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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 264-279)




  264. Minister, you are the Minister for the Environment; Mr Richard Wood is Head of the Radioactive Substances Division and Dr Malcolm Wakerley is Research and Technical Support Manager, Radioactive Substances Division. This is an inquiry which has taught us a whole new nomenclature, including a whole set of committees where it is extraordinarily difficult to see what the differences are in what they do, but no doubt we will find out in due course. Minister, can I start by asking the question I just asked your predecessors, are decisions on this really urgent or could it not be left to just potter along?

  (Mr Meacher) I entirely agree that we need to come to a decision as soon as we reasonably can, and I want to very strongly refute any suggestion that the Government is dragging its feet, or thinks there is all the time in the world. That is absolutely not the case. However, I do have to remind you, and I hope it is not a painful memory and I certainly avoid party political points all the time, the previous Conservative Government with the best will in the world made two very serious attempts to deal with this. One was its selection of a number of sites, which was done quietly—I think about a dozen sites in the 1980s—inevitably it got into the press and there was a great furore about it, and I think the lesson we all learn from that is that it has to be an open and transparent process if it is going to work. The Government returned to this issue in the 1990s, quite properly, and because there was a view, after the experience of the 1980s, that the only part of the country which would tolerate a nuclear repository was likely to be Cumbria, in and around Sellafield, there was a proposal to build a Rock Characterisation Facility near Sellafield, and in 1997 John Gummer took the decision that Nirex had failed the safety case. Against those attempts to resolve this issue, we I think have to be very cautious. No one, neither you nor I nor anyone else, wants a third failure. If I thought there was an easy option I could point to, if there was a management option which was clearly the right way to go, then we would go for it, but we are not in that situation. There is great uncertainty about this. There is no consensus in this country about a deep level repository or alternative modes of disposal, and there is certainly not a consensus about where it should be, except in the sense that I think everyone wants it to be not near them—nimby-ism here is rife. This is a very difficult issue therefore. What we are trying to do because there is time—and I do not think this is contrary to my initial opening remarks—and this is a decision which is going to apply to the management of radioactive waste, not just for thousands but possibly tens of thousands of years, is therefore get it right, both in terms of political consensus, which is acceptable to the British public, and also which is going to stand the test of time. I always show my oddity by saying before we get to the end of this time there will almost certainly be another Ice Age. The last Ice Age produced an ice sheet of two to three miles thick coming down to the area of London and the pressure on the earth is so massive that 10,000 years after the last one receded the earth is still gradually rising. We are in a very, very, very difficult situation. I think we are right therefore not to go for a management option but to go for consultation on a public policy programme. That is what this is. It is not meant to delay things, it is not meant to drag our feet, it is just I think it is the only way to proceed.

  265. Leaving aside Professor Stephen Hawking's assumption that by then we will all have migrated to the stars so we can leave it behind us, the fact is at the end of the day no matter what the process of consultation, whether it is front-ended, rear-ended, pushed, shoved or tugged, there has to be a site which is chosen. Do you think at that point the end game will be any different from the end games we have seen up to now?
  (Mr Meacher) I think it could be. Dare I mention that there is one other issue which is exceedingly difficult in my portfolio, and that you will immediately know is GM. I do not think one can resolve this issue, which is hugely polarised, as in a narrower way is the decision on the nuclear, unless there is a broad measure of public acceptability. If one can, and this is very difficult, induce a public debate which is broad-ranging, has some depth, is not just shallow, and is not just conducted through the sensational headlines of some tabloids but does engage the British public in some serious discussion for some months, that I think can actually lay the foundations for taking a decision which I am keen to do, which is likely to get broad public support. So I do not think if we wait it will just be the same as now, I think it could be different, and that is our intention.

  266. Of course this decision is an autonomous decision, whereas the decision on GM is one which will possibly be taken at the European level, so there are some differences as well.
  (Mr Meacher) True.

