It’s hard not to sympathise with Prof essor David Ball. He quit the government’s think-tank on the future of nuclear waste storage in frustration at its lumbering progress towards what he described as ‘the bleeding obvious’ conclusion — that we’re going to have find a way to bury the stuff safely deep underground.
Ball gives a strong impression of a man tearing his hair out at the prospect of any more discussions over the more, shall we say, ambitious options on the table such as firing the waste into the heart of the sun.
He is particularly vexed by what he sees as an ‘anti-expert’ culture surrounding the waste debate, one that holds the views of the public in equal, or even more esteem than those paid to know about these things. On the face of it, this does indeed sound crazy. Most people wouldn’t want to visit their doctor, be told that they are seriously ill and then be handed a long list of treatment options in the name of consultation. (‘I know the leeches sound a bit old hat but we’ve got to give you the choice. Have a think and get back to me.’)
The nuclear industry has decided that the deep suspicion with which it is viewed by large sections of the population means it can hardly approach such a contentious issue as though it were proposing a shake-up of the public library system. What we are seeing, in effect, is an exercise in i-dotting and t-crossing, so that when the inevitable conclusion is reached, nobody can say every other alternative was not considered.
A sensible course as far as it goes, but not if the talking unduly delays the action. Barely a week goes by without new speculation over a government-backed ‘renaissance’ of nuclear energy in the UK as a means of meeting our future power needs. This is surely right, but until a proper strategy is devised for dealing with our existing waste stockpile the issue will remain the elephant in the room that overshadows the wider debate over our nuclear future.
If the government is looking for a consensus on nuclear energy, whether how to dispose of waste or whether to build new power stations, it will never find one. Even wind farms — the cleanest, greenest source of power that is currently practically available — are battling bad PR at every turn of their blades.
Involve the public by all means, but make sure the following questions are added to the consultation process. Do you want your lights to go out? If the answer to that is no, do you want us to do something about it? If you want us to do something, have you got any suggestions? What was that? I see, you’re paying us to sort it out. Fine, we’ll crack on then.
Andrew Lee, Editor, The Engineer