Nuclear waste remains dangerous for centuries – which makes it a unique problem for societies to manage. In the second of a two-part series, Professor Andrew Blowers talks with Dr Petr Jehlička about the short and long-term future of the nuclear industry, and how different countries’ economic conditions have shaped their political responses to nuclear hazards.
Hello and welcome back. I am Petr Jehlička from the Department of Geography at the Open University and I am joined here by Andrew Blowers, OBE. We are continuing our discussion about your book The Legacy of Nuclear Power.
I think you are making a very strong point at the end of your book when you take a critical, when you are critical of the currently favoured approach to dealing with nuclear waste, which is deep geological disposal and you are kind of advocating a slightly more short-term perspective, as you’ve just said.
Well let me say when I wrote the policy, which the government is pursuing on radioactive waste management, I did write a sentence which said: “within the terms of present – present knowledge, deep disposal is the approach.” However, that approach needs to be preceded by a whole load of things, which is proper management and storage. And I don’t think we can rush towards that ultimate solution, if it is going to be the solution, and that’s why I'm counselling people to pause. Before we put all our energies into trying to bury it and forget it we need to have regard to what is actually happening and what is actually there. And what is there is gonna be there for a long time. And when you use the words “short term”, forgive me I find this very difficult, but this is typical. The government and the industry will talk about interim storage. Now interim implies okay, it’s just in between. And the ultimate thing is - is – is your long-term disposal. But interim storage is going to last well into the next century. We’re talking intergenerational already in terms of timescales. So it behoves us to make the make the moves now, to make sure we are not imposing on the future; dangerous materials and so on. And therefore I think we should bend every sinew to do what we can to manage the waste effectively now. If a repository comes in the future we need to know whether it’s acceptable and whether it’s gonna be safe, and those things we don’t know.
There isn't at this moment in time in my view a solution – a long-term solution - to the radioactive waste problem, apart from doing what we’re doing. And that brings me to a fundamental issue because I think that is a moral issue incidentally. But it becomes a bigger moral issue if we – if we go on developing nuclear power. And one of the main reasons for not developing nuclear power further in my view is what it inflicts on future generations, who we should have a care for. But I don’t think we do because radioactive waste is not top of the agenda in terms of the nuclear debate in this country. What's top of the debate is saving carbon, all this sort of stuff. And in terms of the nuclear debate in my view, nuclear is probably as an industry ultimately doomed. But I think the point I would want to emphasise above all is that we should not be creating more waste beyond what we know we are already gonna have because we won't know what the inventory is. We won't know how long it is gonna go on for. We won't – and there are all various uncertainties and because we don’t need nuclear, it’s not necessary, we, therefore - there is no case in my view, no moral case whatsoever to develop a further nuclear power.
To continue this line of discussion about more, sort of, practical approaches to dealing with issues relating to nuclear waste, I’d like to pick another site in your book, which is Sellafield in the UK. And I was wondering whether you could sort of use it to illustrate one of the more general points you’ve just made and perhaps broaden up this conversation a little bit, because… When I attended your book launch in London in January 2017, I was, there was a very lively discussion and I was struck by these revelations about what is going on in the United Kingdom regarding nuclear – the nuclear industry, nuclear waste management and so on. Because my sense, as you have just said, is that there isn't much media attention paid to these issues at the moment compared to the 1990’s, 1980’s and so on.
Well to some extent I think what you are saying is true, although I wouldn't know would I because I am so involved in this. I think there is a lot of attention paid to it - but you mentioned Sellafield. Sellafield is the heart and soul of the problem in the UK. Sellafield, as everybody knows, is a mess. If you look at the ponds [where waste is stored] – and it’s a mess that came out of the post-war years when stuff was just indiscriminately dumped in ponds and silos and so on, and it’s a massive job to try and clear that up. We need to focus our attention as I believe we are beginning to do, on the Sellafield problem. There are problems no doubt, and such things as mismanagement and all the rest of it.
On the whole caring for and tending the Sellafield issue is the fundamental number one problem, far bigger than anything else. But it does get enmeshed in nuclear policy and politics because, given its peripheral community, also given that it’s pretty pro nuclear, there is always the urge to production. And actually whereas Hanford [see part 1] has gone now more or less for clean-up, and that’s its job, you’ve still got this problem at Sellafield when they believe that they’ve still got a mission in terms of production. Re-processing is being phased out there. Possibly some new activities might come in, but there is very little justification for it. And there is a transition going on it seems to me, again towards clean-up, which needs to be recognised. Although next door to Sellafield there are plans for future nuclear power stations.
And there is a paradox about Sellafield. Here you have two thirds of the country’s radioactivity stored; some of it badly, some of it reasonably well. And you would have thought that finding a solution in terms of deep disposal would be the obvious thing and people would want it. But what happened, there's been proposals for, an effort was made to try and find a site near Sellafield for deep disposal and it was; for various reasons which are spelled out in the book, it didn’t go forward.
