On Wednesday 30th January Cumbria County Council voted not to proceed with a consultation to explore Cumbria being the host of a high level radioactive waste repository. This left Ed Davey with a problem.
The problem is very substantial and urgent as there are facilities at Sellafield full of decaying and highly toxic waste including B30 and B38, which are considered to be the most hazardous buildings in Western Europe. These structures are in a deteriorating condition and are in very urgent need of decommissioning. In addition the UK also has its ordinary spent fuel.
As a worried West Cumbrian, I would like to offer the following insights to Ed Davey and others who now need to find a way forward from this point.
I believe the consultation process in Cumbria has fallen down because the public have lost confidence and trust in it. This has happened for three reasons:
1. They are being asked to accept a waste repository which will be required to contain highly radioactive waste for 130,000 years.
2. In the past information of what was actually happening at Sellafield has been poor and often misleading. Promises made were not kept.
3. When they now ask about the possible alternatives to the repository, their questions are not being properly answered.
Mr Davey can act rapidly and effectively to address the third point, which is exacerbating concerns about the first two points in the following ways:
Firstly, in 2006 the decision was made to consult on terminal deep waste storage and to consult on that only. Since then, global technology has moved on rapidly, with several major countries having decided to invest in developing thorium reactors which will burn spent fuel to remove long-lived radioactive components. While Liberal Democrats have explored and developed policy in this area, it would appear that our national experts have not, because they seem unable to answer questions about whether we could process our waste products, rather than storing them for 130,000 years. We should commission a rapid, thorough and transparent review of the possibilities, in the light of emerging technologies. This knowledge will then need to be kept up to date so that reasonable questions can be fully and correctly answered in the future.
Secondly, residents who are concerned about the repository are chatting extensively on Facebook. The consultation processes which were set up to be transparent in 2006 were not based on an understanding of what would happen with social media. In the future experts can and should engage with the public in real-time through discussion forums and social media, rather than leaving them to engage only with each other.
* Rebecca Hanson is a teacher, a lecturer in education, an education adviser and a member of the LDEA committee.