Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280-299)|
MONDAY 17 DECEMBER
280. You mentioned earlier the examples from
overseas, and Finland has been mentioned where there are vetoes
and sweeteners, and different countries tackle these things in
different ways, but also of course we have got in the UK new planning
guidelines coming out for dealing with major planning issues,
which to a certain extent are seen by some people as not giving
the local community the same decision-making involvement once
a decision has been made nationally that this particular project
needs. So obviously there is a difficulty in having decided that
we want, for example, a deep hole in the ground option. How do
we build from there, through this new planning process? Or are
you not seeing the new planning guidelines or process as being
relevant for nuclear waste disposal? Are you looking to develop
a different decision-making process specifically for the disposal
of nuclear waste which would not necessarily be part of the general
planning guidelines for other projects?
(Mr Meacher) What the Planning Green Paper is trying
to do is to speed up and streamline the planning process over
relatively more minor matterssmall housing developments,
small scale developments in localities. If it is a major development,
and this of course is a very major development, there is no question
whatever that there do have to be public inquiries. It would be
impossible to get agreement for a particular management option
selected at a particular site without there being an opportunity
for everyone locally involved to have a say. The Planning Green
Paper is not designed to prevent in any way public discussion
but to streamline it where that can be done.
281. One of the things which has been raised
at a number of hearings the Committee have had over the last few
weeks has been the question of the sites which were identified
by Nirex as part of the process you mentioned in your opening
remarks back in the 1980s, but obviously that list has never been
published. Part of the reason that process fell down was the final
handful of sites came out at the end rather than the whole process
being open and obvious to the general public. Do you think it
would be useful, even at this stage, to actually produce the details
of that original list of sites for deep holes in the ground?
(Mr Meacher) No, I do not. I really do think it would
be counter-productive. First of all, we are not at this point
saying that deep level disposal is our chosen management option.
Secondly, this was in the past, and simply to dredge this up would
I think simply create local alarm quite unnecessarily. People
would immediately think there is no smoke without fire, that the
Government is planning to do something here, and however much
we denied it and said, "We are really just openly giving
you the information about what a previous Government did 20 years
ago", they would see it differently. I think that would be
extremely unhelpful. All I would say is that all of us learnt
the lesson from that particular episode that if and whenand
I say "if"we were to go down such a route, it
would be open and transparent. Once we have made a decision, as
I say, it can only be carried through if it is publicly acceptable,
and it will only be publicly acceptable if the public know all
the details, that we are cross-examined and provide honest and
frank answers, so everyone knows exactly what is proposed, what
the risks are, what the consequences are, they have cross-examined
all the experts, and they are given all the information they need.
That is the basis on which we will proceed.
282. Just to clarify that. If we get to a situation
where a national consensus has emerged in terms of the management
option and the Government has made a decision on the management
option in terms of what the solution is, the process then is to
identify potential sites for the storage of nuclear waste material
as part of a permanent solution, whichever management solution
has been arrived at. That would then involve the creation of a
list of potential sites, criteria for the selection of the best
site, and are you saying it would be Government policy to release
the long list of potential sites together with the criteria that
would be used to gradually whittle down that long list of sites
to a short list of sites, that would eventually be chosen between?
I think the problem with the Nirex installation was that the original
long list was never there and it was only a short list that was
around which came out into the public.
(Mr Meacher) There is a long process there involved
in that question, each of which involves a major issue as to how
we resolve it at that nodal point. The first question is, what
is the management option. Deep level disposal is favoured by many
people but it is certainly not a consensus, so there is no certainty
we would go down that route. Whichever option, but particularly
if it is deep level, there is then a question of whether one decides
to restrict it to an area where there is already activity in the
nuclear industry, particularly Sellafield but there may be some
other nuclear sites, and that again is an issue which we are not
at this moment confronting, or whether it should just be at Sellafield,
because there is no doubt that some of the Cumbrian people have
accepted the benefits of the nuclear industry in terms of jobs
and in other ways, and there is a different attitude there from
many other parts of the country. But you then have to look at
a third issue which is where is an appropriate siting for deep
level disposal, if one goes down that route, and the geology of
the country does not necessarily accord with the political attitudes,
but we would have to take account of that. All of these are decisions
at a later stage, all that I am saying is that when we do begin
to focus on two or three options or one option, we should be totally
open about it, about the fact that if we go down this option,
and it could be any of these alternatives I have indicated, there
is a public discussion about the merits of each of them, so whatever
is chosen harnesses as much public support as we can achieve.
