Talking waste disposal with David Lowry
Blog 18th February 2019
Author: Petra Tjitske Kalshoven, Dalton Research Fellow, School of Social Sciences, The University of Manchester
The topic of geological disposal will be of interest to me as I continue my ethnography of ‘the nuclear’ as a presence in West Cumbria. From my fieldwork base in Copeland, the Cumbrian borough that houses Sellafield and is widely expected to show an interest in volunteering to host a geological disposal facility (GDF), I plan to follow debates and power politics on the launch of the siting process.
Copeland prides itself on its nuclear expertise, and with Sellafield entering full decommissioning, and already storing the lion share of the UK’s high-level nuclear waste, the area seems a prime candidate for a GDF – if geologically suitable, and willing to take it on.
The UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) launched the new siting process for a GDF in England and Wales at the end of 2018, publishing a policy paper, ‘Implementing geological disposal – working with communities: long term management of higher activity radioactive waste’, accompanied by supporting materials from Radioactive Waste Management.
Prior to this launch, I spoke with Dr David Lowry, a freelance consultant focusing on nuclear decision-making. Dr Lowry is a member of the Nuclear Waste Advisory Associates and has written widely on nuclear issues, published by, among others, the Guardian, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and the New York Times.
Dr Lowry completed a PhD in 1986, from the perspective of political sociology, on nuclear reactor choice in the UK at the Energy Research Group of the Open University in Milton Keynes. Over the following three years, he co-wrote The International Politics of Nuclear Waste (1991) with Andrew Blowers and Barry Solomon.
Dr Lowry is interested in particular in the themes of radioactive waste, nuclear materials management, nuclear safeguards, and, as he provocatively calls it, nuclear insecurity.
As transpired from our conversation, Dr Lowry’s critique of the nuclear industry, and the way it is managed and promoted by the UK government, stems mostly from doubts about safe and secure operations, and from a lack of transparency that he deplores.
As I find myself surrounded by overwhelmingly positive takes on the nuclear industry in West Cumbria, talking to Dr Lowry provided a refreshing counter-narrative.
Given his critical perspective, I began by asking whether his PhD findings left him feeling disenchanted:
“I wasn’t disenchanted with nuclear; I find nuclear technology, nuclear science and the history of nuclear discovery a fascinating intellectual pursuit. But one of the things that were striking to me was the degree to which both the government and the industry felt it necessary to keep lots of the information on which they based decisions secret from the public and from parliament.
“As an individual, a citizen and a researcher, I find it really hard to deal with institutions and organisations that keep information secret because I feel that best decisions are taken when they are publicly widely debated by the political dimension and political domain.”
When I asked him whether he felt a lack of transparency was a particular UK problem, he answered:
“I think it’s worse in countries where they have both a nuclear weapons programme and a nuclear energy programme because the nuclear weapons programme gives the decision makers an excuse that sounds plausible but isn’t, for keeping things away from other discussion on national security grounds.”
Dr Lowry associated the way in which the nuclear is promoted as a green energy option as symptomatic of this lack of transparency:
“I think it’s often misrepresented by nuclear proponents as a zero-carbon option. It’s impossible to have zero-carbon energy; all energy industries involve some carbon. What nuclear does, which is unacceptable, is that it compares emissions at the point of energy generation. What you really need to include in comparing is the enrichment of uranium fuel with the oil and gas cycle and with renewables. What you will see then is that the front-end of nuclear power is highly carbon-intensive. But in order to make the nuclear look low-carbon the nuclear sector presents the nuclear not from cradle to grave but from mid-life to grave, whilst it presents all the other energy technologies from cradle to grave, which I think is an unfair comparison.”
Dr Lowry’s critique, then, focused on a tendency to misrepresent – a tendency that he associated with the nuclear sector, and with the government’s presentation of nuclear issues in particular, and this came to the fore also when we discussed the siting process for a GDF.
Dr Lowry raised a point of principle relating to the decision-making process that led to the policy:
“The UK supports a new nuclear programme which the government has very badly misrepresented to the public. And they have exacerbated the problem by conflating the waste that has already been created, stored in various ponds, with new waste—by justifying using electricity from new reactors and saying they’ll put the waste into the same facilities.
