The Legacy of Nuclear Power

This fascinating short article on four nuclear communities tellingly demonstrates why radioactive waste is a moral issue and explains what the priorities for its management should be.  By Andy Blowers. 

1. Hanford, USA

Scattered across a vast site in Washington state in America’s North West is Hanford, one of the most contaminated places in the world. During the war Hanford was the scene of frenzied activity as the chosen location for the manufacture of the plutonium for the ‘Fat Man’ nuclear weapon that devastated Nagasaki on 9 August, 1945. In the subsequent Cold War, Hanford’s nuclear activities expanded comprising eight nuclear reactors along the banks of the Columbia River, the sinister looking reprocessing ‘canyons’ in the middle of the reservation and a variety of production and experimental facilities scattered around its fringes. Production at Hanford has ceased but a vast nuclear legacy remains especially in the tank farms containing high-level liquid waste and sludge, some leaking towards the Columbia, in the abandoned reactors and decommissioned reprocessing works and in waste management facilities and clean-up projects. Cleaning up the legacy is a long-term, costly ($2billion federal funding a year), intractable and complex task but it is an inescapable one.

2. Sellafield, UK

Sellafield, the heart of the UK’s plutonium economy, is in a stage of transition from production to clean-up. Like Hanford, Sellafield’s nuclear legacy stretches back to the early days of the military nuclear programme when little attention was paid to the wastes. Unlike Hanford, the Sellafield site is very compact, a mere 2 sq. km., but crammed on to it is around two-thirds of all the radioactivity from the UK’s nuclear programme. The legacy comprises all the country’s high level wastes, most of the spent fuel, a stockpile of around 140 tonnes of plutonium and complex streams of wastes. Hemmed in within a complex of buildings, many of them redundant, are large grey anonymous structures containing often unrecorded mixtures of fuel, skips and other highly radioactive debris tipped into the notorious ponds and silos which pose what has been called an ‘intolerable risk’ to the public and the environment. Cleaning up this legacy is a task that stretches decades ahead absorbing around £1.7 billion from the government a year.

3. La Hague, France 

In France, where three-quarters of the country’s electricity is produced by its 58 reactors, the nuclear industry is mainly focused around the reprocessing facilities at La Hague at the tip of the Cotentin peninsula in Normandy. At this remote location spent fuel is reprocessed for recycling in the form of mixed oxide fuel (MOX) or vitrified and stored pending disposal. After much searching, an underground laboratory has been developed in eastern France at Bure, a nuclear no-man’s land, stealthily and steadily becoming established as the country’s nuclear disposal site, but still a long way off. Meanwhile, the French nuclear legacy continues to accumulate at power stations soon to be decommissioned, at La Hague and other sites of reprocessing and experimental reactors.

4. Gorleben, Germany

In Germany there has been fierce resistance for more than three decades to the prospect of shipping casks of highly radioactive wastes across the country to Gorleben in the middle of the country. The casks are sent to an interim store for possible burial in a neighbouring excavated salt mine. Gorleben has played both a symbolic and political role in bringing down the German nuclear industry. The symbols of protest festoon the countryside. There are the ubiquitous wooden yellow crosses on farms and villages, the bright orange sun on a green background displayed on posters and flags proclaiming the ‘Free Republic of Wendland’ and the slogan ‘Stop CASTOR’ (the soubriquet for the flasks) daubed on walls and electricity sub-stations. These gave identity to this fiercely independent land of forest, heath and waterlands close by the River Elbe. Drawing on this real and invented cultural legacy, the Gorleben movement became an inspiration for the wider German anti-nuclear protest.

Places on the Periphery

These four places, Hanford, Sellafield, La Hague/Bure and Gorleben with their different histories exemplify and explain the physical imprint and social conditions that are the continuing legacy of nuclear power. They constitute what may be defined as peripheral communities, places where hazardous activities are located and which are, as it were, physically and socially set apart from the mainstream. They tend to be geographically remote. They may be located at the edge whether of a country, as at La Hague, in relatively inaccessible sub-regions as at Sellafield or in areas of sparse population as Hanford was before the war and as Bure is today. They may be areas with a distinctive (real or invented) cultural identity or isolation like Gorleben, in the self-declared Wendland once on the border with Eastern Germany. Peripheral communities tend also to be economically marginal, monocultural and dependent on government investment and subsidy or state owned companies.

