Radioactive Waste Management (S&T Report)

– in the House of Lords at 6:53 pm on 12th January 2005.

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Photo of Lord Oxburgh Lord Oxburgh Crossbench 6:53 pm, 12th January 2005

rose to call attention to the report from the Select Committee on Science and Technology, Radioactive Waste Management (5th Report, Session 200304, HL Paper 200) and to the timescale for establishing a long-term strategy for the management of the United Kingdom's radioactive waste; and to move for Papers.

My Lords, no one very much enjoys talking about wastes of any kind—least of all nuclear wastes. There are always more interesting, more pressing and more tractable matters with which to deal. At least, if that is not the case, it is certainly the impression that one gains from looking at the actions of governments in this country over the past decade or even longer. Indeed, there is only one thing that they like less than talking about nuclear wastes and that is doing anything about them.

It is possible that there are those who do not want to see a solution to the problem of how to handle the materials arising from the country's nuclear activities—perhaps in the belief that, so long as the problem remains apparently unsolved, it will be impossible for the country to embark on other nuclear initiatives to which they are implacably opposed.

Your Lordships' Science and Technology Committee believes that, regardless of the policy on new nuclear initiatives that might be pursued by the present or future governments, the problem of the accumulated wastes from earlier activities cannot simply be postponed indefinitely. Indeed, it has made repeated representations to that effect.

The risks associated with these wastes are hard to assess and do not appear to be immediate. But they exist, and the Government must be mindful of the thinking that led Asian leaders to conclude that a tsunami warning system would not be worth while. The message is clear: as risk theory tells us, very serious events, even though they may be of low probability, we ignore at our peril.

We were therefore pleased when the Government announced their intention to set up a Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM) to move matters forward after years of inactivity, or, at any rate, years devoid of any productive activity. As noble Lords will be aware, towards the end of last year the Science and Technology Committee decided to take evidence from CoRWM and the Defra Minister whose responsibility this was to see how matters were progressing. It is no exaggeration to say that we were both astonished and dismayed.

First, the terms of reference of CoRWM were wide, vague, poorly thought through and, indeed, implausible. The committee was expected not only to recommend a technical solution but also to inspire public confidence in that solution. We discovered confusion even over whether CoRWM was expected to identify such places. It is well known that, understandably, people have very little interest in these matters until places where repositories might be built have been named. At that stage, even a whisper about a possible site is headline news. The vagueness over the terms of reference fed through into an extraordinarily extended timescale.

Secondly, CoRWM was instructed to start with a blank sheet of paper and to consider all conceivable technical solutions—by implication, ignoring the enormous amount of work that has already been done in this country, not to mention overseas, where, in some cases, the construction of repositories is already well advanced.

Thirdly, the members of CoRWM, although doubtless of great distinction in their fields, appeared for the most part to be inappropriately prepared by training or experience to carry out the important technical assessment role that was inherent in the terms of reference—namely, that of identifying an appropriate technical solution.

When pressed on this question in oral session, the chairman explained that it was intended to use consultants for this part of the work. But considerable technical expertise is necessary simply to be an intelligent customer for consultants. What credibility will the advice of such a committee carry? How could it inspire public confidence in a technical solution? If this part of the work was to be done by consultants, why was the committee needed? Could the department not have engaged them directly? That would at least have led to shorter and clearer lines of accountability.

Fourthly and finally, it appears from written evidence given to us by the Minister of State that, in establishing CoRWM, advice was neither sought from nor given by the department's Chief Scientific Adviser. That appears to be in flagrant disregard of the advice given to departments by the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser several years ago. Nor did the department consult the Royal Society or the Royal Academy of Engineering. Is it conceivable that the department did not understand that science and technology was of crucial importance in this matter? If that is the case, it raises serious questions of competence.

We have been told that the composition of CoRWM was designed to be "representative of a broad spectrum of opinion". I now ask the Minister the same question that I asked his ministerial colleague from the other place when he gave evidence to our committee. Would he be happy to fly in an aircraft for which the engine design had been chosen by a committee "representative of a broad spectrum of opinion"?

In our brief report to your Lordships, our committee made several suggestions for improving matters and afforcing the technical expertise of the committee. They were not radical and were intended to be constructive. I hope that the Minister will address them in his reply. I believe, too, that the House would be grateful to know whether the departmental Chief Scientific Adviser has now been consulted and whether his advice has been followed in taking this matter forward.

Before concluding, I should like to express my thanks to all noble Lords who agreed that this matter was of such importance that they should put their names down to speak. They did so in such numbers that our Unstarred Question evolved into this debate.

As I pointed out earlier, we cannot tell how acute the problem of our existing wastes may be. We can, however, be sure that it is not improving with time. No one pretends that the long-term management of our nuclear waste is either a quick or an easy matter. Clearly, questions of both technical sufficiency and social acceptability relate to any solution. But it seems to me that no technical solution is likely to win social acceptance if it does not come with the best scientific credentials. At the moment, that seems extremely unlikely. I beg to move for Papers.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Chesterton Lord Hunt of Chesterton Labour 7:37 pm, 12th January 2005

My Lords, I congratulate the Science and Technology Committee under the able chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, on its trenchant report. The evidence in its report of interviews with CoRWM and with the Minister do indeed suggest that there is not likely to be much progress soon in dealing with radioactive wastes in the UK in a practical fashion.

Other speakers in the debate will doubtless focus on the need to move ahead with existing technology in relation to the underground storage of high-level radioactive waste and, indeed, the need to resuscitate the UK's nuclear power programme. One very much hopes that the Minister will give us more assurance about those plans and, indeed, about the maintenance of UK technology to enable those plans to move ahead. Meanwhile, the UK will continue to rely—perhaps somewhat hypocritically—on the French nuclear programme.

I want to underline the importance of the remark on page 12, paragraph 3.13 of the report that all possible solutions can be considered by CoRWM, including transmutation. Transmutation means that the elements are changed—perhaps in a more benign form—into ones that will decay faster than the several thousand years associated with high-level nuclear wastes.

The noble Lord, Lord Flowers, emphasised the importance of dealing with plutonium stocks associated with the weapons programmes. At the moment, these issues tend to be considered separately. However, the United States, Russia and the International Atomic Energy Agency are considering a wide range of options for dealing with nuclear policy in a more integrated way, including nuclear fusion, fission and proliferation.

I explained those issues in a debate on the Queen's Speech at the end of November, so I shall not repeat my remarks. However, I believe that the fact that there are important policy options that would enable one, for example, to use the fusion programme to help to deal with wastes and the fact that that is being considered, is a further example of why it is absolutely essential that the committee should have extremely high level technical capability. The idea that one can just bring in consultants on the core policy is not credible. That is the other point that I hope the Minister will consider seriously and respond to.

Photo of Lord Jenkin of Roding Lord Jenkin of Roding Conservative

My Lords, I felt very privileged to have been co-opted on to the committee. When I suggested that perhaps I might be able to offer a contribution, it was recollected that I had sat on the inquiry which reported in March 1999 on the issue of nuclear waste. That is nearly six years ago, and I totally endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, said about the delay.

I endorse in full what I see as the very trenchant criticisms of the Government's policy in this area, both voiced in the report and again today by the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh. I add one other point: I do not see this debate as in any way relieving the Government of an obligation to provide a written response in the normal way. I hope that the Minister will give us an assurance that the committee will receive a response within the due time.

I do not want to repeat the criticisms, but I have two specific points that I want to make arising directly out of our report. The first concerns the issue of what is becoming known as public engagement. The evidence given to the 1999 inquiry about public acceptability was, for many of us, an eye-opener about how much new work is being undertaken by the social sciences on the issue of public attitudes and public engagement in matters of science and technology.

