Radioactive Waste Management: a further update - Science and Technology Committee Contents

CHAPTER 2: CORWM and the Managing Radioactive Waste Safely Programme

Independent scrutiny of the MRWS programme

8.  CoRWM's terms of reference are to provide "independent scrutiny and advice to UK Government and devolved administrations on the long-term management ... of radioactive waste". Its primary task is to provide "independent scrutiny on the Government and Nuclear Decommissioning Authority's (NDA) proposals, plans and programmes to deliver geological disposal, together with interim storage, as the long-term management option for the UK's higher activity wastes" (p 1).

9.  CoRWM has published three reports covering the three main strands of the MRWS programme: Interim storage of higher activity wastes and the management of spent fuels, plutonium and uranium (March 2009), Geological disposal of higher activity radioactive wastes (July 2009), and Research and development for interim storage and geological disposal of higher activity radioactive wastes, and management of nuclear materials (October 2009). As we have stated, the Government have responded to the first two reports; the third response is due to be published in the near future (QQ 79, 80).

10.  According to the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), the Government have "accepted many of CoRWM's recommendations" (p 22) and Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, Minister of State at DECC, assured us that they took the views of the Committee "very seriously" (Q 78). The Nuclear Industry Association(NIA), a trade association for the UK civil nuclear industry, endorsed this assertion. It told us: "from what we can see Government clearly takes CoRWM's advice into account in formulating its policies" (p 43).

11.  Most witnesses were positive about CoRWM's performance in scrutinising the Government. The NDA felt that "CoRWM has effectively scrutinised the key aspects relating to the implementation of the MRWS programme" (p 24). The NIA shared a similar view (p 42). The Environment Agency told us that CoRWM's reports "have generally been insightful and positive" (p 37). Greenpeace, on the other hand, expressed concerns: "CoRWM's efforts to scrutinise implementation of the Government's MRWS programme are not as effective as they could be" and explained that discussions with CoRWM members had indicated that a "lack of funding" meant CoRWM was not able "to undertake stakeholder work, or independent research, to the extent it would like" (p 39). Professor Robert Pickard, Chairman of CoRWM, disagreed: "I think we would say that our funding is adequate at present for the task we have in hand" (Q 3).

12.  Although the Government have accepted many of CoRWM's recommendations in principle, some witnesses felt that it was too early to tell whether they would actually put them into practice. CoRWM said that it would "judge Government by its actions, rather than its words" but that "thus far, neither the Government nor any other organisation mentioned in the response[4] appears to have taken any major actions to meet our recommendations" (p 3). The Environment Agency also stated that while "Government has accepted many of CoRWM's recommendations ... this acceptance needs to be translated into demonstrable progress" (p 38). Greenpeace was less than optimistic: "it is quite clear that the Government does not intend to fully respond to, or act on, CoRWM's advice" (p 41). Overall, Professor Pickard thought that it was "probably too early to tell whether or not" they were "having a significant effect on bringing about beneficial change in the way in which the Government is behaving" (Q 60).

13.  Whilst we welcome the Government's positive response to many of the recommendations in CoRWM's reports on geological disposal and interim storage, it is important that effective action is taken to ensure that these recommendations are taken forward. We urge the Government to do so.

14.  The Government has yet to respond to CoRWM's recent report on research and development which concluded that "the UK's existing civil facilities for research with highly radioactive materials are inadequate".[5] Lord Hunt assured us that the Government considered research and development to be "important" and that they "recognise the need for funding to be made available for research" (Q 118). We welcome this assurance, and we look forward to such assurance being reflected in the Government's response to CoRWM's report on research and development.

15.  We note CoRWM's statement that it is "continuing to monitor" the Government's progress towards meeting CoRWM's recommendations (p 3). Professor Pickard told us: "if we felt that the Government was not responding to our advice ... we would repeat it as appropriate at all the opportunities that were presented in our discourse with the public and with the scientific community and ... stakeholders" (Q 60). We believe that CoRWM's monitoring activity should be put on a more formal basis, so that stakeholders and the public can see clearly whether the Government are putting CoRWM's advice into practice. We therefore recommend that the Government should publish an annual report setting out what action has been taken towards meeting CoRWM's recommendations, so as to enable CoRWM effectively to monitor the Government's progress in implementing its recommendations.

