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In the hope of a better legacy: An interview with Prof. Andrew Blowers

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jan Haverkamp

Jan Haverkamp interviews Andrew Blowers, Emeritus Professor at The Open University. Jan reviewed Andrew's book 'The Legacy of Nuclear Power' in Nuclear Monitor #843 and this interview explores the issues in more detail.

Andrew Blowers is sitting for this interview in the very same study at home where he was confronted in 1983 as a county councillor with the proposal by the then UK authority responsible for nuclear waste, NIREX, to set up a near-surface disposal facility for low and intermediate level nuclear waste in Bedfordshire. We end our almost two hour session reflecting on what drove him to dedicate over 30 years of his life to the issue of radioactive waste and the nuclear legacy. It is that legacy that he addresses in his latest book 'The Legacy of Nuclear Power'.

Blowers: "I find this as academic and politician intellectually fascinating. The book has an intellectual core. And when confronted with these kind of happenings, I tend to react. But basically my initial reaction was 'this is wrong, this needs to be opposed and I will commit myself to this opposition'. And I have found out, that it is fundamentally wrong, ethically and scientifically. I have now started an NGO opposing plans for a new nuclear power station at Bradwell on the Essex coast in England. Those plans are diabolical. That is the correct word. It is going to bring environmental degradation and more than that an impact for generations to come. I look at the potential danger, which I believe to be massive, and see it is all unnecessary because I believe we can do with an energy future which is not nuclear. It is a matter of faith to me. A set of values."

Because Blowers dedicates his book to 'Varrie and our children and grandchildren in the hope of a better legacy', we discuss Václav Havel's reflections on hope in his 1986 interview Dálkový Výslech with Karel Hvíždala.

Blowers: "Havel says that hope is not necessarily optimistic. I vary in my optimism, whether or not there will be a nuclear future for the UK. But that does not detract from that I think this is wrong and that one should oppose it and therefore I put that dedication not just for my family but for future generations in general. My hope is that we are not going to consign and hand such a future to them. Apart from that, nuclear is a nice target to have. The nuclear industry is vulnerable. Its arguments are weak and they can be countered. I am not in a cause without momentum behind it. The intellectual and moral arguments are on the side of those who are opposed."

Five communities facing a nuclear legacy

Blowers analyses in his book the way that five communities are dealing with large nuclear legacies: Hanford in the US, Sellafield in the UK, La Hague and Bure in France and Gorleben in Germany. Hanford is a long-established legacy site. Its roots are in the second World War, the nuclear installations on the site do not function any longer, and it is all about clean-up. Sellafield is also an older site, with two-thirds of the country's legacy wastes awaiting clean-up and a few remaining production activities. The reprocessing is slowly winding down, but there are plans for a new nuclear power station at Moorside and the area is on and off in discussion for deep geological disposal of high level waste. La Hague is a still operating reprocessing site, and Bure is foreseen as the final depository for the high-level waste created in La Hague, but the process of establishing a depository is only in its early stages.

Where Blowers noticed that the first three sites were established in a period of hegemony of technology, where few questions were asked, followed by a period of confrontation moving into a more participative search for solutions, the dynamic in Bure is still in its infancy. Gorleben has a completely different history. Planned as a reprocessing site and final disposal for high level waste, local resistance slowly ground everything to a halt. Although there is still a temporary on-surface storage of high-level waste and the possibility of deep geological disposal has not been completely taken off the table, there is the impression that the region has been able to prevent becoming a major nuclear legacy spot.

The common denominator that Blowers works out is that all sites belong to the periphery of their countries: lightly populated, economically weak and politically powerless. And that they all are dealing with the longest legacy of the nuclear industry: high-level waste.

Blowers mentions in his book several times that there is said to be a consensus that deep geological disposal is the best solution for this high-level waste.

Blowers: "A consensus? I drafted as a member of the CoRWM [the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management, set up by the UK government in the early 2000s to advise about the policies on radioactive waste management] the fundamental policy statement on this. We said that in the present state of knowledge, geological disposal is the best method. However, if you read the rest of those recommendations, they are qualified in the sense that this has to be preceded by a period of intermediate storage and a search for alternatives and so on. That is not the way that the British government has interpreted it. We have got to look at the time scales here. Any deep disposal in any country is a long way off, and I mean a generation off. The material we are dealing with is generation after generation after generation. And the material that would be produced by new build in the UK would have to be stored at least until the middle of the next century.

