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Nuclear Waste

6.26 p.m.

The Earl of Shannon rose to call attention to the problem of safe, permanent disposal of high level nuclear waste; and to move for Papers.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, although my Motion for debate refers to the permanent disposal of high level nuclear waste, perhaps it would be constructive if we were to spend a few minutes considering how such waste arises and what the implications might be for the future.

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Our industrial society requires vast and increasing amounts of energy. We have been and are supplying them by burning fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and gas. That produces undesirable side effects, such as acid rain, heavy metals and greenhouse gases, in the atmosphere. All wastes and side effects of such a nature are highly undesirable and, to make confusion worse confounded, President Clinton, and even our own Prime Minister, have announced that their countries will make major reductions in their future emissions of those gases, in our case by some 20 per cent. Of course, neither of them can have any idea of how they will bring that about, except through punitive taxation resulting in fines, politely called levies, on the use of fossil fuels.

One may consider the romantically attractive alternatives of renewable forms of energy, such as solar energy, wind and water. But, apart from major hydroelectric schemes, the present state of technology does not, by any stretch of the imagination, envisage that such renewables would produce anything other than a welcome but very minor proportion of the vast amount of megawatts which our society requires.

That leaves us with the only possible alternative in the large scene; namely, nuclear power. Of all those undesirable emissions, it is clear and clean but does have the very serious problem that it produces particularly nasty high-level radioactive wastes with an almost indefinitely long life. Reactors have been producing such wastes for some decades now. To leave them stored and not permanently immobilised is not a legacy that we should leave to our descendants.

Those high level wastes consist of spent fuel rods and the waste nitric acid which has been used during the reprocessing to recover the reusable plutonium and uranium. These wastes account for only 1 per cent. by volume of all radioactive wastes, but they contain well over 90 per cent. of the radioactivity.

The public perception of nuclear power has always been tinged with suspicion, mainly because it, in common with the universe in which we live, started with a big bang and such suspicion was reinforced by the unfortunate disaster at Chernobyl. This disaster was the result of irresponsible operatives playing with an old Soviet RBMK-1000 reactor. Unwisely and completely irregularly, they withdrew all the control rods from the reactor and then switched off the main pumps to see what would happen and whether the automatic power would quickly switch on. That was the equivalent of tying down the safety valve on a boiler and seeing how long it would be before a man with a bucket of water would arrive to put out the furnace before the boiler exploded.

Such irresponsibility is inconceivable now and could have taken place only in the circumstances of the old Soviet Union. We must also bear in mind that there are some 400 reactors working around the world which have been generating vast quantities of energy over many years in complete safety and becoming even safer by design; for instance, in modern reactors the control rods move at 20 times the speed of those at Chernobyl and would have started controlling the reactor within one second. Unfortunately, all these reactors, however safe, are producing high level wastes.

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Some time ago, the only solution was the encapsulation of these wastes in borosilicate glass as a temporary measure until time or circumstance, or even some kind fairy godmother, would come forward with a permanent solution. In effect, we were merely shelving the problem for future generations, but already the shelf is becoming rather full.

Vitrification with borosilicate glass, while admirable as a temporary measure based on the technology of its day, has a lot of basic flaws. The molten glass takes the waste into solution. However, the casting of large blocks of glass, even if it is very slowly cooled to anneal the blocks, will inevitably produce many micro-cracks in the body of the glass which greatly increase the surface area available for leaching the waste into groundwater if the glass is buried. This pollution of groundwater is by far the greatest danger to be avoided in the disposal of this kind of waste. Furthermore, glass is thermally unstable, in that it will break down in temperatures above 100o Celsius in wet conditions. As the wastes decay, they naturally become hot and so glass-encapsulated wastes must be kept in a dry and force-cooled environment, giving rise to a very expensive storage commitment. Spent fuel rods are also placed in cooling ponds as an alternative measure, giving rise to radioactive water and silt.

That is a very brief outline of how the problem is being dealt with today--all temporary measures and all adding to the dangerous legacy which we are building up for future generations.

Massive research has been done on this problem in many countries covering glasses, bitumenising, ceramics and silicate slags, but the only two which have found industrial application so far seem to be the boron silicate glass mainly in France and here, and alumophosphate glass in the Russian Federation.

