|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
The report comes after the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management had reported. Although in the 2004 report we were extremely critical of CoRWM, especially at the length of time that the committee was taking and its concentration on stakeholder engagement to the exclusion, we felt, of scientific analysis, when it came to it, there was much in the CoRWM report that we welcomed. In particular, we welcomed the following points: first, its agreement with our 1999 report that deep geological disposal at present represents the best procedure for the management of high-level and intermediate wasteI take on board the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt; secondly, that the site for such disposal should be chosen not just by its geological suitability but by the process of consultation and the willingness on the part of the local community to participate in that process; thirdly, that a robust programme of interim storage must play an integral part in such a long-term strategyif for no other reason than that it is likely to be at least 30 years before any long-term storage facilities are completed and ready for use; and, lastly, that the implementation process should be overseen by an independent body.
It is that latter point which, as the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, suggested in his introduction, has caused much of the discussion surrounding the current report which we put before the House. Although CoRWM endorsed the idea of an independent body, it nevertheless watered it down and the Government have watered it down yet further. The original 1999 proposal was that a new statutory body should be created with responsibility for developing an overarching and comprehensive implementation strategy. In other words, it should be a major board independent of government which would have responsibility for ensuring that the policy of deep geological disposal was developed and carried throughindependent of government but answerable directly to Parliament.
The reasons why the committee put forward that idea were, first, that we felt that the Government had by 1999, after a series of very unfortunate developments with Nirex, when proposals had been turned down by lengthy inquiries, lost credibility and trust in the eyes of the public on nuclear issues and that a body was needed where discussion and decisions were open and transparent. Secondly, because the programme for deep geological disposal would be so long-term and expensive, there was a need to take it away from the vagaries of political manoeuvringa 30-year programme outdistances the life of many a Parliamentand give it to a body with long-term commitment and credibility.
I have been trying to think of an equivalent analogue in terms of other boards. We have boards such as those of the British Library or the National Archives,
29 Oct 2007 : Column 1224
The CoRWM proposal was, as I said, a watered-down version of our proposals, and the Government have watered them down yet further. In their response, they made it clear that policy decisions would remain in the hands of the Government themselves, with Defra being the responsible department for managing nuclear waste, but with implementation in the hands of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, which was itself responsible to the DTI. I guess that it is now responsible to the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. The independent bodythe reconstituted CoRWM, as the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, has indicatedwould merely have the role of scrutiny of the NDAs actions and of advice to government, alongside that of two other committees: the Managing Radioactive Waste Safely Implementation Planning Group and a new departmental committee, the Repository Development Monitoring Committee, both of which are official committees made up of civil servants, not of outside members. In the mean time, the NDA itself was to be subject to the scrutiny of a plethora of regulatorsthe Environment Agency, the Health and Safety Executive, and the Scottish and Northern Ireland environmental protection agencieswhile the Government were also setting up a new national expert group of scientists to advise them on these nuclear issues.
It is therefore hardly surprising that the committee has criticised the Government for muddying the fieldamid this plethora of institutions, it is difficult to find out who is supposed to do whatand for watering down the original proposal to make it almost meaningless. Are scrutiny and advice the same thing? The Governments response seems to use them interchangeably. And what teeth does this imply for the new CoRWM? What if the Government simply neglect its advice? To do them justice, as the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, has indicated, the Government have listened to some of these criticisms and have clarified roles and enhanced the independence to be given to the new CoRWM in the revised terms of reference issued in July. It is, for example, to be able to lay its reports directly before Parliament, and in this sense to hold the Government and their agencies more directly to account. Nevertheless, it remains a very limp reflection of what the committee originally proposed.
I have two further points to make, which arise from the proposed timetable for geological disposal set out in Chapter 6 of the June 2007 consultation document, Managing Radioactive Waste Safely, which makes it clear that no work on the actual, physical work of developing geological disposal facilities will begin until at least 2020. The period up to then is taken up first by the geological screening and discussions with possible partners. The process is seen to take two to three decades, and there is construction only in the last quartile of that period.
