Science & Technology Committee - Minutes of EvidenceHC 428

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Science and Technology Committee

on Wednesday 1 February 2012

Members present:

Andrew Miller (Chair)

Stephen Metcalfe

Stephen Mosley

Graham Stringer

Roger Williams


Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Dr Paul Leinster, Chief Executive, Environment Agency, Dr Jill Meara, Deputy Director of the Centre for Radiation, Chemical and Environmental Hazards, Health Protection Agency, Geoffrey Podger, Chief Executive, Health and Safety Executive, and Dr Mike Weightman, HM Chief Inspector of Nuclear Installations and Executive Head of the Office for Nuclear Regulation, gave evidence.

Q98 Chair: Good morning, everyone. Thank you very much for coming in. I would be grateful if the four of you could introduce yourselves for the record.

Dr Leinster: I am Dr Paul Leinster, Chief Eecutive of the Environment Agency.

Dr Meara: I am Dr Jill Meara, deputy director of the Health Protection Agency’s Centre for Radiation, Chemical and Environmental Hazards.

Geoffrey Podger: I am Geoffrey Podger, Chief Executive of the Health and Safety Executive.

Dr Weightman: I am Mike Weightman, Her Majesty’s chief inspector of nuclear installations and executive head of the Office for Nuclear Regulation, an agency of HSE.

Q99 Chair: I start by inviting each of you to outline your roles in regulating or advising on UK nuclear sites; how you relate to each other; whether you consider yourselves to be genuinely independent of Government and the industry; and what type of risk information you communicate to the public.

Dr Leinster: We are an NDPB and therefore have an independent board to which I report. That makes us independent from Government. We have to work closely with Government, and we do. Government sets our policy framework. We do not write our own regulations within the Environment Agency; those are written by Government, but we implement them. We believe that we are transparent and open. We regulate those aspects of radioactivity that leave a site boundary: emissions to air, discharges to water, and waste when it comes outside the site boundary; waste on the site will be within the HSE’s responsibilities.

We regulate by issuing permits. For the standards in those permits we rely on the International Commission on Radiological Protection, and those get translated through European legislation into domestic legislation. We base all our understanding on those standards and apply those to the situation of a particular site and set permit limits. As part of the permitting process, we usually communicate with the local community and stakeholders before we start permitting and receive their comments. We will hold open surgeries and also discuss things with the local community in public meetings. We then get in the permit application and, depending on that application, we might also consult on it. We then determine the permit in its draft form and issue that draft for public consultation. Again, we engage widely with both the local communities and statutory consultees, including just now the Health Protection Agency and the HSE. We then determine the permit and write a decision document based on that, and we will issue the permit. Through that process there is a considerable amount of public engagement, and then we regulate against the conditions of the permit.

We seek to be as transparent and open as possible. We have a training course within the agency called building trust with local communities. This helps and trains technical staff in the ability to communicate with local stakeholders, green groups and anybody else who has an interest in this. We have moved to a more consultative rather than decide-and-defend approach, which in the past was probably how we did things. There is now a much more engage, deliberate and decide-type approach in our work.

Q100 Chair: Before I ask the others to answer, you mentioned the way things were done previously. Am I right in assuming that about eight years ago there was a fundamental shift in the way you worked from imposing to consulting?

Dr Leinster: Yes; it would be around that time.

Q101 Chair: I noticed that shift as one of the consultees in relation to Capenhurst.

Dr Leinster: That was a deliberate look at how we were doing things. We did a whole lot of research at that time to understand how we could do it better.

Dr Meara: The Health Protection Agency is also at the moment a non-departmental public body, which gives us statutory independence and our own board. We do not have any regulatory role. We are advisory to the whole community-organisations, Government and the public-for protection against infectious diseases and other environmental hazards to health. A lot of our work is in the area of infectious diseases. In our Act we have the specific requirement to advise anybody who needs advice, so it covers the whole population. The way we work is to produce guidelines and advice, based on internationally agreed advice, which can be fed into regulatory processes even though we are not a regulator.

I will give a couple of examples. A dose constraint is applied to nuclear power stations, old and new, and in 2009 we reduced it to make the regulations tighter. The reason for that was twofold. First, there is remaining uncertainty about non-cancer effects of radiation. We want the public to be protected as well as possible. We knew from discussions with the nuclear industry that these new constraints were perfectly possible for new plant; so they apply to new plant. Secondly, thinking about potential emergencies, we publish things called emergency reference levels that would help to define the public exposure doses to people at which we would want to recommend sheltering or evacuation if there was an emergency. These are very powerful, because, once you get an emergency situation, usually you do not have a great deal of time to start doing the maths and thinking. We publish them in advance and they are fed into the local emergency response and resilience arrangements.

As to new nuclear build, the Health Protection Agency takes the clear stance that it is neither for nor against any type of technology, but we are there to explain the potential risks to the public and quantify them based on the information we get and internationally agreed models. We will do that for anyone. We have been turning up at some of the consultation meetings related to new nuclear build; we answer questions from individual members of the public, MPs or anyone. Although we have limited resources, we try to turn up wherever possible. There is a recent example in Scotland. I would note that we cover the whole of the UK for certain matters, but before Christmas we went up to Scotland to speak to residents near Dalgety Bay where there has been a problem of radium contamination from old wartime activities.