However, due to the chance discovery some years ago in Australia of a natural rock which had for many millions of years been effectively absorbing the radioactivity of uranium deposits, the way was led to successful work there in the synthesising of the rock and producing a product which in every way reflects, and even in some respects can be an improvement on, the natural rock. Surely, with this, the way is now open to the permanent safe disposal of high level waste without waiting for cooling off periods or separation of the comparatively shorter-lived nuclides of some 600 years' life from the longer-lived radionuclides, which should be isolated for some 100,000 years before their activity drops to near the natural radioactivity of uranium deposits. Again, much intensive research work has been done in many countries, including ours, on the feasibility of producing and testing titanate ceramic synthetic rock.

Titanium and Zircon in the crystal lattices of a synthetic rock are the most stable elements known for the entrapment of radioactive atoms and appear to continue to do this ad infinitum. Synthetic rock is entirely homogeneous and bonds chemically with the dangerous wastes, making the possibility of release by leaching around 1,000 times less than glass and it is almost impossible by human intervention to release the wastes with malicious or terrorist intent.

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Synthetic rock has far greater strength than glass, as well as two-and-a-half times better thermal conductivity and can withstand temperatures of up to 300o Celsius without damage. Even if buried and subject to earthquake damage, synthetic rock remains, even in pieces, the same as the original homogeneous whole.

Wastes incorporated in synthetic rock, while they become hot through the decay of waste, may be stored above ground, but, knowing the proved performance of the natural rock over millions of years, probably the best disposal would be permanent deposit in deep bore holes, preferably in massive granite formations and in arid locations away from populated areas. Many such areas exist in Africa.

That would be a belt and braces solution to the possibility of even the slightest contamination of groundwater, which, as I have said, is the greatest danger surrounding the disposal of such wastes. In future, all high level waste, either chopped-up spent fuel rods or waste nitric acid from reprocessing, can be immobilised immediately at site and the same method can also be used for clearing all the waste presently stored in the old-fashioned and now ageing glass.

In economic terms, the cost of the original immobilisation in synthetic rock is comparable with that of temporary encapsulation in glass. The earlier possible difficulties with the hydraulic uniaxial hot-pressing system have been superseded by the later cold crucible system of melting, making the encapsulation much easier. But the subsequent, most expensive forced cooling and storage of glass for anything up to 50 years is completely obviated. That is really where the saving comes from.

In recent years, we have tested and learned more about that synthetic rock than we ever knew about borosilicate glass when we started using it; and we are still using it. Yet it appears that better solutions are coming forward with those titanate ceramics.

I have a letter here dated yesterday from Professor N. Babaev, who is head of the Technical Board of the Ministry of the Russian Federation for Atomic Power. He reports from a meeting of all the leading Russian organisations and the last paragraph of his letter states:

    "The two day session brought us to the conclusion that interim results of the pre-feasibility study indicate that synthetic rock is superior from an ecological and economic viewpoint".
Are we to be left behind by the Russian Federation and also probably by the Japanese? Or are we to be the first in Europe to show a responsible attitude towards not leaving an awesome legacy to our future generations?

Of course I realise that bureaucratic protocol will require the formation of committees and awaiting their reports while they duplicate the work and investigations which have already been undertaken. But, please, I ask that we urgently take this matter seriously so that we do not go on indefinitely stocking up that shelf with further loads of temporary, ageing, potentially leaking glass encapsulations.

I have no direct interest to declare beyond the intense interest which I think we all should have. Furthermore, the United States Government look likely, next February, to have to face a 100 billion dollar lawsuit in

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relation to their laxity in providing storage for nuclear waste fuel rods. I do not suppose that Her Majesty's Government look forward to receiving similar complaints in the future. In fact, your fairy godmother has arrived and she is called titanate ceramic, the synthetic rock. Please do not ignore her until it is too late. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

6.45 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, I must apologise for not adding my name to the list of speakers in the proper way. The mistake was entirely my own. However, I understand that the noble Earl and other noble Lords have been good enough to permit me to make a very short intervention in what is known as the "gap". I shall be brief.

We must all admire the noble Earl's wide-ranging knowledge and persistence in this matter. I am all the more grateful to him for allowing me to intervene because there remain wide differences between us in relation to the ends that we seek. Nevertheless, I must place on record my total opposition to nuclear weapons, which stems from 1945 when I happened to be in Asia when a nuclear weapon was first dropped.

