X Close

The nuclear war for Lincolnshire A toxic levelling up plan threatens a bucolic village

What flower company would set up shop in a place infected by nuclear waste? Credit: OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images

What flower company would set up shop in a place infected by nuclear waste? Credit: OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images


March 6, 2023   6 mins

There are certain English villages, wrote Bill Bryson, “whose very names summon forth an image of lazy summer afternoons”. One example was Theddlethorpe All Saints. Lying on the quiet Lincolnshire coast north of Skegness, Theddlethorpe’s approximately 500 residents are served by a thatched pub and two handsome medieval churches, which stand out against huge skies. Yet storm-clouds are building on the horizon; soon, this obscure corner of England could be the backdrop to a dystopian tale.

Theddlethorpe has always had an industrious underbelly. Between 1972 and 2018, it was known for the Theddlethorpe Gas Terminal, where natural gas gathered from beneath the North Sea was collected, then fed into the National Grid. At its peak, Theddlethorpe handled around 5% of the UK’s gas supply, but with the shift away from fossil fuels, the plant became redundant. In 2021, just as locals were feeling grateful for the site’s long-promised return to agricultural use, came news that the terminal might have an unwelcome afterlife — as the landward end of an undersea nuclear waste dump.

It is one of four sites being considered by the government for a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF), the others all being on the far side of the country, near Sellafield, a huge nuclear site in Cumbria. The idea is that vast storage caverns would be blasted into bedrock up to 1,000 metres under the sea, several miles offshore. “Higher activity” radioactive waste would then be transported to Theddlethorpe from 23 surface storage locations across the UK, and trundled out along a tunnel, to be walled up and forgotten.

The news was as unexpected as it was unpleasant. The nearest nuclear power station to Theddlethorpe is in Suffolk, 96 miles away as the fallout flies, 145 miles along often poor roads. The nearest train stations to which waste could be brought are Grimsby or Skegness, each about 20 miles away and both at the end of lines in need of upgrading. Economically, the area is dependent on tourism and agriculture, both of which could clearly be affected adversely by real or even imagined proximity to vast amounts of toxic substance. And the Lincolnshire coast is incidentally famous for its large numbers of migratory birds, who could carry toxins hundreds of miles.

So, the prospect of the area becoming not just a major industrial locus, but one dedicated solely to the handling of waste with a hazardous half-life of up to 100,000 years, filled locals with puzzlement as well as dread. “Why here?” one teacher asked wonderingly. “What possible economic, logistical or political justification could there be for such a scheme in a place like this?”

The Theddlethorpe site lies above potentially exploitable energy reserves of gas and oil, and below them, coal; such geology is supposed to preclude the presence of a GDF. Nuclear Waste Services (NWS) recognises this as a problem: “Possible exploration in the future in this area means that it is more likely that future generations may disturb a facility.” As local resident and geologist-ecologist Biff Vernon points out: “Of course, we don’t want to extract these resources now, but thousands of years in the future, a civilisation might think differently. In their own literature, the GDF people rule out a site that overlies potential economic resources.”

And surely it makes sense to localise the inevitable risks of a subsea GDF. There hasn’t been an accident at Sellafield since the fire of 1957, but the beaches nearby nevertheless need to be combed constantly for radioactive objects, with 98 recovered during 2021. The immediate vicinity of Sellafield is already unfit for many other purposes; why contaminate hitherto unaffected areas? Especially because it would clearly be much cheaper to store waste close to its sources. NWS admits: “The transport provisions to the Theddlethorpe GDF Search Area are currently limited” and “significant works” would be required. The Government proposal suggests these works would cost between £20 and £53 billion — although as the tale of HS2 shows, the cost of extending transport networks is liable to gross underestimation. This throws up a question considered taboo in the discourse around large infrastructure projects: would expansion of either railways or roads really “benefit” an area whose residents generally value its rural character?

Consider the human cost of the GDF construction, which would go on for many years prior to the arrival of waste — years of 24/7 disruption, heavy traffic, noise and huge spoil heaps. Much of this work would need to be carried out by brought-in specialists operating on short-term contracts. Any real jobs that may ensue would probably not materialise for at least a decade. As local Labour leader Tony Howard told BBC Radio Lincolnshire in 2021: “You’re not going to convert people from serving ice cream into nuclear waste specialists overnight.” Nevertheless, the NWS is promising thousands of new jobs for an area plagued by high seasonal unemployment. Older locals remember similar promises of skilled jobs being made when the gas terminal was first proposed. They were never kept.

