The furore over the sacking of Keith Baverstock, a leading international radiation expert, from the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management is unwelcome but scarcely surprising. Britain now has half-a-million cubic metres of highly radioactive waste – enough to fill five Albert Halls – in ponds and tanks at power plants and other sites around the country.
These surface stores were always meant to be interim measures for dealing with nuclear waste, the Achilles heel of the UK’s atomic energy programme. They represent, after all, a radiation risk and a target for terrorists.
Yet for almost 30 years, Britain has done nothing but spout hot air about the problem. In 1976, the Flowers report warned about the danger of continuing to store this lethal material near human habitation and urged a quick solution be found. Several public inquiries and committee reports later, we find ourselves no further forward. Indeed, we are considerably worse off, as more and more nuclear waste has accumulated at surface sites.
This, then, is the unsatisfactory background to CoRWM’s establishment and it explains why the committee has spent so long consulting the public on every trivial issue associated with nuclear waste. This has had the advantage of giving its deliberation an accountability previous exercises have lacked, but it has also left the committee open to the charge of indulging in PR chicanery.
Hence the disillusion of Baverstock and other members. The government, in particular Environment Minister Elliot Morley, has chosen to ignore these concerns. Given existing public disquiet about Labour’s spin tendencies, and the extreme urgency of the nuclear waste problem which must be resolved before new plants can be planned, this attitude must be seen as a serious political misjudgment.