BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific
BBCi NEWS   SPORT   WEATHER   WORLD SERVICE   A-Z INDEX     

BBC News World Edition
 You are in: Programmes: Crossing Continents  
News Front Page
Africa
Americas
Asia-Pacific
Europe
Middle East
South Asia
UK
Business
Entertainment
Science/Nature
Technology
Health
-------------
Talking Point
-------------
Country Profiles
In Depth
-------------
Programmes
-------------
BBC Sport
BBC Weather
SERVICES
-------------
EDITIONS
Crossing Continents Wednesday, 27 February, 2002, 17:36 GMT
Live web forum
Leading environmental correspondent Julian Pettifer has written and presented many programmes concerned with the environment and wildlife. He reports for Crossing Continents on the storage of nuclear waste in the USA.

To watch coverage of the forum, select the link below:

  56k  


Transcript of forum

Newshost:
Hello and welcome to the very first Crossing Continents live web forum. With me is leading environmental journalist Julian Pettifer and he's here to answer your questions raised from the Crossing Continents programme, the first of this series, called "Toxic Utah". Julian reported on the plans of the Skull Valley Indians to store most of the US's nuclear fuel - spent nuclear fuel - on their reservation in the state of Utah.

Julian let's start with a simple question: where's all the nuclear waste coming from?

Julian Pettifer:
Well basically it's coming from most of the nuclear power stations throughout the United States. Ever since those power stations were built this waste - these are the spent fuel rods - have been stored on site and basically they're just running out of room, they've got nowhere to put them. So that's where it's coming from and it'll have to be transported from all over the United States, if the plan goes through and it goes to Skull Valley then it'll have to be brought there by rail from all over the United States.

Newshost:
Let's start with the first e-mail then, it's from Meenakshi Sharma in England and Meenakshi writes: "It's ironic the native Indian population are being asked to go against their deep seated beliefs about being guardians of the environment and of working in harmony with nature." So what are your thoughts on that, this is basically a question about how can they take nuclear waste when they are the guardians of the environment?

Julian Pettifer:
Well you know that's a question that I put to Leon Bear [phon.] who is largely responsible for negotiating this contract with Private Fuel Storage to bring the waste down and I said - Look isn't this against all your traditions? I mean he made a point which I think one has to take on board that most of the land was taken from them anyway, they have this relatively small reservation that's left, it's extremely barren land - nothing will grow there, you can't do very much with it. Very few of the tribe actually live there, there are only 128 of them anyway and only, I don't know, I think 20 something of them, 28 of them, actually live on the reservation, the rest are living away in the cities. I think they see it - they have very little attachment to this land any longer, they've grown apart from it, they see this as the only way that they can actually make some money out of the land and they make the very good point that all around them, the state of Utah, has been profiting out of this, from storing all kinds of hazardous waste and processing all kind of hazardous waste, all around them - they were never consulted about it. So they feel this is one way that they can benefit their people, it's as simple as that.

Newshost:
Elizabeth Jones then asks: "If the Goshutes really have the right to decide to take the waste, does their sovereignty stretch that far?" And also Michael Caulfield from the UK as well asks: "Why shouldn't the Skull Valley tribe use its power of sovereignty to decide what to do with their sacred land?"

Julian Pettifer:
I mean this is absolutely fascinating isn't it. It does sound incredible that just 126 people could decide what they're going to do and they can decide that they're going to have most of the nuclear waste from all over the United States on their reservation, you'd think well come on there must be something wrong with this. But in fact, of course, you see, this all goes back to the treaties which the various Indian tribes signed with the federal government in the 19th Century. The Goshutes, they signed a treaty in 1865 and this has been tested in the courts and it eventually went to the Supreme Court, there are plenty of examples to show that yes their sovereignty does extend to this kind of thing because the example that springs to mind at once of course is that a lot of the tribes on the East coast in states where gambling is illegal have actually managed to establish casinos on their reservations and are making an absolute fortune and nothing that the states could do could change that - they took it to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court said no your treaty rights do extend this far. Now whether they're going to be able to do it with nuclear power we'll wait and see but nothing in case law that's come up so far has suggested that they can't do it.

Newshost:
Right, a bit further afield, Mark King from Australia wants to know if the state government and the Goshutes are fully informed about the storing of nuclear waste?

