Andy Blowers, Chair of BANNG, reflects on his recent experience in giving evidence to a Select Committee at Westminster
It’s interesting to see how government works. The other day I was invited to give evidence to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. They were pondering the Draft National Policy Statement for Geological Disposal Infrastructure. Arcane, perhaps, but undoubtedly important and a riveting topic for anyone concerned with the future of our environment.
The event took place in Committee Room 8 on the main corridor in the Palace of Westminster. A rather fusty, somewhat gloomy Victorian room of heavy wallpaper, well-worn wooden furniture and poor acoustics. Witnesses were invited to speak in turn as the members (MPs), one by one, flicked and flickered through their prepared questions. I was totally ignored for most of the session and then subjected to a rather tired and uninformed question and answer session. Although I said what I wanted to say, I felt my words went into a void, rather like the geological void that was the topic of debate.
Recently the Government published its policy for the development of a deep geological repository in which to bury all the most dangerous nuclear wastes created by its military and civil nuclear programmes. That something needs to be done is not in doubt but a repository must be in suitable geology, safely engineered and must achieve public support – conditions unlikely to be forthcoming in the near future.
The problem of managing the wastes that already exist will be difficult enough. But, the idea that a repository can also be used to accommodate the unknowable quantity of dangerous wastes from a new build programme is surely preposterous. Yet this is what the Government proposes, stating its belief that ‘effective arrangements will exist to manage and dispose of the waste from new build power stations’. How can they possibly know?
There is no foreseeable solution to the problem of wastes from new nuclear power stations, other than leaving them in stores scattered around our coasts at vulnerable, low-lying sites like Bradwell for the indefinite future. If Bradwell B is ever built these wastes will be left, according to the Government’s own estimates, until at least the turn of the twenty-third century, that is seven generations from now. The future physical conditions on the site and the state of society so far away is simply undefinable. It is unethical and should be unthinkable to present such an intractable problem to our children, grandchildren and generations beyond.
So, BANNG’s simple message is: ‘if you don’t need it, don’t do it’. It is self-evident that we do not need nuclear energy for our future energy supply. Quite aside from the ludicrous expense, the dependence on foreign governments (in our case, on the Chinese with all the security risks that implies) and the evident dangers of accidents and terrorist incidents, we simply won’t have room for electricity from these colossal dinosaur power stations.
What most struck me in giving evidence was the low level of interest and knowledge and the Committee’s failure to explore or challenge the unfounded assertions supplied them by officials and the nuclear industry.
For example, the nuclear industry routinely asserts that the volume of nuclear waste produced by new reactors will be small, around 10% of existing wastes. Therefore, it is claimed, new build wastes will easily fit into the repository. However, it is not volume, rather it is radioactivity that is the critical element. It is anticipated that the spent fuel from new build will be much more radioactive than that of existing and former reactors, requiring much more space for cooling and managing in a repository. In fact, it is estimated that the amount of radioactivity from the new station at Hinkley Point will amount to 80% of the radioactivity in existing wastes. So, imagine the space that will be required to accommodate wastes from the equivalent of six new Hinkley Points which is the size of the new build programme now being sought by the Government.
A further problem is that new build wastes take a very long time to cool before they can be ready for disposal. On current evaluations it could require between 60 and 140 years before disposal. So, let’s assume that Bradwell B starts generating in 2030 and continues for 60 years until 2090. It will then be between 2150 and 2230 before all its wastes could be disposed of, assuming, of course, there is a repository available.
The simple truth is we have absolutely no idea how to estimate, let alone manage, the spent fuel and other dangerous wastes that will arise from a new nuclear power station at Bradwell. But we do know that the site is liable to flood and to be exposed to sea- level rise, coastal processes and storm surges as climate change proceeds.
Hard as I tried I don’t think I got the message over. Of all the many reasons why we should stop building new nuclear power stations, the most fundamental is the passing of risk, cost and effort down the generations. They won’t need the nuclear power but they will be left to clear up the mess – if they can.
So, if we are responsible and ethical, we should stop the development of Bradwel B now – before it is too late.
As I left the Palace I thought how easy it is for our legislators to take the easy way and how difficult to think through the long-term consequences their actions will inflict on the future.