I add, in parenthesis, that that evidence led directly to the establishment of the inquiry, Science and Society, which I had the privilege of chairing. That report led to a steady expansion of social science among learned societies such as the Royal Society, the British Association, the Royal Institution, professional bodies and universities such as the University of Lancaster and the University of East Anglia, which now have a great corpus of knowledge and understanding about this matter.

A blank sheet of paper was instructed to be used not only on the technical solutions, but also on the area of public acceptability. One must ask why, in the light of this massive information and wisdom that now exists in this area, did they have to start with a blank sheet of paper? We found one of the results when some of us attended an open meeting of CoRWM at Ipswich. Using fairly strong language, at paragraph 4.10, the report said,

"it felt as though CoRWM was engaged in a philosophical exercise in theoretical decision making".

In the light of what we heard, that is a fairly kind description. It was a most extraordinary meeting.

However, since then, in the inquiry I asked the chairman of CoRWM, at question 24 on page 7 of the evidence:

"Are you hoping then to be able to answer the question—will your proposed technical solution have public acceptance?".

We were all rather astonished to hear the reply:

"In our terms of reference, public acceptance does not appear. There is a rather perhaps carefully worded phrase which says it is our job to try and inspire public confidence. Public acceptance will be in terms of a longer-term Government process".

After three years or more, it appears that the CoRWM report will be only a limited first step. I must ask the Minister two questions. First, do the Government accept that CoRWM is not in the business of securing public acceptance and that Ministers will embark on that process afterwards? Secondly, what are they doing now to prepare for that task? Unless the Minister can give very clear and reassuring answers to those questions, one is driven to assume that they see CoRWM more as a time-consuming way of delaying decisions rather than as a serious step towards making decisions.

My second point deals with what is intended to follow the report. In 1999 we saw two distinct stages: stage one, deciding on the technology for disposing of the waste, and stage two, deciding on where that was to happen, which is the issue of siting. In my innocence, I had assumed that perhaps CoRWM would be following that recommended pattern. Indeed, CoRWM is undertaking, albeit in its own idiosyncratic way, the first stage of recommending the technology. I thought that the issue of siting would be left until the later stage, but not a bit of it. CoRWM's terms of reference, as the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, has said—they are set out in paragraph 5.1 of our report—state that CoRWM will need to consider siting issues, and note these words,

"may want to make recommendations to Ministers on them".

What an astonishing way to proceed.

When Mr MacKerron was asked about this matter, he said in response to question 32:

"After we report, assuming that we have done our job well, the Government are likely to take some time, I suspect, to do some further consultation. They will then move, I would guess, towards a siting process for whatever kind of facility may then be recommended".

So at that stage, the chairman of CoRWM was clearly recognising that siting was not to be part of the CoRWM remit.

In paragraph 5.1 the report says:

"We are dismayed by this vagueness which seems a recipe for yet further delay".

However, when we asked the Minister, Mr Elliot Morley, about this, his first response averted, no doubt, to the terms of reference,

"Part of the CoRWM process is to look at siting issues. That will be part of the report".

When I pointed out that that was contrary to what Mr MacKerron had said, the Minister's official, Mr de Grouchy, qualified that and went on to try to explain that there was not a conflict of evidence. When I pointed out that there was a conflict of evidence, Mr Morley was very quick to back off, saying,

"It is CoRWM who are correct on this one".

Then he went on to say,

"if they chose identify a particular site".

Note the words "if they chose". What kind of a way is that of asking a committee, however strangely established, to handle an issue of such vital importance to the issue? Later the Minister was invited to clarify that and his response is on page 18 of the report and is as clear as mud.

Tonight, the Minister must clarify the question: what is CoRWM's remit and how far does it go? If he cannot clarify that tonight, will he promise the House to include a clarification in the written report which we must have as a reply to the Select Committee report?

Photo of Lord Taverne Lord Taverne Shadow Minister, Treasury

My Lords, I am glad that the report we are debating has not pulled its punches—nor did the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, in introducing it. It is the most scathing report from a committee of this House that I have read. As it clearly demonstrates, Defra has been pusillanimous. Determined to put off a difficult decision about the future of nuclear energy, it has decided to hide behind the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management and deliberately gave it terms of reference and a composition which ensures further delay.

This will not be the first occasion that Defra does everything possible to avoid political controversy. At one time I praised the department for having at last come to a bold decision and showing some courage when it authorised the commercial production of GM maize. But I was wrong, because Defra duly imposed terms and conditions that made production commercially unviable and skilfully avoided upsetting green pressure groups which it seemed determined to appease.

I leave it to others to discuss the details of the report itself. I want to follow up a speech that I made in June last year and add a footnote on radiation and safety, which is an issue basic to public fears about nuclear waste and the whole problem of nimbyism.

In a debate on 30 June I suggested that the generally adopted "Linear No-Threshold" approach to the safety of nuclear radiation which argues that even the smallest dose of radiation is dangerous, went against the evidence, because the evidence suggests that at low doses radiation is not harmful; indeed, through the hormesis effect, at doses which are still above the recommended maximum safety level, it seems to be beneficial. After I made that speech and a subsequent article I wrote on the subject, I received a flood of information that showed that the case was even stronger than I thought.

Let me refer to three studies. The first is very strong evidence indeed from a study of British radiologists covering 100 years, which has been described as perhaps the most important study of the health effects of radiation on humans ever published. Those who were exposed to very large doses before 1920, when safeguards were first introduced, suffered from a 75 per cent higher rate of cancer than other male English physicians. However, the overall death rate of radiologists from all causes was lower than average. Even before 1920—that is, even at a time when there was exposure to dangerously high doses—the benefits more than balanced the risks.

However, because of the safety measures taken after 1920, the overall health of radiologists improved. They continued to be exposed to higher than average doses of radiation, but their incidences of cancer dropped significantly below those for all English men and their life expectancy was significantly longer. In fact, it was some three years more than the average life expectancy of all English physicians. These effects were clearly set out in a paper by Mr J R Cameron, and indeed others, which was published, in 2002, in the British Journal of Radiology and elsewhere. Cameron's important conclusion was that present safety levels set for radiation workers reduce their health benefits rather than protect them.

The second is a recent Russian study that has been duly peer reviewed and published, in 2004, in the Journal of Radiation Research, a reputable Japanese publication. The study examines the incidence of cancer among emergency workers, employees of the nuclear industry, who participated in recovery operations at Chernobyl. The study covered the period 1996–2001, 10 to 15 years after the accident. These workers were exposed to substantially more radiation than the average, well above the recommended maximum safe dose. Yet the incidence of cancer among them was no higher than that found in the average Russian population of the same age.

The study, I should state, was of a relatively small sample, but it is consistent with all the other epidemiological evidence about workers in nuclear plants and nuclear shipyards and those who live in areas of high natural radiation, all of which showed that there was a lower incidence of cancer there than among control groups. If the Russian workers had suffered a higher than average rate of cancer it would have shown up in the study.

The third study is important because it not only reviews the various relevant epidemiological studies, but explains why low doses of radiation should have a beneficial effect. It provides a mechanism. It is a paper by Pollycove and others, published by the Académie des sciences, Paris, in 1999. Part of the paper states:

"[Whereas] high doses of radiation suppress our damage-control biosystem with consequent increased metabolic mutations, and cancer mortality . . . low dose radiation stimulates increased biosystem activity that produces fewer persistent metabolic alterations and mutations with lower cancer mortality and increased longevity".

As one past president and founder of the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements, Lauriston Taylor, put it, to apply the Linear No-Threshold hypothesis for calculating a safe dose is,

"a deeply immoral use of our scientific knowledge".

