News June 2014

30 June 2014

Nuclear Safety

Tom Burke warns the UK’s new nuclear programme may go up in flames if China’s ‘overwhelmed’ nuclear regulators fail to prevent an accident. The prospect of the Chinese becoming owners, managers and even constructors of nuclear power stations in Britain has caused anxiety in some unexpected places. Both the right and the left, united in their determination to press ahead with more nuclear, have raised objections. Carefully wrapped in a blanket of security rhetoric, their argument boils down to an Augustinian ‘Bring me nuclear, but not by them’. Meanwhile, a truly substantial reason why we should worry about Chinese involvement in the nuclear industry is yet to be noticed by anyone but the French Nuclear Safety Authority. They have just complained publicly about the lack of communication with their Chinese counterparts. Explaining this to the French Parliament they pointed out that ‘one of the difficulties in our relations is that the Chinese safety authorities lack means. They are overwhelmed’. This led one of the French regulators to worry that ‘It’s not always easy to know what is happening at the Taishan site’, where Areva are constructing a reactor of the same type as they want to build in Britain. Another French inspector reported seeing big machinery such as steam generators and pumps not being maintained at ‘an adequate level’. If the already stretched Chinese nuclear regulators prove unable to prevent a nuclear accident in China it will have direct repercussions here. This compounds the gamble that the British government is taking with Hinkley. Not only are we selling 35 years of index linked tax receipts to the French government in return for electricity at twice the price we are currently paying for it but we are also placing the security of our future electricity supply into the hands of China’s ‘overwhelmed’ nuclear regulators.

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Posted: 30 June 2014

29 June 2014

Scotland

A leading group of 16 academics and experts has made a powerful plea for Scotland to have much more control over its energy policy to escape Westminster’s backing for “bankrupt” nuclear power. Energy specialists from universities in Aberdeen, St Andrews, Edinburgh, Manchester, Cardiff and London have written a joint letter to the Sunday Herald arguing that Scotland should gain control over “a large portion” of the financial incentives for renewables energy schemes. They are urging the establishment of a Scottish energy regulator to help renewables by encouraging investment in local electricity grids. They condemn plans for more energy devolution by Labour, LibDem and Tory parties as “feeble”. But they say that the changes they are advocating can be made either under independence or increased devolution. “Scotland needs greater energy powers to escape from English advocacy of economically and politically bankrupt nuclear power and to counteract declining support from the UK government for Scottish priorities for renewable energy,” they argue.

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Posted: 29 June 2014

28 June 2014

A World in Chains

Since Angie Zelter asked me, over a year ago now, to write a chapter about the connection between civil nuclear power and nuclear weapons for her book “World in Chains”, I have become more and more concerned about the likelihood that nuclear weapons will spread to flashpoints around the globe.

Angie is a well-known campaigner on peace, justice environmental and human rights issues, but she is probably most famous for her work against Trident and her role in the world’s first High Court examination of the legality of an individual state’s deployment of nuclear weapons.

My chapter in Angie’s latest anthology argues that, because of the ease with which nuclear materials can be diverted from civil nuclear programmes into military programmes, by spreading nuclear technology in the hope of mitigating the affects of burning fossil fuels on our climate, we will, in fact, be spreading the capability to make nuclear bombs. This runs the risk of provoking multiple mini cold wars around the world. Of around 60 countries who have expressed an interest recently in obtaining nuclear technology, thirteen are in the greater Middle East. Some of these countries appear to be moving down the nuclear path in response to Iran’s pursuit of uranium enrichment raising the prospect of a Sunni/Shia arms race. And of course, since the book went to print, tensions between Sunni and Shia have worsened as the war in Syria spreads across the border into Iraq.

Other recent worrying developments include Japan’s failure to disclose the existence of 640kg of plutonium which has aroused China’s concern; The election of Narendra Modi and the Hindu nationalist BJP Party in India which might mean that another a major terrorist incident traced back to, or blamed on, Pakistan, could inflame nuclear tensions on the sub continent; and Pakistan has been forced to step up security around nuclear facilities after 10 Taliban militants brought chaos to Karachi airport.

A new report published earlier this month and edited Henry D. Sokolski, the Executive Director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, reassesses the assumptions currently driving international non-proliferation policies. The book agrees with me that nuclear weapons proliferation is more likely to occur with the spread of civilian nuclear technology and that such nuclear proliferation constitutes a threat to international security. It makes the case that civilian nuclear power programmes actually afford a major leg up for any nation seeking development of a nuclear weapons option.

As one of the contributors, Patrick S Roberts says: “Developing economies demand new energy sources, while North America and Europe are showing a greater resistance to the costs and potential consequences of nuclear power. Therefore, new nuclear reactors will likely be built in regions where the risks of proliferation are the highest.”

The International Atomic Energy Agency, whose role is to enforce the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, has a mixed history of preventing diversion of nuclear materials in a timely manner. Iraq, North Korea, Iran, and Libya all engaged in illegal nuclear activities, and it is generally agreed that all embarked on some stage of an illegal nuclear programme. Nevertheless, the IAEA detected violations in only one case, Iraq, and even there, the evidence is mixed.

