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

Memorandum submitted by Greenpeace UK

  1.  The current debate about future energy policy and the suggestion by Government that the UK might embark on a new nuclear power programme makes the issues that surround radioactive waste pressing. Given the ignominious collapse of the long standing dumping policy in 1997, it is clear that a new, substantial and fundamentally different policy is needed.

  2.  In January 1998, Greenpeace submitted detailed evidence on radioactive waste management to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee. The submission summarised the key reasons why the previous policy failed, and set out an alternative policy framework. This calls for the production of radioactive waste to end and for existing wastes to be stored in managed, monitored and retrievable above ground stores. The full submission is recorded in HL Paper 89, Session 1997-98, and a copy has been appended to this paper.[1]

  3.  The Government's recent consultation paper follows on from that House of Lords inquiry. The paper seeks to ask "how should the UK go about dealing with radioactive waste?" However the one key question the Government fails to ask is probably the most important of all. This is: "Given that there is no solution to radioactive waste, should we halt its production?" Without an affirmative answer to this later question, it will be impossible to formulate an adequate or workable answer to the former question. Only when it has been agreed that nuclear waste production will end permanently could there be even a chance of reaching agreement about how to manage the radioactive wastes that already exist.

  4.  To illustrate the case, a prospective host community or region is unlikely to accept a nuclear waste dump or storage site in its area if the size and scale of the facility are not known or if it is only the first of many. Residents would correctly see that the continued operation of the nuclear industry would add to the burden that they, their children and possibly other communities elsewhere in the country would inevitably face over the passage of time.

  5.  This "no end in sight" dynamic serves to perpetuate an already disingenuous relationship between government and the public on nuclear issues, thus preventing the meaningful development of a new policy. Greenpeace therefore asks the Committee to recommend that the Government adopt a permanent phase-out of nuclear production as the first step towards developing its new radioactive waste management policy.



  6.  The consultation paper issued in September 2001 had in fact been prepared approximately one year earlier. The delay in its release is thought to be because of the 2001 General Election and the Government's desire not to raise difficult or controversial issues just before or during such a period. There having been such a delay suggests the Government remains nervous about the public handling of radioactive waste issues and leads to the suspicion that the same manipulative attitude, driven by the electoral cycle, could continue in the future. It also undermines the desire for transparency as stated in the consultation paper itself.

  7.  The general timetable—up to around 2007—could be an attempt by Government to postpone again otherwise difficult issues, and particularly so at a time when pro-nuclear forces are gathering for an attempted come back.

  8.  There is no need to delay consideration of the principal question: should we as a nation stop producing nuclear waste? Over the next few months the Prime Minister will consider the Cabinet Office Performance and Innovation Unit's report into UK energy objectives. A nuclear phase out policy could be and in our view should be adopted as part of the package of recommendations that is expected to go forward.

Plutonium and Sellafield MOX Plant

  9.  Plutonium has no commercial or practical value and should be declared a waste, both by the UK and in other relevant countries. The House of Lords report in 1999 made the same recommendation in respect of the UK, save for there being a "minimum strategic stock".[2] There is a strong case for the UK Government taking this decision soon and ahead of any other conclusions the radioactive waste policy review may make. Such a move would reinforce the need for the cessation of plutonium separation ("reprocessing") at Sellafield, and allow the debate about how best to manage existing UK stocks of plutonium to begin properly.

  10.  The Sellafield MOX Plant (SMP) is only approved for use on behalf of overseas customers so, as long as reprocessing continues, the stockpile of UK owned plutonium will continue to rise to an expected total inventory of around 100,000kg by the end of the decade. This in itself presents a substantial radioactive waste management burden. It takes only around 5kg to produce a nuclear weapon.

  11.  MOX is not a commercial product, being much more expensive than conventional fuel. The "market" for MOX is limited to those countries and utilities that historically have signed reprocessing contracts. Where reprocessing customers have elected to use MOX, it is only intended as a means of "sweeping under the carpet" otherwise embarrassing large volumes of separated plutonium. The UK's privatised nuclear generator, British Energy, does not plan to use MOX and would be unlikely to change its position without a special subsidy.

  12.  The UK needs to begin an evaluation on how best to condition its plutonium waste for the longer-term. This particular waste management practice is something that BNFL could diversify into as part of a new business model based on the clean up and decommissioning of nuclear sites.

BNFL generally

  13.  The huge losses made by the SMP are only a part of wider malaise in BNFL. The company has reported significant overall losses in the last two years setting a trend that Greenpeace expects will continue. BNFL admits it is "technically bankrupt". In accounting terms, it is kept afloat by the promise of future payments from Government to cover its liabilities. The DTI is expected to supervise BNFL on behalf of the taxpayer but in our view it has failed to do so.

  14.  BNFL's forward planning document, its "Corporate Plan", is submitted for approval by the DTI every year. Greenpeace believes this document should be a matter of public record, as it would allow interested parties to judge independently if the company's plans were allowing the situation regarding radioactive waste to deteriorate or to improve. Ministers have consistently refused to release the Corporate Plan.

Anti-Terrorism Bill

  15.  There is a direct conflict between the claims being put in the DEFRA September consultation paper and some of the measures contained in the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill which, at the time of writing, is beginning its passage through Parliament. On the one hand, the Government is seeking through transparency to develop policies which it says "inspire public support and confidence". On the other hand, the Government is attempting to reinforce "business as usual" for the nuclear industry by threatening severe punishments to those who disclose information about nuclear sites and materials. Although this situation is clearly unacceptable, it will not affect the determination of Greenpeace to continue to speak out about the inherent danger of the nuclear industry.

Greenpeace UK

November 2001

1   House of Lords Science and Technology Committee Report on Management of Nuclear Waste, HL 89, Session 1997-98, pp 150-154. [Not printed] Back

2   House of Lords Science and Technology Committee Report on Management of Nuclear Waste, HL 41, Session 1998-99, p 68. Back

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