CONTROVERSIAL plans to search for an underground site to store nuclear waste in Cumbria were rejected today.

Cumbria County Council's cabinet decided that West Cumbria should no longer be considered as a potential location for a deep £12bn geological repository.

Members voted to exclude the two districts of Copeland and Allerdale from further consideration in the Government’s Managing Radioactive Waste Safely (MRWS) process.

Earlier, Copeland Borough Council's executive voted 'yes' to going forward to the next stage of the process.

At a meeting in Carlisle today, the 10 members of the county council’s cabinet also agreed that the council would encourage the Government to make the necessary investment to improve the existing surface storage facilities at Sellafield, while the Government finds a permanent solution for the country’s higher activity radioactive waste.

The decision effectively ends Cumbria County Council’s four-year formal involvement in the MRWS process and puts an end to the doubts and concerns of many local people.

Fears have escalated around the crucial decision from the three local authorities of Cumbria County Council, Allerdale Borough Council and Copeland Borough Council on whether to progress to the next stage of allowing the Government to conduct desktop geological surveys.

There were also worries that any underground facility could encroach into the Lake District National Park.

As a decision to continue with the process needed the agreement of both the district and county councils, Cumbria County Council’s decision has removed both districts from consideration.

The nuclear industry is, and will continue to be, a key part of the Cumbrian economy, a county council spokesman said.

"West Cumbria is a world-renowned centre for nuclear skills and expertise and the ‘home’ of the UK’s nuclear industry," a statement read.

"Most of the UK’s high-level radioactive waste is stored at Sellafield, and therefore what happens to that waste in the future is, and will continue to be, of vital interest to Cumbria.

"The findings of a National Audit Office report in November 2012 which looked at the way that the Nuclear Decommissing Authority and Sellafield Ltd were managing risk reduction at Sellafield clearly demonstrated the need for immediate improvements in the management of major projects at the site.

"The report criticised the site for posing a significant risk to people and the environment because of the deteriorating conditions of radioactive waste storage facilities.

"Cumbria County Council said when the report was published that it would need to be closely involved in the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority’s improvement plan to improve the security and safety of interim storage and the management of the major investment that will continue to be needed into the site.

"Cabinet members made it clear at the meeting that this had been a highly contentious issue, which had polarised opinions and that they had listened to and considered all of the evidence and opinions put forward.

"This included the report produced by the West Cumbria MRWS Partnership, which as well including the local authorities, included representation from industry, parish councils, the Lake District National Park, the tourist sector, unions and other community groups.

"Councillors acknowledged the work that had been done by the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) since October 2012, when all three Cumbrian authorities asked for further information and clarification on a number of key principles before a decision could be taken.

"Despite reassurances from DECC that primary legislation would underpin the right of withdrawal, councils were still being asked to proceed to the next stage without legislation formalising the right of withdrawal."

Coun Eddie Martin, leader of Cumbria County Council, said: “Cabinet believes there is sufficient doubt around the suitability of West Cumbria’s geology to put an end now to the uncertainty and worry this is causing for our communities.

“Cumbria is not the best place geologically in the UK – the Government’s efforts need to be focused on disposing of the waste underground in the safest place, not the easiest.

“Members have remained concerned throughout on the issue of the legal right of withdrawal if we proceed to the next stage.

“Despite assurances from Government that they intend to introduce this as primary legislation, we do believe that this could have been done far sooner to ease our concerns.

“The fact remains the right of withdrawal is not yet enshrined in statute and we could not take the risk of saying yes today without this being absolutely nailed down.

“Cumbria has a unique and world-renowned landscape which needs to be cherished and protected.

“While Sellafield and the Lake District have co-existed side by side successfully for decades, we fear that if the area becomes known in the national conscience as the place where nuclear waste is stored underground, the Lake District’s reputation may not be so resilient."

Coun Stewart Young, deputy leader of Cumbria County Council, said: "The case for investment in Sellafield is now more pressing than ever.

“We had always raised concerns over the lack of any 'plan B' from Government and the fact that West Cumbria was the only area to express an interest in the process left the Government with few options if we decided not to proceed.

“It is now time for the Government to secure the long-term future of the nuclear industry and put in place robust storage arrangements at Sellafield while it decides how to continue the search for a repository elsewhere in the UK."

Bill Jefferson, chairman of the Lake District National Park Authority, who observed the crunch meeting, said: “It’s a good day for democracy. They have listened to the people.

“The rural communities of this county and the national park came out strongly against this.

“I’m full of admiration for the work that’s been put in by the county council, particularly the cabinet, Eddie Martin and Coun Stewart Young.”

Dr Ruth Balogh, nuclear issues campaigner for West Cumbria and North Lakes Friends of the Earth, said: “I’m delighted that our local representatives have truly represented the concerns of Cumbria.

“This was always a national issue - it was not fair to put the burden to Cumbria to decide.”

