Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Third Report


The Radioactive Waste Policy Sub-Committee of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has agreed to the following Report:



The United Kingdom has a huge amount of intermediate- and high-level waste currently stored, mainly at Sellafield, awaiting conditioning and final disposal. Successive attempts to reach a decision about what to do with the waste have failed. In September 2001, the Government published a consultation document which marks the beginning of a process intended to lead to lead to a publicly-acceptable solution. In this short report we consider the Government's consultation process. We raise matters of concern, including the low public profile of the document and of the consultation process itself, and the length of the policy making process, which is due to continue until 2007. We make several recommendations: that the Government ensure that the consultation process is conducted methodically and transparently, in a way which encourages public participation; that it should set up an independent body to oversee the process; and that the objectives for each of the remaining stages of the policy development process should be made clear. We make it clear that it is incumbent on those on all sides of the debate to take part in the dialogue envisaged by the consultation document. We particularly urge the Government to prepare ways to address concerns which will inevitably arise when possible sites for disposal are made public towards the end of the policy-making process.


1. Since the Second World War the United Kingdom has generated a large quantity of radioactive waste, as a result of civil nuclear power production and defence needs. There are now more than 10,000 tonnes of waste stored mainly at Sellafield in Cumbria and at Dounreay in Scotland.[1] Even if no more nuclear power stations are built, the volume of waste will increase dramatically, by up to fifty times, over the next century as existing stations are decommissioned.[2] Finding a long-term solution to the problem of disposing with existing and future waste has proved difficult. In an attempt to reach a final decision about the matter, the Government and the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland published a consultation document on 12 September 2001,[3] with the aim of stimulating a "national debate which will lead up to that decision and beyond it".[4] Consultation on the document represents the first stage in a five stage programme of action, due to culminate in 2007. Later stages will be:

  • research and public debate examining the different options and recommending the best option;
  • further consultation about the proposed option;
  • announcement of the chosen option, seeking public views on how it should be implemented;
  • legislation, if required.[5]

The first stage, of consultation on the current document, will come to an end on 12 March 2002.

2. Following publication of the Government's document we decided to appoint a Sub-committee to undertake an inquiry into the consultation process.[6] We announced our inquiry in a press notice issued on 17 October 2001.[7] The terms of reference for the inquiry were to examine:

  • the timetable of, and progress made thus far in, the consultation exercise;
  • what difficulties arise from current radioactive waste policy, including consideration of what should be defined as waste; and
  • the impact that future decommissioning of nuclear power plants, any construction of new plants, and the commencement of MOX production at Sellafield will have on radioactive waste policy.

3. In response to our invitation to submit written evidence we received 20 memoranda. In addition, we held three oral evidence sessions in November and December 2001, hearing from representatives of Nirex, BNFL and British Energy, witnesses from Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, Professor Judith Petts, Head of the School of Geography and Environmental Sciences at the University of Birmingham, representatives of the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee (RWMAC), and the Minister for the Environment, Rt Hon Michael Meacher MP, and officials from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).[8] We wish to thank all who gave evidence, either orally or in writing. We made a visit to the BNFL facilities at Sellafield in Cumbria, and we are extremely grateful to those whom we met during the visit for their help and advice. We were also assisted throughout our inquiry by our specialist advisers, Professor Andrew Blowers and Mr Peter Beck. We are most grateful for their guidance.

4. The immediate context of our inquiry was shaped by several factors.

  • On 28 November 2001, the Government announced its intention to create a new Liabilities Management Authority, which from 2003 will be responsible for dealing with public sector civil nuclear liabilities.[9] The Authority will take over the responsibilities of BNFL and the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority for disposing of nuclear waste and for decommissioning nuclear plants, and it "will have a specific remit to develop an overall UK strategy for decommissioning and clean-up".[10]

  • A review of energy policy by the Cabinet Office Performance and Innovation Unit (PIU) began in June 2001.[11] Its outcome, which has not yet been published, may well have a bearing on future volumes of nuclear waste.

  • Our inquiry took place in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in the United States on11 September 2001. As a result, concern over the security of stored radioactive waste and other materials was heightened, and in particular over the prospects for surface storage.

  • As our inquiry was coming to an end, the Trade and Industry Select Committee was concluding its inquiry into "The Security of Energy Supply".


