'Why us?' - Holderness residents on Government plans to bury nuclear waste under remote Yorkshire coast

Many people living on the remote coastal strip in Holderness will be asking "Why us?" following the shock news that the government is considering burying nuclear waste there. Alex Wood reports.

The scale is immense, the time-scale mind-boggling.

Somewhere in South Holderness, maybe in the 2040s, nuclear waste could arrive at a facility, probably on a train. Solid waste in secure engineered containers would be shuttled into a series of specially designed and engineered vaults and tunnels up to 1,000m underground, in an area spanning 36 sq km.

This "geological disposal facility" will be a huge subterranean vault where the waste will be buried for thousands of years, while its radioactivity cools. The site would operate for 175 years before being sealed for eternity and will cost a staggering amount - figures of £20bn to £53bn have been already quoted.

Soon to be Mayor of Withernsea Coun Ian Blackburn with his wife Coun Jacqui Blackburn are pictured on the seafront at Withernsea. He is completely anti the nuclear waste dump being proposed for the area. Picture taken by Yorkshire Post Photographer Simon HulmeSoon to be Mayor of Withernsea Coun Ian Blackburn with his wife Coun Jacqui Blackburn are pictured on the seafront at Withernsea. He is completely anti the nuclear waste dump being proposed for the area. Picture taken by Yorkshire Post Photographer Simon Hulme
Soon to be Mayor of Withernsea Coun Ian Blackburn with his wife Coun Jacqui Blackburn are pictured on the seafront at Withernsea. He is completely anti the nuclear waste dump being proposed for the area. Picture taken by Yorkshire Post Photographer Simon Hulme
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No doubt some council officials and businesses will talk up the thousands of jobs it will produce, the £1m plus it will bring to the community a year and the prospect of reopening the Hull to Withernsea railway. But people who actually live there may beg to differ.

The path to a GDF is long and torturous - it took 40 years for Finland, which is about to open the world's first permanent underground storage site on an island, next to three nuclear power stations.

The UK's search began around a decade ago. Government agency Nuclear Waste Services has been in discussions with three areas, two on the Cumbrian coast, the other, an ex gas terminal at Theddlethorpe, on the Lincolnshire coast.

A fourth, Allerthorpe in Cumbria, was recently ruled out because it only had a "limited volume of suitable rock". Now South Holderness is in the frame. NWS says they approached East Riding Council (ERC) about a year ago. GDF siting lead Steve Reece said the conversation picked up again in the late spring to summer last year and was primarily with the council’s investment arm Invest East Yorkshire. IEY is now regarded as an “interested party” on a seven-member working group.

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For the proposal to go through there has to be a "test of support" demonstrating that a majority in the affected are is willing to host the waste, 75 per cent of which will come from Sellafield, which first manufactured plutonium for nuclear weapons, then generated electricity until 2003.

Sellafield handles nearly all the radioactive waste generated by the UK’s reactors and previously reprocessed spent fuel from nuclear power plants overseas, mainly in Europe and Japan. It has amassed a stockpile of almost 139 metric tons of separated plutonium.

High-level waste, a by-product of reprocessing, is “vitrified” and stored, pending final disposal in a GDF, or returned to its country of origin.

On a raw wintry morning on Withernsea seafront, walkers are out battling the elements.

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Eric Prynn, 76, said: "I'm against it - not that it will affect me at my time of life. We're a dumping ground aren't we?"

Potential sweeteners in the form of a railway, maybe even money for a pier, and up to £2.5m a year for the area, while welcome, don't seem to be enough to sway opinion. Bricklayer Kevin Bryant, 67, asks: "If it's so safe why not put it under the Houses of Parliament?"

A retired British Coal engineer is more supportive: "Everyone wants carbon free energy and you can't get that from wind and solar, not 100 per cent. If everybody wants an electric car, that will mean nuclear and that means waste. It has to go somewhere."

Withernsea Town Council was among the last to hear the news. Some weren't best pleased to discover a working group – including former local radio presenter Blair Jacobs as “independent facilitator” – had been set up without its input.

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Deputy Mayor Ian Blackburn believes NWS settled on the area because they are running into a brick wall in Lincolnshire. He wants a referendum as soon as possible.

And he's in no doubt what the result would be: "I've never known anyone to want to have a nuclear waste dump? Have you heard anybody say that's a good idea?" He cites rapid coastal erosion which has seen the town's dump recently moved inland and believes the proposal to open up the old Hull to Withernsea rail line is "virtually a non starter" as it’s been built over in places.

Mr Reece said: "Coastal erosion is a significant issue during the phase when we are constructing it and taking waste into the ground."We need to make sure that the surface facility is in the right place, it's not going to cause an adverse environmental effect, get flooded, or get eroded away.

"But in terms of the real long term what we are more interested in is the quality of the geology."In the period after we've sealed the facility we are so deep in the ground it doesn't matter whether we are under the seabed or under the land surface, it's the geology that's containing the waste."

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South Holderness shares the same Jurassic mudstone as Theddlethorpe, "fundamentally the same geology" as the French have chosen for their GDF.

The government says there is international consensus that the safest permanent solution for higher activity radioactive waste is geological disposal. Sweden, Germany, Switzerland and Canada are all going down the GDF route.

Climate Minister and local MP Graham Stuart has launched a petition for a referendum to ensure locals have the final say. It’s “an assurance before we go any further”. The vote itself may not happen for 10 years, as there will be “years and years of talking".

"The early years are education so people can learn potential pluses and minuses, at which point we get £1m a year for having that conversation. If after a few years the public appetite is to keep talking they would lift payments to £2.5m a year and they'd start to do geological work. Whether the geology is suitable it's too early to say,” he said.

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"I will be content if we can get this cast-iron guarantee that it will only go ahead after a referendum. If we get that I would support the forming of a community partnership and having £1m a year to support the Holderness area with no obligation."

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