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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140 - 159)



Mr Jack

  140. Can I follow on from that just to help me understand technically, you said that you would be happy to carry on having a discussion about the solution which you have just described, you have given us a word picture of neither deep storage nor surface storage. Can you help me to understand what is the possible area for some solution with which you could concur?
  (Mr Secrett) We are still completing our review and we are hampered by the lack of certain technical information that we are after but, as a supposition at this stage only, one can generally conceive of it being safer and easier to defend in some form of just below-ground bunker such waste but not to have it in deep storage. If the technical construction of such a bunker can avoid the seepage or other types of dispersal of radioactive material problems that deep storage leads to, then as a supposition that may be a new way forward to best deal with the range of problems that we have, whether they are on the attack side or on the safe storage side.

  141. Just to be clear, in the scenario you have painted there are you talking about waste in a reprocessed or a raw form? What is the material that you would envisage in this deep bunker?

  Mr Secrett: It would have to be a shallow bunker.

  142. A bunker at some stage. Carry on.
  (Dr Western) The nuclear industry have been reprocessing for 40 years so we already have processed waste that has to be dealt with and a lot of that is unconditioned intermediate level waste that needs to be treated. In addition there is spent fuel, particularly the AGR fuel which comes from British Energy stations and Sizewell B PWR which will go into such a bunker. There is a question mark about the Magnox fuel which comes from BNFL stations, whether that should be reprocessed or not reprocessed. That will need a dry store and I think that could be looked at. One of the important pieces of information which we need from the nuclear industry is whether waste that is already Magnox fuel which has not been reprocessed but which is wet could be put in such a bunker or would need to be reprocessed.

  143. So PWR and AGR basically as it comes out of the reactor—nothing further done to it?
  (Dr Western) That is fine.

  144. Let's talk about plutonium and uranium stockpiles because you do not like those at all. There are some who say that that does not represent any kind of worth in terms of future potential energy source. Others (as BNFL would) argue it is worth doing. How do you respond to the argument that plutonium and uranium stockpiles (certainly in the eyes of BNFL) represent an energy source and should be reprocessed to gain that energy and others say it should not. Could you clarify your position on that if you would be so kind.
  (Mr Johnston) One of the new Government's—or relatively new now—initiatives was to set out in a report from Government the value of all the assets throughout the country that the Government owns. The list was updated early this year.

  145. Is that the new Doomsday Book?
  (Mr Johnston) You are probably right. In relation to the British Nuclear Fuels materials it holds, and of course BNFL being a DTI-owned "asset" is in there, the value then assigned to plutonium was zero. So whilst BNLF may have a variety of public lines—and perhaps there is beginning to be a shift now—that is the reality in terms of the Government's assessment of the value of plutonium today. In reality, accepting of course that something has to be done with this plutonium, it is dangerous from a security point of view as well as an environmental point of view, the figure is probably a negative figure because the United Kingdom will have to spend money on conditioning it in order to put it into a less dangerous form at some point in the future.

  146. You do not put any store by the argument that plutonium could be incorporated into nuclear power fuel? In your view it is worthless and therefore not worth doing anything with other than making it safe in some way?
  (Dr Western) It is important to bear in mind that as long as you have separated plutonium, which is of course the raw material for nuclear weapons, you have to spend an inordinate amount of money to make sure nobody nicks it and makes it into a bomb. Plutonium was originally valued at £1 million a tonne in the 1955 Nuclear Power White Paper and more recent evidence shows that it costs £1 million per tonne per year, if I remember correctly, just to store it to make sure it is not diverted. Reprocessing of uranium does not present such a proliferation threat. That just needs to be conditioned. Plutonium needs to be treated with a high level waste radiation barrier which comes from spent fuel to make sure it is as difficult as can be to make it into a weapon.

  147. I have been to Sellafield once and I do not remember if I saw the plutonium. Is it in suitcase sized lumps that you can walk in, pick up and walk away or is it in great big something or others that would be difficult to pick up on a casual basis?
  (Dr Western) I have been to the plutonium stores.

