Newsletter Summer 2006

NAG NEWSLETTER                                  SUMMER 06


Tuesday July 4th, 7pm

Next NAG Meeting

 Civic Centre, Reading

Nuclear Convoys: an update (Nukewatch)

New Discharge Authorisations for AWE (discussion)


Protest at AWE

Aldermaston has been a focus of protest for nearly 50 years.  Protest is a national institution and a symbol of our democracy, but it has just been made virtually impossible.  New bye-laws have been brought in which prohibit anyone from taking part in, attending or organising any meeting or procession outside AWE Aldermaston.  They also prohibit the distribution or display of any "leaflet, sign, poster, notice or any similar form of "communication" outside Aldermaston.

Talk about draconian - but that's not all.  The Ministry of Defence Police (MDP) has difficulty telling the difference between peaceful protesters and terrorists if they spot strangers inside the site.  The response to this problem has been to add to the powers they already have under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, 2005, further powers under the Terrorism Act 2006. 

If MDP Officers spot strangers inside the site, they actually could be terrorists.  In which case no amount of legislation will stop them if they are intent on blowing themselves up, doing as much "criminal" damage as possible in the process.  Therefore, the legislation must be targeted at protest.  Why now, after 50 years of coping with protest? They must be expecting a mega-revival of the anti-nuclear movement.  Now - why would they be expecting that?

We continue to fear that the plans to build a new nuclear warhead system to replace Trident in due course are well under way, despite Government denials that such a decision has been reached and assurances that it will be fully debated in Parliament. We note that AWE has plans to build a new uranium enrichment facility (see page 168 of the Environment Agency's draft new discharge authorisations).  That could hardly be needed to maintain the existing warhead stockpile.

Consultation on New Discharge Authorisations

This public consultation by the Environment Agency ends on August 5th, and the new Authorisation is intended to go up to around 2012.

There are considerable drops in some of the draft authorisations, notably in air and liquid discharges.  Partly this is because the ceilings set by the current authorisations are much higher than AWE need in relation to the current work in progress, but technical improvements also account for a lot of the reductions.  This is particularly true for liquid discharges, which instead of being dumped into the Thames are now collected up, and evaporated off into a radioactive sludge which can be sent to Drigg.  Unfortunately the method doesn't work for tritium, which is going to the sewage works at Silchester in greater quantities than before. Some airborne discharges also escape filtration in the evaporator and are released - some to fall on land and others in the Thames as before.

The  suggestions in the draft document which are of most concern to us are:

  • the creation of a discharge authorisation for the Orion laser of Carbon 14 to air after West Berks Council had been given to understand that there were no radiological implications
  • the proposed sending to unspecified landfill of waste contaminated with tritium at above the exemption level
  • the additional authorisation for incineration at Grundons, Colnbrook in Slough.

The last two of these arise from the fact that Drigg is nearly full, and the volume of Low Level Waste has been underestimated.  Attempts to deal with this problem by dispersing more radiation into the environment need to be questioned, and we hope to discuss these issues at our July meeting.

NAG has prepared a briefing on the Environment Agency's 209-page document, which is available on request from Di McDonald on 02380 554434, email

Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM)

CoRWM has compiled draft recommendations on what to do with nuclear waste and asked for comments on them.  The principle suggestions are

  • Geological "disposal" with an interim storage plan to cover the expected time-lag before geological storage becomes a reality
  • Flexibility and continuing search for alternatives
  • Host communities should be voluntary
  • "Community packages" should offer benefits to host communities
  • Staged decision-making processes
  • Transparency
  • An additional stage if plutonium, uranium and spent nuclear fuel start being classified as waste by the government.

NAG has always recognised that the waste which exists has to go somewhere, and we do not have any better suggestions to make as to where, so we have expressed basic agreement with the recommendations.  We prefer the word "storage" to "disposal" - the latter suggests a problem solved and is therefore inaccurate in this context.  We also expressed again our disappointment at CoRWM's inability to address the political dimension and the dearth of ethical considerations in the draft recommendations.


