Somerset

Scientist's 'regret' over axed Severn barrage scheme

  • 18 October 2010
  • From the section Somerset
Dr Rob Kirby with his first research report on the Severn Estuary
Image caption Dr Rob Kirby wrote his first research report into the estuary in 1975

For the past 40 years, Dr Rob Kirby's life has been consumed by the Severn estuary.

The 68-year-old research scientist's office in Taunton, Somerset, is filled with stacks of research reports and data detailing how the estuary's ecosystems have changed over the years.

Much of that information was used in a report into the Severn barrage, a controversial £30bn tidal energy project stretching from Brean Down in Somerset to Cardiff, which has now been put on hold by the government.

Energy and Climate Change Minister Chris Huhne said a feasibility study found there was "no strategic case" for the scheme.

Supporters of the project said it could have provided 5% of the country's energy.

Dr Kirby, who helped the Department for Energy and Climate Change compile the report, said he felt "frustrated, amazed and angry" by the announcement.

"When I go to the estuary and see the way ecosystems are declining and the extent of the barrenness of the system, it's a disquieting thing for an academic. It wouldn't be obvious to a lay person, but it's really obvious to me.

"We really need to do something and I wonder why somebody like Chris Huhne... doesn't twig?"

He said if he met Mr Huhne he would "grab him by the lapels and give him a good shaking and say 'why haven't you got any common sense?'"

He added: "The idea for a barrage in the Severn estuary has been around since 1911 - why are we failing again?"

'Galloping ahead'

Over the past 40 years, Dr Kirby has amassed a vast amount of data which he said was "absolutely precious".

The data shows the impact climate change has had on the estuary.

Dr Kirby said the research he had compiled, along with that of his contemporaries, included evidence that birds were in decline and that salmon had only survived in the estuary because they had interbred with salmon which had escaped from fish farms.

He said an increase in water temperature had meant that salmon and other fish species were within one degree of not being able to cope.

"Climate change is galloping ahead at a tremendous rate and academics are looking at it and saying 'what can we do to stop it? How can we send it in the other direction?'"

Despite the frustration of the barrage not being given the go-ahead, Dr Kirby said he did not think the work he had carried out had been a waste of time as this year he had received two prestigious awards.

The American Society of Engineers presented him with a lifetime achievement accolade for his work for the international port and shipping industry and he also received the Thomas Telford Premium Award for his research paper comparing the ecosystems of the Severn estuary with a barrage in Brittany, northern France.

Image caption Dr Kirby has amassed piles of research about the estuary over the years

"It's made a big difference. It makes it seem instead of beavering away in this garret looking out at rural Somerset, that I've had an impact that's spread beyond this country and throughout the world."

Despite the latest setback, he does not think this is the end of the Severn barrage.

Although the government has said it would not revisit the scheme until 2015 at the earliest, Dr Kirby said there were two consortiums looking to take it on.

But the Severn barrage feasibility report concluded that the scheme would be "very challenging to attract the necessary investment from the private sector alone".

"I will have to let go but I would like to let go and steer it when it's in a positive direction as opposed to at the moment," Dr Kirby said.

"As you get older you begin to have thoughts about your own mortality and your grandchildren and wanting to leave them a legacy."

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