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My final point regards the process for site selection. According to the committee, the Government's proposed timescale of four months will not be adequate to follow the recommendation of a phased site-selection process to screen out unsuitable areas. If the Minister does not agree, why not?

It is dismaying to see yet another half-hearted government attempt to deal with a problem with such potentially dangerous consequences. My noble friend Lord Jenkin has exposed the Treasury dabs on this issue, as on so many. A weak department of state is no match for Treasury interference and short-termism. I hesitate to call the Minister irresolute, but his department’s proposals certainly are. They suggest just the sort of ineffective management which has bedevilled Defra. They show an unwillingness to vest responsibility with clear and impartial authority, and provide too many opportunities for bureaucratic bungling—fears which

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have laid behind many contributions to this debate. As the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, pointed out, the complicated lines of responsibility can lead to confusion and muddle. As the report and the contributions to this debate have made clear, a strong and independent body should be backed. We should back expertise. Where is the hang up?

The onus is on the Government to justify their position. To assist this process, I and others have asked the Minister many questions which I hope he can answer—if not today, then at least in writing to us afterwards. Meanwhile, the committee should be thanked for its work and my noble friend Lord Selborne thanked for bringing to debate the Motion to take note of its report. I sincerely hope that this is precisely what the Government will do, as their response seems to suggest that up to now they have done so with only one ear open.

4.42 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, to reiterate the last point of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, I am grateful to the noble Earl for bringing the committee’s report before the House. We are not stuck for time; I will not fill all of it, but I am determined to put as many answers on the record as I can. Having listened to the speeches, I think it would be best to use my prepared notes first and then move to the individual answers rather than the other way around. There is a reason for that.

First—I am not going to argue the toss on this—the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, was looking for examples of other types of organisations; she used the British Library and the National Archives. I agree: this is unique. We do not need to look for other examples; we just get on with it. This is not about decades but about millennia. Let us not use any arguments of procrastination.

The Liberal Democrat spokesman gave away the reason why this has taken so long: so many people have been determined not to find a solution to the waste as a means of stopping any discussion of new build. I have heard those points made by members of various committees in the past 10 years. You cannot have a civilised, organised, professional debate at two levels. First, you do not want to discuss the waste because you might find a solution and, if you do, that knocks on the head any arguments about possible new build to cope with climate change. This is a complicated argument—

Lord Redesdale: My Lords, the Minister suggested that the Liberal Democrats—or any opposition body—in their opposition to new build, have somehow withheld the geological storage. That storage has not been held up by such opposition; it has been held up for a large number of other reasons.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, in that respect, I was not referring to the Lib Dems. There are plenty of other people who are anti-nuclear—and that is the end of the argument for them—who say, “You can’t deal with the waste”. When someone comes along to try to

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deal with the waste, their argument is undermined because then they have to get involved in whether it will work and help with the problem of climate change. We are therefore dealing with the issue on two levels.

With due respect, the Government’s response to the committee, and some of their other actions, have not been fully examined. I will give one example off the top of my head on an issue that was raised a moment ago by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor. The Government made clear in their response that yes, they will consider amending the Energy Act to take account of the new remit of the NDA. They say that in their response, but in today’s debate no one conceded the point.

That is not cherry picking—I have taken just one example and I will come to others. I do not want to have an argument with the House because I am on the side of everyone who has spoken in the debate.

Lord Jenkin of Roding: My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way. This point was pressed on both Mr Pearson and Mr Woolas. We did not receive from either of them as definite an answer as we appear to be getting from the noble Lord. Is he now saying that yes, the Energy Bill will in this respect amend the 2004 Act?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, no, I did not say that. One day last week I read the whole transcript of the 11 October committee hearing with Phil Woolas, but I freely admit that I have not read the evidence of Ian Pearson. No, I am simply looking at recommendation 6 of the Government’s response in respect of amending the Energy Act. A sentence in the middle states:

I know that that is only one sentence and that there are others around it and that it refers to this being an issue for the longer term. However, the Government have conceded that the Energy Act may well need amending to take account of the extra remit of the NDA. The other point that I shall come to during my speech is the role of the chair of the NDA. That role was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin—he made the most of it and there is something to be made much of. I shall go through my set-piece notes and then attempt to answer the questions. This is an important issue to which the House will return on many occasions.