As the noble Earl indicated to us, what happened later at Chernobyl confirmed the view that there was an extremely close relationship between the different forms of nuclear energy. One appeared to be almost as dangerous as the other. I have only one point of disagreement with the noble Earl in that regard. He suggested that Chernobyl was a single exceptional case. It certainly was as regards degree, but other accidents, although less serious, have occurred at reactors all over the world and our own country is no exception to that.

In short, the nuclear reactor and its product is inherently dangerous. Nevertheless, it seems that there is a chance that we may be able to obtain a full disposal of nuclear waste. If the noble Earl is right about that, it seems to me that it would be entirely wrong to oppose it as such because the discovery of such a method could have many important by-products; for example, if I understand the noble Earl correctly, it could lead to the removal of the threat posed by the Soviet submarines in the Baltic, should they undergo the process which the noble Earl suggests. If that is the case, it would be wrong to oppose the removal of the danger presently existing.

It is true that that inability to secure permanent and safe disposal has led to the present decline in enthusiasm for nuclear energy. But if the noble Earl is right, that would remove not all, by any means, the reasons but would remove the main reason for the present lack of enthusiasm for nuclear energy. But any method found which could remove the danger posed by nuclear submarines in the Baltic must be supported. Therefore, to that extent, I support the noble Earl and I must congratulate him on his persistence, even though we may continue to disagree quite profoundly on the ends.

6.50 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley: My Lords, we must all be grateful to the noble Earl for having raised this

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subject because it is an extremely serious and important one. However, in my gratitude to him I do not go along with much of his reasoning and I do not have much belief in the solution which he has proposed. I gave up believing in fairy godmothers quite a few years ago, certainly in the form of synthetic rock.

I believe that the future for energy the world over--in a world which is dedicated to a sustainable future--has to be with renewables. It cannot be with anything else. The more money that we can devote to renewables, and the more local we can make their production, the better. I do not accept the total dismissal by the noble Earl of that view of the future of the power industry.

I am due to go to Ceylon--I hope--just after Christmas. I have a long list of all the things that I need to do to avoid contracting malaria. I have a list of the drugs that I have to take before I leave, while I am there and for a month after I return. The list concludes by stating that the most important precaution is to ensure that one is not bitten by mosquitoes. I believe that the most important measure is not to produce nuclear waste. Unfortunately, we have quite a lot of it already and we have to deal with that. However, the sooner we give up producing any more, the better.

Although the British nuclear industry is proud of its safety record, no agreed safe solution exists for the long-term management of radioactive waste which remains highly toxic for hundreds of years and more. I do not believe that nuclear power is either necessary or desirable for electricity generation. Investment in renewable sources and--this is most important--in energy conservation is much more desirable as these are more cost effective and more environmentally sustainable methods of meeting energy demand. Nuclear power stations, including Sizewell B, should be phased out, as they reach the end of their safe operating lives. There should be no subsidy for the privatised part of the industry.

As the huge stockpile of plutonium continues to grow, the UK still imports nuclear waste from abroad for disposal here. The nuclear industry is unable to solve its own waste problems. Earlier this year, Norman Baker, MP, one of my colleagues in another place, spoke of discharges of plutonium, tritium and up to a dozen types of radioactive waste still being made into the Thames above the intakes for London's drinking water supply. This situation cannot continue. The nuclear industry should carry a greater share of third party insurance. Currently the industry's liability is limited to £140 million, with the Government paying any claims that are met above that figure. There should be a higher operator limit within the framework provided by the Paris and Brussels convention on civil nuclear liability.

My colleagues on the Liberal Democrat Benches in both Houses opposed the opening of the thermal oxide reprocessing plant (THORP) on both environmental and economic grounds. As storage rather than reprocessing remains the least environmentally unacceptable option for dealing with nuclear waste, the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel should be phased out, except when necessary for safety reasons. Imports of nuclear waste for reprocessing in the UK should be banned from 2002, the earliest possible dates in BNFL contracts.

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The safe handling and storage of radioactive waste has created high real costs in years of costly research. However, I maintain that no long-term safe option has yet been identified. Radioactive materials should continue to be stored in sites that can be monitored and where, if unforeseen problems arise, the waste can be recovered and treated in a different manner. Research programmes should be maintained to identify how such waste should be dealt with in the future. The focus of nuclear industry operations should be shifted from construction to decommissioning tasks where skilled workers and state-of-the-art technical innovation will be in demand for many years to come.

This is an important subject, but I maintain that the basic solution lies not with fairy godmothers but in making certain that we do not get stung by the mosquitoes and that we do not produce the waste which is so dangerous to us all and to our descendants.

