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Haunted by history: nuclear new build in Britain

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
East Midlands Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament

Part 3: After Fukushima 
Earlier reports in the Nuclear Monitor (714 and 715) about nuclear new build in Britain stressed how the project of a ‘Nuclear Renaissance’ is haunted by its own Nuclear Dark Ages – legacies from the long history of civil nuclear power in the UK. These legacies include accumulations of radioactive waste, the burden of decommissioning generations of old reactors and a history of explicit public subsidy and failed sell-offs that show the commercial non-viability of nuclear power. The Sellafield site, a decommissioning nightmare and a nuclear House of Horrors, concentrates these problems in a single space. The memory of Chernobyl is also a figure in this nuclear dance macabre. It is assiduously minimised officially, but documented and commemorated by critical health researchers, anti-nuclear campaigners and charitable groups concerned with children’s health and well being in the contaminated areas.

Once Westminster governments, from about 2004, adopted new nuclear, they had to try to lighten this weighty inheritance. The main strategy, never wholly realised, was to split off new nuclear from old as a new dawn, a renaissance without a dark ages. This splitting occurred in political discourse, but also institutionally and financially. Disposing of the legacy was to be overseen by a new state institution, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, and financed mainly through taxation, while new nuclear was to be a work of ‘the market’ – of private companies with ‘no public subsidy’. In this context, not only is Fukushima a terrible unfolding disaster for the Japanese people, it is also a threat to the nuclear revival. It threatens to disrupt the carefully constructed dichotomies of civil versus military, past versus present, public versus private, good atom versus bad atom. It is a powerful reminder of the dangers of civil nuclear power and its military connections. Happening so near the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster gave it additional resonance.

The Conservative/Liberal-Democrat government, having largely adopted Labour’s nuclear plans, must now manage the challenge of Fukushima along with the other nuclear contradictions. It must also find solutions to its own inner conflicts on nuclear questions.

Fukushima from a British Perspective
Fukushima is as serious a nuclear accident as Chernobyl, a slow, unfolding tragedy, On 12 April, over a month after the earthquake and tsunami, it was declared a Level 7 accident – the same as Chernobyl. According to the USA’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) by 7 April the four damaged Fukushima reactors had released only a 1/10 of the radioactive material released from Chernobyl’s single reactor yet contained much more. In early June, after an IAEA inspection, the Japanese government more than doubled its estimate of leaking radioactivity from 370,000 terabequerels to 770,000, perhaps 20% of the Chernobyl count. Partly because of the Chernobyl anniversary, partly because of the wider catastrophe, the nuclear aspects were extensively covered in mainstream media. This was accompanied, however, by attempts to minimize the human impacts of both 1986 and 2011.

Though media analysis is not the aim here, it would be interesting to compare the largely pro-nuclear coverage in England with Germany, Scotland or even the USA, to explore the different nuclear cultures.

Despite official and media denials, each week brought worse news, on top of the heart-breaking scenes of destruction by quake and wave. At least eighty thousand people have been uprooted by the nuclear disaster – possibly for their lifetimes, certainly long-term – from an area 12 miles (20 km) around the reactors – and also from settlements beyond the exclusion zones, to the North West where the prevailing winds blow. The distribution of contamination has been uneven, according to landscape and weather, so no uniform perimeter can encompass it. In the latest (June) official reports further evacuations are envisaged. There has also been ‘voluntary’ flight from the region. The food chain, water supplies and the neighbouring seas have been polluted by iodine-131 (with a half-life of days) and caesium-137 (with a half life of 30 years). Raised levels of caesium-137 have been detected in school playgrounds in Fukushima province outside the exclusion zone, prompting controversies about ‘safe doses’ for children and vigorous self-help solutions by parent groups.

