Select Committee on Trade and Industry Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 52-59)




  52. Gentlemen, we will get started. I am not sure who wants to lead off and introduce themselves.
  (Dr Parr) Yes, I am Dr Doug Parr, the Chief Scientist for Greenpeace in the UK. My colleague is Peter Roche, who has taken a longstanding interest in the nuclear issue and all of its different facets. Do I need to introduce Greenpeace?

  53. No, I think we have that. Thanks very much for coming this morning. I think you have been sitting in for the last round, so you know the areas that we are wanting to home in on. Obviously there are some which are more pertinent to your activities than perhaps to a trade association, but I think where we would like to start is that obviously this does not come like a bolt from the blue; we had a hint of it last November. What was your organisation's first reaction to the White Paper? Do you think that it really addresses the challenge of the nuclear legacy? Maybe we could start there. We will probably spend the whole morning answering these questions in one form or another, but by way of introduction.
  (Dr Parr) Okay. I think we have a couple of main criticisms of the White Paper and the proposals for a Liabilities Management Agency. I would like to say that although we do have those, and we consider them very substantive criticisms that cannot be gainsaid or wished away before its creation, the general principle of bringing some greater political will and intent to the management of the nuclear legacy is a good thing, so to that extent proposals like this are good, but, and it is a very hefty "but", we have two main criticisms, as I say. The first is the context in which it is being thought about, being created. We have a nuclear waste crisis, I think it is fair to say, if recent leaks of reports from the NII and NuSAC are to be believed, and what is not happening is a commitment to end the generation of further nuclear waste both through existing processes, the continuing operation of Magnox reactors, continued reprocessing. Secondly, the onward commitment of potential new nuclear liabilities and new generation of nuclear waste through the freeing up of BNFL to continue the nuclear industry, particularly the construction of another set of nuclear power stations, which would have implications there flowing from that for waste, particularly high-level waste, which we would be very concerned about. I think at that point I will just hand over to Pete to say a little bit more about the closure of Magnox reactors and plutonium.
  (Mr Roche) There are a couple of things which worry us about the continuing Magnox programme. BNFL have committed themselves to closing the Magnox reprocessing plants by 2012 and it is our view that there is already sufficient spent Magnox fuel in the system, in the storage ponds and in the reactors, to keep them going until around about 2012 simply because the throughput has been so bad since around about 1996 and it is not improving fast enough. Secondly, during the recent Environment Agency's reauthorisation to the discharges for the Magnox programme, in that process we made various representations which led to the Environment Agency requesting BNFL to carry out an independent financial, or ask the opinion of independent financial experts as to whether it was actually economic to continue running the Magnox reactors. They actually refused to do that and at the end of the day the Environment Agency's report said that the situation was not fully resolved to their satisfaction, so there is obviously still a question mark hanging over the economics of the Magnox programme. In a report, which I can leave a copy of for you, which Mike Sadnicki has recently done funded by Nuala Aherne, the Irish Green MEP, he says that "the Magnox programme is causing cash to haemorrhage from the Magnox cycle at an alarming rate". Then on the question of continuing with reprocessing at THORP, as the Committee will be well aware, British Energy in particular have been keen to cancel their contracts with the THORP reprocessing plant. They told the PIU that they reckoned they could save about £250 million a year if their spent fuel was stored rather than reprocessed, so we think that there ought to be an element of renegotiation of the THORP contract undertaken by the new organisation and not left to BNFL. Then also, looking at plutonium, the British stockpile currently stands at around 60 tonnes and if the current contracts are carried out for Magnox and AGR reactors, that will probably increase to about 120 tonnes. With this material, which your own Committee has described (I cannot remember the exact phraseology) as something of a problem, actually we could prevent 50 per cent of that problem developing if that reprocessing was to end fairly soon.

  54. Maybe we could stop there and pick up one or two of the points you have raised. Could I first get a handle on the Magnox programme. Are you suggesting that all of the Magnox stations should be closed at the end of next week, basically; or are you wanting more of the Magnox stations, which are still deemed to be operational, to have their date of closure brought forward? My understanding is that some of them are being closed at a more rapid rate than you seem to be suggesting. I think the argument you are making is one that, if made two years ago, would have been perfectly valid; but now events have overtaken us, have they not, to an extent? Are you suggesting they should all be closed immediately, or that the programme of closure, which has been brought forward, has not been brought forward far enough?

  (Dr Parr) On safety grounds, given that these are very old reactors, we have got very considerable concerns about safety.[1]

  55. Are you concerned that the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate is not doing its job?
  (Dr Parr) We do not think it is adequately scrutinising and adequately following through on the safety concerns that we have about, for example, Wylfa power station. I mention that as a forerunner to say that is why we want to see them closed tomorrow afternoon, and not next week, to press forward any necessary safety procedures on shut-down. What Pete was doing was outlining our concerns in relation to the Liabilities Management Agency—the future generation of liabilities through the reprocessing of B205.

  56. I wanted to get on the record about Magnox. I understand your position on reprocessing, which is a well established one. Since we last got information from you there has been this change in BNFL's approach. They are beginning to suggest with Magnox it would be better to finish it sooner rather than later; but you are saying that "sooner" is still too long?
  (Dr Parr) Yes.
  (Mr Roche) To give you an idea, BNFL tell me that at the moment there is about 7,000 to 8,000 tonnes of Magnox spent fuel in the system. If they continue with the closure programme as they have outlined it at the moment that amount will increase to around 11,000 to 12,000. The throughput of the Magnox reprocessing plant is not anywhere near enough to reprocess 11,000 tonnes between now and 2012, so that is the concern at the moment.

  57. We will take that point up with BNFL this afternoon.
  (Dr Parr) Just to be clear, 2012 is the commitment under international negotiations for the closure of nuclear plant.[2]

  58. You make the point about British Energy. Some of us around this table have had the bleeding heart stories from British Energy on a number of occasions. We well remember them coming in very strongly on the issue of surface storage some years ago, and then walking away from it just as soon as they had got a better deal at the time. This seems to be a rather crude and simplistic negotiating ploy which they blow the dust off every so often when they have a cash flow problem. I am not quite sure if I would endow it with quite the strength that you put on it, but maybe I am being the cynical politician.
  (Mr Roche) The last time I spoke to British Energy a few weeks ago, although they dropped their reference to the Office of Fair Trading, they still said to me they were keen to carry on trying, in whatever way they could, to end their reprocessing contracts as soon as possible.

  59. They are in the toilets financially and looking for any ways of cutting costs, whether it is on environmental grounds or whether it is on business grounds.
  (Dr Parr) Being a cynical environmentalist, I do not think environmental grounds is the leading light in their rationale.

1   Witness's note: Our view is that the Magnox reactors should be shut. Back

2   Witness's note: This should be "the closure of the Magnox reprocessing plant". Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 12 August 2002