What worries me is the attitude of our own National Radiological Protection Board and of the International Commission. They stick rigidly to the consensus, as they wrongly call it, that we must accept the Linear No-Threshold doctrine. As proper scientists they should be open-minded, look at the evidence and be willing to change their minds in the face of the evidence, not bury their minds in the sands of traditional orthodoxy. Our present obsession with the risks of nuclear radiation is to a large extent exaggerated and misconceived and is almost certainly counterproductive. That is something we should bear in mind when planning future policy on the disposal of nuclear waste.

Photo of Lord Flowers Lord Flowers Crossbench

My Lords, needless to say, as a member of the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh—it was, as always, a great pleasure to serve under him, for somehow, whatever the subject, he always makes it seem fun—I unreservedly support all its conclusions and recommendations, not least those referring to the unconvincing methods, to put it at its least, of the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management, CoRWM.

Other noble Lords have already dealt with many of the relevant points on which I might otherwise have wished to comment. There is just one observation that I would nevertheless like to make, and that is from rather a personal point of view. I was privileged to be the chairman of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution in 1976 until we published our 6th Report: Nuclear Power and the Environment. It dealt very broadly with the subject, but one matter that caused us great concern was the lack of work being done at that time by the Government and by the nuclear industry on the treatment and disposal of nuclear waste, not least because a very large programme of nuclear stations was then being seriously contemplated. One of the commission's key recommendations is recalled in paragraph 5.5 of the report before us today. It was very carefully drafted and is quite short. It states:

"There should be no commitment to a large programme of nuclear fission power until it has been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that a method exists to ensure the safe containment of long-lived highly radioactive waste for the indefinite future".

It proved to be a somewhat controversial recommendation, but to this day I believe we were right to make it, because there was no other way to force, not so much the Government, but the nuclear industry, to take seriously the matter of nuclear waste disposal.

However, that was nearly 30 years ago, and, stimulated partly by the Royal Commission's report, many things have happened here and abroad since. We must take those things into consideration when we decide how to deal with nuclear waste. First, the very large nuclear programme being considered in those days has now shrunk, at least for the time being, to no more than the replacement of our old nuclear stations as they fall out of use.

Secondly, the nuclear reactors nowadays being contemplated produce much less waste than the reactors to be replaced and are much more economically competitive. Thirdly, the reprocessed waste is nowadays being vitrified in containers that protect it from the environment for decades to come, thus making it much safer to handle and to dispose of.

Fourthly, a method to ensure safe disposal for the indefinite future—namely, underground storage—has been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt in other countries, especially Finland. The same can be done here, now that we know the method exists. Incidentally, it can never be possible to prove experimentally the safety of any method of disposal of substances that remain dangerously radioactive for tens of thousands of years, short of waiting for that period to see what happens. As in many other spheres of activity one must rely upon such experimental tests of the environment—here, presumably underground rock—as are possible and appropriate, supplemented by extensive mathematical modelling to search for a robust solution. That is what the Royal Commission meant by demonstrating safety "beyond reasonable doubt".

Fifthly, and finally, there has emerged since 1976 a danger much more serious than those arising from the remaining uncertainties concerning disposal methods. One must now set those dangers against the well established consequences of global warming. This arises to a considerable extent simply because for too long much of the world has turned away from nuclear power in favour of the large-scale burning of oil and gas as well as coal, and of grossly inflated estimates of the availability of so-called renewable energy. In those circumstances, resolving the remaining issues of nuclear waste disposal and deciding on the precise procedures that will be adopted in this country must no longer be presented, as the Minister, Mr Morley, did to us, as a "pre-requisite" for deciding in principle the future of nuclear power in this country.

The Government have promised to "keep the nuclear option open". What we need now, however, is not a nuclear option but a nuclear reality. We have had quite enough nuclear prevarication already, and so has the world's climate. The Government should not allow themselves any longer to be entrapped by a well intentioned recommendation of the Royal Commission, made in 1976, that is no longer appropriate in the very different circumstances of the 21st century.

Photo of Lord Tombs Lord Tombs Crossbench

My Lords, as a co-opted member of the committee that produced the report, I support it fully and applaud its plain language. I wish to describe events of the past seven years to set the report in the context of the procrastination and indifference that have prevailed over that period.

In November 1997, following the rejection of the Nirex planning application for a rock characterisation facility at Sellafield, the Select Committee on Science and Technology decided to inquire into nuclear waste management. The committee formed for that purpose was originally chaired by Lord Phillips of Ellesmere until April 1998, when failing health forced him to give up and I had the honour of succeeding him.

The committee reported in March 1999, after an exhaustive examination of the situation at home and abroad. I shall quote one short paragraph from the executive summary:

"The long time-scales involved might be thought to be a reason for postponing decisions. The contrary is the case, since existing storage arrangements have a limited life and will require replacement, and eventually the repackaging and transfer of stored waste".

The timescales involved in this problem have no precedent. We are dealing not with decades or even centuries but with many millennia. It is common experience that even moderate timescales, of a decade or less, are unsuited to purposeful consideration by itinerant Ministers and civil servants, whose horizons tend to be limited by the duration of their posts. For that reason, the committee recommended the establishment of a nuclear waste management commission, outside day-to-day government and having authority and permanence. That was to follow a Green Paper stating the problem, the possible solutions and the policy that the Government were minded to put to Parliament. Consultation on the Green Paper would be followed by a White Paper containing a full statement of government policy.

Publication of the committee's report was followed by a delay of almost eight months before the government response emerged. It did little except to propose a consultation paper, which was not published until November 2001, more than two years later. That long delay was not without regular efforts to elicit a positive date for publication of the proposals, which produced consistent stonewalling replies. On 16 March 2000, the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, was provoked to say:

"now we are talking about spring, and spring it will be".—[Hansard, 16/3/00; col. 1680.]

His uncharacteristic optimism proved misguided, and the proposals were finally published in November 2001, 20 months later and more than two years after the government response to our report. The proposals were ambitiously titled Managing Radioactive Waste Safely and contained no serious examination of the problem. They were the subject of much criticism, in your Lordships' House and elsewhere, for their lack of substance.

The outcome of the consultation was the creation in November 2003 of the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management, which is the main concern of the Select Committee report that we are discussing today. I do not propose to repeat the criticisms of that committee and its formation, apart from observing that it follows the pattern of delay that has characterised the Government's approach to the subject. If that committee maintains its target date of July 2006 for publication of its recommendations to government, more than eight years will have elapsed since the publication of our original report in 1998.

At no point have the recommendations of the 1998 report been seriously addressed by government. As examples, responsibility for nuclear waste management remains fragmented and some materials remain uncategorised. It is sometimes suggested that the need for public involvement is the reason for the delays. The 1998 report contained a chapter on the issue and surveyed overseas experience. It recognised the need to tackle the issue purposefully and carefully, so that it could be seen to influence the development of government policy.

As an aside, I should acknowledge the valuable work done by UK CEED, an independent body, in organising a citizens' jury, as it was called, in the autumn of 1998, shortly after the publication of our report. A number of randomly selected volunteers with widely differing backgrounds met at weekends to examine evidence submitted by invited parties. They presented their findings and arguments in public and, by doing so, demonstrated a sense of purpose and commitment wholly lacking in government actions in recent years.

I plead yet again for a more determined approach to this important but neglected issue. I have spent much time trying to understand the reasons for government procrastination. Does it derive from the complexity of devolution or from fragmented decision making, for example? On the latter point, it would be interesting to know how many Ministers and civil servants had had nominal responsibility for the subject since 1998. I do not expect the Minister to be able to answer that now—or even, perhaps, ever—but, if it is possible to identify the number, I should be grateful if he would write to me.