  Chairman: But we will not pursue that.

Diana Organ

  267. As you said, Minister, it is about really getting public acceptance, about public trust, about having a debate, but really are you not being very cynical about this, because is not the consultation which is going on now not just a small PR exercise? You are not really opening this up for public debate, you are not really asking people to have an opportunity to influence policy, are you? The way the whole thing is structured does not allow that.
  (Mr Meacher) We are trying to, maybe we are failing, in which case I take that at face value and we need to try a lot harder. Let me just spell out the things we are planning to do over the next three months; the consultation ends, as you know, on 12 March. We are seeking to reconvene the Citizens Panel from the 1999 Consensus Conference; we have commission an omnibus survey of a representative sample of people; we have commissioned a facilitated discussion with a group of people over a weekend with a chance to question witnesses, BNFL, Nirex, the NGOs, and indeed in my view we should do a lot of those all over the country if they work. We are arranging a Radioactive Waste Seminar, which is targeted at people who are delicately defined as "previously unconsulted", which I suspect is the great majority of the people in the country. We are arranging meetings with specific non-nuclear groups, pensioners, youth organisations, small campaign groups; and we have actually even commissioned a schools pack, because it probably is future generations who are going to bear the brunt of this perhaps more than we are. So maybe we need to do more. I entirely agree with your premise that unless we succeed in opening it up, we are going to fail in this consultation.

  268. There are two very important issues in how you are taking the consultations process through. For instance, we have heard just recently from Mr Fred Barker, who came with the Radioactive Waste Management Committee and he said, there is nothing in this consultation about the really important issues such as people deciding what are the range of materials that are going to be deemed as waste. The concern that Professor Judith Petts had was that her primary criticism of the consultation document was there is no detailed discussion of the objectives of engaging the public other than to earn support. In other words, you have not given people real questions to answer which will influence the public policy that follows on after consultation.
  (Mr Meacher) I do not think that is quite fair. What we are saying is that we cannot expect the public to take an interest in this issue without first understanding, which means a good deal of education about the nature of what is a very difficult and complex problem which frankly most people would rather went away, but it will not, and then telling us how they want us to involve them. If we could go straight to people and say, "Here are our options, what do you think about them", I would, but frankly I do not know what they are. I had much the same discussion with their Lordships in the House of Lords Select Committee, and I put it back to them, because they kept pressing me, why is it so thin, why do you not come forward with some more positive proposals, and I said, "Well what do you think those proposals are?"

  269. One of them is what is deemed to be waste and what is not. What materials are we going to consider and what are we not?
  (Mr Meacher) The consultation document does have material in it about the nature of waste we are concerned about. Obviously the definition of radioactive waste and its parameters are relatively simple—well, is it relatively simple?—factual, technical questions which can be answered and should be answered, and I think that material is in the consultation paper. But that is not really the issue. I do not think it is a problem of knowing what it is we are consulting about, it is actually energising people to take this seriously and realise that is not something they can just put off to the Government, "That is for them up there whom we've elected, they are going to settle it, nothing to do with us." It is to do with them and we cannot solve this problem unless they are involved and broadly consent.

  270. On another angle, there has been criticism that in some parts of the consultation there have been very detailed, technical questions which actually are almost too technical and too detailed when people are trying to formulate a consultation about general, basic principles and general choices and general policy. Why was that not held back to a later stage, because it is slightly confusing to people, is it not? There are sections of it which are very technical which could have been delayed until, shall we say, the next consultation, once we have decided the framework of the policy.
  (Mr Meacher) That seems to me to cut across your earlier question.

  271. No. The first point I was making was that there are some fundamental questions which are not in there, such as what is deemed to be waste and what is not, which is a fundamental question.
  (Mr Meacher) It is, but I will insist that that question of what is radioactive waste is answered. I agree with you, this is not intended to be a document which goes into a great deal of technical detail, that should come at a later stage, when we begin to focus on what is the appropriate management option. Clearly this is meant to be, as we say, a consultation about the form of involving the public; a consultation about consultation. What is the way by which you, the public, are going to take an interest in this. How do we energise and activate them in order to get involved. That is what this is about, and it should have no more technical detail than is necessary for that.