We value the scrutiny and believe that the Government have drawn on the comments raised by members of the committee throughout the process. Between January this year, when my ministerial colleague appeared before the committee, and June when we launched the consultation, Framework for Implementing Geological Disposal, the process for the managing of radioactive waste safely has progressed significantly. We agree with the committee’s report that a steady and measured approach to the process is essential, particularly when we begin to engage with potential host communities. As the committee has urged in the past, we want to maintain the momentum.

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There has been a complaint. It has been made here again today but no one used the word “dithering”. I will use that word: it is suggested that there has been dithering and procrastination, but then we are told, “Hang on, don’t go too fast now”. That was also said here today. There must be a balance in dealing with potential communities. The consultation launched on 25 June this year sets out the key areas of the technical programme and aspects of disposal facility design; the role of regulators and the planning system in protecting people in the environment; and site selection using a voluntarism and partnership approach.

A number of recommendations in the committee’s report address the institutional arrangements and the Government have consistently stated their belief that the roles, responsibilities and accountabilities of the organisations involved in the Managing Radioactive Waste Safely programme must be clear.

In our response to the committee’s report, and taking account of the committee’s comments on “alphabet soup”, we have sought to distinguish between the main players and their responsibilities and bodies that essentially provide internal communications channels between the main players. The Government will set the policy and take final decisions and the Government, through Ministers, will be fully accountably to this House and another place. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority will be a strong, effective implementing organisation. The regulators will ensure that the process is safe through robust, independent regulation. The Committee on Radioactive Waste Management—CoRWM—will provide independent scrutiny and advice on the programmes and plans. Local communities in this country that are potentially interested in hosting a geological disposal facility will work with the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and others in a partnership approach. Local government, which will be fully engaged in the partnership approach, will play its part in decision-making and the operation of the planning system.

Much has been made of the issues of oversight and scrutiny that are fundamental to getting the confidence of the public and the industry. There has also been discussion around the suggestion for,

There is a need for clear responsibility and accountability is key. I fully accept that we are not talking about years or decades; we are going way beyond that into a different kind of society that is difficult to imagine. It is the legacy we are leaving future generations. It is fundamental. Governments come and go. Phil Woolas said that he worked out that the average tenure as Minister for the Environment is shorter than that of a local authority chief executive. This is another issue: we need continuity as well as scrutiny and accountability.

As the Secretary of State set out in his Statement to Parliament on 25 October 2006, allocating responsibility for securing geological disposal of higher activity waste to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority creates one organisation able to take a strategic view of all stages of the waste management chain for all wastes. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time that

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I have addressed this issue in the 20 months that I have been at Defra, other than maybe repeating that Statement. I believe that there should be frequent debates on this. It is possible for people to make sure that there are frequent debates on this. If the Government are reluctant, they can soon be brought to the Dispatch Box in both Houses.

A comprehensive strategy for UK radioactive waste management was suggested by the committee in its 1999 report. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has been charged, in effect, with the development of a comprehensive strategy. The authority is subject to statutory safety, environmental protection and security obligations under the Energy Act 2004, as Members of this House who were involved in the passage of that Act will know far better than I. The Act provides for the authority to develop and operate disposal facilities.

Given the authority’s status as a non-departmental public body, sponsoring Ministers are ultimately accountable to Parliament for their activities, and the Energy Act 2004 includes a specific requirement for copies of the authority’s accounts, including its state of affairs, to be laid before Parliament. The Energy Act 2004 provides the necessary stability for the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, but we have listened carefully to the comments from the Science and Technology Committee and others on the draft terms of reference for the reconstituted, independent Committee on Radioactive Waste Management and have substantially beefed up the final document and, with respect, I do not think that sufficient credit has been given to that in this debate. The meanings of oversight, scrutiny and advice are difficult to unravel, and I accept that we need to have a clear focus, but we need to understand the difference. Scrutiny is rather more than just asking a few questions. We believe that CoRWM cannot be a further body that assumes any of the constitutional roles of government, the statutory role of the NDA as implementer or the role of the independent regulators who oversee the process without blurring of those executive responsibilities and accountabilities. I accept that it is excessively complicated. If it were simple it would have been dealt with years ago. Even the independent regulators can be brought before Parliament and Select Committees.

