Monday, 19 May 2014

13,750 cubic metres of radioactive waste. Best of Both Worlds?

Twenty-five years ago this month Torness, that ominous grey box on the coast south of Dunbar, hummed into life with Mrs Thatcher pressing the big start button. A quarter of a century on nuclear is key to the debate on Scottish independence.

You see, energy policy is largely controlled by Westminster. We have the best of both worlds, according to the anti-independence campaign. Applied to energy policy that vacuous slogan means we have no say if EDF want to extend the life of Torness, as they have already done with Hunterston in Ayrshire. It means we will continue to pay for the containment of thousands of years of nuclear power’s toxic legacy. At the last estimate the UK’s nuclear clean up bill was approaching £100billion. Yes, one hundred billion.

Since Mrs T’s visit in May 1989 Torness has generated approximately 13,750 cubic metres of radioactive waste. That’s the equivalent of 125 double decker buses. Added to that are the health risks to workers, the worries for nearby residents who are expected to neck iodate tablets in an emergency, and the health effects on miners in Canada and Australia who dig toxic uranium out of the ground in the first place.

A glance at the archives reveals an interesting U-turn by the party that has taken East Lothian for granted for so long. Labour MP John Home-Robertson apparently refused to welcome Maggie, instead choosing to be pictured with protestors outside the plant waving Labour, SNP and Green banners. It seems he told some sections of the press that he was concerned about the waste remaining dangerous for 1,000 years while other journalists heard that his concern was that nuclear would put coal out of business. Cockenzie of course only stopped burning black diamonds in the last year.

Fast forward to the late 90s and early 2000s when Home-Robertson was MSP for the county in the new Holyrood parliament. Not only did he secure Tory and Libdem support for a debate on “environmentally friendly” nuclear power but he went on to table a motion describing nuclear power as “essential” with his Labour backers looking forward to the development of new plants across Scotland.

This pro-toxic stance is continued today by Iain Gray, and a replacement Torness is being lobbied for by Labour-led East Lothian Council.

Iain Gray likes to trot out energy costs as an argument against independence but he always seems to conveniently overlook his beloved nuclear. He likes to suggest that Scotland couldn’t afford to subsidise renewables and only the might of the UK can do that.

In reality the UK is under enormous pressure to decarbonise its electricity supply by 2030. It cannot hope to meet its targets unless it takes advantage of Scottish renewables. The UK Government has painted itself into a corner on new nuclear with eyewateringly expensive new builds and guaranteed hefty payments for the private firms responsible. By contrast onshore wind from Scotland is one of the cheapest sources of renewable power anywhere on earth, with the offshore revolution starting to ramp up.

So, as we debate whether Scotland should be an independent country we should consider the benefits of being completely responsible for energy policy and we should be wary of what Labour politicians from East Lothian have to say on the subject given their track record.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Glaciers, Floods And Kippers

There’s something ironic about the glacially slow speed with which we appear to be reacting to climate change. Indeed, I suspect many people are only vaguely aware that the global warming stuff Greens like me bang on isn’t just about things get hotter but about weather becoming more extreme.

There was a surge – pun intended – of mentions of climate change in the media following the recent English floods (caused by the prospect of gay weddings, if you believe the Farage balloons) but this quickly subsided. Away from the chaos it’s quite hard to get non-Greenies enthused about it because without the obvious pandemonium caused by floods or droughts it’s intangible. The global nature of the issue adds to that intangibility.

This perfect storm, it would seem, makes it fashionable to bash the renewable energy and emissions reduction targets that will set us on a more sustainable course. Whether it’s local elected Tories (there are a few here in East Lothian) shaking their fists at the turbines on the horizon or out-of-town unelected Ukippers offering to scrap the Climate Change Act and frack us to heck.
Quantifying what climate change means at a local level could be the spur we need to start taking things seriously. It will be interesting to see whether any of East Lothian’s 23 councillors pay sufficient attention to a paper going before the council this week. Blandly titled “Flood Risk Management” it updates members on progress towards strategies and actions to deal with the increasingly extreme weather experienced in vulnerable coastal and riverside locations.

The planning for any actions will be taken forward between next year and 2021. These plans stem from a report compiled by SEPA (the environment agency) in 2011, which in turn was prompted by parliamentary legislation in 2009. So, already you can see the glacial rate of progress we’re dealing with.

Buried within the SEPA report are projections which show how sea levels – predicted to be half a metre higher by 2080 – will affect homes, businesses and the economy. The risk to residential properties in the Musselburgh area rises from 480 family homes to 2,200, and businesses from 100 to 440. Cockenzie and Port Seton would also be affected.

Along the coast from North Berwick to the English border the number of residential properties at risk doubles from 50 to 100 and non-residential from 45 to 70.

It is worth noting that these projections are based on still water without wave action, so we can expect the impact to be much higher in the event of storms. In short, it seems we’re not far away from thousands of people being flooded out of their homes and businesses unable to function. If we continue to do very little to mitigate a problem we’ve known about for some time.

Of course the renewables-bashers and climate-deniers might argue we don’t know these predictions will come to pass. My response would be that these are robust projections from Met Office data using sound science and funded by the UK and Scottish Governments. They are not the rambling interpretations of tea leaves by some roadside Professor Marvel.

The UN intergovernmental panel on climate change has also stated that “higher benefit-cost ratios can beachieved by implementing some adaptation measures at an early stage compared toretrofitting long-lived infrastructure at a later date.” In other words, what are we waiting for?

So, as our councillors are invited to “note” their 4-page update, I think it’s worth asking why we’re not being offered a stronger commitment on this issue. It’s hard not to conclude that they view thinking ahead as hard work and are happy for future generations to literally mop up the mess.