Coun Tim Knowles, cabinet member for transport and the environment, refused to comment on the outcome.

He had earlier proposed an alternative plan to narrow the search for a suitable site to the Copeland, close to the Sellafield site, excluding the national park, but this was rejected.

Coun Knowles said it would 'perverse' to stop the process while the council did not have answers to ‘all the questions’.

Council leader Eddie Martin said: “I have no doubt at all that this decision will precipitate some reactions in the corridors of Whitehall."

The ‘no’ vote was met with ‘immense disappointment’ by the workforce at Sellafield.

A statement read: “Britain has been searching for a national waste repository for over 30 years.

“The Sellafield workforce has the responsibility of looking after 70 per cent of that waste.

“There are around 12,000 jobs at Sellafield, with thousands more in the local supply chain.

“The industry is hugely important to the local economy and provides highly skilled, well paid employment."

Kevin Coyne, Unite national officer and chair of Trade Unions for Safe Nuclear Energy, said: “This is an extremely short-sighted decision by the Cumbria councils that voted no.

“The workforce at Sellafield will be immensely disappointed with the decision. 70 per cent of Britain's radioactive waste is based in Cumbria and the Sellafield workforce are responsible for it.

“The people of Cumbria were not going to be making any commitments to a waste repository by agreeing to continue with this study.

“This waste is not  going to disappear but because of today's decision there are no answers for how we can effectively deal with it.”

Jack Ellerby, policy officer with Friends of the Lake District, which urged councillors to pull out of the search, added: “We, like a lot of organisations, had looked at the geological evidence of the area and several of the experts were saying it was unsuitable.

“It will be reassuring for tourism businesses. West Cumbria has a strong nuclear industry with a lot of expertise there. Now we can move forward to manage the waste safely.”

Copeland MP Jamie Reed said despite the no vote from the county council, the borough remained in a strong position within the nuclear industry.

Mr Reed is set to press the Government to work with Copeland Borough Council to develop a process for storing nuclear waste. 

But Westmorland and Lonsdale MP Tim Farron said this was 'worrying' as the district contained large parts of the Lake District National Park.

Mr Reed said: “I welcome the clarity provided by today’s decisions.

“Copeland is now in an exceptionally strong position to take forward the important work of radioactive waste management for the UK.

“There is an unprecedented cross-party mandate for this, an undeniable environmental and moral case and an overwhelming economic case for taking this issue forward.

“Most importantly, doing so is in the best interests of the people of Copeland and West Cumbria.

“This work will be taken forward quickly.

“This may not be within the MRWS process, but Copeland now has a series of options open to it and I have already begun the process of exploring these for the benefit of my constituents with industry and with Government.

“As one door shuts, another one opens, but this is a problem that will not go away.

“The people of West Cumbria, Copeland Borough Council and the Sellafield workforce and trade unions will work together to solve this problem.

“I’d like to thank those county councillors who voted for moving towards Stage 4 – they clearly understand the economic and environmental challenge facing Cumbria - and it should be noted that county councillors representing Copeland voted unanimously to move towards the next stage.

“Given the established policy of Cumbria County Council to seek an underground disposal facility, today’s decision is curious, but in no way surprising.

“There’s a great deal of work to be done to take this issue forward and this has already begun.

“My constituents will welcome the opportunity to have greater control of their own destiny than before, and I look forward to the work ahead.”

Mr Farron responded: “The county council’s decision today has put the whole question of whether nuclear waste can be stored in West Cumbria in doubt.

“The Government should now be looking at other more geological suitable sites throughout the rest of the UK.

“At the very minimum, Copeland and the Government must rule out the Lake District National Park as an area for this facility.”

Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey said he was 'disappointed' with today's decision.

“We respect the decision made today by Cumbria councillors," said Mr Davey.

“They have invested a great deal of time in this project and have provided valuable lessons on how to take forward this process in future.

“While their decision to withdraw is disappointing, Cumbria will continue to play a central role in the energy and nuclear power sectors.

“We are clear that nuclear power should play a key role in our future energy mix, as it does today.

“I am confident that the programme to manage radioactive waste safely will ultimately be successful, and that the decisions made in Cumbria today will not undermine prospects for new nuclear power stations.

“It is, however, absolutely vital that we get to grips with our national nuclear legacy.

“The issue has been kicked into the long-grass for far too long.

“We remain firmly committed to geological disposal as the right policy for the long-term, safe and secure management of radioactive waste.

“We also remain committed to the principles of voluntarism and a community-led approach.

“The fact that Copeland voted in favour of entering the search for a potential site for a GDF demonstrates that communities recognise the benefits associated with hosting such a facility.

“For any host community there will be a substantial community benefits package, worth hundreds of millions of pounds.

“That is in addition to the hundreds of jobs and major investment that such a huge infrastructure project could bring.

“We will now embark on a renewed drive to ensure that the case for hosting a GDF is drawn to the attention of other communities.”