Geoffrey Podger: In relation to HSE, it is probably easier if I answer generically and ask Mike to answer specifically in relation to nuclear regulation, if that would be okay. Like my colleagues, we are also a non-departmental public body, in our case of the Department for Work and Pensions. We are slightly different from the other two organisations in that we act as policy advisers within Government on health and safety as well as being the regulator and, as part of our regulatory duties, we are also the prosecutor. We very much see our independence in terms of the expert technical advice we offer and the individual regulatory decisions we take, but quite deliberately we spend a lot of our effort working within Government to meet the needs of Ministers who are dealing with wider issues where there needs to be a health and safety component of that advice. That is not just an issue of accountability. In terms of communication, very often one finds it is essential that the people who have calculated the risk should also involve those who have to do the risk management so that at the end of the day you can answer the question about what the risk is but also what will be done about it. We do not see this as inhibiting.

You will be aware that we have quite strong relations with duty holders and industry at various levels. We believe that is essential in doing our work, but we do not regard ourselves as in any way industry-captured; indeed, as is inevitably the case in such relationships, from time to time we have significant disagreements. Nevertheless, the system works-and works well-because our duty holders recognise the need for us. Equally, we recognise their difficulties and try to meet them at an acceptable level of risk.

In communication terms, most of what HSE does is probably aimed at a relatively technical audience, and you have had evidence to that effect. To be frank, that rather reflects demands. As some of you may know, I came here from the food safety world where there is a great deal of consumer demand for information, which we met in the Food Standards Agency and the European Food Safety Authority, of which I was the head. In HSE we provide more advice than usual at the technical level, but we now do a lot, particularly for small businesses, at an easier level of understanding. We do pioneer studies, which we put into the wider domain, which we have done on emerging technologies, and we participate in public meetings on land use planning, for example.

Dr Weightman: We are an agency of the Health and Safety Executive and were created as such on 1 April last year from the previous Nuclear Directorate of the Health and Safety Executive. That is part of a process in line with the Government’s intention to create a separate independent nuclear regulator subject to parliamentary scrutiny and so on. The powers in the Nuclear Installations Act are delegated from the chief executive of the Health and Safety Executive to me as chief inspector to grant nuclear site licences and, indeed, to attach conditions to them. Those conditions have the force of criminal law and can be changed overnight, if need be. Essentially, we are a goal-setting regime.

The positioning of ourselves as an agency of the Health and Safety Executive puts us further away from Government than perhaps it is, although we provide advice to Ministers if needed. I have direct access to Ministers for those areas for which we have responsibilities in order to inform them of our views, if need be. Our range of responsibilities covers not only the nuclear civil side-both nuclear safety and security regulation-but also the nuclear safety regulation of the defence nuclear sector, not the design of nuclear weapons or submarine reactors but their manufacture, assembly, disassembly and maintenance at various sites in the UK.

We are independent of Government and industry. While we recover over 95% of our costs from industry through a charging regime, in essence, that can act as a fine on industry. The more aggro they cause us, the more their costs go up. It makes us further independent of Government and industry in so doing, both in the way in which we are set up legally but also in the way it works in practice.

Q102 Chair: You have also had a very public and welcome role recently in Fukushima. Was that part of your statutory duties, or did you do it because it was needed in terms of public confidence?

Dr Weightman: In terms of our duty to provide advice to Ministers, I was asked to produce an interim report in the middle of May and a final report in September/October for lessons learned for the UK nuclear industry. That is part of my provision of advice to Government. I saw it very much as part of my normal role, but I made sure it was done independently, and I also took independent advice from a technical advisory panel in so doing.

Q103 Stephen Metcalfe: You have made very clear to us this morning your individual roles in this field. While I suspect the public have heard of many of your organisations, do you think they are aware of the work you do in this field?

Dr Leinster: I think it depends on which bit of the public you are talking about. If you are talking about the community around Hinkley where there is now talk about the construction of a new facility, the awareness of the relative roles of the different organisations is much greater, but, in general, if you went out on the street and asked people, unprompted, most probably they would not say our names. When prompted, they have some recognition of our roles in these areas.

Dr Meara: The Health Protection Agency is reasonably well known, particularly for its infectious diseases work, although, when you ask people who have heard of us which hazards they think we cover, both ionising and non-ionising radiation comes into it. A MORI poll we did in 2009 showed that 44% of people had heard of the HPA; 63% thought that its advice would be trustworthy and competent; and 88% would follow its advice. That is across all of our hazards, and there are probably more detailed findings related to specific hazards. We are not completely known, but I think 44% is quite good. That was after swine flu, when we did get quite a lot of publicity.

Geoffrey Podger: I am tempted to say that the Health and Safety Executive is well known sometimes to the point of infamy, but the truth of the matter is that what HSE does in the high hazard industries is well known, not simply to those who work in them but also to public bodies who have an interest in and around them. That is quite a secure relationship. Conversely, at the lower hazard end, where we share our responsibilities with local authorities, there is no doubt that the public often have great difficulty in working out who is responsible for what. We make some effort not simply to redirect people but, also on our website, to explain exactly where people should go for what. There is no doubt at all that, although we are well known, inevitably people find the borderlines between regulators slightly difficult to understand, and there is a duty on all of us to try to help people, as we do, to get to the right person. We do not just say, "You’ve come to the wrong bloke; go away." We say, "We’ve contacted Mr X from the local authority. If you ring him up-here’s his number-he’ll be able to help you."