5. In the early years of the nuclear industry, the long-term disposal of radioactive waste was not considered an important issue. Waste was either stored or dumped at sea, at first near the Channel Islands and later in the Atlantic. In 1976 the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution drew attention to the problem of accumulating waste and advised that:

6. A quarter of a century later the UK still has no long-term management solution for the most dangerous and long-lived intermediate level waste (ILW) and high level waste (HLW). Efforts to find a solution began with proposals for exploratory drilling for potential sites for the disposal of high level wastes in Scotland, Wales and northern England. These plans were abandoned, after protests, in 1981. Two years later opposition from transport unions, some European governments and Greenpeace led to the suspension, and later cessation, of dumping radioactive waste at sea.

7. Attention then turned to finding potential sites for disposal of ILW and low level wastes (LLW) on land. In the early 1980s the nuclear industry, with the agreement of the Government, established a company, Nirex, which was charged with examining the safety, environmental and economic aspects of deep geological disposal of radioactive waste[13]. In 1983 Nirex identified a disused anhydrite mine at Billingham, in Cleveland, as a suitable site for deep disposal of long-lived ILW and a wartime munitions site at Elstow, near Bedford for the shallow disposal of short-lived ILW and LLW. These proposals aroused strong local opposition, and the plans for Billingham were dropped in 1985. Later in 1983 Nirex added three other sites in Eastern England (Killingholme on Humberside, Fulbeck in Lincolnshire and Bradwell in Essex) to their list and began a comparative evaluation of their suitability for shallow burial of radioactive waste. The so-called 'four site saga' ensued, which saw Nirex's proposals being opposed by the County Councils Coalition and a coalition of local protest groups under the umbrella of Britons Opposed to Nuclear Dumping. The result was that the proposal for shallow burial of nuclear waste was withdrawn by the Government in 1986.

8. A new approach was signalled with the publication in 1988 by Nirex of The Way Forward,[14] which promised "to promote public understanding of the issues involved and to stimulate comment which will assist Nirex in developing acceptable proposals".[15] On the basis of a site selection process undertaken by Nirex, and a written consultation exercise which covered the potential options, the then Secretary of State, Rt hon Nicholas Ridley, identified Sellafield, on the west coast of Cumbria, and Dounreay, in northern Scotland, as preferred sites for the disposal of radioactive waste, on the grounds that "it would be best to explore first those sites where there is some measure of local support for civil nuclear facilities".[16] The proposal to dispose of waste at Dounreay was subsequently dropped, mainly because of the higher transport costs that would be incurred in moving waste to such a remote location.

9. Sellafield therefore became the focus of intensive geological exploration. In 1992 Nirex decided to apply for planning permission for a Rock Characterisation Facility (RCF) underground laboratory to enable detailed investigations of the site, to examine whether or not a repository there would be safe. The application was opposed by Cumbria County Council. Following a local planning inquiry, permission to construct the laboratory was refused by the then Secretary of State, Rt hon John Gummer, in March 1997. Although there were sufficient local planning grounds to justify refusal, the case for rejection was also based on the "scientific uncertainties and technical deficiencies in the proposals", and concern "about the process of the selection of the site". Sellafield had been a pragmatic political choice that was defeated by the failure to achieve sufficient scientific credibility and public confidence in the site.

10. The United Kingdom was left in 1997 without any long term management policy, or indeed proposals, for disposal of most radioactive wastes. The only facility in operation, at Drigg, near Sellafield, handles low level solid wastes. Meanwhile, wastes continue to accumulate from nuclear power plants, and from the reprocessing of spent fuel from Magnox power stations and Advanced Gas-Cooled Reactors (AGR). Spent fuel and reprocessing wastes from overseas customers are also stored at Sellafield pending repatriation. Decommissioning of older Magnox plants and other nuclear facilities, including nuclear submarines, is also adding to the stockpile. There are concerns about the condition in which some of the earlier so-called 'legacy' wastes are stored, notably about buildings such as B38 at Sellafield, which was built more than 30 years ago and houses Magnox fuel cladding.

11. Certain lessons have been learned following the Sellafield planning inquiry, with Nirex in particular undertaking a fundamental reappraisal of its purpose and approach. There is now a widespread recognition that gaining public trust and confidence is a prerequisite to securing public acceptance of policies. Consequently, there is an emphasis on the need for transparency and openness and for engagement in dialogue with stakeholders and the public as the basis of policy-making. This approach underlies the proposals for a policy process that have emerged since the rejection of the Sellafield RCF project.

