Memorandum by British Nuclear Fuels Ltd
BNFL is a global "high-tech" company,
and with its leading position in the UK's nuclear industry, inevitably
finds itself affected by a significant number of International
Agreements. We welcome the Committee's inquiry and believe it
raises a number of important issues that could fundamentally affect
the UK's prosperity and social values. BNFL's key points are summarised
here with more detail later in this document. We also provide
responses to the questions by the Committee towards the end of
The Inquiry has the following terms of reference:
"How satisfactory are the existing arrangements
for incorporating scientific advice and other scientific input
into the negotiation, application and implementation of international
agreements; and how could these arrangements be improved?"
BNFL wishes to make the following points in
In setting International Agreements, all factors
need to be taken into considerationScientific, Political
It is essential that International Agreements
that seek to promote far-reaching or complex collaborations are
based on a broad range of considerations. Factors such as the
financial cost of implementation, social and ethical issues, and
the scientific and technical analyses should all be integrated
to achieve the optimum overall benefit. Striving to achieve a
target, which may be technically feasible in isolation of other
considerations, could result in little or no benefit at disproportionate
It should be transparent and understandable how
scientific, political and ethical considerations influenced the
Having argued for balanced and integrated decision-making,
it is nevertheless important that all the considerations are initially
assessed in isolation. We must avoid the situation where a decision
made for political or other reasons is subsequently presented
as having a predominantly scientific rationale. This can lead
to a "bogus" scientific concept becoming established
in the public consciousness. The scientific evidence should ideally
be compiled in the early stages and independently published or
refereed. The aim should be for "open decision" making
with a clear & transparent trail of how each consideration
was weighted in the final outcome.
Steps should be taken to ensure all the scientific
input is from an objective source.
The scientific evidence needs to acknowledge
where residual uncertainty remains, but also to ensure that the
significance or context of the uncertainty is considered. Adopting
measures in response to an uncertainty can result in substantial
expenditure to avoid a potential risk that only has minor consequences.
It is virtually impossible to prove a negative correlation (X
will never harm Y), and the cost-benefit of alternative measures
should always be a consideration.
We should acknowledge the legitimacy of special
interest groups whose aims can be aspirational or based on belief
systems, but being careful to avoid crediting these aims with
scientific authenticity where this is not the case. Such groups
should be encouraged to present their views on what should be
done, as well as what should not, so that the implications of
their proposals can be fully considered.
We should create the circumstances where the
scientific evidence can be considered in a rational and dispassionate
manner. There is always a temptation to over-readily accept "good"
conclusions, and only challenge the "unwelcome". We
recommend that greater use be made of the learned bodies in the
UK to determine the thoroughness and validity of scientific evidence
that underpins a new proposal.
It's vital that those setting International Agreements
ensure the UK gets value for money.
Complying with the terms and conditions of International
Agreements inevitably draws down on the wealth and resources of
the UK. These are finite and in striving to maximise the benefit
for the UK, we should try and set a "level playing field"
in terms of cost and outcome. We need to negotiate our commitment
on a consistent basis and utilise the scientific evidence on benefit
across a wide spectrum of issues and options, eg energy, transport,
When the UK is contributing to or negotiating
International Agreements it should ensure that the impact on UK
of any legislation will be implementable.
BNFL'S VIEWS ON
International Agreements are inevitably complex
and often based on a wide range of conflicting considerations.
The outcome may appear as a simple target, but the process by
which they are defined is usually protracted, and a compromise
between both vested interests, and competing benefits.
It is essential that such Agreements are based
on the widest range of considerations, and these are fully integrated
to achieve the optimum overall benefit for the UK. It is right
and necessary that politics, social factors, environmental issues,
ethics, finance and scientific evidence all contribute to the
final decision. However it is also vital that each consideration
is evaluated separately and independently, so that the weighting
or relative importance of these considerations is revealed. The
aim should be for "open decision making", with a clear
transparent trail of how each element of the decision making process
contributed to the final outcome. In this way there is clear accountability,
the public can understand which factors influenced the decision
, and where appropriate, make challenges through established processes.
In our view it is of fundamental importance
that the scientific or technical evidence is compiled and analysed
at the outset. We suspect that there are occasions, or at least
it appears so, when scientific evidence is "bolted-on"
to a decision already made for political or other reasons. There
is a danger that the public incorrectly interpret an Agreement
as having a predominantly scientific foundation, and hence a "bogus"
scientific concept or correlation can become established in the
BNFL recommends that the scientific evidence
is refereed to provide an independent evaluation of the thoroughness
and validity of the data and analyses. For significant or potentially
contentious issues, we recommend that a Peer Review is carried
out, ideally by a learned society or chartered institute. The
Royal Society or the Royal Academy of Engineering could conduct
these Peer Reviews, or advise who would be appropriate to do so.