That I think is the best we can do.
283. Just to clarify the position. That was
not the answer I expected, in the sense I was expecting criteria
which were scientific would be the ones which would determine
the list of potential sites for whatever management option was
decided. You seemed to be bringing into your comments that part
of the criteria which would whittle down the long list to the
short list would be the attitude of the local population in a
particular area rather than purely the scientific basis as to
whether or not that particular site is the best site for ground
level storage, storage in a bunker or a deep disposal unit.
(Mr Meacher) Of course, you are quite right, one does
not choose this on the basis of where one can get the minimum
political disagreement, that would be very foolish, if it is not
obviously an appropriate form of cover. One ideally needs what
is called there is time BRUSC, which is Basement Rock Under Sedimentary
Cover. That exists in different parts of the country to different
degrees. In Cumbria there is what I believe is called Borrowdale
volcanic rock, which does not entirely meet that requirement.
Indeed one of the considerations of course with regard to the
safety case is to do with the geology and particularly the hydro-geology
of the area, but of course it has to be decided basically in terms
of appropriateness for storage. I should make clear that the criteria
should be agreed and published for the initial selection of sites.
When that has been done, we then have to consider the political
acceptability. But you are absolutely right, it is the scientific
criteria which must take preference, but they will not work either
unless people are prepared to agree them.
284. I would like to probe you about the membership
of the independent body which is mentioned in paragraph 6.25 of
the consultation document. Do you not think you are lacking in
a bit of direction when you say, "Your views are invited"
on what this independent body should be? When it came to sub-contracting
interest rate setting to the Bank of England, your Government
was pretty clear on what a difficult decision it was and what
kind of people it was very happy to deal with that. When it comes
to dealing with nuclear waste, you seem to be at arm's length,
saying, "Could you please tell us what you think would be
independent?" Why not give some leadership and give some
models of what you think?
(Mr Meacher) We certainly need it to be independent,
otherwise we shall be charged
285. What do you mean by "independent"?
(Mr Meacher) It needs to be seen by the public to
be giving impartial and objective advice. I accept you cannot
exclude anyone who has serious or deep knowledge of the nuclear
industry or works in the nuclear industry, because that is where
a lot of the relevant expertise is, but I think if such persons
had a majority or were seen to be over-influential, then it would
lose credibility. So we need carefully to get a mix in terms of
objectivity from people who have a track record in this area but
not necessarily a technical record in working for the nuclear
industry, but it has got to include some people from that area
286. So what about people who say, "I won't
serve on this body unless you say `No more nuclear waste is going
to be produced'"? I am thinking of people with powerful distaste
for things to do with the nuclear industry. They might give you
the balance but are you quite happy that they rule themselves
(Mr Meacher) I think if people lay down conditions
and say, "I will only serve if you, Government, take a particular
view", that is not acceptable.
287. Coming back to this business of independence,
because you were able to give me in a sentence what you meant
by that, coming back to the document it says, "Your views
are invited on the need for an independent body . . .", you
are not even prepared to go so far as to say you think there ought
to be one.
(Mr Meacher) At this stage, I repeat again, this is
asking the public to agree the process. I certainly think that
is a very sensible proposal, to have a new advisory body to determine
the research we need to give us advice on the programme we should
follow and perhaps be responsible for some of its implementation.
As I say, that could be RWMAC, it could be a modified RWMAC, it
could be a completely different body. I think it is important,
if we are going to do this, that people understand why we are
doing it, and they accept it. Again it is the record, it is not
that previous Governments have not tried hard, they have, they
really wanted to solve this problem, but it ran amok, and I am
extremely cautious at each stage to ensure we have public support.
