Opinion: Radioactive waste consultation – a loss of public trust

Sellafield - some rights reserved by dog on wheelsOn Wednesday 30th January Cumbria County Council voted not to proceed with a consultation to explore Cumbria being the host of a high level radioactive waste repository. This left Ed Davey with a problem.

The problem is very substantial and urgent as there are facilities at Sellafield full of decaying and highly toxic waste including B30 and B38, which are considered to be the most hazardous buildings in Western Europe. These structures are in a deteriorating condition and are in very urgent need of decommissioning. In addition the UK also has its ordinary spent fuel.

As a worried West Cumbrian, I would like to offer the following insights to Ed Davey and others who now need to find a way forward from this point.

I believe the consultation process in Cumbria has fallen down because the public have lost confidence and trust in it. This has happened for three reasons:

1. They are being asked to accept a waste repository which will be required to contain highly radioactive waste for 130,000 years.

2. In the past information of what was actually happening at Sellafield has been poor and often misleading. Promises made were not kept.

3. When they now ask about the possible alternatives to the repository, their questions are not being properly answered.

Mr Davey can act rapidly and effectively to address the third point, which is exacerbating concerns about the first two points in the following ways:

Firstly, in 2006 the decision was made to consult on terminal deep waste storage and to consult on that only. Since then, global technology has moved on rapidly, with several major countries having decided to invest in developing thorium reactors which will burn spent fuel to remove long-lived radioactive components. While Liberal Democrats have explored and developed policy in this area, it would appear that our national experts have not, because they seem unable to answer questions about whether we could process our waste products, rather than storing them for 130,000 years. We should commission a rapid, thorough and transparent review of the possibilities, in the light of emerging technologies. This knowledge will then need to be kept up to date so that reasonable questions can be fully and correctly answered in the future.

Secondly, residents who are concerned about the repository are chatting extensively on Facebook. The consultation processes which were set up to be transparent in 2006 were not based on an understanding of what would happen with social media. In the future experts can and should engage with the public in real-time through discussion forums and social media, rather than leaving them to engage only with each other.

* Rebecca Hanson is a Liberal Democrat campaigner in West Cumbria.

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50 Comments

  • Richard Dean 18th Feb '13 - 1:23pm

    Scientists have been working on the problem of long-term storage for a long time. All sorts of ideas have been explored, lots of research money has been spent, many government scientific reports have been written, and lots of things have been published in the open literature.

    I was briefly involved in a small way 30 years ago. If my now fading memory still serves, an underground storage, on land, and in an area where the geology has characteristics including stability, is possibly the only solution that can score relatively highly on safety and security.

  • Sellafield and its predecessors has long time been a problematic environmental hazard that was not limited to Cumbria. The coast line of North West England, North Wales The Isle of Man and East Coast of Ireland (both Ulster and The Republic) as been contaminated. The history of the past fifty years has shown that radioactivity at Sellafield (a.k.a Calder Hall or Seascale) has a perverse talent for finding ways to leak. I think I speak for everyone living with 100 miles of the Cumbrian coast when I say that it is not just Cumbrians who view this development with grave suspicion.

  • David Allen 18th Feb '13 - 2:27pm

    The question is, why did Government choose Cumbria as the best place to put the repository? The answer seems to be, because that is where there are a lot of people whose livelihoods depend on nuclear technology, so, those are the patsies who should be the most easy to persuade to accept a nuclear dump in their back yards.

    What a dreadful way to tackle nuclear safety!

    The Swedes have spent a lot of time and money designing copper canisters to make a repository as safe as possible. I’m not aware we have done anything like that. Most other nuclear nations, I believe, have started out by searching for the places with the best stable geology, and chosen those as repository sites. Two-nil to the foreigners. Finally, there is the French principle, which says that when you have a load of nasties to dump on somebody, you offer financial compensation to the locality which is prepared to take them, and you then find that instead of angry protests, all you have to do is to administer the competition between different localities all eager to take the offer. Three-nil to the foreigners!

