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The Legacy of Nuclear Power: Part 1

Updated Tuesday, 3 October 2017
How do local communities respond to the risks and opportunities of nuclear power? 

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Landscape image of the Stanford Nuclear Power Station, taken in 2005 Stanford Nuclear Power Station

Radioactive waste is more than an environmental hazard, it also shapes the culture and politics of the communities that live in the shadow of nuclear power stations. In the first part of a two-part series, Professor Andrew Blowers talks with Dr Petr Jehlička about how these often-overlooked sites combine their physical isolation and unique intergenerational risks with their strategic, central importance to the modern economy. 



The Legacy of Nuclear Power: Part 1

Petr Jehlička: Hello, I'm Petr Jehlička from the Department of Geography at the Open University and I am joined here by Andrew Blowers OBE. Andrew is Emeritus Professor of Social Sciences who has spent most of his academic career at the Open University. And he has always had a strong interest in political geography, but he has also been actively involved in the field of environmental politics and policy making as a politician, government advisor and environmental activist. He was a member of the first Committee on Radioactive Waste Management established by the British government in 2003. And he is currently co-chairing the NGO Government Nuclear Forum. Thank you for joining me today Andy.

Andrew Blowers: Okay.

Petr Jehlička: We are here to talk about your new book which was published in January 2017 and the title of which is The Legacy of Nuclear Power. I was wondering whether you could briefly introduce and describe the book?

Andrew Blowers: Well, perhaps I could start by saying how I got the book to where it is. It’s been a long process and I might say a bit of a labour of love. In fact, I even call it a kind of academic autobiography, and it emanates from the various roles that I've played at various times in my life. Firstly as a local politician in an English county where I first encountered the problems of the nuclear industry, because there was a threat of nuclear waste where I was. Also as a government advisor which I was for many years and, as you mentioned, on the Committee of Radioactive Waste Management, where I drafted a lot of what is now current policy for radioactive waste management in the UK. And I've also been an activist and I currently lead an NGO which is opposed to a particular proposal for a power station. 

So, all of those different experiences do come into the creation of this book, but of course it is an academic text. I did write it as a social scientist. I think if you wanted to categorise where it stands, it’s interdisciplinary. But it’s, I suppose one could describe it as a political geography in particular. And so as a result of all of that, I've integrated those experiences, all that – all the places that I've been to as well as my own academic interests, which have been fundamentally in power, in inequality, and those sorts of issues, to produce a book which is focused around radioactive waste. But I think draws attention to a lot of issues, theories and concepts of interest to social scientists. 

The last point I want to make is, this is not just an academic book. I think it’s a public interest book. I've written it so that it is accessible and readable and it is in the practical world as well. Because I do try and say something about: okay, these are places of interest, but what do they tell us? What do they mean? Why are they important and fundamentally what should we do about them?

Petr Jehlička: Indeed, and that’s what we are discussing today. I was wondering whether you could briefly mention the main themes? You mentioned there is a lot of topics and concepts covered in the book but also four or five sites in several countries as I understand. Could you briefly talk about them please?

Andrew Blowers: Well, could I leave the sites aside for a moment and just say something about how this book is framed. Because I'm very conscious with the amount of information coming from all sorts of sources that I had, that to make it useful and interesting if not important; it has to have a structure and a clear framework. And I think it’s underpinned by three things. One is its empirical content, and that empirical content is about the places where radioactive waste is located. And I argue about – to say what radioactive waste is but I'm also conscious that one of the messages of the book is that: it is where it is and that’s where it’s going to be. In other words, the fundamental point is that these radioactive waste areas or what I call “landscapes of risk”, are already established, certainly in the Western world. And to some extent in Eastern Europe and Russia as well. So we have an established geography. 

