UK: Nuclear Waste To Be Added To Planning Act 2008 Regime

Last Updated: 23 September 2013
Article by Angus Walker

Today's entry reports on a consultation from the Department for Energy and Climate Change on the long-term storage of nuclear waste.

Background

The government has long been grappling with the problem of disposing of nuclear waste. Waste has been piling up ever since nuclear power stations started operating in this country but the issue of what to do with it is now being considered more seriously than ever before.

In 2012, the government asked around for local authorities to volunteer to host a 'geological disposal facility' (GDF, not to be confused with the French state gas company) i.e. a repository very deep underground in return for 'community benefits'. Allerdale District Council, Copeland District Council and Cumbria County Council agreed to think about it. After some further steps were taken, Cumbria withdraw from the process in January this year, leaving the government with no options at all (as it covers both Allerdale and Copeland).

The lack of current options is also relevant to the Greenpeace judicial review challenge against the granting of consent for the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station under the Planning Act 2008 as it is one of the grounds of claim.

New consultation

Last Thursday the government launched a consultation on a new proposal for reaching agreement on the location for a GDF. The key point for aficionados of the Planning Act regime is that nuclear waste disposal will be added to the regime as a new category and it will be accompanied by its very own National Policy Statement (NPS). This would only cover proposed sites in England, though, but it would include 'intrusive investigations' before an actual site was developed as ell as the main application.

The presumably single application under this new category is not expected to be made for about 18 years. The 'intrusive investigations' would be earlier, though, and a draft of the NPS will come out soon. It will be accompanied by an 'Appraisal of Sustainability' that will be compatible with the requirements of strategic environmental assessment (assessment of plans and programmes rather than projects). That is interesting in the context of HS2 and the Thames Tideway Tunnel, because it will probably lead to a single project (albeit with earlier phases) but will still undergo SEA - the necessity for SEA being a live issue on both those projects. The NPS will not be location-specific at this stage, but will assist the choice of site as other non-specific NPSs do.

You will be amused to read that the government has thought long and hard about the appropriate level of local government that should be involved in the process and be given the right to withdraw, and has decided to adopt the principle of subsidiarity. In other words only district councils, and not county councils, will be able to participate in, and withdraw from, the process. By coincidence, this means that Cumbria County Council won't be involved this time.

The consultation document is here and the consultation runs until 5 December. There are only nine questions, which makes it rather simpler than the judicial review reform consultation. The consultation proposes a 'Learning' phase, followed by a 'Focusing' phase once one or more communities have expressed an interest. To encourage them, the 'community benefit' (i.e. money) would not wait until the site was up and running to be paid, but would start being paid during the focusing phase. The consultation paper recognises that hosting a GDF would mean that 'potential host communities are providing a service to the nation'.

The idea is that there would be some sort of confirmation of community support before the right for the council to withdraw would cease, which could be anything from an opinion poll to a referendum.

Analysis

I am reminded of the rather good slogan for reducing waste in general: 'Don't throw it away, there is no 'away''. Nevertheless, the government does need to come up with something that is is near to 'away' as it can for nuclear waste, and these proposals look promising.

I would say this, but I welcome the inclusion of what is clearly a nationally significant infrastructure project in the ordinary sense of the phrase in the regime that is designed to deal with such projects.

It is interesting, however, that boring a deep hole to see if stuff should be put into it is considered nationally significant, whereas boring a deep hole to see if stuff should be taken out of it (i.e. exploration for fracking purposes) is not (yet) considered nationally significant.

The government has clearly learned lessons from the previous exercise in 'volunteerism' for long-term nuclear waste disposal and has sought to address these. Perhaps the key feature is that 'The UK Government would make clear, early in a revised siting process, the potential scale of community benefits.'

The government will respond once it has analysed consultation responses. For those thinking of responding, be warned: 'When considering responses to this consultation, the Government will give greater weight to responses that are based on argument and evidence, rather than simple expressions of support or opposition'

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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