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Simmons & Simmons has teamed up with a scientific consultancy to win a two-year Department of the Environment research contract to work out ways to dispose of high-level radioactive waste.
Stephen Tromans, head of Simmons' environmental law department, who will work on the project with assistant James FitzGerald and nuclear energy consultancy QuantiSci, said Simmons' role would be to work out the legal framework for the disposal of the highly dangerous waste, which is currently stored under tight security in cooling ponds.
The task could prove tricky. Nuclear waste disposal company Nirex lost its bid to bury medium-level radioactive waste at Sellafield in March when the Environment Secretary John Gummer ruled that it had not done sufficient research.
The Irish government had complained that Nirex's proposal breached international law because it was unlawful to build a facility which could result in pollution of the sea.
The disposal of high-level waste will be even more controversial. Tromans said that he would have to look at European Community and international law to work out a legal way to build and operate a deep underground repository to store the high-level waste. "This kind of waste takes hundreds of years to cool down and millions of years before its radioactivity drops to levels that are not dangerous to life," he said.
According to Tromans, it was necessary for shafts to be dug in water-free areas where there was no risk of the material being carried away. He added that tunnels leading out under the sea bed would be one option.
Tromans said that he and the consultancy would report with proposals in around three months' time. These would then be discussed with the relevant authorities, such as the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency.