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Nuke waste science ignored

Dave Toke goes nuclear on nuclear power

C

umbria is being touted as the leading candidate for a deep repository for 'permanent' nuclear waste disposal, despite scientific judgement that this is the worst place for a nuclear waste repository. This story is quite remarkable in an age where environmentalists are frequently attacked for ignoring scientific evidence in favour of political considerations. Way back in 1997, just before he left office, John Selwyn Gummer (as Tory Environment Secretary) threw out proposals to site a nuclear waste repository in Cumbria. This was after clear advice from geologists that the rock formations in the area had too many aquifers running through the rock formations for Cumbria to be shortlisted as a safe place for nuclear waste disposal. Ian Fairlie, who co-ordinated the Government's 'CERRIE' inquiry into issues of internal radiation commented: 'If you listed 100 places in the UK where to put radioactive waste, Cumbria would be 100'.

So how is it that Cumbria, is being considered? Cumbria Council appears to be 'volunteering' as the place for the waste dumping. The reason stretches back to 2002, when the Government re-established an organisation to deal with this intractable issue. This was the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CORWM). You might think such an official committee would take the geological issues seriously. But the body could not really do this, because the Government, in a devilishly cunning ploy, decided not to appoint geologists onto the body. Hey Presto! Scientific evidence disappears!

Instead CORWM implied that the waste dump should go to a place that volunteered, a place like Cumbria which houses the Sellafield reprocessing plant (a nuclear waste production facility). Of course, quite a lot of Cumbrians are not too keen on the idea, including South Lakeland Friends of the Earth.

A German scientific report, mostly unnoticed in the relatively nuclear-tolerant UK, announces a statistically significant association between nuclear power and cancer risks for young children. The KiKK report (see http://www.aerzteblatt.de/int/article.asp?id=62000) says that children under 5 years of age have more than double the risk of contracting leukaemia if they live within 5 km of a nuclear power station compared to others than do not live near a nuclear power plant. According to the dominant scientific view, this cannot be explained by the level of emissions from power stations. However, others argue that this is because the effects of radioactive emissions are not sufficiently well understood.

Nuclear supporters are arguing that nuclear power should be funded rather than renewable energy. The House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee recently launched an attack on the EU Renewables Directive which mandates EU states to aim for ambitious targets for renewable energy. The Lords conducted exhaustive studies into the costs of various renewables, concluding that the construction costs were very expensive, whilst nuclear was cheap. However the study of nuclear costs was far from exhaustive in that the nuclear industry's projections seem to have been taken for granted, and the costs of constructing the most recent example of a comparable new nuclear power station were completely ignored. AREVA, the French company most often tipped to build new nukes in the UK, has presided over massive cost over-runs in constructing the only new nuclear power station coming on-line in Europe. This is sited in Finland at Olkiluoto. The construction cost is around double what the House of Lords projects for British nuclear power. The Finnish plant would not have been built but for AREVA's commitment to pay for any over-runs, which, in effect, means that the French Government is paying since AREVA is state owned.

But however much the French regard the Finnish reactor as a loss, the leader of the French Government is unlikely to pour billions of pounds into British nuclear power. Indeed, the plant would never be judged economic to be ordered by the electricity companies even if the House of Lords estimates were accurate. So, energy insiders know that the frequent Government statements about new nuclear power stations being built are pure spin and fantasy - unless the Government introduces legislation to fund nuclear power. Many in the nuclear industry seem to live in a nationalised timewarp from the days when the CEGB could decide to build whatever power stations and make the consumer pay. But in today's privatised world the Government cannot do this without a major piece of legislation - and somebody will notice this!

Dieter Helms is one of the more realistic pro-nuclear analysts, and he has recently called for a 'low carbon obligation' that would oblige electricity suppliers to fund nuclear power as well as renewable energy. Currently there is a renewables obligation, but not one for nuclear power. This proposal, which seems dead in the water before it is even launched, typifies the nuclear industry's financial problems. There is political support for renewable energy to be funded out of consumer energy bills, but very little support for subsidising nuclear power stations. Helms's suggested low carbon mechanism may work in theory, but if the Government tried to implement it there would be intense opposition not only from anti-nuclear campaigners, but also from the renewables industry whose interests would be sidelined by the idea.