The Legacy of Nuclear Power by Andrew Blowers, Earthscan, 2017 £37.99

From the resigned embrace of nuclear clean-up at Hanford in the USA to the resolute approach towards geological disposal as a permanent solution pursued in France, to the conflicting priorities that have beset Sellafield in the UK, and the vigorous resistance to nuclear developments at Gorleben in Germany, all have been socially shaped, says Blowers, by the evolving power relations of the nuclear industry and its antagonists. Each of these has the characteristics of what he calls ‘peripheral communities’.

Blowers has been involved with the nuclear waste issue since October 1983 when a site just south of Bedford near the village of Elstow, birthplace of Pilgrim’s Progress author John Bunyan, was designated as a possible nuclear waste site by Nirex. Blowers told TV audiences that Bunyan would be turning in his grave at the thought that the Slough of Despond could reappear in contemporary form as a nuclear waste dump. Blowers says he believes he was one of the first to pronounce that nuclear waste is a social as well as a scientific problem, so he feels an obligation to try to understand what this means and to fathom the consequences of this understanding.

The overarching theme of this book is the relationship between nuclear communities and radioactive waste – the inevitable and long-lasting arising from routine operations and accidents. The waste tends to be confined to established locations which tend to manifest ‘peripheral’ characteristics with a particular power relationship between the industry and community. Blowers’ hope is that understanding this may suggest some implications for radioactive waste management strategy.

Locally unwanted land uses – or LULUs – tend to be located in peripheral communities, and nuclear facilities – especially those associated with waste management are perhaps the classic case of a LULU. So much so that their location reproduces and reinforces processes of peripheralisation. Such communities are geographically remote and tend to be dominated by a single employer or sector. The economic power exercised by dominant companies may also be translated into political power and pre-existing traditional economic activities, like farming and fishing, become subordinated. There may be a growing inequality between those benefitting from the wealth and incomes generated by the new industry and those remaining in traditional occupations.

Acceptance of the environmental risk is a necessary condition of living in an established nuclear community and Blowers contrasts this with communities determined to resist environmental risks which could explain why it is so difficult to establish new nuclear sites beyond existing frontiers. Blowers contends that it is the inequality in resources possessed and mobilised by those communities able to resist, combined with the powerlessness of communities that have little choice but to accept, that ultimately and inevitably confirms a pattern of location of hazardous industries in peripheral locations.

Hanford

The Hanford nuclear reservation in Washington State is truly massive – almost as big as Hertfordshire. It is the largest clean-up project anywhere in the world at an annual cost of $2bn. Established to produce plutonium for America’s nuclear weapons, by the early 1960s the workforce on the site was nearly 10,000. By 1962 the population of the Tri-Cities was 54,000 with around half in Richland – the company town. Even in the early years there was a concern about stigma and the awesome destructive power of the materials produced, but those feelings tended to be muted in a condition of willingly repressed awareness. Hanford’s defence lay in its purpose in the defence of the nation.

Eventually the community had to undergo a painful adjustment in attitudes and beliefs and face up to the fact that Hanford’s role in the defence of the nation had been replaced by its role in defence of the environment. The sheer scale of the legacy and the casual attitudes to risk that prevailed in the past are now revealed. Bob Alvarez, former advisor to President Clinton says “The costs, complexity and risks of the Hanford high level waste project rival those of the US manned space programme by have far greater potential consequences to the human environment.”

From the late 1980s to the early part of this century the community showed a marked reluctance to let go of production, a resistance to its new role and a yearning to grasp any activities which might prolong the nuclear culture. But as the commitment to clean-up has developed and the non-nuclear economy has begun to flourish, fears of decline have diminished. An economic transformation is taking place. Many mining, steel and textile towns in the US, though scarred by environmental degradation and toxic waste, have simply been left to die once their industry shuts down. But Hanford has survived in changing circumstances. Although the clean-up process displays institutional inertia, Hanford is no longer a mono-cultural economy. Although the stigma persists, in some ways there is a belief that the image of the area has improved as the benefits and achievement of clean-up campaigns are recognised.

