Cumbria County Council’s leadership has agreed not to become involved in the group set up to explore the siting of underground nuclear repository in Copeland.
The authority’s leader declared the council’s involvement would give the process “a credibility that it doesn’t deserve”.
An ongoing clash among county councillors over the involvement of the authority in the Copeland Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) working group culminated on Thursday in a resolution from the council’s cabinet not to get involved in the process.
The county council’s Labour leader, Stewart Young, led the call to reject the request from the county council’s Copeland local committee, accusing the process of being a deeply, deeply flawed process carried out at considerable cost to the taxpayer.
The Copeland working group was set up last year, the first of its kind, in partnership with Radioactive Waste Management (RWM), a subsidiary of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), to explore the possibility of siting an underground nuclear waste repository in Copeland – though not within the boundary of the Lake District National Park.
Unlike the county council, Copeland Borough Council joined the group at its launch, with the authority’s portfolio holder for nuclear and corporate services, Conservative councillor David Moore, welcoming the opportunity to engage in the discussions on the possibility of siting a GDF in Copeland, without making a commitment either to supporting or rejecting the prospect.
However, county council leader Mr Young did not wish for the upper-tier local authority to get involved in the process, subsequently explaining that the authority had been through this before, under the Managing Radioactive Waste Safely (MRWS) process, which the county council pulled out of in 2013, and before that, with the Nirex body in the 1990s.
“This is the third time that they’ve gone through this process. We have been through it exhaustively,” Mr Young said earlier this year.
“We’re not going to go through this charade again.”
He added he had no desire to see the county council involved in the second GDF working group set up earlier this year in Cumbria, to explore the same prospect in Allerdale.
Mr Young’s objection to county council involvement in the GDF working groups was challenged by Copeland local committee member and Cleator Moor East and Frizington Conservative councillor, Arthur Lamb, at February’s meeting of the county council.
He moved a motion calling on Mr Young to take up the offer from RWM to join the Copeland GDF working group, arguing that engaging with the process is preferable to being “represented by an empty chair”.
Despite Mr Young’s arguments against the motion, Mr Lamb’s non-binding motion was passed by 40 votes in favour, with 18 voting against and four abstaining.
This did not however sway the minds of the county council’s cabinet, when it considered the matter formally on Thursday, at the request of the county council’s Copeland local committee, which is made up of members representing the Copeland area.
Copeland local committee chairman and Conservative councillor for Millom Without, Keith Hitchen, presented the committee’s referral to the cabinet, requesting that the decision on whether the county council became involved in the working group be delegated to the local committee.
While the referral also requested that agreeing to county council involvement in the working group be considered, Mr Hitchen pressed for the matter to be delegated, arguing that it was “an opportunity for us as a council to actually show that we believe in local first, as put in the submission to Government for a unitary authority.”
“I believe that passporting the decision to our local committee will cement the feeling that we are serious when we talk about local first,” Mr Hitchen said, adding that the council “cannot afford to leave an empty seat” on the working group.
Mr Young said he had long been a champion of devolving decision-making to local committees where appropriate, however he said ” not all decisions can be taken at a lower level”.
“Some of them are too important, and too strategic, and need to be taken centrally,” he said.
Outlining his criticism of the current approach to exploring the siting of a GDF, Mr Young suggested that the current process is a reaction to the halting of the MRWS process in 2013, after Cumbria County Council declared it did not wish to take it further, citing concerns over safety and scepticism over the magnitude of the benefits a GDF would bring the local community.
“This process is a reaction to that,” Mr Young said. “The Government never again wanted to be in a position where local authorities could actually influence this process.”
Mr Young said that if plans for a GDF in Cumbria progress to the planning stage, it will no doubt be determined by the Secretary of State given its clear national importance.
If that were to happen, Mr Young added, the county council “would carry out our duties as a consultee, and would advise on highways matters, what would be needed in the local economy, and all the implications of such a project”.
But Mr Young’s harshest criticism of the current GDF siting exploration process was rooted in its volunteer-led approach.
“To try and find somewhere suitable to dig a repository underground which would be able to contain nuclear waste safely for anything up to 100,000 years – you would think there would be some kind of scientific approach to that, some kind of study of the geology, to find out where places were likely to be suitable,” he said.
“That has been done extensively and exhaustively in the past two attempts to find such a place.
“Both of those demonstrated in my view that probably the last place you would want to bury it would be in West Cumbria.
“The places where the geology is suitable of course don’t have the support of the local communities, such as the large clay basin under Oxfordshire and central London.
“[But] instead of doing a proper scientific approach, they invited members of the public, any members of the public who took a passing interest in this, who don’t even have to live in the area concerned, to express a view that they think the waste should be buried there.
“On the basis of that, this enormous process, which will be at considerable cost to the taxpayer, has been put in motion. As a process, it is deeply, deeply flawed.
“I do believe if the county council was to get involved in that process, it would give it a credibility that it doesn’t deserve.”
Patricia Bell, Penrith East Liberal Democrat and cabinet member for health and care services, agreed with Mr Young that the decision was too important to be delegated to another committee, though she added that she is a “really keen supporter on delegating decisions to the local area when it’s appropriate”.
Mrs Bell also agreed with Mr Young that the current GDF siting process did not make sense.
“It should be scientifically driven, and not just driven by somebody who thinks it’s a good idea,” she said.
David Southward, Labour councillor for Egremont, cabinet member for economic development and property and a Copeland local committee member, added that he supported the prospect of delegating the decision to Copeland local committee, however the cabinet subsequently resolved to support Mr Young’s original decision for the county council not to get involved in the Copeland GDF working group.
Mr Young added that he also had no desire to see the county council involved in the Allerdale GDF working group.
In response to the comments made by Mr Young, a spokesperson for RWM said: “The Government’s Working with Communities Policy gives a prominent and important role for local authorities as the siting process, which is based on consent from a willing community, moves forward.
“We welcome the opportunity to engage with local authorities.”