A lack of foresight saga

Nuclear Waste
September 9, 2005

Peter Riley's book has been published at an appropriate time, soon after a highly critical report by the Lords Science and Technology Committee on the Government's "lack of urgency" in dealing with nuclear waste.

Riley has taught environmental law at postgraduate level and is well qualified to write a book on the legal and legislative aspects of nuclear waste. But his qualifications in the more general area of the history and politics of the nuclear industry are less clear.

As anticipated, the book's treatment of the legal framework within which the nuclear scientist and engineer must work is very adequately treated.

Most workers in the field of nuclear waste are physical scientists, so a clear exposition of legal and legislative issues is most welcome. The book begins with a series of tables on UK case law, international and European instruments, UK legislation and legislation from other jurisdictions.

Against each entry there is the relevant page number in the book - an excellent idea, as this book will find wide use as a legal reference.

It is when the author wanders into the byways of the history of nuclear power more generally that one begins to feel uncomfortable. To illustrate, he suggests that the US abandoned reprocessing of spent civil fuel "primarily for financial reasons". This is quite incorrect. President Carter stopped reprocessing because he feared the proliferation of fissile materials. The new policy actually cost the Americans a great deal of money.

A major disappointment is that nowhere does Riley provide a comprehensive account of the creation and activities of Nirex, the organisation set up in the UKin 1982 to create disposal routes for low and intermediate-level nuclear waste. This is a pity, as it denies the reader the drama of unfolding events and an important illustration of the inefficiency of Parliament when it attempts to control scientific activities.

What follows here is an attempt to fill that gap. In 1983 Nirex selected, from about 100 possibilities, an old anhydrite mine at Billingham in the North East of England as a site for low-level waste. The inevitable hostile public reaction caused ICI, the owner of the mine, to withdraw it from sale. Without powers of compulsory purchase or government assistance, Nirex would experience its first, but not its last, major disappointment. In 1987, Nirex selected four promising sites for low-level waste, but each was in a marginal Conservative constituency and a general election was imminent. Five weeks before the election, without consulting its advisory body, the Conservative Government cancelled all four sites. This farrago became known as "the four-site saga".

In June 1994, Nirex applied to construct a "rock characterisation facility" near the Sellafield Works in Cumbria, which might later evolve into a repository. It was well placed, as 60 per cent of the waste was already at Sellafield. Up to that point, Nirex had spent more than £400 million in an unsuccessful attempt to find a repository. Astonishingly, although most of the action would take place underground, it had to apply for local authority planning permission, which was refused. This decision was supported by the appeals inspector who cited, among other things, possible disturbance of badger sets. Nirex still has not found a site for a repository, hence the criticism of the Government mentioned at the beginning of this review.

Despite my difference of opinion on presentation, it must be acknowledged that this is a useful work, that deserves a place in the library of anyone involved in the nuclear waste issue.

Jack Harris is vice-chairman of British Pugwash and a fellow of the Royal Society. He spent 35 years working in Britain's civil nuclear power industry.

Nuclear Waste: Law, Policy and Pragmatism

Author - Peter Riley
Publisher - Ashgate
Pages - 300
Price - £55.00
ISBN - 0 7546 23181

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