There may be some lessons here for those supporters of President Trump who support the perpetuation of old fossil fuel-based industries.

Sellafield

Similar to Hanford, the main focus of activity at Sellafield has shifted from production to clean-up and especially clearing up the legacy from the early days of the nuclear programme when little attention was paid to dealing with the wastes. Blowers’ chapter on Sellafield also covers recent events in the nuclear waste ‘disposal’ saga, including the CoRWM recommendations of 2006 and how these were seized upon by the Government as a “sound basis for moving forward” with a focus on geological disposal as a means of demonstrating that radioactive waste would not be a barrier to a new nuclear programme. As at Hanford there has been a tendency among the workforce to cling on to production and to plead for new plants when the need for them is diminishing. Sellafield however, is spending more than Hanford – around $2.2bn per year.

According to former Cumbria County Council leader, Eddie Martin: “Copeland has some of the highest wages in Cumbria but Sellafield sits beside people living in abject poverty. We’ve borne the burden and are paying the penalty for living next door to Sellafield. We have a prehistoric infrastructure” and his successor Stewart Young said “We have some of the most deprived communities living in the shadow of a multi-million pound industry. It’s an absolute scandal”.

Sellafield drives a monocultural and unevenly developed economy that is relatively weak in its ability to diversify and draw inward investment. On the other hand the relationship of dominance and dependence between the nuclear industry and West Cumbria gives the area a measure of economic stability and leverage with the nation.

Breaking out of that vicious cycle which appears to leave an area dependent on a single hazardous industry, and the stigma attached, with only the option of hunting for yet more hazardous employment could be the best way to move beyond the resulting unequal society. There seems to be a way to go yet before the green shoots of a new economy beginning to appear at Hanford show signs of sprouting in West Cumbria.

La Hague and Bure

Unlike Sellafield and La Hague, Bure is not a nuclear community in the sense of an established population living and working in the area. While geology was the leading consideration in selecting Bure as a good site for a deep underground repository, it is an area which seems isolated and empty. The prospect of an underground laboratory was widely welcomed at the political level for the economic benefits it might bring. Bure is already showing the signs of the kind of social acceptance that are characteristic of peripheral locations. A major reason, according to Blowers, is the way the notion of geological disposal has been progressively embedded in the community as other options have, one by one, disappeared.

Gorleben

Gorleben is different from the other three communities Blowers examines. The industry has never become established on anything like the scale originally envisaged. Blowers considers, amongst other things, the opportunities Gorleben presents for a new approach to waste policy and the role of Gorleben in the continuing uncertainty about radioactive waste management in Germany.

One of the outcomes of the “consensual transformation of energy policy in Germany was the reanimation of the efforts to find a permanent solution to the management of highly radioactive wastes”. But a solution may not easily be found because it seems impossible to make progress while Gorleben remains a potential site, but also impossible without it.

Conclusions

Nuclear communities must endure both the physical threat of living with environmental risk and the social stigma that is often associated with proximity to radioactive waste. Blowers says they cannot live in a perpetual state of anxiety and dread, nor should they since, as custodians of these wastes, they have an obvious interest in their safe and secure management. But the possibility of an accident, however small, places these communities at a disadvantage compared to other non-nuclear communities.

Progress in finding sites for deep geological repositories for nuclear waste has been slow. Where progress has been made, as in Finland and Sweden, it has been through a process of comparative site evaluation eliminating all but those sites in existing nuclear locations. In Finland the choice has fallen on Eurajoki where there are two reactors at Olkiluoto and a third under construction. In Sweden the site chosen is Osthammar near the Forsmark nuclear power station and intermediate level waste repository. The tendency in almost every country is to proceed slowly and to focus on those locations where nuclear facilities are well established.

The problems associated with the safe management of the legacy of nuclear waste we have produced may be more complex than sending humans to the moon. If Whitehall is to have any hope of solving these intractable problems it is going to need people, like Blowers who have been analysing the sociology of these issues for more than 30 years. Civil servants involved today could do a lot worse than to start by reading this book.

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Published: 1 August 2017