And so the paradox is here you have the problem, but the solution is not fully accepted by the whole Cumbrian community. I think the explanation for that is fairly straightforward. People are uncertain. They don’t believe necessarily that bringing in waste from all over the area is going to be safely stored. And their problem is what I am advocating, which is to carry on managing this stuff properly. But I think the problem with Sellafield is it’s got – it gives out mixed messages. It is one of the things that keeps the British nuclear industry in being, and at the same time it’s the big problem; because the big problem for the nuclear industry ultimately is “what do you do with the waste”?
And one of the things I hope my book will inspire, and what I hope others will do is to say “look, nuclear waste and all that goes with it, links back to things like the bomb, renewable nuclear energy and all the rest of it, is a problem which we do have to manage, but for God’s sake let’s not create more.” And I think that comes out quite clearly in the more detailed analysis that I have in the book.
Had the Fukushima disaster played any role in decision making in Britain on nuclear energy? Because we mentioned how important it was for the German government decision but it doesn’t seem to have the same effect in the UK?
You’ve compared Germany and Britain. I think Fukushima was the thing that tripped it. I don’t think on its own Fukushima was responsible because there were – there were moves to finish the nuclear industry prior to Fukushima. I think what Fukushima might have done was to make that point of arrival more clear. And because Germany has long had a pretty anti-nuclear culture, for all sorts of political reasons, in the UK it’s been rather different. There was the announcement of a nuclear revival or renaissance in the early years of this century and suddenly it was all systems go and the reasons seem to be that it was the answer to climate change. You know you’ve got a low carbon technology here. It would give – it was part of the necessary mix because you needed base load power. We've got to keep the lights on. We’ve got to save the planet. All those sorts of buzzwords were going around. And there was deeply embedded a nuclear lobby, which I think was powerful. The discourse was pro-nuclear. There was a sort of political inertia and therefore when Fukushima occurred and when people like myself thought “surely the game’s up now” - it wasn’t.
And it is quite interesting because the arguments were used that it [Fukushima] couldn’t happen here. It’s a sort of one-off event. We have the safest industry in the world and that was demonstrated by various reviews and all the rest of it. In other words, the nuclear establishment and their political allies, which are widespread apart from the Green Party and the SNP in this country, overcame the blip of Fukushima. But I think that was because that discourse was already embedded in the same way as a different discourse was embedded in Germany. And therefore the outcome is explained in that way.
But I must say at some point that when a nuclear disaster occurs again, as it assuredly will, because Charles Perrow long ago regarded nuclear disasters as normal accidents. When it occurs, and if it occurs in somewhere like France or the UK or whatever, I mean: that will be a moment of truth. But I think the discourse will shift in this country at some point.
It’s becoming more and more evident that nuclear really has no future economically. It doesn’t really have a very important part to play in the energy mix. It can't go exactly anywhere and find the money or the – or the technology to produce. The whole thing is a mare’s nest. A complete disaster. The only thing is, maybe it’s got enough life in it to do a bit more damage before it finally dies.
Well, as we are now learning about these pretty horrific stories coming from Japan regarding Fukushima where, in my understanding, the situation is deteriorating quite severely, it still might have an effect on the discourse as you describe it, and maybe another element in the domino effect which might lead to –
Well, I don’t think I want to speculate any further than what –
Because Fukushima is not one of the sites you analysed, but you do mention it in the book. I was wondering whether you could give me a kind of update on what's going on there because recent stories are pretty scary.
There is a persistent discourse at the moment, which is pro-nuclear for various reasons, in the UK, which was capable of overriding the Fukushima issue because it was far away and was … as something different, wouldn't happen here and was essentially a Japanese problem. I think that could all shift later, not just because of Fukushima but other things are happening which will, I think, up-end the industry ultimately. But whether it will do it sooner rather than later I don’t know. Ask me whether nuclear power stations are gonna be built in this country - I simply don’t know and we may never know.
Fukushima did cause a big impact on Japan, but the interesting thing about the industry is how it survives and why it survives. And although you may say that the impacts of Fukushima are significant, the industry and the government will be telling you that ‘nobody’s actually died, have they?’. We don’t know if anybody’s died. It’s not like the coal industry where they, you know, the death rate is very, very high. The whole thing was a ridiculous exaggeration, moving all these people out and the problems they have was trauma from movement rather than any sort of contamination. They're now desperately trying to get people to come back into the area to demonstrate that it’s sanitised and safe, and there's a lot of argument that it isn't and so on. I mean the ability for the industry to sort of try and clean up and close down a debate is – is fascinating to me. And I think if you listen to their story, their story is kind of: “it’s not such a big deal after all - and we can! After all they are thinking of opening reactors in …” The strength of that industry and its power against all the odds, I think is; well I can say no more than “it’s fascinating” but I actually think it’s quite dangerous.
So the future remains an open question really?
Yes it does – in different countries.
I'd like to thank you for the interview, Andy. Many thanks.
Prof. Blower’s book ‘The Legacy of Nuclear Power’ is available in bookstores.