6.55 p.m.

Lord Bowness: My Lords, I, too, wish to thank the noble Earl for initiating the debate this evening on this important subject. I do not feel in any way able to challenge his great knowledge and expertise on either new types of glass or synthetic rock. I hope that the Minister will tell us the Government's view on those proposals. Even if new glass is developed to encapsulate the waste, and even if synthetic rock is developed in which subsequently to encapsulate the glass, we shall still be faced with the political problem of where one deposits that, even if it becomes a much safer option.

Whatever the arguments about nuclear power there can be no argument about safety being the paramount consideration in the disposal of waste. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, that to stop producing it will not solve the problem because, as the noble Earl has already said this evening, the shelves are filling up. The rejection of the application for the deep store near Sellafield by Mr. Gummer, the then Secretary of State, was, I believe, a welcome decision as considerable doubts had already been expressed about the suitability of the rock formations at the site in question. As that site was near Sellafield and, as I understand it, 60 per cent. of the UK waste comes from Sellafield, I hope that there was no issue of convenience in the choice of the site. I certainly hope that the Minister will be able to confirm that convenience of disposal should always be a secondary consideration. That is not to say that deep entombment is not a possible way forward in the right place. That, however, raises yet another issue. Should the waste be sealed irretrievably or should retrieval be a possibility against the day that a satisfactory method of treatment is discovered? Do the Government have a view on that?

Some reports suggest that the failure of the Sellafield plans may have put back the search for a dump by some 30 years. What proposals do the Government have to deal with the increasing amount of waste? The synthetic rock may well be the answer. I ask about that as that solution has not yet been addressed here. No doubt the Government will want to give the public an assurance that British Nuclear Fuels and Nirex retain their confidence in dealing with this issue, because public

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confidence and safety are of vital importance. I hope that the Minister will forgive me for launching a series of questions at her. Has she any more information about the proposal for a type of nuclear reactor alleged to be capable of burning atomic waste, which I believe is known as the Rubbia proposal? A Written Answer in another place stated,

    "The Euratom Scientific and Technical Committee ... has reported to the European Commission on the proposals, and the report will be published shortly. The conclusions, with which my Department concurs, are that it is unrealistic, on the grounds of both cost and technical risk ... but that there are several aspects which may merit further work".--[Official Report, Commons, 11/6/97; col. WA 466.]
I should be grateful if the Minister could tell us what those aspects are and what work is being done.

Further, what will our attitude be towards the reprocessing contracts with other countries, to which the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, referred, and the return of plutonium and uranium in particular to Japan and Germany? As I understand it--the noble Baroness will tell me if I am wrong--in return for taking back more high level waste as a new fuel called MOX, Britain would be disposing of those countries' bulkier but less active waste. Do we have a view about those contracts? Do we see merit in them? I know that the Government have already stopped all nuclear dumping at sea. Nevertheless, the waste which exists has to be safely disposed of. There has already been reference to Russian submarines. There may be redundant submarines of our own which will pose a problem. What should be done with those? How will they be dealt with? How will the costs be met?

Perhaps we can also learn from the Government today the current responsibilities of the Department of Trade and Industry for Dounreay and whether those will be changed with devolution. In referring to Dounreay, I am advised that a waste shaft was damaged in an explosion there some 30 years ago. Are those problems being resolved? What is being done to make that safe?

Lastly, are the Government in a position to tell us what progress has been made in regard to the European Union action plan adopted in 1992 for the period 1993-99? What input is the United Kingdom making to that programme? I apologise to the Minister for asking so many questions. I appreciate that few of those questions are easy to answer. However, perhaps I may close my remarks by quoting from a paper by Sir John Surrey of the University of Sussex, who says:

    "The emergence of a broad social consensus on the issue of the long-term handling of radioactive wastes ... is essential as long as the UK continues to reprocess spent fuel. Were reprocessing to be abandoned, it would be necessary to devise publicly acceptable policies for the long-term storage and ultimate disposal of spent fuel and to write-off the new Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant at Sellafield--which cost £1.85 billion to build, or could well be £2.6 billion if associated waste management facilities are included--and forego its lucrative export earnings. Stopping reprocessing would also in the longer term prevent the UK stockpile of plutonium, which has no civilian use in the absence of fast reactors, from getting even bigger".