We should create the circumstances where the scientific evidence
can be considered in a rational and dispassionate manner. There
is a danger that the reader inevitably concurs with an analysis
which reinforces their expectations or which "intuitively"
feels right. There is also a temptation to over-readily accept
"good" conclusions, and only challenge the "unwelcome".
The UK also needs to avoid being committed to
a course of action just because we have the means to do so. New
technologies are constantly becoming available and there is the
temptation to agree to their deployment as a measure of our scientific
progress. Striving to achieve a target that may be technically
feasible in isolation of other considerations can result in little
or no benefit and disproportionate cost.
One particular aspect that deserves scrutiny,
both in the initial analyses and the subsequent review, is the
consideration of uncertainties. Scientific data inevitably contains
uncertainty, and the treatment of this can significantly influence,
and under some circumstances, distort the conclusions. The adoption
of measures in response to an uncertainty can result in substantial
and unnecessary expenditure, often only to avoid a potential risk
of minor consequence. It is also virtually impossible to prove
a negative correlation (X will never harm Y), and the cost-benefit
of such measures must be given careful consideration.
The wealth and resources of the UK are finite.
In striving to maximise benefit for the UK we should try and set
a "level playing field" in terms of both cost and outcome.
We need to negotiate our commitment on a consistent basis and
utilise the scientific evidence on risk and benefit across a wide
spectrum of issues and options. This aspect is discussed in more
The UK needs to give more detailed consideration
of the implications of entering into new Agreements. When the
UK is either contributing into or negotiating International Agreements
we need to ensure we have fully considered the impact on the UK
of any subsequent legislation.
BNFL welcomes the Committee's Inquiry, our experience
has been that it is often difficult to unravel the decision making
process, and to understand how balance has been achieved between
cost and benefit. We find ourselves implementing costly modifications
to our industrial plant and operational practices as a result
of International Agreements, and yet it is rare that we are consulted
at the information gathering stage. In our experience, measures
to reduce the level of radioactive discharges from nuclear installations
involve substantial expenditure with little demonstrable benefit
to the environment.
There is a general perception that less quantifiable
socio-political issues, are now taking centre stage in decision-making.
They include perceptions that radioactivity is in some way uniquely
dangerous and insidious, views that no level of radioactive pollutant
in the environment is acceptable, and concerns that, whatever
the scientific evidence, discharges may impact on other legitimate
uses of the environment. These are, in most cases, genuinely and
strongly held views, which deserve to be taken seriously into
account in the decision-making process. However, we argue that
it is important that they are considered alongside the technical
and economic arguments in a transparent way so that their full
implications in decision-making can be assessed.
Contrary to public perception, radiation is
a relatively weak carcinogen. One simple way of placing this in
perspective is to estimate the consequence of exposing a large
population to radiation. If, for example, 20,000 people were subjected
to a dose of 1mSv (the dose limit for the public and roughly 10
times higher than the exposure of the Sellafield critical group),
on the basis of current risk estimates, statistically about one
extra cancer death would be anticipated eventually to occur in
that population. This would be indistinguishable from the 4,000-5,000
other cancer deaths that would occur "naturally" over
the remaining lifetime of those exposed. Even though such numbers
may help put radiation risks into perspective, they may still
exaggerate consequences as they are based on the linear no-threshold
model, where collective doses are calculated by summing minute
doses to enormous populations over long periods of time.
One important implication is that the consideration
of such social and political factors and responding to public
perceptions will lead to more resources being spent to prevent
a statistical fatality (or other consequence of a reducing risk)
in one area rather than in another. The UK typically would need
to invest as follows to avoid this statistical fatality:
Health Service-of the order of several
Roads-of the order of £1 million.
Rail-of the order of several £1
Radiological reductions in the nuclear
industry-of the order £10 million to £100 million.
The baseline UK government figure for the value
of a fatality prevented is about £1 million. This is used,
for example, to determine investments in road improvement schemes
as a contribution to reducing the several thousand fatalities
on UK roads each year. Significantly lower sums would save real
lives in the health sector in the UK, through the increased provision
of hospital beds or better treatment of life threatening medical
The position is not peculiar to the UK. More
detailed studies in the USA and in Sweden for example, have exposed
the issue even more clearly by looking at a wide range of life-saving
interventions. The implied value of a statistical life from actual
regulatory/societal decisions varies over several orders of magnitude.
