Previous Section Index Home Page

To lie upon the Table.

Halton Hospital

6.29 pm

Mr. Mike Hall (Weaver Vale) (Lab): Earlier this afternoon, several constituents of mine and of the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), came to Parliament to pass me a petition expressing their concerns about the proposed transfer of in-patient activity from Halton hospital. The petition is signed by Mrs. Pauline Warrener and 23,000 other people.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

Pedestrian Crossings

6.29 pm

Ms Celia Barlow (Hove) (Lab): I wish to present a petition in the name of my constituent Ms Polly Strauss of Wolstonbury road in Hove. The petition was signed by 802 of my constituents. I entirely agree with the terms of the petition, which calls for safe pedestrian crossings at the junction of the Old Shoreham road and Dyke road in Hove. The junction is next to Brighton, Hove and Sussex sixth form college, and a safer flow of traffic would also benefit the students who must use the crossing every day.

Although there has recently been some progress locally, I still believe that the local campaign deserves to be presented to the House. The petition states

I concur, and I am happy to present the petition to the House.

To lie upon the Table.

19 July 2006 : Column 425

Radioactive Waste Management

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Jonathan Shaw.]

6.31 pm

Mr. Jamie Reed (Copeland) (Lab): The issue of long-term management of long-lived and highly active radioactive wastes in the UK, although by no means neglected, has been in a vacuum since 1997.

Let me make clear from the outset that this debate was not prompted by the recently published energy review and the overdue recognition of the essential role that nuclear energy has to play as part of a balanced and secure energy policy. The issue of radioactive waste management policy was not made more urgent by the outcome of the energy review; it was already a pressing issue in need of swift resolution. Attempts to link new nuclear generation with the current lack of a long-term disposal route for radioactive wastes are disingenuous and confused. Whether or not new nuclear reactors are built in this country, we urgently need a policy solution for the long-term management of radioactive waste.

Given that more than 60 per cent. of the nation's radioactive wastes currently reside in my constituency, my constituents and I have a clear and undeniable interest in this policy area, and I believe that our opinions should be listened to first and foremost in emerging policy discussions. That is morally right, for no other part of the United Kingdom takes a more keen or detailed interest in these issues than the residents of Copeland.

Copeland's unique interest is illustrated by figures relating to current radioactive waste volumes and expected future volumes as a result of decommissioning. The latest available figures for waste volumes in the UK are from 2004. Nationally, there are 1,890 cu m of high-level waste, 82,500 cu m of intermediate-level waste and 20,900 cu m of low-level waste. Prior to 2004, some 960,000 cu m of low-level waste was disposed of at the low-level waste facility near Sellafield in my constituency. Sellafield houses all the high-level waste and approximately 70 per cent. of the intermediate-level waste. The total volume of radioactive waste in the UK, including expected future arisings as a result of decommissioning, is approximately 2,270,000 cu m. Of that, high-level waste will constitute less than 0.1 per cent., intermediate-level waste 9.5 per cent., and low-level waste slightly over 90.4 per cent.

The draft recommendations of the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management include support for a deep geological repository for intermediate-level waste, with the provision of robust interim provision before any repository construction. Intermediate-level waste stores cost between £80 and £100 million. A new one is currently being built at Sellafield, three more will be needed, and as of now a further two will be needed if a repository is not available before 2040. In addition, each reactor site in the UK is currently required to have an intermediate-level waste storage facility during care and maintenance operations.

This is a complex policy area encompassing many social, scientific and environmental issues. Regrettably, those three main strands of any effective policy have
19 July 2006 : Column 426
often been obscured by organisational issues relating to policy implementation. The Government's establishment of CoWRM was an essential step in the establishment of an appropriate and transparent policy production process.

Importantly, the creation of CoRWM maintained the separation of radioactive waste management policy production and implementation by the same body. Following the publication of CoRWM’s final recommendations, my community will clearly expect to enter into a dialogue with the Government, as will other communities with an interest in these issues. Speaking as someone who has worked for and within the nuclear industry and as someone who has worked for Nirex, I have a detailed understanding of the internal workings of the industry, which few, if any, other Members possess.