Few in Lincolnshire feel compelled to martyr themselves for the sake of national sustainability. Investing in nuclear energy is part of the Government’s 10-point plan to achieve Net Zero by 2050, but according to new UnHerd polling, Lincolnshire is apathetic towards this ambition. In Louth and Horncastle, the constituency that Theddlethorpe sits in, 30% of respondents agreed that the Government spends too much time on green issues (and a further 28% didn’t know). No wonder, given that a Government proposal threatens to destroy their environment rather than protect it. This scheme is in many ways just another example of the clumsiness of too many “levelling up” projects — a top-down, bean-counting, crassly reductionist exercise in national political management, in which local character, local feeling and even local realities are largely side-lined.

And in the meantime, uncertainty reigns. There is no deadline yet for the final decision, although the sites are supposed to be narrowed down to two in 2026. In an already economically depressed area, local businesses are in limbo, and growth has been stunted. What tourism-related enterprise would invest in a coastline where the number of visitors might abruptly and markedly decline? What food processor or retailer would actively seek out produce from anywhere near a nuclear facility? How can councils plan long-term strategies? What about residents who wish to improve or sell their houses? It is too easy to dismiss local objections as selfish NIMBYism, but some of today’s protestors will not even be around if or when construction starts. They are doing it for others, and for posterity.

NWS is clearly aware that its plan possesses few obvious attractions. It states that nothing will be built unless there is community backing, formalised by a “Test of Public Support” — a poll or referendum. It has accordingly set up the Theddlethorpe GDF Community Partnership to make its case (chaired by a former leader of Nottingham City Council, with a reported salary of £750 per day). So far, it has papered the area with thousands of handsomely-produced newsletters, promising that at least £1m will be distributed to local causes. Given that eastern Lincolnshire is facing permanent transformation, this doesn’t seem like much.

Where is local politics, in all of this? Some councillors have not helped themselves, by claiming to have no view on the GDF, despite joining first NWS’s Working Group and now the Community Partnership. Indeed, county and district council officers were in contact with NWS long before the scheme became public knowledge, a fact that inflames local cynicism. One understands the need for confidentiality in some council business, and that councillors may be well-intentioned, but to many voters, the optics aren’t good. Locals may have the chance to air their views during this May’s local elections, as objectors plan to ask certain candidates to clarify their views of the scheme. But as one of the respondents to the GOTEC questionnaire reflected: “I honestly don’t think our opinions matter to the powers that be.”

Some say the Theddlethorpe scheme is a gesture towards “levelling-up” this overlooked part of England: a feint to obfuscate Whitehall’s underlying commitment to expanding the Sellafield site. If so, it is Lincolnshire councillors who run the risk of being out-manoeuvred, and becoming unpopular. As elsewhere in Britain, this vast infrastructure project simply highlights the naivete of some local politicians, the weakness of local government, and London’s contempt for communities of all kinds.

For this is a tale of many towns. An alliance of experienced politicians, full-time administrators and a rich and secretive industry take on volunteer activists who are largely without funds and unversed in the arts of persuasion. A glacial decision-making process, with tedious procedures and slippery language, wears down local opposition. There are not even events against which opponents can mount demonstrations. It would be appallingly easy for Lincolnshire locals, who all have other lives to lead, to lose sight of the scheme, while behind the scenes, in dozens of dull meetings, it builds up steam and ultimately goes through by default. That would be a black day for all of Lincolnshire — and a poisonous precedent for other areas in danger of being altered forever against their will.


Derek Turner is a novelist and reviewer. His first non-fiction book, Edge of England: Landfall in Lincolnshire, has just been published by Hurst.
derekturner1964

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

23 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
D Glover
D Glover
1 year ago

There’s a lot of emotive language in this.

 The nearest nuclear power station to Theddlethorpe is in Suffolk, 96 miles away as the fallout flies,

Yes, but also 96 miles as the electricity is supplied to locals who all want mains power.

migratory birds, who could carry toxins hundreds of miles.

If they could get at waste 1000 metres below rock.

hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
1 year ago
Reply to  D Glover

“If they could get at waste 1000 metres below rock.”
I worked in South Africa once at a research institute headed by a man who had once run Koeberg power plant in Cape Town. At the time Fukushima had just happened and I asked him his thoughts on nuclear energy.
“The trouble”, he said. “Is that the underlying assumption when running a plant is that humans can follow processes without error for 1000 years. If you agree that this is possible, then you agree that nuclear energy is safe”.
I don’t know about you, but I for one am terrified that the ANC has its hands on a nuclear reactor. Zuma’s cousin so-and-so, having failed his matric, but managing a nuclear reactor nontheless through his marriage to Tsitsi X, probably makes Homer Simpson look like Stephen Hawking.
Now, granted, the UK is not South Africa. But it’s not exactly Switzerland either.
So, in short, here’s hoping that there are no adverse incidents on the way to getting that toxic material between the railway station and its intended destination 1000m below land.

