Previous Section Index Home Page

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I appreciate the opportunity to say a few words in this debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr. Reed) on calling it. I have two main points and I
19 July 2006 : Column 430
hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to respond to them tonight, or perhaps in further discussions.

First, I hear the pleas about Nirex made by my hon. Friend, and I share many of his concerns. However, I also share the concern, which is probably outside the main drift of the debate, about the suggestion that Nirex could be assimilated by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. I am not prepared to rule that out, but neither am I prepared to rule it in at the moment. It is unhelpful in advance of CoRWM’s final report that we should already have two organisations attacking each other in public, let alone in private. It does not demonstrate that we are dealing with mature organisations working in this vital industry. It also comes on the back of the announcement that we are considering rebuild—something for which my hon. Friend and I, and other hon. Members present, have long argued. The last thing we want is to grab defeat from the jaws of victory because of that unnecessary battle. I look forward to the final CoRWM report. I am sure that it will have something to say about Nirex and about the relationship between it and the NDA. But we should have the report and then the debate, and not make the decision beforehand.

My second point is that at a time when the industry has had the lift of the strong possibility of new build—although we cannot deliver it immediately—it is worrying that only limited numbers of people work in the industry. Their psychology and capacity is vital. I want to be clear that when we get the CoRWM report, we should do whatever we can to retain them, because come what may in terms of the rebuild of the industry, we have to deal with decommissioning. We need to keep people in the industry, and that is why we should stop the obsession with constant restructuring. My hon. Friend will be used to going into Sellafield, as I am used to going into Berkeley, to be told that it is having another reorganisation. I do not know what it is to go into Berkeley without having the staff talk to me about another reorganisation. Usually, however, the reorganisation is more of the same and there is some stability in the industry. In the past two years we have seen nothing but instability, and that is why I am critical of any decisions that have apparently been taken in advance of the CoRWM report.

I shall conclude with the parochial plea that I mentioned earlier. This is a vital time for Berkeley, as there are proposals that it should be used a test case for the full decommissioning of the old Magnox reactors. The Minister will know about those proposals, as will my hon. Friend the Minister for Energy.

Although Berkeley cannot be turned back into a greenfield site, most of the remaining nuclear material would be taken away. However, it is important to understand that the proposals mean that some of the low-level nuclear waste would continue to be stored there. That is worth considering, but we need confusion about how to deal with managing the waste like we need a hole in the head.

My hon. Friend the Member for Copeland mentioned a figure of £70 billion, but much of that is predicated on the belief that it will take a long time to decommission our nuclear industry. That decommissioning must be done safely, but we will gain two advantages if we can show that the technology is capable of delivering it quickly: we will save some money, and we will become
19 July 2006 : Column 431
the world leader in the field. We will then be able to sell our skills to the nuclear industry around the world, as we have done previously.

I want clarity regarding the fact that the suggestion about the Berkeley station will not be affected by arguments about the management of the nuclear waste stream, and that the CoRWM report will get a proper hearing and not be disadvantaged by noises off.

I hope that the Minister will reassure us that the Government are convinced that this country has a nuclear future. I believe that that is a necessity: we can argue about how much of a role nuclear can play, but there will be no future without it. The Government have turned the corner and accepted that nuclear has a role to play, but I do not want to hear again that we have ended up grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory.

6.52 pm

The Minister for Climate Change and the Environment (Ian Pearson): First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr. Reed) on securing this Adjournment debate on the policy concerning radioactive waste management. The Government and the devolved Administrations are committed to finding a solution to the nuclear legacy. While others have talked about the problem, this Government are taking action.

The Government have acted to deal with the decommissioning and clean-up of the UK’s older publicly owned civil nuclear sites, through the establishment of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority in the Energy Act 2004. We are also conducting a review of low-level waste management policy, and are currently considering the responses to a consultation. We will publish a statement this autumn.

The Government’s “Managing Radioactive Waste Safely” programme follows on from consultation in September 2001. It develops radioactive waste policy following a series of failed initiatives previously, and draws on the lessons that we have learned from that experience.

The outcome of the consultation was the establishment of the independent Committee on Radioactive Waste Management in the second half of 2003. My hon. Friends the Members for Copeland and for Stroud (Mr. Drew) both mentioned the role played by the committee, whose task was to provide a recommendation on the best option, or combination of options, for the long-term management of the UK’s higher-activity radioactive waste. It was asked to produce its recommendations on the basis of a wide programme of public and stakeholder engagement, and also to sound out the views of the scientific and expert community.

I believe that CoRWM has broken new ground in the open and transparent way in which it has conducted its affairs. It has engaged the public and stakeholders in the process, and it has fully considered the best scientific evidence. Its “deliberative decision making” has been carried out in open plenary sessions—therefore, quite literally, in public.

There has been a wide range of scientific and other expert input to CoRWM’s work. For example, last
19 July 2006 : Column 432
December more than 70 independent experts were involved in the assessment of CoRWM’s short-listed options against its agreed assessment criteria, and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs chief scientist has set up an expert panel to advice, and provide support to, CoRWM. Those are only two examples of the expert input that has gone into the committee’s work. Its interim recommendations have been well received by bodies such as the Royal Society and the Geological Society.