CoRWM could not be part of the implementation machinery and still maintain its independent scrutiny position. However, the revised terms of reference have given the committee teeth. It requires the committee to test the evidence base for the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority’s plans. Not only will CoRWM’s advice be delivered to Government, it will be made available to Parliament along with the Government’s response. Additionally, parliamentary committees will have the opportunity to engage directly with CoRWM and may propose work for inclusion in the committee’s work programme to sponsoring Ministers.

Turning to the appointment of the reconstituted CoRWM, we committed to strengthening the scientific, technological and social science expertise as the Science and Technology Committee advocated. The learned societies, as well as the Science and Technology Committee,

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were invited to draw the advertisements to the attention of those who could have been suitable members. As well as ensuring that the right mix of skills and expertise were sought, a representative of Defra’s Chief Scientific Adviser advised the appointments panel on the relevance of the science behind the applications.

On 25 October—last Thursday—we announced the new committee. We are confident that it has the strengthened scientific and technical make-up and that it will continue the high standards of evidence-based advice, founded on openness, transparency and engagement, set by its predecessor. Furthermore, our commitment to appointing the best possible committee means that in two specific scientific and technological skills areas—hydrogeology and mining—we will be readvertising to ensure we get the right members for the roles. In other words, they didn’t come first time round.

On the site selection and geological criteria, the report of the Science and Technology Committee of your Lordships’ House also asked for clarity on our approach to site selection. Our approach will be based on seeking voluntarism and partnership arrangements with potential host communities as a first step. There is no particular “best” site. I have not seen any paperwork in the department—I have not seen everything on this; it is not my day job obviously—or heard any discussions in the department on any list of potential sites. But rather we are seeking to identify one that is fit for purpose, taking into account all aspects of safety and containment, and that has a willing host community.

The criteria for the initial screening stage of site assessment were derived by two panels of national experts, recruited on the basis of recommendation from the learned societies and the Defra Chief Scientific Adviser. The criteria do not by their nature lend themselves to application, in advance, in every part of the UK, and doing so would be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming. This is a three-dimensional, as opposed to a two-dimensional, issue.

Rather, communities with a potential interest will be able to request the British Geological Survey to apply the criteria set out in annexe B of the consultation, consistently to the geographical areas in question. This will be done in an open and transparent fashion. It will eliminate areas that are obviously unsuitable at the outset and so avoid further unnecessary work. The Government will of course pay for the British Geological Survey screening work.

Thereafter, there will be phased and progressively more detailed investigations of the geological, environmental and social suitability of a site for hosting a geological disposal facility. The proposed criteria on which these investigations and assessments are based are set out in the consultation document and views on these are invited.

The Managing Radioactive Waste Safely consultation closes at the end of this week—on 2 November. We are looking for a broad range of responses from a variety of organisations. My experience of consultations in Government is that they nearly all arrive on the last day or the day before, so it is no good anybody asking me about what has happened up to the present time; I have no information. Current thinking is that the

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outcome will be the basis for a White Paper policy statement during the first half of 2008—next year. This will potentially be accompanied by an invitation for communities to acknowledge an initial interest in opening up without-prejudice discussions.

Between now and that point, Government will look to work with bodies such as NuLEAF, the local authority nuclear legacy organisation, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and the reconstituted CoRWM to produce additional information material to support the issue of an invitation. An invitation to local communities to open up discussions would signal the beginning of stage 4 of the Managing Radioactive Waste Safely programme, that is the commencement and delivery of the implementation programme, during the course of 2008.