Last edited 1 year ago by hayden eastwood
Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago

The UK is not South Africa


yet.

Peter Lee
Peter Lee
1 year ago
Reply to  Warren Trees

We use to say the US wasn’t China or Russia.

Peter Lee
Peter Lee
1 year ago
Reply to  Warren Trees

We use to say the US wasn’t China or Russia.

John Clinch
John Clinch
1 year ago

Climate change

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago

The UK is not South Africa


yet.

John Clinch
John Clinch
1 year ago

Climate change

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago
Reply to  D Glover

Agreed, sounds like NIMBYism to me

John Clinch
John Clinch
1 year ago
Reply to  D Glover

I agree, it’s an awful piece. Absolutely no acknowledgement of reality, actual risk and the growing need we all have for electricity generation without fossil fuels. One of the worst pieces I’ve read in Unherd. Terrible. I’ve posted separately setting out why.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago
Reply to  John Clinch

What reality? That we have decided to use less fossil fuels and thereby have to employ more nuclear power? I am open to arguments but I wonder if you would be quite so sanguine if this were anywhere near where YOU live?!

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago
Reply to  John Clinch

What reality? That we have decided to use less fossil fuels and thereby have to employ more nuclear power? I am open to arguments but I wonder if you would be quite so sanguine if this were anywhere near where YOU live?!

hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
1 year ago
Reply to  D Glover

“If they could get at waste 1000 metres below rock.”
I worked in South Africa once at a research institute headed by a man who had once run Koeberg power plant in Cape Town. At the time Fukushima had just happened and I asked him his thoughts on nuclear energy.
“The trouble”, he said. “Is that the underlying assumption when running a plant is that humans can follow processes without error for 1000 years. If you agree that this is possible, then you agree that nuclear energy is safe”.
I don’t know about you, but I for one am terrified that the ANC has its hands on a nuclear reactor. Zuma’s cousin so-and-so, having failed his matric, but managing a nuclear reactor nontheless through his marriage to Tsitsi X, probably makes Homer Simpson look like Stephen Hawking.
Now, granted, the UK is not South Africa. But it’s not exactly Switzerland either.
So, in short, here’s hoping that there are no adverse incidents on the way to getting that toxic material between the railway station and its intended destination 1000m below land.

Last edited 1 year ago by hayden eastwood
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago
Reply to  D Glover

Agreed, sounds like NIMBYism to me

John Clinch
John Clinch
1 year ago
Reply to  D Glover

I agree, it’s an awful piece. Absolutely no acknowledgement of reality, actual risk and the growing need we all have for electricity generation without fossil fuels. One of the worst pieces I’ve read in Unherd. Terrible. I’ve posted separately setting out why.

D Glover
D Glover
1 year ago

There’s a lot of emotive language in this.

 The nearest nuclear power station to Theddlethorpe is in Suffolk, 96 miles away as the fallout flies,

Yes, but also 96 miles as the electricity is supplied to locals who all want mains power.

migratory birds, who could carry toxins hundreds of miles.

If they could get at waste 1000 metres below rock.

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
1 year ago

‘An alliance of experienced politicians, full-time administrators and a rich and secretive industry take on volunteer activists who are largely without funds and unversed in the arts of persuasion. A glacial decision-making process, with tedious procedures and slippery language, wears down local opposition’

That’s a good description of just about any Nationally Significant Infrastructure Programme, and will strike a chord with (say) those in Suffolk who aren’t totally convinced by EDF’s programme for yet another late/overbudget/nonfunctional EPR generator in a sensitive landscape. What’s always certain in these doomed Big Plans is that the consultants and the job-hopping politicians will grind a few more career points and pension contributions out of the mess.

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
1 year ago

‘An alliance of experienced politicians, full-time administrators and a rich and secretive industry take on volunteer activists who are largely without funds and unversed in the arts of persuasion. A glacial decision-making process, with tedious procedures and slippery language, wears down local opposition’

That’s a good description of just about any Nationally Significant Infrastructure Programme, and will strike a chord with (say) those in Suffolk who aren’t totally convinced by EDF’s programme for yet another late/overbudget/nonfunctional EPR generator in a sensitive landscape. What’s always certain in these doomed Big Plans is that the consultants and the job-hopping politicians will grind a few more career points and pension contributions out of the mess.