  148. And survived?
  (Dr Western) As I understand it, this would need to be confirmed by BNFL, the plutonium is in screw-top aluminium cans which are put behind a radiation barrier and then there are the police.

  Diana Organ: You could walk out with a can of it?

Mr Lepper

  149. A five kilogram can.
  (Dr Western) A small can.

Mr Jack

  150. Would I be right in saying if you were going to move any quantity of plutonium you would have to have some specialist equipment to move it otherwise you end up being rather irradiated?
  (Dr Western) No, that is not the case. Walter Marshall, I think said you could sit on plutonium and just your jeans would protect you because plutonium does not release gamma rays which go through the body but alpha particles which are shielded.

  151. So it is not plutonium for its own sake, it is what you can do with it? You would recommend that the Committee wear a pair of Levis would you on its visit to Sellafield?
  (Mr Secrett) And stay behind the barrier, this side of it.


  152. Members of the Committee will not get a prize for walking off with canisters of it!
  (Mr Secrett) Mr Jack, was there more about the economics of your question?

Mr Jack

  153. I am going to come on to that, which with your shrewd mind you anticipate. The argument has been put that somehow the Mox plant is sustainable by virtue of being able to process waste, in the case of plutonium, and then make new nuclear fuel which can be burnt again. Others have challenged that. That is what I was probing around. Do you want to comment on that?
  (Mr Secrett) What we believe generally is the Government is trying to construct an economic case for the Mox plant and we do not see any robustness in the market that they describe. We cannot see how the shipment to other countries is going to be politically or popularly permissable, even if one could describe a theoretically safe way of transporting it. We can envisage scenarios where one could create in Britain an internal market through new build which might lead to a new economic assessment of this material as a resource rather than as waste, but we think that is an entirely artificial construct that will lead to more and more taxpayers' money being used to prop it up, and we do not believe that is the basis on which privatisation, for example, can best proceed.
  (Dr Western) Can I just refer you to the Barker and Sadnicki work that was produced for the MacArthur Foundation.

  154. Is that Mike?
  (Dr Western) Mike Sadnicki and Fred Barker. They are both members of RWMAC. They have done work for Friends of the Earth in the past but this was for the MacArthur Foundation. This looked specifically at the plutonium stocks in the UK and the economics of introducing a radiation barrier and also the problems associated with the fact that the liquid pile of waste stocks that we have need to be treated as soon as possible and maybe to wait while we deliver plutonium treatment would just postpone the programme for too long. What they found was developing something called low-spec MOX, which is actually called in technical circles Kentucky Fried MOX, which is just—

Diana Organ

  155. Is that a technical term?
  (Mr Secrett) They have a sense of humour.

  Diana Organ: Good for them.

Mr Jack

  156. This is one of those odd technical terms, like millisieverts.
  (Mr Tindale) Sorry to interrupt but I did send a message to the Clerk earlier that I had to leave at half past five, so if you will excuse me.


  157. We understand. You were telling us about Kentucky Fried MOX.
  (Dr Western) Which does not have the proliferation threat of ordinary MOX, so it would be supported by Friends of the Earth in that sense. You would mix it with spent fuel rods rather than liquid high level waste to introduce the radiation barrier. That may not be the best approach, the best approach may be to make ceramics from the plutonium rather than MOX rods at all. Again, we welcome the consultation, it is an opportunity to examine fully these options and hopefully we will get the information out of BNFL.

Mr Jack

  158. When you talk about consultation are you talking about the Government's consultation?
  (Dr Western) The Government's consultation which asks specifically about plutonium.

  159. Because Mr Sadnicki had suggested in evidence to us—I want to make certain I understand it—that there was a way of using MOX to produce a sort of safer form of plutonium waste. Is that what you have just described to me?
  (Dr Western) Yes.

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