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Politics Escalate in Wake of Cumbria Repository Decision

By Roger Murray, Global Correspondent

March 04 2013

Whether it’s the U.S. or the U.K., nuclear waste politics are challenging. In two complementary Insight posts, FCW explores how politics and NIMBYism block the execution of technical solutions for managing spent fuel and nuclear waste.

In the first post, Contributing Reporter Ron Witzel questions how, in the absence of any U.S. nuclear waste management program, the Department of Energy’s latest nuclear waste fund adequacy report concluded that “neither insufficient, nor excess revenues are being collected.”  In 2009 the Obama Administration killed the Yucca Mountain project, a favor for Senate majority leader Harry Reid, the senior Democratic senator of Nevada, in exchange for Reid’s support for Obama’s 2008 presidential run.

Global Correspondent Roger Murray, meanwhile, writes on the controversial vote by a British county government to reject proceeding to the next phase of the U.K.’s voluntary process for hosting a nuclear waste repository. As has happened more than a few times in the U.S., local political and governmental support for moving forward was thwarted by higher level politics.

The end-January decision by Cumbria county council to terminate consideration of the area’s suitability for the U.K.’s first underground nuclear waste repository is fast becoming a hot political issue, amidst claims of incoherence, behind the scenes fixes and intimidation (FCW #507, Feb. 7).

Tim Knowles, council cabinet member for nuclear issues, has resigned in protest and other dissident councilors have succeeded in having the decision called-in for investigation by the council’s own economy and environment scrutiny advisory board.

Copeland and Allendale lower tier district councils remain strongly in favor of moving to the (final) stage four of the managing radioactive waste safely (MRWS) process. This would have involved tests to identify a suitable geological site for the facility.

Senior councilors and west Cumbria’s two opposition Labor Party MPs—Copeland’s Jamie Reed and Workington’s Tony Cunningham—held initial talks on alternative options with Energy and Climate Change Secretary of State Ed Davey and the deputy energy minister Sandip Verma in February.

Verma has strongly hinted that a new process might be launched, enabling Copeland and Allerdale to remain as possible “candidate communities” for a repository.

Opt-Out Decision Flawed
The call-in letter signed by three Cumbria councilors said: “We believe the decision not to participate was flawed for a number of reasons.” These were stated to be:

• The cabinet gave no coherent reason for the decision;
• The decision foregoes the opportunity to identify suitable sites indefinitely;
• It flew in the face of government and county council policy;
• It discounted the view of the majority of Copeland residents;
• It jeopardized relations between the government and the county council in relation to nuclear new-build; and
• It limited economic development in Copeland for a generation.

Immediately after the decision by Cumbria council, Knowles, a Labor party member who is also chairman of the Nuclear Legacy Advisory Forum, told Independent Television News (ITV) that during the cabinet meeting preceding the vote “there had seemed to be inconsistencies between what councilors said and how they voted.”

He added: “When a council leader makes comments such as ‘I’m not prepared to prostitute our Cumbrian soul or heritage for silver coins,’ apparently associating them with years of work by members, officers and Cumbrian partners, I think we are entitled to ask what sort of leadership he is providing.”

Knowles also hinted at skullduggery: “What goes on behind closed doors is always difficult to determine. I suppose the only way one would ever find out about that were if there was a legal challenge to the decision and it maybe that would come out.”

There were suggestions that Conservative party members of the seven-member cabinet had been instructed to vote “no” by council leader Eddie Martin (himself a Conservative). However, Martin strongly denied this, claiming he had told his colleagues they were free to vote as they chose on the issue.

More disturbing are allegations that councilors may have been intimidated into opposing further investigation of an underground repository by an email sent around by anti-nuclear activists.

This was raised by a Conservative peer Lord Jenkin of Rodding, who told the House of Lords that it contained “a chilling message.” He said the email had referred to the need to advise councilors that they might be held personally liable for irrational or reckless decisions, especially ones which did not put the care of their constituency at the heart.

The Green Party and other anti-nuclear groups who campaigned to halt further investigation of a repository have not commented.

Deputy energy secretary Verma responded by promising to look into whether intimidation was a factor in the council’s decision and if so to refer the matter to the police.


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