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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 48-59)




  48. We now have Mr Bonser, who is the Transformation Director, which is a title to grapple with, I think, and George Beveridge, who is the Director of the Nuclear Decommissioning and Clean-Up (Europe). What did you think about the Irish ad.?
  (Mr Bonser) Perhaps, before I answer the Irish ad., Mr Curry, I should also explain I am Chairman of Nirex, and I am a member of the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee, RWMAC. George is also a director of Nirex, he is a BNFL-nominated Director of Nirex, which I think is important, given (the context ?).

  49. Thank you very much indeed for that autobiographical precision. So what do you think about the Irish ad.?
  (Mr Bonser) The Irish ad. is a matter for the Irish Government, I guess, and also the UK Government, in that it is looking at a decision that the UK Government has made to okay the Sellafield MOX plant, and it goes rather further than that and asks for the closure of Sellafield.

  50. You do not agree with it though, you know, chin out? I am just trying to make sure, I am just checking?
  (Mr Bonser) No, I do not agree with it. For example, the natural background radiation that somebody in Ireland, the average person in Ireland, receives is 2,500 units, and the critical group there, in other words, the most exposed people in Ireland, as a result of the Sellafield discharges, receive two units, an additional two units to the 2,500, on average, that somebody in Ireland receives. I believe, and BNFL believe, that that is an acceptably small additional radiation dose, and, indeed, the RPII, which is the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland, forgive me if I have got the precise words wrong, would also say that that is a small—I quote from their 1999 Annual Report: "Radiation doses to Irish people resulting from Sellafield do not pose a significant health risk to people living in Ireland. The Institute advises that it is safe to continue eating fish and shellfish landed at Irish fishing ports and enjoy the amenities of the Irish Sea."

  51. Right; we will move on now. I just wanted to check on that. You are Chairman of Nirex.
  (Mr Bonser) Yes, I am.

  52. Now we have just had evidence given by Nirex, in the mood of almost suffocating reasonableness, if I may say so, and they have just given me a flavour of consulting on absolutely everything, ad infinitum; it made one wonder why they were there at all, really. Now you are Chairman of Nirex, but, in your BNFL hat, you say that this consultation document is far too blooming long and it is all going to be kicked into the long grass and we should have something much shorter, crisper and sharper and get on with it. Is that a fair summary of your view, as a company? How do you square the two?
  (Mr Bonser) The consultation document is entitled `Managing Waste Safely' and I think BNFL's position is that there are a number of aspects to managing radioactive waste, one of which is disposal, and that is really the aspect you have been talking to Nirex about; and BNFL would agree that to have a successful disposal facility is going to take time and is going to need wide consultation, and so on, in the way that Nirex have explained. But there is a lot more to radioactive waste management than just disposal; there is radioactive waste coming today from operating reactors, from other processes that are going on within the industry, there is a whole legacy of waste that has been produced over the last 50 years, or more, of both the weapons programme and then the early stages of the nuclear power programme, and those wastes need to be treated. And you have talked a little bit about storage and processing for storage, and it is in those areas, in particular, that BNFL feel that waiting seven years for a policy is waiting too long.

  53. You are committed to a deep repository solution. Do you think that, quite frankly, the science is done and dusted and what we are now talking about is finding a way in which some community or other can be found to accept the repository, or do you think that we should actually be revisiting the science, and there are other potential sites and other potential methods which ought equally to be brought into the equation?
  (Mr Bonser) Some of the science which Nirex undertook was questioned, both at the public inquiry and since, in the intervening four years. We believe that the science that Nirex did was largely good science, and it is not just us, others have said that as well, but that there should be a review of the science that was done to establish if there are some gaps, and where there are gaps those gaps should be filled. The science is a very, very important part of an acceptable solution for disposal, but it is not the only part; as Chris Murray was saying, there are the social issues, the political issues, and so on and so forth, which need to be looked at. And so, as we sit today, I would say that the science is the most well-developed, if you like, of the various aspects that are needed to get a successful disposal facility.

