Britain's nuclear-waste disposal plans were thrown into confusion last night after John Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environment, rejected plans for an underground test laboratory near Sellafield which would have paved the way for a subterranean radioactive dump on the same site.
His surprise decision, the first time the industry has lost a major public- planning battle, delighted environmental groups and local protesters in Cumbria. But it also put a question mark over the policy of building a pounds 2.5bn, 3,000ft-deep system of caverns for nuclear waste.
Nirex, the waste-disposal company owned by the nation's nuclear industry, has spent more than pounds 400m, and many years, working up plans for the laboratory to study disposal of intermediate-level nuclear waste at Gosforth in Cumbria. Now it may have to spend years gathering more scientific data to prove the safety of its plans, while redrawing plans to reduce the impact the laboratory would have on the Lake District National Park. Alternatively, it will have to start planning a laboratory and dump at another site and encounter fresh opposition. Its second choice is at another nuclear site, Dounreay in Caithness, Scotland. But the company also has a secret list of 12 other sites where the rocks may be suitable for a deep-level dump. For more than 20 years successive governments and the nuclear industry have been trying to find a publicly acceptable way of disposing of intermediate- level radioactive wastes, which remain highly dangerous for tens of thousands of years. A volume of intermediate-level waste equivalent in size to a block of flats has built up from Britain's nuclear power and defences and is stored on the surface, mostly at BNFL's Sellafield site. Five times as much again will arise over the next half century. Mr Gummer's decision follows a lengthy public inquiry which ended a year ago. …