A SHORTLIST of a dozen potential dumps for dangerous nuclear waste that has been kept secret for more than 15 years has today been unveiled in response to a freedom of Information request from the Sunday Herald.
The government's nuclear waste agency, Nirex, has for the first time revealed the identity of five sites in Scotland and seven sites in England that were considered geologically suitable for a deep underground repository. The list was drawn up in the late 1980s, but some of the sites could again become candidates for disposing of highly radioactive waste in the future.
"The geology in the UK has not changed," said Nirex in a briefing to MSPs and local authorities, "so sites that were considered to be potentially suitable previously on geological grounds could be considered suitable in a future site selection process."
Amongst the sites selected are two tiny uninhabited islands either side of Barra in the Western Islands, Fuday and Sandray. Another is a site under the sea off the port of Hunterston in South Ayrshire.
The remote community of Altnabreac in Caithness was another candidate for nuclear waste, as was the land next to the Dounreay nuclear plant 18 kilometres to the north.
Experts say that another attempt to find waste sites would be likely to end up with a similar list. "I suspect that some of the sites nominated by NIREX will end up on the short list for detailed examination," said Keith Baverstock, a radiation scientist from the University of Kuopio in Finland.
"There will be overlaps", agreed Dave Holmes, director of environment and hazards at the British Geological Survey in Keyworth, Nottingham. "It is unlikely that a new site selection exercise would produce exactly the same shortlist of sites."
But in a letter to MSPs yesterday, the Environment Minister, Ross Finnie, said the list was "of an historical nature which is of little relevance to current UK policy." He pointed out that the Scottish Executive, with the help of the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM), had embarked on a new process to decide the best way of dealing with the UK's growing mountain of radioactive waste.
According to Nirex, the last inventory of UK nuclear waste stocks in 2001 showed that there were over 92,000 cubic metres of high, medium and low-level waste in storage at 34 locations around the UK. This is set to rise in volume five times over the next hundred years, even assuming no new nuclear power stations are built.
The 2001 waste inventory contained a massive amount of radioactivity -63 million terabecquerels. This is at least five times more than all the radioactivity released by Chernobyl accident in 1986.
The potential waste dumps in England include two in Essex, one next to the Bradwell nuclear power station and the other on a military research site on Potton Island, near Southend on Sea. There is a site on an MoD training area near Stanford in Norfolk and one at Killingholme on South Humberside.
Another offshore site is in the North Sea off the port of Redcar, near Hartlepool, and there were two potentially suitable sites identified near the Sellafield nuclear plant in Cumbria.
The shortlist was drawn up in the late 1980s from a long list of 537 sites throughout the UK, half of them owned by the MoD. One of the sites on a farm near Sellafield was eventually selected by Nirex, but it was rejected by the government in 1997 after a public inquiry suggested Nirex's case was scientifically flawed.
Nirex stresses that any new site selection process would not begin with the old list, and points out that scientists' understanding of geology is now different. The waste to be disposed of now also includes hot, high-level waste, which could require different types of rock.
"Many things have changed since this old list was drawn up," says Chris Murray, Nirex's managing director. "But what has not changed is that the waste still exists and needs to be dealt with in a safe, environmentally sound and publicly acceptable way for the long-term. Responsibility lies with this generation to ensure this is done."
Murray added: "Dealing with the waste is as much an ethical and social issue as a scientific and technical one. That is the key lesson we have learned from the past. Openness and transparency must underpin everything that is done in this area."
Nirex has twice refused to release the shortlist of sites this year in response to requests by the Sunday Herald under the Freedom of Information Act and Environmental Information Regulations. It said it did not want it to be published in the run-up to the general election because of the political tension it could generate.
However, ministers finally gave the go-ahead to release the list, after appeals had been made to the Information Commissioner. It was originally due to be published next week, but this was hastily brought forward after a suspected leak to a Sunday newspaper.
The full list of 537 sites, along with the shortlist of 12 and a full explanation of the process undergone in the 1980s is due to be posted on Nirex's website at 6am this morning (10 June).
Ministers are currently awaiting advice from CoRWM, due in a year's time, on whether nuclear waste should be stored at the surface or buried in deep or shallow repositories. The plan then is to work out how to select suitable locations.
The overwhelming consensus of scientists internationally that burial in stable geological formations below 300 metres is likely to be the safest method of disposal in the long term. The US already operates the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant for weapons waste in a salt formation 655 metres under the Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico.
Deep underground repositories are also under active investigation at sites in Finland, Switzerland, Sweden, Belgium and France. "I would be very surprised if the UK does not go for some form of deep geological disposal," says Ian McKinley, an expert consultant to the Swiss nuclear waste agency, NAGRA.
"At present there is no credible alternative which is technically feasible and not blocked by international treaties. The real question is not whether deep disposal is the best option, but how to design and site such a repository."
SITES SHORTLISTED AS POTENTIAL NUCLEAR WASTE DUMPS IN THE LATE 1980S
Next to the Dounreay nuclear plant in Caithness
Altnabreac in Caithness 18 km south of Dounreay
Fuday, small, uninhabited island north of Barra in the Western Isles
Sandray, small, uninhabited island south of Barra in the Western Isles
A site under the sea between the Inner Hebrides and Northern Ireland, accessed from the port at Hunterston in North Ayrshire
Two sites near the Sellafield nuclear plant in Cumbria
A site under the North Sea, accessed from the port at Redcar, near Hartlepool
Killingholme on South Humberside
A Ministry of Defence training area Stanford in Norfolk
Next to the Bradwell nuclear power station in Essex
An MoD site on Potton Island 8 km from Southend on Sea in Essex