The Government are the first in our history to confront the policy and funding implications caused to the UK by the nation’s civil and military nuclear liabilities. Such engagement was long overdue and the Government should be commended for the clarity and rigour of their treatment of the issue thus far. The establishment of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority was a brave and necessary step and I am personally proud to be part of a Government who have faced up to their obligations, not only to the taxpayer, but to the environment and to my constituents in this regard. The NDA has proved its commitment to west Cumbria by locating its headquarters there. Although there is still much to be done, including the need to resolve pension issues, the NDA has established itself as a key, trusted community partner, as I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham) would agree.

Unlike in the United States, where the Department of Energy sets annual budgets for nuclear decommissioning and clean-up, the NDA has established an enviably robust financial framework through the development of life-cycle baseline plans and near-term work plans for all of its sites. Those plans are designed to deliver cost-effective programmes of work without compromising environmental or safety standards. Indeed, those two qualities are foremost in all its work. They also deliver certainty and enable effective planning and investment—unlike the ad hoc American model, which is not efficient, stable or predictable. In my view, such uncertainty impinges on safe operations.

The NDA’s current estimate for the clean-up of the UK’s military and civil nuclear liabilities stands at approximately £70 billion. That figure contains some £14 billion used to operate income-generating plants, but does not include the likely costs of the establishment of a repository. The financial modelling is still a work in progress and the NDA is expected by the Government to produce robust costings for decommissioning and clean-up by 2008.

Given that the Government are committed to achieving the best possible value for money from the public purse—a key feature of the forthcoming comprehensive spending review—that is a huge uncertainty to have to carry. The uncertainty is brought about by the lack of a policy relating to final disposal for intermediate and high-level radioactive wastes and it is not good for the taxpayer, for the Government, for the industry or for potential repository host communities.

19 July 2006 : Column 427

CoRWM is widely expected to report its recommendations to the Government by the end of this month and provided that they follow the already published draft recommendations, the Government should accept them. The process of producing the policy recommendations has necessarily been lengthy and laborious, but given the disastrous mess made by the last Conservative Government and the shocking failure of Nirex, a lengthy and transparent process was, and remains, entirely proper.

While I was thinking of Nirex in preparation for this debate, I was reminded of the great Hunter S. Thompson. Those familiar with his work will know that his excoriating writing illustrates that the truth is more often than not stranger than fiction. The experience of Nirex endured by my community in the mid-1990s was so wretched that I was minded to entitle this debate “Fear and loathing in west Cumbria”, for there are few more accurate words with which to describe the reaction that Nirex still provokes in my constituency to this day.

My constituency still bears the scars of its regrettable encounter with Nirex in the 1990s. The arrogance and contempt with which the company treated locally elected representatives will never be forgotten. The imperial way in which it assumed that it was beyond reproach was staggering and the political, social and reputational damage that it brought to the whole of Cumbria was incalculable. Thankfully, the company met its nemesis in the late Bill Minto, OBE, the then leader of Cumbria county council.

At this juncture, I would like to point out that I worked for Nirex for a little over a year before, like many others, being made redundant. Some may mistakenly assume that my attitude to the company is somehow shaped by that experience—[Hon. Members: “No!”]—but that would be naive and insulting. My attitude to the company is informed purely by concerns relating to effective policy implementation. The Government have brought rigour, but so far no real clarity, to that policy area through the establishment of CoRWM. Before such clarity can be established, the Government should act to remove the agencies responsible for preventing it from being achieved because without clarity, successful policy implementation is impossible.

It is my long-held view that the continued existence of Nirex is the principal obstacle to the successful implementation of any radioactive waste management policy in this country. As an organisation, Nirex inspires suspicion and distrust. I can foresee no circumstance in which that organisation can assist in the implementation of radioactive waste management policy. Regrettably, as long as Nirex exists, the issues surrounding radioactive waste management policy in Britain are bound to remain unresolved. As if to prove its unsuitability for its continued existence, the Nirex management team have furiously lobbied MPs for months with regard to their case for its continued existence. I find the prospect of a publicly funded body aggressively lobbying democratically elected legislators not only absurd, but faintly obscene.

