Monday, March 1, 2010

Forcing nuclear through

According to the government's national policy statement (NPS) on nuclear power, it is planned to store the irradiated spent nuclear fuel discharged from the 10 proposed new UK plants at the reactor sites for perhaps 160 years. So communities hosting new reactors would get a nuclear waste store too- and for a long time. For several generations after a reactor stopped operating, the site would de facto become a radioactive waste disposal site. In these circumstances it is essential that our nuclear regulators require that these nuclear stores be safe and, for example, to be protected from terrorist attack to at least the same degree of robustness as demanded for the reactors.

So you would think that this issue would be at the top of the agenda for the new Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) the government has set up to deal with large projects like nuclear plants - since it is what local people in particular will want to raise. Think again. Here is what the governments NPS says: "The Government is satisfied that effective arrangements will exist to manage and dispose of the waste that will be produced from new nuclear power stations. As a result the IPC need not consider this question." The draft Statement goes on to say that ‘Geological disposal will be preceded by safe and secure interim storage’.

So it’s sorted and the issue should not be raised with or by the IPC. Fortunately it’s only a draft NPS and this recommendation, and much else, has been widely challenged in the consultation responses. So hopefully it will revised. Then again the IPC may not survive- the Tories have pledged to abolish it, although it seems they will retain something similar for some large projects.

The IPC certainly isn’t popular- it’s seen as top-down, autocratic and designed to steam-roller through unpopular plans rapidly. CANE, Communities against Nuclear Expansion, said ‘At a time when public confidence in our political process is at an all time low, government have decided to take to themselves more power to override people's wishes’.

The NPS was also roundly attacked. FOE's executive director, Andy Atkins, said: ‘The government's draft national planning statements on energy are fundamentally flawed. The consultation was insufficient, the alternatives were inadequately explored, and the policies are poorly justified’.

The Nuclear Consultation Group of leading academics submitted evidence to a Select Committee looking at the NPS proposals, concluding that, overall, the nuclear NPS was ‘unfit for the purpose of providing a framework within which the IPC can take fair, balanced and measured decisions on the location of new nuclear power stations’. The NPS appeared to be ‘confusing, tendentious, vague and poorly integrated’ and ‘a highly elaborate exercise to achieve premature legitimation for a predetermined policy, namely, the rapid deployment of new nuclear power stations.’

The Sustainable Energy Partnership (SEP), which I brings together nearly all environmental and fuel poverty NGOs and relevant trade groups, including ACE, AECB, BWEA, CPRE, CHPA, FoE, Green Party, Greenpeace, Micropower Council, NEA, PV-UK, PRASEG, RSPB, REA, SERA, Solar Century, WWF-UK, commented: ‘It defies common sense to approve a massive [nuclear] building programme to achieve the long term objectives of energy policy without a proper assessment of the future long term need for electricity and with a flawed process of assessing the medium term capacity need. This is no way to run a strategy. It means either that the government has taken leave of its senses and behaved completely irrationally; or that there has been, for some time, a hidden agenda: that the government decided a long while ago to build more nuclear power stations, regardless of any evidence of need. Whichever of the above scenarios is correct means that the government's current consultation is a sham and that the policy itself is, to say the least, of questionable legality’.

SEP notes that, there’s no proof to back up the rather weak assertion in the NPS that ‘by 2050 the UK may need to produce more electricity than today’. In fact the 2008 Nuclear White Paper says that, given attention to energy efficiency, by 2050, total electricity demand could ‘remain at roughly today's levels despite the UK's GDP being three times larger than it is today’. What the NPS does, say SEP, is to assert that ‘under central assumptions there will be a need for approximately 60GW of new capacity by 2025’- and then quotes a Redpoint study as the source for this. But Redpoints study simply looked at how ‘a goal of achieving around 28%-29% of electricity from renewables by 2020’ might be achieved, not at how or whether we could generate enough electricity without nuclear to meet demand.

The government is evidently aware that the longer term rationale for nuclear is a little weak (to put it mildly) and has commissioned a review of energy policy issues and options up to 2050- with it seems a ‘2050 Roadmap’ to be published along with the next Budget. Maybe, looking that far ahead, they will have some idea where the waste will go long term!