Tuesday, 27 September 2016

You cannot be simultaneously for and against Trident WMD renewal

I never thought I would agree with US Presidential candidate, Republican Donald Trump, and disagree with a shadow minister in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, but on Monday I did, on nuclear WMDs.
Trump said in the Presidential debate in New York on Monday  “I agree with her [Hillary Clinton] on one thing. The single greatest problem the world has is nuclear armament, nuclear weapons.” (New York Times, 27 September 2016; http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/27/us/politics/transcript-debate.html)
Meanwhile, Labour shadow defence secretary, Clive Lewis, controversially said at the Labour Party conference on the same day: “I am clear our party has a policy for Trident renewal.”(Labour defence chief accepts nukes policy: CND dismayed at continued Trident support, " Morning Star, September 27; http://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/a-2655-Labour-defence-chief-accepts-nukes-policy#.V-pWN-QVCM8)
Later,  on BBC’s  Newsnight John McDonnell put forward the nonsensical justification that Labour could have a policy in favour of renewing Trident, while he as shadow Chancellor and Jeremy Corbyn as leader, could continue to oppose it.
That is untenable, as the leader of the Labour Party cannot campaign in a general election against something included in his party’s manifesto for the  election.
The issue cannot be “parked" as Lewis and McDonnell have intimated to various media; it has to be decided.
Publishing the review of Trident, security and defence issues, to which many Labour members contributed in good faith in the spring, would be a good start.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Fracking and cancer

On the day the Labour shadow energy secretary Dr Barry Gardiner announced at Labour's annual conference in Liverpool that Labour would ban fracking if returned to government, I sent this letter to The Times:
Your environment editor reports that the Advertising Standards Authority has adjudicated that Friends of the Earth (FoE) has “failed to substantiate claims that fracking could cause cancer.” (“Fracking scare stories condemned by watchdog,” September 26;

This is true, but does not mean fracking does not cause cancer. FOE made claims, rebutted by the ASA, that “studies show that 25 per cent of fracking chemicals could cause cancer.” But the cancer concern remain because of radon in the natural gas inevitably released by the hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) process.

The heath watchdog, Public Health England, warned in a report published three years ago If the natural gas delivery point were to be close to the extraction point with a short transit time, radon present in the natural gas would have little time to decay … there is therefore the potential for radon gas to be present in natural gas extracted from UK shale.”

(‘Shale gas extraction: review of the potential public health impacts of exposures to chemical and radioactive pollutants,’ 30 October 2013; https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/shale-gas-extraction-review-of-the-potential-public-health-impacts-of-exposures-to-chemical-and-radioactive-pollutants-draft-for-comment)

This is confirmed by research published in the United States by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health that found levels of radon in Pennsylvania homes – where 42 percent of readings surpass what the U.S. government considers safe – have been on the rise since 2004, around the time that the fracking industry began drilling natural gas wells in the state. (Increased Levels of Radon in Pennsylvania Homes Correspond to Onset of Fracking’, April 9, 2015; www.jhsph.edu/news/news-releases/2015/increased-levels-of-radon-in-pennsylvania-homes-correspond-to-onset-of-fracking.html)

Radon is unquestionably the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers.  A report produced by the UK Health Protection Agency in 2009, ‘Radon and Public Health:’ Report of an independent Advisory Group on Ionising Radiation (Docs RCE 11, HPA 2009: www.hpa.org.uk) states:
“Radon is a naturally occurring colourless and odourless radioactive gas that can seep out of the ground and build up in houses, buildings, and indoor workplaces. Epidemiological studies have established that exposure to radon is a cause of lung cancer, with a linear dose-response relationship. Exposure to radon is now recognised as the second largest cause of lung cancer in the UK after smoking and analysis for the Health Protection Agency indicates that about 1100 UK deaths from lung cancer each year are caused by exposure to radon (most caused jointly by radon and smoking.” (emphasis added)




Saturday, 17 September 2016

Dr Clark's confusion over Hinkley C

One of the most disturbing aspects of the Hinkley C decision is the cabinet minister responsible for delivering the project, business, energy and industrial strategy secretary Dr Greg Clark – in office only since 14 July this year- is demonstrably ignorant of his own department’s brief and policies.
His 1992 doctorate from the London School of Economics (LSE), which  also attended,  is entitled, The effectiveness of incentive payment systems: an empirical test of individualism as a boundary condition.

