Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Supplementary letter from John Roberts the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs


  When I gave evidence to the sub-committee on 11 November, I was asked by Lord Oxburgh about the process for agreeing the OSPAR strategy on Radioactive Substances, and in particular whether there was adequate consultation in order to establish the costs associated with it. (Question 194, on page 7 of the uncorrected transcript.)

  I was unable to provide an answer at the time, as I had no personal knowledge of the process leading up to the agreements reached at the Sintra Ministerial meeting in 1998 at which the strategy was agreed. I promised to write to the Sub-Committee to provide an answer. I am sorry it has taken time to research the relevant files.

  The OSPAR Commission agreed in 1997 that the Chairman of the OSPAR Radioactive Discharge Working Group (RAD) should convene a meeting of a small group of countries (France, Ireland, the Netherlands and the UK) to prepare a first draft of an OSPAR strategy for radioactive substances, for further elaboration at RAD 1998. This drafting group met on 30-31 October 1997 and proposed a text that was further developed at the RAD meeting in January 1998 and at OSPAR Heads of Delegations meetings in March, May and June 1998. As the lead Department on OSPAR issues, DETR (as it then was) represented the UK in discussions on the draft strategy. The aim was to agree a text for the Commission to adopt at its 1998 Meeting, which was to be at Ministerial level and was to take place in Sintra in July 1998.

  The draft strategy which emerged from these preparatory meetings contained some "square-bracketed" passages setting out alternative texts on issues where it had not proved possible to secure agreement. These alternatives were offered to the Ministerial meeting, for Ministers to seek to reach an agreement.

  France and the UK had argued for a text that referred to reducing concentrations of radioactive substances in the marine environment to levels where radiation exposure of humans and marine biota is near background values. The other alternative text, proposed by Ireland and later supported by Denmark and Norway, referred to reducing concentrations of man-made radio-active substances close to zero, with a target of the cessation of all radioactive discharges by 2020.

  In supporting the first option, DETR officials argued that the strategy should focus on the effects of radioactice substances, rather than the amounts discharged or the concentrations themselves. During the negotiations they kept in contact informally with officials in DTI.

  The Head of Radioactive Substances Division in DETR wrote on 8 July 1998 to colleagues in the interdepartmental Radioactive Waste Policy Group enclosing the draft text of the OSPAR strategy, and there was consultation between Ministers which confirmed that the UK should support the first option.

  As had been expected, at the Ministerial meeting on 22-23 July the UK came under exreme pressure to relinquish this position. The result of negotiations, which went on into the early hours of the morning, was a compromise. The decision taken by the Deputy Prime Minister (John Prescott) and Environment Minister (Michael Meacher) to agree to the final text carefully weighed the impact on the nuclear industry, the need for a credible strategy to protect the marine environment, and the value of a consensus declaration by Ministers. Their decision was made in consultation by telephone with John Battle, then Minister of State at DTI. It is significant that France, who find the OSPAR strategy even more difficult that the UK, were also prepared to agree to the compromise text. The trade-off in the UK's favour was to get proposed text dropped from the Ministerial Statement.

  The nuclear industry were represented at the OSPAR Commission meeting by the Uranium Institute (now called the World Nuclear Assocition) as an Observer. Representations were consulted by the UK in the course of negotiation of the compromise text and made it clear that they considered the timeframe that was finally agreed to be challenging but achievable.

  When OSPAR Strategy was agreed, BNFL issued a press notice in which they undertook to work closely with the Government and the regulators to achieve it. The UK is implementing the OSPAR Strategy through its UK Strategy for Radioactive Discharges 2001-2020, which was published in 2002 and which included a Regulatory Impact Assessment. The net cost was estimated at between £0 and £9 million per year.

18 December 2003

previous page contents

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2004