Protecting the Planet

(a WEA course)


Weeks 2and 3: Case Studies of Industry and the Environment


Imagining Other Home Page


Protecting the planet Week 1: Introduction

Protecting the Planet Week 4: alternative strategies


Protecting the Planet Week 5: some possible solutions to environmental damage


Protecting the Planet Week 6: global warming (i) causes


Protecting the Planet Week 7: global warming (ii) possible effects


Protecting the Planet Week 8: species decline


Protecting the Planet Week 9: energy policies


Protecting the Planet Week 10: the environmental movement






1. Air pollution:

Causes illnesses: asthma, bronchitis, heart disease. Possibly mental impairment in children, and Alzheimer’s. 29,000 people a year die prematurely from air pollution in Britain, and ca. 3,000 in London. Note: not just cars (a major source), but also e.g. smelting, working of metals, building works and power stations, aircraft and ships....

1.1 Particles (pm10 and pm2.5: inhalable particulates).

1.2 Lead in petrol – eventually removed by government legislation, despite opposition from the ‘car lobby’: US auto industry, CBI, Oil companies, the road lobby.

1.3 Gases/fumes from the internal combustion engine: carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons.  

1.4 Car manufacturers can cheat – witness the recent Volkswagen scandal.

1.5 Emission controls, tests: Euro 5 standard focussed on reducing particulates (Diesel Particulate Filters) from diesel engines. Euro 6 standard emphasises NO2.

1.6 Government policies etc.


2. Coal:

2.1 World-wide, coal is still being extensively used in power stations, despite the illnesses caused.

2.2 Carbon capture and storage (CCS) - CO2 would be buried: not (yet?) viable.

2.3 Britain aims to shut down all coal-fired power stations by 2025.

Example: Drax provided 7% of our electricity in 2015. Three of its six generators have been converted to biomass. 6 million tonnes of wood pellets imported from North America each year.

2.4 Divestment campaign (local authorities, pension funds etc invest in coal).

2.5 Decline of coal: US and China burning less coal. UK: coal down to 2% used for electricity, growth of renewables (see later)



3. Oil – the industry and the environment:

3.1 Exxon Valdez disaster 1989, Alaska. 11 – 38 million gallons of oil, affecting 1,300 miles of coastline, and 11,000 square miles of ocean. Sea life killed. Long-lasting effects. Dispersants.

3.2 The Arctic

3.3 Deepwater Horizon (Gulf of Mexico). Deaths & injuries. 4.9 million barrels.

3.4 North Sea

3.5 Shell & Nigeria: execution of protesters. Pollution, thefts from pipeline.

3.6 Other issues: (i) safety (ii) other cases of political involvement.



4. Nuclear power:

4.1 Radiation, radioactive waste. Nuclear weapons. Not needed (renewables)?

4.2 Waste and decommissioning – costs and time needed.

4.3 Security (terrorism, attacks, and stealing fuel for bombs).

4.4 Accidents: Sellafield, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl 1986, Fukushima 2011.

4.5 CO2-free?

4.6 Cost: Hinkley Point C



Contents bookmarks:


1. #air pollution and the motor industry              #particulates     #lead    #manufacturers' lobby   #exhaust gases

2. #coal           

3. #oil industry #Exxon Valdez oil spill              #Deepwater Horizon spill Gulf of Mexico          #Nigeria and Shell             #other issues for oil industry     

4. #nuclear power


Week 2. Case Studies: the role of industry in affecting the environment:

I want to use these case studies to demonstrate some applications of the principles noted in the first session, and to begin to link the issue of pollution to specific industrial or commercial practices.

It can be argued that large companies like car manufacturers and oil companies are not only the worst offenders when it comes to pollution and damage to the environment, but that they have tremendous power – because of their role in the ‘advanced’ economies. So in order to do anything about damage to the environment we have to take on the power of these industries.

1. Air pollution and motor vehicles:

The most obvious consequence of air pollution, as noted already, is illness, and especially damage to the lungs. Children and the elderly are more vulnerable – children’s lungs are still growing and are easily damaged. Such illnesses as asthma and bronchitis are on the increase – almost certainly triggered by air pollution. Since the first concerns about smog etc (see last week) and the Clean Air Act, we have become aware of a new danger, largely from car and lorry exhausts, but also from the construction industry. Wood-burning stoves are also a cause of air pollution.


There are two main offenders: (i) particles/particulates (ii) poisonous or harmful gases.


1.1 Particulates are ‘any material [except water]... that exists as a solid or liquid in the atmosphere or in a gas stream at standard conditions.’ (H.W.Parker; Air Pollution 1977). They include carbon emissions, metal and rubber from engine and brake wear, and dust from construction.


They are known to be harmful, as they penetrate deep into the lungs, causing respiratory diseases. They cause DNA mutations as well (Wikipedia). Research at the University of Southern California, in 2004, (reported in the Guardian, November 2004) identified another problem: when they enter the lungs, the tiny particles cause inflammation of the arteries which eventually builds up into a hardening that can cause heart disease and heart attacks


These particles are measured in micrometres, and those that fall between 2.5 and 10 micrometres are inhalable.


Parker (loc cit) says ‘Air pollution is a silent killer! It may shorten a man’s life by 20 years without him ever realising he has been a victim.’


They come mainly from the burning of fossil fuels such as oil (and diesel engines are the main offenders here), but other industrial processes such as smelting and working metals also produce them, as do building works and power stations (especially coal – see below); not to mention aircraft (the controversy over the expansion of Heathrow comes in here!), and ships, which are heavy polluters but are not, I believe, subject to regulation...


1.2 The case of lead – an example of progress (eventually!):

It is worth mentioning the issue of lead in petrol: in order to reduce the amount of refining that petrol needed to give a smooth combustion, lead in the form of tetraethyllead (TEL) was added. This was first done in the 1920s. In 1921 Thomas Midgley tested it as an anti-knocking agent.


In the US the health authorities asked for safety tests soon after leaded petrol went on sale, in 1923. The first sign of a problem was when workers in the DuPont works in America started falling ill. ‘sickeningdeaths and illnesses of hundreds of TEL workers’ (Kitman 2000 from lead.org.au). Despite some investigation, it was decided there was no problem, and further independent tests were not carried out until the 1960s.


It is known that in 1953 GM was preparing to argue that TEL is not dangerous; but at King’s College London, Derek Bryce-Smith asked the manufacturers for a sample of what was added to petrol. He was told it was incredibly dangerous (if he got any on his finger it would be absorbed through the whole of his skin and drive him mad or kill him!!).


Scientists began to be concerned about the effects – especially on children - of lead in the blood (from tiny lead particles – aerosol - in the atmosphere). Children living in inner city areas, or near roads with heavy traffic, it was suggested, might even suffer a loss of IQ (a measure of the abilities of the brain). There was a long campaign – because, as ever, petrol producers maintained that it would be too expensive to change the fuel (or that the customer would not pay!).  Lead was also used as a solder in tins of food, and in paint. In 1969 WHO published research showing lead in blood was highest near roads. In the 1970s research showed that even small amounts of lead in the blood could cause permanent learning and behavioural problems in children.


In 1975-6 lead paint was banned and a phasing out of lead in petrol began.


In America EPA in America eventually had already ordered car manufacturers to phase out lead in petrol – they had to re-design engines – by 1975. In the UK it was finally banned, 30 years later, in 2,000 – after 70 years of exposure to it, and 17 years after Mrs Thatcher promised to phase it out (Geoffrey Lean, The Independent, 26th Dec 1999). New lead-free petrol began to appear in October 1999.  As Lean points out, you put a poison in petrol and then allow cars to drive all over the country for years spreading the poison! ‘Victory has been a long time coming. Oil companies have continued to make leaded petrol, long after its dangers have been accepted by doctors and governments, and substitutes became known. Millions of motorists have continued to use it, though their cars don’t need it, and even though unleaded fuel has been available, cheaper, at the same pump.’