As someone whose own 1986 doctorate was entitled Nuclear Powers, on how nuclear reactor choices were made 1955-1979, and who has worked on nuclear energy policy ever since 1980,including three years on Dr Clark’s predcessor, (now Sir) Ed Davey’s Geological Disposal Implementation Board for radioactive waste (2012-14), let me challenge some of his more egregious errors in his statement to Parliament  on Hinkley C on 15 September.
( http://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2016-09-15/debates/16091527000002/HinkleyPointC)

In his statement he asserted: “Unlike in the past, the long-term decommissioning costs for the plant will be provided for explicitly as part of the funded decommissioning programme, and at a level that has been assessed independently as prudent and conservative.”

This is both misleading and inaccurate.

I have been involved for over seven years in the development of the complex process (including consultation round tables, consultation documents and discussion for a run by Government) determining how future radioactive waste costs wil lbe paid.
The bottom line is a cap on costs for nuclear plant owner/operators  has been agreed, so if the costs go above the agreed cap, and are not covered bythe extra insuranc epremium paid by the company,  unfortunate future taxpayers will have to meet the extra costs. Dr Clark surely should know this; as should his special advisors.
He also told Labour  MP Ben Bradshaw “. [Hinkley C] is a good deal that will secure 7% of our energy into the future. “

This is totally inaccurate: if Hinkley C  works to plan - a big if -  it will provide around 7% of the national electricity demand, equivalent to about 1.5% of total energy demand. Dr Clark thus significantly over inflates the project’s importance.

It is just as disappointing that shadow energy secretary, Dr Barry Gardiner- a philosopher and insurance expert  by background -  acted as a cheerleader for Hinkley C , not an opponent ( which is actually Labour policy), in responding to Dr Clark in Parliament.


Monday, 12 September 2016

China’s insecure history of nuclear spying

Some time later this month the prime minister will make a decision on whether the  alleged security concerns raised over Chinese investment in, and technological development of, the planned Hinkley C and Bradwell B new nuclear plants respectively.

We know her chief policy advisor, Nick Timothy wrote on the Conservative Home web site last October, when working for a conservative think tank:

Security experts – reportedly inside as well as outside government – are worried that the Chinese could use their role to build weaknesses into computer systems which will allow them to shut down Britain’s energy production at will. For those who believe that such an eventuality is unlikely, the Chinese National Nuclear Corporation – one of the state-owned companies involved in the plans for the British nuclear plants - says on its website that it is responsible not just for “increasing the value of state assets and developing the society” but the “building of national defence.” MI5 believes that “the intelligence services of…China…continue to work against UK interests at home and abroad.’” (“The Government is selling our national security to China“, 20 October 2015; http://www.conservativehome.com/thecolumnists/2015/10/nick-timothy-the-government-is-selling-our-national-security-to-china.html)

Ironically, at the beginning of the month, the United States Chamber of Commerce issued 116 page report on threats to international free trade in information technology, highlighting the role played by China’s national security laws to exclude US ( and others’)  companies from selling into the Chinese market. The report notes:


 While globalization of the ICT sector has been one of the most powerful drivers of global economic welfare during the past several decades, a number of factors—particularly at the policy level—are now threatening to slow or even reverse that trend.

In particular, some national governments, by intentionally or unintentionally defining security concerns in an overly broad manner, are applying intense pressure on the ICT sector to localize rather than globalize. Such pressures are manifesting in laws and regulations that expressly require the indigenization of R&D, manufacturing, and/or assembly of products or localization of data, or that otherwise effectively preference products and services that localize assembly, source code development and storage, or the storage of data.”  Preventing Deglobalization, 1 September 2016 https://www.uschamber.com/sites/default/files/documents/files/preventing_deglobalization_1.pdf


The report states on national security threats: “The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (“NPC”) passed the country’s most comprehensive piece of national security legislation in July 2015, a sweeping National Security Law that establishes an expansive framework on security and that describes in broad terms how the country’s leadership understands its security interests.