Timescales and timelines

16.  The Government's MRWS programme is a long-term project. Professor Pickard and Mr Mark Higson, Chief Executive of the Office for Nuclear Development, told us that they hoped a geological disposal facility would be operational by 2040 (QQ 40, 113), and that it was expected to take up until the middle of the 22nd century to put the UK's legacy waste into that facility (Q 63). With such long timescales, there is a risk of complacency. However, both the NIA and Environment Agency stressed the importance of continuing to make good progress in implementing the MRWS programme (pp 38, 42), while CoRWM told us that "it is extremely important that we do not let the process slip" (Q 64). We agree. We believe it is essential that the MRWS programme continues to progress as rapidly as possible.

17.  Lord Hunt told us that he believed the MRWS programme was making "good progress" (Q 69), a view echoed by Professor Pickard who told us: "I think things are progressing satisfactorily at the present time" (Q 8). Despite this assurance, we are concerned that the Government and CoRWM are failing to convey any sense of urgency to move the programme forward with all possible speed. Professor Pickard, for example, stated that "we should not have high expectations of too rapid progress because of the nature of the work" (Q 8), and Mr Higson told us that, although 2040 was a good planning date, "if the timetable is delayed" there was "no question" that a facility had to be up and running by 2040 (Q 114). The Minister emphasised that the Government was taking a "very, very careful approach" since the MRWS programme was focused on taking "local communities with us" (Q 70).

18.  We feel that, far from viewing 2040 as the earliest date by which a disposal facility could be completed, the Government should be considering ways in which the schedule could be brought forward. For example, Mr Bruce McKirdy, Repository Technical Director at the NDA, told us that "during the construction period there may be some opportunity for compressing the programme", although he stressed that this could not be guaranteed (Q 114). We urge the Government to consider ways of speeding up the MRWS programme as plans for a geological disposal facility become more defined, and as scientific and technical improvements provide ways of increasing the rate of progress.

19.  The Environment Agency told us that "CoRWM should place an increasing emphasis on ... encouraging Government to make timely progress with the MRWS programme" (p 37). Greenpeace also remarked that part of CoRWM's role was the "monitoring of progress and examining claims made about progress" (p 40). We agree. We believe that CoRWM could help drive forward the MRWS programme more rapidly by scrutinising, and if necessary reporting on, the Government's progress.

20.  We note that Lord Hunt is "setting out milestones for the future", and that the NDA will "shortly be publishing their Steps towards Implementation document which sets out their detailed planning for geological disposal" (Q 96). We welcome this development. We recommend that the Government publish clear policy milestones for all aspects of the MRWS programme, including for issues such as interim storage and the disposal of waste generated by new nuclear power stations. We recommend further that the Government should assist CoRWM in its scrutiny of the Government's progress with regard to the MRWS programme by including in the annual report we have recommended in paragraph 15 above a statement of the extent to which these milestones have been achieved.


21.  As an independent scrutiny body, CoRWM plays an important role in maintaining public trust and confidence in the MRWS programme. The NIA emphasised the importance it attaches to "maintaining public confidence in the implementation of the MRWS strategy", and noted that "CoRWM has in the past and should in the future continue to play an important part in achieving this" (p 42). Similarly, the NDA told us that "independent scrutiny and advice can provide reassurance to the public and stakeholders" (p 24).

22.  However, the Environment Agency felt that although CoRWM played an important role, "Government's oversight of the MRWS programme could also be made more transparent to stakeholders and the public" (p 38). Lord Hunt told us that: "overall my general principle is that the more we are transparent, the more clarity we can give you, the more likely there is to be public confidence" (Q 102); and, he conceded, "in terms of perhaps giving more certainty, in giving people a greater feel about the timetable, there may be something more that we need to be doing" (Q 100).

23.  We believe that an annual report (as set out in our recommendations in paragraphs 15 and 20 above) setting out the Government's progress towards meeting both CoRWM's recommendations and the Government's own policy milestones would improve the transparency of the MRWS programme. We believe also that this would help maintain public trust and confidence in the MRWS programme by strengthening CoRWM's scrutiny role.