Again, I apologise for the number of questions. However, the noble Earl has raised this important issue tonight. I look forward to hearing from the Government on these points.

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7.3 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, like other speakers I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Shannon, for introducing this short but fascinating debate on an extremely important topic. I wish to add my congratulations to him for the manner in which he introduced the subject. It was a combination of erudition and accessibility and although not all noble Lords who spoke agreed with him, we are all grateful for, and took great interest in, what he said.

In response to the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, I think that I shall be able to help him on most of the issues he raised. However, if I cannot cover any specific matter tonight, I undertake to write to him.

The Motion introduced by the noble Earl refers to the disposal of high level waste. Radioactive waste is usually regarded as falling into four broad categories. I shall say something about the other categories because intermediate level waste was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, and others.

High level waste is distinguished from intermediate level waste by its heat generating capacity. This means that high level waste has to be stored to allow the heat to dissipate before disposal can become a possibility. The cooling process takes about 50 years.

There is relatively little high level waste in storage. There is currently about 700 cubic metres in store. On the basis of current commitments, this volume will grow to about 2,300 cubic metres by the middle of the next century.

The previous government indicated in their 1995 White Paper on radioactive waste management that they favoured disposing of high level waste in a deep repository. Consultants were appointed to consider the long-term disposal of high level waste. They were asked to produce a strategy which will identify research requirements on the volume, composition and form of high level waste which this country will need to dispose of. They will also review other countries' proposals for disposing of high level waste. The consultants are due to report in 1999.

At present high level waste is stored, as has been said, in liquid and vitrified form. As, I am sure, were other noble Lords, I was very interested to hear the noble Earl, Lord Shannon, describe proposals for the use of an alternative to vitrification based on oxides of the metal titanium. We have heard that there is some dispute about whether fairy godmothers exist in this field. My department is aware of earlier research work on this material which was first developed, on a laboratory scale, in about 1980. But I understand from what the noble Earl said that there have been further developments of the technology which demonstrate the potential for this material to be produced on a commercial scale. I am sure that the nuclear industry and the regulators would want at least to consider those developments. If the noble Earl cares to give me any further material I shall make sure that it is thoroughly evaluated within the department. However, I point out that the evaluation would need to consider scientific and

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technical issues, in particular--I return to the question I was asked--the safety case for using an alternative medium, because safety in this area has to be paramount. The noble Earl recognised that there is also an economic dimension to the issue and that evaluation would need to consider the financial consequences of making a change at this stage. The Government will take a view on all the issues related to the disposal of high level waste once they receive the consultants' recommendations.

The noble Lord, Lord Bowness, referred to the quantities of intermediate level waste currently in store--on the shelf, as the noble Lord put it. There are currently about 70,000 cubic metres of intermediate level waste in store and, again on the basis of current commitments, this is expected to grow to about 200,000 cubic metres by the middle of the next century. The material is treated and stored in specially constructed facilities which are strictly regulated by the Health and Safety Executive. Most of the material is stored at the sites where it arises. These are mostly nuclear power stations.

Intermediate level waste does not need heat generation to be taken into account in its storage or its disposal. The previous government also signalled their preference for deep disposal of intermediate level waste in the 1995 White Paper. As the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, said, the then Secretary of State for the Environment, in March this year, dismissed an appeal by UK Nirex Ltd. to construct a rock characterisation facility at Sellafield. This essentially would have been a deep underground laboratory to test the suitability of the site for the construction of a repository for intermediate level waste.

Opponents of the repository had mounted a strong campaign to prevent the construction even of the laboratory. Arguments were presented to the public inquiry that Nirex's methods in selecting Sellafield as the site of the laboratory were flawed and that in any case the development was premature given the state of knowledge of what would happen to radionuclides over the extraordinary timescales which have to be considered if the material is to be placed in a deep repository. There were also arguments that the development would damage the local environment.

These arguments were, broadly speaking, accepted by the inquiry inspector and by the previous Secretary of State. Clearly, this was a serious setback for Nirex. It is inevitable, as a result, that the implications of that decision need to be considered. That work is continuing and I am sure that the House will understand that I am not in a position to make an announcement about the next steps this evening. It is of paramount importance that we get this right. Therefore I think that it would be wrong to try to rush into any particular position without having all the evidence.