I am convinced that is the right way to proceed. This is not dragging
it out unnecessarily, it is not because we are unable to take
decisions, of course it is not, of course we could just set up
some new body, but if people as a result of this process then
said, "We really do not think that is the right way to do
it", we would be caught out. I prefer to take people with
me, even if it is slower.
288. Why did you not just have the consultation
process focused on the establishment of an independent body, who
could then subsequently deal with these nasty issues, give you
your advice and provide you with a ready-made solution?
(Mr Meacher) That, with respect, is exactly the point
I have just made. Whereas I can see that is a perfectly sensible
way of proceeding, if it is possible - it may be unlikely but
it is possiblethat other people do not think that is a
way to proceed, is it a good idea to go down a route which the
public when they are consulted think is not the right way to go?
289. I come back to this business about interest
rates, not everybody agreed with that decision but you just took
it, you said, "I want to do this, I think it is a good idea
to have an independent body to set interest rates", so the
Chancellor got up a few days after you had been elected as the
new Government in 1997 and said, "This is very controversial,
difficult and very important, so I am going to give it to the
Bank of England", and then set out who was going to do it
and said, "Here you are, here is the inflation target, get
on with it, write to me if you do not hit it either way."
So you can take a difficult decision then which has in its own
way just as much importance to the nation, but when it comes to
this you are still busy asking what people think is independent.
(Mr Meacher) I really do not think there is any analogy
at all between giving to an independent body the responsibility
for determining key aspects of monetary policy and this. This
is an issue which has been hugely discussed in financial circles
for a long, long time.
290. So has this.
(Mr Meacher) But that does not depend on public acceptability.
The key issue is, is it going to work? If it works, people will
be pleased, if it does not, people will kick the Government for
having made the decision. This is a totally different issue.
291. Plenty of people debate the question of
the setting and level of interest rates. Not everybody agrees
with each decision.
(Mr Meacher) It is perfectly true in a fast-moving
economy, where daily decisions have to be taken, someone has to
take a particular decision. There is an institutional framework
for resolving issues which have to be settled. It is controversial
because not everyone would agree it, but clearly a rapid decision
has to be taken. This is totally different. This is not short-termist
in terms of what is going to be the impact in the next three to
six months if we get the level of interest rates wrong. This is
about what is going to happen in the next hundreds or thousands
of years if we reach a decision which leads to the crushing of
radioactive waste making it unmonitorable and irretrievable, which
leads to radioactivity seeping back to the surface, at a hugely
later stage of human development if the human race is still on
this planet. That is a totally different issue. There is no other
issue I can think of in Government which has a 10,000-plus year
292. What about the role of Parliament in this
process? Do you think that Parliament should be consulted, involved,
in some way, shape or form in this debate and process?
(Mr Meacher) Very much so.
293. In what ways?
(Mr Meacher) I think it would be very helpful to have
a debate in Parliament. I certainly would be very keen for MPs
to take a lead in developing this debate. It is, of course, I
am well aware, easy, particularly for Opposition MPs to pooh-pooh
the slowness of this in the way some members, including yourself,
have perhaps done a little this afternoon, but nevertheless it
is worth taking that risk. I accept, as Diana Organ said, that
unless we open this debate and get a genuine discussion in the
news programmes, on television, with representatives of both sides
arguing it perhaps passionately but in detail, with articles in
Sunday newspapers for and against, I do not think we are going
to arouse that degree of public opinion.
294. If I tabled you a Parliamentary Question
tomorrow to list the Nirex sites as part of the debate, would
you answer it?
(Mr Meacher) I would answer it in the same way I have
today. First of all, I have not actually seen that list. It would
be in records relating to a previous Government which I suppose
I could ask for. I am still learning about Civil Service rules,
I am not sure we would have access to it, but I really do not
think it would be helpful. I do not think it would be helpful
to you as a Conservative member to indicate again this is where
the Conservative Government said there should be a nuclear dump
site. I really think that is not productive for your cause.
Mr Jack: Maybe, but your name is going to be
on the Answer!
295. Last week I think all of us here went to
Sellafield and we were shown Building B215, and one of the documents
we have had an opportunity to read is an article or report by
the World Information Service on Energy, which concluded, "a
severe accident or terrorist attack on the high level waste tanks
in building 215 could lead . . . to an impact several dozen times
the global and long-term impact of the Chernobyl accident."
