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UK Government To Pay Local Communities To Store Nuclear Waste

The operators of the controversial Sellafield nuclear complex have agreed to pay local people in Cumbria some £75m for expanding the only national dump for low-level nuclear waste.

The unprecedented deal – which is being called a "bribe" – is widely thought to be the precursor of a payment of at least £1bn to the community that agrees to take a much more controversial planned repository for infinitely more dangerous waste that will remain toxic for hundreds of thousands of years.

The Government plans to invite communities across Britain to "express an interest" in hosting such a repository, and expects them to put forward proposals for inducements to take it that will "enhance "their "wellbeing".

Professor Gordon MacKerron, who until recently chaired the Government's official Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM), said that the "totally surprising" move sets set a precedent for a much more expensive deal over a more controversial repository.

The operators of the controversial Sellafield nuclear complex have agreed to pay local people in Cumbria some £75m for expanding the only national dump for low-level nuclear waste.

The unprecedented deal – which is being called a "bribe" – is widely thought to be the precursor of a payment of at least £1bn to the community that agrees to take a much more controversial planned repository for infinitely more dangerous waste that will remain toxic for hundreds of thousands of years.

The Government plans to invite communities across Britain to "express an interest" in hosting such a repository, and expects them to put forward proposals for inducements to take it that will "enhance "their "wellbeing".

Professor Gordon MacKerron, who until recently chaired the Government's official Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM), said that the "totally surprising" move sets set a precedent for a much more expensive deal over a more controversial repository.

Environmentalists denounced the payments deal – the first ever agreed in Britain – as "development by bribery", and as a breach of undertakings not to subsidise the industry. But the principle of compensating local people for taking nuclear waste is now accepted by Ministers, and Councils are making it clear that they will not give planning permission to new facilities unless they get the money.

Under the agreement – quietly endorsed by Alistair Darling, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who will ultimately provide the money – the state-owned Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, which owns Sellafield and operates the country's radioactive waste disposal programme, has undertaken to make indefinite payments to the people of west Cumbria, in return for extending a waste dump near the small coastal village of Drigg, a few miles from the complex.

It has agreed with the local Copeland Borough Council and the Cumbrian County Council to make a £10m down payment – half of which will be paid as early as this summer, followed by annual fees of £1.5m a year for as long as the dump is in operation. If it closes in 2050, as one Inquiry predicted, the total sum will just exceed £75m.

The village – with only 300 inhabitants – will receive a guaranteed £50,000 a year which could exceed £2m over the lifetime of the dump. Copeland Council plans to put all the money into a special "community interest company" and says it will be focused on attracting business, on environmental improvements and education, and on social projects and sports facilities.

In return, Cumbria council will this month approve the expansion of Drigg, which has been taking nuclear debris for almost half a century. Its existing eight vaults are expected to be full by the end of the year: both the county and borough councils have been refusing to grant permission for a ninth to be built until the payments are agreed.

Allan Holliday, Copeland council's deputy leader, said that he is "delighted" with the deal, adding: "The local community has had to live with the repository for many years without the recognition that was due to them." And David Moore, leader of the opposition Conservative group, adds: "A very important principle has been established."

Drigg, a former Royal Ordnance factory, takes low-level waste from all over the country, mainly made up of protective clothing, paper, packaging and equipment that has been contaminated by radioactivity. Most comes by rail from Sellafield just up the road, and the rest is trucked in from other nuclear installations, hospitals, firms and research facilities. It is mixed with cement, packaged in steel containers and then placed in the vast concrete vaults a few metres underground.

But this is the easy, relatively innocuous stuff. Although such low-level material makes up 90 per cent of the volume of the country's nuclear waste, it accounts for only 0.0003 per cent of its total radioactivity. What to do with the rest – now standing at nearly half a million cubic metres of High- and Intermediate-Level Waste, enough to fill the Albert Hall five times over – has baffled ministers and the nuclear industry. It is being stored above ground, overwhelmingly at Sellafield, while a solution is sought.

The waste will remain extremely dangerous – and will have to be isolated from people and the environment – for at least a quarter of a million years, 20 times as long as the entire history of human civilisation from the time the first plough was put to the ground.

It is this indefinitely poisoned chalice that the Government will this year ask communities to volunteer to take, by acting as host to an unprecedented repository, buried at least 1,000m underground. Experts say that – with the Drigg deal setting the precedent – Ministers are bound to have to agree to pay at least £1bn in inducements. The Government will have little choice, for 34 years of sustained failure to find somewhere to put waste is now one of the major obstacles to its ambition for a new generation of nuclear power plants.

Back in 1974, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution concluded: "There should be no commitment to a large programme of nuclear power until it has been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that a method exists to ensure the safe containment of long-lived, highly radioactive waste for the indefinite future." It was the turning point for nuclear power in Britain. Vast expansion plans were abandoned, and only one reactor has been approved and built since.

For most of that time, official policy – in a classic Whitehall phrase – has been to "dispose of radioactive wastes at appropriate times and in appropriate places". But attempts to find places ran into entrenched local opposition, and were abandoned.

The last – a proposal for a repository beneath Gosforth, near both Sellafield and Drigg – was rejected by the then Environment Secretary John Gummer on his last day in office before the 1997 election.