There are some who want swift and clear decisions in this area. However, it is apparent, even from this short debate, that there are strongly held views on both sides of the argument. There are those who believe that the state of our knowledge is sufficient for us to conclude now that deep disposal is the right approach both for

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high level and intermediate level waste. They believe that the multiple barriers--both natural and engineered--that would be achieved in a repository would be sufficient to ensure that harmful quantities of radionuclides would be prevented indefinitely from returning either to the surface of the land or to the marine environment. But there are others who believe that further research is needed before we can be sure that our successors would not need to intervene to prevent damage to their health or their environment.

The issue of sustainability, to which the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, referred, is at the core of this argument. The Government are strongly committed to the principles of sustainable development. One of the most important principles in safeguarding that sustainability is the axiom given to us in the 1978 Brundtland Report, and I quote:

    "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".
We can all agree, I hope, that we have a responsibility to avoid imposing unnecessary burdens on future generations. Some would argue that this requires our generation not to leave future generations to have to find a solution to the problems of disposing of radioactive waste. But that argument cannot be sustained unless we can be absolutely sure that future generations will not be adversely affected by the decisions we take in our lifetimes.

As well as being satisfied about the need for deep disposal, the Government also need to consider the financial implications of the disposal options. The cost of constructing a repository would be very great indeed. We expect these costs to be in the range of £1.5 billion to £2 billion. Clearly, an investment of this magnitude needs to be very carefully assessed. One of the factors which needs to be taken into account in considering when it would be appropriate to pursue the disposal option is the life of the existing stores.

I should stress that we are confident that the present regimes for the storage of high and intermediate level waste are safe and that the existing regulatory controls are satisfactory. It is therefore, in the Government's judgment, reasonable to take time to give full and proper consideration to the issues relating to the disposal of high and intermediate level radioactive waste.

My noble friend Lord Jenkins of Putney referred to the problems that nuclear energy and nuclear weapons create in the world. He congratulated the noble Earl on his persistence in this area. The House will also congratulate my noble friend for his persistence. He never loses an opportunity to put forward a clear and passionately held view. I merely reaffirm that, as stated in the Government's manifesto, we will press for multilateral negotiations towards mutually balanced and verifiable reductions in nuclear weapons. Our goal has to be the global elimination of those weapons. We will include British nuclear weapons in such multilateral negotiations once we are satisfied that we have verified progress towards global elimination.

Perhaps I may deal with the specific issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, in relation to the possibility of a new type of reactor. The DTI has the

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concept under review. The department is at present sceptical about the ability of the new reactor to generate nuclear power more cheaply than existing reactors and to treat wastes already existing.

To turn to the issue of the shaft at Dounreay, the Atomic Energy Authority, in consultation with the Scottish Office and the DTI, is currently considering the options. An announcement will be made in due course. The requirements of the regulators will have to be satisfied in this area.

I now turn to the broader issue that the noble Earl, Lord Shannon, introduced in his opening remarks; namely, the potential role of nuclear power in contributing to our efforts to reduce CO 2 emissions. Climate change is perhaps the most serious environmental threat facing the world today. It could have devastating effects on society, the global economy, human health and the natural environment. It is a global problem and needs a global solution. The Kyoto conference in December is an opportunity to show that we and other developed countries are serious about tackling this threat.

The Government are committed to ensuring that firm action is taken at home and abroad to combat climate change. We are in the forefront of efforts to secure a good deal at Kyoto--to reach agreement on challenging targets for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by developed countries. We are leading from the front in our support of the EU's proposal that developed countries should reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 15 per cent. below 1990 levels by 2010 and through our domestic goal of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 20 per cent. by 2010. It is not right for the noble Earl to say--I hope he did so loosely--that the Government have no idea at all as to how those emissions can be reduced. There are a number of areas that we have to approach. The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, gave some examples of ways in which progress can be made.

The Government are determined to develop and consult on a programme to deliver our climate change targets after Kyoto. We want all sectors to play their part in a balanced programme. We are likely to be looking in particular for improvements in domestic, industrial and commercial energy efficiency, measures to tackle the growth of emissions from the transport sector, and a large increase in the amount of electricity generated from renewable resources and combined heat and power schemes. We do not share the noble Earl's pessimism about the possibilities in that field. There is great scope.

