The Government White Paper published in July 2014 (Implementing Geological Disposal) outlined a number of initial actions over the next couple of years, in order to lay the groundwork for the longer term objective of building safe facilities for the permanent disposal of radioactive waste. 

These initial actions comprised the following:

  1. Amendments to national planning arrangements for a geological disposal facility (GDF) and associated boreholes
  2. A national geological screening exercise
  3. Providing greater clarity on how the Government (via the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC)) and the developer Radioactive Waste Management Limited (RWM) intend to work with communities.

These actions sit within the longer term plan, which spans around 15-20 years, of engaging with communities willing to participate in the siting process, site investigations and obtaining the necessary consents for a GDF. 

Expanding the NSIP regime

One of the stated actions in the White Paper by 2016 was to bring GDF development in England within the definition of a "Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project" (NSIP) in the Planning Act 2008 (the Act). 

This was achieved on 26 March 2015, under the Infrastructure Planning (Radioactive Waste Geological Disposal Facilities) Order 2015 (the Order), which came into force the next day. 

The Order provides that "development relating to a radioactive waste geological disposal facility" is now an NSIP for the purpose of the Act, providing the following are met:

  1. The main purpose of the GDF is expected to be the final disposal of radioactive waste
  2. The part of the GDF where radioactive waste is to be disposed of is expected to be constructed at a depth of at least 200 metres beneath the surface of the ground or seabed
  3.  The natural environment which surrounds the GDF is expected to act, in combination with any engineered measures, to inhibit the transit of radionuclides from the part of the GDF where radioactive waste is to be disposed of to the surface

"Development" will include the construction of one or more boreholes and the carrying out of any associated excavation, construction or building work (but only in England or waters adjacent to England up to the seaward limits of the territorial sea). 

The conditions for boreholes falling within the Act are as follows:

  1. The borehole is expected to be constructed to a depth of at least 150 metres beneath the surface of the ground or seabed
  2.  The main purpose of constructing the borehole is to obtain information, data or samples to determine the suitability of a site for the construction or use of a radioactive waste GDF

Therefore although the GDF itself may not be constructed for a number of years, investigative boreholes in particular locations are likely to come forward as NSIPs at an earlier stage to support its development. 

National Geological Screening exercise

The White Paper recognises the importance of providing upfront information to communities regarding a GDF, including on geology, socio-economic impacts and community investment, to enable them to engage in the process with more confidence.

As an initial action, the White Paper notes that RWM will be asked to carry out a national geological screening exercise to bring together high level geological information relevant to the safety of a GDF. 

This process is now underway. Screening will focus on the long-term environmental safety of a GDF by collating existing information on safety issues such as the distribution of rock types; groundwater flows; and the distribution of mineral and hydrocarbon resources. 

Maps will then be generated which will be used to provide information about RWM's current understanding of the distribution of potentially favourable geological features and to answer questions from communities who may be interested in finding out more about geological disposal. 

What the screening exercise will not do is rule all areas as either “suitable” or “unsuitable” for a GDF, or select individual sites. The aim of screening is to provide information that can be used in discussions with communities and to help RWM focus its engagement activities, not to replace the statutory NSIP consenting process. 

Outputs of the screening process, which will be carried out over the next year or so, include the production of draft guidance to set out the safety context and approach to identifying a GDF.  An independent review panel will evaluate the draft guidance to assess whether it is technically robust, implementable on existing geological information and capable of developing a robust long-term safety case in a range of geological settings.  The draft guidance will also be subject to consultation in 2015. 

Outputs from the screening exercise will be made publicly available and will inform the formal process of working with communities that is expected to begin in 2016. 

Community Representation Working Group

As foretold in the White Paper, the Government has convened a Community Representation Working Group (CRWG) to help develop practical processes for how community representation, the test of public support and community investment will operate throughout the siting process for a GDF. 

The primary objective of the CRWG is to develop practical advice on the following:

  • Defining "communities" in relation to GDF development and establishing effective processes for community representation, including the involvement of different tiers of local government and roles and responsibilities for community representatives
  • Providing clarity around the test of public support
  • Developing options for disbursement of community investment

The CRWG consists of people with skills and expertise relevant to helping UK government develop processes for working with communities.  The group is chaired by DECC and has a core membership comprising other relevant government departments and RWM, supplemented by academia, voluntary representatives with experience in local government issues and experts in the delivery of large infrastructure projects, all supported by Local Partnerships. 

Commentary

In the longer term, the Government is clear in the White Paper that the final decision to site a GDF will not be taken until there has been a test of public opinion that demonstrates community support for development at a specific site.  It is not yet clear how this will work in practice and how potentially competing views at different local levels may be taken into account, although as noted above the precise mechanisms and timings for this will be informed by the recommendations of the CRWG. 

It is also not clear how the test of public support will sit with the NSIP process, whereby the Secretary of State will decide on the application in accordance with the NPS (a draft of which we anticipate to be consulted on in 2016) and other relevant considerations. 

It is clear that there is work to do in order to increase public awareness of the issue and ensure that there is not a repeat of the previous process which saw Copeland and Allerdale Borough Councils and Cumbria County Council withdraw from site selection in January 2013.  The screening process is just the start and we will watch how it develops with interest.