Caesium-137 is used as an indicator of contamination as in the post-Chernobyl mappings, but this does not mean it is the only radionuclide released. The spent fuel rods in the cooling pools (at least one of which developed cracks) lost their safety cover of water and, apart from the hydrogen explosions that sent plumes into the air, we now know there were meltdowns in three reactors and leakages from the pressure vessels (‘melt throughs’) in at least one. The release of plutonium, uniquely produced in reactors and very long-lived and poisonous to life, seems likely. Again this was confirmed in June when small amounts of plutonium were reported a mile outside the plant gates.

Workers at the site, like the ‘liquidators’ at Chernobyl, will have suffered dangerous levels of radiation the consequences of which may not show for decades. Foreign governments have taken precautions for their nationals that suggest dangers well outside the exclusion zone. Small traces of radionuclides from Fukushima have been identified in Idaho, Washington State and even Britain. It is much too soon to count the full health costs, or boast, as some British commentators have, about the resilience of the technology. The disruption to everyday life is palpable and, as protest begins there, Japan is once more the suffering and active centre of a global anti-nuclear movement.

The environmental dispersion of radionuclides is not over. NISA, the much-criticized Japanese nuclear safety watchdog, has recently assessed that no more than 1% of the fuel from three units has so far leaked. There remains a danger of more hydrogen explosions, spewing radioactive materials into the air. There are about 60,000 tons of contaminated water in the basements of the reactor buildings. On the 18th April TEPCO acknowledged it may take as long as 9 months to get the reactors ‘under control’, let alone encase buildings full of radioactive material.

Applying Fukushima: How Accidents Can Happen.
>Analysis of Fukushima suggests that three conditions, coming together, prompt accidents.

1. A design fault in a reactor.
2. A failure of regulation and/or of company compliance.
3. An unexpected event that shows up these weaknesses.

Due to the intrinsic volatility of fission, design problems are common. Regulators identify some of these when they assess a new design. There is genuine expertise and a real culture of safety in regulative bodies, hence the protracted ‘generic’ UK approval process for both EPRs and AP1000s. If, however, governments are committed in advance to nuclear, the regulators, who are never more than semi-independent, are under pressure to approve an available design. There is also much exchange of personnel and expert communication with the nuclear industry.

Other problems emerge after the design has been approved often at the building stage – witness the long delays and soaring costs for the first EPRs being built in Finland and France, or similar delays over the first PWR reactor at Sizewell. Even so, some weaknesses are discovered only when the reactors are already running and things go wrong.

This was the case with the failed cooling systems at Fukushima. The early models of water-cooled reactors depend on external power and water supplies that are vulnerable to events like earthquakes and flooding. It seems that the earthquake had already damaged the cooling systems at Fukushima No.1 before the tsunami struck (Nuclear Monitor 727). Recognition of this weakness has had surprising consequences. There is only one civil PWR reactor in the UK – Sizewell B on the Suffolk coast - but the navy’s whole fleet of nuclear submarines, including the Vanguard class that carries Trident nuclear missiles, is powered by early PWRs. Following expert demands for future submarines to be fitted with PWR3s with ‘passive systems’, the cost of replacing Trident-carrying submarines has had to be raised. This confirms the links - in case we had forgotten them - between civil and military applications and their risks.

Inspectors of nuclear installations in Britain between 2001 and 2010 reported over 1,700 incidents of non-compliance. At Fukushima the permitted volume of spent fuel rods stored in pools on the site was exceeded, making them more vulnerable to a water-cooling breakdown. During June’s post-mortem, conducted by the IAEA as well as NISA, it has been admitted that the anti-tsunami engineering was also inadequate. TEPCO has a poor compliance record under a CEO who was ‘an enthusiastic cost-cutter’ (Guardian, 30 March 2011). On the side of regulatory machinery, NISA lacked independence both from government and the industry and communication between the company and the government was poor, even during the crisis. 

Stressing discrete deficiencies like these, however, can hide the larger structural problems of which they are symptoms. A higher sea wall at Fukushima would barely have touched the endemic perils of a large-scale nuclear industry in a land prone to earthquake and tsunami. Similarly, the conflict between economy and safety is a structural feature of privatized nuclear industries, as the financial collapse of TEPCO and the travails of Japan’s regulators show.