Julian Pettifer:
When you say fully informed I suspect that most of the information that they've been getting has come from Private Fuel Storage and of course Private Fuel Storage will make a very convincing case for saying it's all going to be - these great steel and concrete containers which will be housing the nuclear waste are very safe and that they'll withstand all kinds of terrorist activities, earthquakes, you name it, they say yes. But, of course, the other side of the story is being put, particularly by the state government, which is very much against it, and by various environmental organisations which are campaigning against it. So yes I suspect that in these cases people will always believe what they want to believe and if you think that 128 people are going to benefit by goodness knows how much money, but I suspect a great deal, we're talking about hundreds of millions of dollars here, then they will believe, I suspect, what they want to believe and not - and of course there are two sides to the story. I mean you probably can make a case for saying that this stuff is stored as safely as it can be but how safe is that? - that's the big question.

Newshost:
There's a question about money coming up, David Makim from Whitehaven wants to know if it's just a commercial venture?

Julian Pettifer:
Oh yeah, absolutely yes. It is just a commercial venture. I mean this deal was done between Private Fuel Storage and by a faction of the tribe, it's not the whole tribe, but it was the faction of the tribe that was in power at the particular time which controls the tribal council, particularly Leon Bear, who was the chairman of the council at that time and they made the deal. Now they haven't revealed the precise details of the lease, it's never been made public, largely, I think, because they don't want anybody to know just how large these sums of money are but one suspects that they are very large indeed. So it is entirely a commercial thing yeah.

Newshost:
Philip M. Klasky from the United States, describes himself as a anti-nuclear activist working with radioactive waste for the past 20 years, makes the point that the US federal government, as well as the nuclear industry, purposely target low income communities and with native American tribes, to host the nation's nuclear waste. Is that accurate?

Julian Pettifer:
Oh yeah absolutely, absolutely true. And of course this is one of the ironies of the thing. The Goshutes were first approached about storing this nuclear waste by the Department of Energy, by the federal Department of Energy. Why? Because the federal government has a statutory duty to provide permanent storage for this nuclear waste. They have been unable to find permanent storage for it because nobody wants it. It's as simple as that. And the political price that you pay for imposing this on any particular state, I mean just imagine if you tried to store it in California, which has goodness knows how many congressmen, there's no way that you're going to get in or any of the highly populated states which is why, at the moment, the plan is to store it - they have a provisional plan to provide permanent storage in Nevada - why Nevada? - because it's a very thinly populated state, it doesn't have a lot of representation in Washington but I mean whether they will get away with that I don't know. The President has provisionally approved permanent storage but Nevada's definitely going to fight it all the way.

Newshost:
Some specific questions next about nuclear fuel and its properties. This one from Deborah O'Malley who's in the UK: "What are the risks of leakage and contamination?"

Julian Pettifer:
Well it depends who you ask. I mean if you ask Private Fuel Storage they will say - Oh no we've really got this under control, we know exactly how to contain it and ...

Newshost:
But there's always a level of risk, there's always ...

Julian Pettifer:
Oh there's got to be a level of risk, of course there's got to be a level of risk.

Newshost:
Do they quantify that?

Julian Pettifer:
Do they quantify it? Again it depends who you talk to. I mean I put this very question and I said - Well what about if you've got a 911 type attack on it, what if there was a terrorist - if a fully loaded 747 hit - sorry I must try to qualify what I said because it depends what sort of storage you're talking about. If you're talking about the storage they're talking in Skull Valley that is very different from the storage they're talking about in Yucca mountain, Yucca mountain that's going to be in deep caverns underneath the mountain, great big storage bays have been built into the mountain. And the United States government has spent something like billions of dollars on feasibility studies to try to find out whether this is safe or not and even those feasibility studies are not conclusive, there are still lots of question marks, particularly about seismic activity, what happens if you get a big earthquake? And nobody knows, because how can you test it?

Newshost:
The transport of the waste then into Utah, Sarah Keane: "Are there any emergency plans that have been developed in the case of an accident on its way?"

Julian Pettifer:
Well, I mean, yes again, I mean, they say that there have been feasibility plans but of course if this were to happen and if all the nuclear waste is stored either in Skull Valley or in Yucca mountain, whichever place it finishes up, it's going to have to be brought in from all over the United States, going through, I can't remember, I think it's 43 states altogether. Now I don't suppose that any - it's not possible to do risk studies for every possibility, carrying nuclear - because it's never been done. So the answer to that question is I think yes there are plans, obviously there are plans, there are plans to make it as safe as is thought to be possible but how safe is that?

Newshost:
Kate Grange wants to know if there's any way of storing nuclear waste safely enough for the long term or are today's methods only temporary? Nuclear waste storage has always been about let's put it in the deepest place we can possibly think of and forget about it.