Dr Weightman: As to ourselves, the simple answer is that we are not well known to the general public. In terms of the workers on the sites, which we visit very regularly, the local communities round them, the stakeholder groups and perhaps experts in the field, yes, we are well known, and we are also well known internationally in that sort of stakeholder group. But I have to admit that the general public do not know us very well at all.

Q104 Stephen Metcalfe: That is probably a fair comment. People are particularly suspicious of the nuclear industry. Do you think there is a duty on your organisations to do more to communicate with the public generally about your role in this specific area to reassure them that there is a group of regulators and advisers who are acting in their interests? Taking the point about the HSE, they are aware of its role, but I am not sure they are aware of it in relation to this particular industry and what powers you have, and I suspect that is true. Do you think we need to do more, and what could be done?

Dr Leinster: One of the things we are doing in conjunction with the HSE is the generic design assessment of new reactors. As part of that process, we are looking at how we can make available as much information as possible on the web and inform people that we are doing that work. If people are interested in nuclear as an issue, they can easily find the information from us and we can get into dialogue. There is a general understanding that most probably the Environment Agency would do stuff around those sorts of sites, wouldn’t it? It is then quite difficult to go further. If people do not want to engage, and do not feel a need to engage, on a topic, it is quite difficult to communicate some of these issues. However, if people want to engage and find out more about the new nuclear build programme, we are engaging actively in that. There is always more to do, but I think we are taking steps.

Dr Meara: The HPA would say there is always more to do and it would welcome more resources to do that. We have a very big web presence and turn up at public meetings and answer loads and loads of questions, but it is quite difficult to take that next step to being at the forefront of people’s minds rather than reactive. That is the positive side. On the negative side, HPA covers a wide range of hazards, and hazards from nuclear power are not among the most serious that the public face. Therefore, within our organisation we have to give priority where the health need is. It is not always in this area, although there can be a lot of public concern and maybe fluctuating levels of concern. Perhaps we have to be a little more fleet about moving resources so that when there is concern we can leap in and help, but it will never be at the top of the health protection agenda.

Q105 Chair: Is that because the risk is low or it is a well-managed industry?

Dr Meara: It is because the risk is low, and the risk is low because it is a well-managed industry.

Q106 Chair: The potential risks are high but it is a well-managed industry. That is the official position of the HPA.

Dr Meara: Yes.

Geoffrey Podger: From HSE’s perspective, we are not aware of a huge unmet demand in this area. As you will all know, when there are particular events and developments at nuclear sites there is inevitably a lot of interest in the local community as to what is going on, and we participate in that. I notice that Mike has a regular round of meetings where local people are able to interact with HSE inspectors. There is a meeting scheduled for Sizewell A and B, which seems perfectly sensible. Like other colleagues, we have a very extensive website that provides a lot of information, precisely because-Mike might like to comment-we tend to be very open about relatively small malfunctions at nuclear sites. Sometimes we find that these are blown out of all proportion. More than once I have seen Mike appear in the media and very ably put them in perspective. But we have taken the view, and I think Mike also takes this view, that precisely because there is this "yuck factor", if I may use that technical term, surrounding nuclear issues it is better to be more open and tell people more things, even though it may give rise to some alarm, than to do anything that gives rise to the suspicion that things are being withheld from the public. If anything, we tend to have a very open communication policy precisely for that reason.

Dr Weightman: You asked whether we felt we had a duty to be open and extend our openness. I think we do. In the past the nuclear industry and we as regulators have been too secretive and careful of how we interact with people, not that we should not be careful about security matters, obviously. One of the things on which I have been trying to push forward the organisation is openness and transparency over the last few years. Indeed, we designed the GDA process-the generic design assessment process-precisely with that thought in mind in 2005 and 2006 when we took it forward. We are moving the organisation forward. We make many decisions. It is a very dynamic regulatory system, although it is goal-setting, and they are very technically-based decisions. But we make sure that those decision documents, which we call project reports, are put into the public domain so that people can make up their own minds as to whether we are doing our duty effectively. There is always room to improve in that area. Some of it is about cultural change in a very technically-based organisation and also how you effectively communicate with people and listen to them. So I am not complacent.

Q107 Stephen Metcalfe: Do you think that being open and transparent with the public has built trust with the public?

Dr Weightman: I think it is about earning trust. One of the messages I try to give the organisation is that we have to earn trust and confidence. It is difficult to earn and easily lost, and, therefore, it is a never-ending responsibility for us to maintain our regulatory and technical integrity, give people information, listen to them and try to answer their questions as best we can.

Q108 Stephen Metcalfe: Perhaps I may address that question to the other three. Do you feel that you have earned, or are earning, the public’s trust? Would you agree that it is easily lost?

Dr Leinster: Absolutely, it is easily lost. As others have said, I think it is about being open and making decisions available. We, like them, are involved in some of the site consultative committees where there is that engagement. It is important for me within that engagement that the public, the company and the regulators together engage in those discussions. There needs to be an active discussion between the operator and the community, and the regulators should be seen in their proper role, not as managers and not coming in between that relationship, because the real building of trust has to be between the operators and the community in which they are operating.