Update: 6th Oct 2017. I have just learned from Greenpeace that a UK company, Innospec, exports leaded petrol to Algeria!  While it is illegal to produce leaded petrol for our cars, it is apparently not illegal to export it – to the one country in the world that has not banned it!


The roads and car manufacturing lobby:

This story does illustrate another aspect of the issue: the power of vested interests – in this case the roads and car manufacturing lobby. Vested interests are always lobbying government to try to convince

them that there is no problem. Back in 1975, the US auto industry predicted that the 1975 clean Air Act would wipe out car manufacturing overnight (Simon Caulkin, Observer, 31/8/2003). In

Britain, whilst Shell and BP argue in favour of cutting greenhouse gases (see later), the CBI has warned that the European Environmental Directive could be “the last nail in the coffin of

manufacturing”. Given this, Stephen Tindale, director of Greenpeace says: “The current gulf between a company’s green credentials and the behaviour of trade associations” risks exposing companies as



There were also signs that the ‘New Labour’ government responded to such anti-environmental lobbying: Tony Blair, early in 2005, raised the permitted levels of carbon dioxide emissions, having

originally accepted a target of 20% reduction over three years.


Cornal Walsh (Observer Business, 6/3/2005) says the United States withdrawal from the Kyoto climate change agreement was due to corporate pressure: companies such as the oil giant ExxonMobil have

given large sums of money to political parties that will adopt their line and oppose further controls (according to Friends of the Earth, in the same Observer article by Walsh).


It is also revealing to note how the car and oil industries put up a long resistance to the idea that they ought to be researching alternative fuels. [Neale, in Fairweather at al 1997]


There are other powerful voices in favour of more cars: the British Roads Federation has long campaigned against cuts in road building, and it is a significant donor to the Conservative Party, which it (rightly?) sees as more road-friendly. Even the RAC and AA are of concern to anyone who wants to see car use reduced, since they – naturally – are not in favour of any reduction of car use. If you want to join a road rescue/protection organisation that does not campaign for more roads, there is an Environmental Transport Association, ETA. (“The motoring organisation that won’t cost the earth”!).



1.3 Gases: some of the ingredients of the exhaust from the internal combustion engine are: carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons. Carbon monoxide is a gas which causes suffocation in large quantities, and hydrocarbons are carcinogenic. 


Some of these (nitrogen oxides – but not nitrogen dioxide, which inflames the lungs) are comparatively harmless in themselves (especially in small quatities), but as noted, when combined with other ingredients such as small particles, and especially when mixed with water (i.e. rain – or the moisture in our lungs) then the resulting solution is a harmful acid (e.g. ‘acid rain’ which is caused mainly by sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide).


Moreover, as mentioned before, when sunlight acts on mixes of these chemicals there is a photochemical reaction, causing a particularly nasty kind of smog. Ozone is a componenet of ground-level smog.


Ecologist magazine, June 2009: London air pollution (Nitrous oxides, sulphur dioxide etc) may have contributed to 3,000 deaths (in 2005). Mayor Johnson has taken various measures (hybrid buses, smoother traffic-flows, cycling, opposing expansion of Heathrow), but nationally we are not doing anything. Caroline Lucas attacked the government for not meeting EU P10 limits (should have been met in 2005).


March 2013: John Vidal article, Guardian (G2) 20.03.13) – distressing to see that photochemical smog is still around... (my notes on this were first written in the ‘70s and ‘80s – and the Clean Air Act goes back to 1955!!). There are 5.4 million people in Britain with asthma, and tens of thousands of others with respiratory diseases – yet the air quality in many of our major cities is still very bad. 29,000 people a year die from air pollution. The main offender is diesel engines... The cost to the NHS is up to 17% of its budget. London has 4,300 deaths a year. We could be subject to fines from the EU (air pollution laws were passed 13 years ago), and the WHO has warned that NO2 is harmful at even lower levels than set by Europe. ClientEarth has taken the government to court: the issue is that it is all very well having EU laws, but if there is no ability to ensure they are enforced what is the point?


June 14th 2016 (Damian Carrington, Guardian): growing body of evidence says that air pollution can affect mental and cognitive health – especially in children. New research in BMJ Open examined more than 500,000 under-18s in Sweden and compared pollution exposure with records of medicines prescribed for mental illness. Increases in PM and NO2 (of 10mcg/m3) levels both showed increases in mental health problems (4% and 9% respectively). EU and WHO limit for NO2 is 40mcg/m3 (micrograms per cubic metre). In other words, even a small increase may have an effect – and this puts into question the whole notion of ‘safe levels’...


6th Sep 2016 (same source): Recent research has suggested links between magnetite particles and Alzheimer’s disease, and that air pollution can significantly increase the condition. Toxic nanoparticles have been found in human brains, according to the National Academy of Sciences. They found ‘millions of magnetite particles per gramme of freeze-dried brain tissue’ – magnetite is an oxide of iron, and it can create free radicals. This doesn’t prove a cause, but is significant. Yet again, we find an ‘unintended consequence’ of pollution!


1.4 2016. The VW emissions scandal:

Once again it has to be said that business can always find a way round regulations: the 2016 scandal involving Volkswagen has caused a lot of alarm. 11 million diesel cars were fitted with software that allowed them to cheat emission tests, and were sold from 2008. The software changed the performance of the engines under test conditions, with the result that on the road the engines were producing emissions above the permitted level.

The company has put aside 16.2 billion euros to deal with the scandal and is facing legal cases around the world. A chief executive (Martin Winterkorn) has resigned and is being investigated by prosecutors – but he was paid 7m euros last year... VW owns Audi and Porsche. 


This was not the first time such cheating occurred: in 1973 Chrysler, Ford, GM, Toyota and VW all had to remove ambient temperature switches which controlled emissions. In 1996 GM was fined $11m and recalled 470,000 vehicles because of software that disengaged emissions controls unless the car was being tested. Previous similar cases include Fiat of Brazil, Honda, and no fewer than 7 heavy truck manufacturers (in 1998 they were fined a record amount at that time).


Aside from using software to cheat tests, many cars have been found to have a different level of emissions and/or fuel consumption when on the road conditions are compared to manufacturers’ claims. Note that all the above covers both CO2 and NO2 emissions...


12th Feb 2017: London Mayor Sadiq Khan says motorists should be given p to £3,500 to scrap old diesel cars. Low-income families could be given £2,000 towards alternative forms of transport. He is urging the government to introduce a scrappage scheme, which would cost an estimated £500 m  in London alone. Car tax needs re-designing so as not to favour diesel. ‘It is shocking that nearly half of new car sale in the UK are still diesel vehicles.’ Air pollution causes 50,000 early deaths a year, and costs £27.5bn every year, according to government estimates.


25th Feb, 2017. Mayor says twice as many sites as thought are affected by illegal levels of air pollution. This includes 800 schools and colleges (a third of state-maintained nurseries, 20% of primaries, 18% of secondary schools, and 43% of FE colleges in London).


2nd April 2017. John Vidal, Observer: article on Stuttgart, where car industry was born, and which facing problems because of large number of vehicles, and need to reduce CO2. Stuttgart has 600,000 inhabitants and around 300,000 cars. One in three industrial workers in Stuttgart is in the car industry. China is pushing for electric cars (market of 23 million a year, against Germany’s 2 – 3 million). But the FDP (free market opposition party) claims only 7% of pollution comes from exhausts, and the problem is mostly dust, from brakes and construction... Posted on Facebook 4th April


5th April 2017. Joint investigation by The Guardian and Greenpeace reveals: dangerous levels of NO2 are experienced across the country, not just in large metropolitan centres.

-         over 2,000 schools, nurseries and FE colleges and after school clubs are within 150 metres of a road with illegal levels

-         over 1,000 nurseries looking after children from six months to age 5 within 150 metres

-         5/10 worst exposed nurseries outside London are in the West Midlands, where it is estimated there are 3,000 deaths a year from poor air (Matthew Taylor loc cit).

-         Plymouth, Poole, Hull – all had nurseries and schools in dangerous areas

-         15 London boroughs had at least 25% of nurseries in an illegal NO2 hotspot.

