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You want nuclear waste - you keep it! Don't dump it on us and our communitiies! Photo: AndreasS via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
You want nuclear waste - you keep it! Don't dump it on us and our communitiies! Photo: AndreasS via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
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Dear Bryony - don't dump your nuclear waste on us!

Dr Becky Martin

12th March 2013

The 'environmentalist' peer Baroness Worthington argued last week in the House of Lords for local authorities to be stripped of their powers to refuse the dumping of radioactive waste in their areas. Geneticist Becky Martin takes her to task in this Open Letter.

You have risen to a position of great power. You stood in the Moses room as someone who is known for their actions in protecting the environment, and damned it by championing nuclear power and nuclear waste dumping.

Dear Baroness Worthington,

I watched on in horror as you championed the removal of local authority's right to decide over the disposal of nuclear waste in their communities.

I didn't know who you were at the time, and your position of the matter left me thinking perhaps you were a stakeholder in some nuclear power supply chain company.

I was dismayed to learn that you used to be a key member of Friends of the Earth. Further research shows that you have a background in environmentalism and appear on the surface to be concerned with climate change.

So I ask myself, why would someone with your background be a champion of nuclear power? And why would you champion the disposal of nuclear waste underground at levels where groundwater circulates?

And why would you want this done without allowing the full scrutiny of councillors and planning officers? Why would you prefer to remove power from locally elected representatives and place decisions in the hands of one person, creating a potentially corruptible situation?

Nuclear power is not low carbon!

Nuclear power is not a low carbon energy source. There is a wide range of data on the carbon footprint of nuclear waste, much of which is industry rhetoric. Benjamin Sovacool's review found the average carbon footprint of nuclear power to be 66 gCO2/KWh, breaching the Committee on Climate Change's recommended limits. Keith Barnham's article in The Ecologist has more detail:

The fact is the carbon cost of decommissioning and waste handling is difficult to estimate - and if Sellafield's soaraway clean-up budget is anything to go by, carbon costs as well as financial ones could spiral.

Building geological disposal facilities to handle waste would not necessarily reduce these costs. Vitrification and construction are not low carbon pursuits. What would the carbon cost of a water contamination event be? The human cost would be far greater.

Then there is the issue of uranium mining, a carbon-costly enterprise. As this finite source depletes, ever lower quality of uranium ore will be sought, further increasing the energy required to extract the uranium, and raising the carbon price tag.

Fast breeder reactors technologies that could avoid some of the uranium ore issues have been tried, at enormous cost - and repeatedly failed due to intractable technological hurdles and monstrous expense, while their purported advantages in reducing long-lived nuclear waste have been hugely over-hyped.

Moreover despite bullish promises by the nuclear industry and its cheerleaders, for example over Hitachi's Prism design, they do not exist - and probably never will.

As for the 'molten salt' thorium reactor technology you espouse, it is fraught with most of the same issues as any other nuclear fission technology.

And thanks to serious and possibly unsolvable technological difficulties, it's a very long way of becoming a practical reality. Any large scale deployment is at least half a century away - by which time low cost renewables will surely dominate the world's power supply, and it will be completely redundant.

Finite investment funds must go into renewables!

The amount of subsidies the government wishes to funnel into the greedy jaws of nuclear power is quite frightening, locking us into ridiculous contracts for decades and guaranteeing fuel poverty in the future.

Who knows what the energy market will look like in ten, twenty years? Yet energy consumers may be having to pay inflation-proofed subsidies for Hinkley Point C - if it's ever built - to 2060 and beyond!

If renewable technology received the proper support - and that includes people like you ceasing to defend the nuclear industry that is threatening to grab almost all the UK's 'low carbon' energy funding -  we could be online to meet our carbon targets.

Cheerleading for new builds that take years to get off the ground, even if you do believe they are low carbon - in the face evidence that clearly suggests otherwise - could delay action on climate change that should be happening right now, but is being deliberately starved of funds.

What if those nuclear energy subsidies were instead promised to the solar, wind, tidal, anaerobic digestion and retrofitting industries? Wouldn't that be a far better way to tackle climate change?

There's nothing 'natural' about fission products!

But back to radioactive waste, which is a sticky issue. We have to deal with what we have, but most environmentalists and humanitarians agree that adding to that pile is madness. Why would someone with your credentials think otherwise?

You have risen to a position of great power. You stood in the Moses room as someone who is known for their actions in protecting the environment, and damned it by championing nuclear power and nuclear waste dumping and stressing that it was a nationally significant issue that extends beyond the lifetimes of the people living in the area.

You spoke about a pendulum of nuclear regulation and how radiation is 'natural'. Background radiation is natural. Mining ores, processing, enriching etc, is most definitely not natural. Even less so are the myriad fission products emitted by nuclear power plants, concentrated in spent nuclear fuel, and discharged during fuel reprocessing - and comparing the two through insinuation is both wrong and immoral.

How is reducing regulation ever a good move for protecting public health and safety?

You may be thinking right now that I am part of a public that is somewhat hysterical about radiation and its effects. I have a PhD in cancer biology and have studied the response of cells to irradiation.

I'm not frightened of a bit of background radiation, but I do have grave concerns about burying highly radioactive nuclear waste underground where it has to stay isolated for hundreds of thousands of years, without any of it ending up in our water supplies.

The one thing we know for certain about deep hydrogeology is that we don't know all that much about it. How can you guarantee the safety of our water supplies, and those of our children and their descendants? I suggest you read the 'Rock Solid?' review produced by GeneWatch on behalf of Greenpeace on geological disposal if you have not done so already.

I also very concerned about climate change, and quite aside from the radioactive waste issue, I am opposed to nuclear new builds due to their carbon emission consequences.

I would urge you to rethink your position on nuclear new builds and geological disposal on both pragmatic and ethical grounds.

 


 

Note: Baroness (Bryony) Worthington, a Labour peer, spoke in the House of Lords debate on the Infrastructure Planning (Radioactive Waste Geological Disposal Facilities) Order 2015. Read her 'right of reply' response to this article.

Dr Becky Martin earned her PhD at the Institute of Genetics, University of Nottingham and went on to work at the University of Oxford studying DNA repair gene expression in bladder cancer for three years. She is now a full time mother and environmental campaigner, and blogs here. Together with several other mothers she co-founded the group No Geo Nuke Dumping @NoNukeDumping. 

 

 

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