDA as one of four knowledge streams that were integrated in a holistic approach to taking the final decision. The other streams were public and stakeholder input, ethical evaluation and overseas experience. Similarly, in assessing potential candidate sites, various approaches should be used. These might include: formal criteria based analysis; deliberative methods involving the public, experts and other stakeholders; ethical evaluation; and experience of site selection and assessment elsewhere, especially in Sweden, Finland, Belgium.
In terms of criteria, in response to question 4, it would be difficult to disagree with those proposed in the consultation document. However, we have three observations here. One, as indicated above, is that we do not think a criteria based approach is sufficient in itself but should be complemented by other approaches. Two, the criteria as presented are indicative; more precise specifications will be needed for them to be applicable to specific cases. The work of CoRWM 1 and of AkEnd is especially informative on the setting of indicators and deriving criteria. Third, the criteria presented tend to be formal, scientific and measurable. There is an absence of more qualitative and social criteria such as criteria on public acceptability, development potential and well being. The potential for changes in impacts over time should also be taken into account given the very long time-scales that are involved in repository planning, operation and post-closure.
The document states that ‘the criteria could be exclusion criteria, constraints on siting, or provide an indication of a potentially suitable site. The nature of the criteria and how they will be used will need to be part of the local discussions on the application of the site identification process’ (p. 22). Very little is said about the nature and use of ‘Local Criteria’ and it is difficult to see why, in answer to question 3, criteria need to be divided into national and local. In short, it would be helpful to have more detail in order to reach any useful conclusions about the nature and purpose of the criteria. As it stands it is only possible to confirm that a criteria based approach is useful when used in combination with other approaches.
BANNG considers the methodology proposed for desk-based site identification and assessment is partial and technocratic. The use of a full MCDA analysis may be questioned where there are only a few potential sites within a small area. In any case MCDA is only one potential approach to be used in conjunction with other approaches to achieve a holistic assessment. The criteria proposed for identifying and assessing potential sites are only indicative and more detail is required before a sensible judgement of their applicability and utility can be given. There is an absence of criteria relating to social and ethical issues of public acceptability. BANNG believes the emphasis placed on structured, evidence based decision making through the use of MCDA will lead to the neglect of qualitative, value based aspects of assessment that are important in achieving acceptable solutions.
It will be evident that BANNG considers the questions posed in the consultation document are too limited and simplistic. We believe we have provided answers to the questions but have also tackled some important related issues, notably on new build, that we believe should be part of the consultation. We would welcome a response to the issues we have raised. In addition, we have recommended that the NDA provide a consultation paper on the process for identification and assessment of potential candidate sites for long-term storage to complement this consultation on geological disposal. We also look forward to a revised document resulting from this consultation setting out approaches to stage 4 of the MRWS process.
Professor Andrew Blowers OBE
Emeritus Professor of Social Sciences, The Open University
On behalf of the Blackwater Against New Nuclear Group (BANNG)
30 September 2011
AkEnd (2002) Selection Procedure for Repository Sites, Recommendations of the AkEnd – Committee on a Selection Procedure for Repository Sites, December
CoRWM (2006) Managing our Radioactive Waste Safely, CoRWM’s Recommendations to Government, London, November
CoRWM (2007a) Moving Forward, CoRWM’s Proposals for Implementation, CoRWM document 1703, February
CoRWM (2007b) Implementing a Partnership Approach to Radioactive Waste Management – Report to Government, April 2007. CoRWM document 2146, April
DECC (2011a) Overarching National Policy Statement for Energy (EN-1), June
DECC (2011b) National Policy statement for Nuclear Power Generation (EN-6) Vol. II, June