February Newsletter No197

Posted by SONE on 28 February 2015 in Newsletters

Tagged with: ALARA, David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Nick Clegg, Radium girls, SMR, Sellafield.


This month has seen several important political initiatives – and one which seemed important on a first reading but amounted to very little. This was the joint pledge to tackle climate change signed by David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg in what one newspaper called “a rare show of unity” before the General Election.

This “pledge” ignored the role of nuclear energy in reducing CO2 emissions completely and failed to take account of the different attitudes of potential coalition partners towards energy alternatives. Instead it rattled on about carbon budgets, the employment possibilities of wind turbines and the need to stop using “unabated” coal.

This so-called ground breaking agreement brought to mind the Macbeth quotation: “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. A bit unfair, perhaps – as there was nothing new in the deal there was not much to be furious about either.

Much more important were three new policy approaches which might further improve the economics of nuclear energy, certainly in the longer term.

Politicians in the US have at last agreed that scientists should re-examine the proposition that there is no safe level of radiation, a highly conservative approach to radiological protection which has added enormously to costs over the years, complementing work already under way in Europe.

Then there is the new-found political interest in what small modular reactors have to offer after decades of indifference on the part of the political establishment.

Finally, our Conservative-led coalition Government has decided to return responsibility for the management and disposal of radioactive waste from the private sector back into the State’s hands. Ignore the unlikely political scenario of the Tories nationalising a controversial sector of the nuclear industry – renewed political interest in this area could turn out to be important.


When the leaders of political parties reach an agreement during the run-up to what is already a bitterly fought General Election campaign it makes sense to look for the thinking behind what has to be a compromise deal. In the case of the joint pledge on climate change announced by Messrs Cameron, Miliband and Clegg it isn’t difficult to find.

All three want to remove the climate change issue from the campaign trail. All three are aware that support for the Green Party has been gathering pace and that they need to display their own green credentials. All three know that UKIP’s reservations about the science behind the incessant global warming warnings may be attracting support from among their own backbenchers.

So they have come up with an apple pie and motherhood sort of agreement, something they hope cannot be questioned because it appeals to universally held beliefs or values. We will see.

Maybe it’s a good thing that nuclear energy doesn’t rate a mention in the MCC (Miliband, Cameron and Clegg) climate change pledge. The optimist in me wants to believe that it is now a given that nuclear energy is needed to combat the emission of carbon dioxide and other toxic substances into the environment, whatever their effect.

Coal is now very much the main target for the three political leaders with a pledge “to accelerate the transition to a competitive, energy efficient, low carbon economy and the use of unabated coal for power generation”. These are interesting words, implying that “abated” coal, which I assume is coal which has been cleaned up, is acceptable. That is not something the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, Ed Vazey, has been prepared to accept up to now.

Another pledge from the MCC group is that they will “seek a fair, strong, legally binding, global climate deal which limits temperature rises to below 2 degrees C”, regarded by the climate change believers to be the threshold of global warming. Legally binding? Good luck with that say I, given the widespread opposition among emerging countries and some which have emerged.

A third pledge from Cameron, Miliband and Clegg is “to work together across party lines, to agree carbon budgets”, which are required by law anyway but which have led to serious clashes within the coalition Cabinet from time to time. That won’t be easy either.


With hindsight it seems absurd that the nuclear energy industry’s pioneers accepted the ultra cautious dictum that there was no safe level of radiation when proof to the contrary was all around them in the natural environment. Expense no object, it seemed, in a new industry controlled by the State and by a succession of Government energy ministers who had very short half lives.

Radioactivity was discovered by the French scientist Henri Becquerel in 1896. Over the next 50 years discoveries were made about radiation effects largely by trial and error. There were also clinical records of the impact which indiscriminate use of radium and x-rays had on the health of radiologists and their patients. In addition, the medical use of radiation had led to the deaths of some of those subjected to it.

In the UK about 15,000 people had been given heavy doses of x-rays for the treatment of arthritis of the spine before the dangers of this practice were recognised. They suffered 100 more cancer deaths than would be expected in a population of that size.

Then there were the radium girls, “the walking dead” as they called themselves, women who earned a living painting the faces of watches and other objects with luminous paint in the early 1920s. A significant number of them developed bone cancers many years later. This was caused by them licking their paint brushes to make them pointed and swallowing minute quantities of the Radium 226 contained in the paint.

Radium is a radioactive substance, occurring naturally, which once swallowed concentrates in the bones. The radioactivity, the source of the luminosity, ate away the mouths, teeth and jaw bones of the women. Eventually it eroded the whole skeleton. Few lived beyond the age of 30.

Later there was the information which came out of Japan, where whole populations had been exposed to intense radiation when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the Second World War.

