Toxic Pond propaganda to aid depopulation and turn people against Nuclear Energy
The most toxic pond in Europe: Sellafield will cost £10bn to make safe… but at least Harold Wilson won’t have to pay for it
By Fred Pearce
PUBLISHED: 02:07, 11 March 2012 | UPDATED: 02:07, 11 March 2012
You probably didn’t notice but, at the end of February, Oldbury nuclear power plant, on the banks of the River Severn in Gloucestershire, shut after 45 years of operation.
If it were any other variety of industrial plant, they would soon be dismantling it.
But once the nuclear fuel is removed, the nuclear boffins don’t plan to touch it again until at least 2096, when the difficult and expensive task of dismantling the reactor and disposing of the thousands of tonnes of radioactive rubble will begin.
Oldbury joins nine other mothballed ‘Magnox’ nuclear plants, from Dungeness in Kent to Chapelcross in southern Scotland. They were mostly built in the Sixties and shut down in the past decade or so.
All are still packed with concrete and steel that will stay radioactive for hundreds of years. They will soon be followed by the next generation of advanced gas-cooled reactors (AGRs), mostly built in the Seventies and scheduled to close in the next decade or so.
Most will remain locked up under what the industry calls ‘care and maintenance’ until the 22nd Century. Why do we allow this? That’s not giving the task to our children, but to our great-great-grandchildren.
I am not anti-nuclear. I am a convert to nuclear power. That may be an odd thing to say on the first anniversary of the Fukushima meltdown, but the way I look at it, the Japanese nuclear power plant was one of the few places hit by the tsunami where nobody died.
And since I believe we need lots of low-carbon energy to prevent climate change, nuclear looks like the best option. It is much more likely to deliver than wind turbines or solar panels.
So I want more nuclear power in Britain. But we have to do it right. And the reluctance of our nuclear masters to clean up the billion-pound messes around Britain’s coasts is shameful.
No other industry is allowed to do this. And no other nuclear nation is shirking responsibility for cleaning up its toxic nuclear legacy in this way. The Americans, French, Germans and Japanese all plan on dismantling most of their old reactors as soon as they can.
Some in the UK nuclear industry agree with me that we should too. David Bradbury, chairman of the UK Nuclear Industry Association’s Decommissioning working group, said recently: ‘We have a moral obligation not to impose such responsibilities on future generations.’
A policy of turning the key and tiptoeing away could undermine Government plans for a ‘nuclear renaissance’.
The official line is that dismantling – decommissioning, as they like to call it – will be safer later, because some of the radioactivity will decay away.
There is some truth in that. But we are out on a limb with that argument.
THE real reason may be cost. Talking to scientists at the Royal Society in London last year, then Energy Secretary Chris Huhne admitted that unlike most other countries, Britain had never put money into a special fund for decommissioning.
The idea was to pay the bill out of Government coffers. That might have seemed a good idea back in the days of Harold Wilson’s white heat of technology, but not now.
We are also reaping the rewards of our technological hubris. Back then, British atomic scientists thought they knew best how to build nuclear plants.
But their unique reactor designs – such as Magnoxes and AGRs – also proved uniquely expensive to build.
And it now turns out that they will be uniquely expensive to dismantle too. About a billion pounds a throw.
That is because our outsized concrete nuclear structures contain far more radioactive rubble than the steel prefabricated plants built in France, Germany and the US.
Hundreds of thousands of tons of radioactive waste will have to be stored safely and eventually buried deep underground – in a sealed vault we haven’t started building yet because nobody fancies one in their back yard.
All this is bad enough. But it isn’t the worst. These power plants are only part of the nuclear legacy.
Many of the big-ticket decommissioning items are at Sellafield on the Cumbrian coast. Sellafield was built in the Forties to make the British bomb. Only later did we decide to use the power of the atom to generate energy as well. And Sellafield remains where we send the nastiest military and civil waste, such as plutonium-laced ‘spent fuel’ that has done its work in the power stations.
Sellafield is a nuclear cesspit. As Huhne said: ‘When waste started piling up, we crossed our fingers and hoped it would all go away.’ It didn’t.
I toured there recently. They are almost proud to call it the most concentrated nuclear dustbin on Earth. Among much else, it contains three scary open-air ponds. Their constantly circulating waters keep cool hundreds of tons of highly radioactive reactor fuel and debris that were hastily dumped there half a century ago.
The ponds’ waters are topped off with a layer of radioactive sludge and algae.
Their minders say they are ‘the most hazardous industrial buildings in western Europe’. Making each of them safe could cost a cool £10 billion.
Looming over Sellafield is the 120-metre chimney of one of our old bomb-making reactors, the Windscale Piles.
One of the piles caught fire in 1957, sending a radioactive cloud across the country – Britain’s very own Chernobyl.
Today the pile is sealed up, with all the charred and radioactive debris from the fire still inside. Operators I spoke to said it was too dangerous even to drill a hole and peep inside to see what was there. Drilling might restart the fire.
So decommissioning the pile has been endlessly postponed. The current start date is 2019. Price tag unknown.
BRITAIN has decommissioned one reactor – just to show we can. It is the prototype for the fleet of AGRs, also at Sellafield. They thought the task would take six years, but after 20 years it is only now being completed. I watched as robots scooped up some of the final remains from the reactor floor.
The radioactive debris is now in 120 concrete boxes, each two metres high and stacked in a neighbouring giant store.
I walked in and touched the boxes. ‘It’s safe,’ said project manager Ian Cowan. No protective clothing needed. The waste will eventually have to be buried deep underground, but ‘all the radioactivity is retained within the boxes’.
Nice job. But the bad news is that, to get this far, has cost £111 million. And this prototype reactor is only one-twentieth the size of the AGRs still operating at Dungeness, Hartlepool and elsewhere. The current budget for decommissioning each full-size plant is £375 million.
But why would a reactor 20 times as big cost only three times as much to make safe?
Huhne said that decommissioning Britain’s nuclear ‘legacy’ will cost £54 billion. I was told the real figure is likely to be double that. Just clearing Sellafield will cost £50 billion, including removing enough radioactive soil to fill 77 lorry loads every day for 20 years.
No wonder they are putting off the evil day. No wonder Ministers busy talking up a ‘nuclear renaissance’ don’t much like mention of it.
I support a renaissance. But there is no way it should happen until we agree to clean up this mess.