Lincolnshire town confronts question of nuclear waste disposal

Ken Smith moved to the Lincolnshire coast to see out his retirement, writing crime novels while surrounded by beaches, arcades, holiday parks and nature reserves.

Recently, however, his retreat has been disturbed. The Mablethorpe resident has found himself unexpectedly on the front lines of a struggle affecting countries across the world, centred on how to deal with nuclear waste.

The fate of Mablethorpe will determine how Britain tackles a problem that has been building for seven decades. As the government seeks a better solution to radioactive waste, communities are torn between the lure of economic opportunities versus the realities of living next to a disposal site.

Theddlethorpe, a few miles up the road, is one of three areas in England being considered by the UK for a 36km square underground site to dispose of nuclear waste as it decays, some of it over hundreds of thousands of years. 

The gas terminal site in Theddlethorpe where the proposed nuclear waste site would be © Charlie Bibby/FT

A defunct gas terminal in the village could be the access point for the facility stretching under the North Sea. But the proposal does not sit well with Smith, 75, or his fellow members of the Guardians of the East Coast local campaign group. 

“It will destroy this town,” he said, arguing that the economic benefits of the project have been overstated and it could, in fact, damage local tourism. “To my mind, it’s a catastrophe waiting to happen.”

The UK has been generating nuclear waste since the 1940s, with the world’s first full-scale commercial power station, Calder Hall, opened in Seascale, Cumbria, by Queen Elizabeth II in 1956. 

Waste from that plant, as well as subsequent nuclear power facilities, is currently stored above ground at 20 sites. These include Sellafield, next to Calder Hall, where in its early days it was been tipped into pools of water or decaying containers. 

Calder Hall, Cumberland, England, the world’s first full scale nuclear power station © World History Archive/Alamy

Storing such material above ground is not considered suitable over the long term, however, as sites need to be monitored and protected, and nuclear waste can remain radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years.

For a more permanent solution, countries including the UK plan to bury it up to 1km below ground, packaged, sealed and protected by layers of rock.

According to Nuclear Waste Services, the government body leading the search for a site, a “geological disposal facility” could “remove the burden from future generations of having to keep the waste safe and secure in above-ground storage facilities for many thousands of years”.

But finding a site is not easy given public safety concerns. Nervous of foisting the plan on people, ministers have set up a search process under which communities register their interest in hosting a site. Any final decision faces a “meaningful test of public support”, though it is unclear how this is defined.

The search is limited to England and Wales, as nuclear waste policy is devolved. An initial hunt collapsed in 2013 after Cumbria county council pulled out, ending the “uncertainty and worry” that the council’s leader at the time, Eddie Martin, said it had triggered.

The setback has left the UK trailing other countries. Finland’s Olkiluoto facility, dug 455m-deep into crystalline bedrock on the west coast, is set to open this decade. Paris and Sweden are also ahead.

The question has become more urgent due to a renaissance in nuclear power as countries try to cut their reliance on gas. However, 90 per cent of the waste expected to be buried at any UK site has already been produced.

The search has homed in on three areas: South Copeland and Mid-Copeland in Cumbria; and Theddlethorpe. A fourth area, Allerdale, also in Cumbria, dropped out this week, after initial assessments suggested the geology was unsuitable.  

“We cannot be the generation that does nothing,” said David Moore, a councillor on Cumberland council, the unitary authority which has taken over the western area of Cumbria county council. He supports efforts to find a site.

“For 30 years this has been getting kicked down the road. We have to be the generation that commits to making a change and a safer way to store nuclear waste.”

The common good is not the only incentive. The NWS said a site will generate jobs for 175 years during construction and filling, with 4,000 jobs in the first 25 years. Communities that come forward to be considered also get additional grant funding of £1mn a year from the outset.  

Esther Nye: ‘It could be helpful as I think they would have to improve the infrastructure in the area’ © Charlie Bibby/FT

For some around Theddlethorpe, in one of the more income-deprived areas of the country, these arguments are appealing. “Skilled jobs would be a good thing,” said William Kirkham, 35, who grew up in the area. “That’s the problem around here — everything is low-skilled, low pay.” 

“It could be helpful as I think they would have to improve the infrastructure in the area,” said Esther Nye, 54, who runs the Bucket and Spade Cafe and shop.

Others, like Smith, are less convinced that the local economy will benefit, or they cannot get past the safety concerns. 

“We get the Nimby [not in my backyard] label and that’s really annoying,” said Sara Bright, who is also part of GOTEC. “If it goes wrong for us, it goes wrong for all of you, too.”

Local resident Mark Chambers, 57, added: “They are forecasting thousands of years in front, and nobody really has a clue. I’m a big believer in, if they cannot deal with the waste, why do it?”

Sara Bright with fellow members of Guardians of the East Coast © Charlie Bibby/FT

Jon Collins, interim chair of the Theddlethorpe Geological Disposal Facility Community Partnership, set up to help people decide whether they want the GDF in the area, said he wanted to make sure there is an “informed debate”.

“Perception is reality,” he added. “People are concerned about safety and NWS needs to convince people that this is a project that will be safe.” 

But Tim Knowles, a former Cumbria county councillor who worked on the first search process in Cumbria, said people needed better access to independent information and advice. 

“It’s about trust,” he said. “I don’t disagree with a deep geological facility, but people have a right to understand what they are being asked to accept.

Neil Hyatt, chief scientific adviser at NWS, said he was “more confident than ever” that investment promises would be met. “We have 120 years or more of operation,” he said. “We have to maintain a positive, trusting relationship with that community. That requires us to deliver on our commitments.”

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