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Nuclear waste: you know you want it
Columnist: The Times
Filed 13 Aug 06
article, which was originally published in The Times on 2nd August
is reproduced on Land-Care with the kind permission
of the author and the newspaper
THERE ARE TIMES when you long for some old-fashioned totalitarianism
to resolve the really big issues. Take nuclear waste, for instance.
Sooner or later (and the latest advice is sooner), a decision will
have to be taken on digging, somewhere in Britain, an underground
chamber five times the size of the Albert Hall. This is the capacity
needed to store the 478,000 cubic metres of radioactive waste now
held in existing nuclear plants, together with the amounts they
will be producing for the rest of their working lives. If we go
on and build more, as Tony Blair wants to do, then we will need
a few more Albert Halls deep beneath our green and pleasant land.
These will be big holes, and big decisions. As
the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management pointed out this week,
they will affect not only the environment, but the quality of life
of generations to come. Its report deals with the kind of ethical
questions that would keep The Moral Maze in business for weeks.
Is it right for a government to take decisions on scientific matters
that will profoundly affect the future of people yet unborn, who
may have at their disposal alternative solutions that we have not
even dreamt of? What right do we have to second-guess the needs
and concerns of British society a hundred years ahead when we cannot
even agree about our own? Why, on the other hand, should today’s
taxpayer bear the huge financial and environmental burden of creating
these underground caverns (estimated cost £10 billion) when
the benefits will not be apparent until long after they are dead?
Local councils must not be allowed to enter a squalid
for these poisonous dumps
One can imagine the odd Cabinet meeting spent
wrestling with that lot. Except that this, according to the committee,
is not a matter for government — it is one that should be
the responsibility of local communities. Faced with the overriding
need to involve the public, rather than imposing an unwanted solution
from the top, it recommends what it calls “the principle of
volunteerism” — that is, “an expressed willingness
to participate”. Host communities, as they are referred to,
should be encouraged to come forward and bid to have their own nuclear
waste facility “on the expectation that the wellbeing of the
community will be enhanced”.
Cutting through the committee’s well-intentioned
verbiage, what it comes down to is this: since no self-respecting
council, region or country is going to opt willingly for its very
own nuclear Albert Hall, a system of bribery will be proposed instead.
Investment in local transport or communications, perhaps the odd
hospital or school, will be offered in return for participation;
already a Scottish minister has indicated he would favour this kind
The committee itself is less specific, referring
instead to “involvement packages” that would “enable
communities to participate”, or “community packages
that provide the resources to support both the short and long-term
wellbeing of the community”. Either way, it still sounds like
This strikes me as the opposite of a long-term
vision. Far from producing a stable solution, the likely result
would be an unwholesome scramble for benefits, with cash-strapped
councils attempting to outbid each other to attract funding for
their latest bypass, or a brand-new housing estate, in exchange
for allowing a nuclear waste facility to be built in their backyard.
To the already deep divisions that separate the
pro and anti-nuclear lobby would be added the damaging ingredients
of envy and resentment on the part of those who have or have not
made the Devil’s pact with government. Few communities are
likely to volunteer — even the committee itself reports that
the last attempt to drill exploratory boreholes was defeated by
a coalition of local authorities.
Nowhere will this dilemma be more acute and immediate
than in Scotland, where five out of twelve possible sites for storing
nuclear waste are located. Next year elections for the Holyrood
Parliament will be fought, with the nuclear issue near the top of
the agenda. The Scottish Executive, an uneasy coalition of Labour
and Liberal Democrat, has the right to grant or deny planning permission,
and could decide to oppose any nuclear developments north of the
Border — a vote-winning stance. If it did, however, it would
stand accused of benefiting from nuclear power in the future without
having to take the pain that goes with it — a source of huge
resentment in England and Wales, which would have to fill the gap.
Conversely, it might find itself accused by some of its more deprived
communities of rejecting the private sector investment and public
subsidy that digging waste sites would bring.
All this, surely, is the wrong way to approach
so weighty an issue. Britain is the most geologically diverse country
in Europe, so most estimates suggest that finding, testing and selecting
a proper site could take up to 20 years — which is how long
it took Sweden and Finland to locate theirs. The key ingredient
of a reliable storage area is a solid rock foundation, with low
permeability, where water flow is downwards rather than spreading
outwards. That counts against any formation with major fractures,
which would exclude much of the Scottish Highlands, despite its
having some of the oldest and hardest rock in the world.
A new and detailed geological survey is clearly
needed, which no local or regional authority would have the right
to refuse. The results would point to perhaps two or three sites
as having the proper ingredients of long-term stability, access
and security. It would then be up to the government of the day,
rather than an unholy bidding war, to determine which would be chosen.
This administration is perfectly used to overriding local government
when it chooses to do so. In this case, at least, it would be justified.