In the BBC1 TV programme on Monday (27 January), “Inside Out North West” (which those of you in the UK, and those abroad who pay a license fee, can watch or download on BBC iPlayer for a limited time period – or view on YouTube if it hasn’t been deleted due to copyright), there were some dramatic revelations that could put an end to fracking in Britain. You may prefer to read my transcription of the entire contents, if you don’t have wi-fi, to avoid missing important details, or to read a few comments of my own (which I have placed without indentation):
Dianne Oxberry, Presenter, Inside Out North West: “Tonight, Paul Rose investigates how the fracking industry plans to dispose of radiation in its wastewater.” The implications of that radioactivity are so severe according to some experts that it could put the whole of the industry in this country in a state of limbo!
[Plus details of two other items, taking up the remaining 15 minutes of the half hour programme.]
“Tonight, a leading expert in radioactive waste is warning that the fracking industry could be forced into a state of limbo because they won’t be able to dispose of contaminated water. Radioactive water has already been discharged into the Manchester Ship Canal. The broadcaster and explorer Paul Rose has this exclusive report:”
This bridge in Salford marks the start of the Manchester Ship Canal – a waterway that would revolutionise the two cities, turning them into industrial giants of the 20th Century. Now, the canal will be leaving an indelible mark in a new revolution: fracking and the dash for gas.
This programme will be investigating why almost two million gallons of radioactive water produced by the fracking company Cuadrilla was processed at a nearby water treatment works and then discharged quite legally into the canal, and we’ll be asking “Can it happen again?” Priesthall in Lancashire, a site operated by Cuadrilla Resources, is so far the only well in the UK to have advanced from exploration for shale gas to the next phase, hydraulic fracturing.
For some, homegrown shale gas offers a bonus and energy independence at just the right time.
David Cameron: “We’ve got to have affordable energy.”
[Recording of direct action in a protest against IGas at Barton Moss, Salford] For others, it’s a misfortune leading to worries. From earthquakes and poisoning of the water table to fears about increased water traffic and harm to wildlife. Protester: “No-one wants fracking in the UK, no-one wants it!”
A ridiculous point made by this activist, since there are many Tories (some of whom have stakes in the fracking industry) who are prepared to completely wreck the environment for (short term) profiteering. But excuse this and read on…
But there is a proven danger that has yet to fully surface: radiation. The implications of that radioactivity are so severe according to some experts that it could put the whole of the industry in this country into a state of limbo.
Water is the lifeblood of fracking. Without huge amounts of it, engineers couldn’t get the gas they seek. But that same process unlocks natural radioactive material and it’s the cleaning of that contaminated water which could become the industry’s Achilles Heel.
Hydraulic fracturing (or fracking as it is known) is a process that happens 8,000 feet or 2.5 kilometres down there. Bedrock is shattered to release methane gas. They drill straight then horizontally. Water and chemicals are injected at high pressure to fracture the rock. Tiny grains like sand hold the fissures open. Molecules of gas are released and flushed back to the surface.
And it’s water which could be a problem for fracking companies. Flushed out fluid also contains radiation. At Priesthall, the Environment Agency found traces of uranium and thorium. The levels of radium were 90 times higher than you’d find in drinking water.
Now, we don’t want to be alarmist – this is not another Chernobyl in waiting. The radiation is low level – it’s called NORM (naturally occurring radioactive material) and it’s all around us in nature. But the fact remains – there is a danger. And because of that, when it comes to clearing up, fracking moves into a whole new realm.
I am very sceptical about NORM being harmless. People get cancer for unexplained reasons all the time (as well as, for example, skin cancer caused by solar ultraviolet radiation) – this has happened to a few members of my family, with some dying and others recovering. The narrator does recognise that “there is a danger”.
The Dounreay nuclear research facility in Scotland was opened in the mid 50s, but in recent years has been in the process of shutting down. Pathé newsreel: “Some wear protective clothing because they are in contact with radioactivity the invisible enemy which can be lethal unless proper precautions are taken.”
