Fifty years ago this week, scientists at Windscale nuclear fuel plant in Cumbria finally brought under control a fire in a stack of fuel rods that had been raging for days. By then the fire had already pumped out an estimated 20,000 curies of radioactive iodine, plutonium, caesium and polonium, sending a toxic cloud over the north of England and Ireland. It was an accident waiting to happen and occurred as a direct result of speeding up production of tritium needed for Britain’s nuclear bomb. Warnings that production methods were unsafe were ignored by a government desperate to stay in the arms race.
A similar plant at Chapelcross in Dumfriesshire suffered a meltdown in 1967. The public was told that the Windscale and Chapelcross plants were producing electricity but both were primarily manufacturing weapons grade nuclear fuel. At one point Windscale was actually drawing power from the national grid. These are just the highlights of a long history of leaks, accidents and cover-ups by the nuclear industry and the state. Only last month, the Douneray site in Scotland imported seven tonnes of irradiated uranium oxide from France without getting proper permission.
At Chapelcross, Windscale, Douneray and across the country the clean up operations for Britain’s first generation nuclear facilities continues. The overall cost of decommissioning is estimated at £37bn, a figure that is frequently revised upwards. Every one of Britain's current nuclear installations is on a site threatened with flooding as sea levels rise. Yet later this month the New Labour government plans to give the go-ahead for a new generation of privately-run nuclear power stations in the UK.
They will use the results of a phoney consultation to support their decision. On one Saturday in September, nine groups of people met in Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Exeter, Leicester, Liverpool, London, Newcastle and Norwich to “input their views”. Background materials did not mention any of the facts set out here. There was no reference to costs and it was implied that, apart from Windscale, nuclear accidents are a sort of foreign thing.
At the end of the day, people were asked to balance the potential benefits, risks and implications of continuing nuclear energy in the UK. On balance, 44% agreed that, in the context of tackling climate change and ensuring energy security, it would be in the public interest to give energy companies the option of investing in new nuclear power stations. Some 37% disagreed while 18% neither agreed nor disagreed.
Over half (51%) of those who took part were either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the government’s proposal to manage new nuclear waste and 83% were either concerned or very concerned about safety and security issues associated with nuclear power. And “there was general agreement that renewable sources should feature strongly in the UK’s energy mix” and for that nuclear should play even less of a role than it does currently” and “whilst recognising the risks, the public who took part believed that, if the UK continues to have nuclear energy, this should be an interim measure only”. Not exactly the ringing endorsement the government was hoping for.
Energy policy is now dealt with by the Department for Business and Enterprise. These new power stations will only happen if they can generate profits for the big energy companies. Anyone like to put a bet on who will be paying for cleaning up the waste at the end of the day? Or on the strong possibility of a devastating accident and/or cover-up?
AWTW environment editor