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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280-299)



  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 matters—small 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 when—and 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.

Mr Jack

  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 as well.

  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 out?
  (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 possible—that 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 timescale.

  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!

Mr Lepper

  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.

Mr Lepper

  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 happen—I am not saying that—but, 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 of reconditioning?
  (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 be helpful.
  (Mr Meacher) 10,000 tonnes has already been conditioned.

Mr Jack

  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, yes.

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