Shine A Light

Radioactive Y-fronts and the limits of Parliamentary scrutiny

This week the nuclear industry and its Westminster friends celebrated the dawning of a new age, as French energy giant EDF won planning consent to construct Hinkley Point C in Somerset. Meanwhile, in Cumbria, elderly Sellafield contracts out its dirty laundry.

Marianne Birkby
22 March 2013

Not long ago I received an anonymous tip that the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant has been outsourcing its dirty washing to a company that serves hotels and restaurants in Scotland and the North of England. I'm an activist keeping a watchful eye on the nuclear industry and what passes for local democracy here in Cumbria (I’m an artist but a few years back I co-founded Radiation Free Lakeland). All sorts of stories come my way. I checked this one out.

Public sector tenders revealed that Shortridge Laundry does indeed have a contract to provide Sellafield with a “towel and work wear recycling service” worth between £50,000 and £600,000. I phoned Shortridge. They confirmed to me that they washed Sellafield’s “non-active” laundry, including underwear, on a contingency basis.

Since Shortridge discharges its waste-water into the public sewers, I asked the Environment Agency: Who is responsible for checking for accidental contamination?

The Agency replied: “There is no new pathway for accidental and routine releases of radioactivity as Shortridge Laundry is only contracted for non-active (i.e. non-contaminated) laundry. Hence there is no requirement or responsibility for monitoring. Sellafield Ltd is responsible for ensuring that only non-active laundry is sent to Shortridge Laundry and has arrangements in place to achieve this (e.g. monitoring of clothing).”

So, Shortridge is relying entirely on Sellafield to do the monitoring. OK. Right.

This story goes beyond the comic possibilities of radioactive underpants. Government, the regulators and the nuclear industry are actively encouraging private business to take government contracts, often under the guise of “decommissioning”. For example ‘recycling’ radioactive scrap metal for commercial release onto the open market, and monitoring and retrieval of alpha rich particles from certain Cumbrian beaches. (PDF)

The result is new pathways for accidental and routine release of radiation into the wider environment of Cumbria.

On Tuesday, in Parliament, the minister for energy and climate change Ed Davey declared that the government had given the go-ahead for a new nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point  in Somerset. “Affordable new nuclear will play a critical role in a secure, diverse electricity supply for Britain and make a significant contribution to the transition to the low-carbon economy needed to tackle climate change,” he declared.

Davey's Shadow, Labour’s Caroline Flint, hailed this “important milestone in the development of new nuclear build in the UK”, gently reminding the minister, “we should also recognise the contribution of the communities that host them on our behalf”.

The minister promised a “package” of “community benefits” which “will be announced in due course”.

Hinkley's local MP, the Conservative Ian Liddell-Grainger, could scarcely contain himself. His response, worthy of a character from Anthony Trollope, is quite something:

“This is a very good day for Britain and a phenomenally good day for Bridgwater and West Somerset,” said the member for Bridgwater and West Somerset. “I thank not only the Front-Bench team, which has been phenomenally important in that, but the Opposition, and especially the Leader of the Opposition, who signed this off when he was Minister of State."

That wasn't all of it: "I am incredibly grateful to the House," he went on. "And my constituents are more than grateful to everyone here who has played such an important part," he said, forgetting those of his constituents who vigorously oppose the nuclear industry.

"The importance of the announcement is that we can now kick-start the civil nuclear programme in the United Kingdom, and that is crucial." There was no stopping him. "The innovation, jobs and input from across the industry are staggering. The Nuclear Industry Association is holding its conference across the road from here at the Queen Elizabeth centre, and it is like a cat on a hot tin roof, ready to go.”

Unfortunate imagery. Never mind. “We are Hinkley-ready,” fizzed Liddell-Grainger, “and we will be on time and on schedule”.

With Parliamentary scrutiny like that, who needs community-based activism? 

MrsTiggy-Wwinkle'sLaundry-hot smalls.jpg

Mrs Tiggy-Winkle's Laundry (apologies to Beatrix Potter) MARIANNE BIRKBY


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