The second thing in this book is a conceptual framework, which has to do with the issue that I describe as peripheral communities. These places that we are talking about, and I will come to the places in a moment, are peripheral in the sense that they are literally geographically peripheral on the edge of countries or inside countries, but in areas that are underdeveloped, unpopulated. Or in other words they are – less accessible. They are economically peripheral in a sense that they tend to be monocultural, dependent on one activity. In this case of course the – the nuclear industry. And they are politically relatively powerless. So there is a political dimension to this. Socially they have a particular – I suppose a particular culture, which you could describe, and I tend to describe as a nuclear culture or a plutonium culture, which is both defensive and aggressive. It is a complicated thing but none the less I think it’s quite distinctive. And finally of course they are areas of environmental risk. This is why we are looking at them. Whether the risk is present in the materials that are already there, or the risk is present in the sense that they are, if you like, threatened by new activities coming in. Environmental risk is one of these five characteristics, which are geographical, economic, political, social and environmental. 

But the issue of being peripheral is not, I don’t think you should understand it as a static process. There is a dynamic about this and that dynamic is about relationships of power, the power to attract and the power to repel. And that power rests in these particular peripheral communities. I call this process – a very ugly term, but nonetheless I think it encapsulates it – “peripheralisation”. In other words, these communities attract, have become, if you like, the places where the nuclear industry resides and as a result, to some extent, they hold on tenaciously to that, Sellafield being a case in point. But at the same time, peripheralisation implies that other communities are able to resist, to repel, to bring up combinations of cross-cutting alliances to try and prevent nuclear activity. So that is why the position is established, because it is very difficult to get nuclear activities on greenfield sites for that very reason.  You’ve got this power conflict that is inherent. 

And if I could make a further point, which is a theoretical point, this power is exercised in two dimensions. One is through discourses. They are the way we think, the way that ideas are shaped and formed. They are what enables possibilities and what also bring forward constraint. So if you have, as we have at the moment in the UK, a discourse. That discourse I would describe as pro nuclear. All the sort of forces seem to try and convey that nuclear is something that we should have and so on. But that is opposed by antinuclear discourses et cetera. But the point is, these discourses explain the changing relationships over time within these communities, and the way they got established and the way they are sustained. And the final thing I'd like to say is that all of this question of the power relationships leads us on to the ability to mobilise resources and to act politically. And it should never be forgotten that behind all of this is what I would call a moral issue, but maybe we can talk about that as we go forward.

Petr Jehlička: Andrew, this has covered vast theoretical conceptual ground, and I was wondering whether I could pick one of the sites covered in the book – Hanford in the United States, to illustrate the issues you’ve been talking about. For example, you mentioned how these sites tend to be established, some of them to a greater degree, like Hanford I think, some of them to a lesser degree, and I was wondering whether you could talk about that using this as an example.

Andrew Blowers: I'm glad we’re coming on to actual places because so far I've talked about the sort of theoretical issues which are embedded. But the guts of this book are – is four chapters, which I've researched over many years, looking at four countries and four areas in particular and you allude to one of these which is the Hanford site in the United States. The Hanford site has fascinated me for more than twenty-five years now. I visited it several times. I've talked to the people there, particularly those involved with the site itself. It’s a very peripheral site, coming back to my peripheral point. It is remote in the sense it’s in the far North West of the United States and it is a vast site. I mean it is six hundred square miles, the size of a county like Bedfordshire plus.

Petr Jehlička: How big is it compared to the other three you –?

Andrew Blowers: Well in terms of area, it is vast. I mean we are talking about English county size. If you compare it to Sellafield it’s two square miles. Huge amount of activity crammed on to that site, but the point about Hanford is it was developed during the war, and nobody knew, or very few people knew, what it was being developed for.  A plane flew over with a representative of the Army of the United States looking for a site in which to develop part of the Manhattan project. In other words it was about the bomb, during the war. And he flew over part of Eastern Washington State, looked down. There was the Columbia River. There appeared to be not many people around. It had got water. It had got remoteness, and he said, “ah ha, this is it.” Recommended that that was where they would undertake the activity. And actually it is incredible, almost heroic way the thing operated. Within two and a half years, that site had first of all been cleared of any people. They were moved off including Native American tribes because there were settlers there obviously. And within two-and-a-half years about fifty thousand people had been working on that site, massive sort of barrack like accommodation, working and building reactors and things called ‘canyons’, which were reprocessing plants and the bulk of those people had got no idea of what they were doing. 