I am afraid that another, less creditable, reason occurs to me. It may be that some Ministers see delay on the topic as a means of blocking serious discussion of the nuclear option, as they continue to describe the need for further investment in nuclear power. If so, they are seriously mistaken. The bulk of the nuclear waste that has been stored successfully for the past 50 years on a short-term basis derives from past civil and military programmes and has to be dealt with. The question of whether or not we build new nuclear stations is peripheral to that problem, which demands a long-term solution.

Other countries have made progress on the important issue of public acceptability. Their success derives from a commitment and purposefulness wholly lacking in this country. A technical solution exists and has been adopted in other countries. Public opinion has shown itself capable of addressing this important issue in ways that our Government fail to comprehend.

Finally, I plead for a government road map including a committed time-scale for positive action. The habit of inventing each new step when the previous one has failed is not a recipe for good government.

Photo of Lord Marlesford Lord Marlesford Conservative

My Lords, I was not a member of the committee, but I have read its excellent report. It is a good example of the value added by your Lordships' House to parliamentary government in this country. I shall briefly add my voice to the attempts to shame the Government into taking proper account of the report.

At a time when, month by month, we get examples of the malign and sometimes catastrophic effects of global warming, I find it extraordinary that, far from embracing the further practical implementation of Einstein's original work, which showed how much energy could be produced from nuclear power—energy that does not add to global warming—the Government appear to be sabotaging the prospects for it. Far from planning an expansion of nuclear power in Britain, the Government seem to be using the CoRWM committee to kick the nuclear issue into the long grass.

When the matter came up during Question Time, the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, undertook to consider my suggestion that CoRWM be asked to report by the end of this year, rather than wait until the middle of 2006. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, will give me an answer on that tonight.

I find it particularly sad—indeed, humiliating—that the Government seem to fail to recognise that Britain was in the vanguard of the developments in nuclear physics that led to the possibility of the peaceful use of atomic energy. Of course, I think of, among others, Lord Rutherford and Sir John Cockcroft, whose pioneering work at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge in the 1930s led to the splitting of the atom and the practical proof of the validity of the magical formula.

Today, Britain lags behind other EU countries. In a Written Answer that I got just before Christmas, the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury of Turville, told me that, in the EU as a whole, 32 per cent of electricity was generated by nuclear power. In France, it is 78 per cent; in Belgium, 58 per cent; in Sweden, 46 per cent; in Finland, 30 per cent; in Germany, 29 per cent; and in Spain, 26 per cent. In the United Kingdom, it is only 23 per cent, which, I think, includes what we buy from France. It is sad that, instead of nuclear, we are focusing on the political tokenism of wind power, which is intermittent, expensive and hugely damaging to some of our most beautiful countryside.

Basically, there are five crucial factors to consider in deciding whether to go forward with nuclear power. First, is or is not nuclear accepted as a source of renewable energy? I believe that to all intents and purposes, because of the virtually unlimited supply of nuclear minerals, it is. Secondly, is or is it not non-polluting and does it add to global warming? I believe that it is not polluting and does not add to global warming. Thirdly, is the modern nuclear reactor safe? I believe that the answer is yes. The Chernobyl accident had nothing to do with the intrinsic dangers of nuclear reactors and everything to do with the secrecy and incompetence of a Soviet socialist system. Fourthly, can the waste be stored safely? In its report, this committee concluded that:

"Underground storage or disposal represents the best long-term solution".

I hope the Government accept that. Fifthly, can reactors which have come to the end of their lives be safely decommissioned? It is clear that the answer is yes. It is expensive, of course, but the cost is now included in the capital expenditure proposals of any such project.

I am afraid that I see political cowardice in the Government in trimming to ill-informed and highly prejudiced anti-nuclear pressure groups, most of which have their origins in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and ideological side-taking in the Cold War. I hope very much that my own party will include in its manifesto an undertaking to revive Britain's nuclear energy programme. Sadly, in conjunction with Whitehall bureaucrats, the Government seem to be playing a cynical game of "Yes, Minister" against the interests of this country and, indeed, the interests of the world.

Photo of Baroness Walmsley Baroness Walmsley Shadow Minister, Home Affairs

My Lords, I was a member of the Select Committee and I should like to thank our chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, for his leadership, and all our staff for their work in helping us to reach our conclusions. I want to concentrate my remarks on the question of public confidence in the decision of CoRWM on the management of radioactive waste and the matter of its public consultation.

CoRWM's terms of reference require it to undertake two distinct but related tasks: one to propose a technical solution; and the second, to inspire public confidence in it. My impression, having heard all the evidence and attended the meeting of CoRWM in Ipswich during the course of our inquiry, is that the second task has overtaken the first in importance in the priorities of the committee. This is of great concern to me since there is no point in obtaining public support for a bad decision.

One has to ask why the committee must inspire public confidence in its decision. The reason is obvious in a democratic society. Radioactive waste could present a major health and security hazard if not properly dealt with. It is therefore only right that a solution is found that is acceptable to the majority of the public. I have no argument with that. It is very important that that is done, and done well.

However, it has to be said that the public will have confidence in the decision if they are convinced that the very best independent technical advice and information has been obtained and that it has been analysed by people who are equipped to do so. Despite the growing loss of confidence in so-called "experts" these days, the public accept that most citizens know very little about nuclear physics, geology and civil engineering. Clearly a great deal more public education about the issues needs to be done before consultation can be really meaningful. It is only right that CoRWM should have both of these tasks. Sadly, I gained two unfortunate impressions from my observation of its meeting.

First, it seemed that CoRWM is far more concerned with the processes of decision-making than in getting on with the job. The vast majority of the time at the meeting was taken up with deciding not to decide. Very few decisions were actually made at all. Most things were put on hold until more information could be obtained.

Secondly, its understanding of transparency and effective public consultation did not impress me. As we state in our report in Chapter 3, paragraph 2:

"We agree with the Royal Society that 'the processes of public consultation are more or less well known and could be readily designed by experienced social scientists working with relevant technical and policy experts'".

The Human Genetics Commission and the GM crops consultations allowed us to learn many useful lessons. No doubt their processes could be improved, but they form a very good basis on which the committee could have started. I should like to ask the Minister why the committee have had to start from scratch on the public consultation.

I accept that the meeting we attended was not part of the main public consultation itself. Indeed, the process for doing that was one of the things being discussed at the meeting. However, in line with its transparency policy, CoRWM conducts its meetings in public, and our presence along with that of several members of the public was known to it well in advance. Despite that, I was horrified to discover that the building in which the meeting was held, Ipswich town hall, was just about the worst public building for public access I have ever come across.

The meeting was held in a room at the top of a long flight of stairs; there was no lift and no alternative disabled access to the room. The sound system was very poor. Straightaway you have eliminated people with walking problems and hearing problems. In fact, several Members of your Lordships' Committee had difficulties along both of these lines, let alone members of the public.

Then there were the papers and the jargon. There were numerous papers without sight of which it would have been terribly difficult to make head or tail of the discussions. The papers were numbered in a very confusing way and they were not in order. So every time the committee moved to a new agenda item there was a good deal of shuffling and muttering among our colleagues, who were conscientiously trying, with a great deal of difficulty, to follow the proceedings.

There was also a great deal of jargon and acronyms used in the proceedings. With one notable exception, the members of the committee spoke in gobbledegook. Quite frankly, if I had been a normal interested member of the public, I would have been bored witless and would never have darkened its doors again.