The new law’s breadth is evident in its assertion that China’s security interests extend far beyond its physical borders, even into the depths of the oceans, the Arctic, outer space, and, of course, cyberspace.102 It describes national security as encompassing political security, military security, social and cultural security, ecological security, agricultural security, and much more……

At the end of December 2015, the NPC Standing Committee enacted a Counter-Terrorism Law, which went into effect on January 1, 2016. Drafts of the law wereoriginally released in November 2014 and February 2015 and attracted significant controversy. The Counter-Terrorism Law reinforces the government’s broad powers to investigate and prevent incidents of terrorism, and requires citizens and companies to assist and cooperate with the government in dealing with such matters. It also imposes new obligations on companies in certain sectors. Non-compliance or non-cooperation can lead to significant penalties, including fines on companies and criminal charges or detention for responsible individuals.”

Writing in the The Wall Street Journal on 7 September, Andrew Browne observed:” China plays by its own rules nowadays…. It bullies Washington’s regional friends and allies.. China is using national-security laws and other means to exclude U.S. technology companies from swaths of its vast market..” (“China’s Subtle War Against U.S. Dignity”; http://www.wsj.com/articles/chinas-subtle-war-against-u-s-dignity-1473151399

In light of the Chinese Government’s own stated security concerns and enacted law, it is worthwhile recalling how China abused s other states’ own security laws with its extensive overseas spying apparatus.

A month ago the press extensively reported on an industrial espionage case involving  a Chinese nuclear engineer. One report explained “In a 17-page indictment, the US government said nuclear engineer Allen Ho, employed by the China General Nuclear Power Company, and the company itself had unlawfully conspired to develop nuclear material in China without US approval and ‘with the intent to secure an advantage to the People’s Republic of China’”. (“Nuclear espionage charge for China firm with one-third stake in UK's Hinkley Point,” Guardian, 11 August 2016; https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/aug/11/nuclear-espionage-charge-for-china-firm-with-one-third-stake-in-hinkley-point)

Two months ago the US Justice Department issueda press release, which recorded in part”

“Kan Chen, 26, of Ningbo, China, in Zhejiang Province, was sentenced to 30 months in prison and three years of supervised release for conspiring to violate the Arms Export Control Act and International Traffic in Arms Regulations; attempting to violate the Arms Export Control Act and International Traffic in Arms Regulations; and violating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act.

On June 16, 2015, Chen was arrested by HSI agents on the Northern Mariana Island of Saipan following an eight-month long investigation into his illegal conduct and has remained in custody.  He pleaded guilty to the offenses listed above on March 2, 2016.

“The United States will simply never know the true harm of Chen’s conduct because the end users of the rifle scopes and other technology are unknown,” said U.S. Attorney Oberly.  “No matter their nationality, those individuals who seek to profit by illegally exporting sensitive U.S. military technology will be prosecuted.  It is important that we take all necessary steps to prevent our military technology and equipment from being exported and possibly used against our service members and our allies overseas.”

(“Chinese National sentenced to 30 months in prison for smuggling high tech US military hardware to China,” :  June 29, 2016; https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/chinese-national-sentenced-30-months-prison-smuggling-high-tech-us-military-hardware-china

But this is not a recent phenomenon: Seventeen years ago, the New York Times revealed under the headline “China Stole Nuclear Secrets For Bombs, U.S. Aides Say”, ( 6 March 1999; http://www.nytimes.com/1999/03/06/world/breach-los-alamos-special-report-china-stole-nuclear-secrets-for-bombs-us-aides.html) that Working with nuclear secrets stolen from an American Government laboratory, China has made a leap in the development of nuclear weapons: the miniaturization of its bombs, according to Administration officials.”

The New York Times published a detailed update on September 26, 2000, stating in part:

On March 6, 1999, The New York Times reported that Government investigators believed China had accelerated its nuclear weapons program with the aid of stolen American secrets. The article said the Federal Bureau of Investigation had focused its suspicions on a Chinese-American scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Two days later, the government announced that it had fired a Los Alamos scientist for ''serious security violations.'' Officials identified the man as Wen Ho Lee. Dr. Lee was indicted nine months later on charges that he had transferred huge amounts of restricted information to an easily accessible computer. Justice Department prosecutors persuaded a judge to hold him in solitary confinement without bail, saying his release would pose a grave threat to the nuclear balance. This month the Justice Department settled for a guilty plea to a single count of mishandling secret information. The judge accused prosecutors of having misled him on the national security threat and having provided inaccurate testimony. Dr. Lee was released on the condition that he cooperate with the authorities to explain why he downloaded the weapons data and what he did with it.”