CoRWM has held more than 30 open plenaries at various locations in the UK, in addition to round tables, citizen panels and a stakeholder forum. It also consulted more than 13,000 young people in Bedford and Luton as part of its schools project. I am particularly pleased about that, as it is important that the views of the young are reflected in reaching decisions about matters of such an important and long-lasting nature.

Based on all that work and expert input and the results of its public and stakeholder engagement, CoRWM produced its interim recommendations in April. In them, it concluded that deep geological disposal is the best available approach to the long-term management of waste, that a programme of interim storage is also required and that the Government should explore the concept of partnership with local communities as part of any future facility-siting process. CoRWM put those draft recommendations out to consultation, and we understand that they have been well received.

CoRWM’s final report will be published at the end of July, in line with its published timetable. As hon. Members will recognise, as the report is not yet finalised I am not in a position to be able to respond to it. The Government will make a formal response to CoRWM when the House returns. We are keen to make progress on this matter, and will make the response as soon as practicable after the Parliaments and the Welsh Assembly reconvene.

I look forward to receiving CoRWM’s report, and in the meantime I would like to make several general observations in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland. First, I must stress the importance of securing the confidence of both the public and stakeholder groups in any future programme. Whatever decisions are taken, I can say that the future programme will not be like previous failed programmes. We have learned from those failures. We believe that CoRWM has set the standards for openness and transparency in the way in which it has conducted its programme.

In future, we must also win the confidence of any communities that might be willing to host waste management facilities. In that respect, I note the points made by my hon. Friend concerning the interests of Cumbria, and I can assure him that the Government have learned from mistakes made in the past, and plan to work constructively in partnership with all communities that have an interest in this matter.

Public safety and environmental protection—both now and for future generations—will be our utmost concern in taking forward the programme for the long-term management of the UK’s higher activity wastes. The Government well understand the importance of independent scrutiny in respect of issues
19 July 2006 : Column 433
of nuclear power. In taking this programme forward, we will ensure that there is a robust regulatory regime and independent oversight. We will continue to look to the independent regulatory bodies—the Health and Safety Executive, and the Environment Agency in England and Wales and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, or SEPA, in Scotland—to ensure the safety of people and the environment.

It might be helpful if I outline to the House the process of regulation of safety for higher level radioactive wastes. The nuclear operators are required to demonstrate to the regulators that the risks to the public and the environment from their activities, including the management of radioactive waste, are reduced to as low as is reasonably practicable. In support of their safety cases for packaging and disposal of radioactive waste, the operators seek advice from Nirex.

Nirex’s role is, in support of Government policy, to develop and advise on safe, environmentally sound and publicly acceptable options for the long-term management of radioactive materials; as has been said, it has unique intellectual property. But it is the independent regulators who take decisions on the acceptability of waste conditioning and packaging safety cases that are submitted to them. The environment agencies and the Health and Safety Executive have teams that scrutinise Nirex’s contribution to the safety case process. The independent regulators are responsible for applying and determining the statutory safety requirements of the Nuclear Installations Act 1965 and the Radioactive Substances Act 1993.

It being Seven o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Ian Pearson: There have been some recent inaccurate reports in the press and elsewhere about Nirex. Nirex is not a regulator. It is not a nuclear watchdog and it not responsible for nuclear safety in the United Kingdom. It is a company jointly owned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department of Trade and Industry, and which advises nuclear site operators on the preparation of the industry’s safety
19 July 2006 : Column 434
case submissions to the regulators concerning the conditioning and packaging of waste. I should also point out, as my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland did, that Nirex receives well over 90 per cent. of its funding from the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority.

The NDA was set up in April 2005 to take responsibility for the decommissioning and clean-up of the UK’s older, publicly owned civil nuclear sites under the Energy Act 2004. The NDA has statutory responsibilities to protect people, to safeguard the environment and to preserve nuclear security, operating in an open and transparent manner. Government decisions on long-term radioactive waste management post-CoRWM will be a crucial factor in achieving those aims, as the NDA’s own strategy recognises. In our response to CoRWM, the Government will want to make sure that full and proper arrangements for independent scrutiny and advice are in place.

Since 2003, CoRWM has provided a vital means for the independent assessment of nuclear waste issues, which is key to ensuring that all of us have confidence in the arrangements for the long-term management of waste. This process will span several decades and it is important for it to command widespread public confidence. We will ensure that the framework is both robust and based at root on clarity and transparency. The Government are determined, in their response to the CoRWM report, to ensure continued independent oversight, in order to give confidence to the public and to make sure that the highest standards are maintained.

We have had a programme of civil nuclear power in this country for 50 years, and the solution to the waste problem has eluded successive Governments. This Government are committed to making a real start in developing the solution, but we recognise that if it is to be a genuine solution, we cannot do this alone. We are confident that the approach taken by CoRWM provides the basis for moving forward. I look forward to its final report, and I am happy to meet my hon. Friends the Members for Copeland and for Workington (Tony Cunningham), along with local government representatives in their areas, to discuss its findings.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes past Seven o’clock.

    Index Home Page