Dr Trevor Jones from Bramhall in Stockport has been involved in the Dounreay clean-up project with a similar role at Sellafield. As one of the UK’s first accredited radioactive waste advisers, he’s legally recognised by regulators as an expert. I’ve come to the banks of the swollen river Loum, deep in the picturesque forest of Bolin, so he can help me understand the stuff called NORM. “Radioactivity is everywhere around us, in the food we eat, in the rocks and the soil, and the water. This is shale. This is an example of the Bolin shale from which they are proposing to extract shale gas underneath Lancashire. It also contains concentrations of metals, dissolved from the rock, including some radioactive metals, the main one of interest in terms of shale gas, NORM, is radium.
And you can see if I put the detector [presumably a geiger counter – SW] up to it, you can probably hear the radioactivity count, it’s going up to about 300 counts/second, so it’s about 3 times the background radioactivity, just from this natural exposure to shale.”
Oh, wow! So while we’re standing here, close to this shale, are we in any danger of absorbing too much radiation? “No, the radiation that’s coming off this is part of the natural background radiation that we’re exposed to all the time.” The NORM radiation only becomes a health issue if it comes into the body, and the most obvious route is through water.
It is of course sensible to recognise that three times the naturally occurring levels is not worth getting too concerned about, and we do ingest radiation all the time (eating and drinking), which could be the reason for unexplained cancers I referred to above.
So how much of this radioactive water was there? This place might help us understand it a little bit better. This is the Manchester Aquatics Centre and one of the largest pools in the country. How much water? I’ll show you. [Jumps off top diving board.]
The diving pool holds 2,500 cubic metres of water. We know from the Environment Agency that 8,400 cubic metres of contaminated water was produced in Lancashire. So they could have filled this pool 3 times and still had a bit left over. All of the water would need to be treated to neutralise the radioactivity, and that is just one well.
Cuadrilla don’t know how may wells they might frack – they have estimated it might be as many as 800, and that would produce enough flowback water to fill nearly 2,700 of these pools, and that is just one company! A recent government report reckoned in the North West the total amount of contaminated water could be the equivalent of 5,000 pools like this. The same report estimated that fracking could account for about 3% of all the UK’s annual waste water, and that could place a substantial burden on the sewage infrastructure.
Another report last month, by the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management, indicate that treatment capacity should not represent a problem in the UK, a view shared by Cuadrilla.
Offshore oil and gas operators pump their contaminated flowback waters back into the North Sea
where the huge dilution renders it less dangerous. That option isn’t open to on-shore developers. Cuadrilla stores some of the water at these tanks at Priesthall. At the time, regulations classed it as industrial effluent. It was processed at the Davyhulme waste water treatment works in Trafford before being flushed into the Ship Canal.
But there were warnings about health risks just a few months before that discharge and they came from America. In Pennsylvania, there are more than 4,000 wells producing millions of gallons of contaminated water. Some has been treated in public sewage works. In March 2011, the US Environmental Protection Agency wrote to the state of Pennsylvania warning of dangers that radiation was causing to the public. And this is a copy of that letter and it makes for worrying reading:
The agency tells Pennsylvania “…the wastewater…contains variable and sometimes high concentrations of materials that may present a threat to human health and aquatic environment, including readionuclides…”
That very same US agency has been accused of covering up issues of contaminated water, such as in Dimock (also in Pennsylvania), under pressure from the Obama administration (as revealed in the Huffington Post).
The letter says wastewater treatment facilities can’t remove many of the substances and high concentrations can impair the ability of treatment facilities to properly treat domestic sewage. It says it’s critical to inform the public as to whether and at what levels radiation appears in the water supply. Pennsylvania has launched an inquiry with a report due in April.
The Huffington Post article I referred to above said: “The PowerPoint presentation reveals a clear link between hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking’) for shale gas in Dimock and groundwater contamination, but was censored by the Obama Administration. Instead, the EPA issued an official desk statement in July 2012 — in the thick of election year — saying the water in Dimock was safe for consumption.”
Soon after the discharge here into the canal, the regulations here did change. Flowback water is now classed as radioactive waste. The operator needs a permit and so does the water treatment works. But the Environment Agency have told us that there are no facilities in the North West authorised to take it.
