Published in Tribune, 18 January 2008
AFTER two decades in the deep freeze, the nuclear issue is warming up again. Following last year’s rigged consultation, the Government has announced that it is going to do what it intended to all along – build a new generation of nuclear plants. This is a bad thing, if only because of the brazen manner in which it has run roughshod over many legitimate concerns.
Meanwhile, an initiative it had tried to keep quiet has come to light, as it emerged that a Government agency has paid a local council to accept an expanded nuclear waste dump in its backyard. This, despite hostile coverage, is a good thing.
The joke “consultation” on nuclear power was always going to be carried out in the style of a Floridian election, with blatant intimidation (“Oppose this and the lights will go out”), propaganda (“This is the only way to stop global warming”) and a rigged result. This column (Tribune June 1) predicted it would be a sham and, rather gratifyingly, in the following months, Greenpeace pulled out of the process and former energy minister Brian Wilson more or less admitted to Tribune (September 28) the whole thing was a joke. It’s nice to be proved right sometimes – even if what I was right about was a shambles.
I’m deeply ambivalent about nuclear power, as are many people. The risk of a catastrophic accident is very small – the only time this has ever happened was in the Soviet Union, a nation not known for its health and safety culture. However, there are other issues that remain unresolved, including non-catastrophic accidents that can still release radioactive nasties, and the awkward question of what to do with the toxic waste produced by these plants. There seems to be a consensus that the best way to deal with this stuff is to dig a deep hole in the ground, bury it and forget about it. But the fact remains that, in more than 50 years of commercial nuclear power around the world, not one fuel rod has been permanently disposed of in a deep repository – because no country has been brave or stupid enough to build one.
The siting of nuclear power plants and waste storage facilities is another problem. If, as a country, we decide we need them, they need to be built somewhere. So, how to convince locals to accept one in their backyard? Sensibly, the Government seems to be moving in the direction of building any new plants next to existing ones, mitigating the impact of the long and confrontational (yet largely phoney) planning processes that bedevilled the construction of new-build nuclear power stations in the 1970s. For the burial of high level nuclear waste, no solution exists (yet), but the news that emerged earlier this month from the Cumbrian village of Drigg might show one way of engaging with concerns about the building of power plants and the disposal of low-level waste.
Nuclear installations, for obvious reasons, tend to be sited in remote areas and inevitably have major effects on local people: pollution, possible radiation leaks, traffic, construction and noise from building, as well as the effect of numerous incomers, disruption of close-knit communities and so on. Locals bear the brunt of the problems caused by such projects, yet see little in the way of rewards – even the jobs that are created tend to go to skilled outsiders. When the Dounreay complex was built in the 1950s, the population of nearby Thurso trebled – and the pressure unbalanced the local economy. Fifty years on, the cost of housing there remains about a third higher than in neighbouring towns. And the plant’s shoddy safety record has left a legacy of pollution and contamination in the area. Nimbyism is a rational response to this sort of situation.
Given all this, the hostile reaction to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority paying the Cumbrian village of Drigg to accept an expanded radioactive waste dump seems a little odd. The local council withdrew its objections to the planning application in return for regular payments both to the village and to the council. The NDA gets its dump – which has to go somewhere, after all – and locals get money to spend on whatever their elected representatives see fit. The only people who seem unhappy are a few knee-jerk environmentalists and The Independent, which denounced the payment as a “bribe”.
I’m not sure what the environmentalists’ opposition is, other than they don’t like nuclear waste. (Who does?) But this isn’t really at issue. Even if we never build another nuclear power station again, the stuff won’t go away. And the sort of material stored at sites like these is low-level waste like contaminated clothing and less dangerous radioactive material – much of it from hospital X-ray and radiotherapy machines. The closest these objections get to a sound argument is the claim that the Drigg site is at risk of coastal erosion – which may be true, but is hardly an argument against the principle of paying communities who live near nuclear installations. The language of “bribery” is stranger still. Tribune doesn’t bribe me to work here, and I don’t bribe my landlady to live in my flat. And Independent readers don’t bribe their newsagents to let them read this kind of nonsense. These are all perfectly legitimate exchanges, where money is traded for a service.
The people of Drigg are doing us all a big favour. If we’re going to put our nuclear waste in their backyard, it’s only fair that they get something in return.
Friday, January 18, 2008
Published in Tribune, 18 January 2008
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