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.

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