Julian Pettifer:
Well this is the whole problem with nuclear waste is that nobody really knows how to deal with it. Yes it's thought that if you put it in a big enough hole then it's going to be safe but then since this stuff has a life of 10,000 years who knows whether it's going to be safe or not, who knows what sort of things could happen? So again there is no 100 per cent answer to this, there is no absolutely safe way of disposing of it at present. I mean it's possible I suppose that in the future that science may devise some way of treating this nuclear waste and making it safer but they haven't been able to come up with anything so far.

Newshost:
Alternative energy now. Dickon Edwards from London asks if the US government is considering other alternative methods of energy such as wind power and stopping the use of nuclear energy?

Julian Pettifer:
Well no unfortunately the answer to that question is no. I mean the Bush energy plan, which was published earlier last year, unfortunately I think, paid very little attention to alternative energy, it looked for the expansion of existing fossil fuel resources, as you know they're even proposing that areas of Alaska, which were previously closed for exploration, should be explored. They also looked to the expansion of the nuclear industry. Very little attention was paid to alternative sources of power. Whether that's been changed, whether thinking has changed at all since the terrorist events of last year I don't know.

Newshost:
Steve Balogh in Cumbria reports that the government is asking for submissions about what should happen to nuclear waste in this country, two-thirds of which is currently stored in Cumbria, he wants to know what can be done to avoid dumping the rest of the UK's nuclear waste in Cumbria, i.e. if the UK government decides there should be one storage centre for everything.

Julian Pettifer:
Well the problem is universal, I mean we happen to cover this particular story in the United States because there it's reached this kind of ludicrous critical stage when they're thinking about putting it on to an Indian reservation because they don't know where else to put it. But actually every country that has a nuclear industry has the same problem and ok we in this country do reprocess our nuclear fuel at Sellafield and ...

Newshost:
We don't do a lot with it after we've reprocessed it though do we?

Julian Pettifer:
Well yes but even if you reprocess it you've still got long-term hazardous waste and this is becoming a very controversial issue. There is an international conference, a North Sea conference, happening in Bergen on the 20th, I think, of this month. Now Britain is going to be attacked very strongly by other states on the North Sea, particularly by Norway and by Ireland, because they're extremely concerned about emissions from Sellafield which are getting into the marine environment and already fish are being found in the Norwegian Sea, the Barents Sea, the Irish Sea which have much higher levels of radioactive substances, something called technetium 99, don't ask me what it is, but it's something where the levels of technetium 99 have been found to be, I think, five times what they were in the recent past and this can be directly traced to Sellafield. So Britain is - we've got problems - we're going to have to find different ways probably of dealing with our nuclear waste.

Newshost:
Final couple of questions, the first from Kim Normanton in the UK, good question this: "Why are disposal and storage plants not made by government at the same time they build the power stations?"

Julian Pettifer:
I think because governments do not like to think in the long-term. I mean nuclear power seemed such an attractive option, at the time when the first nuclear power stations were built it seemed like a very attractive option - cheap, clean electricity. And the assumption was then, I think, that science will find a way of dealing with the waste. Oh yeah well waste is a problem but you know science will always find the solution. And of course science hasn't found a solution. And it's short-termism is the answer to the question.

Newshost:
Well the final question comes from David Makim who's in Whitehaven who says there are similar examples in France where local authorities compete to have nuclear waste stores, so presumably this particular issue isn't restricted to the US, other people have had the idea before.

Julian Pettifer:
Well absolutely and of course in France you'd think it was a much more controversial issue because France is so much more dependent on nuclear power either than the United States or than the UK is. But there I mean, I don't know, the French have managed to convince themselves that it's all manageable and it'll all be alright on the night and as you say if you can make money out of it they're quite keen, apparently, to have it which I find a bit odd, I'd be a bit uneasy about it. But it's exactly the same thing as we discovered in Utah - that the actual county where this stuff is going to turn up people are saying fine we won't have to pay any property taxes because we're going to make so much money out of housing this stuff that it'll be great won't it?

Newshost:
Julian, thanks very much for coming in and answering the questions we've had from the audience. And that's the end of our first live web forum for Crossing Continents. We did get an e-mail actually from Alison Stroak, she's from Glasgow, began a postgraduate degree in environmental studies, she writes: "I find your programme invaluable and keep up the good work".

Julian Pettifer:
Oh thank you very much.

Home
Latest programme
Contact us
About our programme
Meet the presenters
 ARCHIVE
Americas
Africa
Europe
Middle East
Asia
 WORLD PROGRAMMES
From our own Correspondent
Letters from America
Correspondent
Links to more Crossing Continents stories are at the foot of the page.


E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Crossing Continents stories

© BBC ^^ Back to top

News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East |
South Asia | UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature |
Technology | Health | Talking Point | Country Profiles | In Depth |
Programmes