Australian news, and some related international items

Nuclear waste disposal plans must not be used to legitimise new nuclear build

antnuke-relevantAbove all, deep disposal should not be upheld as the solution that legitimates new radioactive trashbuild. The existing nuclear legacy is already proving difficult to manage; the uncertainties of time-scale and inventory that new build would introduce would make the legacy unmanageable.

Why worry about nuclear waste? What has the future ever done for us? Ecologist, Andrew Blowers, 16th November 2016 

The long term problems of what to do with nuclear waste remain entirely unsolved, writes Andrew Blowers. Yet governments and the nuclear industry continue to peddle their untenable ‘bury and forget’ policy of deep geological disposal, which only unloads the toxic legacy of modern day nuclear power and weapons onto uncountable future generations.

In all the recent debate about the future of nuclear energy, one issue, perhaps the most important of all, has been largely ignored.

Yet the problem of dealing with waste and contamination that follows nuclear activity as night follows day afflicts not only those generations that get the dubious benefit of nuclear electricity, but also imposes burdens of effort, risk and cost on generations into the far and unforeseeable future.

That burden will be disproportionately borne by those communities already hosting nuclear facilities as they will be the most likely recipients of any new nuclear development.

There are two primary reasons for neglect of this issue. One is that, in today’s world, there is an emphasis on the short run, on security and jobs and investment for the present and foreseeable future of our children and grandchildren.

Beyond that the future, both environmentally and socially, becomes unimaginable and so a perverse and cavalier disregard of the interests of those bearing the nuclear legacy becomes permissable, even normal.

At worst the needs of the future are subordinated to those of the present (‘what has the future ever done for us?’) while, at best, there is implicitly an assumption that the future will take care of itself, with perhaps a little help…….

All will be well in the best of all possible worlds

Dr Pangloss

This idea that all will be well if only we can bury and forget is the second reason for neglecting the issue of waste in the debate over new build.

The UK Government glibly dismisses the problem of long term management with the casuist assertion that “effective arrangements will exist to manage and dispose of the waste that will be produced from new nuclear power stations.” (DECC, 2011, p.15).

This statement is preposterous, for there is neither a scientific safety case nor yet a suitable and acceptable site in England, Wales or Northern Ireland (Scotland is outwith the policy) to support the claim. The selection of West Cumbria (which includes the Sellafield complex) as a possible site for an underground laboratory was repulsed in 1997 and a generation later a voluntary process there flourished then faltered, leading government to review and regroup.

It may be argued that progress towards a permanent solution is being made elsewhere. In Finland and Sweden a disposal concept has been agreed and suitable and acceptable sites have been found and construction is imminent. But the volumes of wastes are small, the inventory straightforward, the political conditions favourable and the Baltic geology reasonably homogeneous.

Elsewhere, in France, the Bure site in the east of the country is the focus of an underground laboratory which may eventually become the national repository. And, in the USA, the WIPP facility at Carlsbad, New Mexico opened for disposal of transuranic wastes from the military sector in 1999. But problems of seepage in the salt formation have resulted in its suspension since 2014…….

Displacement therapy?

Nowhere yet is there a repository receiving the most dangerous and long-lived high-level wastes and spent fuel. Far from making progress, disposal programmes have invariably proved to be slow, tedious and unsuccessful.

Moreover environmental, social and economic conditions in the far future are simply indeterminable. Certainly, the present state of knowledge is no basis for creating more waste in addition to the legacy that will exist from past and present nuclear activity.

The contemporary emphasis on geological disposal as the long-term, final solution to the problem is a form of displacement therapy, diverting attention from the real solution for the foreseeable (next two generations) future. The problem and the priority is the safe and secure management of the existing nuclear legacy here and now. This legacy exists and continues to grow.

It is, of course a physical and environmental issue consisting of buildings, ponds, storage areas, contaminated land and water, discharges and emissions. But it is a social issue too, since the legacy exists in the communities that live adjacent to some of the most contaminated and dangerous areas in the world.

Four of the most important of these nuclear communities are explored in my latest book, The Legacy of Nuclear Power (Blowers, 2017).

Places on the periphery

Hanford, USA……

Sellafield, UK……

La Hague and Bure, France……

Gorleben, Germany……

Elsewhere there are sites such as the Mayak plutonium facilities at Ozersk in Russia, for long a closed city, scene of a major accident in 1957 (Medvedev,1979) and left with a legacy of high levels of environmental pollution in rivers and lakes from its military reprocessing and waste facilities (Brown, 2013).

And there are many other sites, across the world, where the nuclear legacy imposes risk, blight and environmental degradation on local communities.

Don’t just do something – stand there

The nuclear legacy exists and will persist in places that may be described as ‘peripheral’ (Blowers and Leroy, 1994), places where hazardous activities are located and which are, as it were, physically and socially set apart from the mainstream.

They tend to be by definition places of environmental risk but also geographically remote. To a greater or lesser extent they are economically marginal, monocultural and dependent and, consequently politically powerless. And many of these communities, notably the major nuclear complexes, exhibit distinctive social characteristics of resignation combined with realism and resilience.

Recognition that the basic challenge is simply to maintain and improve the long-term management of the legacy in its existing locations would shift the policy emphasis in five important ways:

  1. It would emphasise that legacy management is a long-term, inter-generational process.
  2. This, in turn, would recognise storage, for what in reality it is: a long-term, not an interim solution.
  3. It would give greater encouragement to exploring alternative long-term solutions, shifting the emphasis from the current obsession with deep geological disposal.
  4. It would give practical purpose to the idea of the ‘continuing present’ as the context for decision making passing down the generations.
  5. It would focus attention on the longer term and the implications of climate and societal change and their implications and potential impacts on communities.

Given the time-scales for long-term management there is no need to hurry towards a disposal solution. Deep disposal, of course, remains an option but not necessarily the only one. Proving a concept and finding a site takes time and should not be hurried.

Above all, deep disposal should not be upheld as the solution that legitimates new build. The existing nuclear legacy is already proving difficult to manage; the uncertainties of time-scale and inventory that new build would introduce would make the legacy unmanageable.

Society can, and should, take its time in dealing with its nuclear legacy. For whatever the future fortunes of the nuclear industry, its legacy and the communities that manage it, will be with us for thousands of generations to come.


November 18, 2016 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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