If this is an example of the expertise of this organisation in making its meetings accessible to the public, heaven help it when it comes to the real consultations. I for one will have little confidence that it has consulted the public in any meaningful way. It would be almost funny if it was not so dangerous. By making everything so complicated in a mistaken attempt to be rigorous, the committee is not being transparent at all; it is being exceedingly opaque.

The public are not stupid. When matters are made unnecessarily complicated they suspect that someone is trying to blind them with science, pull the wool over their eyes, call it what you will. That is not what the committee wants, but that will be the result if it does not change its ways.

We also conclude in chapter 3, paragraph 9, that,

"We are sceptical that the public will in reality be interested or engaged by the current process, which will be perceived to be largely theoretical".

The Government have concluded that most people,

"will not be interested in the issue of radioactive waste until it affects them directly"— in other words, when a particular site or sites for disposal or storage are being mooted. The fact is that nuclear waste affects all of us, not only those living near the chosen site.

So the first priority must be to get the decision right and then convince the public by explaining it in terms they can understand and by demonstrating the credibility of the experts involved in making it. Of course, what the public will tolerate has to be part of the equation and is an important factor in the decision-making, but the public alone—important as they are—cannot decide.

Independent, top-quality scientists are most important. This pre-occupation with the process of public consultation seems to me to be an attempt to shift the blame to the public if someone does not like the decision when it eventually comes. Other speakers have already highlighted our concern about the lack of technical skills on the committee and our belief that reliance on consultants is not good enough. Even if the public consultation were of the very best, this shortfall would be fatal in my opinion.

To conclude, I believe that if the eventual decision of CoRWM is to be acceptable to the public—in other words, if both of its tasks are to be achieved—it needs to pay more attention to its technical and scientific advice and spend less time discussing consultation processes that are already well established. The proposition that the committee needed to start with a blank piece of paper, both on the way to consult the public and to include all possible technical options, is quite preposterous. First, there is already considerable consensus among the reputable scientific community that deep underground storage is the safest; and, secondly, good practice for public consultation is already well established. Why not use it rather than spending months reinventing the wheel?

I have to ask myself "Why these two blank pieces of paper?". The only answer I can possibly come to is that the Government mistakenly equate procrastination and time wasting with good decision-making and believe that the public will trust the solution proposed if every detail of how it was arrived at can be demonstrated. I hesitate to conclude that the only other possible reason is another acronym, NIMTO—"Not in My Term of Office".

Photo of Lord Lewis of Newnham Lord Lewis of Newnham Crossbench

My Lords, as a member of the committee, I, too, appreciated the excellent chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, in producing this very important report.

I substantially agree with everything that has been said, particularly in regard to some of the criticisms that have been levelled. So on this occasion, rather than go through them all again, I will touch on one or two of the more general points involved in this area of work.

The noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, made the point that the handling of waste is neither quick nor easy. We heard that this waste problem started 50 years ago. The noble Lord, Lord Flowers, reminded us that, in the 1970s, his commission was very effectively pointing out the necessity of looking at the waste problem. After another 25 years, we are now beginning to address some of these issues.

Three groups of radioactive waste are generally being considered: high, intermediate and low-level waste. We currently have about 750 cubic metres of high-level waste and approximately 100 times more intermediate-level waste. The amount of low-level waste is very large indeed. High-level waste arises from the dismantling of nuclear reactors and the reprocessing of spent fuel. Approximately one-fifth of this material comes from overseas contracts, so a significant amount of this waste should have been returned.

After 1975, nuclear fuel processing contracts provided for the return of processed waste materials to customers within a period of 25 years. Prior to that, there was no requirement for spent nuclear waste to be sent back. To date, to my knowledge, no waste has been returned, although BNFL claimed that return would occur in 1996. The DTI has recently announced that it has authorised the substitution of high-level waste for intermediate-level waste when returning waste to the various countries for which it has been processing nuclear fuel.

How this waste is to be sent back to the various countries must be a major concern. It is very toxic material and the introduction of waste into the country from other countries has received considerable criticism. Will the Government assure us that they have considered that before they start this process?

A feature of high-energy waste is the high heat that it generates. I hope that CoRWM will address the problem of the storage of high-level waste before its deposition. Because of the high heat generated, significant periods, up to decades, are required before it is possible to dispose of such waste. That is a major problem which we have to address. We will inevitably be left with a certain amount of waste that has to be kept at the surface so that it can "mature" sufficiently to be deposited. It is not a simple or quick operation.

With the advent of CoRWM, the Minister for the Environment, Elliot Morley, closed down the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee. I accept that certain functions of that committee will be taken over by CoRWM, but who will attend to the remaining problems handled by that committee? I believe that the committee has recently published a report itemising areas that will not be covered by CoRWM. How are they going to be addressed? When is the committee likely to be re-instituted and what will happen when CoRWM disappears?

A new committee, the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency, is being set up to deal with the decommissioning of redundant nuclear sites. Clearly, a major amount of nuclear waste will be produced. Although CoRWM will be responsible for the high-activity end of the problem, the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee suggests that the amount of waste involved in this operation will far exceed the presently available sites for storage of such waste. What will happen to this area of waste?

I am also very concerned that at the moment much of the low-activity waste can be stored offsite. I know that Brigg has been used over a period of time for the storage of some of this waste, but I fear that much of the other waste may end up in the present hazardous sites. These areas are grossly under stress at the moment. I am concerned whether the new waste regulations will affect any of this operation. I would appreciate the Minister giving us some information on that.

Finally, one of my concerns is that if—or even when—we decide to take up the nuclear objective again, we will be in a very difficult situation regarding manning and responsibility. The university nuclear departments have been run down—whether this has been done deliberately, I do not know. We will end up with exactly the same problem we had with renewable energy when we had to buy it from other countries. We had to turn to Denmark when it came to wind farms. I hope that we will not have to buy out again, although I fear that we will.

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Shadow Minister, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs 8:31 pm, 12th January 2005

My Lords, I wish that I could agree with everything that has been said, because it would make my life much easier. But I hope that disagreeing with some of what has been said will at least make this debate a little livelier. However, I do so with some trepidation, because the experience assembled on the committee which has written this report is considerable. Reading the report, and listening to the noble Lord, Lord Flowers, who was, as he said, grappling with this problem in 1976, it struck me that we have been looking for a solution for an extremely long time.

I accept that the report makes some valid criticisms of CoRWM. These were laid out very fairly by my noble friend Lady Walmsley—and I say that not simply because she is my noble friend. She was particularly fair with regard to public access.

In accepting that there are valid criticisms, I wish to dwell on what I believe to be unfair criticisms and what I feel to be plainly wrong. The unfair criticisms in the report include those which say that the committee is taking far too long about its task. We were reminded that this situation has been continuing year after year and very little has been resolved. I accept that, at a political level, the Government may be guilty of that rather nice acronym NIMTO—"not in my term of office". Indeed, the previous two Administrations have possibly been guilty of that. I do not think it is reasonable to accuse CoRWM of dragging its feet for that reason. Looking back at the minutes of the various meetings, I discovered that it has speeded up its timetable. It will report in July 2006, not November 2006, as originally set out.

The other criticism I thought particularly unfair concerned the membership of the committee. It is not for me to say whether it is large or wide enough; I accept that it might benefit from expansion. But while members of the Chemicals Stakeholder Forum, for example—a body which is mentioned in the report—have wide experience of analysing information, by no means are they technical experts regarding these chemicals. Noble Lords could examine the membership of the Food Standards Agency which is tasked with looking at a wide range of issues, many of which are extremely technical and relate to BSE and so forth. Hardly any of the members are technically expert in those issues. They simply call in the expertise and analyse it. So although I understand that there may be a good argument for expanding membership of this committee it is very unfair to look simply at its make-up and say that it is not composed sufficiently of experts when that is the case across a wide range of committees on which your Lordships have pronounced very favourably in the past. There are a number of reports which I do not have time to go into now but of which I have quoted two examples.