Q109 Stephen Metcalfe: I am more interested in how the wider general public perceive the trust issue away from the site rather than those actively affected by it.

Dr Leinster: As Geoffrey said, in a lot of these areas there is not a huge unmet desire for further information about this. For most of the public who are not living close to these sites and do not have an interest in nuclear, they are going on with the belief that these risks will be properly managed. The only time they will think about it is if a Fukushima or Chernobyl happens.

Q110 Stephen Metcalfe: Do you have anything to back that up? Is there any evidence through surveys? Dr Meara has talked about surveys that you have conducted.

Dr Leinster: In exactly the same way, we do MORI surveys about the issues in which people are interested. For example, in the case of the Environment Agency you will get a high level of recognition about flood risk and other processes, or, if you talk to one group, about angling. It all depends on where within that grouping people sit.

Q111 Stephen Metcalfe: Does anyone want to add anything?

Geoffrey Podger: From HSE’s perspective, because worker protection is so great a part of what we do, much of the pressure on us, which is very proper pressure, comes from the trade unions. For example, if we look at the extraction of oil from the North Sea, which is an inherently risky activity, it is not that we have a lot of the general public in Aberdeen who are "on our backs", but, quite properly, there is quite a strong element of challenge to us from the trade unions representing the workers on the rigs, with whom in general we have very good relations. That is how the concerns about whether the regulator is doing enough manifest themselves. Generally speaking, for us it is much less in the area of the general public.

Dr Leinster: One thing that is sparked off in my mind is that in this area some of the green groups and green NGOs play that role of the trade union in health and safety in the workplace. You have people arguing this case who are the ones who are interested, and there is a lot of engagement with those groups on these issues.

Q112 Roger Williams: In terms of the public, what assessment would you make about the key risks as they see it of nuclear energy and the nuclear energy industry?

Dr Leinster: The difference between ourselves and regulation and the HSE is that we deal with things that are coming out from the installation. We are concerned about discharges to water, emissions to air and waste. Waste is a particular issue that concerns particularly those communities that might be the place where waste finally ends up.

Dr Meara: As we understand it, it is about what comes out of sites that might pollute the environment and lead to health consequences in the long term. The basic fear is the long-term legacy and people being poisoned by things they cannot see.

Geoffrey Podger: To add to both those considerations, which I share, rightly in the public mind there is the memory of things that have gone wrong worldwide: Chernobyl, Fukushima, Three Mile Island and so on. These are in the public consciousness, and there is a perfectly understandable fear that that might be replicated here or that we might suffer the consequences of a similar incident that arrived here. As I said earlier, the difficulty with nuclear power is that you cannot see nuclear energy. It has all these curious triggers for alarm. People are rightly sure that it is generally well managed, which it is, and we hope well regulated, but it is always something which must have a level of public disquiet hanging over it simply because of these other factors.

Dr Weightman: Clearly, it is radioactive waste; post-Fukushima, nuclear safety has risen in the public mind. Both of those are based upon a fundamental fear of ionising radiation and the impacts that may have, the fact they cannot see it, feel it and sense it, and it also has long latent effects. They fear that they are not in control of it and it is not a voluntary risk to which they are being exposed. Essentially, it will vary with time. Fukushima raised concern about nuclear safety, and radioactive waste is always there. Nuclear safety took a more obvious role after Fukushima, but it is fundamentally based on the fear of ionising radiation.

Q113 Roger Williams: It has been suggested to us that, after the Fukushima incident, the public’s understanding of the risk and dangers has improved and people are more accepting now of nuclear energy. Is that your experience and also your view?

Dr Meara: We have not ever asked that question, but the assault that happened to those six reactors was of an almost unimaginable proportion. They did not survive unscathed, but, in comparison with what nature did, the additional impact of the problems because of the tsunami was small. That has perhaps changed the balance of what people have thought about. People are not so inherently scared by other forms of power generation. The North sea is a very dangerous environment in which people are working-those are workers, not the public-but people just do not see it in the same frame. When they saw what happened in Japan, where 20,000 people were bowled over by a wave and something happened at a nuclear power station, maybe it helped to balance some of those different fears. To go back to what Mike Weightman said, a lot of people have a risk-averse attitude towards ionising radiation.

Geoffrey Podger: I do not think I have any evidence which would enable me to answer your question. I would regard it as an open one.

Dr Weightman: I have seen, as probably others have, the articles in The Guardian and elsewhere that show some of the polling. It appears as though people’s tolerance of nuclear energy has gone back even above where it was before Fukushima. Some analyses have been made on that and it appears as though it has recovered in that way. There are differences in terms of how that recovery has come about, so there is some evidence that it has recovered. It is not something we have initiated ourselves because that is not our role.

Dr Leinster: It is certainly an issue that will be raised in a public meeting or surgery being held where the public come in and ask questions, so it heightens that awareness and leads to conversation.

Q114 Roger Williams: Generalisations have been made that men are more blasé about these risks and women more cautious, and that people living in the vicinity of a nuclear facility are more understanding or objective about the risks. When you are trying to communicate the information and expertise you have on risks, how do you take into account those differences in the population?

Dr Leinster: I do not think that we would overtly take them into account. When you are in a situation having to explain either the process we go through or why we came to the decisions we did, you tend to deal with it as part of that conversation. I do not think we have ever analysed and looked at how you would communicate in a different way to those different groups.