The story was followed up by the Guardian’s sister Sunday paper, The Observer, ran a detailed revelation headlined: "China steals US nuclear secrets,” 7 March 1999) with a follow up in August 1999 (“China Crisis, 22 August 1999; https://www.theguardian.com/theobserver/1999/aug/22/life1.lifemagazine2)

In between, the London Evening Standard ran a front page revelation from Washington on 25 May that year “China’s army of spies in U.S.”- which unveiled China controlled several thousand ‘front companies’: The 700-page [Congressional committee] document describes a massive and voracious theft of American know-how in addition to the recently well-publicised espionage that succeeded in stealing nuclear secrets from a supposedly secure weapons laboratory run by the US Energy Department. President Clinton has falsely claimed he was not told about the spying.

The report discloses that China uses an extensive network of small and large businesses operated by Chinese nationals in the US to penetrate civilian technology centres. There may be more than 3,000 such firms, mainly concentrated in California and Massachusetts, which are connected to the Chinese espionage apparatus.

China requires, as normal practice, that many of the thousands of students, tourists and other Chinese visitors to the US seek out information that might be used for military purposes. Christopher Cox, chairman of the committee which issued the report, says Chinese espionage has been going on for two decades, and continues.”

Today’s concerns over China undermining nuclear security thus have a detailed history

Friday, 9 September 2016

Moving Parliament is more complicated than it may seem

The headline on John Harris' article on the prospects of moving parliament "Parliament is falling down. Let's move it to Birmingham" (9 September, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/08/parliament-falling-down-move-it-to-birmingham) is misleading, as Harris is arguing to move the House of Lords out of London, not the entire parliament.

The difference is important.

As most ministers are also MPs, they need to have the legislative house close to their departmental offices, as they both regularly work part of the day in their ministerial office, ands part of the time have formal and informal duties in Parliament, including answering routine oral and emergency questions ( of which they are given short notice of a few hours) to MPs; appearing before select committees, meeting lobbies and attending events organized in Parliament.

Peers who are ministers also do these things, but are usually not the lead departmental minister, so could always belatedly inform the low  upper house of peers.

The magnificent library would have to be split up.

With Parliament in the UK's capital city, many organizations which regularly interact with parliament have similarly located there  Thus most non governmental organizations/pressure groups, trades and professional associations and institutions, trades unions and many think tanks are based in London.

Harris  clearly spends a lot of his time reporting politics from outside London, so may not appreciate how important it is to co-locate parliament and its collective - and very important for democracy - lobby.

That's why not.

Monday, 5 September 2016

'Inside Sellafield' and military plutonium - the BBC's nuclear errors of omission

This article was originally published just over a year ago in The Ecologist. It has new relevance in light of the BBC Panorama programme critical of Sellafield safety culture broadcast on 5th September 2016:
'Inside Sellafield' and military plutonium - the BBC's nuclear lies of omission

Dr David Lowry

The Ecologist, 12th August 2015

Professor 'Jim' Al'Khalili's 'Inside Sellafield' programme was a tour de force of pro-nuclear propaganda, writes David Lowry - understating the severity of accidents, concealing the role of the UK's nuclear power stations in breeding military plutonium, and giving false reassurance over the unsolved problems of high level nuclear waste.

The programme was highly misleading thanks to major omissions, concealing how the UK's entire 'civilian' nuclear programme was subverted into producing military plutonium that fed into the Sellafield bomb factory.

To mark the 70th anniversary of the first detonations of atomic bombs, two of which were used to immolate over 200,000 people instantly when exploded over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively on 6 and 9 August 1945, the BBC has created a special 'nuclear season' of programmes examining the civil and military aspects of nuclear energy.

For one of these programmes the BBC commissioned Baghdad-born Professor Jameel 'Jim' Al-Khalili, theoretical physicist and Chair in the Public Engagement in Science from the University of Surrey, to research and present one programme called 'Britain's Nuclear Secrets: Inside Sellafield'.

