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Glowing in The Dark?

Glowing in the dark?We heard from one of our Freckleton readers that waste specialist company 'Sita' was planning to increase the disposal of low-low level radioactive waste at the tip on Freckleton Marsh, and they were organising an exhibition about it before actually submitting their application.

We understand two permissions are involved, one from the County Council to extend the planning permission to operate the tip from 2012 to 2020 and the other from the Environment Agency to increase the volume or proportion of low level nuclear waste disposed of.

The exhibition was for two days, so we went along to see what was going on.

We found a stand from the company 'Sita' and one from the Environment Agency staffed by knowledgeable (and extremely polite and helpful) people. That being the case, we had to dig a bit to get behind the presentations and displays. We did, and this is our take on what's going on.

As usual, it's about the bottom line.

Way back in the dark ages of 1980, the Conservative Government introduced the 'Planning and Land Act'. This had lots of technical changes for local councils, but it heralded a new regime called Compulsory Competitive Tendering, which basically said that in future, most of a council's manual workforce could no longer do specified sorts of work as of right, they had to contract for the work of looking after parks, emptying bins and so on, in competition with commercial companies.

Sita, a French based refuse specialist was probably the most aggressive in its competing for these contracts and took many of them, along with the staff and equipment previously used by councils.

Over time, they found at the prices they had quoted they were unable to make enough cost savings to make the work profitable and eventually changed direction locally and headed into waste disposal as opposed to waste collection.

In this area, they took over the former Lancashire County Council waste disposal service (Lancashire Waste Services) which had been restructured as a limited company by the County Council, and as part of that deal they acquired 50% ownership of part of Freckleton Marsh tip, and sole ownership of other parts of it.

On 1 January 2002, Sita merged with United Waste to form Britain's largest waste management company. This merger followed the decision of their parent company, SUEZ, to consolidate its waste management activities under the SITA banner.

Since then, their business model at Freckleton has been to get paid to dispose of waste deposited at the tip, partly by councils and licensed waste contractors who want to get rid of general rubbish, and partly by those with low level nuclear waste to dispose of.

Whilst some Low Level Waste currently comes from Capenhurst in Cheshire and elsewhere, the Springfields plant at Salwick is (financially speaking) Sita's biggest single customer.

BUT

In the last year or two, demand for disposing of 'general and municipal waste' at Freckleton has gone down from 400,000 tonnes a year, to 200,000 tonnes a year because of Government and Local Council initiatives.

Central government, (led by the nose from Brussels), is using non-cost-related increases in landfill tax to change people's behaviour with regard to waste disposal.

Very successfully it seems.

And its going to get even worse for Sita in the future as the landfill escalator tax rises year on year, and competition in the form of the waste disposal and incineration facility at Thornton will increase pressure on their profitability.

It's not so much a matter of running out of space for disposal, it's a matter of principle - the Government is using economic engineering as the vehicle to effect behavioural social change.

That's not good news for Sita. Their market for waste disposal is shrinking dramatically year on year as people and businesses are financially cajoled to send more for recycling.

Worse than that, their best 'customer' - Springfields - which had been expected to 'take up the slack' in Sita's income stream as their nuclear plant was de-commissioned, (producing great volumes of low-level waste such as demolition rubble and so on) is now unlikely to do so.

This is because of changes in Government nuclear policy and in fuel costs. So now, places like Springfields are now thinking "Hey, just hang on a minute, we might become profitable again" so plans for their decommissioning are on hold.

And Sita's expected future income stream dries up.

So today, if you're Sita, you are starting into three black holes. One in the ground that isn't getting filled, one in your 'general waste' income stream, and one in your 'low-level nuclear waste' income stream.

So you have to make changes in order to survive.

Hence their two applications being planned.

One to extend the operation of the tip from 2012 to 2020. We imagine that will be approved fairly easily. The extension can be argued on the basis that the reduced inflow of waste will take longer to occupy the space available.

The other, to expand the scale and range from which low level nuclear waste can be accepted, is probably trickier.

That means trickier in a 'public concern' sense rather than in a technical sense. The science (and the policy) is all out there if you can understand it.

Furthermore, we don't recall hearing any assurances that the money was immediately available. How would Cllr Henshaw know anyway?. The way the Commissar keeps other Councillors in the dark, its amazing they get to hear anything. Several tell us they hear what's going on in Fylde more through these pages on counterbalance than from their agendas.

