Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)




  1. Good afternoon, gentlemen. We have embarked upon this inquiry in the light of the Government's consultation, and we are going to try to be fairly precise and specific in what we are dealing with, and not be diverted over too wide a terrain. Mr Chris Murray is Managing Director and Dr Alan Hooper is the Chief Scientific Adviser of Nirex. This consultation document, is it actually the beginning of something substantive or is it yet another false dawn?
  (Mr Murray) I think it is the beginning of something that should be substantive. We believe that the approach that DEFRA is trying to put in place is actually quite a positive and innovative thing. Looking at the whole problem, we believe that it needs this kind of thorough-going consultation to set the foundation for what is going to be a very long process. So we agree with the kind of approach that DEFRA is trying to put in place.

  2. Does DEFRA have a well-established enough team who know enough about the subject to be able to do this; it is a new Department, after all?
  (Mr Murray) It is a fairly new Department, but I would imagine that they would be able to call on expertise that would boost any shortcomings that they may feel they have.

  3. Is the consultation well enough defined to begin a meaningful debate, as opposed to a debate?
  (Mr Murray) I think the first phase that DEFRA have put in place is actually very important, because my understanding of what they are trying to do is that this is the innovative phase, they are trying to get issues teased out at the very beginning, rather than diving off into options right away. So this is a pre-stage, and the idea is that this will throw up issues, which will then help to illuminate all the discussion about options that is going to follow; and that is a new way of going about things.

  4. It could be argued, whether we agree with this depends upon the outcome of our debates, obviously, that there is not a lot of rocket science, as it were, in the technologies, because everybody knows pretty well what the technologies are, but the whole problem now is about process and getting people to accept. You yourself have developed a sort of front-loaded process by which you try to discuss with people the issues involved before you come up with a proposition, rather than the classical way, which is `this is what we propose, what do you think about it?'. Do you think that this consultation document from DEFRA would have been well advised to have adopted that approach rather than the traditional one?
  (Mr Murray) I think, actually, that that is exactly what they are trying to adopt, and that this first phase is all about that pre-consultation, trying to get issues out, trying to see where people are, before you go into the nitty-gritty of the problem.

  5. It is an awfully long time between one and t'other though, is it not?
  (Mr Murray) It is—

  6. When do you think we are going to get to the nitty-gritty?
  (Mr Murray) If you mean by that options, I think you would get to options after phase one, so that would be six months, end of March, then another six months, say; within a year's time, I guess.

  7. A final introductory question. We have been talking about, obviously, the time-frame for this consultation, are there any urgent operational matters which will not wait for that consultation, which need to be sorted out pretty quickly?
  (Mr Murray) There are many operational matters that will not wait for the consultation, and, in fact, they are being dealt with in parallel. So the recovery and packaging of waste by the waste producers, especially by BNFL at Sellafield, that is going on day in, daily, it is not waiting for the process.

  8. The Government is intending to introduce a new planning system for sort of Terminal Five type of things; would you imagine that the final decisions on what we do about nuclear waste might fall under that category, have you had any discussions with them about the scope of the eventual planning framework?
  (Mr Murray) The Department has come to us and indicated that they would like to discuss any views that we might have on this process. Where we would want to be very careful is that any national process did carefully take into account local views and that it was not used, at the end of the day, to try to force through something that was unacceptable at the local level. Now there are ways of building that into the process; what we are saying is, it would have to be specifically thought about. There is no easy way of getting something like a radioactive waste management process through to a local level other than involving people, at all stages, from the local level upwards.

Mr Jack

  9. Appendix Six of your evidence prepared by ERM, and I quote: "All stakeholders recognise that Nirex's ability to move forward, with either its existing mission or a new mission, is currently limited by the lack of leadership from Government. "Do you agree or disagree with that statement?
  (Mr Murray) I do not altogether agree with it; that, after all, is a view of some of our stakeholders, that is not necessarily Nirex's own view. I think we are conscious that there is a tension there; we do believe that you should get ahead, but our argument would be that you get ahead carefully. One of the lessons from the past has been that there was an undue rush to try to get to the end-game, the last time round, in particular. I joined Nirex in 1991; the pressure started in the late eighties, and, by the time I was there, there was an absolute focus, `let's get this done, let's get to the end-game,' and that had a very serious effect, in terms of how our organisation then dealt with what became peripheral things, which were actually central. Social issues, and such like, became very secondary in that kind of time-frame. So anyone who says to me, `let's rush at this,' I have an instinctive feeling that `let's do something different, let's be careful and put in the correct foundations,' so that when we look back in 15 years we can see that we went through due process from the very beginning and that it took account of all aspects from the start.

Mr Drew

  10. If we can move on to look at the overseeing of the policy formulation, can you describe to me what you would mean by an independent body to oversee the policy formulation?
  (Mr Murray) What I would describe as an independent body overseeing the policy formulation would be a body that was looking at process, that was considering whether the process being followed was valid and whether all the players who were conducting the process were behaving, if you like, properly; that is what I would see that overseeing body doing.

  11. And who should be on this body then?
  (Mr Murray) It should be all sorts of people should be on that body, it should represent all kinds of stakeholders; it should represent the academic community, it should represent local authorities, it should be very wide-ranging in who are on it, because, in my mind, they would be there to see that fair play was happening through the process.

  12. But are there independent people in this field who have enough knowledge to oversee this process? You can have someone with no knowledge who could be independent in this field, but would they have the capability of understanding the sort of complexity of issues that they will have to deal with? And if you then go for so-called `experts' they are not independent, are they, because everyone has got a view on this issue?
  (Mr Murray) At a practical level, I think you could have a mixture of both, but the expert that you refer to, I would agree with you completely, there is probably no such thing as an independent expert; so what you would probably want to do is to have a mix.