One way and another a great deal was learned about the health effects of excessive doses of radiation and turned into radiation protection standards of a kind. But far less was known about small doses and until 1950 it was believed that there was a “threshold dose” of radiation exposure, below which no harmful effects would occur. That being so it was thought acceptable to bury low level radioactive materials or discharge them into the sea.


Such was the faith members of the public had in the scientific community, despite the examples I have given of that faith being somewhat misplaced at times, they were even persuaded that a little radiation might be beneficial.

Arthur Scott, my predecessor as Company Secretary of British Nuclear Fuels, kept the label from a bottle of aerated drinking water in a drawer in his office and brought it out to show me shortly after I joined the company. It stated that the water was guaranteed to contain a certain amount of radioactivity!

Identifying the effects of low level radiation was obviously much more difficult the smaller the dose received, calling for judgements to be made on the basis of theory rather than observed fact. This led to protracted arguments.

Eventually it was decided that the simple solution was to assume that any additional amount of radiation, however small, would do some harm and that there was no such thing as a safe radiation dose. Simple this might have been but it has turned out to be something of a disaster at two levels.
At the scientific level this nonsense led to the creation of regulatory dictats containing expressions such as “As Low As Reasonably Achievable” (ALARA) and “As Low As Reasonably Practicable” (ALARP), which is stil going strong. For a risk to be ALARP it must be possible to demonstrate that the cost involved in reducing the risk further will be grossly disproportionate to the benefit gained.
Far from simplifying matters it has complicated them in my view, leading to further argument as to what is low, what is reasonable and what is achievable or practicable.

In terms of public opinion it has also been damaging. Anti-nuclear campaigners still claim that the nuclear industry “admits” that there is no safe level of radiation exposure, ignoring the fact that the most exposed nuclear industry workers receive doses lower than those received by several other sectors of the population for medical reasons or from natural sources.

Because of the attention paid to the issue by the environmental groups, more emphasis has been placd on the small amount of radiation – no more than one- tenth of 1 per cent of the total radiation to which they will be exposed naturally – which reaches members of the public as a result of the nuclear energy industry’s activities.

Taken to its logical conclusion the concept that there is no safe level of radiation would lead society to encourage whole populations to move away from areas where there are enhanced levels of natural radiation. It might also lead to air travel being discouraged because of the dangers of cosmic rays and a mass of other restrictions.

That level of interference in civil liberties was clearly impossible to contemplate politically and so pressure was put on the nuclear energy industry. Layer upon layer of extra expenditure on reducing radioactive discharges from nuclear sites, particularly Sellafield, was imposed on the industry and then the politicians and customers complained about the effect this had on costs.


The US House of Representatives has just approved a Bill calling for a long-term strategy on low level radiation research to be developed – at long last some would say. This will complement work already being carried out by the Multi Disciplinary European Low Dose Initiative (MELODI).

The US exercise, aimed at rationalising the material already available and create a long-term strategy for future research has been placed in the hands of the US Department of Energy and the National Academy of Sciences.

There are political and sociological dangers in turning the spotlight on the real, rather than imagined, dangers of low level radiation, of course. The general scientific expectation is that all the work now put in hand will demonstrate that there is a safe level but there are those who will never be persuaded. It is therefore essential that the work is demonstrably fair, thorough and open to challenge.

As the US Nuclear Energy Institute said when the House of Representatives approved the Bill authorising research: “By improving our knowledge about the impact, if any, of low radiation doses, we can better shape policies and programmes that ensure safety in a science-based, cost-effective manner”.

The second political initiative aimed at improving scientific and engineering knowledge is the call by the Parliamentary Energy and Climate Change Committee for the UK Government to work with industry to better understand the economics of small modular reactors (SMRs) and set out “a clear explanation of the conditions under which they might become competitive and and commercially viable”.


In its report the Committee says it will be important to understand the future cost comparison with large scale nuclear reactors as well as the comparison with other small-scale energy generation technology. On the positive side the report recognises that SMRs can be built in a way that allows them to be manufactured and brought to site fully constructed.

They also have a range of applications, including process heat, desalination and water purification and other generating applications.

The Energy and Climate Change Committee report came hot on the heels of a feasibility study published by the National Nuclear Laboratory which urged UK investment in SMRs which, it suggested, provided an opportunity to regain technology leadership in the ownership and development of low carbon generation and secure energy supplies.

The National Nuclear Laboratory is convinced that there is a very significant market for SMRs where they fulfil a market need that cannot be met by large nuclear plants, with the size of the potential SMR market calculated to be about 65-85 GW of new capacity by 2035, valued at £250-£400 billion if the economics are right.

There is an important caveat there. The market for SMRs is seen by NNL to be where demand cannot be met by large nuclear plants. Others see SMRs as an alternative to large plants, a stance which might muddy the waters somewhat, offering anti-nuclear groups the chance to obfuscate and delay the major projects already approved.

