It’s Scotland’s Waste. Labour think they have scored a direct hit on the SNP’s nuclear policy, and they may be right. But Jack McConnell may also have deepened Labour’s own divisions over energy policy.
Last week, the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon insisted that an SNP government would not use the national deep waste repository in England to store Scotland’s nuclear waste, but keep the stuff above ground in Scotland. Jack McConnell says he was genuinely surprised to learn this.
When he raised the nuclear waste issue after his John P MacIntosh lecture last week, McConnell was trying to make the case for maintaining the Union, on the grounds that, if Scotland went its own way, England might no longer be prepared to accept Scottish nuclear waste. A kind of ‘Waste Lothian Question’, you might say. But it seems the SNP don’t trust England to look after Scotland’s nuclear trash anyway.
Nicola Sturgeon isn’t opposed to English deep storage on racial grounds. SNP policy is that it is irresponsible to bury nuclear waste anywhere. This is partly because of the dangers involved in transporting the waste to the repository - imagine Dounreay nuclear convoys on the A9, being held up by caravans - and partly because of the risk of underground leaks.
Strictly speaking, deep storage isn’t a solution at all, as the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (Corwm) conceded in July when it proposed digging a half mile hole for Britain’s nuclear residue. This is containment rather than decontamination. And because the spent fuel rods and contaminated equipment will stay radioactive for 24,000 years, we could be handing a huge problem on to future generations. 10,000 years ago, Scotland was covered by half a mile of ice.
However, while the SNP is right to say that ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is no solution to the nuclear problem, I’m not sure that voters will agree with them nothing should be done in the here and now. Many Scots will find the idea of burying the waste five hundred metres under the Cumbrian coastline a more attractive proposition than leaving it on the ground at Hunterston or Torness.
There may be a theoretical risk of the deep nuclear storage site leaking because of geological disturbance. But there is clearly an even greater risk of leakage or accident from leaving the stuff lying around indefinitely in various rusty containers.
Then there is security. It is much more difficult to guard a multiplicity of temporary sites than one deep store, where it is more difficult for terrorists to gain access and where planes or truck bombs cannot penetrate. The terrorist risk is one of the main reasons CORWM argues that action needs to be taken urgently.
Now, you could say that nuclear power stations shouldn’t be there in the first place. That given the lack of any proper long-term solution to the waste problem, we shouldn’t be contemplating building any more of them. But the reality is that we already have five reactors in Scotland, three of them shut. Even if no new nuclear power stations are built, there will be a mass of new radioactive waste as the existing plants are decommissioned.
Would England block Scotland’s waste as McConnell claims? Well, assuming the national deep waste repository is sited in Cumbria (which is by no means certain, since Dounreay is also a candidate) it seems inconceivable that England would prefer to have Scottish waste kicking around, rather than have it underground, even if Scotland were independent. Quite apart from the safety issue, there is history. It would be an act of stupendous pettiness for England to reject Scottish nuclear waste, when nuclear power has been a common project involving the whole UK for five decades.
This is a joint responsibility. Britain’s experimental fast breeder reactor was sited in Dounreay, and has caused untold environmental damage there. Scotland exports much of its Torness-generated electricity to England. Jack McConnell may be right that there is a Union Dividend, but this is no way to argue it.
Moreover, in raising the nuclear waste issue, McConnell has exposed his own vulnerability on the broader question of nuclear renewal. He has repeatedly assured the Scottish parliament in the past that he would block any new nuclear power stations on planning grounds if there were no solution to the waste problem. Well, now we know from Corwm that there is no final solution - other than guarding the stuff underground. So what is McConnell’s position now? He will not say.
McConnell is no lover of nuclear power, and favours developing Scotland’s ample renewable energy sources. But many in the Labour party are enthusiasts, not least the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, who supports a new generation of nuclear stations. The trades union Amicus intends to make renewal a key issue at the forthcoming Labour conference in Oban. McConnell cannot remain silent indefinitely.
The latest cracks in the graphite core of Hunterston B mean that a decision may have to be taken on renewal in Scotland sooner rather than later. The SNP will say that McConnell cannot rule out any new nuclear power stations, and nor can he rule out a deep storage site in Scotland for England’s nuclear waste. For there may be more than one, the environment secretary, David Miliband, made that clear last week. Nirex identified at least five suitable sites in Scotland.
So, this could be Jack’s nuclear nightmare too. Both the major parties in Scotland have got themselves in a bit of a nuclear muddle, and while the SNP have a presentational problem of major proportions, the First Minister, may regret having raised the issue at all.