  • Richard Dean 18th Feb '13 - 3:48pm

    But thorium is not a way of processing nuclear waste, is it? Isn’t it simply a fuel that is expected to produce less radioactive waste than the present reactors? Thorium reactors are still in research, too, rather than producing?
    http://singularityhub.com/2012/12/11/norway-begins-four-year-test-of-thorium-nuclear-reactor/

    Uranium was once a miracle solution. Its supporters in the beginning tended to emphasise its benefits and de-emphasise its problems. Might the supporters of Thorium be doing the same?

  • coldcomfort 18th Feb '13 - 4:07pm

    The welding technique for sealing the copper canisters in Sweden was developed by TWI [The Welding Institute] near Cambridge UK. The Swedes own the IP as far as I know but I’m sure they would happily licence it elsewhere. We are talking high level waste here as I recall. In terms of tonnage it doesn’t amount to a great deal. Sweden is storing it in caves. An alternative was to put id down redundant oil well pipes. These wells might be re-visited as the technology for extracting oil from depleted fields develops but it is most unlikely that old workings would be re-used so it’s a reasonable solution. The problem is that nowadays the UK seems dedicated to find reasons why we should NOT be technically adventurous. A total U turn compared to the Victorians. The real stumbling block is the ongoing delusions of grandeur about nuclear weapons which has caused Philip Hammond to propose some £35bn for a Trident replacement – one of the most comprehensively useless weapons for the 21st Century UK military that one could possibly imagine. Mind you it does let the Conservative Right Wing puff out its pathetic little chest. Also we have a huge investment in Uranium which would have to be wound down. Aldermaston makes the Trident warhead as if we didn’t already have more than enough warheads without needing new ones. It has also been manifestly obvious for a couple of decades at least that the Treasury would not recognise a sensible business and investment opportunity if it hit them over the head. We not only have a political battle to fight but a ‘competence’ one within the civil service and the corporations it chooses to contract to implement policy.

  • jenny barnes 18th Feb '13 - 4:12pm

    One way of getting rid of some nuclear waste would be fast-breeder reactors. I don’t see how thorium reactors help much. The trouble with breeders is that they generate Pu 239 from the unburnt U238 in the old fuel rods, and Pu239 is very useful for bomb making.
    The comment about keeping waste for 130, 000 years seems a bit strange. High level waste, being highly radioactive has a short half life – days or less, while anything with a long half life, like 1,000 years or more, cannot be very radioactive because otherwise it would have a short half life.
    It might be more productive to worry about the radiation exposure from granite worktops than from something with a 130,000 year half life in a repository.

  • Richard Dean 18th Feb '13 - 4:45pm

    Thorium doesn’t seem to be a solution to the disposal of existing waste, but rather a possible solution to the problem of reducing the production of new waste.

    Back in the 1980′s people were investigating ways to store stuff for 100,000 years. One option was to fire torpedoes containing the radioactive material into the deep seabed. It was rejected on a variety of grounds, but had to be looked into because everything had to be looked into.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_nuclear_waste_treatment_technologies,
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deep_geological_repository
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ocean_floor_disposal

  • Richard Dean 18th Feb '13 - 5:16pm

    Rebecca – the link you provided doesn’t seem to work. Also, thorium is one of the actinides, so are you saying that it has the same problems as uranium, which is another actinide? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Actinide

  • Peter Watson 18th Feb '13 - 5:23pm

    @Rebecca Hanson “If only there were as many physicists, engineers, nuclear scientists and geologists in society as a whole!”
    According to Ian Duncan Smith, “when they can’t find the food they want on the shelves, who is more important – them, the geologist, or the person who stacked the shelves?”. So perhaps the priority of the tory part of this government is to produce shelf-stackers rather than scientists (who are, after all, ultimately responsible for there being anything to stack or any shelves on which to stack it).

  • Richard Dean 18th Feb '13 - 5:49pm

    It isn’t clear to me that the IAEA publication is recommending thorium as a solution to the existing waste problem. Maybe I missed it, but I don’t think it is. The report concludes (bottom of p.63): “At the present time, we cannot predict future nuclear energy deployment scenarios with any reasonable certainty. Therefore, we cannot decide on an optimum approach to manage minor actinides.”

