Marianne Birkby from Radiation Free Lakeland looks at the nuclear industry's use of that most precious of resources - water.


Water – the first and last essential for Life on Earth. So why is the nuclear industry proposing to trash our most precious resource?

Water is magical. We are all made up of around 75% water. The same water is thrilling through our bodies as thrilled through the bodies of dinosaurs.

Water is continually recycled evaporating from the oceans, it forms clouds, the rains fall and the rivers return the water to the ocean. Of all the water on planet earth only 1% is suitable for drinking water, the rest is sea water (97%) or locked up in ice (2%). According to United Nations figures we live in a world in which 2.6bn people consume water from unsafe and polluted sources.

Water is our most critical raw material– more important than oil. For fresh water there are no alternatives. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, chairman of Nestlé, said in The Economist in December 2008: "I am convinced that, under present conditions and with the way water is being managed, we will run out of water long before we run out of fuel."

In September 2009, The Department of Energy and Climate Change set up a campaign to persuade the public to cut their water usage. The campaign, cheerily led by TV presenter Kate Humble, calls on people to cut consumption by 20 litres per day. The national daily average for water use is 150 litres.

"Water is a precious resource but we all waste too much of it. Saving water at home doesn't need to be a big sacrifice - just spending one minute less in the shower can make a big difference," said Ms Humble. "Simple changes can really add up to a better environment - meaning more water for the wildlife and countryside around us as well as saving on carbon emissions generated in the treatment and transportation of water to our taps."

True – all true - but at the same time as launching this campaign, DECC is promoting 10 new nuclear power plants in the UK. Nuclear power is the most resource hungry of all sources of electricity.

Freshwater is lost to the supply at all stages including:

• Uranium mining/milling /tailing dams
• Conversion to steam to power the turbines
• Cooling pond water discharged into the sea
• Looking after the waste (long after electricity production ceases)

Nuclear power uses and abuses more freshwater per kilowatt of electricity produced than any other form of energy. It is no accident that the Lake District was chosen for the world’s first nuclear power station. We have the deepest. coolest lake in England complete with that ice age survivor the arctic charr.

The recent floods in West Cumbria, which led to contaminated water supplies, were a stark reminder that the most important resource is not electricity, it is fresh water. Sellafield no longer produces electricity but still needs to abstract billions of gallons of freshwater from beautiful Wastwater for the cooling ponds in order to prevent catastrophe (abstraction rates for Wastwater - licensing records stand at 18,184.4 cubic metres a day – which is around 4 million gallons). More fresh water is abstracted from boreholes in the area – and the rivers Calder and Ehen.

Wastwater is geologically young, around 10,000 years old. Radioactive waste will remain hot for substantially longer. The Freshwater Biological Association has stated that large bodies of water in the Lakes are warming up. This means that ever more water will be needed to feed the nuclear industry. Seawater is too corrosive for such a hazardous job. Freshwater is life to the Arctic charr – an indicator species of healthy diversity.

Apart from the sheer volumes of fresh water being abstracted to cool waste, the nuclear industry’s routine and accidental emissions of tritium and other radionuclides are impacting on the viability of our fresh water. The Department of Energy and Climate Change’s promotion of the ‘geological disposal’ of nuclear waste and new build is extraordinary. The kettle can be boiled in many different ways but the fresh water in the kettle is our most precious resource. Like the arctic charr – we choose life – not radioactive rivers and rain!

Radiation Free Lakeland was formed in November 2008 following Cumbria County Council’s “expression of interest” in the geological disposal of nuclear waste. Supporters are people from all walks of life in Cumbria and further afield whose aims are: a) to ensure the risks from nuclear waste are minimized and b) that no more nuclear waste is produced. Marianne can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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