-         The highest hotspot at 118mcg/m3 at a nursery in Tower Hamlets is 4 times the legal limit.


Legal action against the government means it is supposed to produce a plan by 24th April 2017. A letter from the former chair of the Campaign for Lead-Free Air (Guardian 4th May 2017) says:

‘There are three reasons the government is reluctant to publish its clean air plan: First, it will demonstrate that Defra has prioritised the interests of car manufacturers over the public good for the past five years. Second, the proposals are likely to be deficient and will be heavily criticised pre-election. Third, it will highlight the dangers of Brexit: for without the EU air quality directive, there will be no legally binding standards to protect the public from the harmful effects of air pollution.’ (Dr Robin Russell-Jones)


‘The former chief scientific advisor has now admitted it was wrong to cut fuel duty on diesel vehicles in 2001 after being hoodwinked by the car industry.’ Matthew Weaver, Guardian 5th April.


6th April 2017, Julia Kollewe and Damian Carrington, Guardian. In March 562,337 new vehicles took to the road, of which almost half were diesel – and this was the biggest month for car sales since records began in 1976, and a rise of 8.4% from a year earlier. In the first quarter there was a 6.2% increase over 2016 – 820,016 cars in total. (But see Oct. 2017 below).

Industry experts say that car makers should be forced to recall cars that exceed the emissions figures of the tests when on the road.

However, there has also been a 31% year-on-year rise in sales of alternatively fuelled cars in the first three months of 2017.


April 8th 2017, Decca Aikenhead interview with Sadiq Khan: ‘experts tell me that 40% of adult onset asthma is caused by pollution.’ 9,000 Londoners died early last year because of it. There are children in parts of London whose lungs are 10% smaller than they should be. 50% of the causes is transport. The new charge should deter 40% of the drivers causing pollution. We need a new clean air act and a national diesel scrappage scheme. Economic cost to the capital of poor air quality is £3.7bn a year. The US got £12bn compensation from VW, our government only got £1.1m.


15th April 2017: The death of diesel by Adam Forrest. Link to this article below (*).

Air pollution kills 3.3 million people prematurely every year – more than HIV, malaria and influenza combined... but the global response is growing: Paris, Madrid, Athens, Mexico City have agreed to outlaw diesel by 2025.

24th June 2017. Damian Carrington. Independent tests show that new diesel models are still failing to meet pollution limits when tested on the road. Testing firm Emissions Analytics publishes EquaIndex, and it shows 86% of all diesel models put on the market since 2015 (the VW scandal) failed, and 15% produced at least eight times the limit. Nissan Qashqai is 18 times over the limit.

Levels of NOx have been illegally high in 90% of UK’s urban areas. Some the cars that failed did meet the Euro 6 standard – and BMW5 meets the limit on the road. But Land Rover Discovery, MaseratiQuattroporte and Suzuki Vitara all failed (though they meet current legal standards).

New more robust tests will be introduced in September.


July 25th 2017, Matthew Taylor: Sadiq Khan accuses VW of showing ‘utter contempt’ for Londoners by refusing to pay compensation for dieselgate scandal. He claims London lost £2.5m in congestion charges – if they pay, the money would be used on a schools air quality programme.

1.5 Diesel particulate filters, tests: (DPFs) that capture 99% of all PM are now fitted to every new car. Today, PM from cars meeting Euro-5 is equivalent to just one single grain of sand per kilometredriven.

The previous Euro-5 standard, introduced in 2011, focused on PM (or soot) from diesel cars, requiring an 80% reduction in these emissions.

With Euro-6, the emphasis has shifted from particulates to NOx, reflecting concerns about the emerging science connecting these emissions with respiratory problems. The new standard mandates a 56% cut in diesel NOx emissions compared with Euro-5.

Euro 5 standards: Petrol NOx:    0.06g/km        Diesel NOx: 0.18g/km Diesel PM: 0.005g/km

Euro 6:                                       0.06                                   0.08                          0.0045


(*) Car manufacturers argued for a ‘regulatory holiday’ after the 2007 financial crash (says Greg Archer, former head of the government’s air pollution research). They claimed that the Euro 5 and 6 emissions standards would lead to a significant reduction in pollution, but Emissions Analytics has found that 97% of diesel cars made since 2011 exceed NO2 safety limits.



1.6 Government policies:

May 2017: government admits defeat in its avoiding publishing its air quality plans, having been sued by ClientEarth founded by James Thornton. ClientEarth argue the government has put off any action until 2025.  It took the government to court to get it to publish a plan by the end of 2015, but it was such a poor plan that they went to court again and the government had to improve it and publish a better plan by April 2017. They had tried to get it postponed until after the elections (i.e. September) but they were again ruled against by the courts.


2nd August 2017. George Monbiot: cars have a chokehold on Britain. More roads is not an answer as more roads induces more traffic (known since 1937). There is even an economic danger now as more people take out purchasing plans to get new cars – more debt... Government claims high level of NO2 only affects some streets but there are thousands of streets in Britain and only 300 monitoring stations. Clean Air Zones: local authorities can introduce them when other measures have been tried, and when ‘compliance’ is reached they must be closed down...


The government’s proposal of no more new diesel or petrol cars by 2040 is pointless: a child born today will be 23 by then and their lungs will have been damaged already. The Dutch bank ING predicts all new cars in Europe will be electric by 2035. [And, I ask, what about all the existing diesel and petrol cars?]


25th August 2017: a report by the Green alliance, supported by CAFOD, Christian Aid, Greenpeace, RSPB and WWF, proposes all new cars and vans to be emissions-free by 2030. This would also reduce imports of foreign oil by 51%In 2016 transport accounted for 40% of UK’s total energy consumption, of which 75% was road transport. Other countries such as Norway, India, are further ahead in switching to electric vehicles. New jobs would be created in the new technology and in green technologies generally.


6th Oct 2017: sales of new cars in the UK have fallen for a sixth consecutive month in September, according to the SMMT (Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders) – this is due partly to uncertainty surrounding Brexit, but also to fears about diesel and ‘confusion over plans to improve air quality.’ (Julia Kollewe, Guardian). More than one in 20 new cars sold are neither petrol nor diesel (22,628 in September 2017, as against 16,052 last year). New car registration fell 3.9% over the first 9 months of 2017.


From later this month (October) drivers of cars registered in 2005 or earlier that do not meet Euro 4 standard will have to pay £10 daily to enter central London, on top of the £11.50 congestion charge.


Solutions? Cycling routes, scrappage scheme that trades cars for public transport tokens, high speed coaches etc. 


Extra Notes:


Car Emissions (these figures are very dated, but still give an idea of the range):   Examples of CO2 emissions by type: 

Low end:

A. VW Polo BlueMotion 1.4: <100 (g/km)

B. Peugeot 107 1.0: 101 – 120


C. Fiat Panda 1.2: 121 - 150

E. Renault Scenic 1.4: 166 – 185

High end:

G. Porsche Cayenne: 225 (some Porsches 300)


Average CO2 emissions in cars sold in EU: 160 g/km

EU target: all new cars must emit average 130 g/km by 2012.


Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (smt.co.uk):

·  Average new car CO2 emissions have fallen by 26.4% since 2007 to 121.4g/km in 2015, with a 2.6% decline on 2014.

·  New cars were, on average, over 20% lower CO2 emitting than the average car in use.

·  Total CO2 emissions from all road transport has fallen by 9.6% since 2007, with a 10.6% reduction from cars (Source: DECC). Emissions have fallen despite a rise in vehicle use and the number of vehicles on the roads.

·  Diesels have played an important role in delivering lower CO2 emissions. By buying diesel, UK motorists have prevented almost 3 million tonnes of CO2 from going into the atmosphere over the past 14 years – enough to fill the Royal Albert Hall 16,000 times over.


On the theme of “growth”: the number of cars on the roads in Britain has doubled over the past 30 years, from 10 million to 23 million. Apart from pollution, the major negative consequence of the car is deaths and accidents: some 300,000 people are killed or injured every year on the roads in Britain.


