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Britain’s Plutonium Mountain

Even someone of my generation can feel rightly pissed off with the overly confident and simultaneously paranoid numpties of the 1950’s with their blind faith in nuclear weapons and their ‘balance of power’ obsessions. They have left us with a right old mess in the playroom.

These glorious islands we call the United Kingdom house the largest stockpile of civil grade plutonium….. (suitable Clarksonian pause) ….. in the world.

I have just listened to this alarming BBC radio 4 program called ‘Britain’s Plutonium Mountain.’

The cost of dealing with this toxic legacy are too enormous and depressing to recount, listen to the show if you want the figures, however I couldn’t help but speculate for just a bit after I’d heard it.

I admit I’m a dreamer, a barely educated fool and I’m often accused of ‘not living in the real world,’ however I think we can all agree that ‘the real world’ that created this nuclear nightmare is not particularly fiscally prudent or sane one.

So bare with me for a short moment of idiotic fantasy. Just imagine if instead of spending uncountable billions on newer, ever more complex, ever more fragile technologies to use this ‘ultimate fuel’ to generate our electricity, we had back in 1953 followed the hippy dippy route of developing massive, expensive, hard to connect to the grid off shore wind farms and massive, expensive, hard to construct expensive grid level storage. We could have spent say £20 billion of tax payers hard earned money doing this over the last 55 years, that would have been a lot less than we have spent on our nuclear programs, but where would we be now?

Oh yes, I get it, a massive proportion if not the entirety of our electricity would be generated with renewable sources, we wouldn’t have to import dangerous and expensive fissile or hydrocarbon fuels from dodgy and dangerous sources, our economy would be healthier because we’d spent the money for that electricity within our own system, it would employ thousands to construct and maintain the systems, the environment around us would be safer, we wouldn’t have to deal with this insane stockpile of lethal stuff that will just not go away for hundreds of thousands of years.

But that’s just silly, the ‘real world’ solution is to continue to spend billions and billions of pounds shoring up an utterly non-functioning system because we are buggered if we don’t.

No one from the pro nuclear lobby ever mentions Sellafield and the incredibly important work of the very brave men and women who work there dealing with this hideous inheritance. The armed men who guard this deadly stockpile twenty four hours a day at unimaginable cost. This isn’t party political in any way, every shade of government for the last 50 years has been sucked into this mess

Just in case you can’t be bothered to listen to the program, I will précis one bit of our proud nuclear history.

It is theoretically possible to combine plutonium with other mildly less dangerous fissile material to create a ‘mixed oxide’ or MOX fuel. The French do it, not really anyone else.

In 1993 we started building a MOX plant at Sellafield with an initial cost of £265 million, but before building was finished guess what? Yes, it ended up a little bit more expensive, £437 million and with one other teeny weeny problemette. It didn’t work.

Yes, clever men in suits, scientists and politicians managed to spend £437 million of our taxpayers money doing diddly-squit.

Not only that, it is now going to cost literally billions to decommission the site. Before the MOX plant was finally closed down it had produced just over 1% of what it was supposed to do. It was described in a memo from the American government revealed by Wikileaks as ‘the biggest technological white elephant in British history.’

You have to laugh or you go mad.

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Reader Comments (18)

Nuclear waste is a difficult topic to tackle. Anything people don't understand they either ridicule or become dismissive of.