Our climate change targets are challenging. But we believe they represent what is necessary and achievable in the fight against climate change. Whatever the final shape of the programme, major changes in the way we generate and use energy will be needed. Increased efficiency in nuclear generation has helped this country to stay on course for meeting its existing climate change target. Provided that high standards of safety and environmental protection can be maintained, we believe that that should continue to be so. We do not, however, see a case for government intervention in favour of the construction of new nuclear power stations. There are

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many other measures that we can, and will, use to deliver significant reductions in this country's greenhouse gas emissions. Many of them will bring other benefits--a more sustainable and efficient transport system; a more diverse energy supply; and commercial benefits to firms who use energy more efficiently or profit from business opportunities for more energy efficient technologies.

The Government are committed to the highest standards in all areas affected by radioactive waste. Those standards must be based on the best scientific advice available. We must ensure that the standards apply both to those who work directly in the nuclear industry and also to the public at large. It is also essential that we continue to make every effort to ensure that the environment is protected. That will mean being constantly vigilant to ensure that we have the right regulatory regimes in place and that these are being complied with.

The management and disposal of radioactive waste is a serious and long-term issue, as illustrated by the contributions made in the House tonight. We believe, however, that it is right that we should take time to consider the issues carefully so that the decisions the Government take are right, not only now but for future generations.

7.19 p.m.

The Earl of Shannon: My Lords, I thank all those who so kindly contributed to the debate, and I especially thank the noble Baroness the Minister for her kind remarks. I am afraid that we slightly disagree on some matters which are not part of the main topic of the debate; namely, the safe disposal of high level nuclear waste.

The noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, and I, do not quite agree on one matter. I believe that there should be more nuclear power, while he thinks that there should never have been any at all. But we have it and we should not be like 18th century agricultural peasants who looked at the steam engine and said, "We won't have anything to do with that; there's no future in it; let's go away, it might go bang"; or like the legislators at the beginning of this century who looked with horror at the horseless carriage driven by an infernal internal combustion engine and said, "Nothing will ever happen with that, but, as it's here, let's have someone walking in front of it with a red flag".

We must weigh the successes of nuclear power with any failures. I know that failures are highlighted. We are like peasants in the Middle Ages who thought that anything they could not understand was either magic or the work of the devil. We should take a more balanced view of what nuclear power has done for the world and what it could do in the future.

Apparently the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, and I disagree again. Although on one thing I am afraid we do agree: serving in the latter half of the 1940s in the Royal West African Frontier Force in a place known in those days as the white man's grave, one took very good care not to be bitten by mosquitoes.

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We must have nuclear energy, otherwise our industrialised society will not exist in its present state.

The idea of conservation is a magnificent one, but will it produce what we want? Similarly, the Minister referred to the renewables. I find it difficult to believe that those will produce sufficient energy for our needs.

I felt that the subject should be considered by your Lordships on the grounds that we need a permanent solution to disposing of the waste which we have already produced and the other nuclear rubbish lying around, much of it in the old Soviet Union. The idea of using something which has naturally been immobilising radioactive materials for millions of years is something that we should catch on to quickly.

I think that there was a slight misunderstanding between the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, and myself. The idea is not to put this material around the glass, but to use it instead of the glass.

The debate was originally designed to deal with the disposal of high level waste, but it branched out into many other fields. The noble Lord raised a number of political aspects. He made an important point relating to retrievability. I did not dwell very strongly on that subject, being more concerned about the immobilisation of waste.

It has been suggested that a deep borehole in massive granite could be a permanent disposal site. Of course, one would put down small monitoring holes alongside the borehole to find out if there was any water down there and if it was likely to be contaminated. With a deep borehole going straight down, with canisters of synthetic rock encasing the waste, packed presumably with clay, and the hole capped with a large amount of concrete, it should be possible to get the canisters up again if necessary. This synthetic rock has been bottling up radiation for millions of years and it should certainly cope with the small matter of 100,000 years. If you had to hitch it up again, with a straight borehole and soft clay, you could put down a grab and get the canisters out. That is just a suggestion. I think the waste could be retrievable, although I do not think it would be at all necessary.

I--and I suppose other noble Lords--have received a note from the Select Committee on Science and Technology. I do not think any of us knew that that committee was about to have a discussion on the management of nuclear waste. For that reason, none of the members of that committee participated in this debate. Apparently they will read what was said and take it into their consideration. We are most grateful to them for that.

I hope that due consideration will be given to what I think will be the answer to the problem of the disposal of high level waste and its immobilisation, which is so important. If it is immobilised, it can be moved around with greater safety.

I thank all those who participated in the debate. My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

29 Oct 1997 : Column 1115

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