Although Nirex insists that it has made serious and concerted attempts to change its behaviour in recent
19 July 2006 : Column 428
years, it remains a byword for everything that was wrong with the old nuclear industry. Moreover, a covert lobbying programme using public funds is hardly the hallmark of a mature, responsible and transparent organisation. After all these years, the company still believes that the secret to achieving stakeholder respect is to creep and scuttle in the shadows. Any attempt by the company to change its name would invite ridicule and further distrust. There are no options available for Nirex. In my view, time has run out. It must be dissolved if the country is to make progress on this policy of essential environmental importance and intergenerational social justice.

Nirex is not independent; it is jointly owned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department of Trade and Industry. Ninety per cent. of its funding comes from the NDA, with the remainder from the Ministry of Defence. It is even a member of the Nuclear Industry Association. It would appear that old habits clearly die hard. Nor is Nirex a regulator, as the House was correctly told on Monday.

With all that in mind, it must be recognised that Nirex contains a great deal of unique intellectual property. I have had the pleasure of working closely with those people in the past and know that, in the main, they possess impeccable integrity and ability. They have an essential role to play in the nuclear industry, but their attributes are squandered under the stewardship of the Nirex management. They deserve to be allowed to make their contribution to the policy in an environment and an organisation, or organisations, that can properly utilise their skills. That organisation is not and can never be Nirex, so we now need to be clear about ways forward on this policy.

Following the publication of the CoRWM recommendations at the end of this month—I assume—the Government could reasonably consider a number of options to establish an effective implementation body for radioactive waste management policy. The first essential step is the dissolution of Nirex. Then consideration could be given to allocating the skills and abilities of the work force, perhaps across the nuclear installations inspectorate, the Environment Agency, the NDA and perhaps even a successor body to CoRWM. That is, of course, entirely possible, and the Government should consider the fact that a replacement body for Nirex could be established that would be untainted by any association with the successive failures and the management of that company. It might even be the case that, once a volunteer site is found for the repository, the local authority in that area should determine what arrangements and structures should be established. In fact, CoRWM’s ninth draft recommendation states:

The Minister will know that I have made representations to the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry about the establishment of the national nuclear laboratory in my constituency. That, too, would be an ideal structure and environment in which to house the undoubted skills of those experts, and I hope that that will be considered.

This is not the first time—and it might not be the last—that I have requested the dissolution of Nirex on
19 July 2006 : Column 429
the record. As a member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, I have made that point separately but in public session to both the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Professor Gordon McKerron, the chair of CoRWM. The comments that I made to Professor McKerron many months ago may well have precipitated the ill-advised lobbying onslaught from Nirex management.

To reiterate, the dissolution of Nirex is an essential first step in successfully implementing future waste management policy. As long as Nirex exists, that will remain an intractable policy issue with no prospect of resolution. The policy has been without meaningful momentum for too long now. Prevarication and procrastination have been its hallmark since the mid-1990s. As a nation, we cannot afford to inject undue haste into the process, but neither can we afford to hide behind short-term political expediency as an excuse for inaction. Clearly, that is better left to the Leader of the Opposition. The truth is that we need action now.

The fact that I have secured this debate today should not be misunderstood. Let me emphasise that I am not volunteering my constituency as a host for a future repository—nothing could be further from the truth—and as long as I have anything to do with it, Nirex will never dig another sod of turf in west Cumbria. The purpose of this debate is twofold: to seek a comprehensive and detailed process that will establish transparency and accountability in radioactive waste management policy production and implementation and to urge the Government to take the necessary decisions now, which will make the resolution of the issue possible. That will be to the benefit of communities with an interest in nuclear issues throughout the country, not simply Copeland. However, given the unique importance of Copeland in this important national policy area, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can commit to entering a dialogue with Copeland borough council and me, following the Government’s response to the CoRWM recommendations. By way of informing that dialogue, I intend to send my hon. Friend the recently produced draft nuclear policy statement from Copeland borough council, a thorough piece of work and a worthy basis on which to establish future discussions.

So far, the Labour Party in government has shown that it is the only party prepared to take the necessary decisions with regard to the nuclear industry. We know that the other parties do not understand the issues, as they consistently demonstrate with their confused comments. I am proud to belong to a party of government with the courage and intellectual conviction to do what is right in this area. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister shares my desire to establish clarity in the implementation of future radioactive waste policy sooner rather than later, and I look forward to his response.

6.45 pm

Next Section Index Home Page