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Serious shortcomings in the prospective MRWS process in West Cumbria says CALC

In view of the absence of clear support from parish councils and the community generally and the number of serious shortcomings in the prospective MRWS process in West Cumbria, Cumbria Association of Local Councils (CALC) does not consider the programme as currently envisaged to be credible or viable.

The five main reasons for adopting this position are set out below.

Absence of clear public support. The MRWS process is based on community voluntarism and there is a need for clear evidence of broadly based public support at all stages. Generally the organisations and individuals that responded to the recent consultation are divided on whether they agree with the Partnership’s conclusions and whether to proceed into Stage 4. With respect to town and parish councils specifically, 70% of those that responded stated that they do not support proceeding into Stage 4 of the MRWS process. In CALC’s view there is therefore no evidence from the recent consultation that there is the necessary level and breadth of public support for proceeding. (However, the results of an Ipsos Mori survey to gauge ‘net support’ for proceeding into Stage 4 are awaited)

Uncertainties and lack of trust. The Partnership recognised, and the respondents to the consultation emphasised, that at this early stage in the MRWS process there are many uncertainties and many significant issues to be resolved. These uncertainties and the absence of information around so many issues are clearly of widespread concern and strongly influenced the way many people responded to the consultation. However, there is no quick way available to remove all these uncertainties. In CALC’s view the only practical way to move forward in the face of these uncertainties is for the community to be willing to place its trust in the key players in the MRWS process, especially the Government, the NDA, the Environment Agency and the Decision Making Bodies and in the processes they would be following.

Many respondents to the recent consultation expressed a lack of confidence in these bodies and in some of the processes. In CALC’s view the Government and Decision Making Bodies, in particular, have failed over the last three years to lay the foundations for the level of trust and confidence that would be required. On the contrary, there have been too many examples of confidence being undermined in various ways (for example, the Government’s initiative to accelerate the MRWS process; the Decision Making Bodies’ failure to ensure that existing and future partnerships set up to give them advice are perceived to be genuinely independent, etc.). There appears to be considerable evidence of suspicion and doubts amongst the general public and little tangible evidence of the trust and confidence that would be essential to take the process forward.

Poor prospects of finding suitable geology. The conclusions of the Partnership about the possible suitability of West Cumbria’s geology have been significantly influenced by CoRWM’s view that “there is presently no credible scientific case to support the contention that all of West Cumbria is geologically unsuitable”. However, CALC finds this reliance on the absence of a negative unsatisfactory because it avoids the key question – how good are the prospects of finding a suitable site? At CALC’s instigation the Partnership asked the NDA in early 2011 to undertake some work to explain why the prospects of finding a site for a GDF in West Cumbria are sufficiently good to justify proceeding further. In the event the NDA’s ability to fulfil this brief was constrained by a restriction placed on it using West Cumbria specific data and research in advance of a formal Decision to Participate. As a consequence the resulting NDA report is limited in its usefulness.

So the submissions that there is no prospect of finding a site (e.g. Professors Smythe and Haszeldine) or that the probability of finding a site is low (e.g. McDonald and Knipe –Nirex Inquiry inspector and assessor) are the dominant opinions in the public domain. In CALC’s view the evidence in the public domain and available for public discussion points to the conclusion that the prospects of finding a suitable site in West Cumbria are too poor to justify proceeding.

Weaknesses in national policy. The recent consultation has revealed misgivings about the way the Government is applying the principle of ‘voluntarism’ and whether, together with the companion principle of the Right of Withdrawal, it is genuinely sustainable through the many years of a MRWS programme. CALC shares these concerns.

Despite the general consensus that safety and finding suitable geology is the most important consideration, Government policy makes voluntarism the leading criterion in starting the search for a site. CALC considers that a more logical approach, bringing voluntarism and geology considerations together at an early stage, would be to identify the more promising areas of geology first and then seek volunteers from within those areas. Such an approach would reduce the risk of working for many years in an area of borderline (or worse) geology, leading ultimately to failure. CALC is currently reviewing CoRWM’s and the Government’s consideration of this option and so far finds the reasons for its rejection insubstantial and unconvincing.

A further aspect of national policy, very important for securing trust, is whether the Government’s MRWS principles of voluntarism and the Right of Withdrawal can be relied on. These principles are only Government policy and have no statutory basis that can be relied on in the future. CALC is concerned that without statutory force they will have a limited ‘shelf life’ as the process proceeds, expenditure rises and plans take shape.

Failure to recognise the standing of the ‘host community’. CALC remains most concerned about the views of the Decision Making Bodies on the standing and role of the ‘host community’ as defined in the White Paper. The MRWS process is unique in the UK and gives an explicit major role to the host community requiring decision making to be undertaken in innovative ways that have not been seen before. The Decision Making Bodies appear unwilling to rise to the challenge that voluntarism demands and the part to be played by the host community. CALC does not subscribe to the view that a host community should always have an automatic right of veto over all decisions affecting it, but it would expect to see evidence that Decision Making Bodies are clearly committed to the principle of voluntarism at the community level rather than viewing it as something that applies to them alone.

A spokesman for the West Cumbria Managing Radioactive Waste Safely Partnership Said: “The Partnership is currently in the early stages of considering the responses to the public consultation. There are a wide range of issues that have been raised and that Partnership members will need to take into account before finalising a report to go to Allerdale Borough Council, Copeland Borough Council and Cumbria County Council.

“The Partnership will also take account of the results of the large, representative opinion survey which is currently being carried out in West Cumbria. The results of the survey will not be available until late May.

“The decision about whether or not to take part in the search for somewhere to put an underground repository for higher activity radioactive waste is a very important one. It is therefore essential that the Partnership and the Councils take the time to carefully consider the issues involved before any decisions are made.”

For more information about the Partnership visit the Partnership’s website – www.westcumbriamrws.org.uk