Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum submitted by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (B17)


  1.  On 12 September the UK Government and the Devolved Administrations for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland published their consultation paper Managing radioactive waste safely. A copy is attached to this memorandum. The paper began a public debate on a proposed programme of action for reaching and implementing decisions on the long term management of solid radioactive waste. The Committee's enquiry, and the meeting of the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee on 23 October, contribute to that debate and are welcomed.

  2.  The paper explains the earlier failure to reach a scientific and public consensus on the right way to manage radioactive waste, culminating in the 1997 Sellafield planning enquiry and the subsequent decision to refuse planning permission for a deep rock laboratory. This led to a fundamental review of UK policy including the House of Lords enquiry into nuclear waste in 1997-99.

  3.  The UK Government and the Devolved Administrations concluded that there is only one way to decide and implement a radioactive waste management policy that best safeguards human health and the environment now and far into the future. That way is via a rigorous, impartial and very public review of all the options. Their consultation paper proposes a programme for reaching that decision. It seeks views on ways of engaging with the public and building consensus. The detailed consideration of waste management options is for the next stage in the process.

  4.  The paper is self-explanatory and includes an executive summary so it is not further summarised here. This memorandum addresses the issues in the order set out by the Select Committee.

The consultation exercise—timetable and progress

  5.  The consultation paper proposes an action programme including a proposed timescale. But as the paper says, this timescale depends on future developments, including public comments on the proposals over the next four months. The Government will build a sound scientific and public consensus and take decisions earlier, if it can. The first priority must be to take the right decision; the next priority is to do so as soon as possible.


  6.  What should be defined as a waste. The consultation paper invites views not only on a proposed programme of action but also on this issue. Some radioactive materials, such as plutonium or spent nuclear fuel, are not currently classified as waste. But if at some point it were decided that there was no further use for some or all of these materials, we would need to consider how to handle them as part of a waste management strategy. That is why this issue should be tackled as part of the current consultation exercise.

  7.  Current storage arrangements. The paper says that radioactive wastes are safely managed and there is storage capacity for several decades. But the suitability of stores is kept under review, and new or revised arrangements may need to be put in place during that period, for example for low level waste.

  8.  September 11. The paper was published shortly after the atrocities of 11 September, which underlined the importance of taking sound decisions on the safe treatment of nuclear materials. The terrorist attacks prompted questions: why does the Government allow radioactive waste, including highly radioactive liquid waste, to be stored above ground given the risks of terrorist attack? Why does it not follow other countries' example and pursue a determined policy of underground storage or disposal?

  9.  The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) is responsible for the nuclear industry and is reviewing nuclear security; together with the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) which is responsible for health and safety.

  10.  The Government's review of radioactive waste management options—including, for example, above and below ground storage—will take into account of these and other risks. Meanwhile, underground storage or disposal is not a short term option. It would take many years to find any suitable location and construct and facility, and large volumes of waste would have to be transported a long distance from existing stores. The Government therefore believes that the first priority is to identify the waste management option, for the complete range of wastes, which provide the best short and long term protection, and which inspire the public confidence vital to its implementation.


  11.   Future decommissioning of nuclear power plants. Decommissioning strategy is mainly a matter for DTI and HSE. The consultation paper describes UK decommissioning policy and the regulatory process. It also sets out the implications of a change in decommissioning strategy either nationally or at a specific site. For example, earlier decommissioning of a nuclear power station could greatly increase the volume of radio active waste; though in some cases there could be benefits from earlier decommissioning, for example to prevent americium build-up in plutonium contaminated material in some facilities.

  12.   Construction of new plants. Energy policy is mainly a matter for DTI and the Committee will be aware of the PIU review of UK energy policy led by Brian Wilson. The consultation paper says that new nuclear plants would add to the volume of waste that would have to be managed, though the volume of waste produced per unit of electricity might well be lower than at present. Nuclear's future role will depend partly on securing public confidence about issues such as safety and the environment. Issues relating to radioactive waste management would need to be addressed.

  13.   MOX production at Sellafield. The plant's operation would be likely to add around 1 per cent to the total amount of intermediate-level waste generated at Sellafield, ie well under 1 per cent to the total volume of UK radioactive waste of all types.

  14.  Even if there is no substantial change to the current strategy on decommissioning, no MOX production in the UK, and if no new nuclear reactors are built, half a million tonnes of radioactive waste will arise over the next century. If there were changes, this could affect the way in which radioactive waste was managed because it would affect the size and nature of UK's radioactive waste inventory, for which we are now considering long-term management options. But it would not change the Government's overall strategy of reviewing all waste management options rigorously, impartially and openly before reaching and implementing decisions.


  15.  Parliament has a vital role in this process. It can debate the Government's proposals critically and point to better ways of doing things. Its debates can attract media attention so that there is more public involvement. And individual Members can encourage their constituents to get involved. The Government hopes that all these things will happen.

  16.  A vigorous and well-informed national debate is needed on radioactive waste and its management. The Committee's enquiry and eventual report will help to open up that debate.

  17.  The Committee's report—and all the evidence put before it—will be considered by the Government along with responses to its consultation exercise which ends on 12 March 2002, and will help to decide the next steps in the decision-making process.

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

November 2001

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