Pakistan’s Daily Times on 24th June bemoaned the fact that the challenges facing non-proliferation efforts appear insurmountable. There is a desperate need for a comprehensive, universal, enforceable non-proliferation treaty, it said, but the possibility of such a treaty might seem impractical or utopian under present circumstances. But maybe it’s time for the world to think about what is necessary rather than what is practical for a change.

Scotland is in a good position to help such efforts. We have a world leading Climate Change Act; no plans to build new nuclear reactors; a target for producing the equivalent of 100% of our electricity from renewable sources by 2020. Wouldn’t it be great if we could influence the world to work together to tackle the twin threats of climate change and nuclear proliferation beginning with a phase-out of weapons-useable nuclear materials, replacing them instead with sustainable energy to meet the world’s need for energy in a way that promotes peace rather than threatening it.

Pete Roche

World in Chains, edited by Angie Zelter, Luath Press is out now.

Posted: 28 June 2014

28 June 2014

Dounreay

An extra £50m will be made available over the next two years towards the £1.6bn project to clean up and shut down the Dounreay nuclear site. The UK government has announced the additional funding. Dounreay near Thurso on the north Caithness coast was the centre of the UK fast breeder reactor research programme from 1954 until 1994. Work to decommission the complex and demolish almost 200 buildings is to be completed by 2025. Parts of the 136-acre (55ha) site will be used to store tonnes of low-level radioactive material. The UK government said funding has been made possible from savings elsewhere in the UK’s nuclear estate.

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Posted: 28 June 2014

27 June 2014

Energy Markets

Ofgem has sparked what is likely to be the largest ever investigation into the UK energy market by referring the sector to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). The investigation will run into next year and could spell the end of the Big Six energy companies that control 95 per cent of the market if the CMA recommends they be broken up into smaller fragments, to separate their generation businesses from the units that sell power to households and businesses.

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Posted: 27 June 2014

Nuclear waste liabilities drain taxpayers

In the same week that the big guns of the energy efficiency world, including the Energy Saving Trust and the Association for the Conservation of Energy, called for energy saving to be declared a top infrastructure priority, and spending increased to a mere £4bn per year to tackle both fuel poverty and climate change, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) has announced that its undiscounted nuclear waste liabilities have increased by £6.6bn to £110bn but warned that next year the total would “increase significantly” once it had fully assessed a new “performance plan” for the Sellafield site.

£5.4bn of the increase has resulted from a reassessment of the work required at Sellafield which is now estimated to cost £79.1bn to clean up or 72% of total liabilities. £0.5bn is a result of the additional scope of work to be carried out at Dounreay in order to transport weapons-grade plutonium and various other exotic fuels mostly by train to Sellafield. (See the NDA’s Annual Report and Accounts 2013-14)

When the original White Paper proposing the establishment of the NDA was published in 2002, undiscounted liabilities were estimated to be £48bn. Although costs were expected to “increase still further in the short term as the full extent of what needs to be done is identified”, in the longer term they were expected to come down as a result if competition driving down costs. Today, more than a decade later costs have more than doubled with no sign of reductions in the near future.

Since the publication of Towards a Safer Cumbria last year, Friends of the Earth West Cumbria and North Lakes has been asking the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) ‘why it hasn’t ordered an end to the reprocessing of spent nuclear waste fuel’ – given that in 2008 new storage tanks for the high-level liquid waste produced by reprocessing were needed with the utmost urgency. And in 2000 ONR’s predecessor, the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII) warned that the tanks needed to be emptied and the waste solidified as soon as reasonably practicable, and levels must be reduced to a buffer level by 2015. Any shortfall would be “publicly unacceptable”. But we now know there is no prospect of reducing the stocks of liquid to a buffer level by 2015 and new tanks can’t be provided until 2019, yet new liquid waste continues to be generated at Sellafield.

ONR’s response to FoE is that it has a number of priorities including but not limited to reducing high level waste stocks – implying that there must be safety concerns on the Sellafield site which are more worrying than the possibility of a terrorist attack or accident involving the high-level waste tanks, despite the fact that this could require the evacuation of an area between Liverpool and Glasgow and cause 2 million fatalities.

In the NDA’s most recent Annual Report and Accounts it is not the tanks containing this extremely dangerous heat-generating liquid high level waste that appear to be the focus of concern. It seems to be “Legacy Ponds and Silos” that cause most worry. Chief Executive John Clarke highlights ponds where spent nuclear waste fuel from Britain’s First Generation of nuclear reactors known as Magnox reactors was stored. Some of this waste was so corroded it formed a sludge at the bottom of the pond. The construction of a Sludge Packaging Plant was completed this year. Once retrieved from these high hazard facilities, this waste will then have to be encapsulated and stored.

