The framework for managing higher activity radioactive waste in the long term through geological disposal was set out in the Government White Paper published on 22 July 2014[1] (the 2014 White Paper).

The White Paper follows a public consultation carried out in 2013 on potential amendments to the existing siting process established in 2008 for a geological disposal facility (GDF).

It outlines a number of initial actions over the next two years to ensure that safe facilities for permanent disposal of waste will be built, whilst ensuring that the identification of potential sites involves working with communities willing to participate in the siting process.

One of these stated actions is, by 2016, to bring GDF development in England within the definition of a "Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project" (NSIP) in the Planning Act 2008.  GDF development will also be subject to its own National Policy Statement (NPS).

The formal process of working with communities is expected to begin in 2016, when the outputs from these initial actions will have been delivered.

Background

A GDF is a facility capable of isolating radioactive waste within multiple protective barriers, deep underground, to ensure no harmful quantities of radioactivity can reach the surface environment.  The Government recognises that the development of a GDF would provide a permanent solution for the UK’s higher activity radioactive waste.

The existing siting process for a GDF was established in 2008 pursuant to the White Paper Managing Radioactive Waste Safely – A Framework for Implementing Geological Disposal (the 2008 White Paper).  It is based on the principle of voluntarism and local communities’ willingness to participate in the process.

Initially three local authorities in west Cumbria expressed an interest in this approach, being Copeland and Allerdale Borough Councils and Cumbria County Council.  In January 2013, the three local authorities voted on whether to proceed, with the two boroughs voting in favour and the county voting against.  The county’s decision therefore ended the existing site selection process.

The Government then consulted to gather views on how aspects of the siting process for a GDF could be revised and improved, whilst retaining the preference for a process based on engagement with willing communities.  Views were sought on:

  • Decision making and roles in the siting process, including proposals for a direct test of public support before proceeding with construction of a GDF.
  • Technical delivery of the GDF, including information about geology, the inventory of waste for disposal and land-use planning issues.
  • Involvement of communities, including representation, benefits and socio-economic impacts and assessments.

The 2014 White Paper

A number of initial actions to be undertaken by the Government and the developer (Radioactive Waste Management Limited (RWML)) to help implement geological disposal are set out in the 2014 White Paper.  It retains a central focus on ensuring that the process of siting a GDF is based on the willingness of local communities to host a GDF.

Stated actions include national geological screening; bringing GDF development in England within the definition of a NSIP in the Planning Act 2008; the production of a NPS; and further engagement to develop the detail of community representation mechanisms in the siting process.

The Government has a strong preference for only one GDF site, although this would depend on that area having a large enough volume of suitable rock, or the developer being able to make a safety case for just one site.  Therefore multi-site GDFs have not been formally ruled out.

Undertaking a national screening process

Following problems identified in the previous siting attempt, it will come as no surprise that the White Paper recognises the importance of providing upfront information.  Information on geology, socio-economic impacts and community investment are to be provided to communities in advance of formal discussions with RWML.  The intention is to enable communities to engage in the process with more confidence.

The White Paper states that, as an initial action, RWML will be asked to carry out a national geological screening exercise to bring together high level geological information relevant to GDF safety cases.  This is to be undertaken in an open and transparent manner, by engaging public and expert stakeholder communities in consideration of what geological attributes should be included in the high level screening guidance.  An independent review panel will evaluate the screening guidance to assess whether it is technically robust, implementable on existing geological information and is capable of developing a robust long-term safety case in a range of geological settings.  The draft guidance will 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.

Bringing GDF within the remit of the Planning Act 2008

That it is the Government's view that a GDF is a development of national significance in confirmed in the 2014 White Paper.  The Government therefore intends to amend the Planning Act 2008 to bring GDFs within the definition of NSIPs.  Furthermore, surface-based borehole investigations necessary to characterise and assess potential sites will be an NSIP in their own right.

In support of this approach, the Government will designate a NPS in respect of GDFs in England.  The White Paper notes that it is intended that the GDF NPS will be non-site specific, focussing on the high level assessment principles against which development consent applications will be considered for any GDF in England.

The amendments to the Planning Act 2008, and preparation of the associated NPS, will be brought forward "as soon as practicable", with a view to both the legislation being in place and consultation on the draft NPS having been undertaken by 2016.

Working with communities

The UK Government intends to develop the detail of a process for working with communities over the next two years.  This will run alongside the national geological screening exercise and amendments being made to the Planning Act 2008, with a view to formal discussions commencing between RWML and communities in 2016.  Publication of the final NPS will then follow.

Now that the 2014 White Paper has been published, the intention is for the Government to convene a community representation working group.  Between 2014 and 2016, its activities will include defining roles and responsibilities for community representatives; reviewing the potential for disbursement of community investment; and developing options to ensure that all levels of local government have a voice in the GDF siting process.  The latter is particularly important as the decision to grant consent for a GDF will rest with the Secretary of State following the amendments to bring GDFs within the remit of the Planning Act 2008.

The early stages of the formal discussions would be focussed on RWML providing community representatives with any information that they require to consider what a GDF could mean for their local area and access to information will not be limited by pre-determined decision points.  RWML may commission further, more detailed and focussed assessments of the known geological information within a local area, in order to produce a geological report for the communities engaging in the process to consider, on a no-commitment basis.  The community has a right to withdraw from these formal discussions with the developer at any point.

The final decision to site a GDF in a community 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 proposed that no one tier of local government should be able to prevent the participation of other members of their community.  The precise mechanisms and timings for this will be informed by the recommendations of the community representation working group, although the Government anticipates it would be shortly before an application for a GDF at a specific site was made (as this would be when the most information, prior to construction, was available to the community).

Hosting a GDF is likely to bring significant economic benefits to a community in terms of employment and infrastructure it is noted in the 2014 White Paper.  In addition, the UK Government will also provide further "significant" investment to the community that hosts a GDF to maximise these benefits, capable of generating intergenerational benefits – this might include improved local education and skills investment, improved transport infrastructure and improved recreational facilities.  Early Government investment is also to be made available for communities that constructively engage in the siting process, including during more intrusive, borehole investigations to assess a potentially suitable site.

Comments

The Planning Act 2008 sets out a clear decision making process, with defined timescales and objective examination by the Planning Inspectorate which recommends to the Secretary of State whether or not to grant development consent. The final decision is made by the Secretary of State.

It continues to be Government policy that before development consents for new nuclear power stations are granted.  The Government will need to be satisfied that effective arrangements exist or will exist to manage and dispose of the waste they will produce.  The set timescales of the 2008 Act process therefore provides a clear procedural advantage.

Furthermore, the right to veto a GDF is removed from the hands of local politicians.  This means that provided the test of public opinion demonstrates community support in order for the application to be submitted, it will be for the Secretary of State to decide on the application in accordance with the NPS and other relevant considerations. The White Paper is clear of course in stating that thought will be given (through the community representation working group) to how the process will ensure that views from all levels of local government are heard.

Following the lessons learned from the previous attempt to site a GDF, the Government has also recognised the importance of providing upfront information on issues such as geology, socio-economic impacts and community investment.  Involvement of the community is at the heart of the proposals and, as the White Paper notes, early engagement and dissemination of information should improve the confidence that local communities have in the Government’s programme.