Not in Wordsworth's back yard, say opponents of nuclear dump

Buried waste from British power plants could taint ground water

WILLIAM WORDSWORTH would surely have been against it.

A British nuclear company intends to dig a huge underground cavern near the spot where the poet wrote his finest lines and turn it into a dump for radioactive waste.

UK Nirex, a company that specifically handles the disposal and storage of nuclear waste, denies the project on the edge of England's world-famous Lake District will be a rocky horror. But environmental groups such as the British-based Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace say they will fight it tooth and nail because the risk of nuclear contamination of the surrounding area is acute.

Nirex's timetable calls for construction of the half-mile-deep cavern, 25 miles from the shores of Lake Windermere, to begin in 2005, and be completed in 2010.

Environmentalists are promising to do everything possible to get the project canceled.

Like other countries with developed nuclear industries, Britain faces the problem of disposal of the remorseless pileup of by-products from nuclear plants.

These range from workers' discarded clothing (low-level waste), to worn-out plant and spent isotopes (intermediate-level), to actual fissile materials such as plutonium.

Nirex plans to dig its giant hole close to Sellafield, site of a large nuclear-reprocessing works near the Cumbrian coast.

Rachel Western, a Friends of The Earth scientist, says ``nowhere near enough is known about water flows through rock formations'' for such a project to be undertaken.

Dr. Western worries that the waste Nirex intends to bury will contaminate ground water, which will eventually pollute the surrounding countryside. This could include lakes such as Windermere, Coniston Water, and even Ullswater further to the northeast.

``In 1990 in the United States,'' she says, ``the National Research Council said scientists and geologists knew very little about how water moves through fractured rock. The more research we do, the more uncertain we realize we are.''

The proposed burying site is between the Irish Sea and the Cumbrian lakes, and Western thinks it likely that contaminated water would move upward from the cavern to the surface - ``the last thing anyone wants to happen.''

Nirex says that would be impossible. It intends to put the waste in steel containers topped with concrete. The containers will then be given an outer casing of specially treated cement, which Alan Cooper, the company's science manager, says will inhibit radioactivity from dissolving in water.

Greenpeace insists this does not offer enough guarantees. ``Once something was so far underground, it would be impossible to check what was happening to it,'' a spokesman says. ``Far better to leave the stuff on the surface, where it can be monitored and inspected from time to time.''

Nirex investigated about 500 possible sites in Britain before hitting on Sellafield. Earlier this year, it submitted a planning application to Cumbria County Council, and a public inquiry into the project is to be held. In the meantime preparatory work is going ahead at the Sellafield site. Brendan Breen, Nirex's mining manager, says 20 bore holes have already been drilled, and samples of the volcanic rock in which the cave would be located have been examined.

``I have never worked on a project where the planning has been so meticulous, but the consequences of failure are so horrendous,'' he says.

Nirex reports strong international interest in what it is doing. France produces nearly 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear reactors and has plans for an underground cavern too.

In the US, where 20 percent of electricity is nuclear-generated, an underground dump site in Nevada has been earmarked.

In Sweden, where nuclear power is to be phased out by 2010, low- and intermediate-level waste is already being stored at Forsmark, under the Baltic Sea.

Last year Nirex asked the Royal Society, Britain's senior scientific body, to study the implications of storing nuclear waste underground. Its report, published in November, supports a Nirex plan to build an underground ``rock laboratory'' to find out whether the area near Sellafield is suitable, before the major project is undertaken.

``The society retains an open mind on whether Sellafield can meet the safety criteria for a deep depository,'' the report says.

Sir Alan Muir Wood, chairman of the society's working party, says Nirex appears to have chosen Sellafield ``for political reasons'' - there is already a nuclear installation nearby.

``It is unlikely to have been first choice on geological features alone,'' he says.

The Royal Society report notes that granite-like volcanic rock formations beneath the sandstone cap of the Cumbrian coast contain many fissures. There could be seepage through them to the surface, or toward nearby bodies of water.

Nirex estimates that building a preliminary rock laboratory with a mile of tunnels will cost 120 million British pounds ($187 million). It has already spent 100 million British pounds on surveys. It estimates that a full-scale cavern would cost 2 billion British pounds.

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