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The legacy of nuclear waste

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jan Haverkamp

The Legacy of Nuclear Power

Andrew Blowers

Routledge, Tayler & Francis Group

Available in hard cover, paperback and as e-book (epub)

Book review by Jan Haverkamp

The Legacy of Nuclear Power is a book about nuclear waste. But different than most, the retired UK Open University professor Andy Blowers does not approach the issue from the side the techniques under investigation to manage it. His basis is the story of five nuclear legacy sites, but analysed from the experiences of the communities who live there.

With that, Blowers first of all gives a comprehensive overview of the history of Hanford in the Washington State, US, where the first plutonium for "Fat Man", the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, was produced. He describes how Windscale, later Sellafield became storage place for much of the United Kingdom's nuclear waste, but also how it created a nuclear community that attracts plans for final deposition of nuclear waste with a certain inevitability.

A double chapter describes how the French Cotentin Peninsula in Normandy ‒ now hosting the La Hague reprocessing facility, the La Manche low-level nuclear waste depository and the Flamanville nuclear power station ‒ relates to the proposed high-level waste site in Bure. Blowers closes his analysis with Gorleben in Germany, the site where fierce resistance has kept a nuclear take-over still within limits.

Blowers introduces quite a bit of theory, without becoming dry. His research is based on his own experience of being confronted in 1983 with the potential siting of a deep geological nuclear waste repository in Bedfordshire by the UK nuclear waste authority NIREX, when he was county councillor there. From that moment on, he dived into the quest for how humanity may deal with the nuclear legacy – as a member of several committees investigating options, including the famous Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM), as non-executive director of NIREX, as an academic, and as an activist.

From my contacts with many of his interviewees, I know that Blowers has always been genuinely interested in the human fate of all stakeholders in this quest. His many visits to the five described sites, his extensive interviews with authorities, operators, local chosen representatives, citizens and activists have shown certain patterns.

The leading line is the discovery that the nuclear legacy appears to be connected to peripheral places – mostly peripheral in a geographic sense, lowly populated, but also economically weak, becoming depending on a from the outside imposed nuclear mono-culture.

He recognises three levels of development. In the oldest three of the sites, Hanford, Sellafield and La Hague, the siting choice was done under a technical hegemony. Outside experts decided, announced and then defended their stance (DAD), slowly turning the areas into a nuclear oasis. In a next stage, Blowers describes how the development of Danger and Distrust in the 1970s and 1980s replaced the initial complacency and adaptation. DAD turns into DADA: decide – announce – defend – abandon.

His own experience with early NIREX illustrates this well: none of the proposed sites stood any chance because of local resistance. But in even more color he describes this in the history of Gorleben, where for the time being the chance on further nuclear development seems to have been stopped. Still, the problem of radioactive waste does not disappear, and Blowers then recognises the development of a period of collaboration. He describes the attempts of CoRWM in the UK to come with proposals how a participative process can help find a final resting place for high level wastes, and the very similar lines that are developed in Germany by AKEnd in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Although Blowers recognises the need for more openness and transparency, he doesn't fail to notice that once the UK government hijacked the conclusions of CoRWM with the justification of a new build nuclear programme, and when in Germany the poisoned chalice of Gorleben remained on the table, these proposals were bound to fail. He critically describes the role of local information committees in France.

Blowers continues to assess the power processes at work in these peripheral settings. And then comes to the conclusion that in dealing with nuclear legacies, there are three moral obligations:

  • procedural equity – if we really want to find a way forward, all stakeholders, but above all the local communities need to be part of the process that establishes the where, how and when;
  • intra-generational equity in the process needs to guarantee voluntarism and development of the well-being of those that need to carry the burden of our nuclear waste sites; and
  • intergenerational equity needs to take care that the burdens are not shifted to our children and grandchildren.

Blowers' historical description and analysis is very comprehensive. Often I was thinking "but here he misses..." only to find the next paragraph exactly addressing that issue. So much so, that even a few very obvious omissions can easily be forgiven. Blowers rightly identifies the push for a nuclear renaissance in the UK as a killer of any attempt of discursive solution for nuclear waste, but he misses the very similar role that Merkel's phase-out of the nuclear phase-out and the back-laying attempts from Germany's big four utilities to completely overturn it played in the lack of response to the work of AKEnd.

The book was a feast of recognition concerning the five cases, but also of developments in other cases like Onkalo in Finland, Forsmark in Sweden, the search for a Czech deep disposal or the low-level waste depositories in Romania and Slovenia and the frustration shared in European nuclear waste platforms.

Blowers describes very well the moral side of the decisions that need to be made, but I would like to deepen the understanding of how the lack of expertise and skill of many of the key decision makers in exactly those moral and ethical questions is covered up by technological vocabulary.

His dedication of the book to his family ‒ "In the hope of a better legacy" ‒ brings forward the question whether Blowers is optimistic about how the nuclear legacy is dealt with. Or whether that hope more reflects Vaclav Havel's definition of a deep and powerful sense within oneself that what you do makes sense, regardless of how it turns out?

Maybe the most important conclusion is almost hidden in the last paragraphs: "The burden of the existing legacy is unavoidable; we should not entertain having to deal with the avoidable wastes of a new build programme."

An excerpt from The Legacy of Nuclear Power is posted at

Jan Haverkamp is expert consultant on nuclear energy and energy policy for WISE, Greenpeace Central and Eastern Europe, Greenpeace Switzerland and vice-chair of Nuclear Transparency Watch.