Nuclear Waste: Consultation Paper

– in the House of Lords at 2:37 pm on 11th July 2000.

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Photo of Lord Tombs Lord Tombs Crossbench 2:37 pm, 11th July 2000

asked Her Majesty's Government:

When they will publish the consultation paper on nuclear waste which was promised in their response to the report of the Select Committee on Science and Technology on Management of Nuclear Waste (3rd Report, Session 1998-99, HL Paper 41).

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

My Lords, I had indicated that we aimed to publish the consultation paper on the management of radioactive waste in the spring of this year. However, drafting has proved more complicated than expected. The paper will be published as soon as possible.

Photo of Lord Tombs Lord Tombs Crossbench

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. The noble Lord will recall that in response to the same Question in March of this year he said:

"we are talking about the spring, and spring it will be".--[Official Report, 16/3/00; col. 1680.]

Spring it manifestly is not, whatever the weather may suggest. Having failed on one promise, I hope that the Minister can be a little more specific today. I look forward to a more definitive date. Is the Minister aware that it is now 16 months since the Select Committee published its report and no action has been taken by the Government, other than a rather flimsy response? Is the noble Lord also aware that 16 months was the time taken by the Select Committee, with its meagre resources, to take oral and written evidence, to visit installations and to consider, write and publish its report? Is that not an unflattering comparison with government activity over the same period? Finally, does the Minister, on behalf of the Government, endorse the following comment in the report:

"The long time-scales involved might be thought to be a reason for postponing decisions. The contrary is the case"?

We went on to spell out the reasons why the contrary was the case.

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

My Lords, the fact that we need to take decisions which affect the long term is the reason why the Government must get the consultation paper right in the first instance. One of the matters to which the Select Committee draws attention is the need to ensure that there is public support for whatever policy we adopt. Clearly, the consultation paper is part of the strategy to gain public support for whatever solution to this very serious problem eventually emerges. The Government have taken significantly longer than they intended. As I indicated last time the matter was before the House, that underlines the complexity of the issue. I am afraid that I cannot give a definitive date. Spring has indeed gone, and we doubt whether summer is far behind. Nevertheless, we shall take a little more time before we produce the consultation paper. I have made a mistake before and I do not intend to repeat it. This has proved to be a very complex task. I hope that the noble Lord and other members of the Select Committee who carried out this work accept that the Government are making their best efforts in this matter.

Photo of Lord Peyton of Yeovil Lord Peyton of Yeovil Conservative

My Lords, the Minister appears to give a very thin reply to the reasonable Question tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Tombs. Is it too much to hope that the army of draftsmen who are employed in producing loads and loads of rubbish from government sources could be better employed simply responding slightly more quickly than has proved possible?

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

My Lords, the Government did respond to the report of the Select Committee, albeit the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, believes that that response was not entirely adequate. It is, therefore, not a question of discourtesy to the Select Committee. The next stage is consultation with the public and the interests involved on what is a very serious issue. Decisions taken today in this matter will affect the position 50 years ahead and beyond.

Photo of Lord Ezra Lord Ezra Liberal Democrat

My Lords, the Select Committee over which the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, presided made a number of very specific recommendations. Some of those recommendations will require further consideration; others could, I believe, be acted upon by the Government quite quickly. Can the Minister indicate the reaction of the Government to the view of the Select Committee that the present management of nuclear waste is fragmented and should be better co-ordinated? Can that not be done before publication of the considered opinion of the Government on the longer-term treatment of this problem?

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

My Lords, we noted and took into account the comments on the structure of the management of nuclear waste in this country. We did not entirely agree with the Select Committee's solution. We now consider that that issue, together with the other policy issue, should be covered in the consultation document. We shall discuss those issues in that context.

Photo of Lord Jenkins of Putney Lord Jenkins of Putney Labour

My Lords, is not the production of less nuclear waste one fairly simply solution? I should like to think that it is not excluded from discussions.

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

My Lords, clearly significant decisions have to be made on the future of the nuclear industry and the role nuclear power plays in meeting our energy requirements and those of the rest of the world. However, the fact remains that were there to be no further nuclear generation there is already substantial waste which will continue to require management and storage. Even were my noble friend's policy to be adopted, we should still require an effective waste management policy.

Photo of Lord Jenkin of Roding Lord Jenkin of Roding Conservative

My Lords, did not Mr Meacher himself say shortly after the last election that it would be irresponsible to leave this problem to be dealt with by future generations? How much longer shall we have to wait before his welcome statement will be implemented? Alternatively, has the Prime Minister come to the conclusion that there are no votes in the matter and it will have to wait until after the next election?

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

My Lords, it is too serious an issue for remarks like that to be made in this House. The Government take the issue seriously. To refer to decisions by future generations when we are talking about taking a few months to get the first stage of the process right is not appropriate.

Photo of Lord Avebury Lord Avebury Liberal Democrat

My Lords, will the Minister elaborate on the complexities to which he referred? Are they of a technical nature? Can he give the House some hint about what they consist of?

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

My Lords, the report covers a significant number of different aspects of the management of waste: the structure of management--the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, referred to that--the future of plutonium, policy on different levels of waste; treatment of military wastes; waste substitution; and a number of other issues all of which have substantial degrees of complexity. I cannot go further than that. The noble Lord will have to await the consultation paper.