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Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(October 24, 2003) NGOs and action groups working on the issue of nuclear energy are often being asked about their opinion on the issue of waste storage. "Given the fact that radioactive waste has been produced - and will be there for ages to come - what do you think should happen - which solution is the best" is the common question. And most NGOs reply: "as long as the production of the waste is continuing we will not participate in any "solution"-finding efforts. Production of it must first be halted". Nevertheless we thought it be interesting to run the following article as it gives an good insight in how the process towards finding a common ground could be undertaken.

(595.5555) David Lowry - Decades of listening only to the pro-nuclear lobby have left the government muddled and lost, but there is an alternative. On 15 September this year, the member states of the International Atomic Energy Agency gathered for their annual conference in Vienna. In his opening statement, the agency's director general, Mohamed el- Baradei, commented: "Regarding the long-term management of spent fuel and radioactive waste, we are seeing slow but steady progress."

And he noted that "in Europe, the Directorate-General for Energy and Transport of the European Commission recently proposed a directive that would require member states of the European Union to decide on repository sites by 2008 and to have the sites operational by 2018".

What of UK policy? Some time over the next month, the government will have a new nuclear advisory body to help it plan and manage its nuclear waste strategy. Around 400 people are said to have applied for the 12 positions on the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management, among them several open critics of the government's unfolding nuclear waste plan. Will ministers dare appoint any of these critics?

There is a precedent for supporters of the nuclear industry working hand in hand with its opponents. Five years ago BNFL, battered by negative press coverage and worn down by public hostility towards its nuclear fuel activities, took a radical step. It convened a large meeting of "stakeholders" at a rural retreat near Chester to discuss the activities of BNFL, particularly as they affect the environment. This eclectic group identified a list of concerns (at the top of which stood nuclear reprocessing) and identified "trust" as the key issue to be addressed in further meetings.

Thus the BNFL Stakeholder Dialogue was founded, and it has since staged dozens of meetings involving a broad range of interested parties: these include BNFL management and trade unionists; government departments; local authorities; its main UK customer, British Energy; regulators such as the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate and the Environment Agency (and, after September 2001, the Office for Civil Nuclear Security); and independent academic experts, as well as local and national - and, indeed, international - environmental critics.

The Dialogue has been mediated from the start by the U.K. Environment Council - which describes itself as an independent U.K. charity, bringing together people from all sectors of business, non-governmental organizations, government and the community to develop long-term solutions to environmental issues. Meetings are held not on BNFL property but at neutral venues, mainly in Manchester or Leeds.

Substantial reports on nuclear waste, radioactive discharges, nuclear transport, West Cumbrian regional employment and plutonium have been collectively drawn up and, importantly, published in full on the Environment Council website (, putting much new data into the public domain.

Current discussions center on the security of nuclear sites and on the business future for BNFL following the government's decision to split up the company when it creates the new super-quango, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority.

It hasn't all been plain sailing, with several green groups, including Greenpeace, dropping out to concentrate on campaigning. But the output of the Dialogue to date is increasingly interesting. In March this year, after an 18-month collaborative study, it produced its assessment on the future of plutonium. Running to nearly 200 pages, it is the most comprehensive technical, institutional and political study of the options available (see also WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor 587.5517: "UK: Plutonium working group").

In a reply to the Irish Green MEP Nuala Ahern, the European Commission praised the study as "a useful contribution to the ongoing debate about the long-term management of separated plutonium stocks", adding that "the Commission takes note that [BNFL] agrees, in general, with the recommendations of the Plutonium Working Group and plans actively to work together with the British government and other stakeholders to take the recommendations forward".

The report reveals, among other things, that BNFL holds around 80,000 kilograms of plutonium at Sellafield. Given that a devastating nuclear bomb can be built with just 5 kilograms of plutonium, the existence of such a vast stockpile creates a security risk - a tiny fraction of it in the wrong hands could cause a calamity.

To reduce the risk, the working group proposed an innovative strategy of "immobilization" which contrasted with BNFL's preferred option of recycling the plutonium in mixed uranium-plutonium (MOX) reactor fuel. This alternative is to convert the plutonium into a passively safe form, preferably in a ceramic matrix, suitable for long-term storage or perhaps eventual disposal. A key condition laid down by the working group is that "there should be a very high level of assurance that the plutonium could not be used illicitly outside the international safeguards regime".

The Dialogue is not a sop to critics or a piece of window-dressing. It provides BNFL with alternative perspectives it would not previously have encountered, and it also provides the critics and the public with information and a platform for constructive ideas.

It seemed encouraging, therefore, when a presentation of the plutonium report was made to the prime minister's special adviser on industry soon after its release. But oddly, in a written reply to the Labour MP Llew Smith on 17 July, Tony Blair declared: "As far as I am aware, I have received no representations" on the future management of plutonium. BNFL may be trying to listen to a wider range of views, but Whitehall is harder to penetrate.

Who was advising on nuclear policy and how good was the advice? The answers are depressing The recent behavior of Michael Meacher, the former environment minister, prompts similar thoughts. Besides causing a stir with his verdict on the World Trade Center attacks, Meacher has been asking some awkward questions about nuclear waste management at Sellafield. The pity is that he did not press these questions when he was a minister in a position to change things, but this begs two important questions: who was advising him on nuclear waste policy, and how good was the advice?

The answers are depressing. It is clear that the government's official adviser - the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee - has failed to point out to ministers the environmentally disastrous and economically insane implications of continued reprocessing. Moreover, the Environment Agency, with its mission to protect our environment, has failed to regulate Sellafield tightly enough to halt unnecessary radioactive discharges to the sea and air. What is missing is the critical voice.

The government now has an opportunity to improve on this, when it chooses the 12 members of the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management next month, and again next year with the creation of the super-quango on nuclear decommissioning.

The BNFL Stakeholder Dialogue offers a valuable model. Ministers should discard the historic bias towards blinkered pro-nuclear advisers which has served them so badly and appoint a majority of critical experts. Such critics may traditionally have been excluded from bodies of this kind, but they have a far better record for analyzing and predicting the development of the nuclear industry than the industry's cheerleaders.

[This article was published in the New Statesman of 29 September 2003 and was written by David Lowry, an independent environmental research consultant and a member of the BNFL stakeholder dialogue nuclear waste]

Source: New Statesman, 29 September 2003

Contact: WISE Amsterdam