Bradwell ‘worst location on East Coast for radioactive discharges’.
On 23 June people were queuing to get into the MICA Centre to participate in the public meeting called by the Blackwater Against New Nuclear Group (BANNG) to listen to independent marine radioactivity consultant, Tim Deere-Jones, speaking on ‘Radioactive discharges into the Blackwater – Who knows what’s going on?’. Around 200 people from Mersea and surrounding villages and towns filled the hall, an unprecedented turn out on a midsummer night with competing attractions, to listen and join a lively, serious and constructive debate about the future of their river.
Tim argued that nobody really does know what is going on as there is wholly inadequate data and monitoring of the discharges. He added that a shallow and turbid estuary such as the Blackwater was the very worst type of location on the East Coast to choose for radioactive discharges.
Chair of the meeting, Professor Andy Blowers, explained that BANNG had called the meeting because of the public concern raised about the discharging of radioactivity into the estuary from the dissolution of fuel element debris (FED). BANNG had asked the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) to hold an open public meeting and also to undertake an independent assessment of the nature and risks arising from the discharges. The NDA argued that there had already been considerable public consultation and that independent assessment was unnecessary since the Environment Agency (EA) was the independent regulator and it was ‘entirely content that the proposed discharges pose negligible threat to people or the environment’. Given this unhelpful attitude BANNG had decided to go ahead with its own public meeting.
The NDA, the EA and Magnox had all been invited to the meeting. Lord Smith, Chair of the EA, had sent his apologies but two members of the EA’s Communications Team were present to take notes back to the Agency. At the beginning of the meeting a statement from the Managing Director of Magnox, Neil Baldwin, was read out setting out the programme of FED dissolution and treatment. Andy Blowers informed the meeting that the discharging into the Blackwater had begun at that morning’s high tide.
No engagement, misleading information
The NDA and its local operator Magnox claim that they have undertaken extensive consultation. Although meetings had been held with the Bradwell Local Communities Liaison Committee (LCLC), the amount of knowledge and information revealed to the wider public about the discharges had been minimal. For instance, in December 2012 the LCLC had been told that ‘radioactivity and impurities would be precipitated and captured via an ion-exchange column and an activated carbon filter leaving an aqueous discharge of a clean salt solution’.
It was not until May, 2013, when the NDA issued its Preferred Option Paper on FED disposal for stakeholder consultation, that BANNG became aware that it was, in fact, proposed that 15% of the radioactivity arising from the FED dissolution would be discharged into the estuary and atmosphere. By this time, in any case, the Bradwell dissolution process was not an option for further discussion.
Claims from the NDA and the Environment Agency that the process posed no risk cannot be substantiated since, as Tim Deere-Jones pointed out, monitoring is wholly inadequate, with few monitoring sample sites, no attempt to monitor for different sediments ranging from coarse to fine, infrequent sampling, very few samples taken and little work done on sea-to-land impacts. Overall, he said, there is very little knowledge of or research into the incidence and spread of radioactivity or its potential impacts on humans and the environment. Research has been selective, focusing on a few radionuclides and failing to monitor in detail for the variety of tidal, seasonal, weather and site conditions of the estuary. There was a paucity of data to support the claims of minimal risk.
Over recent months, BANNG and others have been in intensive correspondence with the authorities and managed to extract further and more detailed information. Andy Blowers continued, ‘It has to be said that this information has merely aroused more concerns. It may be that even though, according to the authorities, the risk is extremely low, the point is (a) this cannot be verified because there is insufficient evidence and (b) it is blatantly wrong to say that there is no risk. In any case, the risk, however small, could be averted by simply not discharging and by packaging and storing the FED on site as is practised elsewhere. Putting any radioactivity into a complex and fragile environment such as the Blackwater estuary is an absolute insult to the environment and a potential threat to human beings’.
Tim Deere-Jones urged that at the very least monitoring should: look at the different sediments, especially as concentrations are likely to be higher in the finer sediments which are found further upstream from the power station; take more note of sea-to-land discharges and of the possibility of terrestrial dietary doses as a result of contamination of crops and animals. The monitoring regime currently in place was a ‘hit and miss affair’.
Questions and concerns
Several people came forward to comment in the discussion that followed Tim’s presentation. Elaine Banford from Tollesbury spoke of the need to lobby decision makers and Judy Lee from Maldon asked how many elected Councillors were present. The answer was two: Cllr. Sylvia Wargent of West Mersea Town Council; and Cllr. Peter Sheane representing West Mersea on Colchester Borough Council. He said he was fully in support of BANNG and that the Council took the issue very seriously. He was appalled that the Government had given the green light to the Chinese state to build and run new nuclear power stations in the UK.
It was pointed out that BANNG had maintained contacts with all local Councils and MPs over several years but it was disappointing that so few elected representatives, Councillors and MPs, had become involved in the Bradwell issue, a matter that would be taken up in coming months.
Varrie Blowers, BANNG Secretary, noted that Tim had said that the discharges would be higher than previously while BANNG had been told that they would be lower. Since it seemed that the Environment Agency had based its permits for the FED discharges on the previous permits, clarification was required from the Agency.
Henry Meacham , Mersea resident and former worker at Bradwell, made an impassioned speech. He was concerned about his grandchildren and wanted to know who was monitoring the discharges and who will be signing them off. Tony Crosby, a relatively new resident, had been involved in emergency planning activities relating to Bradwell. He, too, was a grandfather and worried that if anything happened at Bradwell the security was not good enough.
Shirley Swan, a member of BANNG’s Core Group, was concerned that the dissolution process was unnecessary but, by reducing volumes of FED, freed up space in the Intermediate-Level waste (ILW) store that would be used to import ILW from other sites thereby making Bradwell a regional store.
David Haddon, from Harwich, emphasised that the authorities would need to demonstrate by evidence and assessment that no detriment would be caused by discharges and, in any case, they should act on the Precautionary Principle by avoiding any possibility of harm.
Support for BANNG
In conclusion, Tim Deere-Jones told the audience not to panic but to get active in opposing radioactive discharges into the Blackwater.
At the end of the meeting there was unanimous support for BANNG in its efforts to raise questions, to demand information and to seek to minimise the impacts of the discharges. BANNG will be taking these concerns to its forthcoming meeting with the Environment Agency.
Summing up Andy Blowers said: ‘This expression of public concern has encouraged us to continue our mission to protect the people and environment of the Blackwater estuary and should serve as a demonstration to any potential developer of new nuclear power stations – be it the Chinese state or whoever – that their presence on our estuary would be most unwelcome and would be resisted to the uttermost’.
It is indeed ironic that the first discharge has occurred on the same day as the public meeting took place. How ironic, too, that shortly after the Blackwater estuary was created a Marine Conservation Zone, radioactive discharges into it have begun.