Safety and storage
173. The Health and Safety Executive administers
nuclear safety research programmes of around £8 million per
annum, which is funded by a levy on the nuclear generators.
There is concern that this fund may become under threat as the
nuclear reactors are closed.
DEFRA spends around £700,000 on research into the safe handling
and storage of radioactive wastes and the Department of Health
funds research into the health effects of exposure to man-made
and naturally occurring radiation.
The UK Government also contributes around £4.5 million a
year to the Euratom budget for research into radiation protection,
waste management and plant life management and safety.
174. Nuclear safety and storage research was undertaken
in the past principally by BNFL, UKAEA and Nirex. Nirex, which
was was set up in the early 1980s by the nuclear industry, with
the agreement of the Government, to examine safe, environmental
and economic aspects of deep geological disposal of radioactive
waste, spent around £8,5 million on research in 2001-02.
In July 2002 the Government announced the formation of the Liabilities
Management Authority as an NDPB, which will relieve the industry
of its historic waste liabilities.
The LMA will play a strategic role in dealing with the nuclear
waste legacy and as such will oversee the research being undertaken
by BNFL and UKAEA and ensure coordination with DEFRA and the Health
and Safety Executive. It will fund research itself into technology
which improves safety and reduces environmental impact, timescales
and costs. For example, improvements in vitrification and cementation
technology could make the immobilisation of wastes easier, faster
and cheaper. The ERRG report recommended nuclear waste research
as a priority area and the high-level group set up by Sir David
King will work with the LMA in taking this forward.
175. The Institute of Physics and the Institution
of Electrical Engineers have raised the possibility of the transmutation
of nuclear waste. Waste plutonium could be "burnt" in
a fast reactor or in a specialised accelerator facility.
Transmutation converts long-lived radioactive elements to shorter-lived
ones, decreasing the long-term problems of nuclear waste storage
from thousands of years to perhaps decades. The technology has
its problems in that it will not work with all radioactive elements,
large amounts of waste will still result and there are issues
concerning nuclear proliferation. The House of Lords Science and
Technology Committee considered the technology in its report on
the Management of Nuclear Waste in 1999 and concluded that
the time to deployment meant that it could not be considered as
a solution to current waste problems.
Nevertheless, we recommend that the Government monitor technological
developments in transmutation and keep it under review as part
of its radioactive waste management strategy.
176. BNFL says that the next generation of fission
reactors, such as the AP1000, will create far less waste than
their predecessors. Dr Robin Clegg of BNFL told us "If we
were to replace the current nuclear generating capacity with new
nuclear technology and to run that technology for its design life,
for 25 to 40 years, and generate 20 to 25 per cent of the UK's
electricity from that ... this new technology would only add ten
per cent to the volumes which we have got already".
If this can be independently verified then the waste issue cannot
be used as an argument against further nuclear build.
177. Greenpeace argues that allowing new nuclear
reactors to be built will weaken the impetus to introduce renewable
forms of energy generation. This is a risk, but the risk of failing
to reduce our carbon emissions is also great. In our view the
only strong grounds for the Government to oppose any new build
by BNFL or British Energy is that the companies are not on a sure
enough financial footing to be able to guarantee safe operation
for the lifetime of the reactors. The ability of BNFL and British
Energy to compete successfully in the market depends on the Government.
It is right that nuclear generators bear the external costs of
their generation but it is must remembered why we are discussing
this subject at all. It is largely because the use of fossil fuels
for energy has started to have a dangerous effect on global climate.
CO2 should be seen as waste and the Climate Change
Levy barely begins to account for the external costs of dealing
with it. It is hard to imagine that the nuclear legacy will ever
be as serious as global climate change.
178. The PIU report argued that the nuclear option
must be kept open.
According to Mr Adrian Ham from the British Nuclear Industry Forum,
the option is not open at present.
The Government's Energy White Paper agrees that the nuclear option
should remain but only just. It says:
"While nuclear power is currently an important
source of carbon-free electricity, the current economics of nuclear
power make it an unattractive option for new generating capacity
and there are also important issues for nuclear waste to be resolved.
This White Paper does not contain proposals for building new nuclear
power stations. However, we do not rule out the possibility that
at some point in the future new nuclear build might be necessary
if we are to meet our carbon targets. Before any decision to proceed
with the building of new nuclear power stations, there would need
to be the fullest public consultation and the publication of a
White Paper setting out the Government's proposals."
The implication is that in a couple of years' time
the Government will look at the progress being made towards the
10% renewables target. If progress is slow then, it will then
reconsider nuclear. It is clear from our evidence that the 10%
target is unlikely and we see nothing in the White Paper to suggest
that progress will be speeded up dramatically. The Government's
announcement that new nuclear build would require another public
consultation and another White Paper is perplexing. The Government
says with great pride that this is "the most significant
consultation on energy policy ever carried out in the UK".
There would have been no shortage of views expressed on the nuclear
issue and unless the situation changes substantially, which seems
unlikely, a further consultation would simply involve the same
people repeating the same arguments. 179. The nuclear
industry faces a continuing decline unless positive steps are
made now. The only way to keep the nuclear option open is for
the Government to indicate that it would in have no objection
in principle to granting permission for new reactors to be built,
even on a modest scale, to send a clear message that the technology
has a future. It should benefit from its status as a carbon-free
source of energy.
180. The next generation of fission reactors is
likely to be the last. Nuclear fission power should be used to
keep the UK's CO2 emissions as low as possible until
fusion power and other non-carbon technologies are commercially