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The noble Lord, Lord May, spoke about the interesting distinction that has been drawn between “legacy” waste and new waste. We pressed our witnesses on this matter, because, as he said, it does not seem to make any sense. We received an interesting and revealing answer from a member of CoRWM, Mr Peter Wilkinson, who said at page 10 of the minutes of evidence:

In all simplicity, that means that CoRWM decided to go only for legacy waste in order to keep Greenpeace onside. As the noble Lord, Lord May, said, it makes no sense whatever. At least one member of CoRWM recognised that. Professor Lynda Warren said:

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So, again, I put the question to the Government: do they envisage that the process of inviting volunteer communities will apply not only to legacy waste but to the new waste that might arise from any new nuclear programme? Will that be made clear to the volunteer communities from the outset when the invitations are sent out?

Last week, the Financial Times carried on its front page an article headed, “Threats to nuclear building schedule”. Its journalist claims to have seen a “script” of a report from John Hutton, the Secretary of State at the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, to the Prime Minister. The article suggests, among other things:

Is it really true that the Treasury is now calling into question the volunteer principle, which was the one genuine innovative proposal put forward in the CoRWM report? If that is true, I regard it as very bad news indeed.

We know enough about nuclear waste to know that there is no technical problem. Deep burial, retrievable in a deep depository in a stable rock foundation, was proposed by the industry more than 20 years ago; it was envisaged by Nirex 10 years ago; it was recommended by the Select Committee of the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, eight years ago; it was confirmed by CoRWM one year ago; and it is being put into practice in both Sweden and Finland as we speak. The problem is not technical, it is political, and the sooner the politicians stop shilly-shallying and get on with it, the better.

4.16 pm

Lord Tombs: My Lords, as has been said, the first inquiry by the Select Committee on Science and Technology was published in March 1999—eight and a half years ago. In the subsequent years, Government have shown a mixture of procrastination, indecision and, most importantly, a failure to grasp the nature of the problem which has been the subject of subsequent committee reports and government responses, leading to the chaotic situation that is the subject of today’s debate.

The problem involves timescales that have no precedent. We are dealing not with decades and not with centuries but with millennia. It surely follows that the solution has to be of a form that will survive the hazards imposed by peripatetic Ministers and civil servants, changed Governments and the inevitable challenges imposed by societal changes in the timescale involved. There has been no sign in their various consultation papers that Government recognise these problems or, indeed, have made any effort to address them.

The 1999 report recognised the need for widespread consultation and was quickly followed by a “citizens jury” organised by UK CEED later in the same year. A number of randomly selected volunteers

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with widely differing backgrounds met at weekends over a period of several months to examine evidence from parties chosen by them. They presented their findings in public and by doing so they demonstrated a sense of purpose and commitment wholly lacking in government actions over recent years.

Crucially lacking is any proposal by the Government to provide a credible mechanism for managing the project. Such a mechanism surely requires a clear separation from the everyday organisation of government if it is to command the public trust and organisational independence which are central to the task.

The 1999 report endeavoured to meet those requirements by recommending the creation of a body reporting annually to Parliament and enjoying statutory independence. It also envisaged that the body would be responsible for public consultations at national and local levels. The public would thereby have seen an independent organisation, responsible to Parliament with a long-term continuity appropriate to the unique task entrusted to it.

Instead, the task of nuclear waste management on the timescale I have described has been grafted on to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. This has been accompanied by a network of government committees which was appropriately described by one of our colleagues as “an alphabet soup”. The NDA has a large and important task already but there is no clear explanation of why it has been chosen for this additional one, and I have been unable to identify any rationale for the decision, which involved the transfer of Nirex to the NDA.