Dr Meara: I do not think the HPA has ever done it like that, but the issue potentially with regard to women is that it is probably to do with their fears for children. When we give out risk estimates, we tend to be very conservative and give those that will be good for the most vulnerable person, who is sometimes but not always a young person. We always get questions coming back such as, "Does that apply to my little Johnnie?", or, "I’m pregnant. Does that apply to me?" We have to be quite careful to ensure that we say we are protecting everybody and that, in general, the calculations we make, where we have data, would protect the most vulnerable general groups within society. Perhaps we need to do more to publicise that, because we do get a lot of questions coming back.

Geoffrey Podger: I would be hesitant to go too far down this route, though I agree with Jill because it is true across other areas, including food safety, that women are always particularly concerned in relation to children, and rightly so. That is what nature intended. One thing we do know is that communities living round higher-hazard installations, whether nuclear or other kinds-it is equally true for chemical or petrol storage-tend to become rather used to the risks and may start to discount them slightly. In their minds it can affect the work force when it enters the plant. After a time you just get used to working in that slightly strange environment and you can let your guard fall; you can forget the really serious things that can go wrong. We see that from time to time. It is certainly true-I know you have had evidence on it-that, even when people are concerned, they also see the economic advantage of having the plant. Clearly, that also plays into people’s perceptions. In our own communications we would not seek to distinguish on a gender basis, but we are alive to the need in these communities, without in any way over-alarming people, to maintain an understanding of the inherent risk and that everyone will remain safe only if they continue to manage it properly.

Dr Weightman: We do not have an institutional approach to trying to target particular groups, but one thing I try to encourage is very active listening. The way you really communicate with people is to try to understand their questions and concerns and try to address them in a way that helps them assimilate the language that you might otherwise use. Part of the approach is very much one of trying to listen actively to people, or groups of people, and ensure you are also communicating effectively in relation to their frame of reference.

Dr Leinster: When we are carrying out our assessments, one thing we do is look at the total exposure. For example, in some places people who are eating sea food or shellfish will be getting multiple exposures. Therefore, when we carry out our assessment, we look at those different groups. We would then communicate specifically with some of those people just to explain that situation.

Q115 Roger Williams: Perhaps I may ask Mr Podger and Dr Weightman about some documents the HSE has produced that show recognition of risk perceptions. How do you use this recognition in decision making and risk communication? Perhaps you could give us some examples.

Geoffrey Podger: Perhaps I may deal with the generic position and then pass it to Mike for nuclear again, if that makes sense. Recently, we have invested in some updating on risk communication. The Royal Statistical Society in its evidence mentioned to you the review done by Löfstedt and Bouder, which basically said-it was also our own view-that we were good at communicating on a technical level with technical people, but there were areas where we had been less successful when it was necessary to communicate with a wider group of people.

The specific area where that has arisen is not so much the nuclear industry but in the area of land use planning. What has tended to happen-I suspect Members of Parliament are aware of instances of this in their constituencies-is that we have spent a lot of time with local authorities and developers, who are key players in this, but rather less time explaining to the local community, in terms which are comprehensible to it, precisely the nature of the risk about which we are concerned. That should then allow for a more informed decision to be taken at the end of the day, recognising that these are always very awkward areas.

You cannot do a mathematical equation balancing long-term low risk but high impact against short-term but considerable commercial and community advantage, but somebody has to make that judgment, which in our view is properly a local authority one. We are trying to work towards shifting the balance of our activity in that area, not trying always to force the decision that we want but to communicate better to more community-based partners in future development exactly what the issue is. I think that is an area where we have not done as well as we might have done in the past.

Dr Weightman: Specifically on nuclear, we have to go back a little in time to a document produced by my predecessor before last-it goes back a little way-about tolerability of risk in relation to nuclear power plants. The concept was to try to get over that we recognise people do tolerate nuclear energy, given that the risks are managed down to very low levels, and they see benefits. They do not accept it; they tolerate it because of the perceived benefits. Therefore, that is an important consideration when you are trying to communicate. They also said they tolerate it when there is a highly effective regulator, which we aspire to be.

Q116 Roger Williams: Each of your organisations will have contacts with different governmental Departments, each of which has its own chief scientific adviser. How do you work with those scientific advisers, and perhaps how could that be improved in communicating risk?

Geoffrey Podger: If I may start, HSE has its own chief scientific adviser, who is fully plugged in to Professor Sir John Beddington’s network; indeed, I know he was there yesterday. We very much try to get involved in overall projects that are going on, particularly in risk communication. Professor Sir John Beddington has visited us; he knows us well. We feel quite well plugged into that network.

Q117 Roger Williams: What about the chief scientific adviser to the DWP?

Geoffrey Podger: Yes, indeed. The chief scientific adviser at DWP has also been the sponsor of HSE, so there has been quite a close linkage, but, inevitably, because, as you will appreciate, he has other concerns, we have acted mainly through our own chief scientific adviser.

Dr Leinster: We are part of Sir John Beddington’s network but we also interact closely with the DEFRA chief scientist and have some interactions with the DECC and BIS chief scientists because we spread across a number of Departments, as well as Welsh Government science.

Dr Meara: We also work across Government Departments and the nations in the UK. We find it very easy to have interactions. When there are emergencies the right groups of people can be pulled together very quickly; when work is done in slower time that can also be done, so there do not appear to be many barriers.

