16 June 2024

Nuclear storage proposals: ‘It’s not a done deal, and you are not alone’

by Rebecca Hannant

Communities across Holderness are gearing up to have their say after the region was identified as a possible location for underground nuclear waste storage.

Last Thursday, it was announced that Nuclear Waste Services was scoping opinion on a potential consent-based Geographic Dispersal Facility (GDF) in the region.

South Holderness joined three other potential locations, the others being two in Cumbria and one in Lincolnshire. Another location had previously been announced in Allerdale, Cumbria, but it was withdrawn because of the unsuitability of the geology.

GDFs are internationally recognised projects supported by governments and scientists as the only viable long-term solution for the safe disposal of radioactive nuclear waste. They are currently being built in countries such as Canada, France and Switzerland, and involve isolating nuclear waste deep underground in suitable geological formations and placing it in highly engineered vaults and tunnels. This is said to keep the waste safe and secure for the thousands of years it will take for the radioactivity to naturally reduce.

Experts say the GDF will ensure that the nuclear waste can be encased in underground rock, clay and soil formations, creating a natural barrier that needs no maintenance. Currently, the UK has several nuclear waste sites, but they need constant maintenance to ensure they are safe and well managed.

To ensure the facility is effective, solid prepackaged nuclear waste would be transported to the site via rail or sea and placed underground in a 36 sq km facility up to 1,000 metres below ground. The entire project is expected to last 175 years, but it is not expected to be up and running for another 15 years if given the go-ahead. The NWS has also said it could create up to 4,000 jobs during the construction phase and 2,000 thereafter.

As part of the project, the NWS has launched a South Holderness GDF working group, which it says is the starting point for a conversation with the local community.

Each working group will have an independent chairman who is responsible for distributing information about the project. The role of the working group is to understand the local area and identify an initial search area for further consideration. The working group is expected to be ongoing for up to nine months.

While the NWS says that the community engagement programme is not an indication that the project will be launched in the area, the group is keen to engage with the community and find out about any questions or issues people may have. The NWS has also stated
that while this project has been backed by East Riding Council and Invest East Yorkshire, it will only go ahead with the support of the community.

The selected community for the project would also benefit from a £1 million investment during the first phase and £2.5 million thereafter.

Staff at NWS said this investment could benefit the community in several ways, including developing transport networks such as roads, as they would be used during the construction phase, and rail to transport the nuclear waste. It could also help develop housing and public facilities such as village halls, schools and libraries.

Following the news, residents and local politicians across the region have expressed mixed opinions over the likely advantages and disadvantages of the proposals.

Hedon town councillor Steve Gallant said: “My initial reaction was sceptical. The area could be used as a dumping ground. However, the £1 million could bring a lot of investment to the area.

“They are talking about revamping the old train lines – however, they need a lot of money. The lines would not just be used for freight but could also be used for passengers. People should see what is on off er at one of the meetings.”

Mid Holderness councillor Samantha Whyte said: “It sounds like it is potentially a good opportunity for Holderness in terms of future job prospects and bringing money to the area. However, it’s important that we read the small print, are fully informed, and understand the benefits and disadvantages.”

Withernsea mayor and East Riding councillor Lyn Healing added: “This is a shock for the people of Withernsea. It would change our area forever. It’s going to need a lot of thought before we decide if this is something we want.”

Other residents say that they will be able to form an opinion once they find out more information, and councillors have urged people to attend one of the working group pop-in events happening across the region over the coming fortnight.

Meanwhile, a campaign group was swiftly set up in response to the announcement, raising serious concerns about the potential eff ect on local facilities and tourism, the allocation of community funds, the environment and coastal erosion.

Lynn Massey-Davies, of the newly formed South Holderness GDF Action Group, said: “We understand the difficulty. The UK has existing and future waste by-product of nuclear activity over many years, and it must be dealt with. This isn’t an ideological argument about the merits or otherwise of nuclear, nor even a political one, but about where it should be placed.

“We have been told it is perfectly safe, and the process of filling the dump will take more than 100 years, so it could safely be disposed of anywhere.

“For some reason known only to Nuclear Waste Services, they have stated the area must be rural, with no explanation as to why. The country is awash with brownfield sites with good transport links, especially in the South.

“In an area where planning permissions had been closely controlled based on a county-wide plan that zoned the development types allowed in an area, somehow now there is a green light to explore the construction of a site on prime farmland we need for crops and supporting food and wildlife. It will cover many square kilometres during construction and at least one kilometre for the top of the shaft and processing area once operational.

