The Legacy of Nuclear Power | Lecture by Andrew Blowers
Andrew Blower, emeritus professor at The Open University in Milton Keynes (UK), investigates the legacy of radioactive waste that the production of nuclear energy has left us up until now. At 18 April he visited Nijmegen, on invitation by The chair group for Environment and Policy and Radboud Reflects, for a lecture on the legacy of nuclear power.
At the beginning of his lecture, he presents himself in a fourfold way. Firstly, as an academic, accurate in his use of data; secondly as a politician, whose constituency accidentally contained a nuclear dump; thirdly, as a national policy consultant for matters of nuclear waste management; ﬁnally, as an activist, stubbornly opposed to the development of the nuclear energy production. After presenting himself, he starts elucidating the issue at stakes. He commences with the empirical heritage of nuclear power. On the one hand, there are physical leftovers, such as buildings and old reactors which are still mostly radioactive; on the other hand, there is also a social leftover, which consists of nucleated settlements living in ‘nuclear oases’. Being an empirical heritage, he shows to the public the proofs of this legacy. In fact, over the years, he has analyzed four diﬀerent cases, which eventually resulted in his book The Legacy of Nuclear Power.
Hanford and Sellafield
The ﬁrst case study is Hanford (USA), which swiftly changed before and after the war. Initially, inhabited by native Americans, during the war it became a focal point for the manufacture of the plutonium, necessary for the ‘manhattan’ project. Even in the postwar the development of the city increased due to the tension between the USA and the Soviet Union. However, with the end of cold war, the demand for plutonium came to an end, leaving behind what has also been referred to as ‘the most daunting environmental catastrophe’. In fact, Blowers explains that the nuclear debris was casually dumped into normal water tanks, with a high risk of leaking into the surrounding environment. Sellaﬁeld (UK) is the second case displayed by Blower. Sellaﬁeld is a small but incredibly dense site, where UK’s military nuclear program landﬁlled the radioactive waste. Although a work of reprocessing is currently going on, many inquiries have pointed out the actual risk of the store, generating a scandal about safety which turned in a media frenzy.
La Hague and Gorleben
Unlike the ﬁrst two cases, La Hague (France) is not a military leftover, but it is a reprocessing plant which accumulates nuclear waste from many diﬀerent countries. The nuclear reprocessing consists in separating the plutonium, which can be reused, so reducing the overall volume of the waste. In spite of the reduction, the level of radioactivity of the debris results unvaried and therefore there still needs a place where to store the waste. One of this place is the fourth example: Gorleben (Germany). Gorleben is already the site of a short-term radioactive waste repository, and as far as the work started a ﬁerce resistance has been opposed to by antinuclear movements. The escalation of hostilities occurred when the government decided to render the nearby salt dome the deﬁnitive store for all the waste. Demonstrations and sabotages have been organized by the movements. Eventually, the project proposal was rejected, but the city still is a symbol for the struggle against nuclear power.
In the second part of the lecture, Blower explores the conceptual legacy of nuclear waste. If the ﬁrst part was dedicated to enquire into the empirical evidence of the legacy, the second one is an attempt to theorize this heritage. Blower talks about peripheral community. Those communities are characterized by their remoteness, as if they were internal peripheries. In all the cases examined there is an economic marginality, namely they altogether depend on the nuclear production. In this sense, the Hanford example is illuminating since the community was left in a condition of abandonment, after the plutonium became unneeded.
What Blower calls the ‘peripheralisation’ has led on the one hand to a feeling of resignation, while on the other, it has brought numerous movements to stand against it, so creating a sense of communitarian identity. What the local inhabitants feel is their political powerlessness, as if they could not express their opinion about the scope of the land in which they live. Moreover, there is a real environmental risk, which makes the issue more urgent than it might seem.
According to Blower, a dynamic relationship between industries and community is currently taking place. This relationship is about to change the discourse which shapes the power relations of the peripheralisation. Of course, Blower overtly leans towards the antinuclear movements, having also presented himself as an activist. Consequently, he hopes that a new discourse about substituting the nuclear power might emerge.
Burying radioactive waste
In the last part of his lecture, Blower brieﬂy sketches out what is a plausible solution. Unfortunately, he states that there is not a short-term solution. At the moment, the only initiative undertaken by governments is to bury radioactive waste into a deep geological repository. However, this will aﬀect future generations, since it is likely the exact position of these repositories will be lost in the next one hundred thousand years. It might seem strange to talk about such enormous amounts of time, however, Blower remarks, the average lifetime of nuclear waste is about 24,000 years. Thus, even communicating about the whereabouts of nuclear waste is something that should be questioned. Blower imagines of future archeologists that, in search for traces of our existence, stumble upon radioactive waste.
For this reason, the only possible solution is to clean up everything, despite the time it requires. Blower talks about continuing responsibilities which involve dealing with this legacy for the whole cleaning process, rather than burying everything, even our memories of the legacy. According to Blower, secure surface storages can be built. In this way, it will be impossible to accidentally open them. However, the most important thing, for Blower, is to stop accumulating more nuclear waste, since it is already diﬃcult to deal with the waste that we have stockpiled.
Report by Giuseppe Platania
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