As a regular BBC broadcaster, hosting the long-running The Life Scientific on Radio 4, and maker of several science television programmes on television, including on quantum physics and the history of electricity, he was eminently qualified to make this programme.

However the programme was highly misleading thanks to major omissions, concealing the severity of accidents, and how the UK's entire 'civilian' nuclear programme was subverted into producing military plutonium that fed into the Sellafield bomb factory.

Enough plutonium for over 30 nuclear bombs leaked out

For example, Al-Kalilili spent considerable time explain the key role of the £2.85bn Thermal Oxide Reprocessing plant (THORP), opened in 1994, once Sellafield's 'jewel in the atomic crown'. But he completely glossed over the severity of the THORP accident that disabled the plant for four years in 2004.

In May 2005, it was first reported that a serious leak of highly radioactive nuclear fuel dissolved in concentrated nitric acid - enough to half fill an Olympic-size swimming pool - had forced the facility's closure.

The highly dangerous mixture, containing about 22 tonnes of uranium and plutonium fuel, in liquid form, with a volume of around 83m3, had leaked through a fractured pipe into a huge stainless steel chamber in the 'feed clarification cell'.

The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate - now the Office for Nuclear Regulation - report on the accident, issued in December 2005, said that 160kg of plutonium was leaked - enough to make more than 30 nuclear weapons. The NII investigation identified that the company had been in breach of nuclear site licence conditions at the Sellafield site.

The Financial Times reported in May 2005 there was some evidence to suggest that the pipe may have started to fail in July or August 2004. Failure of the pipe (at which point significant amounts of liquor started to be released into the cell) is believed to have occurred in mid-January 2005.

However, in the period between January 2005 (and perhaps earlier) and April 19 2005, opportunities, such as cell sampling and level measurements, were missed which would have shown that material was escaping to secondary containment.

Operations staff at Sellafield then failed to act appropriately to consequent off-normal conditions, according to Sellafield Ltd's board of inquiry report, 'Fractured Pipe with Loss of Primary Containment in the THORP Feed Clarification Cell', dated 26 May 2005, but released publicly in redacted form on 29 June 2005.

The most extraordinary conclusion of the report reads: "Given the history of such events so far, it seems likely there will remain a significant chance of further plant failures in the future, even with the comprehensive implementation of the recommendations of this report." (emphasis added)

For an unknown reason the report of this hugely significant accident is listed on the Sellafield Ltd website under the section on 'operational excellence'.

£2 million a day lost for six years

This initially led to a near three-year closure, with a loss of £2 million a day, if BNFL's claims of the value of operating THORP are to be believed. A further closure of THORP followed due to a separate incident.

On October 16 2006 at Carlisle Crown Court, Sellafield Ltd was fined £300,000 for the breach of licence condition 27, £100,000 for the breach of licence condition 24 and £100,000 for the breach of licence condition 34.

Regional campaign group, Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment (CORE) published critique of THORP's operations in March this year, noting that it has reprocessed just over 5,000 tonnes in its 20 years to 2014 due to numerous 'events' - yet had a design capacity of 1,000-1,200 tonnes per year.

If THORP meets its currently scheduled 2018 closure date 'with all contracts completed', the plant will have reprocessed a total of 9500 tonnes of spent fuel over 25 years of operation at an average annual rate of 380 tonnes per year (or 420 tonnes per year if the plant's extended closure from 2005 is taken into account) - just one-third of design specification.

CORE explains: "THORP's failure to reprocess the projected 7,000 tonnes - by almost 2,000 tonnes - in the first ten years resulted from a catalogue of unplanned closures over the decade, the first striking within days of the plant's opening when a spillage of nitric acid ate its way through cables and instrumentation and forced a shut-down of several weeks.

"The official down-playing of the extent and consequences of the leak was to become a common feature of many future accidents and unplanned stoppages which, when added to the planned outages, have contributed to a major loss of operational time over the last 20 years - and resulted in the 7,000 tonne baseload contracts being completed only in December 2012, some 9 years late.

"Now in its 21st year of operation, THORP has been subjected to a series of closures - a majority unplanned - totalling some 6 years over the last 20 years.