I intend no criticism of the NDA, which seems to be discharging its decommissioning responsibilities reasonably competently. But there is a huge difference in technology, timescale and responsibility between that task and nuclear waste management, which surely calls for a separate body. Indeed, the combination of decommissioning with long-term storage facilities offers the prospect of internal confusion and competition for attention and funds, which would be highly undesirable in that body. The Government may argue that the new CoRWM will be staffed in such a way as to provide adequate oversight of the performance of that part of the NDA responsible for long-term management; I have grave doubts about that.

I have had extensive experience of Governments failing to take a long-term view when political expediencies intervene. I have suffered my share of arm-twisting and derived much strength from the arm’s-length relationship that I enjoyed with successive Governments, which limited their ability to influence my actions at will. That was prevented by the requirement that the power of a Minister to intervene was limited by the need for him to give and publish a written direction. In all my experience of the electricity supply industry, I never met a Minister who was prepared to use that power and, of course, to face the ensuing consequences. Such road blocks are necessary to frustrate ministerial dalliances, and never more so than in this case.

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It is depressingly clear from the present proposals that policy and crucial decisions will emanate from a network of interdepartmental committees, and it seems inevitable that a herd of camels will emerge from their compromise conclusions. That would be a recipe for delay, increased costs and, most importantly, a loss of public confidence, which ought not to be contemplated.

It may well be argued that the complexity of the proposals stems from the complexity of national government organisation and also from the added complexities of devolution. My reply would be that those undoubted problems reinforce my arguments and should nullify the proposed arrangements. The long-term provision for nuclear waste is too important and sensitive a problem to be subjected to endless correspondence and hidden trade-offs. Here, surely, is a case for political leaders to recognise the over-riding necessity for a clear and simple executive responsibility with equally clear accountability. None of those objectives will, in my judgment, be met by the government proposals.

I deeply hope that the Government will accept the need for a fundamental change in their proposed arrangements. The problem is not new; it was explored in our 1999 report, and a solution on the lines that I have described was put forward. We must approach a new and unprecedented problem with some original thinking and action if the task is to be satisfactorily discharged and the trust of the public maintained.

4.23 pm

Lord Redesdale: My Lords, I, too, welcome the report. Indeed, it seems to be an almost biennial report. I see from the notes that the first was in 1998-99, the second was in 2001-02, the fifth report was in 2003-04 and this is for 2006-07. I welcome the report, recognising that we will all be back here again in 2008-09 or 2009-10 looking at the same issue.

It is an excellent report, and the Clerk is to be commended for making such a dry subject readable. I have one issue, which is a housekeeping point. I wish that in Science and Technology Committee reports, acronyms were listed at the front. There are rather a few acronyms in here. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, has noted that he has problems with the NDA; when I started to read the report I forgot that it meant the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, and I read it in the business sense of a non-disclosure agreement, which is an unfortunate linkage between the two bodies.

On these Benches, we have always been anti-nuclear. The noble Lord, Lord Tombs, who I seem to follow regularly in these debates, will be happy to know that we have not changed our position on that.

Lord Hunt of Chesterton: My Lords, in the last debate, one of your distinguished Members commented that you are not unanimous on your Benches.

Lord Redesdale: My Lords, I am on the Liberal Democrat Benches, but I have never said that we are unanimous on this subject. As on many other issues, we welcome a plethora of opinions within the party.

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However, party policy is quite clear: we are anti-nuclear, mainly because of nuclear waste, but also because of the cost of nuclear development.

The report talks about radioactive waste management rather than a radioactive waste solution. Of course, there is no solution to radioactive waste, even though the nuclear industry has done an amazing, even commendable, PR job, giving the impression that, if you walk anywhere near a wind turbine, you will suddenly drop dead as your sensibilities are offended by its aesthetic qualities, whereas a nuclear reactor could be seen as a tourist destination.

However, being against new build does not mean that we will not face the increasingly big legacy issue of radioactive waste from past processes. Not all this waste comes from the production of electricity; a vast quantity comes from the military and a fair degree comes from medical processes. I accept that there has been a uniformity of opinion in this House that deep storage is probably the only solution—whether that storage is sealed or open is a debate for another time. The problem that I foresee is that, as the report clearly shows, there does not seem to be any haste in getting to this point. The noble Lord, Lord May, talked about the French moving towards deep storage. However, even though they have talked about it and have good processes, they have not started constructing their facilities.