Dr Trevor Jones: “The Environment Agency would not grant radioactive substances permits to the fracking company until they were satisfied that a disposal route was available for the waste. They would not simply be allowed to accumulate the waste in the hope or expectation that a disposal route would become available in the future.” Where does that leave the industry? “It means that significant investment would be required because suitable treatment facilities are not available off the shelf and that will inevitably delay fracking operations.”
We’ve learnt that a month ago, Cuadrilla withdrew the last of its applications for a radioactive substances permit from the Environment Agency. It may submit more in the future. Cuadrilla told us: Without one, it can drill but not frack. “Following recent changes in the Environment Agency’s guidance on permits and an ongoing review of our exploration programme, we have decided to withdraw the previous permit applications for our sites in Lancashire. We are preparing new permits and will provide further detail when we announce a number of proposed new exploration sites. We will need a Radioactive Substances Permit to flow test any well after fracturing.”
Remsol, based in Preston, is a waste management company hired by Cuadrilla. They may have a solution to the radiation. In trials, they say they have developed a technique which reduces the radioactivity by 90% and they believe it can be scaled up for full production.
A 90% reduction would still leave radium at nine times naturally occurring levels.
In general terms, are you saying that your aim is to extract as much of the NORM as possible from the water and convert that into a solid? Lee Petts, Manging Director, Remsol Ltd: “Yeah, in essence, we’re trying to extract those tiny susupended solids where we find the naturally occuring radiocative material and heavy metals and to lock them into a solid format that can then be safely deposited at landfill sites that are authorised and permitted to receive and deal with non-hazardous waste, and in fact once it’s in that solid form, the presence of naturally occurring radioactive material doesn’t then render that material a radioactive waste for disposal purposes.”
Surely when he said “landfill sites that are authorised and permitted to receive and deal with non-hazardous waste”, he meant “hazardous waste”. If they extract most of the radioactive substances, leaving a small amount of solid waste, it could be very hazardous indeed!
The trials would still need to be approved for full-scale production but if Remsol and Cuadrilla can develop a safe treatment for the water, they’ll need to move it out of the North West.
I don’t know why. The main flaw in this programme was the emphasis on the North West of England (obviously influenced by it being a programme produced in and for the North West). It doesn’t even mention whether solutions exist for the rest of Britain.
They plan to use a fleet of tankers carrying bigger volumes than conventional vehicles and with more safety features. Petts: “The likelihood of any material escaping in the event of an accident is very very limited.” They estimate each well would need a total of about 114 tanker journeys. Government figures suggest many more than that. Petts: “We’ve based our numbers on the fracture plans that we’ve seen from an operator. I think everyone else at this stage is basing their assumptions on anecdotal evidence and analogues from around the world, not necessarily from the UK.”
Fracking may or may not become a boom industry. The operators will only know what’s down there by digging many more exploratory wells, and if the gas is viable to extract, they will be producing lots and lots of flowback water contaminated with radiation, and the only certainty we have now is that no-one yet can guarantee how those sorts of volumes are going to be cleaned.
Whether this a temporary or permanent setback for the fracking industry in this country will partly depend on technology and how quickly it takes to be developed on a large scale, and partly on the strength of the growing anti-fracking movement (with me taking part in protests at Barton Moss in Salford, which is currently the key location).
Part of the anti-fracking movement has got to involve answering Cameron’s point above about having affordable energy (especially with the gas and electricity companies’ huge price hikes in recent years and with Labour’s plan to freeze them for 20 months if they win the next general election). We will not do so if we argue for inefficient renewable sources of energy. I think that tidal power (with low/medium-scale devices on or near the sea bed) is the best way of achieving that in an island country like Britain, which already requires lower subsidies than nuclear power, despite very little research and development (R&D). If/when there is a socialist (or mainly socialist) world, concentrating solar power plants in countries (e.g. in Africa) with high solar radiation (insolation), exporting to Europe and thereby solving our energy needs and dramatically raising the standards of living of ordinary people in those countries, will probably be the best solution, but instability of North African regimes does not make this viable under capitalism. For more information, see my blog entry #bartonmoss Anti-Fracking camp forced Cameron’s council bribe, peanuts for residents, is tidal power a better way?