My first question is therefore about what happens between now and then. The assumption must be that we maintain the stockpiles of high and intermediate-level nuclear waste in their current locations on NDA sites. This was the subject of CoRWMs second main recommendationthat a robust programme of interim storage must play an integral part in the long-term management strategy. The Government accepted this recommendation completely, and we were promised that the NDAs review of interim storage needs would be brought before the Government and form part of the future strategy. In our report, we raised the issue of nuclear security, and asked that the Government engage in much more open dialogue with local communities and stakeholders on the risks associated with the current storage facilities.
Among the evidence that we received during this inquiry was a very long paper from Dr. David Lowry, who I understand is an expert on nuclear security, in which he asks questions about the security aspects of nuclear storage. We followed this up with the NDA and the Minister and, as our report reflects, were reassured that the Office for Civil Nuclear Securitythe OCNSkept a strict eye on these issues, and that the NDA and OCNS work to a site-security plan on all sites. Obviously, the details of these plans must remain secret. Nevertheless, as Dr. Lowry points out on page 75 of the evidence that is published with our report, it is alarming that, in an exhibition at Sellafield hosted by BNFL and prepared by the Science Museum, the following statement was apparently among the displays:
The high-level liquid waste that comes from reprocessing is stored in constantly cooled tanks at Sellafield. These tanks represent one of the world's most hazardous concentrations of long-lived radioactive material and are, therefore, a prime terrorist target. An attack on these tanks, similar to the one in New York in September 2001, could have extremely serious consequences for much of the UK and Ireland.
I do know when the exhibition took place but would guess that it was two or three years ago. Will the Minister therefore assure us that the Government are well aware of these risks and have taken or are taking appropriate action? In particular, with the build-up of high-level nuclear waste and spent fuel as a result of the decommissioning programme, can we be assured that further concentration of such material at Sellafield will be sanctioned only if it can be safely housed? As I said, since geological disposal is still some two to three decades off, we are talking about an interim not of two to three years but of 20 to 25 years.
My final question also relates to this timetable and the costs of deep geological disposal. Among the papers distributed to the committee was an answer to a freedom of information request to the NDA to provide the figures underlying the graph in its annual report for 2005-06 relating to NDA annual site costs at undiscounted current prices. I note that the figures show a satisfying drop in expenditure each year from the current level of £2.3 billion and level off at around the £500 million mark in 2030. Do these figures include the cost of building a deep geological disposal facility, and, if so, is it really assumed that the costs will cause no substantial increase in expenditure over
29 Oct 2007 : Column 1226
Lord May of Oxford: My Lords, I begin by declaring an interest albeit a rather diffuse one: before I was personally transmuted into a theoretical biologist with interests in ecology and conservation biology, I was a plasma physicist working on the basic science underlying fusion reaction. I spent 11 years at Princeton as the officer of the university responsible for oversight of the United States major fusion lab. Fusion and fission are different things, but they both have problems of disposal. I was a member of the Science and Technology Committee that produced this report but not of the previous ones.
I wish to make three points in connection with the report. The first has already been emphasised by the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, and I am sure that it will be mentioned in the debate by other noble Lords, most of whom, unlike me, have experience and knowledge of the earlier reports. The point was summed up well by the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, but bears repetition. In 1999, the Science and Technology Committee called for the Government to set up,
We again urge the Government to do that. A further recommendation states that if that is already beyond accomplishment, then for goodness sake let us use the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management to get as close as we can to that recommendation for an independent body.
What is the idea behind this and why do we keep banging on about it? We are dealing with a problem the life of which is much longer than any one Parliament or Government. For continuity over such a prolonged period, the 1999 Science and Technology Committee and its successors sawand seethe need, reaffirmed yet again, for an empowered, authoritative oversight committee with regular reference to Parliament. It should report at least once in each Parliament, with accompanying debate in both Houses and consequent ongoing approval of the process. It should be not just a formal report made to Parliament but a debate in both Chambers.
We had a very constructive informal meeting with the relevant Minister of State, Mr Woolas. However, the exchange around this recommendation suggested that it is an unusual procedure and has no precedent. The noble Lord, Lord Flowers, who is not able to be with us today but who is vastly experienced in these matters, put it well. He said that this is a unique issue and that the process we are seeking to put in place is one that will deal with itsomething that will probably never occur again. Given that, it is possible to adopt unique methods for dealing with it. We do not have to bother with precedents and parallels because there are not any.
Noble Lords would expect me, as a pedantic academic, to add a technical appendix to my first point. If the 1999 recommendation is beyond retrieval then we strongly urge that, at the very least, as one of
29 Oct 2007 : Column 1227
My second point is a bit of a digression and concerns the Governments emphasis of this as an issue of legacy waste, a point which pervades the process. Like others, I understand and sympathise with the motive behind that; this is a difficult and divisive topic. We already have legacy waste, and by focusing on that one can in a sense avoid the issue of the future. But that makes no sense, because waste is waste. It is difficult to imagine a conscientious and sensible evaluation of future energy generation in which nuclear does not play a part in the medium term, so we should not try to hide behind the pretence that this is meant to solve a legacy issue. We should be looking at the issue of waste.
I want to dwell on that subject for a moment. Currently, roughly 80 per cent of the worlds primary energy comes from burning fossil fuels, thereby releasing CO2 into the atmosphere. Ten per cent of our energy comes from burning biomasswoodmost of which also puts CO2 into the atmosphere. Of the 10 percentage points of global energy that do not do so, nuclear comprises 7 per cent and all the renewableshydro, thermal, windmills and everything elsemake up the sum with 3 per cent. Furthermore, in considering energy from radioactivity, we should remember that we would not be here without radioactivity. If it were not for radioactivity from the core of the Earththe underlying source of thermal energy, because it is hotter down therethe Earth would have frozen over a couple of billion years ago. For Darwin, a killer argument for the theory of evolution was that, in his day, they could not understand how the planet had been here for more than a couple of million years.
These issues have to be viewed through the prism of everyones points of view, but public attitudes are changing. Modern, generation III nuclear reactors are designed to limit the consequences even of extreme accidents and they produce by an order of magnitude less waste than contemporary versions. It is also worth stressing, on my second point, that the attitudes which we adopt to these issues depend on what we take for granted. I should like briefly to summarise an interesting Australian study. It pointed out that there would be severe questioning of any proposal to develop a power-generation method that for each gigawatt year of electricity produced waste streams of 9 million tonnes of carbon dioxide and 3.3 million cubic metres of solid wastethe volume of 1,352 Olympic swimming pools say the Australians, who are into swimming pools for understandable reasonswaste containing heavy metals including arsenic, uranium and thorium. Yet that is the waste stream from a single existing large coal-fired power station in New South Wales.
On the other hand, a modern nuclear power plant producing the same amount of electricity would produce a waste stream containing 16 cubic metres of
29 Oct 2007 : Column 1228
My third and final point is a brief and non-trivial procedural matter concerning the method of appointment to the new Committee on Radioactive Waste Management. We were reassured that there would be a commitment to getting the best people through re-advertising and so on, but I found the assurances less than reassuring. Regardless of whether we get the ideal arrangement wished for by those informed of the issues or a compromise, it is vital that the oversight committee should have the best people. They have to be good and be seen to be good. Therefore, like any good business or good university, we have to engage outside experts and get them to help us persuade the best people. Comparisons between our committees in this area and those in France are embarrassing to us. We not only have to ask the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society about the matter but must engage them and their good offices in it.
This is not only a legacy issue but a long-term issue that deserves an empowered and independent oversight committee of the best people who will report in a substantial form to each Parliament, which will have debates. That is the way to do it right and the way to be seen to be doing it right. That is of overriding importance.
Lord Jenkin of Roding: My Lords, many of the points that I might have made have already been well made by others. I was a member of the original Select Committee in 1999, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, and I have had the privilege of serving as either a member or a co-opted member of all the subsequent committees.
My noble friend Lord Selborne has set out very clearly the preferred structure that we put forward in the 1999 report. There were three main features: a new permanent independent statutory body to do the job; an expert advisory body to scrutinise and report, with direct accountability to Parliament; and, as the noble Lord, Lord May, has emphasised, regular debates in both Houses, with votes to endorse the continuation of the process.
As has been said by previous speakers, we are dealing here with a unique situation. Governments have not hitherto had to address the problem of processes that have to last for hundreds of years. I recently read a report on the various half-lives of the products with which we shall be dealing and it is perfectly clear that this requires a very long-term policy indeed. That was why the 1999 report recognised that existing precedents were not reliable and so we made our own proposal. That proposal has
29 Oct 2007 : Column 1229
Then we had the CoRWM proposalsagain, an independent body to oversee and scrutinise the programme and its implementation. That too has been rejected by Ministers, who have proposed instead the very watered down advisory body, the so-called new CoRWM.
Finally, we have had the Governments proposals that, instead of the new statutory body, they will entrust the implementation to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, which has to add this huge long-term task to its existing, much shorter-term decommissioning role. To my astonishment, Ministers and their advisers pretend that that was always in mind. Indeed, that was among the evidence that we heard. Mr Chris De Grouchy, an official of the department, said on page 31 of the evidence in our report:
Part of the problem arises from the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, who is not with us, had to take the Bill through the House as a Defra Minister when it was clearly primarily a DTI Bill. He was the hapless victim of this rather foolish divided responsibility.
The NDA was certainly not the kind of body envisaged by the Select Committee. In their evidence, the two Ministers we have seenIan Pearson, whom we saw last January, and Phil Woolas, whom we saw on 11 October this yearsought to defend their proposals against some pretty powerful advocacy, if I may say so, from members of the committee who know much more about the subject than I do, such as the noble Lord, Lord Flowers, who I am sorry is not able to be with us today. I remain wholly unconvinced by what they are now proposing.
What has happened to the clear proposal, appropriate to a really long-term policy, of there being in every Parliamentnot every Sessiona full debate in both Houses with a Motion to endorse the process going forward? I have put that to successive witnesses. The chairman of CoRWM said that, although it was not anything his committee had recommended, he thought it was rather a good idea. I think it is an extremely good idea, and it would be a very important part of the process, but it does not appear to be part of the Governments thinking on this issue.
Our view that the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority may well not be the most appropriate body to take this forward is reinforced by two rather worrying factors. Last February Sir Anthony Cleaver let it be known that he would not seek a further term as chairman of the NDA, and duly vacated that post earlier this year. Despite having nearly nine months notice, we still do not have the name of his successor. I put that to the Minister, Mr Woolas, who said, Its the Nolan rules that make it very difficult for us to move any faster. I do not accept that for one moment. I suspect that the difficulty is that, with the confused responsibilities that are inherent in the Governments structure, Ministers are finding it difficult to find a suitably qualified person to apply
29 Oct 2007 : Column 1230
The second worrying factor is that the NDA recently announced a major hiccup in its decommissioning programme. It has divided the decommissioning sites into two groups, a north sector and a south sector. I am toldI have checked this again this morningthat while tenders for the site licences in the north, which include Sellafield, Calder Hall, Capenhurst and eventually Windscale, are at what the NDA calls the competitive dialogue stage, the invitations to tender for the southern Magnox sites, which include Sizewell A, Dungeness A, Bradwell and several others, are being held back. Why is that being done? The NDA explained in a statement at the beginning of this month:
Before proceeding with the remaining elements of the competition schedule the NDA is taking the opportunity to reflect on feedback from its ongoing market engagement activity and is reviewing this with Government.
When we debated those clauses of what is now the Energy Act 1994, we had long, questioning debates about the competitive process to appoint the site licensees to be responsible for decommissioning. Here we are, only a few years later, and the NDA states that it does not know how to do it and has to reflect on the lessons. That does not engender confidence in the process which the Government are producing.
It has been suggested to me by a knowledgeable source that the real reason is that the NDA is not being allowed by the Treasury to offer terms of engagement which are attractive enough to secure potential bidders for the process. It undermines confidence in the NDAs ability to run even its own original remit, let alone to take on the much greater responsibility of dealing with long-term waste. I hope that the Minister, whom I warned that I would raise these points, will offer the House reasons for such a long delay in appointing a new chairman for the NDA and for the NDAs having to withdraw the southern sector from the decommissioning process.
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|