And what was happening there was not revealed until August in 1945, when it was revealed that Hanford had produced sufficient plutonium to put into the "Fat Man" bomb which destroyed Nagasaki and of course there was an uproar of patriotism and pride in that community because they had in their view won the war. Subsequently, it became a focus of Cold War rearming and for about twenty or thirty years that was its mission to produce plutonium and various other things on the site. The problem came at the end of the Eighties when the Cold War ended and Hanford’s function effectively disappeared. I mean, there was not the same arms race. There was not the same need for its plutonium production, but what there was and what had been created, was a total mess. I mean that is regarded as one of the most heavily polluted regions in the whole world. There are some in Russia, which are probably as bad but we know less about, and therefore they were confronted with this colossal problem of clean up. And this whole business of this peripheralisation that I mentioned is the remoteness but also the economy. The interesting thing is that having spent decades in production they now had to switch to a new mission which was clean up. But nonetheless it persisted and it survived in different political and economic circumstances. And so, Hanford has a claim on the American federal budget of two billion dollars a year, which will go on for many years to come to try and clean up this appallingly environmentally destroyed site.

Petr Jehlička: That’s a good illustration of how these nuclear sites evolve in terms of purpose to which they serve. But you also mentioned that – and I think you mention in the book, you make a point about it – that this is a site which is very much established, accepted by local community. And I think on the opposite side of this continuum or spectrum of acceptance and establishment is another site you explored in Germany, called Gorleben. My understanding that this is a site of conflict and fighting and resistance. Can you compare these two sites and explain the differences?

Andrew Blowers: Well, I think they can be compared in terms of my peripheral thesis and in terms of the discourses that operate. Hanford was born, nurtured and continues in a pro-nuclear discourse. A discourse which, as you say, favours the nuclear industry and its people are on the whole committed to it. And in that sense it’s quite stable politically. But if we turn to Gorleben in Germany, again it’s a peripheral site geographically because it was on the border of Eastern Germany. And it’s still in a rather remote and precious part of Northern Germany, interesting to visit but not a place which is normally visited. And that has become an absolutely iconic site, because you could argue that Gorleben is the place which has basically, ultimately, been the reason why Germany is moving away from nuclear energy. And it’s a classic case because it was later. The idea was that we were going to bring in all the things Hanford had got like reprocessing, reactors, nuclear waste storage, deep disposal site, all of those things in one place foisted on this community without discussion in the same way years back, Hanford had been dropped on. 

But these circumstances were completely different. We are talking about the Seventies now. We have Three Mile Island, and the world is turning against nuclear and these people in what was called the Wendland, were absolutely outraged at this. And you’ve got this combination, this is peripheralisation at work, this powerful combination of farmers, highly conservative people, the local aristocracy, as well as middle-class radicals, church people and so on, also supported by national groups like Greenpeace and so on, in Germany who began a campaign which I styled and I think can rightly be styled the Gorleben Movement which has never wavered, which has fought against the imposition, sometimes in really quite trenchant almost violent ways and the confrontation between State Security, the police and protesters has been notorious, probably the most active nuclear site in the whole world, over a sustained period of at least twenty five years (Editor’s note: closer to thirty five years). They didn’t entirely prevent things happening but that mine has never opened. It is not necessarily going to be a future repository. The store for radioactive waste did get started but that’s been suspended. Really in a sense when Fukushima came along, that finally tipped the balance against the nuclear industry in Germany, but you have to remember that the long campaign of the people of Gorleben had a formative influence on what has happened in Germany. And it’s the very opposite as you rightly say of, you know the discourses, the discursive conflict, plus the nature of peripheralisation, and the ability to resist as well as to attract the industry. It’s a wonderful story actually, the Gorleben story if you want to read it, as I hope you will, in the same way the Hanford story is as well I think, but for different reasons.