2. Coal:


2.1 worldwide:

March 2013: India and China are increasing their coal-burning power stations. John Vidal, Guardian 11th March 2013: coal-burning plants in India are causing 120,000 deaths a year, according to a report from Greenpeace, based on research by a former World Bank head of pollution. Millions of Indians suffer from asthma as well. There is hardly any regulation or inspection of pollution. India generates 210 GW of electricity a year, mostly from coal – there are plans to approve a further 160GW annually.



Dec 2013: George Monbiot, 17th Dec 2013, has shocking figures for premature deaths from coal: 250,000 in China...


Extract: ‘A study by the Clean Air Task Force suggests that coal power in the US causes 13,200 premature deaths a year. In Europe, according to the Health and Environment Alliance, the figure is 18,200. A study cited by the alliance suggests that around 200,000 children born in Europe each year have been exposed to "critical levels" of methylmercury in the womb. It estimates the health costs inflicted by coal burning at between €15bn (£12.5bn) and €42bn a year...

Among the most polluting power stations in Europe, Longannet

 in Scotland is ranked 11th; and Drax, in England, is ranked seventh

. Last week the House of Lords failed to pass an amendment that would have forced a gradual shutdown of our coal-burning power plants: they remain exempted from the emissions standards that other power stations have to meet.

While nuclear power is faltering, coal is booming. Almost 1,200 new plants are being developed worldwide: many will use coal exported from the US and from Australia. The exports are now a massive source of income for these supposedly greening economies. By 2030 China is expected to be importing almost five times as much coal as it does today. The International Energy Agency estimates that the global use of coal will increase by 65% by 2035. Even before you consider climate change, this is a disaster.’

2.2 Little has happened on Carbon Capture and Storage. This involves pumping condensed CO2 into underground ‘reservoirs’ for storage instead of releasing it into the atmosphere. Not only is the technology experimental (and the long-term feasibility of such storage is unknown) it appears that more fuel is needed by a power station that is going to capture and condense the CO2. So to run such a power station is more costly. Moreover, the chemicals used in the process are likely to go into the atmosphere, so the air quality is reduced (Wikipedia).


2.3 By 2015 Britain aims to shut down all coal-fired stations by 2025. The last coal mine in UK is closing down. In the mid ‘90s there were 30 mines, with 7,000 workers, and 50 million tonnes of coal were produced each year. (Before the 1984-5 strike there were 170 mines employing 148,000 workers, producing 120 million tonnes of coal).


There were three deep mines left in 2015, but two closed in the summer. Of 48 million tonnes of coal consumed the previous year, 42 million were imported (from Russia, US, Colombia). Each day 3 or 4 trainloads of coal still go to Drax which provides 7% of our electricity, but three of its six generators have been converted to biomass, and 6 million tonnes of wood pellets are brought in from North America each year...


2.4 May 2015: Guardian is leading a divestment campaign – Keep it in the ground....

28th May, a key parliamentary committee recommends Norway should withdraw its sovereign wealth fund which is the world’s largest, from coal. (continued below*)


7th Feb 2017: A letter from Christian Schaible of the European Environmental Bureau points out that government subsidies to coal plants are worth up to £72.8m. The Transitional National Plan still allows plants to pollute above European limits.


2.5 Decline of coal:

22nd March 2017. Adam Vaughan: the amount of new coal power capacity being built globally fell by nearly two-thirds last year (2016), according to as report by Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and a research network called CoalSwarm. The fall is mainly due to China and India changing their policies, and to falling investment prospects. Also a record capacity was retired, mostly in Us and EU. Beijinghas recently ordered its last coal-fired plant to close. However, there are still about 570 new coal-fired plants under construction globally, and the coal industry argues that coal is still central to both Indiaand China’s energy mix. 


Apr 6th 2017, Arthur Neslen Guardian. National energy companies from every European country except Poland and Greece (26 out of 28) have agreed not to invest in coal plants after 2020. The press release from Eurelectric represents 3,500 utilities with a combined value of more than £170bn. The pollution from coal-fired plants etc accounts for 20,000 deaths each year in Europe. This is the beginning of the end for coal – although investments will continue for another three years. Poland depends on coal for 90% of its electricity. 


2.5 14th June 2017. Adam Vaughan. Global demand for coal has fallen for two years running, helped by US and China burning less. UK has moved dramatically away and now uses ‘levels not seen since the start of the industrial revolution.’ According to BP report. In the US, cheaper and cleaner gas is being used. In China, there is large investment in renewables, and less on coal, and it is seen as a leader on climate change now. British coal consumption fell by 52.5% in 2016, and there has been the first coal-free day since the 19th century.

Renewables grew faster than any other fuel – at more than 14% in 2016 (slightly below the 10-year average). Oil in the US fell back last year but is now bouncing back.


23rd June 2017: (*) divestment update: Fiona Harvey. Analysis by NGOs including Rainforest Action Network and Sierra Club shows that multinational banks are claiming to be green while pouring money into the dirtiest fuels. The top 37 banks invested £69bn in 2016 in fossil fuels, including tar sands and other ‘extreme fossil fuels’. Banking on Climate Change 2017. A small number of banks are scaling back investment in fossil fuels.


20th July 2017, Adam Vaughan: Drax is ‘looking at opportunities for a coal-free future’. 68% of Drax’s power is from wood pellets now (imported from America), and it wants to switch another one of its 3 coal-fired units to gas. As noted above, three of its six units run on biomass and another could be converted. Drax has appointed David Nussbaum, former chief of WWF, and chief executive of the Elders (a group set up by Nelson Mandela to promote human rights and action on climate change) to the board as a non-executive.


Coal once employed 1.2 million people; five years ago coal generated more than 40% of UK’s energy – now it is down to 2% (first half of 2017). There have been 300 hours when coal was not used for electricity this year. There were once more than 1,000 deep mines and nearly 100 surface ones. Today there are 10 small mines left. Last year wind farms provided more power than coal. Pollution laws and carbon taxes have forced large coal-fired plants to close. There are now 8 coal power stations left, most with 100 – 200 staff. They now fill in gaps when wind and solar output is low. Only if we don’t build enough alternative plants will coal ones be left running.


3. The Oil Industry – a walking disaster!


The impact of the oil industry is clear in a whole range of ecologically damaging situations. Such is the power of the industry, and its importance to governments, that it also has significant impacts on politics. Often the resultant civil conflict has caused death and suffering.

Here are a few examples of environmental damage by the oil industry (some of these are from New Internationalist 335, June 2001):

3.1 Exxon Valdez oil spill 1989:   by Ewen MacAskill in Guardian 2/2/07:

US government scientists are about to publish a report on the situation in Prince William Sound, Alaska, where the Exxon Valdez spillage occurred 18 years ago in 1989:  11 – 38 million gallons of oil were spilled. It hit Bligh Reef. The tanker was on its way to California. The largest spill in US waters until the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010 (below) in terms of volume released. But the arctic waters made access difficult. The spill covered 1,300 miles of coastline, and 11,000 square miles of ocean.

Salmon, sea birds, seals and otters were affected.

The crew’s ability was partly to blame, and the Raytheon Collision Avoidance system had not been maintained. There were other failings – stressed crew and not informed that coastguards were no longer issuing warnings of Bligh Reef, etc.

Dispersants failed (and some were not used because of toxicity fears), explosions were tried, and burning, (but these led to fumes harming villagers downwind). How water was tried but this killed plankton – food for bacteria and fungi which would otherwise have ‘eaten’ the oil. 


Clean-up crews suffered illnesses afterwards. Only 10% of the oil was actually cleared up.


In 2007, there were more than 26,600 gallons of oil still in the water, and in 2010 23,000 gallons lying on the sand – it was thought the pollution would gradually disappear, but it is only going at a rate of 4% a year, and even slower in the Gulf of Alaska. This means the oil could remain there for decades – some of it near beaches, and all of it a danger to wildlife. 