“While property prices will suffer, since the pandemic, our area has become more diverse as people have discovered our beautiful way of life here and moved in their thousands. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to make a new, long-term investment in an area where there’s going to be a nuclear waste ‘dump’ and potentially a spoil tip from the excavations to rival Aberfan. What will it do to tourism, amenity value, and the myriad small businesses that are beginning to thrive here?

“As we know from the past few months, we regularly experience flooding, and the contractors for the realignment scheme in Welwick-Skeffling can only work from March to October because the boulder clay in this area has the adhesive properties of epoxy resin or gorilla glue when wet. We don’t need to go into coastal erosion – we can let them digest what 1.5m and more a year of cliff erosion means for their 176-year project.

“People are anxious and afraid – this situation cannot be allowed to drag on for years, both for the economic impact and the effect on the health and well-being of the population.

Anti-GDF campaigners at the Nuclear Free Local Authorities group say they have pledged solidarity with the South Holderness group and said they would support them in their fi ght against the facility.

The NFLA has expressed to the region that the project is “not a done deal, and you are not alone”.

The Nuclear Free Local Authorities are a coalition of councils and councillors established in 1981 who are opposed to nuclear power and nuclear waste and advocate for a renewable energy future for Britain.

The NFLA advocates for nuclear waste to be stored in highly engineered, near-
surface facilities that are kept under constant supervision and management, with the option for the retrieval and repackaging of waste in the event of an accident. The group also advocates for the UK to switch quickly from nuclear power to a renewable energy future.

The group believes that the GDF would not be a temporary destination as proposed but a permanent repository, as the 175 years quoted would be the likely length of operations on the site. They say the timescale does not facilitate the eventual sealing of the site, which would result in it being unmonitored and the waste being “irretrievable”.

Leeds councillor David Blackburn, chairman of the NFLA’s English Forum, said: “This has been a great shock to me too, for in recent years I have chosen to go on holiday to beautiful Withernsea. I love the resort and the coast, and it would be a tragedy if this were blighted by a nuclear waste dump.

“This project would necessitate a construction and engineering project lasting at least a decade that would be vast, with a surface facility developed that would be at least one kilometre square, which would be the receiving station for regular shipments of high-level radioactive waste, beneath which a network of tunnels would be dug up to 1,000 metres below the surface into which hundreds of thousands of cubic metres of waste would be deposited and from which vast amounts of spoil would be removed. If the eventual plan follows that established for Theddlethorpe, the tunnels would be dug out to sea beneath the seabed.

“Imagine the environmental destruction, the construction traffic, and the additional demands placed on affordable housing and local infrastructure because of the influx of the construction workforce; and this in a quiet, picturesque rural community? Not for nothing have comparisons been made between building a GDF and the Channel Tunnel.”

At present, it is unclear how opinions will be collected by NWS, and at this stage, all feedback is solely for the benefit of NWS and communities in identifying a suitable location. Once a “test of public support has taken place” and all the consent and permits have been agreed upon, it will go ahead, subject to non-withdrawal.

After the news was released on Thursday, Beverley and Holderness MP Graham Stuart met with independent working group chairman Dr David Richards to discuss the project and its impact on the area.

Mr Stuart also raised his concerns about the “test of public support” as outlined by the NWS and questioned how support would be measured as no plans have been outlined.

He said: “Nuclear Waste Services tells me that any nuclear waste facility in South Holderness could only go ahead with public consent—but not how that consent will be measured.

“Well, the people of Holderness deserve the final say on our future. That doesn’t mean a telephone survey. It doesn’t mean a few meetings in village halls, important as those are.”

He has called for a local referendum and launched a campaign to get residents’ opinions on the matter. A pull-out poster can be found on Page 7 of this paper and can be placed in windows to show support for the referendum.

Mr Stuart added: “We should have a meaningful say in the future of our area, and before we start talking about anything else, we need a copper-bottomed guarantee that we will have a referendum on the nuclear waste facility.

“They want our consent. We want meaningful consent through a referendum.”

Cllr Lyn Healing added: “We need to have a referendum before we have the conversation about safety and what it will mean for Withernsea and Holderness.

“And it must be a simple yes-or-no referendum in the affected area.”

Councillor Samantha Whyte said: “Just like Graham Stuart MP, I agree that the final decision should be in the form of a referendum for the residents and local communities directly affected.”