Petr Jehlička: I found it fascinating and the Gorleben case must have played an important role as you say in the decision of the German Government to phase out nuclear energy. So that’s a really compelling case. From your readers’ perspective I was – I was struck by what I would call nuclear site tourism because at – at the end of each chapter you list your visits to these four nuclear sites and as you said you kept visiting some of them for over twenty years, and I wanted to ask you, what was the purpose of this long term engagement with these four sites?

Andrew Blowers: I don't know. It’s kind of a matter of chance, luck and interest. I think it’s fair to say that visiting nuclear sites becomes a passion but if it’s mixed with, if you like some tourism, some holiday or whatever, it becomes even more interesting, because most nuclear sites, given that they're remote areas are in very interesting places and surrounded by interesting places, but that’s the sort of pleasure side of it if you like.  I do find the nuclear industry and its politics absolutely compelling, because, bear in mind I worked both as a politician and as a government advisor and got very involved with all those aspects of it, and when you come across a place like, Hanford or Gorleben, there’s something about those which inspires me as a geographer and historian. I mean I find them quite inspirational sites. And in the American phrase, I think Hanford for example, is truly awesome. When you think about what was done there, what it represents now and so on as is Sellafield and Gorleben differently. I mean Gorleben is a very, very nice part of Germany with cultural identity and the nuclear industry has a very light footprint hidden within vast forests. And you know, it’s interesting to associate these sorts of landscapes with the nuclear question. It’s that sort of menace and that sort of threat and at the same time, there's a population there that is able to mobilise and oppose in the same way as in, I mean Hanford has been transformed. There's a city of a quarter of a million people based there now and it’s not a poor area, but it is a desolated area in terms of what's happening on the site.

Petr Jehlička: One of the themes you keep revisiting in the book is the power relationship between the nuclear industry and communities. Could I ask you to explain why should people, citizens, pay attention to this relationship? What’s important?

Andrew Blowers: I think the question of power has always been important to me. I mean I much of my academic career has, I think, looked at issues of power relations, and I've done it from the perspective of a geographer interested in places, and therefore, this book is a bit unusual in that its take is from the local. Most books about nuclear industry tend to be I think more synoptic, more on a sort of strategic basis. I worked towards that but from the empirical and from the local. And I'm particularly interested in these power relationships. But why is it important? Because actually, it determines in the end what I would call uneven relationships; issues of inequality. These places, these peripheral communities, peripheral nuclear communities, nuclear oases, call them what you will, after all, are the products of this power relation of peripheralisation. They have the industry, whether willingly or not, they are responsible for it on behalf of society. It’s therefore important that there is that recognition. But also, it is a warning to me, and given that landscapes, and these are big landscapes, lots across many countries, not perhaps of the same level as your Hanfords and Sellafields, but none the less they are there. So what do we take from that? I think we look at those places as places that are produced, that are symbols of spatial inequality, and therefore we have an obligation towards them. But beyond that, they are also places of intergenerational inequality.  The point about radioactive waste is it does not go away. If coal mining ceases in the end, the communities cease. If nuclear production ceases, the nuclear industry does not cease. It persists for generation after generation after generation. This is an obligation that we foist on to future generations, and that’s why I think studying this is important because we should avoid that. We can't avoid what's happened. We have to deal with it. And in my view the solution to radioactive waste, “the problem”, is here and now. It is in what we are doing or should be doing and that is managing it carefully within the communities where it actually exists.

Petr Jehlička: Thank you, Andy, for this really interesting discussion. We will continue this discussion on nuclear places, in Part 2 of the interview.

Prof. Blower’s book ‘The Legacy of Nuclear Power’ is available in bookstores.


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