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EDF Energy’s licence to dump mud from Hinkley Point C into Severn is lawful, judge rules

Campaigners tried and failed to halt the dumping of almost one million tonnes of mud from a nuclear plant into the estuary at Portishead.

Illustration by Alex Dimond.

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Campaigners have lost a battle to stop 800,000 tonnes of mud being dredged from nuclear plant Hinkley Point C into the Severn Estuary.

A judicial review at the Royal Courts of Justice in London found that the licence energy company EDF was granted to dump the mud and sediment into the estuary at Portishead was lawful. The decision was made by Mr Justice Holgate on Thursday 24 March after a hearing which took place from 8 to 10 March.

The ruling followed a campaign by activist group Save the Severn, who accused the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) of unlawfully granting the licence to NNB Generation Company, a subsidiary wholly owned by EDF, in August 2021.

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The campaign, spearheaded by Super Furry Animals keyboard player Cian Ciarán, claimed that the MMO’s decision was unlawful as it did not scrutinise the plans in depth, failed to consider alternatives to disposal at sea and breached the Water Framework Directive by jeopardising good water quality.

The Save the Severn campaigners bill themselves as a “non-partisan coalition of scientists, experts, individuals, and organisations who are extremely concerned about the long-term damage that will be caused to the Severn estuary by Hinkley C power station which is scheduled to operate for sixty years”.

Rowan Smith, a solicitor representing the campaigners, said the dredging and dumping locations both fall within the Severn Estuary Special Area of Conservation and an OSPAR Marine Protection Area. He said the area is “internationally important for fish rearing and harbours a wide diversity of significant habitats and species” and that the decision to allow the dumping risked harming the environment.

EDF dismissed this, claiming that mud dredging in the Severn is “normal practice” and “extensive testing” shows it poses no risk to the public or environment.

The judicial review – where a judge reviews the lawfulness of a decision made by a public body –  is not the first battle between the campaigners and the energy giant.

The battle for the Severn

In November 2017, the Welsh Senedd received a petition with over 7,000 signatures demanding the suspension of the licence which allowed EDF to dump 300,000 tonnes of what the petitioners called “radioactively contaminated material” dredged from Hinkley Point C into the sea by Cardiff.

The campaigners behind the petition claimed that EDF was jeopardising both environmental and human health in the estuary area. The campaign gathered momentum and brought EDF’s activities dramatically into the Welsh public’s imagination, sparking outrage and protests.

A committee from the Welsh Senedd investigated the issue by consulting the campaigners, EDF Energy, Natural Resources Wales (NRW) and the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas) among others. In October 2018, the Senedd decided that the testing was sufficient and that Natural Resources Wales should carry out further public engagement to explain the process behind similar licensing decisions and provide evidence to reassure the public.

EDF had obtained a licence from Natural Resources Wales to dump the dredged material but the campaigners argued that without an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), EDF couldn’t know the true impact of its actions. However, as part of the licensing, tests were undertaken to ensure that the level of radioactivity in the mud was not concerning in terms of environmental or human health. 

Campaigners – including Dr Richard Bramhall, a former advisor to the UK government on radiation risks – argued that these tests did not go far enough. The Bristol Post reported in 2018 that Bramhall raised concerns in a letter to Natural Resources Wales that the tests did not assess whether uranium, plutonium and other alpha-emitting elements were present in minute “particulate” form.

He wrote: “As larger fragments break up, any given amount of particulate matter will become more mobile, be more easily inhaled into the deep lung and the lymphatic system, and will emit more radiation.”

However, EDF maintained that it used methods supported by Natural Resources Wales (NRW), Public Health Wales, the Environment Agency, Cefas, the UK government and the UN. Similarly, Cefas, an agency of DEFRA, stressed to the committee that it used internationally recognised scientific methods to advise NRW on the licence application.

In a statement to the committee, Chris Fayers, EDF’s head of environment for Hinkley Point C, stated that the dredged material “has been referred to, inaccurately, as radioactive, nuclear and toxic waste, and that there may be risks to human health or the environment.

“The petition also claims that the testing is insufficient. I want to be completely clear today: all these claims are wrong, alarmist, and go against all internationally accepted scientific evidence.”

Portishead becomes new dumping site

Possibly because of the scale of public interest in EDF’s activities in Cardiff, as suggested by one Penarth blog, the French energy company more recently sought and was granted a licence by the Marine Management Organisation to dredge a further 800,0000 tonnes of material and dump it at Portishead, on the English side of the estuary. The MMO granted the licence in August 2021 to the campaigners’ dismay, who went on to crowdfund for legal fees for the judicial review.

In a statement to the Cable before the ruling, Chris Fayers, EDF’s head of environment for the project, said: “Hinkley Point C is one of Britain’s biggest projects in the fight to protect the environment from climate change. 

“Mud dredging in the Severn is normal practice and extensive testing by the Government’s marine science agency, the Centre for the Environment, Fisheries, and Aquaculture Sciences, has shown the mud is safe and poses no risk to the public or the environment. 

“An independent report commissioned by the Welsh Government found the mud to be suitable for disposal at sea. We have engaged positively with stakeholders throughout and a public consultation was also carried out.”

Following the ruling, the Cable reached out to campaigner Cián Ciaran, law firm Leigh Day and the Marine Management Organisation for comment.

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