Mr Drew

  54. If we can talk about the issue of transparency, you have been holding these consensus conferences for some time now, it does not seem that you have convinced those who are opposed to nuclear power that these are a good thing, and let alone nuclear power. Can you explain why you have had such a limited impact on people's ideas and feelings towards this industry?
  (Mr Bonser) Yes. BNFL have been undertaking, what we grandly call, the BNFL national stakeholder dialogue, for the past, I think, three years, and that is one of the many ways of getting stakeholder involvement. There has been a UK CEED consensus conference, I am sorry to use these jargon terms, which is a different way; there are other things like citizens juries, and so on, where you can get different things in. Coming down to the UK national stakeholder dialogue, I feel that has come a long way; for example, last year, the stakeholder dialogue produced an agreed waste management document, which was published by the people who convened this stakeholder dialogue, although BNFL fund it and we sponsor it, as it were, and we participate fully, it is convened by an independent group, called The Environment Council, and they published this document, and indeed it was submitted to Mr Meacher. And I was privileged enough to be one of the group of people, which also included the Chairman of Friends of the Earth, that took this document to Mr Meacher and explained this was a statement from that stakeholder dialogue of an agreed position on waste management. I think that is a significant step from where we were three or four years ago, where, I remember, the very first of those meetings, people from BNFL felt that they really ought not to be talking to these nasty green people, because they were there to do away with our jobs, and my impression was that many of the greens felt that they were supping with the devil from a very long spoon. And it has moved a long way, and I think there is a better understanding; there are still significant differences of opinion on things like reprocessing, whether it should or should not be done, but, nevertheless, there is an awful lot more, where I feel we are getting to is that there is a lot of common ground. I think everybody now recognises, and did at the time, that the waste exists, it needs to be dealt with and it needs to be dealt with safely and competently, and so on, and that is common ground, which we can then say, `right, we have that common ground, how can we move forward on that.' And the bits that are not common ground, well, maybe we are not going to get full agreement on those, but, nevertheless, we can understand why it is we have such different views on the basis of common facts.

  55. Is it not somewhat flawed though; and this is, obviously, partly wearing your Nirex hat, you are looking here for a stakeholder dialogue, on a policy formulation process which, if it is going to include as many people as possible, has to have a degree of consensuality? And yet, this issue, and we have already got agreement from the previous participants in our discussions today that there is no agreement amongst experts, there is no independence in this issue, people have completely made their mind up; so what is the point of carrying on with this dialogue?
  (Mr Bonser) The point is that I think that by getting people together in a room and talking you are much more likely to find a solution than by not getting them together and talking, and continuing what one of the greens has described as the traditional forty-years war that has been going on. And, from personal experience, and I have been to every one of these meetings as they have gone through, I am a strong believer in the process, it changes BNFL's view, it changes BNFL's employees' view, that it is not just about science, there are other issues which need to be taken into account. And equally I believe that some of the greens, and, let us be clear, it is not just BNFL and greens, there are many other stakeholders, there are customers, there are local communities, there are local authorities, there are many other people who come, regulators come, Government Departments come, to that, there are 100 or so organisations that come to that stakeholder dialogue. But just by hearing and comparing notes and trying to understand what other people's positions are and their points of view, you have much more likelihood of finding a solution. And if you, as we have got to the point that everybody accepts the waste is there, it has got to be dealt with, that is quite an important starting-point, and if everybody in the room is trying to find a way forward, you have got a much better chance of finding that way forward then just keeping in your separate silos and lobbing bricks at one another.

  56. Can I move on to two specific areas then where you have drawn some criticism. The THORP plant was shut down earlier this year; why was it shut down?
  (Mr Bonser) The main reason that the THORP plant has been shut down, for various types anyway, is because of what is known as the downstream plants. THORP itself is a reprocessing plant, and although it is a very large and complex facility it does not have everything within THORP to carry out its full role; and it shares facilities, other facilities, on the Sellafield site, and these are mainly waste processing facilities. You mentioned high-level liquid waste, earlier on, and the vitrification of the high-level liquid waste; that whole thing is shared between the THORP reprocessing and Magnox reprocessing, so it is that type of facility. And we have had some difficulties with some of those downstream plants; those have had to shut down and that has meant that THORP has had to shut down.

  57. So the allegation from Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment, that you had a specific problem to do with the high levels of liquid, high-level waste, that is not true?
  (Mr Bonser) One of the main pinch-points in the operation at Sellafield is the high-level liquid waste facility, and that is high-level liquid stored in tanks; that liquid then passes on to a vitrification facility, which converts the liquid into glass, and the capacity of that, and the tanks fill up as high-level liquid waste comes from the reprocessing plants and the tanks empty out as the liquid is vitrified. And we have had difficulty with the vitrification plants, and that means we have not been emptying the tanks so quickly. We have agreed with the regulator, with the NII, a curve of the volume of high-level liquid we will have on Sellafield over the coming decades, up to 2015, where it will be for now, and we have agreed that level and we have agreed that we will not go over that level. And so it is very important that we operate our facility, so that then if it looks as though we are getting closer to that level we will shut down facilities to keep within that level.

  58. What do you do with the material when THORP is not operating, do you just have to store it, as you do with all the other waste material?
  (Mr Bonser) What THORP does is, it takes in fuel at one end, processes it, dissolves the fuel up in a chemical plant, and then you get high-level liquid waste, is one of the things that comes out of THORP; so when you shut down THORP you do not keep producing the high-level liquid waste, you just continue to store the fuel, as fuel, in plants.

Patrick Hall

  59. Vitrification, as I understand it, is a means of stabilising what is otherwise a highly dangerous and unstable product. So the failure to have a reliable means of doing this, through the plant that you have just referred to, that you have had problems with, is obviously something that undermines confidence in seeking solutions, or achieving solutions. This has been going on for some years, has it not, the difficulties with that plant?
  (Mr Bonser) Yes, it has.

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