Q118 Graham Stringer: Dr Leinster, I was interested when earlier you said you treated green groups in the same way as trade unions. Trade unions have a legitimate interest to represent their members; green groups are political organisations. Surely, you do not put them on an equal footing. They have particular agendas that may or may not be to the general good.

Dr Leinster: Most probably I used inappropriate shorthand in terms of whether the public are engaging. I was asked about the general position. Around specific sites, the public will engage on these topics. In general, if you are trying to get views to see what the public are concerned about as part of openness and to review the way we are thinking, one of the groups with which we do engage is the NGOs. I fully accept that they are different in status and interest from trade unions.

Q119 Graham Stringer: It sounded to me as though you are giving groups with particular views-which they are entitled to have in an open, liberal and democratic society-privileged access that they do not necessarily deserve.

Dr Leinster: I do not think we give them privileged access. We are open to them and they have views that will inform the general public. They will have views that are communicated widely, and, therefore, I believe we need to engage with them on the views they are expressing.

Q120 Graham Stringer: Last week we heard Mark Henderson, the previous science editor of The Times, and discussed public perceptions of what had happened at Fukushima. He was of the opinion that the international nuclear and radiological events scale-that is a mouthful-was not fit for purpose because it put Fukushima on the same level as Chernobyl. A lot of people died at Chernobyl; nobody died at Fukushima because of the nuclear event. He thought it was not fit for purpose. What is your opinion?

Dr Weightman: I agree. In terms of its purpose, it is there to provide clear communication to people and the media about a nuclear event in which they have confidence. Did it do that? No, it did not. Some of it was because of a long event, which meant it escalated with time, but, also, because of the wide range of the way it is put together in terms of the level 7 events, you can get a difference by a factor of 10 in the level of release. I do not believe it is fit for purpose, and that has been recognised internationally by the International Atomic Energy Agency as part of its action plan post-Fukushima to review that event. It will also have to review the basis of it, because at the moment it is based on technical opinion about the level of defence or defeat of barriers. If you are trying to communicate with somebody, you have to think about whether that is the best basis on which to do it.

Dr Meara: It takes account only of the hazard-what has flown over the site boundary-and, in order to define the importance of it for the population, you have to think about the risk. Are there any people there who will be breathing it in at the site boundary? What the public are interested in is the risk to them, not just the raw nature of the hazard that has gone from the site. The scale does not cover enough orders of magnitude. Ionising radiation is terribly easy to measure, and we can be dealing with measurable amounts of radiation where there are 12 orders of magnitude difference between the worst possible nuclear accident and what you might get from an airport backscatter body scanner. That is very difficult even for scientists to conceive when there is such a huge logarithmic scale. If hazards are large, they are measurable only at intense concentrations. For chemicals, you would never be able to measure them at the very low levels of hazard at which you can measure ionising radiation. That is both its beauty but also its problem when you are communicating risk because you can measure something that is patently not going to be harmful in any normal meaning of the word.

Q121 Graham Stringer: How should we do it then? This is one specific example of a numerical scale that, in this case, is not fit for purpose. You use the words "logarithmic" and "exponential". Scientists throw them about and they have very specific meanings.

Dr Meara: I am sorry.

Q122 Graham Stringer: The perception of the public of "exponential" is probably not the same as a scientist’s. How should we go about communicating risk? Should we continue to try to do it quantitatively, or should we do it in a different way?

Dr Meara: There is evidence that people do not understand quantities very well. You can make the quantities a bit more realistic by using one in a street, a village, a town, a city, a country and in the world, for example. The other thing you can do is make valid comparisons. One example of that was when we were giving advice on airport backscatter body scanners that use ionising radiation. We compared the radiation dose from the scanner with the extra cosmic radiation dose you get from flying at altitude. That was quite a useful comparison, because it is all related to the same flight. People are going through the scanner and then the flight, so it is valid. The problem with comparisons is that, if they are not valid to the public, you can do more harm than good. You should never say that one Fukushima is equal to smoking one cigarette once in your life. People do feel, for good or ill, that smoking is elective but that pollution coming from an industrial accident is not.

Q123 Chair: But, in the case of Fukushima, the advice that Sir John Beddington and Dr Weightman gave to British citizens in Tokyo was communicated by Sir John in the form of saying that one would get a bigger dosage flying home than staying there. Do you not think that is a fairly tidy way of communicating something?

Dr Meara: Yes. The best comparisons are very directly related to the thing that people are doing. If you knew about the hazards from other pollutants, from other forms of energy generation, you could make comparisons there, but unfortunately we do not know those data and we have to be a little more inventive.

Q124 Stephen Mosley: I was interested to hear Dr Weightman say that the IAEA is looking at its scale. One of its other problems was that the scale used by the Japanese meant that the safe adult level was 300 becquerels per kilo, which is about one tenth of the World Health Organisation’s guidelines. Are international organisations or the Japanese looking at that particular level and moving it to a more realistic level, just to avoid some of the scare headlines that occurred?

Dr Weightman: Every nation has its own responsibility to set the levels it believes are correct in its circumstances. I would have said there is a national responsibility to take account of international agreements. I think further work will be done internationally on the levels in water and food and what that means after Fukushima. As far as I can remember, there is no very specific aspect of that in the IAEA plan, but, internationally, that is one area that will be looked at in due course.