So long as these variations in expenditure genuinely
reflect public priorities, it is quite reasonable and proper that
the variations exist. The key question, however, is whether account
has been taken of the non-technical arguments in a transparent
way, and whether decision-makers and other stakeholders are aware
of the full balance of all of these arguments. There does not
always seem to be an appreciation that employing resources for
risk reduction in one area means that higher risks elsewhere will
not be addressed.
There is a particular concern from some states
neighbouring the UK that Sellafield discharges could lead to a
loss of confidence in their fishing industries and other suggestions
that even the minute doses received by their populations could
lead to ill-health. A substantial pressure for further reductions
in discharges also arises from the OSPAR Convention to which the
UK is a contracting party. This deals generally with reducing
pollution to the North Atlantic and, in respect of radioactivity,
says that "by the year 2020, the OSPAR Commission will ensure
that discharges, emissions and losses of radioactive substances
are reduced to levels where the additional concentrations in the
marine environment above historic levels, resulting from such
discharges, emissions and losses, are close to zero".
In accordance with OSPAR, the UK Government
has published a National Discharge Strategy, to demonstrate how
the UK intends to meet its commitments. Since the UK made its
initial commitment to OSPAR, BNFL has announced programmes of
early closures of Magnox reactor plant and associated reprocessing
facilities. Although programmes for closure have been influenced
by a variety of factors, meeting OSPAR commitments has been a
significant consideration. The total cost of these early closures
has been estimated to be around £750 million in direct costs,
with even greater longer-term indirect costs arising from unemployment
and impacts on the local economies in remote regions. Furthermore,
replacement fossil generation to compensate from the loss of nuclear
generation will lead to higher carbon emissions.
Based purely on a scientific and economic evaluation
of the data, it is difficult to see how these further reductions
can be justified. Application of the ALARA principle requires
that radiological doses and risks should be reduced to a level
that represents a balance between radiological and other factors,
including social and economic factors. The UK therefore finds
itself spending a significant proportion of its national wealth
on making minor reductions to releases that are already very small,
with negligible benefit to the environment and health risk factors.
BNFL has responded to the issues raised in the
"Call for Evidence" on the Committee's website in our
detailed responses above. We have also responded to the detailed
questions as follows:
(a) How is the need for scientific advice
BNFL is not sufficiently familiar with the process
of negotiating International Agreements to provide a detailed
reply. However it is essential that formal prompts exist to establish
the need for scientific advice, and that the full scope is defined
at the outset.
(b) To what extent does scientific information
and evidence go through a peer-review/quality control process?
We see little evidence that a formal process
exists to carry out quality checks on the scientific information,
but this is vital given the impact this may have on the terms
of the Agreement. From our perspective, quality checks ensure
there are no errors in the data. However a more broader ranging
scrutiny is required where there are areas of judgement or contention,
and for this we would suggest a Peer Review is required, either
carried out by organisations such as the Royal Society or the
Royal Academy of Engineering, or under their supervision.
(c) How should international agreements deal
with scientific uncertainty, having regard to a precautionary
approach? Is there a need for consistency between agreements on
the treatment of scientific uncertainty, and if so is there sufficient
A very important question, without an easy answer.
Scientific data always contains uncertainties, but these can originate
from a wide range of sources, including measurement variations,
intrinsic scatter in the properties of materials, the variability
of natural processes and biological responses, and from extrapolation
where data is non-existent.
From our perspective, the treatment of uncertainties
can have a major effect on the outcome of an analysis, and the
Committee is right to raise this as an important issue. There
is a need for consistency, but this should acknowledge that the
treatment will differ according to the source of the uncertainty.
We recommend that an expert committee address this issue.
(d) How are competing views on scientific
issues addressed and incorporated into agreements and implementation
Again, BNFL is not sufficiently familiar with
the process of negotiating International Agreements to provide
a detailed reply. However it is inevitable that differing views
will be held within the scientific community, and different conclusions
will be drawn from the same data. It is important that those charged
with assembling the scientific evidence do not have a vested interest,
and that scientific experts do not lead this process, but are
managed within a team. As mentioned previously, a well-specified
Peer Review can provide an impartial summary on the relative merits
of competing views.
(e) What role does the scientific community
in the United Kingdom play in contributing to the scientific input
used in formulating, applying and implementing international agreements,
and how might that role be enhanced?
The UK is very fortunate in having a vibrant
and well-respected scientific community, and superficially it
appears they could play a fuller role in contributing to the process
of assembling the scientific evidence. The essential step is to
acknowledge the need for a scientific evaluation at the outset,
and define a scope and process by which this should be achieved.
The chartered institutes and learned societies could advise on
(f) In areas where the EU has assumed competence
to negotiate international agreements, what arrangements are in
place to ensure that the EU's position is based on an appropriate
We suggest that all the above points could equally
apply to Agreements negotiated by the EU.