"As a further damning indictment of THORP's under-performance, these missed annual targets, set recently at around 400 tonnes per year, are but a pale shadow of BNFL's original claim that THORP would reprocess 1,000 tonnes per year in the first ten years of operation (a design target not once achieved) and 800 tonnes per year thereafter - now wholly out of THORP's reach.

Cancelled contracts

"Against this background it is unsurprising that those customers - whose continued support was being relied on by BNFL - were unprepared to give THORP any further business.

"Indeed, rather than securing a single new contract from overseas, as originally projected, contracts from German utilities were cancelled in the plant's first year of operation - losing BNFL an estimated £250m.

"When summarised, THORP's poor reprocessing performance together with years lost through unplanned stoppages, the failure to meet targets and the loss of contracts and customer confidence, paint a picture of a plant that bears no resemblance to the world-leading flagship image portrayed by BNFL 21 years ago. The only 'attribute' still to be qualified is the claim of THORP's £500M profit in the first ten years of operation.

"Though its faltering performance and inept management has badly holed the overrated THORP flagship below the waterline, the views of an ex-BNFL Director who was heavily involved in the battle to open THORP, add a further dimension.

"In his book Inside Sellafield, the long serving Harold Bolter suggests that the figures fed into the plant's economic case by BNFL 'have turned out to be incorrect in several important respects' and more tellingly that 'if the highly complex plant fails to operate to its projected standard, it will become a huge financial drain on the nation.'

Calder Hall's dual mission - power and bombs

Speaking from inside the plant, Professor Al-Khalili described Calder Hall as "the world's first commercial nuclear power station." This is untrue in two ways. Calder Hall was not a 'commercial' nuclear power plant, but a plutonium production plant run by the UK Atomic Energy Authority for the Ministry of Defence to provide nuclear explosive materials for nuclear warheads.

The only sense it was 'commercial' is that its opening - by the young Queen Elizabeth on 17th October 1956 with the words "This new power, which has proved itself to be such a terrifying weapon of destruction, is harnessed for the first time for the common good of our community" - has been used many times use as propaganda for the UK nuclear industry.

Unforgivably, the UK Atomic Energy Authority put false words into the mouth of Queen Elizabeth. The nuclear industry was born with a big lie!

In fact it was clearly stated at the time of the plant's opening, in a remarkable little book entitled Calder Hall: The Story of Britain's First Atomic Power Station, written by Kenneth Jay, and published by the Government's Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell to mark Calder's commissioning in October 1956.

Jay wrote: "Major plants built for military purposes such as Calder Hall are being used as prototypes for civil plants ... the plant has been designed as a dual-purpose plant to produce plutonium for military purposes as well as electric power ... it would be wrong to pretend that the civil programme has not benefitted from, and is not to some extent dependent upon, the military programme."

The first Hinkley nuclear plant's military production role

Al'Khalili positively asserted that with Calder Hall's opening, "Britain had become a nuclear powered nation", as he explained how the first generation of nuclear power plants emerged after Calder Hall. What the did not explain was how these too were used as support reactors for military plutonium production.

On 17 June 1958 the Ministry of Defence issued little noticed press statement on "the production of plutonium suitable for weapons in the new [nuclear ] power stations programme as an insurance against future defence needs" in the UK's first generation Magnox reactor.

A week later in the UK Parliament, opposition Labour MPs Roy Mason, asked why Her Majesty's Government had "decided to modify atomic power stations, primarily planned for peaceful purposes, to produce high-grade plutonium for war weapons; to what extent this will interfere with the atomic power programme; and if he will make a statement?"

He was informed as follows by the Paymaster General, Reginald Maudling: "At the request of the Government, the Central Electricity Generating Board has agreed to a small modification in the design of Hinkley Point and of the next two stations in its programme so as to enable plutonium suitable for military purposes to be extracted should the need arise.

"The modifications will not in any way impair the efficiency of the stations. As the initial capital cost and any additional operating costs that may be incurred will be borne by the Government, the price of electricity will not be affected.

"The Government made this request in order to provide the country, at comparatively small cost, with a most valuable insurance against possible future defence requirements. The cost of providing such insurance by any other means would be extremely heavy." [Hansard, 24 June 1958 cols. 246-8.]