Karen Arnold
Karen Arnold
1 year ago

I live in Lincolnshire and received Edge of England: Landfall in Lincolnshire as a gift, it’s a great read, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Two thoughts on this occur to me, trains carrying any nuclear waste are likely to travel on the line through Lincoln to Grimsby, this would blight the tourism of the city; and I agree that everyone would be wary of buy crops grown in this area, this would have a negative impact on UK food security.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago
Reply to  Karen Arnold

What could go wrong with that?

Sincerely,
The East Palestine, OH Citizens Board for Train Safety

Mark Duffett
Mark Duffett
1 year ago
Reply to  Warren Trees

What could wrong with the nuclear component? Basically nothing.

Mark Duffett
Mark Duffett
1 year ago
Reply to  Warren Trees

What could wrong with the nuclear component? Basically nothing.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 year ago
Reply to  Karen Arnold

You’d probably be surprised, Karen, at the number of shipments of nuclear material already taking place on our rail network. No tourism has been blighted so far.

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
1 year ago

That’s because Nobody Knows. If you start a major national debate on ‘Where shall we put all the horrid nuclear waste, what about Grimsby?’ the situation might be a little different.

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
1 year ago

That’s because Nobody Knows. If you start a major national debate on ‘Where shall we put all the horrid nuclear waste, what about Grimsby?’ the situation might be a little different.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago
Reply to  Karen Arnold

What could go wrong with that?

Sincerely,
The East Palestine, OH Citizens Board for Train Safety

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 year ago
Reply to  Karen Arnold

You’d probably be surprised, Karen, at the number of shipments of nuclear material already taking place on our rail network. No tourism has been blighted so far.

Karen Arnold
Karen Arnold
1 year ago

I live in Lincolnshire and received Edge of England: Landfall in Lincolnshire as a gift, it’s a great read, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Two thoughts on this occur to me, trains carrying any nuclear waste are likely to travel on the line through Lincoln to Grimsby, this would blight the tourism of the city; and I agree that everyone would be wary of buy crops grown in this area, this would have a negative impact on UK food security.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 year ago

Everyone expects electricity to flow at the flick of a switch but no-one wants the power station at the end of their road.
Some facts to illuminate the discussion:
Total wastes | UK Radioactive Waste Inventory (UKRWI) (nda.gov.uk)ï»ż

Last edited 1 year ago by Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 year ago

Everyone expects electricity to flow at the flick of a switch but no-one wants the power station at the end of their road.
Some facts to illuminate the discussion:
Total wastes | UK Radioactive Waste Inventory (UKRWI) (nda.gov.uk)ï»ż

Last edited 1 year ago by Dougie Undersub
John Clinch
John Clinch
1 year ago

“Why here?”, ask the nimbies.
Why not? Used nuclear fuel (that which cannot be re-used) has to be stored somewhere, so the argument is whether civil nuclear power remains part of electricity generation. Almost all experts agree that nuclear is indispensable. The alternative to nuclear is not renewables, as Germany has discovered – it’s fossil fuels. We simply cannot fulfil our climate change commitments without it, as we abandon gas and electrify our cars.
If one has regard to actual facts rather than emotive nonsense and selective anecdote (as in this piece of very poor journalism), one knows that nuclear power generation is literally the safest that there is. Yes, literally! People talk of Fukushima, as if we are meant to draw lessons from this event that should shape energy policy around the world forever. Fact: nature threw a magnitude 9 earthquake and a tsunami at a crappy 1960s-designed power station and guess what? No one died.
If we had just discovered nuclear power, we’d be overjoyed that a solution had been found to climate change. The late Professor Lovelock (originator of Gaia Theory) recognised how critically important it is. George Monbiot knows it too. It’s about time public opinion caught up with their wisdom. Nuclear is green.
Even if you think, contrary to all the actual evidence, that storage of used nuclear fuel may present a threat to human health, it would still be worth it. This century is the most environmentally dangerous there has ever been. To throw away nuclear at this critical juncture would be madness.

CLARE KNIGHT
CLARE KNIGHT
1 year ago
Reply to  John Clinch

“No one died” Really, really?Can that be true? Very hard to believe. Must do research.

Leejon 0
Leejon 0
1 year ago
Reply to  CLARE KNIGHT

Do some research! What you “believe” is irrelevant. Only evidence is relevant.

