Select Committee on Scottish Affairs Second Report

3  The management of nuclear waste

45. Before the provision of electricity by nuclear power could be considered again, the people of Scotland would need to be convinced that it is safe - in particular, that the management and storage of such waste is not going to pose any threats to them, their families or the environment.

46. Such a task has not been made any easier by recent media reports which quote a former health physics surveyor at the Dounreay plant stating that, inter alia, "highly radioactive wastes was pumped into the sea and evidence of the pollution was covered up by managers who had a "reckless" disregard for public health".[25] These revelations appear to be have been verified by Dounreay's Project Manager who, according to the report, said that past practices at Dounreay "could be considered reckless if not culpable today."[26]

47. If there had been time to do so, the Committee would certainly have recalled UKAEA to be questioned on these allegations. If true, they would, at the very least, cause a lack of confidence in UKAEA's activities and, at worst, possibly cast doubt on any of their reassurances, such as they gave to the Committee when questioned about the safety of the shaft used to store intermediate-level waste:

"…..The rock in the vicinity of the Dounreay shaft is extremely impermeable; water does not flow through the rock. It does, however, flow through the very thin fissures between the Caithness slabs, and that results in a very, very small quantity of radioactivity ending up in the environment. By the time, of course, it reaches the environment it is so dilute that it is no longer intermediate-level waste, it is low-level waste. Nonetheless UKAEA recognises that the shaft is an inappropriate disposal facility, and before we can remove the material that is in there it is necessary to stop water getting into the shaft….. we have a project underway now, two years ahead of programme, to inject a grout curtain around the shaft to prevent it leaking. The effect of that in fact is to remove the principal hazard which is posed by the shaft, which is a hazard to the environment rather than a hazard to anyone in the immediate vicinity…..That actually has a very, very good impact on the environment. At the moment we remove in the order of 20 cubic metres of water per day from the Dounreay shaft. This is filtered, processed as appropriate, and discharged to the sea. Once we isolate the shaft from the environment, even that modest amount of radioactivity will not reach the sea, so the shaft will be rendered relatively benign until we get the material out of there."[27]

48. We understand from informal discussions with UKAEA that the only radioactive waste generated at Dounreay for which there is currently no long-term strategy (other than conditioning and storage) is intermediate-level waste, which is the subject of a UK-wide review by the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management.[28] This is the same for all of the Scottish nuclear sites being decommissioned - ie, Dounreay, Hunterston A and Chapelcross.

49. As regards the regulatory aspects, the situation in Scotland is not altogether straightforward, with the storage of waste at licensed nuclear sites in Scotland being reserved to the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate of the Health and Safety Executive, whilst the disposal of radioactive waste at licensed nuclear sites in Scotland is devolved to the Scottish Environment Protection Agency.

50. Similarly, the public needs to be convinced that some of the 70 tonnes of plutonium currently stored at Sellafield cannot, for example, be stolen by terrorists or agents of rogue states and converted into either dirty-bombs or nuclear warheads for ICBMs.

51. The Committee considers that, because the Government has not yet come to a decision about how to manage the nuclear waste that has already been created, it sends the wrong signal and remains a matter of concern.

52. We are, therefore, encouraged by the response given by the Minister of State for the Environment, Elliot Morley MP, when he was being questioned by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee on that Committee's inquiry into Radioactive Waste Management, when he confirmed that he had instructed the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWRM) to finish its work by July 2006.[29] This timescale was reconfirmed by UKAEA when they gave evidence to us.[30]

53. This is a positive development. However, in its Report, the Lords' Science and Technology Committee pointed out that, since 1997:

"progress towards finding a long-term solution to the problem of radioactive waste management has been bedevilled by delay….Mr Morley assured us that CoRWM will be able to deliver its recommendations to Ministers by July 2006. This timetable must not be allowed to slip, nor must CoRWM's report be followed by further procrastination".[31]

54. We concur absolutely with the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee's conclusions on the management of nuclear waste; we hope that the Lords Committee, and this Committee's successor, will keep the matter under review, and ensure that neither CoRWM nor the Government allow the July 2006 target date for a final decision on how to manage such waste to be missed.

25   See The Sunday Times, 6 March 2005, pages 1 and 2. Back

26   IbidBack

27   Q 27. Back

28   Established in 2003 to review options for managing solid radioactive waste, and to recommend what should be done with the wastes for which no long-term strategy exists. Back

29   House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, 5th Report of Session 2003-04, Radioactive Waste Management, HL Paper (2003-04) 200, Qs 34 - 36.  Back

30   Qs 23 - 25. Back

31   Ibid, paragraph 3.4. Back

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