  13. On the back of that then, one of the proposals, I think, from the Centre for Reform, is that Parliament should have a much greater role for scrutiny, and the Chairman has already alluded to the planning process which is about to be reviewed. One of the ideas that is being put forward there is that the ultimate scrutiny should be with Parliament itself; now is it possible that you could have a special select committee here, rather than just reviewing the process, that could be a gatekeeper in terms of the way in which some of the key decisions are at least being examined?
  (Mr Murray) I think that is a very real possibility, and, coming back to a question that was asked of me earlier, these are the very kinds of debate that need to take place at this part of the DEFRA consultation, because this is the kind of thing that needs to be put in place for the second half, if you like, for the next phase. We have not finished all our deliberations yet, Nirex; we have a Board meeting coming up in December, for instance, when we will look at many of these issues. But, certainly, the point you make is a good one.

Mr Borrow

  14. In your reply to Mr Jack, you mentioned about not wanting to be rushed, and that that was one of your concerns when you were first appointed to Nirex, that the organisation was having a sense of being rushed into doing things and making decisions. How do you see the process, how do you think we will be able to ensure that the process of consultation and the process of reaching the policy will be seen to be fair, which I think ties in with your concern about being rushed; how do you think that process can be managed in a way in which we can ensure that the whole process itself is fair and is seen to be fair?
  (Mr Murray) I think what we would advise is that the process, very consciously, brings local and national representation into the discussion, and it should also involve people at all levels. I think that is fairness between groups, so fairness between people in local authorities, who might feel that they could be eventually a host for a facility, for instance, they should be involved. There should also be a representation of national views, as you suggested, on the planning side; that all needs to be brought in. There needs to be brought in the views of the green organisations, because they have a very valid part to play in the whole process, in terms of looking at it from a different angle from maybe some of the rest of us. And the likes of organisations like Nirex should feed in, essentially, lessons learned from the past that could be of use in the process, because there are some definite lessons that we should all look at, that I think could be very helpful.

  15. In some countries in Europe, local communities are in a position where they can either veto the construction of a particular facility or can actually volunteer to receive a facility, sometimes on the basis of receiving additional community benefits, in terms of facilities, as part of that volunteerism. Do you see that as something that could be appropriate for the UK?
  (Mr Murray) I see it as something that needs to be discussed as part of the DEFRA process, and that, having a talk to local authorities, it is certainly something that they are concerned that we all bring into the picture. On the question of a veto, as you say, Finland, the communities have the veto. I think we need to look carefully to see if that is something that we in the UK, given our kind of parliamentary democracy, want to go to; but the point that we would make is, this should not be left out of the discussion. What happened in the past was that questions like veto, community benefit, were simply not discussed, they just were not in the equation, so that when Nirex in the past ended up through a site-selection process talking to, say, Cumbria, there was no national policy on any of these issues, and the whole thing was just not considered. Going forward, that would be wrong, in our view. Now whether, at the end of the day, the UK decides that a veto process or giving them substantial community benefits, which is one of the issues, you know, should you compensate the host community for the fact that the rest of us, living down in London, do not have a facility there; now some countries say yes, the French, for instance, start giving benefit whenever anyone comes near a site, the Swedes give, on the other hand, money that allows the community to track what the developer is doing. So there is a whole range of things that would be possible. But the key thing is to debate it and to come to a kind of policy position, before anything happens by way of going forward.

Patrick Hall

  16. I am very pleased that you welcome the opportunity for the public and others to have a thorough debate on these matters, and informed debate, in the months and years ahead, and I am very happy to take that as a sincerely meant welcome. And, obviously, if it is to be done well, it might even restore public confidence in an industry in which it has very little confidence, for understandable reasons; I think you might agree with that. And I therefore welcome the transparency policy that Nirex has published, it refers to the need for openness and transparency, access to most of the information it holds, for example. And, clearly, if we are to engage the public effectively, there needs to be this credibility and belief that there will be openness. Could I invite you to demonstrate some of that new openness today; are you prepared to tell this Committee the names of the 12 prospective dump sites from the late 1980s?
  (Mr Murray) No.

  17. How open is that answer; it is a clear answer but it is not open, is it?
  (Mr Murray) No.

  18. Why is that?
  (Mr Murray) It is not open, but, if you read the Nirex Transparency policy in front of you, you will find that there are certain circumstances where Nirex cannot give that information to you, and we cannot give that information because it is the subject of a statement made by John Battle in the House, where he indicated that the Government did not want us to reveal that information. Now that sounds as though I am putting the whole onus on the Government; actually, we ourselves have a debate internally about this whole question of the 12 sites, because, given that we foresee that there will be a completely new selection process, if, indeed, deep disposal is chosen as the option that the country wants to follow, and that is not a foregone conclusion, but if it were, then there is a whole set of issues around how you would choose that site. And, because we are arguing very strongly that other players should be in the process this time, not just Nirex setting up these criteria, local authorities need to be involved, for instance, that could result in a different methodology that throw up different sites. The question we wrestle with is, is it then fair, in that context, to put these 12 on the table; now others argue that it is entirely fair to put the 12 on the table, that that whole issue needs to be resolved by Government.

  19. And what is your view; do you think it should be on the table?
  (Mr Murray) Taking everything together, there is probably a case for doing that, but it is a very fine judgement, and I do not think Nirex is really in a position to give you that judgement today.

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