"Whatever you think about deep disposal being potentially the ultimate solution, it isn't here and now. The only actual solution for the most serious radioactive waste is to store it properly and effectively and that is in effect what countries are doing. But the message of that is because we do not have a long-term solution in most countries (apart from the Finns and Swedes and possibly the French), we do not have a concept that is agreed scientifically and we do not have a site that is publicly acceptable. It's a long way off and politicians tend to be stalling all the time. In the end the answer is simple. The storage is for the longer term. That is the point I would like to make. The other message is that it would be absolutely irresponsible to continue with the nuclear industry producing yet more waste which we cannot deal with, which would give us an interminable time scale without knowing what the inventory would be."

Not just technical, fundamentally social and political

Blowers mentions politics slowing down decisions, but I note that also the environmental movement is often accused of stalling progress.

Blowers: "Radioactive waste is a social, not only a scientific problem. You cannot just dump it on people. In the case of repositories you need consent from the community. That consent is difficult to achieve. If you look at Sellafield more recently where there was an attempt to apply some of the principles of our [CoRWM's] radioactive waste management policy in West Cumbria, probably the most nuclear friendly part of the country, it did not get overall community consent. That was partly touched off by the opposition movement, who certainly mobilised well, but I would say that that would become difficult in any case, because it was the county of Cumbria that decided it was not going to proceed. It might be revisited, but certainly not soon.

"If we go to Germany, one could argue that the German reluctance to go anywhere [with nuclear] is because of the success of the Gorleben movement, which started in the late 1970s. That long, hard, broad-ranging resistance over the years did not actually stop things, but prevented things moving forward. There is a half-open mine now there, there is an interim store in Gorleben and they are still there while you have a policy of a white map. It still could go anywhere. This is deeply political, with involvement of federal structures and all the rest of it and with an industry that is in retreat, it will mean they have to focus on temporary storage at the moment. I do not get the impression there is a huge hurry about things. They have a Commission, they are nominating places to store waste in the long term, and essentially Germany is facing now a long-term storage issue while there is the ongoing discussion about where are we going to put the material in the very long term."

Reality: temporary storage is the solution now

I bring up that the Netherlands decided to store waste for a hundred years, but in their focus on that refuse to look beyond that period.

Blowers: "There is a failure to look at the time scales. What the Dutch have recognised is to be pragmatic and realise maybe someone will come with a solution in the long term and piggy-back on that – with small countries that is always in the back of their minds – why should we bother to be first when others tread water. Storage is the solution for the foreseeable future. It is the problem of the unforeseeable future with which we cannot deal but we have to think about it. How far can we look forward in reality. I would say not more than two generations. We may have to rely on the future looking after itself, but we cannot allow more development [of nuclear power].

"If you look at Britain for some context. If the Chinese build Bradwell, it is, like the other proposed sites, a coastal site. All these coastal sites are very vulnerable. If we keep the spent fuel on site, we create a long term supposed solution, but it would be utterly foolish if we look at the conditions of the site. The waste it would create will be a colossal problem into the far future. My answer is: Don't build it."

Discourse the way to go

We move to the dynamic that Blowers has found at all of the five sites in the book, from faith in technology over confrontation towards some kind of more discourse oriented approach. But he also sees a backlash. Blowers concluded that that backlash is particularly strong in the UK on the basis of the argument of security – environmental and energy security. That argument was embraced by the nuclear industry. However, in spite of the open public discourse retreating, the idea of public consent is still standing. And in spite of political prevarications pushing decisions forwards in time, society still recognises the problem and is obliged to solve it.

The problem we are facing is a shift in the discourse. In 1976, the British policy was that one should not embark on further development of nuclear energy unless a solution for the long-term management of its wastes had been found. Now there is a claim, but nothing more than a claim, that nuclear can deal with this problem of managing wastes. The UK government is satisfied that a method will exist.

Blowers: "I don't share this optimistic vision. You should not make such pronouncements until it is actual reality. Two almost empirical rules in the nuclear industry are that it will cost much more than you ever thought it would, and the other is that it will take much longer than you thought it would. There is no way you can believe the claims that have been made. I am sceptical not because I am a rabid anti-nuclear activist, but because it is a no-brainer if you look at the politics, the geological problems, the sense of priorities of people and so on."