Q125 Stephen Mosley: Dr Weightman, last week we heard that, while you and Sir John Beddington came in for a lot of praise for the work you did after Fukushima, there were concerns that other independent regulators could have done more to handle the media. Would you agree with that, and what do you think could have been done?

Dr Leinster: We were part of Mike’s investigation. Therefore, we believed that all the health messages should properly be focused through the HPA, as they were, and there was an updated website, so there was one agreed place to communicate on health issues. For the rest of the communication we were there at the release of Mike’s report for support, if necessary, but we did not feel that in the circumstances it was necessary to come out with an independent voice, because we believed it was being properly communicated by those other regulators.

Q126 Stephen Mosley: But Dr Weightman’s interim report was about four months afterwards and the main report was six months or so afterwards. In the days and weeks following the event how involved were you?

Geoffrey Podger: If I may make a general comment, which I suspect applies to all of us, it is important to understand that, when the explosion occurred, all the regulators were heavily involved in trying to discover what had happened so they could do calculations on which to advise the Government. I think it is entirely legitimate to argue that people like us should, as it were, turn out quickly with the media in circumstances where there is a need to do so. Some of the argument you heard previously was much more around, "Well, we were looking for sofa pundits, and it would be really good to have Mike Weightman." Mike was engaged 24/7 in advising the Government and it was the outcome of that which was announced to the public as and when needed.

Not being immediately involved in this, I spent quite a lot of time watching the media coverage. We did not detect issues that we felt would mislead people as to what they need or need not do and would have required an immediate intervention by HSE. I think Paul is saying the same thing from the point of view of EA. But I am absolutely of the view that, if you get into a situation where people have an erroneous view that they need to do more than they are doing or, conversely, that they absolutely need to be advised to do something, the issue would be different and the regulators would be happy to play their part. But I come back to what I said earlier. Government have to give a consistent message-it is the point Paul made earlier-and, therefore, there has to be a consistent working out within Government who will act as spokesman, and you have to have everything in a row so that people can see there is coherent policy and science behind it.

Dr Meara: The HPA was approached by the media. We explained very carefully what we were doing and why, in the very early stages before radiation was detected in the UK, we were not putting up press spokesmen. We explained that we were doing scientific work with the general Government group and putting in advice, but early on we did not have enough information to put up somebody to defend any information. We were working particularly with Mike Weightman and others on potential worst case scenarios, and from that emerged our advisory 80 km from Fukushima where we were advising UK citizens should not go. But, because that was not based on real information, we did not feel we could put up anybody to have their information challenged. We were putting out regular press statements; we put up a website; we were clear about the precautionary advice when that had been decided on; and the moment we knew radiation was detected in the UK we put that up and put press spokesmen out, but we felt we had to be in control of what we knew and for it to be something that was happening within the UK.

The other point that has not come out is that we have a lot of links with Japan through all the international organisations with which we work. We knew very well that they had a competent system of radiological protection that protects the public in the same way that the public are protected here. You mentioned the slightly more stringent water regulations. Our first advice, if you go back to the first of our 11 press releases, was, "We do not know what is happening"-we admitted that-"but follow what the Japanese are doing; we trust them." That was in a very difficult situation. Japan was devastated for all sorts of other reasons. We knew that Japan would be doing the best it could for its citizens and, by inference, any UK citizens who were there. Obviously, as we knew more, we could say more specific things, but in those early days not a lot was known.

Q127 Stephen Mosley: Mr Podger, at the end of your comment you said we need to have a unified voice, essentially. Do you think that is done at the moment?

Geoffrey Podger: Yes, and I think that Fukushima was rather successful given that we started from a point of very considerable uncertainty. I saw no evidence that public concerns rose to a level at which we should have intervened to seek redress. In any incident what you choose to do must depend on both the resources you have but also what action you need to take. I am not suggesting that the Fukushima approach should be the way you approach any incident. You can get into positions where a particular view that you know to be wrong as a regulator is in danger of taking hold. Then I think the regulator either has to intervene very quickly itself or do it through a Minister, reflecting the regulator’s advice.

That situation did not arise in Fukushima. We did not see great difficulties in terms of communication, and for that reason it was much better to concentrate the effort. There was an enormous amount of effort to deal with the immediate problem, which was particularly the work of Mike and his colleagues and others who were involved in the safety of British citizens in Japan, rather than everybody sitting on the sofa in the TV studio saying, "Actually, we don’t know anything, but when we do we’ll let you know." I think that in that particular situation absolutely the right thing was done. There are always challenges to Government, as there are to regulators, to get its act together, and very often that is the key issue in handling these situations successfully.

Dr Meara: Where it is relevant, HPA will take the lead. For example, in the polonium incident in London we were working cross-Government. All the other Government Departments stood back and HPA was on the platform doing all the press releases. You have to decide, sometimes early on, who will lead. There is evidence that if you have one consistent voice providing authoritative advice-it was Pat Troop for polonium, Bob Maynard for the volcanic ash health effects and John Beddington for Fukushima-that is probably the best way to do it, but we cannot fill all the TV studios.

Q128 Stephen Mosley: Commissioner Oettinger used the word "apocalypse". How do you as regulators handle it when a non-scientific politician or political-type person makes a quote like that? Are you able to don your independent hat and stand up to them?