    So, is Cumbria Country Council recommending that we put the problem of existing waste on hold, and wait and see how actinide research develops? But then, there’ll be new developments, and after that, more new developments, and in the meantime the problem grows. Don’t we need to say “Now is the time” sometime? And isn’t that time now? Or are they simply waiting for the French to arrive?
    http://www.libdemvoice.org/opinion-59-33259.html#comment-240387

  • David Allen 18th Feb '13 - 6:32pm

    Consultation is a procedure devised by governments to substitute for actually listening to anybody.

  • Richard Dean 18th Feb '13 - 6:34pm

    There’s obviously a need for more information to be provided, t avoid social media going off at a completely inappropriate tangent and doing more harm than good. There must and should be ways of bringing social media into the frame, but I see two significant issues. One would be that consultation is about setting out positions and considered views, not transient chat. Another is in terms of the volume of positions and views that can be heard.

  • Richard Dean 19th Feb '13 - 12:01am

    It’s not some bright spark coming up with a crazy idea. A lot of ideas have been looked at very carefully, over many years, and many countries have come to the conclusion that underground storage is the best option. For one thing it’s far less susceptible to the corrosive effects of weather, which flattens most things over the timescale involved.

    Probably an underground site will be monitored for many years, both to detect any technical problems before they get serious, and for security against terrorist or criminal attempts to compromise the facilities. Costs are huge. Imagine paying just one guard an average wage for 130,000 years – it comes to about £40 billion net present value. We’d likely save an awful lot on wages by putting it underground, where it’s more secure against weather, a lot easier to guard, and a lot easier to contain in the highly unlikely event of something going wrong.

    According to Wikipedia there is quite a lot of industry up there in Cumbria, but I wonder if perceived problems with attracting industry might be more to do with its geographical isolation than with Sellafield? It’s a lovely p;ae for tourism too. Maybe improved transport links are something to press for?

  • Ged McNamara 19th Feb '13 - 1:05am

    Richard Dean, our county has already undergone numerous geological surveys that prove beyond doubt this area is not suitable for even the current types of underground storage now being employed, this present proposal however has never been tried, let alone tested.

    The present underground storage repositories are all suffering the same problems, ground water leaks in, this then has to be delt with ie; pumped out and also has to be treat as radioactive waste as it is now contaminated.

    If this were to find its way into our drinking water Cumbria, and those we supply with drinking water would be layed waste ie; Liverpool and Manchester, now just to take you off on a tangent, how many droughts do we suffer? Will we end up in a position where Briton has to import fresh(?) drinking water for the population?

    Selafield has an awfull safety record as all us Cumbrians can testify to, our water would be at an unreasonable risk from this experimental endevour, we as Cumbrian’s have had our voices heard and the proccess hear should now be layed to rest, any move towards this kind of endevour should be fact based not finacial as is currently the case, it is not Cumbria’s problem but rather the whole country’s.

  • Rebecca – this raises so many important issues.

    The cost – the estimated (and till growing) pricetag of £67.5bn is over twice that of HS2 even with extensions to Manchester and Leeds – and all just to clear up the mess left by poor decisions in the past. We need to get this right or we will all be poorer as a result.

    Buildings B30 & B38 – their poor state is scandalous and needs to be fixed PDQ irrespective of longer term plans. Who is ultimately accountable or is any disaster going to be just another “systemic failure” with no-one to blame?

    Geological repository – as a student many years ago one of my lecturers was someone who later went on to become one of the world’s foremost experts on geological disposal. I recall he said that anywhere near mountains was not a good location because hydrostatic pressure could conceivably cause groundwater to circulate through the repository (even if it was below sea level) and emerge in springs. He suggested a good location on purely technical grounds would therefore be Huntingdon where, apparently, the ancient rocks of the Baltic Shield are relatively close to the surface and any groundwater would be stuck in situ. It is disturbing that the linked consultation video glosses over this aspect and just says, in effect, “no problem”.