Between 10,000 and 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbour seals, 247 bald eagles, 22 orcas, and unknown numbers of salmon and herring killed.


Meanwhile, “ExxonMobil posted the largest ever annual profit by a US company, $39.5bn (£20bn) yesterday.”  The Guardian also reports: ExxonMobil and Shell reported combined profits of nearly £90m a day.


3.2 Other dangers to the arctic:

·         - BPAmoco (a joint British/US company) is involved in plans to extract oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

- Dangers of encroachment into permafrost:  BP’s Alaskan Prudhoe Bay oilfield: closed after spill…as were Russian gas/ plants e.g. Sakhalin, Yamal,

- Settlements also bring environmental damage and HIV… New St 13.08.07

·         - There were over 100 oil spills in the Arctic over a two-year period in the late ‘90s.


In the Arctic: Greenpeace is alarmed at the prospect of Greenland drilling for oil offshore – Cairn Energy, a British company, has found signs of hydrocarbons. This does not bode well for the Arctic! http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2010/aug/23/cairn-oil-strike-arctic-fears.

See also: http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2010/aug/24/greenland-cairn-energy-oil-gas


·         Other negative environmental effects of the oil industry:


·         Shell’s CO2 emissions for 2005 were 102m tonnes (more than 150 countries produce each) Shell’s Chief Executive, Joeren van der Veer refused to confirm this figure (obtained from the company), nor would he say how much of their $23bn capital expenditure was going into renewable energy resources, except that it was a small amount.


·         3.3 Gulf of Mexico: Deepwater Horizon oil spill 2010


·         An explosion and fire in the semi-submersible Mobile Offshore Drilling Unit (MODU) killed 11 workers and injured 17 more. There was a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and it was the largest environmental disaster in US history.


·         The drilling platform was built in South Korea, owned by Transocean (whose record on accidents was poor), operated under the Marshalese flag of convenience and was leased to BP. It was capable of drilling at great depths – it went to a record 10,685 meters in 2009.


·         Oil started leaking at 8,000 barrels of crude per day. 4.9 million barrels were spilled in the end. troops on the coast of Louisiana to try to protect it.  In 2010 there were still a million barrels in the water.


·         Criticised for a ‘rush to completion’ of the well, poor management decisions, and no culture of safety on the rig. Six or seven faults in procedure and equipment. (Wikipedia)


Three oil industry titans blame each other during questioning by US senators. BP America owned the well, and blames Transocean who owned the sunken Deepwater Horizon rig and the blowout preventer, Transocean blames Halliburton who cemented the well… (Suzanne Goldenberg, G 120510).


·         Less wildlife damaged than in Alaska accident (3,000 birds, 500 turtles, 64 dolphins) – and difficult to tell effects given seasonal variations (BBC).

‘The Deepwater Horizon operation saw the injection of 771,272 gallons (2,919,582 litres) of dispersant at depth, in addition to the 1,072,514 gallons (4,059,907 litres) used on the surface.

The impact of the deep water deployment is definitely an unknown unknown, as it has not been used on anything like this scale before.

Expeditions are planned to investigate the impact on reefs, but they have yet to report.

Other important investigations are going on into how quickly the oil is breaking down in the warm Gulf waters - something that should in principle happen much faster than in the icy conditions of Alaska's Prince Edward Sound, or the Cornish seas where the Torrey Canyon spilt its cargo in March 1967.

That rate will have practical implications for the seabirds that will come to winter along the Gulf coasts - the piping plover, the blue-winged teal and the northern pintail - because it will largely determine how much oil will be there to greet them.

Two decades on, the ecological impacts of Exxon Valdez are still being counted. And while the warmer Gulf waters are unlikely to take quite so long to settle, even a preliminary reckoning will have to wait until the first wintering birds have returned, shrimping boats have cast their nets again right across their grounds, and the wetland grasses have had a first chance to shed their oily carapaces and sprout anew in a fresh Spring.’ (Richard Black, BBC).

·         3.4 North Sea: Feb 2017: Shell announces plan to dismantle four enormous rigs in the North Sea – in the Brent field. At one time they produced about a tenth of the UK’s North Sea oil. Shell was opposed in 1995 when it wanted to sink the Brent Spar oil rig. (There were protests by Green peace and a boycott by Germany, and a falling share price...) A specially built ship will lift the top section, which weighs 24,000 tonnes. They want to leave the concrete bases in the sea – as they were not made to be dismantled.  Oil will be left in storage cells, with metre-thick walls, and some will be left on the seabed. WWF Scotland says Shell is just trying to avoid the cost of removing oil despite it being a danger to wildlife. The company gets 40% - 75% tax relief against the cost of decommissioning, which means the government (UK citizens!) would contribute £24bn.  But Shell argue that the oilfield has contributed £20bn in tax during its lifetime, and the decommissioning will cost single-figure billions. The company made $3.5bn (£2.8bn) in profits last year. Greg Muttit of Oil Change International says ‘why should the taxpayer carry the tab for most of the decommissioning costs, when oil revenues have gone disproportionately to the companies?


3.5 The environment and politics: Shell and Nigeria:

In the Niger Delta, Shell has been extracting oil for some time. The resultant pollution (oil leaks ruining the land, gas flares poisoning the air) has been a cause for anger on the part of the local Ogoni people. Protests have been put down ruthlessly, with many killed by police and – it is alleged, by paramilitaries employed by the company and armed by the government.

In November 1995, a special court established by the military government illegally detained and tried some protesters on spurious charges. Convicted without due process, they and the “leader” Ken Saro-Wiwa were executed 10 days later, despite enormous international outcry.

The UN questioned the legitimacy of the Saro-Wiwa trial, to no avail (May 2009). It is alleged that there has been widespread brutality against the Ogoni, involving torture and the destruction of villages. Sadly, this is not an isolated occurrence. A recent report by human rights organization Global Witness documents the murders of more than 700 environmental and Indigenous-rights activists over the past decade– more than one killing a week, on average. (Greenpeace USA) We will return to the impact on indigenous people at the end of this course...

More recently (e.g. 2013) there have been explosions at points in the pipeline where oil has leaked. The company blames local people for steeling oil, but the son of the executed Ken Saro-Wiwa, also called Ken, is now a presidential aide; he alleges that the theft of vast quantities of oil from the pipeline ‘is on and industrial scale, and involves commodity traders, international [criminals] and a whole network of people. There are some allegations that the oil companies themselves are implicated.’

See John Vidal in The Observer, 06.10.13: http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2013/oct/06/oil-theft-costs-nigeria  Extract follows:

"From the moment I got to the scene [the next day] I was suspicious," says Catholic priest Father Obi, appointed by Shell to be an official observer for the Bodo investigation. "The scene had been hurriedly deserted. Shell must have known what was going on. The military must have known. Everyone knew there was complicity. I am personally sure that Shell knew that its oil was being stolen. If the managers did not know, then those who they put in charge [of the operation] seemed to know. This [theft] could not have happened without the collusion of the authorities and the military." Obi is concerned that the official report has still not been published and is threatening to release his own.

It all adds up to organised crime stealing oil, using the cover of the authorities, he says. "Why was a massive barge able to hold 10,000 barrels of oil being loaded at 2am with crude? Why did another catch fire? Why were excavators there? Why were local observers arrested the next day, their cameras confiscated and memory cards destroyed? Were the thieves being protected by the military? Was the company paying workers to clean up oil spilled in the process of theft they themselves were engaged in? Did Shell know its oil was being stolen from under its nose?" he asks.

3.6 Other issues for the oil industry


3.6.1 Workers’ Safety: (by Andrew Clark and Terry Macalister, in Guardian Financial, 8/12/2006)

In 2005, the BP Texas refinery exploded, killing 15 people – recently disclosed documents show the director responsible for running the refinery, Don Parus, knew that it was held together by little more than “Band Aid” and “superglue”.

Parus made remarks to an independent investigation, which was held after 23 fatal accidents in 30 years (the most recent involving a worker being boiled alive!).

