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Planning Act 2008 to be extended to radioactive waste disposal

Angus Walker picture-13This entry reports on the proposed extension of the Planning Act 2008 regime to a geological disposal facility for radioactive waste.

This week the government produced a White Paper (i.e. a statement of proposed legislation) on the long-term disposal of radioactive waste, which can be found here

A geological disposal facility (GDF, not to be confused with French energy company Gaz de France), is to be developed following a three-stage process:

  • national geographic screening to find suitable sites;
  • bringing the GDF into the Planning Act 2008 regime;
  • developing a process of working with communities, including representation and investment (i.e. financial benefits)

The GDF will be taken forward by a subsidiary of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, which is a non-departmental public body that reports to the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), with the appropriate address of Curie Avenue. (Trivia question: which is the only other department that is a 'Department of' rather than a 'Department for'?).

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Geological disposal is being considered by various other countries too, although none has actually developed a facility yet (no doubt due to the similar age of the nuclear industry in each country). The most advanced seems to be Finland, which has got to the test borehole stage at a site near an existing nuclear plant.

The extension of the Planning Act will be brought forward 'as soon as practicable', which will require secondary legislation (assuming radioactive waste is in the category of 'waste', which it surely is, otherwise it will need primary legislation). The GDF itself and also any boreholes will be defined as nationally significant infrastructure projects.

A National Policy Statement (NPS) will be produced, although unlike the one for nuclear power stations, it will not be site-specific, as the site selection process will not be complete by then. All this will be in place by 2016.

In terms of community investment, aka dosh, interested communities will get up to £1m each per year while they remain interested, and if they get to the borehole stage this could rise to £2.5m.

Analysis

This would be the sixth alteration of NSIP thresholds and categories since the Planning Act came into being, and would make a tie of three all in terms of reducing (highways, railways, electric lines) or increasing (waste water, business or commercial, hazardous waste) the number of projects caught by the regime.

Hazardous waste is already an NSIP category, although radioactive waste does not fall within it. This was an issue when considering the East Northamptonshire Resource Management Facility, the only hazardous waste NSIP consented so far, as to whether handling low level radioactive waste counted as 'associated development'. The government decided it did, although introduced a requirement limiting the amount the site could accept.

When DECC wants to use the Planning Act, it describes it in a different way from when it doesn't want to use it. In this White Paper it says:

"It sets out a clear decision making process, involving objective examination by the Planning Inspectorate, which recommends to the Secretary of State whether or not to grant development consent. The final planning decision is made by the Secretary of State, maintaining democratic accountability."

In the consultation on allowing fracking below private land without consent (running until 15 August), it considers bringing exploratory wells within the Planning Act regime, but says:

"the process of obtaining a development consent order is extremely lengthy (a minimum of 15 months from application to consent, plus approximately a year's pre-application consultation). To be obliged to undertake this expensive and time-consuming process multiple times to drill a series of exploratory wells is not a workable option."

Funny, that.

If the chosen site is in Wales or Northern Ireland, the Planning Act won't be used, as waste planning doesn't extend there, and the whole White Paper does not include Scotland, where energy policy is devolved. Thus the Act could be being extended in vain, but as Cumbria is the bookies' favourite for the eventual chosen site, this is unlikely.

Answer: Health

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