  272. Having done this consultation process and moving on in March, in your next stage, how are you going to put that into place and how quickly are you going to move from that to the body which is going to oversee this, so you can have the public's views coming through forming policy? Because we have a really crucial time, do we not, between March 2002 and possibly the next nine, twelve months.
  (Mr Meacher) Yes, I entirely agree. We are proposing that the period 2002-04 should be the time where all the research requirements are brought to bear. We have an information needs project which is looking at the research data which is available, that which is not currently available but which we need to know, it is also of course for this new advisory body to determine what further research should be commissioned and how it should be done. These are very broad timescales, I am not being very precise, but that might take up to two years and will take us to about 2004. We then, in the light of that, should begin to be able to identify a number of management options. We would then, perhaps a year after that, consult on those, that consultation again might take six months or so, we would get the results back, in the light of that and further discussions we would begin to focus on a single management option and we would consult on that. So we are maximising—

  273. So we are having three consultations?
  (Mr Meacher) Yes. This might take us to 2006-07, but I repeat we are now in 2001, so we are talking about five or six years. If we were talking about where you build a new hospital or whether we have Terminal 5, that might seem an awfully long time—

  Chairman: Not Terminal 5, I do not think!

Mr Breed

  274. Interminable 5.
  (Mr Meacher) If you are talking about where we should put radioactive waste, where even if there is no new nuclear build we have half a million tonnes to dispose of, and it is going to remain hazardous for thousands or tens of thousands of years, five or six years is the twinkling of an eye. I do not wish that to be taken complacently, I just think it needs to be seen in context.

Diana Organ

  275. Finally, throughout the three consultations, having learnt how we consult with the public and get in touch with all those people who probably have not been consulted before because this is an issue which society and Government have to sort out between themselves, having found out how we consult with people, how much in the end is it going to be down to the public's view coming back, that this is the policy? Or in the end, are we just going to go through three consultations and then the scientific boffins and Government will say, "This is what we are going to do. We will have a deep repository at Sellafield"?
  (Mr Meacher) Obviously you are not saying that is desirable, indeed it is the cynical view, and I am not attributing that to you but some people might think that was what lay behind the Government's agenda, but the reason for denying that is that it will not work. We can have three consultations taking six or seven years and then say, "We have decided on that" but if people are not agreeing with it, we are in deep trouble. I just do not think you can build a repository which the vast majority of people are passionately opposed to. You have to get them to understand. Finland and France are two countries we have looked at, and obviously we look at international experience and what is done elsewhere. In Finland there are a combination of sweeteners to local communities—"You are taking on this responsibility on behalf of the nation, we are prepared to recognise that financially"—plus also, which I think they operate in Finland, some kind of veto—"You do not have to do this. We might suggest this is the best way but if you are absolutely opposed you can reject it." That is one way of going but there are counter-arguments, I am well aware. The fact is, if you have a system of sweeteners, you are compromising the rights of future generations in order to satisfy the present one. If you have a system of vetoes, it does militate against objectively taking what you genuinely believe is the best option. So there are constant arguments both ways, but in the end, a choice has to be made, and that is what the Government is for. All that I say is that no democratic government can take a decision where a majority of people are strongly against. It will not work. We have to get people on side. If we cannot do that in six years, we are going to have to take longer.

