Tuesday, August 13, 2013

'Radioactive substances' in Balcombe! The fracking debate as they search for oil in Sussex: is it safe?

My attention has been draw to a "permit application for a proposed radioactive substances activity" by the people exploring for oil at Balcombe, West Sussex.

What on earth is that all about? Radioactive substances? These are immediate, forgive the pun, reactions.

Cuadrilla Balcombe Limited is prospecting for oil that might be (is very likely!) trapped in the Weald Basin. This requires exploratory drilling at the site to "identify and quantify" its presence.

The company's operations do not include hydraulic fracturing - or fracking - of the rock. It is just (!) "a conventional oil well exploration activity".

Using data from a previous exploration at Balcombe (1986), Cuadrilla does not expect any gas - "although the possibility cannot be ruled out entirely" (its words).

The drilling process, like, I understand, all oil exploration or oil production, produces waste that, potentially, contains Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material (NORM).

Cuadrilla needs to deal with this radioactive material - hence the application, made a month ago, to the Environment Agency for a permit.

However, specialists in the field, say: "Given the relatively low concentrations of NORM anticipated, operations are not expected to give rise to any significant contamination issues." Note the word "significant".

Water occurs naturally in geological formations and could be released during the testing phase to become liquid waste at the surface. After hydrocarbons are separated, this waste, which might contain radioactive material, will be stored in steel containers on the site.

The company's management plan then allows for the waste to accumulate in the tanks before being transported by road tanker to treatment plants in "an [sic] manner of preventing, and where that is not possible minimising, effects on people and the environment". Words that are more disturbing than comforting.

Based on the previous Balcombe drill-site data, it has been "estimated" that approximately 82 cubic metres of waste water will arrive at the surface. If they are wrong, a total storage of three times that amount has been allowed for.

If I understand the information correctly, this waste water, when eventually carried on the roads, is "out-of-scope of the Carriage of Dangerous Goods regulations" - meaning it is "considered a low risk of harm in transit".

It's a complicated subject to grasp immediately and we have to rely on experts. So, if the Environment Agency allows the application, I can only assume that Cuadrilla has presented a good case for its Best Available Technique (BAT) Statement - safety, monitoring, storage, transport, security, etc, are all there and, hopefully, meet the requirements. The closing date for comments on the application is tomorrow (August 13).

However, remember that this is just the EXPLORATION phase.

Before going any further, someone needs to explain, in simple terms, how much Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material might be unleashed on Balcombe during any fracking operations - SHOULD THESE BE ALLOWED.

In other words, convince me it is safe - before you try to convince me that we need industrial processes in the heart of the countryside.

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