Regulatory regimes have a fundamental role of public reassurance. Though, in Britain, minor incidents are reported, they are usually limited to specialist or local media.  When bigger stories break, a chief role of regulative bodies is to insist on palliative action and new forms of micro-management. It takes a Fukushima to lay bare deeper patterns of complicity between governments, their experts and companies. Regulatory bodies and expert institutions, like the IAEA and the Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) internationally, or the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ORN) and Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment (COMARE) in the UK do attend to safety and the measurement of risk, but they are also under pressure not to reveal the whole truth if it undermines nuclear power as such.  COMARE’s recent report, reviewing the evidence on infant leukemia, including the KiKK study (Child leukemia in the proximity of nuclear power plants), is a case in point. It confirms, as Ian Fairlie notes, the widespread finding of raised rates of infant leukemia within 5km of nuclear power stations, but refuses to give it any significance, arguing that causes must lie elsewhere than proximity to power stations.

Unexpected events happen - as we all know from our own lives. The equivalent in the UK, to a major earthquake and a tsunami (which might have been predicted in NE coastal Japan) might be a major flooding episode on England’s East coast which is vulnerable to tide, erosion and sea rise. The fact that the French and British governments wish to exclude terrorist attack from the EC’s ‘stress tests’ of power stations (Nuclear Monitor 726) suggests that a genuine danger is being hushed up. When it comes to assessment of risks, the nuclear story is littered with examples of technological hubris. In 1983, the Soviet head of the IAEA’s Energy and Safety Department boasted about the safety planning for a new nuclear plant being built in Ukraine. The name of the plant was Chernobyl.

Easing in Nuclear: Coalition Policies
To understand official responses to Fukushima in Britain, we have to stress the strength of the political investment in new nuclear. Since the May 2010 general election, it has become clear that the new government is following the same pro-nuclear policy as New Labour, though with delays for yet more ‘consultations’. The political differences within the coalition on nuclear matters are being handled with some tactical skill on the Conservative side. During the election the Liberal-Democratic Party (Lib-Dem.) opposed both the replacement of the Trident and the building of new nuclear power stations, The coalition agreement, however, adopted the Conservative pro-nuclear line, while allowing Lib-Dems to dissent, so long as this did not threaten the parliamentary majority. So in its pursuit of power in government, the Lib-Dem party has been ‘beheaded’ by the old device of incorporating the leadership and disorganising the membership. As the Coalition edges towards a mainly nuclear solution, it is a Lib-Dem Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Chris Huhne) and a Lib-Dem Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Vince Cable) who lead the way.

The coalition remains committed to a future energy mix that includes new nuclear. It works closely with the nuclear industry. It has reduced the permitted sites for new build from ten to eight, all sites of existing reactors, It has changed planning procedures, retaining Labour’s relative disempowerment of local agencies but replacing its semi-independent commission with government ministers and departments as final decision-makers. In the same spirit, the Secretary of State for Local Government and Communities recently over-ruled local councils and popular referendum (voting 98% against) in order to approve the siting of a low-level nuclear waste dump near villages in Northamptonshire. This minimally engineered landfill site is likely to become the main repository of low-level nuclear waste from southern and central England (For the previous history of the Kings Cliffe conflict see Nuclear Monitor 713).

Ministers have continued to insist that there will be no public subsidies. At the same time, they have promised a carbon price floor of £16 a ton by 1 April 2013, a level that would benefit ‘the existing nuclear sector’ by £ 50m (US$82 or 57 euro) a year, twice as much as green producers. While inheriting Labour’s insistence that companies must have approved financial and technical plans for decommissioning and waste disposal before new construction begins, they are introducing a new clause (Energy Bill, Clause 102) that will prevent renegotiation of these agreements should costs rise. This allows for future public bale-outs. To cover the un-insurabilty of nuclear it is necessary to set a limit to a company’s liabilities. Under the Paris-Brussels Convention EU states can set an upper limit of Euro700m (US$ 1.01 billion).  Having started with a figure even more favourable to energy companies, the Coalition is now consulting on a £ 1bn (US$1.63bn or 1.13bn euro) limit. In any case these are subsidies designed to relieve investor anxieties. For legacy waste and the decommissioning of old plant the coalition retains Labour’s solution - public finance for new private consortia.