I will also touch on another example of where I think the committee's conclusion is quite wrong. It criticises CoRWM in paragraph 4.10 for having a lengthy discussion on what would happen if, when a decision was made, the majority held a view to which the minority could not subscribe. Your Lordships' report says that this,

"could be taken as a satire on bureaucratic processes in general".

That conclusion is entirely wrong because if your Lordships cast your minds back a few months to the report of the committee examining radiation risks of internal emitters—a subject close to the one with which CoRWM will be dealing—the majority came to one conclusion and a minority came to a similar but stronger conclusion about the harm that ingesting minute amounts of radiation could do to organisms, especially humans. I am sorry to tell my noble friend Lord Taverne that that evidence is contrary to the evidence that he presented to us in his speech.

Photo of Lord Taverne Lord Taverne Shadow Minister, Treasury

My Lords, the trouble with the Cerrie committee was that it never considered the hormesis theory because it spent all its time fighting against the two representatives of Greenpeace who Michael Meacher had appointed to the committee who made its life pretty well impossible.

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Shadow Minister, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

My Lords, there is an interesting debate to be had about that committee, but perhaps at another time. I thank my noble friend for leading me neatly to another matter that I was disappointed the report did not address. The report drew its evidence about this committee's work so narrowly. I accept that the inquiry was supposed be a short one, but the other stakeholders—Nirex, BNFL and Greenpeace, which were key players—were not asked how they felt about the work that CoRWM was doing, how they felt about working with CoRWM and what level of confidence they had in the committee. Therefore, we have not understood how the rest of the organisations which will be working with CoRWM feel about the future, the time-scale or any of the other issues that your Lordships have raised.

In raising these points I want to underline that I am not arguing with the report because I am a cynic about nuclear power. It is well known in your Lordships' House that I am not a supporter at the moment of nuclear power because of the problems of waste and safety. However, like other noble Lords who have spoken, I accept that it is important to keep every effort applied to dealing with the current mountain of waste. I am extremely disappointed that the Government have chosen to allow imports of nuclear waste from other countries which cannot deal with it themselves. It was highlighted earlier this month that Italy, for example, is going to send us its nuclear waste, and that the Government have not even seen fit to publish the terms of the contract between Italy and Britain so that we can see what they are.

Photo of Lord Vinson Lord Vinson Conservative

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that there are some 400 atomic power stations around the globe and some 30 either under construction or being built? The development of nuclear energy as probably one of the only ways in which to prevent CO2 pollution is going on massively around us. The noble Baroness talks as though we lived in a totally isolated world and there were not numerous atomic power stations 32 miles away across the English Channel, in France, where they are renewing their entire atomic programme and generating capacity. If she recognised that, what she was saying might make more sense.

Photo of Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Government Whip

My Lords, I remind noble Lords that the noble Baroness is limited to 10 minutes, and that that is the second intervention.

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Shadow Minister, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for reminding noble Lords that that intervention has taken up another minute of my reply. Of course I am aware of the construction around the world, but, equally, I am aware of the problems that those countries constructing nuclear power stations have in disposing of their waste, which is why many of them are choosing to send it to Britain.

I remind noble Lords that I introduced in your Lordships' House last year a debate on climate change. That is one of the gravest issues facing us at this time, so I do not underplay the role that nuclear power could play in solving the climate change issue if some of the other problems around nuclear power were solved. But they are not, and in the face of that fact it does not do to belittle the efforts of those committees and those people who are trying to solve those problems.

Photo of Baroness Miller of Hendon Baroness Miller of Hendon Shadow Minister, Economic Affairs

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, for introducing the debate and doing so so very well. I should also like to congratulate him and his committee on having produced such a clear and concise report. I enjoyed reading it over the weekend and, as a lay person, I found it eminently readable, which I cannot say of most reports that I have to read. I have rarely read one that is so trenchant and uncompromisingly blunt.

I noticed that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Chesterton, and my noble friend Lord Jenkin both used the word "trenchant". I sat there trying to think of a better one for a few minutes, but I could not think of anything that expressed it better. I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, on saying the same thing in completely different words.

The noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, in the carefully phrased wording of his Motion, very wisely does not ask the Government to comment on his committee's report. The unequivocal condemnation that it contains is beyond any credible answer. Indeed, if any of your Lordships heard the environment Minister's interview on the "Today" programme on 12 December immediately after the publication of the report, they would have been treated to the unedifying spectacle of a government Minister floundering hopelessly, trying to defend the indefensible.

As the Scientific and Technology Committee vigorously complained, it is indefensible that the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management's brief was to start with "a clean sheet". In response to John Humphrys' suggestion that reconsidering the possibility of firing nuclear waste into space was "barmy", the Minister defended this by saying that "you have to look at all the options". The fact is that this clean sheet is nothing more than a typical Whitehall tactic of delay when the Government—perhaps any government, of whatever political complexion—are unwilling to make a firm decision. They kick the matter into the long grass by forming a committee.

In this case, the present Government, who are masters of the art of talking but not doing, have added a refinement which deserves the Sir Humphrey Appleby Award for procrastination. They have set up a committee with a brief to ignore all the research and enquiries of the past 30 years. The brief includes, as we have just seen, reconsidering preposterous ideas that have long since been rejected by scientists around the world. The Government did not involve Defra's chief scientific adviser in the appointment of members of CoRWM, which has resulted in what your Lordships' committee roundly condemned as "inadequacies".

The Science and Technology Committee rightly pointed out to your Lordships that:

"There is a danger that without technical expertise CoRWM will be unable to evaluate evidence critically".

Many noble Lords have said that in their contributions, especially the noble Lord, Lord Tombs.

Of course, the Government did not really want a committee of scientific experts who actually knew what they were talking about. The lack of internal expertise within CoRWM has necessitated an outside consultant as programme manager. This is NNC, which describes itself as,

"the UK's premier dedicated nuclear services company . . . dedicated to delivering cost-effective engineering solutions and safety consultancy services".

These are excellent qualifications for a group but not for an individual member of CoRWM, but like the science committee I wonder whether there is a potential for, or even the mere perception of, a possible conflict of interest in the advice NNC may be called on to give. Due to lack of internal technical expertise, CoRWM has, so far, in the words of your Lordships' committee, wasted both a disproportionate amount of time and money on its own methodology. That is another by-product of starting with a blank sheet, including, in this case, re-inventing the wheel about how CoRWM should conduct its affairs, and even that it has dismally failed to do, in view of your Lordships' committee's astonishment,

"at the volume of impenetrable paperwork that was on offer to members of the public".

I enjoyed listening to my noble friend Lord Jenkin talk about what happened in Ipswich. However, I did not enjoy that quite as much as hearing the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, regarding a CoRWM meeting being held in a room at the top of a long flight of stairs with a poor sound system so that people could not hear what was said. That makes the fact that you could not read the paperwork and the numbers were all wrong pale into insignificance.

Clearly, CoRWM, despite its protestations, is not over keen to encourage the public to attend its meetings, to understand what is going on, or rather, if I am right, what is not going on. As I say, the noble Baroness described that very clearly.

The chairman of CoRWM, an economist, very properly declared to the science committee that he has,

"had an interest in the nuclear industry for over 20 years".

In fact, he has been a notable critic of all aspects of nuclear power, on which he has commented from his position as a fellow of the Scientific Policy Research Committee of Sussex University.