I find this worrying. It is a very difficult situation, which has to be dealt with on a local basis—I am talking about local communities and all the opposition that will arise. The academic argument about deep storage should rest on the geological formation underneath the landscape to be chosen, but short-term political considerations will no doubt influence decisions on what should be a repository that lasts hundreds of thousands of years.

Do the Government have in mind a specific timescale for the repository? We have talked about this subject many times and it seems incredible that there is no start date. On page 5 of their response, the Government say of recommendation 4:

I am particularly worried that no indication is given of how many years; the Government just say “years”.

This is underlined by the almost labyrinthine structure that underpins any management decision. I know that the problem is historical and that there has been a massive amount of cross-departmental responsibility for the issue, whether on the part of the DTI, now DBERR—or “DEBRIS”—or on the part of Defra. One of the recommendations is to try to make the situation as clear as possible, but I am sure that the Minister will agree that that process has not yet been concluded. Some haste is needed on this.

Two issues should not be underestimated. When one of the NGOs ran a viral campaign on the internet against nuclear power, it showed people holidaying on a beach looking up and seeing a jumbo jet being aimed at the nuclear power station next to them. Having looked into this matter, I know that it is quite

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possible that many nuclear power stations would survive a direct hit from a jumbo jet. That is heartening. However, the nuclear waste storage facilities are soft targets, which would not survive such an attack. This has been discussed openly, including on Radio 4 the other day, so it is not a national secret.

The other issue is decay. The longer we keep these sites open, the harder it is to keep up the management styles, and the cost of keeping the facilities running to the required standard is very high. We have only to look at the environmental catastrophes that have taken place at the reprocessing plants in Russia and in areas dealing with decommissioning to see what could happen if we let the sites decay.

When do the Government foresee the first amount of money being paid for a deep-level repository? So many processes are involved, as set out in the report, that this issue could last for decades, and it is very likely that we will be having this discussion in many debates to come, which is unfortunate. I very much hope that the Government grasp the nettle and go for deep geological storage, and I hope that they do so not over a period of years but that they set a timetable and work to it.

4.30 pm

Lord Taylor of Holbeach: My Lords, I begin by thanking my noble friend Lord Selborne for tabling this Motion. The report is a robustly critical analysis of the Government’s proposals. The safe management of radioactive waste is indeed a very important issue, and I am pleased that my noble friend has brought the attention of your Lordships’ House to the report and given us the opportunity to debate it and the Government’s position.

I also express my thanks to the members of the Science and Technology Committee for their excellent work in compiling an incisive and thorough report. I particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord Broers, for his dedication and hard work in chairing the committee, many of whose members have contributed to the debate today. It is one of the great virtues of this House that we can profit from the vast collective experience of noble Lords.

It may be a commonplace but, as a newcomer to parliamentary politics, I regret that political debate frequently lacks the rigorous analysis that the scientific mindset brings to issues such as this. It was CP Snow, later to become a Member of this House, who first drew attention to what he called the “two cultures”. It is saddening to see that in general public discourse, outside a debate such as this, these two cultures still exist. Therefore, science and technology, through the work of the committee, should be taken up and debated seriously. These occasions are important and the House should take advantage of them, perhaps if only to encourage the others.

It is appropriate that the procedure of the House requires this Motion to “take note” of the report, as that is precisely what the Government do not seem to be doing. We on these Benches feel that Her Majesty’s Government need to take on board the message of the report, rethinking and redirecting their proposals for dealing with radioactive waste to reflect more closely the committee’s recommendations.