These forms of positive support for nuclear are accompanied by discouragement of large-scale carbon-limited alternatives. Most recently funding has been withdrawn from large-scale solar projects and a tax has been imposed on the remaining reserves of North Sea gas. Many independent green energy producers are critical of coalition policies, while the Confederation of British Industries has criticised a lack of direction in renewables policy. The UK is currently spending just over half of what France is spending and under a third of Germany’s spend on stimulating green innovation. Nor is any effort being made to limit the current rise in fuel prices, which hit consumers in hard times but benefits the same large companies that are pursuing nuclear solutions. The relative newcomer and major nuclear player EdF is rapidly increasing its UK market share. It is not yet clear how the dead stop to nuclear ambitions in Germany will affect the UK operations of RWE and E.ON, nor how Fukushima will affect investment decisions generally, but it is clear that every effort is being made to ease in new power stations in ways that amount to subsidy.

Handling Fukushima: Enter the Regulators
Unlike Germany, Switzerland and Japan itself, the British government, like France and the USA have chosen to stick with nuclear. The strategic, persuasive role of the regulative institutions is clear here, with signs of international co-ordination.

The main British response to Fukushima was to ‘pause’ new nuclear, meet with ‘representatives of the nuclear industry’ and commission Chief Nuclear Inspector Mike Weightman, to report on nuclear safety in the light of the disaster. It was clear from the beginning that Weightman would erect no barriers to new nuclear. As Energy Secretary Chris Huhne put it ‘I want to ensure that any lessons learned from Mike Weightman’s report are applied to UK’s new build programme’. Weightman himself was equally reassuring, calling Fukushima ‘unprecedented’ and aiming primarily ‘to add to our very robust safety standards and arrangements’. In something of a British coup, Weightman was also appointed to head the IAEA’s team to inspect Fukushima from May 27. As early as May 18, and before the Japan inquiry, he produced an “Interim Report’ the main conclusion of which was that ‘there is no need to curtail the operations of nuclear plants in the UK but lessons should be learned’ (Office For Nuclear Regulation 18 May 2011). While earthquake and tsunami were ‘far beyond the most extreme natural events that the UK would be expected to experience’ he nonetheless listed 25 main areas where companies and the government should review safety arrangements, including flood defences, fuel rod storage, electricity supplies and cooling systems. The Report was immediately accepted by the Minister and by the nuclear industry leaders who were consulted in its preparation and are applauded in its pages. EdF welcomed the report ’which will further enhance our strong nuclear safety performance and new build plans’. The issuing of the next Energy National Policy Statement – the basic document for future energy development -  will follow ‘as soon as possible’ and will not await Weightman’s full report in September. 

In this way reference to regulators has been used as a way to defend and even speed up lagging policies. The press, the companies and their corporate lawyers have hailed the interim report as  ‘a green light’ for nuclear new build.

Sources; Press (mostly on line) in UK, Germany, Japan and USA, especially the Guardian, Independent, Wall Street Journal, The Japan Times and Der Speigel (in English); COMARE, 14th Report, (2011), Dr Ian Fairlie, comment on COMARE published by the nuclear Free Local Authorities; Parliamentary Debates; NuClear News No. 29 May2011; Company and corporate legal sources e.g.;; Office for Nuclear Regulation, Health and Safety Executive, ‘Fukushima  - Interim Lessons Learnt’.

Contact: Richard Johnson, Chair East Midlands Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament