Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160
MONDAY 3 DECEMBER 2001
160. Because it was our view that was not actually
formally part of the consultation exercise which the Government
is embarking on. Are you saying that you are going to comment
on it anyway?
(Dr Western) There are questions about should plutonium
be regarded as a waste stream and how should it be treated, so
it is part of that consultation.
161. Friends of the Earth have described the
Government's statement that 10,000 tonnes of nuclear waste are
safely stored in the UK and you have said that it is "either
a political intent to mislead or evidence of extraordinary complacency".
Earlier Dr Western pointed out about the amounts being wrong.
I wonder if you can give us more examples to substantiate your
statement and what evidence do you have that waste is not currently
being stored safely? If you could give us a little picture of
some examples or amounts, where and how you know this.
(Dr Western) I can give you real pictures. This is
the document from the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate 1996,
it is Volume I, and if you look at the
162. Can you hold it up, so we can see it.
(Dr Western) There are guys going in there with bubble
suits on because it is so dangerous.
Mr Jack: Into where?
163. What are they going into?
(Dr Western) They are going into building B733.
164. I presume that is part of Sellafield?
(Dr Western) Which is the Drigg magazine, which is
165. And you are saying the material there is
not stored safely?
(Dr Western) No, it is not.
166. Is that intermediate waste or low level?
(Dr Western) This is an audit of solid radioactive
waste at Sellafield.
167. But it is not the most dangerous material?
(Dr Western) No. The most dangerous material is the
liquid high level waste and, as I referred to previously, there
was a STOA Report produced for the European Parliament. There
was also a Nuclear Installations Inspectorate Report which came
out in February 2000 which highlighted the need to reduce as soon
as possible the amounts of liquid high level waste that are stored.
The problem with liquid waste is it is easily dispersable, so
that if somebody made the decision to crash a plane on Sellafield
it would be disastrous, it would wipe out a huge area of the North
(Mr Secrett) If I could give you another specific
example. In 1999 the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate reported
that of that high level waste BNFL had conditioned just 15 per
cent of the raw waste into a passive form and they have not made
much progress since1999. Again, if there are specific examples
like these that would be helpful for the Committee, we can certainly
pull them out from our evidence and from other sources, presumably
by the same Thursday deadline.
168. The question obviously was if you are going
to say that it is not safe then evidence and examples would be
(Mr Secrett) Absolutely. There are examples in our
evidence and we can certainly provide more. We absolutely stand
by that statement.
169. Whose responsibility is it to ensure, do
you believe, that the conditions in which waste are stored are
improved? Who do you want to be responsible? You have highlighted
problems of unsafe storage but we have to make it safe, who is
going to be responsible to ensure that happens?
(Mr Johnston) Certainly in the short-term the Health
and Safety Executive or their
170. You have full confidence they will do that?
(Mr Johnston) Or the NII. Not necessarily full confidence.
They have noticeably been more proactive in recent years. The
three reports in February 2000, for example, that came in the
aftermath of the 1999 data falsification scandal, those reports
and others around that time certainly were evidence of greater
proactivity on the part of the Safety Regulator on site. That
is only in the short-term though, in the longer term this debate
is ongoing about institutional arrangements, about legacy waste.
The LMA announced by the DTI last week is part of the institutional
change that is now being debated.
171. You would see the new authority that is
being set up to be responsible for the improvement in safety of
(Mr Johnston) It could well do. There is a particular
example at the moment. Both reprocessing lines at Sellafield are
closed down because of the fact that the waste treatment plants
downstream from the reprocessing lines actually cannot keep up,
it relies on the storage tanks for high liquid waste and then
the vitrification plants that follow, and unless that part of
the system is working properly then the main reprocessing lines
cannot work. We think British Nuclear Fuels took pre-emptive action
in suspending reprocessing but certainly from some of the indications
and signals that were coming from the Safety Regulator prior to
that, if the company had not done so then the Regulator itself
would have stepped in.
(Mr Secrett) I think there is a general point worth
making here too because I think you have pointed to one of the
problems, not only in this sector and as far as this industry
is concerned but the relationship between public sector agencies
and private companies when it comes to managing safely potentially
or actually very dangerous materials, whether one is looking at
harm to environmental systems or harm to human beings. The history
of regulation from a health and safety consideration would lead
us to conclude that at best it has been a patchy job. The existing
agencies, whether it is the HSE or the Environment Agency or the
Foods Standard Agency, or any of the companies or other Government
bodies involved, simply do not prioritise safety sufficiently,
either in their planning or in their operations. I include in
their planning, in their business planning. I think that this
is an area where we would generally say if we were in charge we
would not do it like this and a key part is to bring about not
only cultural changes that prioritise safety aspects over operations
and plant and materials like this, but that recognise that safety
is expensive and that therefore you have to have the resources
available to do it.
172. Who would you have responsible for that?
(Mr Secrett) In a sense that is bit like an open-ended
question because if you have cultural change and resources, then
existing agencies could do it.
173. Given we are where we are, who would you
want to see as having that responsibility? (Mr Secrett)
We would like to see co-ordination. Different agencies have different
responsibilities for different parts, if you like, of the safety
cycle. If you are asking us whether we would take away those responsibilities
to create a new agency, we would like to think about that perhaps
because we are not in a position to be able to answer that question
but resources, culture shift and strategic prioritisation of safety
can be made to work through existing agencies, they can do it.
In a sense institutions are not really the answer to problems
like this although if one started again one could design the right
type of oversight regulatory agency both on the environmental
side and on the human health side. The existing agencies could
do it if they worked together, if they prioritised it as an objective
and if they had the resources to carry it out effectively. The
past and current track record leaves many, many doubts as to the
willingness to provide those resources or that shift in culture.
174. If there were to be a solution in the way
you have been moving towards this bunker that satisfied you, and
if there were to be the right regulatory framework, and if there
were to be the resources that would satisfy you, if all of those
ifs were answered, would you still maintain your objection to
new build of nuclear power stations and, if so, why?
(Mr Higman) I think the thing to remember is that
there are other reasons why nuclear power is bad for Britain in
terms of economy and in terms of discharges, which are not to
do with the long-term storage of waste, and are to do with threats
and hazards to surface level operation of nuclear plant such as
the Thorpe reprocessing plant which are not to do with the storage
of waste. Then you have to compare that to alternatives in terms
of extra energy efficiency. We know that we can get up to 40 per
cent improvement in our energy use by cost effective measures
alone and development over a period of 10, 15, 20, 30 years of
a variety of different forms of renewable energy. We know we have
a vast capability to take advantage of that and under those circumstances
nuclear power looks like an unsafe route. We also have to remember
that this storage mechanism we are talking about is not a solution
as such. It is the least worst management option for the foreseeable
future which is 10, 20, 30 years. In those circumstances I think
you can see that the balance of evidence rather favours the other
sources of energy over nuclear.
175. Given that science moves forward and there
might be new ideas to deal with those problems that come along
which we cannot immediately see, you said that part of the energy
demand can be satisfied by renewables that will be developed over
the next 30, 40 or 50 years, and you said that with a great certainty,
but it might be that somebody over the next 30, 40 or 50 years
comes up with a solution to this and we are faced today with a
question of taking decisions about sustainability of energy supplies
against an environmental background where the EU is projecting,
for example, that by 2030 we will still be 67 per cent dependent
on hydro carbon fuels in their latest consultation document. Do
you think the public in terms of the consultation exercise we
talked about earlier ought to have been given the opportunity
to give their views on the question of whether nuclear power ought
to be part of the future strategy or not?
(Mr Secrett) When one is trying to project ahead to
choices in 15 or 25 years' time, we are on very, very dodgy ground
wherever we are. If we got super-conductivity in as a scientific
breakthrough at room temperature, and there has been tremendous
progress on that bringing it down from near absolute zero conditions
of transmission, all our energy problems could be solved. We just
do not know. We have got to look at choices made today in the
context of a sustainability matrix and those are environmental,
economic and social considerations. We believe that in the present
day the case against nuclear power is absolutely stacked against
it and that there are opportunities in renewables and in energy
efficiency and energy consrevationwhich will deliver the type
of energy services as well as energy supply that we need now if
we put the right investments into it and if we have the right
commercial and government policy strategies. Let's look at what
the Germans are doing on just one renewable energy source, which
is offshore wind. They have committed to a £20 billion offshore
wind programme which will generate within 20 years twice as much
electricity as Britain's current nuclear capacity. Rather than
add to the problems of environmental, political and public acceptability,
let alone the difficulties of what to do with the waste as you
produce more power stations, given that these things are flipping
expensive to build by comparison with an offshore wind station
or putting solar tiles onto all the buildings in this country,
these are the sorts of opportunities we have. And the other point
from an economic perspective is that we can see there are far
clearer job creation, company development and export opportunities
out of going down the renewable route, not only in terms of solar
or offshore wind but in terms, if one is considering baseload
electricity supply, of wave power. These are all technologies
that Britain could be developing. They are safe, they can become
cost effective, particularly if one removes the subsidies and
fiscal arrangements that currently make the market playing field
discriminate against the emergence of those new technologies,
and that is the basis on which we would argue these types of judgment
might be made. In 15 years' time or 20 years' time it may well
be that the economic, the technical, and the environmental problems
associated with nuclear power are solved and one then may get
a very different political or popular climate in which new build
could take place, but we are not there yet, so why not invest
in the cheap, safe, reliable alternatives which we know can deliver
if they are given the right incentives in the market place. That
requires government and industry working together and that is
where we can see already not only assessments by environmental
organisations but assessments by the PIU and by the Sustainable
Development Commission that I am a member of, making exactly the
same arguments and exactly the same case based on current day
evidence. That is where we think the energy policy should go.
176. That is the wider context of course but
this is an inquiry into nuclear waste and although we may want
to look at those very interesting issues we are not quite doing
so. The Royal Commission's advice 25 years ago was that there
should be no new nuclear build until safe storage of the waste
was demonstrably solved.
(Mr Secrett) That is quite correct.
177. I do not want to misrepresent anyone, that
is what you are here for, to correct me if I am wrong, but your
logic seems to be (both of you) that the country cannot solve
the issue of safe storage until a decision is taken not to build
new nuclear power stations. (Mr Secrett) It is not a solution,
it is the least worst option.
(Mr Secrett) Even if you get over the problem of how
much it costs to build nuclear plant, as soon as you have another
nuclear station you have more waste that adds to the problem that
we do not know how to solve, and that is our perspective. Why
add to a problem when there are alternatives that meet economic,
social and environmental criteria?
179. The Royal Commission's position is inherently
logical, it says no new build until we solve the problem of waste.
I think you were saying that you cannot really demonstrate safe
storage until you have made a political decision not to have new
build. Surely there are such pressing problems with regard to
waste and the dangers, about which we have heard in evidence from
Dr Western, that that is the imperative and there are examples
of very poor storage at Sellafield and those issues will have
to be addressed irrespective of any decision on the future of
nuclear power. Are you not in danger of diverting attention from
those imperatives with regard to the safety of storage of nuclear
waste by bringing in a debate on the storage of waste and the
wider and very interesting issues on the future of nuclear power?
(Mr Secrett) I think you go immediately into that
wider set of issues through Mr Jack's line of questioning on the
economics and also on the line of questioning; is there a solution
to the waste problem? No, in the context of this particular inquiry
we do not want to distract from the imperative that was laid down
by the Royal Commission. We have referred to that in our own evidence
and that absolutely from the waste point of view is the starting
point as far as we are concerned. I do not know whether colleagues
want to add to that.
58 The witness later indicated that current high level
waste storage is not safe. Back