The local fire brigade say that there is an average of one fire every week – 50 to 80 a year. The site director, appointed in 2002 had worried whether he could turn round the lax safety attitude single-handed, and even said: “killing somebody every 18 months seems to be acceptable at this site”. 

Many documents have been disclosed as a result of a legal settlement with a woman who lost both parents in the explosion.

An external report said there was “an exceptional degree of fear of catastrophic incidents” – and it was surprising how many workers going into the plant in the morning volunteered that they were thinking about safety and wondering whether they would go home!

BP has pledged to spend $7 billion to improve the safety and integrity of their US plants.


·         3.6.2 Politics:

·         Shell’s involvement in Nigeria has been dealt with, but other conflict areas where the oil companies are involved include: Chad and Cameroon, Sumatra and Indonesia, and Tibet.

·         a consortium of oil companies operates in southern Sudan, where government-backed militia are persecuting opponents of the regime. In Sudan, Darfur has become a disaster zone. The consortium has given large sums of money to President Omar Bashir, and a Canadian Government sponsored study concluded that “oil is exacerbating conflict in Sudan”. The same army that is bombing and terrorising civilians is protecting the oil pipelines.

·         Finally I think no-one could be unaware of the involvement of US companies in Iraq, and particularly the oil company Halliburton. Here we have a case of the “revolving door” – where top industrial or commercial personnel are able to move into politics, thus retaining their contacts and promoting their commercial interests. From “assisting” in the repair of damaged oil extraction equipment after the Iraq war, they quickly moved to extracting oil and are said to have made $10 billion in contracts. Although they have not caused environmental damage directly, it has to be said that they operate in the interests of the USA, whose policies have created massive environmental damage (especially after the first Iraq war).


3.6.3 And global warming (to be dealt with separately).


Conclusion: this is just a brief portrait of the power and scope of the oil industry. When it comes to dealing with damage to the environment we also have to acknowledge to role of the electricity generating industry, car manufacturers, and the offshoots of the oil industry namely petrochemicals and pharmaceuticals. In my view all these industries contain huge companies that are, to say the least, slow to recognise their social responsibility – and most of the time they are positively hostile to such notions. Again, I have only given a glimpse of their power and influence, but this needs to be kept in mind when we move on to “solutions”.


4. Nuclear power


Nuclear power is of concern because:

(i) it carries with it new dangers such as nuclear radiation – which not only poisons individuals subjected to it, but damages their genetic makeup, and therefore affects future offspring. Some radioactive materials also “decay” very slowly (radioactivity is a process of decay of the atoms in a substance), and some man-made radioactive elements will take hundreds of years to disappear.

(ii) almost all nations that have developed nuclear power have done so because it provides a way of manufacturing nuclear weapons.


In my view, along with the appeal as a way to develop more powerful bombs, nuclear power was seen as a scientific and technological challenge: at the centre of the process is a nuclear reactor in which atoms of uranium are split. For hundreds of years it was believed that the atom was the smallest particle of matter (its name, from the Greek, signifies this). When radiation was discovered, it was realised that some atoms ‘decay’ and give off radiation in the form of atomic particles. Einstein realised that matter and energy were interchangeable: E = mC2 means that a small quantity of matter (m) would create a very large amount of energy (E) – the number m multiplied by the velocity of light (186,000 miles per second) squared! -  if it were entirely converted into energy. In an atom bomb, the fissile material is split instantly, and1kg of matter could produce an explosion equivalent to 40 megatons of TNT. See https://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/apr/05/einstein-equation-emc2-special-relativity-alok-jha


On the other hand, if the release of energy from the atoms being split could occur slowly, then you would have a tremendous amount of heat. In a nuclear power station this heat is used to drive turbines and generate electricity. Again, a lot of heat is generated from a small quantity of fuel, and in the early days of nuclear power we were promised electricity so cheap it would almost be free!!


Needless to say, this turned out to be a myth, as the construction of reactors that would safely control the enormous heat and the radiation generated was a costly technological challenge. But this was only one ‘myth’, as in this country at least the building of Calder Hall in the 1950s was said to be for peaceful purposes – in fact it contributed to our atom bomb programme.


Studies by Sustainable Development Commission as well as Greenpeace and CAT show that Britain can meet its energy needs without nuclear, and reduce carbon emissions at the same time.  (FoE Stop New Nuclear campaign) It is expensive, takes a long time to get on-line, and diverts funds from renewables. It also has civil liberty implications because of security aspects. See http://stopnewnuclear.org.uk


Problems associated with nuclear power:


4.1 Radiation Some scientists believe that nuclear power stations are unsafe because they spread radioactivity into the environment.


Some scientists believe that nuclear power stations are unsafe because they spread radioactivity into the environment.


The risk:

Chris Busby (in The Ecologist : Scientific Secretary of ECRR – European Committee on Radiation Risk):

First cases were childhood leukemia near Sellafield in the 1980s. Then high rates of this were found near other reactors. Adult cancers were not taken into account.



Letter in The Guardian 09.01.08:

Risk of tumour/leukemia in children increases closer to plant (study of 41 districts near 16 plants in Germany 1980 – 2003) - recent German government study found 22% increase in leukemia, 160% in embryonal cancer among children living near all German nuclear reactors.


Chirs Busby (loc cit): Recent studies near Trawsfynydd power station in Wales show risk of cancer, especially breast cancer, doubles if people live near the plant. Thus of those surveyed, 19.5 were expected to get cancer but 38 actually did.


Nowhere has solved problem of waste Nuclear Consultation Working Group. Tim Jackson, Economics Commissioner at Sustainable Development Commission (G 160108): SDC report 2006 said could save 4% of carbon by replacing all existing nuclear plants with new ones (7m tonnes), But: danger of waste, and of private involvement which leads to “moral hazard” i.e. “under-insurance of public risk” - risk to public so high that public pays in the end. Also danger of “distraction” from reducing demand (which the biggest issue); and conclusion: no justification for new nuclear programme. Why govt now in favour, when not a safer world? Economics? Not more favourable, and not much progress. made towards demand reduction (of cost?). Committee on Radiation Waste Management: creation of new wastes leads to new problems. Latest white paper report barely refers to SDC, and claims wrongly that the government sees eye to eye with the SDC on proliferation – which nonsense. Government assures commercial developers that nuclear liability will be capped.


A threshold? Problems of measurement

Jan 2010: Dr Ian Fairlie replies to retired professor Wade Allison (not a radiation biologist nor epidemiologist) who, 11.01.10, minimised risks from nuclear radiation (esp. said that there should be a threshold, not a continual level of less risk from decreasing doses). LNT (linear no-threshold theory) is used by UN, International Commission on Radiological Protection, Health Protection Agency etc.

Recent German goverment study found 22% increase in leukemia, 160% in embryonal cancer  among children living near all German nuclear reactors. Data from Hiroshima not useful for slow long-term exposures. He also says there are ‘non-targeted effects of radiation’ – cause changes in cells temporally and spatially distant from the radiation… These are new effects which do not support current estimates of risk, and suggest dose limits should be tighter…


Busby (loc cit): the International Commission on Radiological Protection worked out a method a long time ago, and bases assessment of risk on ‘average dose’ in millisieverts. But this is not appropriate, Busby says, as particles that enter the body give of high doses near the particle, and none elsewhere in the body. Moreover some radionucleides (strontium, uranium, plutonium) bind preferentially to DNA.


4.2 Waste and decommissioning: Almost all agree that there is a problem of the long-term safe storage of radioactive waste. When a nuclear power station reaches the end of its life it has to be safely dismantled or ‘decommissioned’. I was told there are hundreds of workers at the old ... site in Essex which now looks like a giant concrete block!


Jan/Feb 2010 (Guardian): at Sellafield there are 100 tonnes of plutonium – a ludicrous amount!!  The budget to clean up old nuclear sites is £2.8 bn per annum.