By all means let’s have the investigation into the feasibility of SMRs called for by the Energy and Climate Change Committee. I am all for that, But let’s not get carried away. Some of us have seen the dangers of of proliferating nuclear designs and jumping to conclusions that the ultimate solution to harnessing nuclear energy has been found or is just around the corner.

No fewer than five different consortia of industrial companies were formed to build the 32 first generation Magnox nuclear stations predicted by the Government in 1955. Remember? All the stations eventually built were of a unique design and the programme was eventually completed in 1971. It consisted of only nine stations.

Much the same sort of thing happened when the UK moved on from the Magnox stations to Advanced Gas Reactors (AGR) by way of a prototype Steam Generating Heavy Water Reactor(SGHWR) and the Dragon High Temperature Reactor, a single Pressurised Water Reactor (PWR) and the Fast Breeder Reactor. The AGR construction programme was a disaster. The first station to be started took 20 years to finish.

Come to think of it, in the mid-1970s the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) was talking of Britain having at least 20 commercial fast breeder reactors by the end of the century. In the event even the single prototype fast reactor built at Dounreay had been shut down by then.
So let’s be realistic during the investigation called for by the Energy and Climate Change Committee and resist the temptation to talk up the potential of the SMRs before it’s finished.

The final example of political involvement – positive or not depending on your viewpoint – came with the announcement that the UK Government had stripped a private sector consortium, Nuclear Management Partners (NMP) of the contract to clean up the Sellafield site. Under the new arrangements Sellafield Ltd (the Site Licence Company) will continue to operate the site but will no longer be under the temporary ownership of a private sector contractor.

Instead, direct ownership will revert to the Government-owned Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) and Sellafield Ltd will become a subsidiary of the NDA and be led by a team appointed and governed by a newly-constituted board of the site licence company. The transition is expected to take 15 months to complete.

The decision means that NMP, a joint venture between Amec Foster Wheeler, Areva and URS, respectively British, French and US Engineering companies, will lose its £9 billion contract as the Sellafield site’s Parent Body Organisation (PBO) and naturally enough it isn’t best pleased. The consortium described the decision as surprising and disappointing but it’s been on the cards for years so I doubt if it came as too big a shock.

Most recently the Public Accounts Committee said in a report published 12 months ago that there had been significant delays and cost over-runs on a number of major projects and the Government agreed with the Committee’s conclusion that it was a priority to consider what contractual model might best deliver improved performance and value for money at Sellafield.

In the meantime it endorsed the NDA’s decision to roll the existing PBO contract forward into a second term, from 1 April 2014, “to ensure that the progress made in the first five-year term could be built upon”. In the event the Government clearly changed its mind about just how much progress had been achieved.

When he announced the management change the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, Ed Davey, said that Sellafield Limited continued to make progress (that word progress again) and was currently on track to deliver against its key performance measures and milestones in 2014-15. So why kick the private sector contractor into touch?

The reason, apparently, is that Sellafield’s “complexity and technical uncertainties presented significantly greater challenges than other NDA sites”. As such, Sellafield is “”less well suited” to the transfer of full site-wide responsibility to the private sector via a Parent Body Organisation structure.
I find it quite extraordinary that it has taken the politicians and their advisers so long to work that one out but let’s hope that the new, simplified management model will be more successful. It certainly needs to be.

Last year the NDA increased its estimate of the total cost of cleaning up the Sellafield site from £387 million to £729 million – in other words it nearly doubled. Much of this work should have been undertaken decades ago.

The Sellafield site’s nuclear facilities include those connected with the Magnox reprocessing programme, the Sellafield mixed oxide fuel plant (MOX), the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) and nuclear waste treatment plants. It is also home to redundant facilities from defence work in the 1950s, which included making plutonium for nuclear weapons.

It is only fair to point out that Sellafield Ltd has had its successes while in private hands, even though some of the successes relate to materials which have been waiting to be dealt with for decades, usually because of the difficulty in getting customers to acknowledge their responsibility for them.

A good example was this months’ announcement that two million litres of liquid waste has been pumped out of Sellafield’s Magnox Swarf Storage Silo, one of the world’s oldest nuclear waste stores. This means that Sellafield Ltd has halved the radioactive content of some of its historic liquid nuclear waste, significantly reducing the potential hazard posed by the 50-year old swarf storage silo, which has caused concern among the workforce.

The changed management arrangements have widespread support among the 10,000 strong workforce and this is important. Their loyalty has been sorely tested at times over the years and proved invaluable in face of anti-nuclear opposition which has sometimes smacked of scaremongering. They, as much as the politicians, understand the need for the Sellafield clean-up programme to be a success.