Kings Cliffe is a beautiful village, built of the gold-colored local stone typical north Northamptonshire in the English East Midlands. It has a population of 2000, including agricultural workers and also professionals who can commute to the rapidly expanding city of Peterborough. The village is about the same distance - 10-20 km - from two market towns Stamford and Oundle and the industrial town of Corby, which up to 1979 was a major center for steel making. North Northants, however, has joined West Cumbria (in the English Lake District) as epicenters for a struggle over nuclear waste in Britain.
Concern centers on the ‘East Northants Resource Center’, a curiously named landfill site on the outskirts of Kings Cliffe already certified to receive hazardous waste. It is owned and run by Augean plc, which has seven treatment and recycling centers and over two hundred employees nationally but no record of handling nuclear material. The group offers ‘to help you to dispose of your waste safely’, using ‘commercial and compliance led solutions in a complex, legislation driven market’. It asserts that ‘best practice is considered normal practice’.
In July 2009, it applied to the planning authority, Northamptonshire County Council, for permission to receive 250,000 tons of low-level nuclear waste each year. Since 2007, companies are permitted to use landfill sites for the dumping of ‘low level’ nuclear waste (with radioactive content of not more than 4GBq/t (4 Giga-becquerel per ton –1000kg) of alpha radiation and not more than 12 GBq/t of beta/gamma radioactivity) and ‘very low level nuclear waste’ (complexly defined in relation to volume and permitted amounts of tritium and carbon-14 especially).
Apart from the local authority, they must also obtain permission from the Environmental Agency, the regulative body under the 1993 Radioactive Substances Act. In practice once permission is given, on the basis of a radiological and environmental assessment by the company itself, the system is largely ‘self-regulating’.
Up until now, low-level waste has been held temporarily where it is produced or transported to the low-level depository at Drigg, Cumbria. Drigg has now almost reached full capacity, and consignments of waste are being refused there. Yet large amounts of low (and high and intermediate) waste will be produced from the decommissioning of the first generations of nuclear power stations and an alternative to Drigg is also urgently required by industrial, medical and military producers of waste. There is therefore a desperate need to persuade local populations to receive large amounts of irradiated cement, steel and organic materials, containing different radio-nuclides, each with different half-lives and posing rather different environmental dangers.
The waste crisis is accompanied by conflict over the building of up to 10 new nuclear power stations. The Blair and Brown governments, closely allied to the nuclear industries, speeded up the privatization of the nuclear cycle and energy supply. Nuclear was promoted as ‘solution’ to climate change and energy security. The new Conservative/Liberal-Democrat coalition government is less keen on nuclear. Indeed the Liberal Democrats probably benefitted electorally from their anti-nuclear stance in the May election. Contradictions within the government are being handled by reassurances to the nuclear companies and fierce warnings that there will be ‘no subsidies’. Since paying for the massive costs of decommissioning and waste storage is the key element in subsidies, struggles like those in Kings Cliffe and West Cumbria are critical. If legacy waste can be stored only by spreading it across the country, what will happen to waste from an expanded nuclear industry? There is also pressure on the receiving companies to decrease the costs of storage.
Kings Cliffe is notable too because of the villagers’ model campaign against Augean’s plans. They have explicitly set local anxieties within the context of national and European policies and the current scientific debates, citing for instance the principle of ‘proximity to source’ and the dangers of transporting waste across large distances. They use the contemporary media of Facebook, websites, e-mail lists and power-point presentations, as well as old-fashioned access to local media, pressure on local politicians, placards in village windows, street demos and public meetings in village halls. A pantomime horse recently showed the frailty of Augean’s security measures by frolicking in and around the dump. The decisive meeting of the Northamptonshire Planning Committee in March 2010 was attended by many citizens, with demonstrations outside and about 20 local people speaking against the proposal. Support for Waste Watchers also came from ‘expert’ groups, especially Peterborough Friends of the Earth (FoE) and the East Midlands Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament (CND). Even so, most commentators were surprised when the planning committee, consisting mainly of Conservative and Liberal Democrat councilors, voted unanimously to refuse Augean planning permission.
The hearing showed that the company was cutting its costs. Its technical specifications fell far behind ‘best practice’: no exclusion of water, plastic linings and bags, rather than concrete casing and metal drums, inadequate security and no solution to the build up of ‘leachate’ or radioactive water. The very rational local fear is that minute radioactive particles of different radio-nuclides will enter the atmosphere, food and ground water around the site, with effects on the local populations that will persist for aeons beyond the reach of monitoring or regulation.
The company is appealing the March decision to refuse permission. The appeal will be heard by a single Inspector in October 2010 but the government Minister responsible – who is or was a anti-nuclear Liberal-Democrat – has announced that the decision will be ‘called in’ – that is made the subject of a national political decision.
Sources include: www.augeanplc.com / The Guardian, 15 March 2010 / www.no2nuclearpower.org.uk / www.kingscliffewastewatchers.co.uk
Contact: Kings Cliffe Waste Watchers,