Ben Houchen: “Let someone else deal with the waste”

Amongst the great and the good at the Government’s Global Investment Summit 2021 in late October, one of the preparatory sessions to COP26, was a man in a dark flannel suit seemingly looking round for people to impress. Who was this man?

The CEO of a vast multinational firm?

A President or PM of a middle ranking European country? 

A top academic in international economics? 

No, it was none other than Ben Houchen, the Tees Valley Mayor. He spent that day, and the days of COP26 itself, extolling the Tees Valley’s unique ‘greenness’ although that image was somewhat marred when the important man he really, really, wanted to meet turned out to be Yousef Abdullah Al-Benyan, global Chief Executive of petrochemical firm SABIC, a dominant presence in the processing of oil and gas for global plastics production.

Subsequently, and separately, I got into a bit of a facebook spat with Ben Houchen from which I feel I emerged the winner (albeit in a small unnoticed way when measured against the weight of his PR machine). 

Bold Ben, perhaps without talking to the Tees Valley Combined Authority, had nominated our area as a great place for building Small Modular Nuclear Reactors (SMRs). 

Now me, I’m neutral on that technology. But the point is, it looks like a bad case of both wanting your cake and eating it. This is in terms of wanting that new manufacturing facility and still saying  (as he made clear in his posts) that he would resist helping to deal with the nuclear waste that these potential Tees made products would generate. 

Indeed, he was utterly open and blasé about simply shrugging it off on unnamed others.  So I tackled him on this…

DW (Me):  “The IAEA (a neutral source) says that SMR’s still produce waste. Seems illogical to have a facility building them, and then to wish away the waste created on other, unidentified communities?” 

Here is Ben Houchen’s opener…

BH: “Yeah, I want to produce it and others to deal with the waste: there are communities in other areas that want to welcome the waste. Don’t see what the problem is…”

And my comeback…

DW:  “Name those specific communities who ‘want to welcome the waste’. You must know, otherwise you wouldn’t make the statement you just did.”

BH: “Cumbria are keen and in discussions. To name one.”

So I pounced (you need to have an answer before you put a question)

DW:  “I think you should be explicit. Neither Cumbria County Council nor any of the present Cumbria district councils has proposed this. Under the bizarre rules that your government has imposed, anyone, anywhere ‘can volunteer an interest on behalf of an area’. In the case of West Cumbria, the proposal was made by one property owner who, himself, lives safely well away from the site up in Carlisle. Anywhere else, he would be debarred for having ‘a pecuniary interest’ but not here, it seems. More from the Cumbria Trust (again a neutral source) and here. So having disposed of that non community offer of willingness to accept waste, can you tell me of the others from real communities or their local councils?”

His final last wheezy response, to which I retorted that he was obviously making things up as he went along, was to say…

All of this was on a par with his car crash intervention when it emerged recently that the party groups on Hartlepool Borough Council had been quietly approached by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority to see whether there might just possibly be interest from that town. 

As it happened all those party groups, with varying degrees of non-enthusiasm, – they have a nose for the voters after all – spurned the offer. That didn’t stop Ben Houchen crashing into the matter alleging “secret talks” and vowing that any possibility of waste disposal there would only happen over his dead body.

So inept, and so politically motivated was this that it only later emerged that this was a process involving Houchen’s own party grouping on the council, the council’s Chief Executive and head of paid service and which had, in a desultory and inconclusive fashion been going on since 2019.

It also became clear that Houchen himself had been aware of this since the summer.

So, now according to Houchen, Cumbria (or anywhere else willing to step up to the mark) should be prepared to be the host for the glowing radioactive embers of reactors possibly managed at Hartlepool. 

Cumbria’s special problem is one of legacy. Back in the days when nuclear power (and stuff like plutonium for Britain’s A Bomb warheads) was being worked on by white coated, pipe smoking chaps at what was then Windscale, the waste was being piled up there – and it still is, now at the renamed Sellafield.

Between 70% and 75% of the UK’s high-activity radioactive waste, which would be designated for the underground disposal, is stored there.  The sources of the waste include power generation, military, medical and civil uses accumulated over generations. 

Yet Cumbrians have shown in poll after poll and by resolution of their councils that they won’t have it in any new underground bunker – and will fight all the way to prevent any expansion.  

So too, will the only other community fingered by the disposal agencies – the remote countryside around Theddlethorpe in Lincolnshire, a hamlet with a flintstone medieval church, a donkey sanctuary, a profusion of natterjack toads and a scattering of 1970’s bungalows on the coast some 10 miles north of beloved Skeggy. Here too, the bungalow dwellers have drawn their line in the sand.  

How the Cumbrians and stout folk of Lincolnshire will take to Ben’s wish to dump his locally produced waste on them – wastes that could last well into the years beyond, needing constant cooling into the 2200’s and still dangerous for centuries beyond that, can only be imagined.  

Perhaps someone can tell them.

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