    But maybe the heat generated by the radioactive decay of the waste is itself a problem even in the longer term. (it’s certainly one reason why final disposal cannot be done in the first few decades after the waste is produced). The linked IAEA document gives 100W/tonne even after 900 years. Multiply that by a few thousand tonnes and that’s megawatts which, given that rocks are poor conductors of heat, has to go somewhere. Is this enough to create a hot (thermally and radioactively) spring or is the proposal to actively manage the waste and maintain cooling for >1,000 years?

    Thorium is certainly something we should be investigating, partly as a better power generation technology and partly as a way of burning up existing waste stockpiles. Given the costs, it should be a no-brainer for the government to commit whatever it takes to first evaluate all the possibilities properly and then, in all probability, build thorium reactors to secure our future energy needs.

  • Richard Dean 19th Feb '13 - 1:45pm

    This is certainly an issue for the whole country, not for Cumbria alone to solve, if only because any kind of disaster in Cumbria will affect the whole country just as Chernobyl affected the whole of Europe.

    Groundwater is always considered in the risk assessment of any storage proposals. The IAEA booklets that Rebecca links to are very helpful. Are there any links available to professional geological survey assessments for Cumbria and/or Huntingdon?

    I wonder if Liberal Eye’s memory of lectures might be faulty? According to Wikipedia, the Baltic Shield is in Scandinavia and North-West Russia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baltic_shield

  • Liberal Eye 19th Feb '13 - 2:55pm

    Richard Dean – My memory of long-ago lectures may indeed be faulty but Wikipedia describes only the exposed parts of the Baltic Shield which are indeed around the Baltic Sea. It extends much further under a thin (in geological terms) veneer of much younger rocks. As I recall the point was that younger cover rocks in parts of eastern England are thin enough that it would be possible to sink a shaft deep enough to reach them.

    However, I am not holding my breath!

  • Richard Dean 19th Feb '13 - 11:31pm

    These geological questions of cracking and pressure and tectonic movements were certainly being asked at the time I was peripherally involved in the research, 30 years ago. Fukushima may have prompted some revision of the then estimates, I don’t know, but given that people were thinking in terms of 100,000 years as opposed to just a few decades in the design of Fukushima, I should think that a Fukushima-type event might well have been considered in the case of long-term storage – and possibly worse events still. It’s always good to ask these questions, and a public enquiry is one of the best places to ask them!

  • Richard Dean 20th Feb '13 - 12:35pm

    Unfortunately, Rebecca, doing nothing is probably the most dangerous option of all!

  • Liberal Eye 20th Feb '13 - 3:07pm

    I would not worry about tectonc plate boundaries – we are in a completely different geological setting from Japan with stable rocks which is why earthquakes in Britain are typically very small.

    The point about a hydrostatic head is that it might – in the wrong circumstances – cause water to circulate through the depository (obviously this would only happen if it had been abandoned and sealed) potentially leaching out radioactive elements as it went. I think it’s a rather remote possibility even if the rock is fractured but remote possibilities are what any disposal plan has to allow for. However, given the way govt works, I don’t believe any studies would ‘see’ any problems – they would be paid to ENABLE the plan, not to find difficulties.

    What should certainly be allowed for is the possibility of the ice caps melting in part. Estimates suggest that Greenland melting would raise sea level by around 7 meters so any repository entrance would have to be well above this level and for full prudence should be over 90 meters to allow for Antarctica melting as well. This is very unlikely but not impossible. Incidentally, for the same reason why are we planning a whole new generation of reactors on the coast?

    For me the big problem is successive governments’ complete inability to manage any complex process illustrated yet again by the dreadful File on 4 linked by Rebecca. As long as things remain like that there is NO solution to the problem of waste (or of the underperforming economy or any of the other big problems we face) yet I’m hearing remarkably little political debate about this. Do we really think that this is how it must be?

  • Richard Dean 20th Feb '13 - 3:59pm

    In fact, people are paid to find the difficulties, and others are paid to see if solutions can be found. I was peripherally involved in one of the latter groups, but it was clear from the documentation that all sorts of possible problems were being considered, including pore pressure changes and tidal waves and sea-level change and many other things. What some of us are doing here is essentially starting at the beginning in the process of finding difficulties – government thinking and research has already gone well beyond these beginnings.