This was challenged by Roy Mason, but the minister retorted: "The hon. Gentleman says that it is an imposition. The only imposition on the country would have arisen if the Government had met our defence requirements for plutonium by means far more expensive than those proposed in this suggestion."

Military plutonium manufactured at Hinkley

The headline story in the Bridgwater Mercury, serving the community around Hinkley, on that day, 24th June 1958 was "Military plutonium to be manufactured at Hinkley".

The article explained: "An ingenious method has been designed for changing the plant without reducing the output of electricity". The recently formed CND was reported to be critical, describing this as a "distressing step" insisting: "The Government is obsessed with a nuclear militarism which seems insane."

The left wing Tribune magazine of 27th June 1958 was equally critical of the deal under the headline "Sabotage in the Atom Stations":

"For the sake of making more nuclear weapons, the Government has dealt a heavy blow at the development of atomic power stations. Unless this disastrous decision is reversed, we shall pay dearly in more ways than one for the sacrifice made on the grim altar of the H-bomb."

Then, on 3rd July 1958, the United Kingdom and United States signed a detailed agreement on co-operation on nuclear weapons development, after several months of Congressional hearings in Washington DC, but no oversight whatsoever in the UK Parliament.

A month later Mr Maudling told backbencher Alan Green MP in Parliament that: "Three nuclear power stations are being modified, but whether they will ever be used to produce military grade plutonium will be for decision later and will depend on defence requirements. The first two stations, at Bradwell and Berkeley, are not being modified and the decision to modify three subsequent stations was taken solely as a precaution for defence purposes." [Hansard, 1st August 1958 cols. 228-9.]

Following further detailed negotiations, the Ango-American Mutual Defense Agreement (defence is spelled with an 's' even in the British version, giving a hint as to where the bilateral treaty was drafted) on Atomic Energy matters to give it its full treaty title, was amended on 7th May 1959, to permit the exchange of nuclear explosive material including plutonium and enriched uranium for military purposes.

The Times' science correspondent wrote on 8 May 1959 under the headline: "Production of Weapons at Short Notice": "The most important technical fact behind the agreement is that of civil grade - such as will be produced in British civil nuclear power stations- can now be used in weapons".

Within a month, Mr Maudling in Parliament told Tory back bencher, Wing Commander Eric Bullus MP - who had asked the Paymaster-General "What change there has been in the intention to modify three nuclear power stations to enable plutonium suitable for military use to be extracted should the need arise?":

"Last year Her Majesty's Government asked the Central Electricity Generating Board to make a small modification in the design of certain power stations to enable plutonium suitable for military purposes to be extracted if need should arise.

"Having taken into account recent developments, including the latest agreement with the United States, and having re-assessed the fissile material which will become available for military purposes from all sources, it has been decided to restrict the modifications to one power station, namely, Hinkley Point." (emphasis added) [Hansard, 22 June 1959 cols 847-9.]

The Sellafield cooling ponds - part of Britain's bomb factory

In another extraordinary omission, Al'Khalili stood by the infamous Sellafield holding ponds stuffed full of nuclear waste, describing them as having simply been used for storing spent fuel rods and other high level wastes.

What he failed to mention was their role as a key part of the plutonium making process for thge UK's nuclear bombs. As The Ecologist reported last October when revealing photographs showing the shocking state of the ponds:

"The two adjacent fuel storage ponds, which lie between the old Windscale nuclear piles, were part of the military plutonium production line using the Windscale spent fuel until the Windscale diasaster in 1957.

"With the Windscale piles out of commission, they were then adapted to receive nuclear waste from civilian power stations such as Calder Hall and Hinkley Point.

"The first pond in the plutonium production line is B30, which is open to the elements. From there underwater tunnels were used to convey the fuel-bearing skips to other ponds and silos within the adjacent building, where the fuel rods were 'decanned' from their cladding.

"The fuel was then dissolved in concentrated acids in the B203 reprocessing plant, where the plutonium for Britain's nuclear weapons programme was chemically separated using the PUREX process. Both ponds contain a mix of fuel, sludge, and other miscellaneous nuclear wastes."

