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They take the profits – we pay for the clean up

Somehow, the public always ends up with the bill for dirty energy operations, whilst the corporations take the profits and run. In 2010, it was estimated that dealing with the UK's nuclear waste would cost £49bn. Now that has more than doubled and some say it could rise to £100bn.

The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority is on the point of taking back in house the clean up of the UK's biggest nuclear headache at Sellafield though it has already paid a private company billions.

The US/UK/French consortium NMP has had £70bn so far but the work is way behind schedule and there have been criticisms of how they operate. Indeed they have been fined £700,000 by a court in Carlisle for sending low-level radioactive waste to an ordinary landfill site.

That didn't stop the NDA giving them £54m in performance bonuses in 2012 – now it seems even the authority has had enough.

Next year, the NDA will award contracts for cleaning up the old Magnox power stations and the agency is so nervous that it will not even give an estimate of the cost.

But the question is, why are WE paying for this? Didn't the new operators, when the companies were privatised, take on these responsibilities as well as the chance to make money? No, they did not.

Another example of corporations walking away is in Scotland, where KPMG acting as receiver for bankrupt coal companies Scottish Coal and Aardvark, won a court ruling saying any buyer will not have to fulfil obligations to control pollution and restore land at existing sites. So these will remain as scars on the landscape with no remedy in sight, other than by throwing piles of public money at the problem.

Anne McCall, of wildlife charity RSPB, says:

It is unthinkable that private companies can cause such damage and then walk away when finances get tight. We simply cannot wipe the slate clean when such a terrible legacy has been left by Scottish Coal and Aardvark.

So what would the legacy be if fracking is allowed across the UK? Fracking pumps a mix of water, sand, and chemicals into fissures in shale rock made by controlled explosions. The water loosens the shale, the chemicals dissolve minerals and the sand props open fractures so that the gas or oil can be extracted.

Chemicals used include acids, detergents and deadly poisons. After the fuel is extracted, deposits of radioactive elements and huge concentrations of salt are left in the earth's surface as well as thousands of gallons of dirty water to be disposed of.

The Con/Dem coalition are giving huge tax breaks to the fracking companies, and have changed planning laws so local communities have little chance of keeping them out.

And when the gas has been extracted and the companies have fracked off to the next project? Those communities will have to live with the long-term damage.

Of course, as far as Lord Howell is concerned that only matters if the damage is in nice, rural areas; it is OK if fracking takes place in the former industrial areas of the north of England. This is not just some old buffer speaking. Howell is a former energy secretary, up until three months ago an energy adviser to the government, and president of the BP/Shell sponsored British Institute of Energy Economics which promotes fossil fuels.

He is worried that if the middle classes in leafy areas in the south-east are affected, they might rise up and in a spirit of fair play, demand an end not only to their own local problem but to the whole fracking project across the country. Let's hope they do!

Penny Cole
Environment editor
31 July 2013

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