February 25, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterben hughes

Ooh. The MOX plant at sunny Windscale (remember when it used to be called that? Sounded really grim. I still reckon that's why they changed the name) I worked on that one back in late '96 - early '97. Hideously complicated sounding process, and a building built like a bloody rabbit warren. Walls and doors like you wouldn't believe. I can't say I'm surprised to discover that it didn't work.
I'd still rather have a nuclear power station in my 'back-yard' than a forest of wind turbines. Nothing so idiotic looking (my opinion, thank you very much) as a whole windfarm sitting idle. A collection of large, expensive, metal sticks. If you want renewable, it'll have to be tidal. Unlike the wind, the tide is as reliable as the rising and setting of the moon, in/out, twice a day (roughly). Wave Power: that's just the wind again. Solar: have to admit that PV technology IS getting better. Great if you've a south (ish) facing roof you can exploit (I don't). I know you 'can' put it on an east/west facing, but it's just not going to be as effective. No, haven't forgotten hydro. Still rather weather dependant though.
Of course, we're now paying the price, literally, of the 'dash for gas' back in the Thatcher era and all those gas-fired power stations. Carbon capture: sounds good, technically complex (expensive), and it's not really solving the problem. It's like sweeping it under the carpet. It'll be fine until they run out of capacity, then what. Biofuel/biomass: not at the expense of food-growing. Too many people with not enough food as it is.
You already realise there's no single, straightforward answer Robert. It's just convincing 'everyone' that until we find some sort of energy 'Holy Grail' we're going to need a bit of everything (even wind power, there, said it)

February 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDervheid

Well, well... There is an answer to the clean-up, but it will require something BEV advocates simply hate - H2. Yes you can clean up a mess with the stuff, but so many people [clueless] advocate against it.

In this instance, two wrongs make a right. :D


February 26, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterkidmarc

"So bare with me", I don't really have the the body to join you in nudity perhaps you meant "So bear with me"

February 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPedantic Andy

Other normal countries don't spend this much money looking after radioactive materials from failed Nuclear energy projects. For as long as people are looking to cut costs on running Nuclear power plants, storage facilities and ways of dealing with the radioactive waste accidents will happen. Unlike the BP oil spill or other environmental disasters radioactive materials will be with us indefinitely and will cause untold damage on an atomic level. You cannot put a price on your health and though the English have chosen to pursue this argument in literal terms most other rational, accountable countries living on "a budget" will cut costs in favour of increasing profit inevitably putting safety at risk.

In the case of Japan, there would not have been a problem at Fukishima had the utilities company running the nuclear power station provided the facility with an adequate secondary power source to take over in the event of a power cut. Even when hurricane Sandy hit New York one of the city's nuclear power stations had a power cut and a back up diesel generator kicked in to keep pumping water around the system to stop it overheating. This is just one instance of when people have failed to deal with radioactive materials properly. Some countries sell their radioactive waste to us so we can put it in to munitions and a lot of Russia's decommissioned nuclear weapons have simply gone missing. It is only a matter of time before there is another incident somewhere else for some other entirely avoidable reason because people were more interested in creating profit than spending money on treating this stuff properly. In the past 60 years since we have discovered nuclear energy we have already proven that we're not responsible enough to use it safely.

Instances of cancers in our own lifetimes and birth defects and health problems with our children will all be caused by us creating and releasing these volatile, destructive, radioactive materials into our own living environments. I don't see a place for nuclear power in our lives either in the western world in our false economies or in poorer countries struggling to prop us up. The cheapest solution with the most risk will always be a temptation and things will go wrong again.

February 28, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterben hughes

Robert - you're such a treasure.

The very mention of 'Selafield' is enough to send a chilling shiver of fear through me - it always has. It's like the creepiest 60s Dr Who scenario brought to life and gone horribly wrong - the folly of meddling with forces we only partly understand. When the nuclear accident occurred at Windscale in 1957 (aka Selefield - name changes as sanitisers - welcome to the great age of bullshit), I was two-and-a-half and romping around about 100 miles or so directly downwind. I knew nothing of this until one day my roving curiosity led me to research it. The motive for establishing a nuclear industry seems purely military, to enable independent production of weapons grade materials, opening the door to membership of the nuclear bomb club. After all, the UK had to (didn't it?) maintain it's place at the top table of power (whatever that means). Electricity generation was of secondary importance and no doubt conceived as good press to justify the huge commitment and expenditure to a populace still enduring austere times. There were a whole lot of weird nuclear lifestyle fantasies concocted as PR back then. But with huge coal-fired generating capacity and almost complete disregard for environmental considerations (you what?), it made little economic sense in the medium term to produce relatively expensive nuclear electricity. It is perhaps ironic that despite the huge national effort, no British Bomb was ever made operational. I can't help thinking that the Boer War and naval race with Germany strained the treasury to such an extent that Britain was forced onto the back foot fiscally for most of the 20th century. Investment in big-stick cutting-edge military technology and systems on a grand scale struggled, and a good thing, too. If only we'd wise up, accept it, and use our knowledge and expertise for "goodness and niceness" instead (fat chance!).