As nuclear expert John Large - who gave evidence on the topic to the House of Commons Environment Comittee in 1986 - explained, the ponds were not just forgotten about as Al'Khalili seemed to think, but were abandoned after being overloaded with leaking fuel rods:

"During the three-day week they powered up the Magnox reactors to maximum, and so much fuel was coming into Sellafield that it overwhelmed the line, and stayed in the pool too long.

"The magesium fuel rod coverings corroded due to the acidity in the ponds, and began to degrade and expose the nuclear fuel itself to the water, so they just lost control of the reprocessing line at a time when the ponds were crammed with intensely radioactive nuclear fuel."

"This left the fuel in a very unstable condition, with actual nuclear fuel complete with uranium 238, 235 and all the fission products, in contact with water. The problem then is that you get corrosion with the formation of hydride salts which leads to swelling, outside cracks, and metal-air reactions.

The whole fuel ponds began to look like milk of magnesia, and what with the poor inventories that had been kept, no one even knew what was in there any more. Even the Euratom nuclear proliferation inspectors complained about it as there was by some estimates over a tonne of plutonium sitting there in the fuel rods and as sludge that was never properly accounted for."

The spectre of the new nuclear renaissance

Al'Khalili then went on to give every impression that high level nuclear waste can be safely stored using the process of 'vitrification', that is, turning it in glass, and so binding the waste safely into a permanent, impermeable matrix.

What he failed to mention is that the glass is by no means permanent and durable storage medium for "thousands of generations" as the glass is liable to break down - and that the problem of long term disposal of these wastes remains unsolved. For example, as R C Ewing and colleagues wrote in 1995 in the journal Progress in Nuclear Energy,

"the post-disposal radiation damage to waste form glasses and crystalline ceramics is significant. The cumulative α-decay doses which are projected for nuclear waste glasses ... are well within the range for which important changes in the physical and chemical properties may occur, e.g. the transition from the crystalline-to-aperiodic state in ceramics."

Al'Khalili ended his programme waxing lyrical about the prospects of a new generation of British reactors being built, including several planned alongside the Sellafield site, in a project known as Moorside.

Recently, Martin Forwood of CORE explained that "The 'biggest construction project in Europe' is expanding from Nugen's original 200 hectare site to 552 hectares of farmland reaching right up to two villages and an 11th Century church. But with compulsory purchase on the cards, there's nothing locals can do except keep on fighting the entire deeply flawed project."

Marianne Birkby, another indefatigable local Cumbrian campaigner agains the nuclear industry, has written to the BBC Trust - responsible for BBC broadcast standards to complain about the bias in Professor AlKhalili's programme

Birkby heads her complaint "Biased Infomercial", arguing: "The programme purports to be investigative journalism when it is an infomercial for the nuclear industry and the government's new build agenda. 'The real story' suggests impartiality. While the programme reiterates in a misleadingly superficial way the known dangers of nuclear power there was no attempt at all by the programme makers to speak to opponents of nuclear power or even whistleblowers from within the industry.

"PR group Copper Consultancy have advised the nuclear industry / government bodies such as DECC to use 'science champions' to promote new nuclear development. Jim Al-Khalili is one of BBC's foremost science champions. He rounds off the programme with enthusiastic endorsements for new nuclear build while standing within the ancient field systems that are under threat of new nuclear development.

"This is at the time when there is a consultation going on. Grass roots group Radiation Free Lakeland have been aggressively warned off sending any briefings from independent scientists about new build to Copeland Council's Nationally Significant Infrastructure Panel as 'it might prejudice decisions.'

"This BBC4 infomercial masquerading as investigative journalism is entirely prejudicial in its promotion of new nuclear build."

She is right to raise her objections. As I have explained, they actually go even deeper and wider than she sets out.

The two professors - have they lost their critical faculties?

The 'programme consultant' was Professor Andrea Sella, a chemist and broadcaster based at University CollegeLondon where he is a Professor of Inorganic Chemistry. He sits on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Cheltenham Science Festival and on the Education Committee of the Royal Institution. He was awarded the 2014 Michael Faraday Prize from The Royal Society for "his excellent work in science communication".

It makes me wonder what happened to the critical faculties of these two professors when they made this programme. The BBC and its editors should be ashamed at allowing such a biased programme to making it to air.



The programme: 'Britain's Nuclear Secrets: Inside Sellafield' was broadcast on BBC4 on Monday 10th August 2015.