Mr Jack

  276. Are not all these a bit pie-in-the-sky, Minister, because, bluntly, the real crunch, as you as a constituency MP will know, is that people only get fired up when their location is fingered. I read this consultation document and it was quite interesting. The first line is a cosy-go-to-sleep line. It says, "More than 10,000 tonnes of radioactive waste are safely stored in the UK, but await a decision on their long-term future." They are all quietly snoozing out there. Then I turn to Chapter 7, "The Programme for Action", and I think, "This is it, we are really getting going", and then I read in paragraph 7.2, "As wastes can continue to be stored safely in the medium term (50 years) using current technology, the timetable for the consideration and implementation of policy should be . . ." and then I drifted off to sleep at that point. Then we reach paragraph 7.6 and a rousing call to action, "Given that existing wastes can be safely stored for the next 50 years, we believe it is right not to give an artificial deadline for the research programme to end, but to allow the time required to explore the management options thoroughly." Is this not just like the man who always wants to buy the latest computer but never knows when to make the purchase? This is all out there, general elections will have gone so you might not have to carry the can, when your Government may not have to do it, some other Government may have to do it, and it goes on like this. Fifty years keeps appearing on all these pages. Where is the sense of urgency?
  (Mr Meacher) I am sorry that we did not excite you with the kind of irrepressible prose which we read every day in the newspapers. I have to say that when you have to deal with long-term problems it is not quite like that. I think we are right to say it can be stored safely. I am sorry if you regard that as soporific, I think it is a very important fact, a very important fact, that for 50 years—maybe 100, years, but let's say certainly 50—there is no problem about surface storage, although after 11 September some people may begin to question that and that is a further and important issue, but it can be safely stored and that should be made clear. This is not a reason for evacuating Britain. It is not something which is a panic or emergency consideration. I think that does bear repeating. But, consistent with that, as I say, one needs to move towards a decision. I wish that we could get an earlier decision. If you, excited by this, wanted to get a move on to reach a quick decision, you can tell me what we should do, should it be deep level disposal and if so where, I would be very pleased to know. If you were frightened about the political consequences, perhaps you could pass a note to me which I will keep very confidential. It is a very difficult issue.

  277. I know that.
  (Mr Meacher) You only have to mention any suggestion that this nuclear dump, as it will be called—I would not call it that—will be near you, and it will be a huge political stink and the Opposition will make mince meat of the Government. That is why we are very cautious.

  278. But on that basis you are almost saying, "I know really that however much we talk about it, when push comes to shove, if it is not somewhere that is already fingered by a nuclear installation, it does not matter what technique we use, we are going to be in deep do-dos trying to convince members of the public to have whatever type of system—above ground, below ground, just below ground, deep and below ground—in their backyard. You said yourself that nimby-ism is rife.
  (Mr Meacher) It is, but I also said that other countries which have the same problems have approached this via a combined system of sweeteners and vetoes, and I think we should consider that.

Mr Borrow

  279. I have understood the concept of coming down to management options, and the three which have been talked about are probably storage on the surface, storage in a bunker below the surface or storage in a deep hole in the ground somewhere, so we have gone through that process. The next process is, whichever one of those we get a national consensus on, we then have to decide where that piece of ground will be, if it is only one bit of land, or, if it is more than one site, which sites are going to be used. So then we come to not a national consultation but a local consultation. How do you see that process working and how do you see the local authorities being involved in those local community consultations?
  (Mr Meacher) This is going some way down the track. It is a perfectly fair question but at this stage we are talking about the manner in which the public is going to be involved in the decision-making for the future. Indeed, I suppose I could say that the question you pose is one we are actually posing to people—how do you want to be consulted over this. One of the objections about GM is that it happens and you do not have a right to say no, and a lot of people object to that. "Is it this time something on which you wish to be consulted? If there is a local ballot or whatever, is that one way of doing it? If there is a majority against then it shall not happen here. Is that what people are saying?" That is fine as long as people also realise that in the end if everyone says that, we are still left with the problem. We have to confront people by not just saying, "Do you want it near you or not", because almost everyone will say no, but, "How do you think the Government on your behalf should decide how this matter is going to be resolved." That is what I am trying to get people to answer.

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