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As has been said by almost all speakers, there is a long history to this topic and continuity in the advice that the committee has given Government. My noble friend Lord Jenkin and the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, reminded us of the detail of this. Since March 1997, government policy on the long-term management of many types of radioactive waste has been uncertain. The majority of radioactive waste is now stored and awaiting a long-term solution to disposal. In fact, more than 10,000 tonnes are currently in store, and the reprocessing of spent fuel and the clean-up operation from existing nuclear plants are expected to add another 0.5 million tonnes. Those figures assume that there is no new nuclear build—surely not a likely scenario.

Clearly, doing nothing is not an option: the problem needs to be addressed. Ten years is long enough to have procrastinated on this issue. After all, the fundamentals of the matter have not changed; they remain the same as they were 10 years ago. CoRWM published its final recommendations and report about a long-term disposal option for higher-level radioactive waste on 31 July last year. One of the primary recommendations, which we on these Benches firmly support, is that deep geological disposal is the best long-term solution to the problem of dealing with radioactive waste.

In the interim, however, we need to ensure that waste is handled safely, and in a way that is sensitive to local community concerns, as the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, reminded us. For those reasons, the committee produced a package set of interdependent recommendations, including not only long-term plans for deep geological disposal but plans for robust interim storage. Those were to be based on an equal partnership between government and potential host communities indicating a willingness to participate. The plan required the immediate creation of an overview body to begin the process of implementation.

It is important to note that these proposals from CoRWM are designed as a package; to be all of a piece. The report and this debate have shown that noble Lords share the concern that Her Majesty’s Government have “watered down” CoRWM’s recommendations. In the light of this, does the Minister agree that the Government’s proposals need to be reconsidered and perhaps follow CoRWM’s recommendations more closely?

The Government have accepted the use of geological disposal, which I welcome. However they currently propose merely to set up an advisory group, rather than a truly independent overseeing body. Considering the importance of disposing of such dangerous materials, a mere advisory group is entirely unsatisfactory. This material must be seen to be handled safely. The process must demonstrate a true partnership between the Government and local communities. Government must ensure that authority is vested in such a body in a way that is apolitical and yet open to parliamentary scrutiny. It also needs to be empowered with the executive responsibility to provide for the interim storage and long-term disposal of radioactive waste. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Chesterton, in a very interesting contribution, informed the House of the way in which new technology is emerging on an international scale.

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The committee’s report is clear that it wants the Government to rethink their proposals on the new CoRWM and to come up with proposals for an entirely independent accountable body for overseeing the Managing Radioactive Waste Safely—MRWS—programme. Have the Government heeded this advice, and are they reconsidering their own proposals? The recommendation that the overview body be independent is important. The Government appear to prefer that responsibility for planning, implementing and managing the waste disposal process will be given to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority rather than to a new independent body. If no new independent body can be guaranteed, we on these Benches need to see proof that the NDA will not only act, but be seen to act, with complete impartiality. Is the Minister prepared to give such a guarantee?

There are other concerns about independence. The committee states that the Energy Act 2004 should be amended to reflect the changing nature of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority’s responsibilities. How will the proposals in the forthcoming Energy Bill, to allow private sector investment into nuclear power stations, impact on the Government’s Managing Radioactive Waste Safely programme and the role of the NDA?

The real problem is that this is yet another example of the Government cherry picking suggestions without serious thought about the bigger picture. The magnitude of the problem of nuclear waste is common territory. Is the Minister willing to reconsider the Government’s proposals for a mere advisory board?

The noble Lord, Lord May, emphasised how important an independent body is to provide continuity, and through its accountability to Parliament, the authority to fulfil its role. The importance of this is not to be underestimated. The Government’s proposals lack clear lines of accountability, as has been duly noted by Science and Technology Committee. It especially expressed concern that the Government should acknowledge the potential for conflict and confusion which could be associated with their proposed institutional arrangements for the MWRS programme. Is the Minister willing to admit these potentials for conflict and assure the House that steps are being taken to ensure clear lines of accountability?

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