Of course, I do not impugn Mr MacKerron's integrity or potential for impartiality, and I am sure that any preconceptions he may have will be balanced by his deputy, Jenny Watson, a former chairman of Nirex Independent Transparency Review Panel.

Not content with having sat on their hands for some seven years, the Government have given CoRWM until 2006 to produce its report. I hope that the Minister can tell my noble friend Lord Marlesford why the suggestion that it should be finished by 2005 was passed over. I predict that that will not be the end of it. If, unhappily, the present Government are still in power at that time—which I certainly hope they will not be—they will take several months, if not longer, to produce their own response, before setting up yet another committee to decide on implementation, followed by a wait for legislative time.

I mentioned earlier in my remarks that the carefully phrased wording of the Motion that we are discussing does not require the Government to comment on the validity of the contents of the Science and Technology Committee's report. Indeed, there is no need for any such comment because its indisputable sound common sense, arrived at by a committee of experts, which CoRWM is most certainly not, cannot be gainsaid. What the Motion calls for is for the Government to stop what John Humphrys in his Radio 4 interview with the Environment Minister described as—I quote exactly what he said—"faffing about". I am not too sure whether that is proper language for the House of Lords, but apparently it was perfectly OK for the BBC.

I would like to offer some help to the Government in reaching an immediate decision, rather than one which may emerge only in the distant future, and, indeed, is the same as the Select Committee has recommended. In common with other countries with nuclear industries, such as France, Finland and the USA, the Government should concentrate on underground disposal.

I shall ignore a few pages of my notes not only because time is limited but also because many noble Lords have already made those points.

I believe that the Government, who are unashamedly anxious to avoid making a decision about the future of nuclear power, use the question of waste management as their excuse for not doing so. If that is not the case—it was either the noble Lord, Lord Flowers, or the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, who said that he wondered what the reason was for this delay—perhaps the Minister will be able to tell the House.

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Shadow Minister, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

My Lords, while I have no brief to defend the Government at all, I would be interested if the noble Baroness would tell me clearly what is the Conservative policy on the future of nuclear power.

Photo of Baroness Miller of Hendon Baroness Miller of Hendon Shadow Minister, Economic Affairs

My Lords, that is not the purpose of this debate. It is not for me to stand at this Dispatch Box, as my noble namesake knows. But we will move on.

The entire future of the nuclear industry and the security of our power supplies are compromised by all this deliberate ministerial dithering, or what the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, who is much more diplomatic than me, described in the radio news bulletin as the Government's "lack of urgency". Perhaps your Lordships are not aware that it has been reported that the Government are thinking in terms of 2025 before a final repository is in place; or perhaps, according to Mr Morley, 2040. Will the Minister tell us clearly and unequivocally exactly how long after CoRWM reports will that report be implemented?

There is much more that I could have said in today's important debate, and there is much more that others have said to which I could have just turned round and said "Hear, hear!" and sat down. However, I do not agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer; frankly, I think that it was an excellent report. The contributions tonight have been excellent as well. I hope that the Government did not merely hear what was said, but listened. Then they would take some immediate and urgent action, which is what they are supposed to do when in office. In other words, they need to overcome what the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, called a "lack of urgency", or what John Humphrys more colourfully described as "faffing about".

Photo of Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Government Whip

My Lords, I have checked. I understand that "faffing" is a word that is used on the BBC and is not objectionable in your Lordships' House. However, there are other words used on the BBC that would be.

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Food, Farming and Sustainable Energy)

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that guidance. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, and everyone involved in this committee for the report and for the work that they put into observing the work of CoRWM. The fact that I hardly agree with a word of the report, nor with much that has been said tonight, should not detract from the fact that I am glad that they have taken a deep interest in this issue.

Let me make it clear from the beginning, in reply to one of the early points made by the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, that the Government are also very keen on finding a solution here, and we need a solution irrespective of any decision on future nuclear build or the future nuclear content of a sourcing of power requirements. CoRWM is not about the future of nuclear power or its role in British or international energy provision. CoRWM is a process for dealing with the UK radioactive waste that already exists and that will continue to be generated by ongoing nuclear activity. The Government's position on nuclear power is well known; and I do not intend to re-open that argument unless I have a little time at the end. I will address the issue of CoRWM.

The UK Government—that is, the UK Government and the devolved administrations—have established CoRWM, and its terms of reference seem to me, contrary to what the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, said, to be very clear indeed. It is to oversee a review of options for managing solid radioactive waste in the UK and to recommend the option or combination of options that can provide a long-term solution providing protection for people and for the environment for high and intermediate level waste. That is a clear remit; it is a wide remit, which requires it to look at all the options. It has been asked to deliver its recommendations by July 2006. To answer the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, no, we have not altered that date. It needs that time, and it is sensible to give it that time.

There have been a number of different criticisms of CoRWM. One of the least fair, and in this I join the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, is the issue of its internal expertise. The people in CoRWM are very experienced with a wide range of different expertise. Clearly, no committee will have a totality of expertise, and expertise is available in the area. CoRWM is establishing a pool of specialists on the basis of advice from bodies that the committee alleged were being ignored, such as the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering, so that it can contract in their views and advice. That pool will provide advice on everything from nuclear engineering to ethics. It is not right to criticise either the expertise and spread of expertise of CoRWM itself, or the lack of ability to mobilise that expertise.

In addition, CoRWM has set in place an independent process evaluation contract that will provide for ongoing assessment and report back to it as its work proceeds. It is also not right to imply that Defra's chief scientific adviser will not be involved; he is very much involved and taking a particular interest in the arrangements for the scientific and technical quality assurance that CoRWM is setting up, and in the peer review to ensure that they are robust. Some of the criticisms are therefore unfair. I will go into some of them in more detail to respond to a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, in the written response, which will be with the House within a month or so.

There was also a criticism that CoRWM was starting from a blank sheet of paper; indeed, astonishment was expressed. When we come up with a solution, whether it is what most people here think is the obvious solution—deep geological storage, effectively—or another, it is important that we make it clear that we have examined all options, given the sensitivity of the matter and public opinion requirements. There must be a full audit trail for those decisions to be taken. That is why CoRWM's terms of reference make it clear that we must eliminate non-feasible strategies as soon as possible—it will be done by June—but that we have clearly examined them.

A lack of clarity about how far CoRWM goes from the generic policy in relation to solutions in the area of site options was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, and others. The terms of reference refer to the assessment of options not considering potential radioactive waste sites, but considering the raising of siting issues—and therefore the basis of identifying sites—including whether the local community should have a veto, be encouraged to volunteer or offered incentives to agree to sites.

CoRWM will need to consider those issues and make recommendations to Ministers. The terms of reference underline that. However, once CoRWM delivers its generic recommendations and the need for the kind of facilities required becomes clear, siting criteria and procedures will be discussed and an open and transparent way for examining particular sites will follow. After delivery, the first step will be for the Government to decide on and announce our long-term management strategy. Once the policy has been decided and the facility or facilities required are clear, the Government foresee that the process and criteria to be adopted for site selection will also be subject to discussion in an open and transparent way. One option that has been considered, although we have not decided on it, is whether we will ask CoRWM—possibly in a somewhat reconstituted form, taking account of some views expressed—to undertake further work to oversee that discussion on site selection.

Photo of Lord Jenkin of Roding Lord Jenkin of Roding Conservative

My Lords, after Mr Morley said that CoRWM's interpretation was correct, he said that it could, if it chose, identify a site. Was he correct in saying that, because that is not what the Minister is saying now?