That was a set-piece speech, written before I had heard a word of the debate, but it answers some of the questions, not least when we are going to start. I shall deal with as many of the points raised as I can. I shall try to take them in order, but if I get the order wrong, I apologise. Some issues were raised by many noble Lords. For clarity, if I can link them, I will.

My noble friend Lord Hunt raised points about research and said that we needed to be more involved nationally. I think that his message to the Government was to get in there, get involved in the debate and get with it, with the implication that we were somewhat standing aside or not coming to the table as quickly as we should. In respect of skills in the nuclear industry, which he raised, universities are already responding with new courses, while the industry, with the skill sector council, is taking forward a skills academy that will both increase apprentice and technical training and radically increase upskilling of existing workers. Across government, we are working on the foundations of science, engineering and technology in schools and higher education with employers with the sector skills. They are coming together to develop a strategic approach and we will work to support and encourage that.

My noble friend also asked whether we are confident that geological disposal is technically achievable. It is internationally recognised as the best option. There will be work to do. The Government and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority will keep alternative options, such as borehole disposal of certain types of waste, under review. Research into alternative methods of dealing with waste is also part of the authority's remit, especially with regard to the applications of waste management hierarchy. The cost implications of the various options explored will be estimated by the authority as part of its work programme. We believe that there is sufficient research work and international experience available to be confident that geological disposal is technically achievable. As I said, we are not inventing the wheel here, because others are involved as well.

CoRWM considered the issues of transmutation, which had also been considered by the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee. The technology is speculative and would not deal with our current large quantities of legacy waste.

No one has mentioned the amount of legacy waste. I know that most people in the Chamber are experts

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on this, but I think that it is worth putting on record. We are dealing with three categories of waste, as is well known: high-level waste, intermediate waste and low-level waste. CoRWM’s estimate of the volume by 2120, which is what we are dealing with, is 477,000 cubic metres. That is the five Albert Halls that we have constantly read about. That is a considerable volume. Of that, less than 0.3 per cent is high-level waste. There is an enormous amount of intermediate and low-level waste. So we are dealing with a considerable amount. There would of course be an increase if there were any new build, but this would be over a very long period. The idea that one can simply deal with legacy waste and not even talk about new build does not really add any weight to the argument. Indeed, one would be laughed at, because if there is a programme for dealing with legacy waste on this scale over the decades that we have talked about, it must take account of any potential waste from new build.

I hope that I have answered the point made by many people, including the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, about the statutory body being answerable to Parliament. There is no easy solution to this. It is complicated, as I set out in my formal speech. It would not be possible for one authority to do the lot. Parliaments do not last very long; Ministers last for even less time. Civil servants last a lot longer, but we must have bodies that are accountable to Parliament. There must be proper scrutiny. That can be done best if everything is open and transparent.

Just before I came into the Chamber, I asked my officials whether I could hold up this report and all the other reports and say, “We will never, ever take any decisions on this behind closed doors without telling anyone”. The instant answer was yes. That is what I would expect. The fact is that, if it is done openly and transparently, elections, different Parliaments and Ministers coming and going, as it is well known they do, should not affect the stability of public confidence in the industry if it is known that there is a long-term plan that has been properly scrutinised and is fully and regularly accountable to Parliament. I fully accept that it is not an easy answer to say that we have a new body that will do it all and last for ever. One then asks who will appoint the people to that body in, say, 20 years when some retire and a new Government come in. There must be processes for that. We have processes for appointing such bodies, Ministers, Select Committees and non-departmental public bodies. I will come to the point about the chair of the NDA in a moment; it is a separate issue, in some respects. There is no simple solution. What we will be dealing with will be necessarily complex.

I do not have an answer in the many notes that I have to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, about security and the note that she read out. I will say, however, that it is a long-term problem. It has, of course, been consulted on, and we have a consultation at the end of the week. The noble Lord, Lord May, talked about strengthening CoRWM. The Government did strengthen it following the committee’s report, as set out in the revised terms of reference. As I said, the names of all the members, expect two new ones, were published in a press release last Thursday.

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