Nevertheless, the developments as we saw them in the mid-2000s in CoRWM and before that in the Arbeitskreis Endlagerung (AkEnd) in Germany, were interesting. Blowers explains that CoRWM was very advanced in creating discourse. There was enormous public engagement, a lot of science involved, different debating techniques. It also brought the political and ethical angle in. Blowers commented on the membership of CoRWM at that time: "We were a motley crew of people. Not particularly with any sense of balance, but unusually having at least four of the members who were if not sceptical, actually hostile to nuclear interests, which is very rare for a government committee. Still, we came as close to a consensus as was possible."

The recommendations were highly interrelated and interdependent and the result of a genuine discourse. The government did not entirely overturn them, but at the time the recommendations were finished, it embarked on a new build programme. Blowers: "Instead of the measured approach we set out, they seized on the idea we had put forward for deep disposal and then wanted deep disposal as soon as possible, which is different from the recommendations we had. Without Prime Minister Blair's nuclear revival, we'd probably still be working with the full suite of recommendations. But CoRWM's main recommendations still stand." And they are based on voluntarism, partnership, and a scientifically suitable site concept.

Periphery in France

The French setting is completely different. Blowers describes Bure, being under active development but not yet approved, as a slow Chinese torture. It is in his eyes a classic case of periphery. Tiny villages, small population, on the border of two departments. "The secret France. However much transparency you build in, it is not going to manifest itself very powerfully in Bure, because there is not much there. So the debate is one level up on a departmental and regional level."

Many activists in France find the use of local information committees (CLIs) a form of co-optation. It does not deliver the kind of divisive and polarised debate as you see in Gorleben. With that, the CLIs are not so distant from the industry. Blowers: "I look at communities. The idea of periphery is more complex than it sounds, but it helps explain how you get in these communities the dependency on the industry." He points out that because other communities do not want these nuclear activities, they are pushed to powerless places. And in these places, co-optation tools like compensation payments as in France and attraction of funds for other developments like in Hanford become very effective.

Blowers concludes his book with the moral obligation in the search for how our generation is dealing with the legacies of nuclear power in terms of procedural equity, intra-generational equity through voluntarism and an emphasis on community well-being, and intergenerational equity. We agree on the parallel with the conclusions of the German Ethics Commission on a Safe Energy Future that was established after the Fukushima disaster and gave Angela Merkel the moral basis for the German nuclear phase-out. One of the vital problems we identified is that a lot of the debate is framed in a technical scientific framework, delivering so-called hard facts. In reality, that technical-scientific debate is spattered with terms like "reasonable" and "proportional" – terms that include a deeply ethical and political dimension. I question whether the scientists involved in these debates have the ethical and political mandates to determine what is reasonable or proportional.

Blowers: "All issues to do with the nuclear legacy are social as well as scientific. [When I started as advisor to the government] this hadn't been registered, really. Until the end of the last century, we would get scientific solutions that were just like that plumped onto the landscape. It was decide and then defend. Science driven, engineer based solutions. No idea of the social consequences."

It was a long battle to get people realise the social side of it. The ethical dimension is a step further. Blowers: "I am not an ethicist, by the way. I picked up that particular badge and ran with it. But there was a recognition. Scientists and engineers still go for the idea of scientific method, the rationality and the rest of it, but there is a recognition there that we also are dealing with something that is socially sensitive and has implications for future generations, as it has implications within generations – some places have to host these sites and some don't – there is an inequality there. And the ethical implications are such things as community involvement, community well-being. They were seen as typical social sciences, things you cannot really get anywhere with, with all sorts of nuances, but behind that there is something really important. The social scientists now involved in decision making have made quite some impact, which you can now recognise in how issues are brought forward. For instance in the form of the German Ethical Commission."

At the start of the interview, we noticed we are two succeeding generations in the nuclear debate and we would discuss issues from that perspective. Binding us is the conclusion that nuclear power is a concept that has lost its sense, and what drives us to work on its role-back is the "hope" from Blower's dedication of his book as Havel defined it: Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It's not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.

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.