Saturday, 17 November 2012

Dumping cash into a silo!

Back onto the nuclear tip with this blog!

Sellarfield is centre stage for this diatribe, as it exemplifies the problems that persist for nuclear energy, in the perceptual, economic and technical context.

My comments are based upon the report from the National Audit Office and an article in the guardian on the subject, which provides some great graphics to support the underlying data.

In essence, Sellarfield is a complex site dealing with a range of complex waste, from spent nuclear fuel to decommissioning and weapons waste. This has an advantage of allowing the UK to develop marketable high tech solutions to radioactive problems, however most of these projects are running over budget and behind schedule!

The NAO report flags these failings and places a significant amount of emphasis on the spiralling costs. This will have the unfortunate consequence of undermining the credibility of Sellarfield as a World leader in these technologies and will also taint public confidence, both in the site and and the wider industry.

It does beg the question as to how much costs might run out of control for the whole decommissioning process? The Government appears not to be overly concerned as the overall cost will not have a significant impact on the unit cost of nuclear generation, and anyway, it looks as though the taxpayer will bear much of the cost for legacy plant!!

Nonetheless, there has to be some concern, because the numbers we are talking about are still quite large, large enough even, to stifle enthusiasm amongst investors and operators. alike

Another concern that I have are around the decommissioning process itself, as Sellarfield is being prosecuted for not following the rules on proper disposal of low level radioactive waste. This should be met with disbelief, when you consider how long this has been going on and the processes and expertise that are in place!

Once the wider scheme of decommissioning starts to roll out, it is probable that costs will again start to spiral and work schedules stretch, as has been the case with Sellarfirld. My worry with this, is not so much who will bear this additional cost, but what will happen with the management of the process and handling of the waste. Experience dictates that it is always in these areas where time constraints and cost overruns, lead to poor practice and corner cutting. Not something you would wish to see when dealing radioactive waste (albeit very low level).

Link to Guardian article:

Link to NAO site:

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Sandy, legacy, planning and adaptation.

After a respectable period its a good time to revisit the aftermath of Sandy and raise a few important questions about living on the front line of coastal plains and tidal waterways. When the storm does come and the defences are rendered ineffective, the inevitable happens to the land and infrastructure that supports us.

The storm passes quickly enough and the waters subside in time, but the damage that remains is often persistent, unseen and potentially more lethal than the event itself. A storm surge carries huge power, it picks up what it wants and leaves it where it likes, it has no respect for man nor permit! It can strip back the land, move good from shelves and swamps tanks and drainage systems.

A lot of what we use in our everyday lives, the engine and fuel oils released, the cleansing and disinfection fluids, paints solvents and infection bearing sludges. These are toxic in the wrong environment and when many substances are mixed up and distributed in a diffuse way, they can be difficult to detect and quantify in terms of risk. This is precisely what has happened with Sandy, the water has ingressed the old and ailing infrastructure of New York. Sandy stripped out toxins, leaving them in dense heterogeneous sediments to leach back out in what amounts to a game that has become a cross between hide and seek and Russian roulette!

In time these sediments will give up their chemicals slowly leaching back into streams and rivers and percolating down into the groundwater, where it can enter water supplies. This will impact upon
people and ecosystems and the clean up could prove prohibitively expensive, due to the range and distribution of toxins.

There is no point in being smug that it wasn't you this time around either, all low lying populace areas are becoming increasingly vulnerable. Climate change is accelerating and extreme weather events will increase in frequency raising the risk of a growing legacy of toxic sediments being built up in many locations. This will become a growing cost of climate change, as already discussed, clear up will be very expensive and retro-fit to provide greater protection will be costly too!

As I see it now, however we mitigate (and we will have to), we will have to adopt a lot of new ways to adapt to our changing and increasingly extreme climate. I believe that this require a lot of planning on a large scale and much better integration between aspects of land use in terms of how and where urban populations exist and how they are supported by a hinterland.

More local resilience will be needed, with major infrastructure designed to offer support at a more strategic level (i.e. more decentralised generation, but connected to a simplified grid that offers options on storage). This is an option for renewal but there is no easy solution for what is already in place, it is likely that many location will quickly change from pleasant seaside real estate to deserted liability!