It has been argued that a ‘fast breeder’ reactor would use the waste plutonium to generate more electricity, but:

Feb 2012: letters Guardian point out, in response to article on ‘prism’ reactor, said to be able to use up spent fuel: we have 25,000 tonnes of depleted uranium and 100 tonnes of plutonium; the Japanese spent $13 billion over four decades trying to develop fast breeder reactors unsuccessfully (Tom Burke et al).  Between 1955 and 1995 the UK spent more than £4bn on fast breeders with nothing to show but a radioactive mess at Dounreay (Walt Patterson).


Feb 4th 2013: Highly critical report (Nuclear Decommissioning Authority: Managing Risk at Sellafield) published on management of Sellafield – (Terry Macalister) Commons public accounts committee, chaired by Margaret Hodge, saying ‘the public are not getting a good deal from the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority arrangements with Nuclear Management Partners.’


It’s not clear how long it will take to deal with Sellafield’s waste, and last year the consortium got £54 million, despite only 2 out of 14 major projects being on track. Of the 14 projects, 12 were behind schedule, and 5 of those were over budget.


Every year some £1.6 billion is being spent on the site, where waste includes 82 tonnes of plutonium.



4.3 Security – owing to the value of plutonium (used as a fuel in some reactors, and created as a by-product in others) for anyone wanting to make a bomb, nuclear power stations have to be protected by a high level of security. When we visited... we had to notify them in advance so security checks could be made, then to surrender our passports while visiting the plant, and the guide told us that he had been into the reactor building (we were not allowed to) but when he went he was blindfolded so he would not know how to reach the controls. The other danger is that a power station could be attacked – by a plane for example – and the resulting explosion would devastate a large area of the country round the power station. Consequently the building has to be strong enough to withstand a direct hit by an airplane!


22.11.09 Obs: The government is refusing to give details of five separate security breaches at nuclear power stations. These could include: unauthorized incursion, incidents involving explosives, attempted theft of nuclear materials… See the Office of Civil Nuclear Security (OCNS) annual report. Dai Davies MP tabled a question, but energy minister David Kidney refused to give details.


4.4 Accidents:

Globally there have been at least 99 recorded power plant accidents from 1952 to 2009 (Wikipedia list of nuclear power accidents)



Oct 1957 Windscale: (John Vidal) Guardian 10th March 2012 (sixty years after the event) Windscale No 1 Pile caught fire. It was hushed up, and the workers went on making plutonium for the H-bomb. 11 tons of uranium burned for three days. Radioactive material spread across the Lake District.

‘Sellafield Stories’ (ed. Hunter Davies) gather memories from people involved.


The deputy general manager, Tom Tuohy scaled the reactor building and poured water on the burning fuel. If it had exploded ‘Cumberland would have been finished’ says union leader Cyril McManus: ‘There was contamination everywhere, on the golf course, in the milk, in chickens... but it was quickly forgotten about’ he says. People working there at the time were told to carry on as normal.


The book tells how a wartime bomb factory was dumped in one of Britain’s most cut-off areas, turned to producing plutonium for the atom bomb, then nuclear electricity and is now an American-led multinational corporation decommissioning the mess that it largely created. The plant dumped radioactive water in the sea, and filled up old mine shafts with radioactive material... A significant number of rare cancers were found, including leukaemia in children, especially in the Seascale area which was near the chimney. The authorities argued that these cases had been brought into the area...


4.4.2 Sellafield (formerly Windscale...) 2005.

(Paul Brown, Guardian 9th may 2005): ‘A leak of highly radioactive nuclear fuel dissolved in concentrated nitric acid, enough to half-fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool, has forced the closure of Sellafield’s Thorp reprocessing plant. About 20 tonnes of uranium and plutonium fuel (enough plutonium to make 20 nuclear bombs!!!) leaked from a pipe into a stainless steel container. Recovering the liquids and fixing the pipes will take months and may require special robots to be built. Not a danger to the public, but a financial blow to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority which took over the plant from British Nuclear Fuels in April. It has a £2.2bn clean-up budget. Some of this was to come from Thorp, but this has now been lost.

Thorp produces uranium and plutonium from spent fuel, but it has never operated to design capacity and has always been behind with its orders. It makes a large amount of uranium and plutonium, but only a small amount of this can be used for reactor fuel. It has been criticised from the outset as uneconomic.


1979 Three Mile Island

Near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, USA. Rated 5 on a 7-point scale of serious accidents. A valve got stuck open, and large amounts of nuclear reactor coolant escaped. The people operating it didn’t realise what had happened, but there was a partial meltdown which meant that radioactive iodine and gases were released into the atmosphere – though the authorities claimed the levels were very low (a claim disputed by Arnie Gundersen, a former nuclear industry executive who is now an expert witness in nuclear safety issues).


The accident was badly handled, with different people giving conflicting information. It took five weeks before it was realised that reactor operators had measured temperatures near the melting point. And only years later, when the reactor vessel was physically opened that they found that roughly half of the uranium fuel had melted. (Victor Gilinsky, a NRC commissioner sent to investigate the accident) The reactor has been out of commission ever since. The film China Syndrome was based on the accident – much to the anger of those responsible for the plant, who said it was a travesty. The fear expressed in the film was that if the melted fuel had not been contained it would have gone down into the earth and through to China...


4.4.3 Chernobyl April 26th 1986.

The worst nuclear accident yet, it happened during a safety test when safety systems were turned off. Reactor design flaws together with mis-handling by the operators led to uncontrolled reaction conditions. Water flashed into steam and there was an explosion, and an open-air graphite fire. Two workers were killed, and 134 were hospitalised with acute radiation symptoms: 28 of them died (some were firemen).  There were 14 cancer deaths from this group within the next 10 years, and higher than usual numbers of childhood thyroid cancer. It will be some time before the full extent of illness caused will be known.


Plumes of radioactive material went up into the atmosphere for about nine days. This was a level 7 event (as was Fukushima). Over 500,000 workers were involved in the clean-up and it cost 18 billion rubles. A city of 14,000 residents before it was evacuated, there are now 690 people living there. ‘Resettlement may even be possible [as the levels of radiation are declining] in prohibited areas provided that people comply with appropriate dietary rules... Rivers were polluted, and drinking water was a cause for concern (though eventually it was said to be safe...). (Wikipedia: Chernobyl disaster).


Approximately 100,000 square km of land were contaminated. Radiation spread as far as Sweden, and Europe... and in fact it was when Swedish workers at a nuclear plant detected radiation on their clothes but could find no leak in Sweden that it was suspected that something had happened in Russia!


The No 4 reactor building is known as the sarcophagus and work is ongoing to enclose it safely.


4.4.5 Fukushima – aftermath of the March 2011 disaster (Fri 14th Nov 2014, Guardian):

The problem of radioactive water is enormous: each day around 400 tonnes of ground water flows from surrounding hills into the basements of three of the reactors, where it mixes with coolant water. Most of the contaminated water is pumped out into storage tanks – of which there are more than 1,000, holding 500,000 tones of contaminated water.

Work has begun on a barrier underground to prevent water from reaching the basements – it is 1.5 km long and will be frozen.

Workers are removing 1,331 spent fuel rods from reactor number four – and this should be completed by the end of this year. In the other three reactors radiation levels are still too high for humans to enter.

Decommissioning the entire plant is expected to take at least 40 years, at a cost of around £55 bn.


Feb 24th 2013: after-effects of Fukushima disaster - http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/feb/28/cancer-risk-fukushima-who?INTCMP=SRCH and:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/feb/24/divorce-after-fukushima-nuclear-disaster?INTCMP=SRCH on the emotional and psychological effects.


Oct 2012: Rupert Neate, Observer, reports the price of uranium has sunk since Fukushima (from $135 a pound in 2007 to $44) and has declined more since several governments have announced they will move away from nuclear. Japan has said it will get rid of nuclear by 2040. Germany and Belgium have also said they will stop, and Italy will not go back to it. France is scaling down (though it’s the most nuclear country in the world). But China is going to restart its reactor building programme aiming for 5% by 2020 (currently 2%), India hopes to have 50% nuclear by 2050 (last year was 3.7%), and there are 65 reactors being built, 69% of them in Bric countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China)...


