Sustainability, heritage …. nuclear power

A fundamental principle of the concept of sustainability is that we should not leave problems for future generations to inherit, not make the world a worse place to live.  But in some ways that is not always a clear issue.

One of the great things about living at the edge of the National Park is being able to go walking in the mountains straight from the house.  It’s good to be back.  In the last few days I’ve been out walking up on the ridge tops twice.  The views are expansive, taking in the ridge-tops of the South Wales Coalfield to the West, the Vale of Usk and the rim of the Wye Valley and the Malverns to the East, the Severn Estuary and Somerset to the South, and the Brecon Beacons to the North.  Dramatic.  Impressive.

But the mountains are also very interesting historically.  To walk these ridges is not just to walk through a landscape but through a history, a history which was pivotal for the whole world.

The brutal fact is that the views are so expansive because the mountains were deforested in the Industrial Revolution.  At one time they were largely covered in beech and oak forest with ash and wild cherry. Three key factors lie behind the North West rim of the South Wales coalfield, centred around Blaenavon and Merthyr Tydfil, becoming the first area in the world to manufacture iron and steel on an industrial scale, the birthplace of Industrial Revolution.  Here were found in close proximity iron ore, limestone for fluxing the furnaces …… and vast areas of good quality, easily accessible hardwood for charcoal.  The technique for smelting iron ore with coal was perfected half a century before it was introduced commercially but as long as there was a plentiful supply of wood there was no incentive to change.  The result was that the scenery was altered dramatically as the mountains became largely devoid of trees.  It was coincidental that when the charcoal supplies were exhausted the coal underlying this corner of the coalfield was found to be of coking quality, the sort needed for smelting iron and steel the new-fangled way.

Was deforestation a bad thing?  Concern about the environment is a luxury in which only the relatively affluent can indulge.  The period of the Industrial Revolution was characterised by much poverty and hardship.  The ‘entrepreneurial spirit’ is often harsh and cruel, uncaring for its workforce, and nowhere more so than here. A few may have mourned the changes but the majority would have been only concerned with where the next job, and therefore the next meal, was coming from.  Nowadays we protect and quite rightly venerate the vestiges of ancient woodlands but we also value and cherish the open-topped mountains.  Personally I get little pleasure from walking in mountains where all I can see is trees.  However it is also true that the once-forested mountains were a much richer and more varied habitat, with much greater biodiversity.  So was deforestation a bad thing?  I don’t know but no-one now mourns what once was.

Bare ridge-tops under blue sky

Treeless common land is extensive

The ridge tops are mostly commonland and kept bare by overgrazing by sheep.  The commons are the poor quality land left over during the enclosure of farmland during the Agricultural Revolution.  At that time fields in this area were bounded by stone walls and/or by hedges, often made from ‘laying’ beech trees.  That was a dramatic change from the historic openness of the land and again could have been regarded as detrimental.  Now the field system with its stone walls and hedgerows are regarded as the essence of the ‘natural, landscape, clearly seen from the lofty position of the ridge tops.

Looking across the fields on the flanks of ridges to the 'old' field system of the Vale of Usk

A sharp reduction in the agricultural workforce produced a very distinctive feature on the ridges of the South Wales coalfield, beech ‘stools’.  Young trees are cut partly through and then laid horizontally to create a stock-proof hedge.  But they have to be maintained, cut back annually to restrict their height and thicken them up.  When that annual maintenance stops because there are too few workers to carry out the work, the beech reverts to its natural tendency to grow into mature, tall, thick trunked trees growing up from the horizontal ‘stools’.

Altogether it is an indication of overwhelming economic forces bringing about change of massive historic proportions.  Changes for good or ill?

There are countless examples of beech 'stools' up on the ridges

The antiquity of the area is shown in the many ‘sunken ways’ on the paths up to the ridge tops.  Once again these are now regarded as of ‘heritage’ value.  But in reality sunken ways are nothing more than erosion caused by over-use.

A fairly shallow 'sunken way' flanked by beech and ash

In places the path has sunk through to bedrock

.... and in places there are sunken tracks broad enough for vehicles but very rough

So, is the decision as to whether landscape and environmental change is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ dependant on the perspective from which they are viewed?  And is that in turn dependant on the historical distance from the change?  And is it a valid conclusion that sufficient historical distance makes any change acceptable however distasteful at the time?

In many cases it is true that historical perspective is generally forgiving.  Which brings me to the nuclear disaster in Japan.  Nuclear power, for a long time in disrepute in the UK, has in recent years been rebranded as a ‘renewable’, the answer to meeting stringent EC targets for energy from renewable sources and, quite shamefully in my view, given good PR by the late Labour Government.   Hopefully the positive outcome of the terrible disaster in Japan will be to put an end to that particular con-trick.

The glaringly obvious lesson which should be learned from what is now going on in Japan is that nuclear power stations should not be built in areas subject to earthquakes nor on coasts where there is the possibility of a tsunami.  But the real lesson is much deeper than that. It is that clear, as evidenced by Chernobyl and now Japan, that not all eventualities can be anticipated and that the consequences of something going wrong are of such great magnitude that to take the risk is completely unacceptable.  The potential consequences are not just local or national but potentially world-wide.  The Chernobyl incident released 400 times as much radioactivity as had been released by the Hiroshima bomb and was detected all over Europe except for Spain and Portugal.  Sheep farmers in North Wales are still suffering the after effects of the Chernobyl disaster 25 years later.

Can it ever be considered acceptable to build facilities in the knowledge that workers may at some point be required to work in lethal conditions to bring the situation under control, in the knowledge that they will die from the work?  That is barbaric. It happened at Chernobyl and it’s happening again now in Japan.  Is it right to build yet more nuclear power stations producing yet more nuclear waste when there is still no acceptable way of dealing with it when it is ‘spent’?  That is irresponsible and the antithesis of ‘sustainability’, the concept now being used to excuse it.  My guess is that future generations will look back on history and judge us harshly if we take any more steps down that road.

It is a supreme irony that the argument wielded in favour of nuclear power is that it is necessary to reduce carbon emissions so as to reduce the rate of the rise in sea-levels.  Yet the disaster was caused by one quick, short-term rise in sea levels, a tsunami, caused by forces over which we have no control.

If it is concluded that our western way of life is dependent on building more nuclear power stations then we must seriously consider drastic changes to our way of life if we mean business about protecting future generations.

 

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