Broadly speaking, the Government recognised it was going to have vast quantities of waste arising from the de-commissioning of several nuclear plants that have come to the end of their life, so they've created new rules for its disposal, and a new category of waste that can go into ordinary landfill sites rather than specially constructed ones like Drigg in Cumbria.

We'll have to leave the technical measurements to scientists, but the 'Low Level Waste' (LLW) includes metal, soil, building rubble and lightly contaminated miscellaneous scrap, together with organic materials such as paper towels, clothing, lab equipment and so on (including those from hospitals where radioactive waste is generated.).

There is also a new category of 'Very Low Level Waste' (VLLW) which is considered to be so low level that it can be disposed of with municipal and general and industrial waste without much worry at all.

So where's all this extra Low and Very Low Level Waste going to come from then?

Well, we were told it would probably be limited by travel geography.

For example, you're not going to transport waste down from Scotland past the disposal site in Cumbria because you will be wasting money in transport costs if you did.

Equally, bringing it up from the south coast would be prohibitively expensive as well.

So the catchment area for Low Level Waste to be disposed of at Freckleton is likely to be set by the location of other disposal facilities, and we understand at present, that probably means about as far south as South Wales.

So what's going to be the impact of that additional nuclear waste on local folk then?

It's difficult to be simplistic here, because those classed as being at greatest risk aren't going to start glowing in the dark. The term 'greatest risk' is relative to no risk at all, not to the sort of risk attached to a reactor meltdown. So we can't see that someone living in the middle of Freckleton would be at any more risk than they are already if the volume of low level waste that is stored increases.

We're no experts here and we have to bow to the knowledge of others (Particularly the Environment Agency folk and the people at RADMIL who have a great deal of knowledge), but we do understand that the people most at risk at present (and in the future), are those that spend a lot of time close to the silt in the Ribble Estuary.

At the greatest risk, are probably those who live in houseboats and perhaps the farmers who spread the sewage sludge from the treatment works as fertiliser. This is because the 'nuclear particles' are attracted to silt particles in the estuary, and collect in the silt where they stay for a long time. This means that if the decay is slower than the accumulation, the level in the silt will rise over time, and those with constant or prolonged exposure to the silt will be at the 'greatest risk'.

How do the particles get into the water in the first place?

Well at present there are two ways. Firstly, Springfields itself has a pipeline that exits through land on either side of tipping areas. This (nominally) only carries surface water (pavements, roofs etc) from the Springfields complex into the Ribble, but given the levels of radioactivity in the silt already, you have to wonder.

Secondly, the present 'general waste' has some low level nuclear waste in with it.

The water that accumulates in the tips (which have sealed bottoms to prevent accidental leaching to surrounding ground), is collected and pumped to a treatment works run by United Utilities.

We understand that United Utilities would (and do) treat the biological problems in the water, but so far as we could work out, there is no treatment for the low-level radioactivity, and we understand that passes out into the Ribble after various sampling and testing operations are undertaken to check the level is within acceptable limits.

It was argued to us that in any case, there are various sorts of low level radiation, and the sorts that were capable of being passed into the river were less than half the level of that found in the estuary at present.

We're not in a position to make a judgement on this, but we struggle to see how adding more to what is already the worst area of the problem is going to improve things in the future.

It also occurred to us that the sort of radiation that is attracted to the silt particles might well be persuaded to stay in the sewage sludge as it settles out in United Utilities' settlement tanks before being turned into fertiliser for use by farmers and growers.

So whilst people can (and no doubt will) come to a view on the principle, we think this the practicality is probably a decision best left to scientists.

One other interesting fact we noted is that the lining of the areas to hold the waste requires (amongst other things) a 500mm (almost 2 feet) thick layer of "engineered mineral liner". Despite its Sunday name, that usually turns out to be what you and we would call clay (with its inner surface treated so as to become impervious to liquids - a bit like the puddled clay linings to many water areas and ponds).

We asked how much would be needed and where it would come from and were told that between 100 and 200,000 tonnes sounded about right. They said there might be a bit useable from within the site, but in general, they try to source it as locally as possible so as to minimise the cost of transporting it in.

We don't know if anyone else spotted a recent planning application by a farmer with vast acreages of potatoes and land off West Moss Lane toward Ballam. He wants to create an 'irrigation reservoir' for his crops. It is about the size of six football pitches and will have to be excavated quite deeply to hold enough water. The planning application says he estimates the construction will extract 191,000 cubic metres of clay (1cu m = approx one tonne) at 70 lorry loads a day for about 38 weeks.

We wonder where all that clay is going.......

Dated:  28 July 2009


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