Saturday, 20 July 2013

In 2006 I wrote about nuclear waste.  At that time we were awaiting the Labour Government's plans as to how the massive accumulations were to be dealt with.  When the plans were published in June 2008 they turned out to be a damp squib – the main thrust was to invite Local Authorities to volunteer to host waste burial sites, which they have as much chance of achieving as getting turkeys to vote for Christmas.  No wonder Mike Weir MP called the plans "surreal".  There was however method in the madness of the Labour Government in doing this as they had already planned to build a new generation of nuclear power plants, and the last thing they wanted to do was to alert the public about the horrendous problem of the country's nuclear waste.

Nuclear waste disposal has thus become the forgotten issue.  The Government's estimate for the costs of creating a facility to bury the waste (known as a "National Repository") have risen every year by some £12 billion, the last figure published in 2008 estimated this to be £85 billion (excluding the separate issue of decommissioning old reactors said to be further £72 billion).  A National Repository is of course the cheapest option.  It involves digging a massive hole in the ground, dropping the waste in, covering it, and then simply walking away – a procedure that is strongly condemned by anti-dumping organisations. With costs escalating year by year where such monies are to come from in the current financial climate is the unanswered question. 

We must constantly be aware that the Government and the nuclear industry will stoop to any level to justify their decision so be ready to repudiate false propaganda.  A good example of this occurred in 2007 when Labour's apostle of the nuclear industry, Brian Wilson, claimed on Radio Scotland (1) that the existing nuclear waste was a relic from the Cold War nuclear weapons programme, and (2) with modern technology future nuclear waste would be much less radioactive, and much lesser volumes would be created.  Both claims are totally false.  (1) At the peak of the Cold War, the maximum amount of waste from nuclear weapons totalled a mere 18%, and with all the decommissioning work etc that has gone on since it is now less than 1%.  (2) Regarding the new European Pressurised Reactor being built at Olkilwoto in Finland, Greenpeace has established that this waste will be 7 times more hazardous, with no overall difference in the quantities to be produced (see note 1). 

On a further interview on Radio Scotland on 1 August 08 Wilson claimed that more nuclear power was necessary in Scotland because "Scotland was an importer of expensive natural gas". Surely he must have known that Scotland produces 6 times more natural gas than it requires.  I took these issues up with the BBC on 1 August 08.  Protracted correspondence followed, but all I could draw out of them was this letter of 11 Feb 09 which reads (extracts)

"I note you continue to believe that Brian Wilson gave misleading information on Radio Scotland.  Your comments were passed to the News Editor, who has asked that I forward his response as follows:  "Thank you for getting in touch.  Nuclear Waste disposal is an inherently controversial topic and I appreciate your concern over how it is discussed on air.  I'll look into the research you highlight.  We'll continue to endeavour to cover the issue in a fair and balanced way. Thanks again and I hope you keep listening".

What is seldom discussed by the media is the vast quantities of nuclear waste which remain around 36 facilities in the UK.  Sellafield has already an over capacity and current waste is piling up around the plants that produce it.  The latest figures I have, published in 2008, show this to total 2,282,340 cubic meters weighing some 4.5 million tonnes. If such amounts are impossible to envisage may I recall events that happened back in 1986 when the amount of waste was less than half of what it is now. Firstly in 1982 the Government created NIREX, composed only of representatives of the nuclear industry which was given the task of recommending how the waste was to be disposed of. They produced what they termed a "discussion document" called "The Way Forward". 

Among the proposals was one that received prominence over the others, viz to create a "National Repository" at Dounreay on the far north coast of Scotland.  The document said that to take all the waste from Sellafield to Dounreay would require 100 lorries and 10 trains per week for the next 50 years!  The proposals horrified the public – just the thought of 100 lorries on Scottish roads 365 days a year, travelling up the busy A9 at the height of the tourist season and navigating the Berriedale Braes in Caithness in the depths of winter is mind boggling.  It was calculated, statistically, that this amount of traffic would involve an accident involving a nuclear waste cargo once a fortnight!  The plans were eventually dropped, not as we might expect from the logistics involved but because of the cost. 

The "Way Forward" document (para.3.2.4) says that the chosen site has to be secure through the next Ice Age due in 100,000 years time, which exemplifies the slow rate of decay of this most dangerous material. Whilst we think of Sellafield as the storehouse for most of the UK's nuclear waste, few are aware that the amount of radioactive waste within Dounreay exceeds the total at Sellafield – 148.900 cubic meters against 126,174 cubic meters at Sellafield. The main reason for this is that the second reactor built at Dounreay was a "Fast Breeder Reactor", plus of course the fact that foreign waste was imported into Dounreay for reprocessing, with not a scrap of the left over material (10 times the original volume) returned to the country of origin. Decommissioning is now going ahead at Dounreay under the watchful eye of SEPA.  Some years ago Dounreay was fined £2,000,000 for a serious spillage of radioactive material.  Much of the technology to deal with the waste at the inner core has yet to be invented. In 2013, movement of highly radioactive waste by train from Dounreay to Sellafield began with all the associated risks.

Whilst the problems associated with the disposal of nuclear waste would seem insoluble, there is a further issue that worries me – safety. Whilst most of our troops are fighting foreign wars, here at home, the question of the possibility of a terrorist attack on a nuclear facility looms large (there are some 36 targets to choose from).  Some years ago, an exercise was held at Dounreay when a group of "saboteurs" came ashore on a dingy and in 15 minutes had full control of the plant.  The nearest army depot is a hundred miles away and bombing the site would not seem to be a particularly good idea.  I understand that Dounreay has increased its security measures – not I hope because of the warning of a possible attack.  In December 2005, Channel 4 News looked at the 10 most dangerous occurrences that could afflict us in 2006.  High on the list was an explosion at a nuclear site. Should this be Sellafield, it was said, several hundred times the amount of radioactive caesium would be released into the atmosphere than happened at Chernobyl. This situation has not changed today.

Finally we must not overlook the fact that a serious accident can occur at a nuclear facility either by equipment failure or human error. We have all heard about Windscale (Cumbria 1957), Three Mile Island (USA March 1979), Chernobyl (Russia April 1986) and Fukushima in 2011.  Medical experts claim that Chernobyl will produce 200,000 fatal cancers by 2030.  However few know about what could have been the most serious accident of all which occurred in France at the La Hague reprocessing plant in January 1980, when the plant almost went critical. As France is largely dependent on nuclear power, the news was suppressed as far as possible.  The terrifying scenario is that had it gone critical, severe radio active contamination would have occurred south of The Wash.  And to think our Government was not even informed. All this information is in the public domain, yet the UK Government is going ahead and building a new generation of nuclear reactors.  In the words of the song "when will they ever learn". 

(Note 1)  See New nuclear reactor’s waste is seven times more hazardous, Greenpeace exposes

See page 137 Posivas's expansion etc.

See also:  More blogs by John Jappy