View of the incinerator
View of the incinerator

Mike Reeks, Professor Emeritus of Fluid Dynamics, Newcastle University, writes:

I have recently become involved with emissions from incinerators. There are about 40 incinerators distributed about the country but the one that concerns us locally is the one currently under construction at Javelin Park. You may be aware that there have been numerous protests groups who are quite rightly concerned with the health & safety issues associated with the inhalation of the very fine particulates (referred to as ultra-fine particles (ufps) which make up most of the particles emitted by incinerators. Typically, one incinerator will emit about 10 tonnes of fine particulate from incinerating 500 tonnes of waste material in a year. So, these emissions are a very real concern.

For most of my career as a nuclear physicist I’ve been involved in the safety assessment of nuclear power plant involving the accidental release of radioactive particles. You will recall the two severe nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and more recently Fukushima, where the major source of release of radioactivity was in the form of a cloud of very small radioactive particles. In the case of Chernobyl, the radioactive cloud spread all over Europe. To calculate the dose of radioactivity people might receive in a such circumstances, we need to be able to calculate how these very small particles behave when they are released into the atmosphere. How, for instance, they are transported and dispersed, how they cluster and grow and eventually deposit and settle out under gravity. It’s very similar to the way droplets in clouds grow in size and we get rain. More significantly it’s the way small particles released from incinerators will behave since the physical mechanisms involved in their transportation and deposition are exactly the same. Of course, there is the extra problem of calculating  how many of these airborne particles will be inhaled and how many of them will finally be deposited in the deeper parts of our lungs. In this case it is the very small ultra-fine particles ufps) that will penetrate the furthest and cause the most damage.

I am joining a small team lead by our local MP David Drew and his researcher Ron Bailey. David is the shadow DEFRA minister, who has a special role in overseeing the national incinerator program ensuring that releases are within permitted levels laid down by the Environmental Agency. An important member of the group is Sue Oppenheimer, who has been actively trying to stop the Javelin Park Incinerator for 10 years now­, first as Chair of GlosVAIN (see and then as a founding director of Community R4C (see She has been very useful in giving me the history of the incinerator, the various stages of planning permission and the final go ahead for construction with operation planned for next year. Hopefully, more people will be involved especially some of my former work colleagues, who have expertise in the sizing and counting of particles in flight and the performance of incinerator filters that remove the ufps from the emissions before they are released to the atmosphere.

Furthermore, my continuing links with the nuclear severe accident and multiphase flow communities means the group of people I will be working with will have in principle access to a huge body of expertise using a sophisticated range of computer codes and experimental techniques that can be used to predict and measure releases of fine particles from incinerators.

I am currently working with 2 fellow researchers at Imperial College on ways of calculating the concentration of these small particles down wind of an incinerator at ground level and in turn how many of these particles will be inhaled and transmitted to the deeper alveoli regions of our lungs where they can cause the maximum damage to health.

It is quite clear that very little science has gone into the project (not only the Javelin Park incinerator but all the incinerators nationwide now in operation). Guidelines which have been laid down are not only inadequate but have not been kept. The incinerator operators have in my expert opinion seriously underestimated the content and influence of ultrafine particulate emission with an emphasis on mass of particles emitted rather than numbers of particles. So, whilst we may not stop the construction of the Javelin Park Incinerator, we can seriously challenge the serious underestimation on health of the ultrafine fine particulate emitted. This will be the subject of a report we hope to issue in October.

Mike Reeks 03/09/2019

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