Peripheral communities tend also to be politically powerless. Although nuclear industries tend to have a dominant position in their dependent communities, strategic decisions are taken elsewhere by governmental and corporate institutions. Key political decisions affecting peripheral communities are vested in national governments to which local governments, even in federal systems like the USA and Germany, are subordinated in terms of nuclear decision making.

These nuclear peripheral communities also express distinctive cultural characteristics. Although it is difficult to pin down the complex, ambiguous and sometimes contradictory values and attitudes encountered in these places, there does seem to be a particular ‘nuclear culture’, that is both defensive and aggressive. This may be summarised in three distinguishing and complementary cultural features - realism, resignation and pragmatism – which combine to convey a resilience that provides the flexibility and resolution necessary for cultural survival.

Nuclear communities fulfil a fundamental social role in that they take on (or more usually have to accept) the radioactive legacy of nuclear power. They bear the burden of cost, risk and effort necessary to manage the legacy on behalf of the wider society, a responsibility extending into the far future. This social role enables places like Sellafield, La Hague and Hanford to exercise some economic and political leverage. Economically they are relatively secure for, once production ceases, there remain decades of clean up activity often sustaining a large workforce with continuing and open ended commitment from the state. Politically they are able, with varying success, to gain compensation, investment and diversification. By contrast, there are those communities which have mobilised resources of power sufficient to prevent or halt the progress of nuclear power. The story of the Gorleben movement provides a compelling example of the power of resistance.

Finding a Solution

It is in places like Hanford, La Hague and Sellafield that the nuclear legacy has accumulated and which face the problem of managing it now and for generations to come. There is a recognised obligation, stated in principle by the International Atomic Energy Agency, that the legacy shall be managed in ‘such a way that will not impose undue burdens on future generations’ (IAEA, Principle 5). Much of this effort to find a final solution has been focused on deep geological disposal, removing the problem altogether by burying it deep underground. Yet, this solution is controversial since some radionuclides remain harmful for thousands of years and over infinitely long time-scales the uncertainties about safety and security of engineered barriers and geological containment in a repository become incommensurable.

To this scientific uncertainty has to be added the social uncertainty of being able to find a suitable and acceptable site in the first place. It has proved difficult, if not well nigh impossible, to find acceptable sites without the willing cooperation of communities. In Finland and Sweden after several attempts to find sites for a repository, volunteer communities have been found and progress is being made in developing deep repositories. In France, Bure was selected through the willing political cooperation of two departments suborned by the potential investments and jobs that could be attracted to a relatively backward area. In the United States a salt cavern in the New Mexico desert is receiving some categories of waste from the defence programme though disposal is currently suspended owing to problems of seepage. Nowhere is there a repository yet receiving the most dangerous and long-lived high-level wastes or spent fuel.

Seeking and securing disposal sites which is the contemporary approach, has in most countries thus far proved a slow, tedious and unsuccessful process. Successive attempts to secure political or social blessing for a site near Sellafield have failed and in Germany the resistance of Gorleben has been legendary. The history of trying to find sites for a repository for radioactive wastes is littered with examples where, to transcribe a biblical expression, many sites have been called but few chosen. The idea of the accumulating legacy of nuclear wastes from existing nuclear programmes being neatly and routinely packaged and transferred to a welcoming and pristine repository there to be entombed for ever is, with rare exceptions, little more than a distant prospect at this point in time.

In any case it may be argued that a more deliberate approach to finding disposal sites is desirable for two reasons. One is the uncertainty about the efficacy of deep disposal, the fact that we cannot know the far future conditions, geologically or socially, and, therefore, we should seek greater confidence in the disposal process before we proceed. While disposal is the current preferred solution among scientists, it could well be that alternative options will come into the running. The other reason for taking a measured approach to disposal is the fact that it will be several decades before a repository could be built and ready to receive wastes. By focusing on deep disposal, attention is diverted from the problem of managing wastes safely now and for the foreseeable future and tends to put about the false message that a solution to the problem of legacy wastes has been found. The contaminated and waste strewn sites of Hanford, Sellafield and elsewhere testify that much remedial and storage work remains to be done.