Dr Weightman: I have had meetings with the commissioner on some matters about European levels. We have been very clear that we as regulators in Europe will take our own independent view on matters and give our best technical, honest opinion when we see things. I think that is the best way we can respond to any such circumstances. As I said earlier, it is also a matter of earning trust and confidence, and that is not done overnight or in a certain circumstance when something happens. You have to work hard to do that over a longer period of time. Therefore, my response to those sorts of matters is to say what we understand to be the situation based on our technical expert view.

Dr Meara: Remember we are not a regulator, but we tell it like it is by an impartial view of the whole scientific evidence, and we reproduce a summary of what the science says for the public in a way that is as easy to understand as is appropriate in the situation.

Q129 Chair: You are saying that the word "apocalypse" was not appropriate.

Dr Meara: Yes.

Geoffrey Podger: I think that if any of us use it, you should run immediately!

Q130 Graham Stringer: Can you tell us what your communication strategy was when you were producing the two reports? How important was the scheduling of those reports? Did you do it as quickly as possible, or did you have other factors in mind?

Dr Weightman: The scheduling was in response to the request of the Secretary of State to have the first report within two months of the incident, and the next one within six months. To my mind, it was also important to get the lessons out early for the industry and others so that we could take action and start to learn the lessons as early as possible. That was important.

As to the communication strategy itself, it was clear to us that we had a duty to try to explain what we were saying, and the best way to do it was through a press conference, thereafter giving media interviews as need be. We also made it available, along with other information, on our website. We used a variety of means to try to get the information out there, but we also thought it was perhaps of sufficient interest to warrant a press gathering.

Q131 Graham Stringer: What lessons have been learned from producing the report? Do you think you have learned better how matters of risk should be communicated? Have you learned more about being open in the nuclear industry, or anything else?

Dr Weightman: Clearly, one of the recommendations both for us and the industry was to be more open and transparent. One of the lessons from Fukushima was that there was great distrust of the Japanese industry from past events and the way some of those had apparently been handled, and also it did not appear there was as much trust in a regulator that was not seen to be independent of Government. The Japanese Government are taking action to realign their regulatory body. There were clear lessons about openness and transparency about Fukushima from what was happening in Japan. I think we will also reflect on our handling of it. We have taken forward a series of public discussions at regional level and we are learning from that process about our Fukushima reports. Some have been very well attended-the one in north Wales was an interesting one-and others have had little interest, and we will also try to find out what we can learn from that.

Q132 Stephen Metcalfe: I want to put a question to Dr Leinster and Mr Podger in particular. I would like to return to risk perception but move away from the nuclear industry. Have the Government learned from their errors in the past when communicating the risk of the nuclear industry? Have they learned how to communicate the risks of some of the other energy technologies, like carbon capture and storage and shale gas? Is it communicating those risks better now than it has in the past? What is your role in assisting them in communicating those risks?

Dr Leinster: One of the things we have been trying to do is make sure that all of our communication work on risk-related issues informs the rest of our work. We do a lot of work on flood risk, and the big challenge in communication there is how you get people who have not yet been flooded to take action before they are flooded. It is a huge challenge. There is work we are doing and perception studies on energy from burning waste and what the issues are in that context. We use all of that information to inform how we deal with some of the newer issues as they come along. On shale gas in particular, we are about to carry out a participative environmental assessment of all the issues. We shall be sharing that information with DECC to look at what is the appropriate approach going forward. The other thing we do in that situation is look across to the States where there is much more work on shale gas. We are actively working with a group in the USEPA who are carrying out assessments at the present time. How do they communicate and what learning comes from that?

Often, it takes just a little while to understand that this is an issue that needs to be addressed in that sort of way. Better recognition of the issues that need to be addressed in that way is most probably the first bit on which we need to work. Once you get your head round the fact that it is something about which there will be public concern and interest, we are much better. We need to improve recognition of those issues that will run in that way.

Geoffrey Podger: I would echo that. We in HSE have done quite a lot of work, which is published, on the potential risks in relation to various emerging energy technologies beyond nuclear, what needs to be done and how manageable they potentially are. We have also tried to engage with the companies that are pioneering these technologies in the early stage so that they do not get into a position where the regulator turns up at the 11th hour and says, "No, you can’t do that." Conversely, it gives them an input, though not an exclusive one, into helping to inform our view as to the proper way to regulate it. Like Paul, we have very much sought to anticipate more and be very open with the public about this. All of these reports can be found on our website.

We have a continuing need, which all regulators have, to look at things again in the light of experience. To give one example that I know is of interest to the Committee, we have commissioned an independent report about the safety of wind turbines, which we will be launching shortly at a conference and we will publish. Again, these are matters of perfectly proper, legitimate concern to the public and to us also. We are trying to pick up these things and engage in public debate and, to the maximum extent we can, to be objective and not take one side or the other but to say, "This is how it looks to us. Having heard everyone, these are the facts. It seems to us the best way forward is to do x and y but not z." The more we keep that going, the more we recognise that as things move on you learn things, so issues have to be revisited. In our view, those are the essential lessons that Governments and we as regulators have learned.

Chair: Dr Meara and gentlemen, thank you very much for your time this morning. It has been very valuable.

Prepared 6th July 2012