12. The House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology Report on the Management of Nuclear Waste,[17] published in March 1999, emphasised the need for a new approach to policy making. The report covered a wide range of issues including reprocessing, plutonium and mixed oxide (MOX), and stressed the need for public acceptability. It proposed institutional arrangements comprising a Nuclear Waste Management Commission to carry forward policy development, and a Radioactive Waste Disposal Company to implement that policy. The report recommended that the Government "should develop a fully comprehensive policy for the long-term management of all nuclear waste".[18] Although it favoured phased geological (ie. underground) disposal rather than surface storage as the way forward, it also urged the need for wide-ranging consultation on the possible solutions.

13. In its response[19] to the House of Lords' report of 1999, the Government accepted the principal recommendations made and undertook to "publish a detailed and wide-ranging consultation paper in early 2000". In fact, the paper did not appear until September 2001.

14. Past attempts to decide on a policy for disposing of existing radioactive waste have failed. All interested parties agree that it is vital that this new consultation process should succeed, leading to a long-term policy for the safe disposal of radioactive waste. But, for some, agreement could not be interpreted as a green light for new nuclear build.

All Radioactive Wastes (by volume)
(DEFRA and the devolved administrations, September 2001)

The Government's Consultation Process

The Document

15. The process of consultation has been set in motion with the publication of the September 2001 consultation document. The document recognises that public acceptance depends on effective consultation on the principles, options and implementation of radioactive waste policy. It invites comments on how the process of policy-making should be developed, on the institutional structures necessary to carry it forward, on methods for securing deliberative participation by stakeholders and a wider public, and on the programme for action.

16. The consultation document[20] has had a mixed reception. During an oral evidence session of the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology the document was described as "vacuous" by a member of the Committee.[21] Professor Judith Petts expressed concern at the document's lack of clarity, and specifically at the absence of clearly defined objectives for the consultation process. She noted that "there is no detailed discussion of the objectives of engaging the public, other than to 'earn support'", and that "really engaging people can only be done effectively when you are clear about the objectives".[22] The Nuclear Free Local Authorities wrote that "simply publishing a consultation paper and inviting comments will not enable a proper exploration of public views".[23] Friends of the Earth has said that "whilst the DEFRA document does contain important initiatives, namely the commitment to dialogue and the recognition of plutonium as a problem that requires serious attention, it repeatedly demonstrates a lack of understanding and knowledge of the problem at hand."[24] The Managing Director of Nirex, however, told us that "this is a pre-stage, and the idea is that this will throw up issues, which will then help to illuminate all the discussion about options that is going to follow; and that is a new way of going about things."[25]

17. The current document is effectively a consultation on the consultation process. The consultation document is to be commended for its acceptance that any approach to developing radioactive waste policy must be developed with full public involvement and a consensus about the most appropriate course of action. The consultation is intended to define the remainder of the policy development process, but the format and relatively low profile of this first stage mean that it is unlikely to engage many members of the public in addition to the usual stakeholders.


18. Despite their support for the consultation process, the view has been expressed by BNFL[26]and British Energy[27] that the proposed timescale for the programme of action is too protracted. According to the consultation document a final decision on radioactive waste policy will not be made until 2007. In his evidence to us Mr Meacher said that he wanted "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".[28] In fact, he argued, if "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."[29] RWMAC commented "This represents a challenging programme of work. However it is essential that the process should not be allowed to extend indefinitely"[30] A measured and open staged process enabling participation and involving stakeholders and the public has the potential to yield the acceptability necessary to ensure an effective decision. But delay is an ever-present danger. The timetable for the programme of action should not be allowed to extend beyond 2007.

19. Concerns have also been expressed that the staged consultation process set out in the Government's consultation document is ill-defined. The process could be construed, not as a genuinely open consultation, but as an information gathering exercise designed to confer legitimacy on a pre-determined policy. Professor Judith Petts told us that "what is needed now is a clear characterisation of the decisions that have to be made, by whom, over what timescale and to what purpose."[31] RWMAC said that "proposals for future policy must be seen to flow logically from the process. This indicates the need for a carefully structured and phased approach to the identification and evaluation of options." It has set out an alternative and less limited five stage process to lead up to a decision on the management option.[32]

20. Although we have some reservations about the usefulness of the consultation document and the extent to which the Government has thought through the consultation process, we welcome the document as a first step towards developing a long overdue policy for the disposal of radioactive waste. We are however concerned that the process of policy development should be well-defined and transparent at all stages. The Government should address concerns that a generally phrased consultation document will not engage the public in the debate. It should also set clearer objectives defining the nature of the outcome of each of the remaining stages of the consultation and policy development process, and provide further details of how it will ensure that the programme of action will be completed by 2007.