As for demand for electricity and the proliferation of wind farms... I still have issues with this. We need to pull back our consumption of all things, but especially power. Time to empower ourselves, review our lifestyles, reduce environmental footprints and stop breeding so prolifically. Most of all, it's time to progress beyond our almost blind faith in capitalism, growth, and an economic model that treats the very system that sustains all life - the environment - as an externality.

February 28, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjohnh

there would not have been a problem at Fukishima had the utilities company running the nuclear power station provided the facility with an adequate secondary power source to take over in the event of a power cut.

You mean like a diesel generator protected by a sea wall? Only there was such a wall, only the tidal wave was bigger than it was designed to cope with. Of course, if the reactor had been a newer varient of the same basic type (ESBWR rather than a BWR) then it would cooled itself down just fine for the first 72 hours without any human input. ...

It is perhaps ironic that despite the huge national effort, no British Bomb was ever made operational.

Apart from Blue Danube (58 produced), Red Beard (110 produced), Violet Club (5 produced) and Yellow Sun Mk1 (can't find a reference for how many produced) you mean?

March 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPalmer Sperry

They put their diesel generator in the basement which was a pretty daft place to put it considering they're situated in a tsunami zone. I get youtube updates and they were planning on running another power source from some distance but it was incomplete. I'm not sure of the details but that adds to another problem with nuclear fuel which is the amount of misinformation that is given out to stop countries like Iran latching onto how to harness it for themselves. This means the general public are always in the dark and we never really know what is going on which is a blank cheque for places like Sellafield.

March 2, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterben hughes

Oops! True enough - beg pardon. I guess the rant factor got the better of me.

My excuse of course is that I'm mad. But what else would you expect from someone who grew up in the dark folds of Western kulcha as it moldered under the brick of Mutually Assured Destruction? And the madness continues, it seems. One source reckons that the RN maintains a standing Trident submarine patrol to avoid the possibility that sailing in a time of crisis be misconstrued as a provocative act. Makes about as much sense as legislating against all forms of discrimination, then perusing a policy of positive discrimination. Sound familiar? I think those who concoct these kinds of policies belong to an elite club called 'Obliterati' whose aim it is to take us all over the edge of sanity and reality. God help us (but why would it - would you?).

And speaking of the Age of Bullshit, what about those weapons names? Blue Danube, Red Beard, Violet Club, Yellow Sun. Surely more appropriate for orchid varieties, naughty cocktails...or sexual positions for the 21st century. A proper warlord like Irongrond would never have gone for sissy names like them. What about Xterminob; Xtinctasphincta; Radio Active dePopulation Engine or just C-u-later MkX.

Perhaps I go too far.

March 3, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjohnh

This person goes too far.


March 5, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterben hughes

One source reckons that the RN maintains a standing Trident submarine patrol to avoid the possibility that sailing in a time of crisis be misconstrued as a provocative act.

That seems entirely reasonable to me, though I would've said "an escalation" rather than "a provocative act".

And speaking of the Age of Bullshit, what about those weapons names?

Rainbow Codes ... See also Blue Vixen, Red Rapier, Black Arrow, Green Garlic and many more. I suspect the point being that the names tell you nothing about what the project is, in a similar manner to names like Operation Corporate, Operation Mincemeat and Operation Dynamo telling you nothing about what is being planned.

March 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPalmer Sperry

Poor Helen Caldicott (speaker in Ben Hughes' link). I'm not sure how you mean she goes too far - content or delivery? I couldn't listen to her speech. This despite me most likely supporting her stance and sympathising with her cause. All too often, a committed individual brave (or foolish) enough to step outside convention and openly question or criticise mainstream policies in the public domain comes across as a ratbag. Apart from the fact that many of us don't want to be reminded of difficult or uncomfortable issues, many of us simply don't have the intellectual capacity and are unable to respond coherently when confronted by the complexities and consequences of our lifestyles. You know? Leave it to the experts. What would you know (cos I certainly don't)? A wise but grumpy old man once warned me with an amusing truism; "Remember, half the people you meet in this life are below average intelligence, and the average ain't nothin' to crow about either."

