Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Radioactive Kent?

Consideration of a nuclear waste storage facility at Dungeness is starting to hot up. But protestations of jobs and the safety implications of 4,000 flasks of UK nuclear waste are likely to be drowned out. Not only by the realities of Sellafield in Cumbria already holding almost all UK nuclear waste, but the geological changes of Kent’s coastline over the next few centuries.

Centuries of change?

Britain’s total nuclear waste may only be enough to fill the Albert Hall and larger than 160 football pitches but the storage dump, even if approved tomorrow, would not be built until 2040.

The site would not be full of waste until 2074, with the whole site then filled in and covered over and fenced-off. A process that of course has never been done before. And the site will still be contaminated for hundreds of years – facing all the unknown geological shifts and pressures of the centuries passing.

Imagine how the Kent coast has changed in just the last 200 years. Whether it’s the regular Dover Strait earthquakes, North Sea floods, or even the Climate Change patterns of the last few months of record droughts and floods.

The closure of Dungeness A, and B taken offline for years for maintenance work with permanent closure before 2018 means the site is already largely redundant. Plans for a Dungeness C are nowhere near finalised.

The peril of nuclear buildings on the Kent coast – albeit far from Maidstone and London – is of course best highlighted by the disaster at Fukushima.

Nuclear legacy

The legacy of the third nuclear disaster in Japan is 20 miles of contaminated coast (in an area of Japan famed for its seafood), dozens of towns and villages abandoned, and upto $200Bn of economic disruption with even Tokyo suffering power blackouts.

Or there’s the German example of shutting down all 20 of their nuclear reactors in the wake of Fukushima – along with similar reviews by Switzerland, Poland and Italy. The German storage facilities at Gorleben and Asse – following the same “Big Hole” approach suggested for Dungeness, but in salt-mines - are already hotly debated with frequent reports of leaks of radioactive brine from the waste.

Tilman Pradt, Analyst at Wikistrat think tank said: “Fukushima has been a wakeup call to how Germany and other nuclear nations properly deal with their nuclear waste both now and for future generations.”

And Germany is probably more intrinsically anti-nuclear than most European nations – after the devastation wrought by conventional weapons during WW2 plus the risk of tactical nuclear howitzers – of Saddam’s 45 minutes of WMD fame - during the Cold War. Nuclear electricity was originally a merely byproduct of these various 1950’s weapons programmes.

And Britain’s plans for 10 replacement nuclear power stations - after Dungeness and 11 others are fully decommissioned - has run into the buffers. Russian and Chinese operators are now being considered after concerns over EDF and Areva’s EP reactor systems delivery and electricity pricing. And further delays may arise with the EU calling for all 14 European nuclear nations to specify a single waste site by 2015 – not necessarily within national borders.

Surely the hope is that North Korea’s nuclear tests of 2006 and 2009 are the first and last tests of the 21st century. While Iran considers other methods of electricity production such as solar – especially as the world’s 430 nuclear reactors provide only 13% of global energy.

Renewing nuclear

It’s almost perverse that Kent one of the sunniest parts of Britain, has only just begun developing solar farms here in East Kent, or embracing renewables such as wind turbines as part of the energy mix. The windfarm boom is peaking with the refusal of Vestas to invest in Sheppey, while even the stumbles over the solar feed-in tariffs to kickstart the industry means we have some way to go to rival Germany’s 10% of energy production from renewables.

It’s a shameful missed opportunity given that way back in 1979 President Carter installed solar panels on the White House roof; while we struggle even to improve the energy profile at County Hall. And Kent’s cleanup legacy as the Garden of Kent is hardly sparkling with nuclear submarine waste at Chatham Dockyard, the Stour and Medway the UK’s most polluted rivers, or serial polluters like Infratil, Southern Water, Environment Agency and Thor.

And if Dungeness is unlikely to be the UK’s nuclear store then the spectre of radiation is still close at hand for Kent. French nuclear stations such as Gravelines sit on the Channel coast. The resulting discharge – or even 28,000 barrels of waste dumped at sea near the Channel Islands - is exactly the same type of concern that Eire has from Sellafield’s liquid waste.

Nuclear power isn’t the future for Kent in the 21st century – unfortunately the great experiment begun at Berkeley Magnox in 1963 as the UK’s first civil nuclear power plant means we’ll still be scrubbing the legacy clean well beyond even the 22nd century.

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