1   Managing Radioactive Waste Safely: Proposals for developing a policy for managing solid radioactive waste in the UK, DEFRA and the devolved administrations, September 2001, pp.14 ff. Back

2   Managing Radioactive Waste Safely: Proposals for developing a policy for managing solid radioactive waste in the UK, DEFRA and the devolved administrations, September 2001, p.7. Back

3   Managing Radioactive Waste Safely: Proposals for developing a policy for managing solid radioactive waste in the UK, DEFRA and the devolved administrations, September 2001, pp.14 ff. Back

4   Managing Radioactive Waste Safely: Proposals for developing a policy for managing solid radioactive waste in the UK, DEFRA and the devolved administrations, September 2001, p.7. Back

5   Managing Radioactive Waste Safely: Proposals for developing a policy for managing solid radioactive waste in the UK, DEFRA and the devolved administrations, September 2001, pp.7 and 8. Back

6   Members serving on the Radioactive Waste Policy Sub-committee were: Mr David Curry MP (Chairman), Mr David Borrow MP, Mr Colin Breed MP, Mr David Drew MP, Patrick Hall MP, Mr Michael Jack MP, Mr David Lepper MP, Diana Organ MP. Back

7   See Back

8   We heard from Mr Chris Murray, Managing Director, and Dr Alan Hooper, Chief Scientific Adviser, Nirex, from Mr David Bonser, Transformation Director, and Mr George Beveridge, Director, Nuclear Decommissioning and Clean-up (Europe), BNFL, and from Mr Robert Armour, Director, Corporate Affairs, and Company Secretary, Mr John Luke, Head of Fuel Cycle and Liabilities, and Mr Tony Free, Liabilities Manager, British Energy, on Monday 26 November 2001; from Mr Stephen Tindale, Executive Director, and Mr Mark Johnston, Campaigner, Greenpeace, and Dr Rachel Western, Nuclear Research Officer, Friends of the Earth, and from Professor Judith Petts, Professor of Environmental Risk Management, University of Birmingham, on Monday 3 December 2001; and from Professor Charles Curtis, Chairman, and Mr Fred Barker and Dr Wynne Davies, RWMAC, and from Rt Hon Michael Meacher MP, Minister of State, and officials, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on Monday 17 December 2001. Back

9   HC Deb, 28 November 2001, cols.990 ff.wBack

10   HC Deb, 28 November 2001, col.991 wBack

11   See Prime Minister announces Energy Policy Review, Cabinet Office Press Release CAB 124/01. Back

12   Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution Sixth Report Nuclear Power and the Environment, September 1976, Cmnd 6618, para 27. Back

13   Taken from the Nirex website, at Back

14   The Way Forward: A Discussion Document, Nirex, 1988. Back

15   The Way Forward: A Discussion Document, Nirex, 1988, p.4. Back

16   HC Deb, 21 March 1989, col.508wBack

17   House of Lords Science and Technology Committee Third Report on the Management on Nuclear Waste, Session 1998-99, HL 41. Back

18   House of Lords Science and Technology Committee Third Report on the Management on Nuclear Waste, Session 1998-99, HL 41, para. 8.10. Back

19   The Government Response to the House of Lords Select Committee Report on the Management of Nuclear Waste, DETR, October 1999. Back

20   Managing Radioactive Waste Safely: Proposals for developing a policy for managing solid radioactive waste in the UK, DEFRA and the devolved administrations, September 2001. Website Back

21   House of Lords Science and Technology Committee First Report on Managing Radioactive Waste: the Government's Consultation, Session 2001-02, HL 36. Back

22   Evidence taken on 3 December 2001, Ev 62, Q. 194. Back

23   Memorandum submitted by the Nuclear Free Local Authorities Steering Committee, Ev 93.(apps). Back

24   Memorandum submitted by the Friends of the Earth, Ev 47. Back

25   Evidence taken on 26 November 2001, Ev 6, Q.2. Back

26   Memorandum submitted by BNFL, Ev 14, para 1.2 Back

27   Evidence taken on 26 November 2001, Ev 35, Q.101. Back

28   Evidence taken on 17 December, 2001, Ev 83, Q.264. Back

29   Evidence taken on 17 December, 2001, Ev 85, Q.274. Back

30   Memorandum submitted by RWMAC, Ev 69, para 2.11. Back

31   Memorandum submitted by Professor Judith Petts, Ev 60, para 20. Back

32   Memorandum submitted by RWMAC, Ev 69, para 2.9. Back

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