“But the trouble is, if you have waste that’s already existing, this produces a different ethical question compared to waste that is newly generated. In fact, the government have misrepresented and ignored a key recommendation from CoRWM (the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management) which said that there should be a programme for legacy waste separate from any waste that might be created from a new build programme.
“CoRWM recommended that any waste from new build should be looked at in an entirely different process. Purely politically and pragmatically, the government have conflated the two and presented it as if it’s one issue, and it’s not. It is dishonest for a government to say it is going to accept recommendations from its independent committee and then to cherry-pick the recommendations. I have said this so often to government officials and energy ministers: if energy ministers come and go so quickly they don’t get enough time in office to understand what all the details are of their job or their responsibility before they move on to another job.
“Another thing I feel gets misrepresented is that the government always talks about a very small footprint above ground and a much more significant one underground, caves and caverns and so on. But let’s assume a significant problem would occur that would necessitate retrieving the waste, and let’s assume this would happen eighty years into the hundred years during which it would be filled. So after eighty years of stockpiling the waste underground, you would have to take eighty years worth of waste out—where would they put it? You wouldn’t have a secondary empty repository with it, so you would need to have an above-ground facility to store it.
“Some of this waste will be dangerous if it gets into the wrong hands, for instance if terrorists get a hold of it, so it has to be an engineered, strong, above-ground waste store, which means that you’d have to build a very substantial building above ground. But on the drawings, you never see a huge above-ground warehouse. My point is, in order to get public buy-in, in order to convince the local community that their volunteering is of benefit to the community, the government has to misrepresent what the consequences are from the very start.”
Dr Lowry was not convinced either whether deep geological disposal, now, was the best solution:
“Regarding intergenerational equity, the argument is made that it is the responsibility of the generation that benefits from the technology to deal with the waste created by conversion of energy. Generally speaking, I would say that that is the responsible position to take. But in the case of nuclear, because radioactivity decays over time, and it is easier to handle when it has decayed, you can make the argument that, although you could deal with waste in the coming generation, you’d end up creating more exposure to radiation than if you’d leave it for several hundred years—for future generations, exposure rates for the workforce would be lower.
“So you could make the argument that, although it should be the responsibility of the beneficiary generation, for the whole human race it may be better to leave the waste for longer before you deal with it. My approach would be to have waste stored near each facility: at each reactor site I would build an above-ground, or semi-subterranean long-term store, which is permanently monitored by human beings”.
We ended the conversation on a philosophical note, thinking about the human condition and energy consumption more generally:
“I imagine you could probably make nuclear power environmentally safe, but it may be economically impossible to achieve this. I am technologically optimistic one way; very smart people work on the nuclear, and you probably can find a technological solution for environmental protection. But I don’t think you can find a technological solution to terrorist threats. As long as the consequences of it going wrong are so enormous, it is better to take other ways of producing the same electricity. If nuclear is basically a way of boiling water to create steam to generate electricity, we can provide the same electricity services with other technologies.”
Shouldn’t we take a step back and approach the matter from another perspective—why is the assumption always that we need more, why not think about degrowth instead, I wonder?
“There is a campaign group called “One Planet Living”. I think they are right when they say, we have to live our lives as human beings based on the fact we only have one planet. With current levels of consumption, we are going to reach a crisis of resource depletion, of waste, and mismanagement, of catastrophic climate change, lack of access to water, and it will all come together in a perfectly horrible storm. And so I totally agree with the suggestion that we have to rethink as human beings how we live on the one planet that we have.
“One way is not to use electricity in a way that could pollute one section of the planet, contaminated without access for centuries, and to think about a way to provide the human services in a way that is compatible with the planet on which we live. Many politicians have very short horizons, look for the next three years, the next election, when they need to look at the next century.”
I attended a conference a few months ago at the University of Leeds on engineering ethics and found it very encouraging. It was largely environmentally focused and called for an ethics firmly embedded within the engineering profession, a call to pay attention to larger, ethical, environmental, societal frameworks.
Ethics, which includes questioning taken-for-granted assumptions and asking what the ‘good life’ might be, for whom, will be a leading concept in an interdisciplinary University of Manchester project, shortly to be launched, on thinking, indeed, a century ahead: to possible ‘end states’ for Sellafield.
The project will bring together a wide range of players in Cumbria, from within and outside the nuclear industry, to imagine future life worlds and landscapes once Sellafield will be decommissioned.