The nuclear legacy is a continuing responsibility

The pressure to find a solution in deep disposal of nuclear wastes varies in intensity from country to country. Of the four countries featured in this article, and studied in depth within the authors new book, the USA has a long history of seeking but failing so far to achieve a disposal site for the spent fuel piling up in ever-increasing stores at power stations around the country. Likewise, Germany is in the process of establishing a process for finding a site to host wastes currently in interim stores. France, too, is proceeding cautiously but has established an underground laboratory at Bure and eventually may develop a repository at this location. In the UK the motivation for disposal comes from the desire to rejuvenate the nuclear industry through a so-called ‘nuclear renaissance’. This would meet the commitment to the recommendation as long ago as 1976 in the Flowers Report that there should be no commitment to a programme of new build ‘until it has been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that a method exists to ensure the safe containment of long lived, highly radioactive waste for the indefinite future’. In defence of its commitment to a very substantial new build programme, possibly in the region of 16GW at five ‘potentially suitable’ coastal sites, the UK Government claims that it ‘is satisfied that effective arrangements will exist to manage and dispose of the waste that will be produced from new nuclear power stations’. Given that there is, as yet, neither a scientifically demonstrable disposal concept nor an acceptable site, the claim is, at best, premature.

In any case a programme of new nuclear power in the UK will add to the problem of managing the nuclear legacy. At least the scale and complexity of the present legacy and future arisings is understood and the problems of dealing with it are known. New build would bring uncertainty in terms of the time-scale and size of the inventory making the problem unknowable and, therefore, unmanageable. For the present and foreseeable (i.e. two generations at least) future the practical and the ethical solution has to be taking a continuing responsibility by managing the legacy in storage, keeping it accessible and enabling remedial action if necessary. To be sure this imposes burdens on peripheral communities both now and in the future but it is incumbent upon us to ensure resources and information are available leaving future generations free to take decisions on future management.

Managing the unavoidable legacy must be the priority

The nuclear industry will never die for it leaves its enduring imprint on the landscape and in the communities that guard its legacy. For the truth is that, whatever efforts are made to bury and forget the nuclear legacy, it will not go away but remain in places like Hanford, Sellafield and La Hague for decades to come. So, for the foreseeable future, the next century, the long-term solution is already present: it is the safe and secure storage of the nuclear legacy that is already in situ or already committed. The priority must remain clean-up, decontamination, remediation, vitrification, encapsulation, safe storage - the panoply of difficult, time-consuming and expensive processes that are being established as the nuclear industry, in the West, moves from production to clean-up. For the longer term, deep disposal remains an option, at present apparently the best but not the only option and, as time passes, other and better options may materialise. Given the time-scales involved there is no need to hurry towards a disposal solution that may, in terms of proving a concept and finding a site, be difficult to implement. Society can, and should, take its time in dealing with its nuclear legacy. Meanwhile the focus should be on managing it where it is rather than a premature search for new places and possibly new communities for deep disposal. The problem we already have is difficult enough and will only be compounded if new reactors are built extending the time-scales for implementation for very long, unknowable periods in the future. The burden of the existing legacy is unavoidable; we should not entertain having to deal with the avoidable wastes of a new build programme.

Managing the nuclear legacy is not just a technical problem; it is a social one, too. The places studied in this book, Hanford, Sellafield, La Hague as well as many others across the world, have long lived with the legacy and will continue to do so. In some places, Gorleben the most significant, the nuclear industry has met with resistance and has never become fully established, indicating how difficult it will be for nuclear energy to develop in new locations. The places covered in this book are all, in their different ways, nuclear oases, peripheral places with distinctive identities. Their stories represent the changing discourses of the nuclear industry through its early years down to the present day. Whatever the future fortunes of the nuclear industry, its legacy and the communities that manage it, will be with us for generations to come.

This article previews a new book by Andrew Blowers, The Legacy of Nuclear Power, Routledge, 2016, isbn 9780415869997. It is published at a critical time when the future of nuclear energy is high on the political agenda across the world. With the political focus on whether to build new nuclear power stations, this important book is a timely reminder that nuclear energy comes with a legacy of radioactive waste and clean-up that will be a burden on communities and generations far into the future. Written from the author’s perspective of active involvement in nuclear policy making, as academic, politician, government advisor and activist, this is a book that demonstrates the scale of the problem of nuclear’s legacy.

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