Leejon 0
Leejon 0
1 year ago
Reply to  CLARE KNIGHT

Do some research! What you “believe” is irrelevant. Only evidence is relevant.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago
Reply to  John Clinch

“This century is the most environmentally dangerous there has ever been” is pretty much complete rubbish. Far fewer people are dying of climate related disasters than ever before. More people by far die of cold than of heat as well.
We’re Safer From Climate Disasters Than Ever Before – WSJ
If that is the sort of argument used, then we all do have to be quite worried both about the costs involved in the energy transition and of course the mass re-industrialisation of the countryside – the transmission capacity having to increase at least threefold for example.

Last edited 1 year ago by Andrew Fisher
CLARE KNIGHT
CLARE KNIGHT
1 year ago
Reply to  John Clinch

“No one died” Really, really?Can that be true? Very hard to believe. Must do research.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago
Reply to  John Clinch

“This century is the most environmentally dangerous there has ever been” is pretty much complete rubbish. Far fewer people are dying of climate related disasters than ever before. More people by far die of cold than of heat as well.
We’re Safer From Climate Disasters Than Ever Before – WSJ
If that is the sort of argument used, then we all do have to be quite worried both about the costs involved in the energy transition and of course the mass re-industrialisation of the countryside – the transmission capacity having to increase at least threefold for example.

Last edited 1 year ago by Andrew Fisher
John Clinch
John Clinch
1 year ago

“Why here?”, ask the nimbies.
Why not? Used nuclear fuel (that which cannot be re-used) has to be stored somewhere, so the argument is whether civil nuclear power remains part of electricity generation. Almost all experts agree that nuclear is indispensable. The alternative to nuclear is not renewables, as Germany has discovered – it’s fossil fuels. We simply cannot fulfil our climate change commitments without it, as we abandon gas and electrify our cars.
If one has regard to actual facts rather than emotive nonsense and selective anecdote (as in this piece of very poor journalism), one knows that nuclear power generation is literally the safest that there is. Yes, literally! People talk of Fukushima, as if we are meant to draw lessons from this event that should shape energy policy around the world forever. Fact: nature threw a magnitude 9 earthquake and a tsunami at a crappy 1960s-designed power station and guess what? No one died.
If we had just discovered nuclear power, we’d be overjoyed that a solution had been found to climate change. The late Professor Lovelock (originator of Gaia Theory) recognised how critically important it is. George Monbiot knows it too. It’s about time public opinion caught up with their wisdom. Nuclear is green.
Even if you think, contrary to all the actual evidence, that storage of used nuclear fuel may present a threat to human health, it would still be worth it. This century is the most environmentally dangerous there has ever been. To throw away nuclear at this critical juncture would be madness.

David Mayes
David Mayes
1 year ago
Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
1 year ago
Reply to  David Mayes

I could go along with most of your “Scribes” arguments re dangers from radiation including present life around Chernoble but something nasty has happened in that location which needs airing. Where did the Russian Infantrymen got their (reported) radiation burns from when they “dug-in?” Many years ago a minor part of my naval training was dealing with “radioactive spills,”in fact the collection and disposal of debris should some fool ‘techie’ drop certain electronic valves/TWTs so I do understand some of the science albeit my brain has deteriorated a bit since then. I can also remember feeling the heat of the noses of certain “special” weapons but the OSA* (as was) is ever present, even today, so I daren’t tell you where and when. *I kid you not.

Last edited 1 year ago by Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
1 year ago
Reply to  David Mayes

I could go along with most of your “Scribes” arguments re dangers from radiation including present life around Chernoble but something nasty has happened in that location which needs airing. Where did the Russian Infantrymen got their (reported) radiation burns from when they “dug-in?” Many years ago a minor part of my naval training was dealing with “radioactive spills,”in fact the collection and disposal of debris should some fool ‘techie’ drop certain electronic valves/TWTs so I do understand some of the science albeit my brain has deteriorated a bit since then. I can also remember feeling the heat of the noses of certain “special” weapons but the OSA* (as was) is ever present, even today, so I daren’t tell you where and when. *I kid you not.

Last edited 1 year ago by Doug Pingel
David Mayes
David Mayes
1 year ago
Mark Duffett
Mark Duffett
1 year ago

The “inevitable risks” of a subsea GDF are practically nil.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago
Reply to  Mark Duffett

Low risk, very high consequence. I’ve always been fairly pro-nuclear. But there is no doubt that we underestimate Black Swan events and essentially say they have no chance of happening.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago
Reply to  Mark Duffett

Low risk, very high consequence. I’ve always been fairly pro-nuclear. But there is no doubt that we underestimate Black Swan events and essentially say they have no chance of happening.

Mark Duffett
Mark Duffett
1 year ago

The “inevitable risks” of a subsea GDF are practically nil.