Guardian 26th May 2015: China. Chinese physicist He Zuoxiu criticises the lack of concern for safety in China’s planned expansion of nuclear power:



4.5 CO2

Whether nuclear power is good because it does not produce CO2

March 2012: letters in the Guardian on news that the UK government is secretly lobbying the European commission for the abolition of future renewable targets. There is now discussion on the merits of nuclear, and one letter points out that a power station needs 3MW of cooling to keep the rods stable; and that nuclear power in a warming climate is unstable - the French have had to close down plants in hot weather because of shortage of cooling water [Prof Susan Roaf, Edinburgh].


Feb 5th 2013: George Monbiot – argument in favour of nuclear power (because if we don’t build nuclear stations then more coal will be burned):




4.6 Cost

Weds 1st Feb 2012: group of MPs and experts allege govt has distorted evidence and presented a false analysis of case for new nuclear reactors. Ron Bailey author of report... Govt commissioned research which began with assumption that 10 reactors would be built, then presented evidence as a case for this. The govt’s research also showed how Britain could cope without new nuclear investment. Report: A Corruption of Governance? By Unlock Democracy (director Peter Facey) and the Association for the Conservation of Energy. Endorsed by a number of MPs from all parties. Fiona Harvey, Environment correspondent. See also Leo Hickman’s blog: http://www.guardian.co.uk/global/blog/2012/feb/01/nuclear-power-carbon-emissions-target


One of the difficulties in assessing the true cost of nuclear power is that the government is always able to give subsidies to one form of electricity generation or another (the choice based on political reasons?):

Feb 19th 2013: coalition is backtracking on its promise not to have the public pay for nuclear: it has pledged £240 m in subsidies for new nuclear power stations. This money says Professor Sue Roaf could be used to give each home in Britain £10,000 to supply solar heating and new boilers!! There is also a call for molten salt or thorium reactors, which are said to be cheaper than coal, and to produce short-lived and ‘valuable’ waste...


Feb 21st 2013: Terry Macalister and Richard Cookson report that Paul Massara, RWE’s new chief executive has warned the government not to saddle the public with unnecessarily high bills by doing a deal with the nuclear industry behind the public’s back. The same piece points out that at least 15 people working for the nuclear industry or its consultants have been seconded to areas of government where they are responsible for policy or regulation. For example, EDF has seconded two staff to the Office for Nuclear Regulation at HSE. Rolls Royce and Atkins are also mentioned.



14th July 2016: Hinkley Point: (Terry Macalister)

The likely cost continues to escalate: the National Audit Office has warned that consumers could pay £30 bn in ‘top-up payments’ due to falling wholesale power prices. DEC has already put the potential cost of Hinkley Point at £37 bn. Hinkley would produce 7% of Britain’s total electricity, but it has been hit by delays due to concerns in EDF about the financial burden. In addition, trades unions in France have put up objections. Top-up payments under ‘contracts for difference’ have quadrupled in three years since the government struck a deal with EDF – under the terms of this, the consumer must compensate EDF for lower wholesale prices – but costs of fossil fuels have been going down dramatically.



30th July 2016: Hinkley Point (letters to Guardian)

Instead of HS2 we need ‘a European supergrid... to iron out fluctuations from different sources of renewable energy’ (Robin Russell-Jones, Chair, Help Rescue the Planet).

Decc (now demised!) showed that renewables with ‘backup gas can produce same output as Hinkley Point a decade earlier and at least 25% cheaper. Only 900 new jobs would be created by Hinkley, each at a cost to consumers of 800,000 a year’ (Neils Kroniger, Green Hedge UK Ltd)

‘For the same price as Hinkley we could put solar hot water and PV with battery storage on [the same] 6m homes and thus taking a quarter of British homes out of fuel poverty for ever... We have over a million solar roofs, and tens of millions have been invested in solar research – meanwhile 2.5 bn has been invested in moving some dirt and laying some concrete at Hinkley... (Professor Sue Roaf, Edinburgh).

The Severn Barrage could produce 10% of our energy needs (Michael McLoughlin).


March 30th 2017

Westinghouse has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection: cost overruns on two nuclear plants in US (Georgia and South Carolina) have caused a $6bn write-down. Westinghouse is owned by Toshiba and its technology is installed in about half of the world’s reactors. Toshiba will now only build nuclear plants in its home market. A new power station proposal for Moorside in Cumbria is now effectively dead (20,000 lost jobs?). 

Meanwhile safety and quality control issues have been found at Le Creusot – but EDF chief says this will not affect Hinkley Point C. Work is under way on what is the largest engineering site in Europe. There will be a ramp into the sea so boats can bring loads and there will not be a need for endless lorries on the roads; a sea wall; millions of tonnes of earth and rocks dug up.


23rd June 2017. Adam Vaughan: Hinkley Point C will be risky and expensive, says the National Audit Office. The power station was agreed last September, but it will bring ‘uncertain strategic and economic benefits.’ If we quit the Euratom nuclear co-operation EU treaty, because of Brexit, the situation will be worse: taxpayers could have to meet compensation for EDF (?). EDF is guaranteed £92.50 per megawatt hour generated – twice the current wholesale price. Householders will pay £10 – £15 per household by 2030.

The Audit Office is especially critical of the failure to find an alternative financing model. We could, for example, have taken an up-front stake in the project – but all the construction risks lie with EDF and CGN (Chinese state-owned) to keep the project off the government’s books...

Costs of the project have boomed from £6bn in 2013 to £30bn now, and could rise still further.

Nils Pratley, same paper, says it is a vanity project: the financial model committed to was inflexible (the developer bears the construction risks in return for a guaranteed price for electricity generated), then commercial terms were agreed in 2013 when energy costs were sky-high – but they have fallen since.  It is scheduled to produce 7% of our electricity, and is ‘bigger than anything ever seen before’ – and the price guarantee runs over 35 Years.

‘Time will tell whether the deal represents value for money (says the NAO) but we cannot say the department has maximised the chances that it will be.’


An alternative that is mentioned from time to time, but in my view shows no evidence of being a viable replacement:

thorium reactors – less dangerous as don’t produce plutonium; smaller (300 MW) and therefore cheaper – India is developing but says 6 years needed develop and build. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/nov/01/india-thorium-nuclear-plant Thorium more abundant and more energy-dense than uranium. Could be used by states with embargo on nuclear power.




Further reading:


(i) History of coal mining in UK: New Statesman has good overview of the history of the industry, by Martin Fletcher: http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/energy/2015/11/last-days-big-k


Deep coal mining dates back to Tudor times and peaked during the arms race before the first world war, with 3,024 mines producing 292 million tonnes of coal, and employing 1.1 million people, in 1913. Bevin boys were 48,000 men brought in to keep the industry going in the second world war.


Since 1700 164,000 miners have lost their lives. Mining deaths did not fall below a thousand a year until well into the 20th century. 1,297 were killed and 20,000 injured in 1923.


1972 and 1974 miners’ strikes were a turning point: Wilson government increased wages dramatically.


1984 - 5 strike was triggered by a plan drawn up by the Thatcher government to close 20 unprofitable pits and lose 20,000 jobs. But Scargill played into the government’s hands:  the strike was called in the spring when demand was falling, he didn’t call a national ballot and split the union, undermining legitimacy of the strike, he also got money from Gaddafi and USSR. NUM has 800 members (was once half a million). Miners still employed don’t believe the reasons given for closing mines are good – rather see it all as political.


(ii) Oct 2012, obituary of Crispin Aubrey – investigative journalist and green campaigner – note he published two books on Sellafield etc: Meltdown: the collapse of the nuclear dream; and Thorp (1991): the Whitehall nightmare (1993). He began his campaigning at Time Out in the 1970s.


(iii) The Quest: energy, security and the remaking of the modern world, by Daniel Yergin (Allen Lane £30) reviewed Observer 16th Oct 2011. Yergin won a Pulitzer prize in 1992 for The Prize, a political history of the oil industry.