Shortly before we began our deliberations in this inquiry, the
House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology published
a report, and I believe one of their conclusions was, "the
awareness of terrorist threats to vulnerable installations simplifies
things by leaving deep underground storage as the only realistic
option." What is your view on that factor which I suppose
since 11 September has become an increasingly important factor
in the way in which we approach this problem?
(Mr Meacher) It has undoubtedly become more acute
after 11 September. At the same time, bearing in mind again that
the timescale is thousands or tens of thousands of years, I think
it would be wrong to be panicked by that event into taking a very
short-termist solution which we then had thousands of years to
regret. I think in the short-term, of course, we have to take
account of the risks. Security measures at Sellafield have been
tightened up, they have been stepped up, and I am sure you will
not press me because I cannot go into more detail but that is
certainly the case.
296. Just do not let any terrorist try to get
there by Virgin trains, that is all!
(Mr Meacher) UK civil nuclear sites are stringently
regulated by the Office of Civil Nuclear Security. They are certainly
buildings which are built to take the greatest impact of any buildings
in Britain. Of course, that was reviewed in the light of what
happened on 11 September. I repeat, even if we were to take a
decision this week, it would take several years, minimum, before
we could shift what is now on the surface deep underground. So
it is not as though we could take a decision now and as a matter
of emergency have it all underground in a matter of weeks. It
is simply not in that timescale.
297. Related to that is another issue which
has arisen in our discussions, and that is about the state of
the 10,000 tonnes of radioactive waste currently stored in the
UK. Several witnesses have told us that they do not believe the
current storage arrangements are necessarily safe. What is your
view of that?
(Mr Meacher) We insist they are and indeed Mr Jack
has been making it very clear from his reading of the document
that we repeatedly assert this, and we do assert this. We believe
that the risk of leakage from these sites, whilst it is never
zero, is very, very closely regulated by the Nuclear Installations
Inspectorate. The health and safety aspects are very closely regulated
indeed by the HSE. I have met on several occasions the chief officer
of NII and have pressed him extremely hard about measures of safety.
I do believe that British regulation of nuclear installations
is very tight indeed. I repeat, that is not to say that it is
impossible for an accident to happenI am not saying thatbut,
again, what is the alternative? We do have 10,000 tonnes and,
I repeat, even if we take no further decisions about further nuclear
build it is increasing. High level waste is increasing at an annual
rate of about 240 tonnes in vitrified form, intermediate level
waste mostly in cemented form is increasing at a rate of about
5,500 tonnes, there are small amounts of low level waste nationwide
which are not maintained at Drigg, because it is not suitable,
and there are something like 1 million cubic metres of low level
waste disposed of at Drigg. These are very large figures. They
are continuing to increase and we expect that they are unlikely
to plateau below a level of something of the order of 5,000 tonnes
of high level waste, which is about a 260 per cent increase on
current stocks, and half a million tonnes of intermediate level
waste, which is about a 300 per cent increase on current stocks.
So the total, even if we take no further action in terms of nuclear
build, is about half a million tonnes. That is an enormous total
and it is not something that we can rapidly dispose of by any
means. It is highly hazardous, particularly of course high level
waste, but equally intermediate waste remains hazardous for hundreds
if not thousands of years. This is a long-term problem and there
is no other way of resolving it than a long-term solution, and
making sure we get that right is overwhelmingly the top priority.
298. Is there a case for accelerating the process
(Mr Meacher) If I understand the question, that is
something that RWMAC either have studied or are studying. I think
it is one of the five investigations which they are making this
year. Am I right in saying that?
(Mr Wood) They are certainly looking at the inventory
of radioactive waste, I do not know whether they are studying
separately the scope for accelerating conditioning. We can certainly
look at that and prepare a note for the Committee, if that would
(Mr Meacher) 10,000 tonnes has already been conditioned.
299. Have you or your officials yet had sight
of the draft conclusions of the PIU Report?
(Mr Meacher) I have, yes. I am sure my officials have,