There is a tendency for those with causes to become frustrated, embittered and proscriptive. I should know. I'm an active conservationist with particular interests in SE Australian native flora and fauna. It's a hard road when you decide to act and speak out. As for recruiting others to the cause... gulp! Here in rural Victoria, default community response is to brand you 'Greenie' (an insulting term for many, often articulated from the corner of a sneering mouth preceded by the qualifier 'f***ing') and treat you as pariah. Kangaroos are vermin and parrots are pests (some eat pasture seed and make a lot of noise you see). These attitudes seem illogically persistent to someone like me, as the environment - that mechanism that supports all life - shows increasing signs of stress and dysfunction. But there you are. Not all can see this; if they do, not all care.

The solution? From my perspective, it is to learn from the examples of creative minds and cultural media. Satire, parody, irony and caricature; entertain, engage, demonstrate and stimulate; writers, artists, film makers, musicians and standup comics. Apart from anything else, this approach has something in it for me; fun and satisfaction regardless of response. But of course, it's an imperfect solution; painters are oft dismissed as highfalutin layabouts - comics as fools. One can but try and keep trying. Helen Caldicott will most likely keep trying, but will she adapt?

March 7, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjohnh

I think the delivery was poor and the content was both confused and confusing. It doesn't help that the youtube channel hosting the video keeps being shut down by some unknown authority and that some of the notes under the video have no known sources or points of reference. It's a poorly produced piece of propaganda that lacks professionalism, content and credibility and is perhaps deserved of ridicule.

One question at a time, thanks for the post.

March 7, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterben hughes

"All too often, a committed individual brave (or foolish) enough to step outside convention and openly question or criticise mainstream policies in the public domain comes across as a ratbag. Apart from the fact that many of us don't want to be reminded of difficult or uncomfortable issues, many of us simply don't have the intellectual capacity and are unable to respond coherently when confronted by the complexities and consequences of our lifestyles. You know? Leave it to the experts."

This bloke, Dr Christopher Busby is our expert. He is the best qualified British scientist on the effects of radiation we have who also sometimes conducts interviews as a public figure. He produces and promotes videos on the internet about the issue which are sometimes taken down, he's the one expert we have who is brave enough to speak out about this issue. He freely admits that there are a lot of people who would rather he was dead and they're not indifferent civvies on the street trying to mind their own business. They're people who have a vested interested in selling depleted Uranium munitions and covering their arses in relation to nuclear power plants and weapons. They're serious people who don't want to draw attention to themselves and their activities. The whole debate is conducted in a climate of fear of reprisal, even for experts which can't be right. Just saying.

March 8, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterben hughes

it would be interesting to find out how much wind turbines cost to build.
Are they a couple of Million each? How many could the Goverrment have built foR £437 million pounds that they wasted on Nuclear reprocessing.

I dread to think how much money has been wasted in Total for Nuclear power.
In Japan they are now building the largest wind farm in the World offshore from Fujishima Nuclear Reactor.

Off course no one will complain about them spoiling the view. Mostly because know one can even look at the sea in that area
without being contaminated by radioactivity from the plant.

March 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Hicks

I just listened to the Radio 4 Program again and realised what they said.
After wasting so much money building a plutonium processing plant they want to have another go.
Despite the fact none of the Nuclear Power Stations in the Uk can use MOX in Generating power.
Thats right they would be making something at huge cost that know one can use.

The only answer to this is to do what Germany is doing and close all Nuclear power stations as soon as possible
put all that money into Renewable energy.

To some extent gas is the right decision as long as equal amounts of money go into Renewable Energy and Energy conservation.

March 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Hicks


March 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Hicks

That's good news, thanks for posting. Leading by example is the best way forward.

March 10, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterben hughes

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