In 2002 The Observer, reported on a document released by the now defunct nuclear waste agency – Nirex, which discussed this same category of waste. It translated the carefully worded Nirex document as meaning that “almost 90 per cent of Britain’s hazardous nuclear waste stockpile is so badly stored it could explode or leak with devastating results at any time”. Two government advisory committees which no longer exist – the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee (RWMAC) and the Nuclear Safety Advisory Committee (NuSAC) also reported in 2002 that by 1998 only 12% of existing Intermediate Level Waste (ILW) had been conditioned, and that some historic wastes:

“… may be poorly characterised. Physically and chemically degraded and held in old facilities subject to deterioration. Considerable effort is often needed to find suitable means of retrieving, conditioning and storing these wastes. Attention has also been drawn to other challenging wastes, including material where effective immobilisation is difficult, and materials with inherent hazards (such as reactive metals and high fissile content).”

Despite John Clarke’s upbeat assessment of progress, the National Audit Office’s description of the situation at Sellafield in 2012 suggests progress since 2002 has been extremely limited:

“Some of the older facilities at Sellafield containing highly hazardous radioactive waste have deteriorated so much that their contents pose significant risks to people and the environment. The highest risks are posed by the ponds and silos built during the 1950s and 1960s to store fuel for early reprocessing operations and radioactive waste … the exact quantity and type of hazardous material on the site had yet to be fully investigated.”

The NDA’s contractor for the Sellafield site – Sellafield Ltd – run by a consortium of companies made up of URS of the US, France’s Areva and Amec of the UK – has recently submitted a new plan for the site. This makes clear that the expected characteristics and estimated volumes of the waste material are based on very limited samples from an unknown and not fully documented inventory. Consequently, significant uncertainties will remain in the capability and capacity of the treatment plants required to handle all wastes until such time as the last waste is removed. In other words, we don’t really know what sort of waste we have to deal with at Sellafield, nor do we know how much there is. This means that future costs are subject to high levels of uncertainty. John Clarke says it is likely that the £110bn estimate:

“…will increase significantly as we complete our scrutiny of the plan and better understand the ranges of uncertainties within it. It is also clear that it may take several iterations of the Sellafield plan before this level of uncertainty can be reduced to a level where cost estimates become more stable.”

In other words, we don’t know how much waste we’ve got, or what the waste is, and we have no idea what it is going to cost to deal with it. Surely the NDA ought to be making better progress than it has done over the past decade, but the least it can do is to STOP PRODUCING MORE WASTE.

 

Posted: 26 June 2014

26 June 2014

Nuclear Costs

Ahead of Ed Davey’s visit to Scotland today, the SNP has called on the UK Energy Secretary to explain to people in Scotland why he is determined to push up their energy bills with his support for nuclear energy. A report into the cost of living from consumer organisation Which? yesterday found that the cost of energy was one of the major pressures facing the 36 per cent of Scottish households that feel financially squeezed. Prior to going into coalition with the Tories, Davey was against a new generation of nuclear power stations. He has previously stated that new nuclear “will cost taxpayers and consumers tens of billions of pounds” and that alternative energy supplies are “cleaner, safer, greener and better for the environment”.

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Posted: 26 June 2014

25 June 2014

Bradwell

‘Bradwell is the worst location on the East Coast for radioactive discharges…… and monitoring is wholly inadequate’, On 23 June, on a pleasant, midsummer Monday evening, 200 people crammed into the MICA Centre in West Mersea to listen to independent expert, Tim Deere-Jones, speak on the subject of ‘Radioactive discharges into the Blackwater – Who knows what’s going on?’. Tim argued that nobody knows what is going on as there is wholly inadequate data and monitoring of discharges. He added that inside a shallow estuary, such as the Blackwater, was the very worst type of location on the East Coast to choose for radioactive discharges.

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Posted: 25 June 2014

24 June 2014

Sellafield

The bill faced by taxpayers for the clean-up of Sellafield and Britain’s other nuclear sites will be £6.6bn more than previously thought, in a sign of the challenges the country faces in dealing with its atomic legacy. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority said it had raised its best estimate for the undiscounted cost of the clean-up over the next 120 years to £110bn, a 7 per cent increase, with Sellafield alone accounting for £79.1bn of that. It also raised its total discounted estimate of the costs by 10 per cent to £64.9bn. John Clarke, the NDA’s chief executive, said the increase reflected the cost of additional work at Sellafield, which with an annual budget of £1.8bn is the largest of the 19 sites for which the agency is responsible. “In Sellafield we’ve got large concrete boxes that had radioactive waste tipped into them from the 1950s,” he said. “Now we have to figure out what’s in these facilities, and how to get it out and treat it.” The NDA’s revised cost estimates for the clean-up come in its annual report and accounts, which were presented to parliament on Monday.

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Posted: 24 June 2014

23 June 2014

Wylfa

Campaigners have criticised Anglesey council for spending taxpayers’ money on sending a delegation to Japan to build relationships with the firm behind the new Wylfa B power station. The trip has been organised to build relationships with Horizon Nuclear Power. But objectors claim the cost cannot be justified at a time when public services are being cut. The council said the trip’s cost was negligible compared to the investment.

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Posted: 23 June 2014