    I am sure there is plenty of documentation from the IAEA and the UK HSE and others, but as Rebecca says, it’s a question of communicating information in accessible formats – this has perhaps not been done adequately, particularly as social media is a new format that creates new possibilities, of valuable new ideas being created, but also of unfounded and counter-productive rumours being circulated.

  • Richard Dean 20th Feb '13 - 8:32pm

    @Rebecca. What rumours?

  • Richard Dean 20th Feb '13 - 10:24pm

    Rebecca, that’s not a rumour, it’s a question to be answered.
    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/minister-admits-total-failure-of-sellafield-mox-plant-793489.html

    “Failed” here looks like it means that the plant did not produce the amounts of MOX nuclear fuel that had been expected, not that it collapsed or posed a danger.

    That said, it would certainly be interesting to have more information, and indeed reassurance about the safety issues.

  • I too used to work in the nuclear business, which is why I am anonymous for this post.

    A great variety of people work in the nuclear business. Many are old-fashioned gentleman scientists, who patiently and academically analyse risks impartially, and who may overcomplicate problems and miss the wood for the trees, but who have a passionate and justified belief in their own integrity. At the other extreme, there was the guy who told everybody “My job is to lie for (his employer at the time).”

    When things go well, the nice boffins are to the fore. When they don’t, the professional liars take over.

    I was in nuclear generation, but I’m seeing just the same things in the posts about waste security.

    (Incidentally, it’s nothing to do with public versus private. Of course the profit motive could promote dishonesty. But my time was when the industry was nationalised, and, things were bad then. Monopoly power can be just as corrupting. At least in a privatised situation, there will be competitors around, who could attack any company which put itself at risk of the charge of inadequate attention to safety issues. Also, the NII is better at its job than it used to be.)

    But that’s the worst aspect of nuclear – the lies, the cheating, the failure to handle responsibly a technology that can only be viable if handled responsibly.

    The UK industry united to declare that Chernobyl couldn’t possibly happen here, because the technology was totally different. In truth, Chernobyl happened because of human error – and, human error by a team of top scientists, whose overweening self-confidence led them to believe that they knew how to disable all the safety systems so as to do experiments! Is human error a purely Belarussian deficiency, might one ask?

    Nowadays, I work on coal-fired plant. We also make mistakes. Occasionally, the mistakes do kill people, one or two at a time. I can sleep at night, nowadays.

  • Richard Dean 21st Feb '13 - 9:15am

    Nonsense, Rebeccca. Social media are not needed for standing up and speaking out, there have been a few who have done that over the years well before social media came along. There were a lot of awkward questions in the early days and a lot of care was taken by BNFL and their predecessors to keep everyone informed. I bet you can still go on trips around the plant and look inside through the leaded glass windows and ask awkward questions and get truthful answers. There was even a very impressive drama on TV about a fictional monstrous cover up with a great music score by Eric Clapton. But the truth really is that the people involved in this work do take their responsibilities very seriously indeed. They have families and lives too. So seriously in fact that they would likely fire a person like Anony, whose generalizations are really rather childish. Which is perhaps why he/she is now in coal..

  • Underground repositories ie dumps are designed to leak because of heat and gas generated. People who campaigned against going forward to stage 4 were mainly concerned about the leakage enviromental problems that would be created and left for future generations to sort out never mind all the disruption in the Lake District for yrs and associated knock on effects for various works and businesses.
    After speaking with people who have family who work/worked at Sellafield im not reassured one iota about the safety standards there and the cancer rates in the surronding area. Check out the Asse nuke waste dump in Germany – cant post link at the mo cos on iphone. The Lib Dems were once anti nuclear – have seen videos of both Chris Huhne when energy minister saying more NPS are financially unviable and also Ed Davey the same but now in coalition they have changed their tune and now pro more nuke power stations.
    And, if anyone wants an underground dump as Eddie Martin said at the ‘Call In’ 2 wks ago one of the most suitable areas is nr where David Cameron lives in Oxfordshire (clay)

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