The scope of CoRWM's advice to Government

24.  CoRWM's remit confirms that it should provide advice, as well as scrutiny, to the Government, and that it should comment on their "proposals, plans and programmes" (p 1). We were surprised, therefore, that the Government do not take the view that CoRWM should advise on draft policy. The NDA told us that "CoRWM should be clear that its starting point is established Government policy, with its role being scrutiny of the implementation of that policy" (p 25), and Lord Hunt emphasised that CoRWM's "terms of reference are now very much focused on scrutinising and providing advice on the implementation of the policy rather than making new policy recommendations" (Q 84).

25.  The draft National Policy Statements (NPS) for Energy Infrastructure were published in late 2009 and are examples of policies with ramifications for the management of radioactive waste in the UK. The draft NPS for Nuclear Power Generation ("Nuclear NPS") states that "the Government is satisfied that effective arrangements will exist to manage and dispose of the waste that will be produced from new nuclear power stations".[6] This is a significant statement for the Government to make, and yet CoRWM was not asked to comment formally on the draft NPSs, either before or after their publication for public consultation, except "within the limitations of questions about factual accuracy" (QQ 51, 93).

26.  Ms Marion Hill, a member of CoRWM, told us that CoRWM itself did not wish to offer its view on the NPSs before they were published for consultation: "we would only comment on factual accuracy ... because we wanted to be free to respond to the consultation in an open way" (Q 51). She explained that if CoRWM was to advise the Government before the draft policy was published, "we would be seen to be in some way colluding with Government and perhaps agreeing in advance with the preliminary conclusion that they reached" (Q 51). Greenpeace indicated there was some merit to this argument: they disagreed with the Government's statement about radioactive waste in the Nuclear NPS, and argued that "if CoRWM gets sucked into this deceit it will not help its credibility" (p 41).

27.  Although not requested to do so by the Government, CoRWM decided to respond to the public consultation on the NPSs. Its submission, however, was not prepared through CoRWM's usual process of consultation and evidence gathering (see paragraph 33). Ms Hill told us that CoRWM's response to the draft NPSs would not go "through such a long-winded process", partly because "in a government consultation we feel that everybody should express their own independent view" (Q 53). Professor Pickard noted, however, that if the Government "welcomed advice from us in a formal manner on this subject" then CoRWM would then offer advice based on its "normal rigorous process" (Q 53).

28.  CoRWM's remit clearly states that it has a role to play advising Government on policies that impact on the MRWS programme. We welcome, therefore, CoRWM's decision to respond to the Government's consultation on the NPSs, even though it was not requested to do so by Government. However, as we discuss in Chapter 3, we believe much of the value of CoRWM's advice lies in the extensive consultation and evidence gathering that unpins its work. CoRWM should not wait for an invitation before providing advice based on a thorough process involving consultation and evidence-gathering on policy proposals that have implications for the management of radioactive waste.

29.  We understand that CoRWM would not wish to be drawn into the policy formation process in such a way as to compromise its position as an independent scrutiny body by commenting on policy before it has been published. Yet if CoRWM's advice is to be used by Government, it should be given before policy has been decided and set in stone. We believe that public consultations are an appropriate time for CoRWM to comment on government policy before it is finalised, while avoiding an impression of collusion by allowing it to submit its advice in an open and transparent manner.

30.  We believe that CoRWM should provide independent advice to Government on any draft (as well as established) policies that have implications for the management of radioactive waste.

31.  We are concerned that CoRWM was not asked formally by the Government to comment on the draft National Policy Statement for Nuclear Power Generation, despite the significance of the claims it contains about the future management of radioactive waste. Although we welcome CoRWM's decision to respond to the public consultation on the National Policy Statement anyway, we are concerned that it will not in these circumstances be providing advice based on its usual comprehensive consultation and evidence-gathering processes (as described in paragraph 33 below).

32.  We recommend therefore that, in future, the Government should ensure that CoRWM is able to respond to Government consultations on policies with an impact on the MRWS programme with formal reports based on its usual rigorous approach.

4   This refers to the Government response to CoRWM's first report, on interim storage. Back

5   CoRWM, Report on National Research and Development for Interim Storage and Geological Disposal of Higher Activity Wastes, and Management of Nuclear Materials, 2009, p 10. Back

6   DECC, Draft National Policy Statement for Nuclear Power Generation (EN-6), November 2009, p 25, para 3.8.20. Back

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