The 20th anniversary of Chernobyl was marked by a spate of reports on the consequences of that horrendous nuclear accident.  The estimates of cancer deaths resulting from it varied so widely that it is difficult not to conclude that some of the reports were more independent than others. 

The official UN report looked only at cancer deaths in parts of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, and came up with an improbably low figure of 4,000 - but this was largely the thinking of the IAEA, which promotes nuclear energy.  Later, the WHO chose 9000 in the same areas, and its Agency for cancer research came up with between 6,700 and 38,000 in Europe.  Thinking more globally, two independent scientists have come up with between 30,000 and 60,000 and Greenpeace with 90,000.  The European Committee on Radiation Risk (ECRR), looking at the wider spectrum of effects not just cancer, and looking at what health workers on the ground are seeing, estimates that the figures will eventually run into millions.

What we find disturbing is the extent to which official figures have been worked out by looking at the amounts of radiation that the affected populations were exposed to, and extrapolating from there using the conventional ICRP risk assessment models, the number of deaths that those doses should result in.  The technique is reminiscent of the one used by COMARE when examining the childhood leukaemia cluster around AWE Aldermaston back in 1989 - leading COMARE to conclude that AWE's discharges were too low to be the cause of the cluster. 

What therefore comes over to non-scientists like us is the need to look at the problem the other way round - see what is happening on the ground, and review the risk assessment model in the light of that.

The Chernobyl sub-committee of ECRR has published a book which does try to examine what is happening in the real world.  The book includes research into the wider effects of Chernobyl, mainly published in Russian-language journals, which looks at plants and animals as well as humans, and basically shows that genomic instability effects are ongoing, even in plants (which don't suffer from radiophobia).  Genetic diversification is happening many generations after the event, at doses comparable to background.  As far away as North Wales, 359 farms still have to have their sheep tested for caesium 137 before they can be sold for eating.

The Chernobyl legacy clearly does not consist of cancer deaths and thyroid cancers alone.  Much human suffering has resulted and continues to result, and we can see no reason for continuing to ignore it or worse still, to cover it up, other than to protect the nuclear industry.

Nuclear Convoys

The report on the convoy accident exercise last Autumn is far from reassuring.  The exercise took place in Scotland, and the scenario it was simulating was that a convoy carrying Trident warheads was hit by an aircraft engine falling out of the sky, resulting in the convoy not only being hit but getting involved in a crash with a fuel tanker.  In real life an accident like this might well have resulted in the contamination of large parts of Scotland with plutonium.

Lothian Fire and Rescue Service was one of ten public agencies involved in the exercise and its subsequent debriefing.  The Fire Service had a hard time - firstly they were not told in the initial police call-out that it was an exercise.  Then there was confusion about the location.  Then, because of faulty information from the MOD, they were unable to do a complete mass decontamination, so that "casualties" would have reached hospital still contaminated, and people trapped in vehicles would not have been rescued.  The Scottish Ambulance Service also reported communication breakdowns with the MOD - partly because they were using different radios.

"Lessons are being learned" says the MOD - perhaps the lesson they really need to learn is that transporting nuclear warheads by road is dangerous, and that a scenario such as the one they enacted in Scotland could not really be coped with in any normal sense of the word.

Consultation on Solid Low Level Radioactive Waste

We discussed our responses to this at our April meeting, and have made the following points in the reply we have sent

  • the polluter pays principle should apply, exceptions would need to be justified
  • both landfill and incineration involve dispersal into the environment
  • the basic principle has to be safeguarding future generations
  • long-lived radionuclides need to be stored centrally, but local storage could be appropriate for material with a short half life.

NAG Ltd  Secretary:  Evelyn Parker, 16 Back St., Winchester, SO23 9SB. Tel: 01962 890160