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Food, Farming and Sustainable Energy)

My Lords, I said that CoRWM can make recommendations in relation to the identification of sites and the kind of location that would be required. It is conceivable that it could say that only one location met the criteria. We are assuming that we are talking about deep geological disposal as a generic approach to site choice. Assuming that there is an option for a site, once CoRWM has established the criteria and that there are options, the Government will have to accept those criteria and there will be a process for examining them site by site. We do not want a re-run of the Nirex identification of sites and the maximisation of opposition to every site that was even indirectly hinted at.

That is part of the requirement for public engagement in this process. CoRWM's terms of reference, as the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and others have said, rightly involve a public engagement programme which began in November. It is now getting on with the job. I accept that there may be some criticism of how that has operated and there have been some graphic descriptions of the meeting in Ipswich, which I am sure that CoRWM and its secretariat will have taken into account for future arrangements. But that does not invalidate CoRWM's broad approach of providing maximum information, while allowing for engagement at different levels, including attendance at meetings and other forms of public engagement.

It is important that we learn from the failure of the Nirex planning application in 1997, which was the last UK plan to build an underground disposal facility. That cost hundreds of millions of pounds and has been one reason for further delay, because we did not wish to go down that road again. The key to that failure was a lack of transparency and openness, and an inability at the planning inquiry to produce a clear audit trail. The proposal to build the rock characterisation facility near Sellafield to investigate the underground disposal of radioactive waste, was not, therefore, conducted in a way that was conducive to public confidence. We wish to avoid making that mistake again. By the next planning inquiry, whatever the nature of the facility is that is recommended and adopted by the Government, we need to provide that clear audit trail.

Photo of Lord Flowers Lord Flowers Crossbench

My Lords, my recollection is that the Nirex inquiry was held in public.

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Food, Farming and Sustainable Energy)

My Lords, for that part of the inquiry process—yes. But my point is that at that inquiry we were unable to provide an audit trail backwards to say that we had looked at all other options. The point of this process is that we can clearly demonstrate, not only that there are good reasons for proposing a particular facility and a particular site, but, to reach that conclusion, that we have looked at all options. That will be necessary if we are to carry public opinion with us on the identification of any site. That is precisely what the CoRWM process is about. We will not take the position of deciding on the option, announcing and defending it, and, as in the case of Nirex, eventually having to abandon it. Whatever people's views of nuclear power are, whatever they believe the optimum option is, that would not be an attractive proposition for anyone.

At the point where we have adopted the generic solution and the process of site identification, it would be the job not only of CoRWM but also of government, and Ministers in particular, to persuade the public. But CoRWM can play an important role in informing and educating the public and taking through the process.

Much of the criticism in the report and tonight has been about delay at various points in the process—certainly since 1997. I am not defending every aspect of the time that it has taken. In hindsight, there have been points where we could have moved faster and where the internal decision-making process of the Government has taken longer than would have been ideal. But we have not been standing still. The noble Lord, Lord Tombs, was slightly mistaken in the dates that he mentioned, but, nevertheless, at one point I was more optimistic than events proved to be, in terms of our report. It was a very long spring that year.

Equally, much has happened since the Science and Technology Committee published its first report in March 1999. Under the Energy Act, we have set up the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency, and we have set out the position in the Energy White Paper, whether or not noble Lords agree with it. Serious security reviews have taken place in the light of 9/11, and appropriate action has been taken to ensure that those are taken into account in this process. We have also now initiated the CoRWM process.

I appreciate that noble Lords will have some criticism of the delay that occurred up to the establishment of CoRWM. I am not holding up my hands to all those criticisms but I understand them. However, since the establishment of CoRWM, it is very difficult to argue that the committee should have been bounced into making a decision more quickly than we are asking it to do—that is, by 2006. It needs to go through the whole process; it needs to engage the public; and it needs to take into account what is happening internationally as well as nationally, and that takes time. We are talking about a decision which, as noble Lords have said, could have effects for millennia. In a shorter time-scale, if we make a mistake, any long-term strategy which is wrong will cost this country billions of pounds. In any case, even if the implementation of the strategy is right, it will cost a great deal of money. It is therefore important that we allow the committee to make a sound recommendation.

Of course, once the committee makes its recommendation in 2006, site identification and other consequential issues will have to be dealt with. We think that that final process could take until 2008. Therefore, that is what we are now talking about in terms of the full timetable. However, in the light of those decisions—a decision in principle will be made much earlier than that—and in the light of the length of time that will be needed for the operation of the outcome of this process, we are talking about a relatively short timescale. I believe that it would be dangerous and unfortunate if we tried to speed it up.

A number of other points were made about the nature of the problem and I shall reply to some of them in writing, but perhaps I should use my remaining minutes to reply to one or two matters that occur to me. For example, the noble Lord, Lord Lewis, raised the issue of overseas waste. Thorp began processing overseas waste in the mid-1990s. With the creation of a new NDA, which will be taking over responsibility for this activity, we expect the first returns to begin in 2007–08. So we are making progress on that front.

The noble Lord also raised the issue of low-level waste management, which is not covered by this process. Various means are available for the management of low-level waste, including Drigg, as the noble Lord said, with on-site burial taking place there. We are confident that we have the means to manage low-level waste for the foreseeable future, but at some point the Government may need to give attention to replacement facilities for those at Drigg.

The noble Lord, Lord Lewis, also referred to the future of the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee. It has not been abolished but it has been put into abeyance while CoRWM continues this process. The Government are committed to reviewing the future of the advisory machinery once CoRWM has completed its task.

There are probably other points to which I should reply. I shall check the debate and do so in writing. But before I sit down I should make one other point. It may be controversial but I am not a visceral opponent of nuclear power. I am not convinced that there is an immediate need for a nuclear Bill, and I do not think that those who attack the Energy White Paper on the grounds that nuclear power should play a bigger part are at present on sound ground.

Nevertheless, the situation could well arise where nuclear power needs to be part of the equation and, in any case, as noble Lords have said, it is clearly part of the future of energy sourcing internationally. But I do not think that the advocates of nuclear power do their case any good by trying to deny or minimise the problems of handling nuclear waste or its safety and environmental effects or by attacking other alternative low carbon technologies.

We are looking to replace high carbon use, whether by renewable fuels or, in certain contexts, by nuclear power. It should not be an argument between renewables and nuclear power; it should be about how to minimise our use of carbon-based technologies, through energy efficiency and other measures and how we can make them cleaner and less damaging to the environment and of course in relation to climate change.

Photo of Lord Marlesford Lord Marlesford Conservative

My Lords, does the Minister accept that nuclear power is a renewable fuel?

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Food, Farming and Sustainable Energy)

My Lords, I accept that it is a low-carbon technology, which in certain contexts is renewable, but until we solve the waste problem, it is not necessarily a sustainable fuel. Therefore, it does not meet all the criteria of the renewable element. Of course, the energy White Paper does not rely on the whole of carbon-based technology being replaced by renewables. That is a distortion that some of the advocates of nuclear power and the opponents of wind farms, including the noble Lord, occasionally imply, saying that we are replacing coal, oil and gas by renewables in our energy policy. That is not the intention. It remains to be seen whether nuclear power is required within the UK context in the period to 2050. We are certainly doing all that we can to keep that nuclear option open, but at the moment, we are not convinced that there is a need to commit to future nuclear build.

I thought I would get that off my chest before I sat down. I thank all noble Lords who have participated in the debate.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Chesterton Lord Hunt of Chesterton Labour

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, I have worked on both aspects, nuclear and non-nuclear. Does he agree that CoRWM should be able to take a very broad view of all aspects of nuclear waste? It seems to be considered more in the United States, in the International Atomic Energy Agency and in Russia. Dealing with nuclear waste is a broader issue, involving both nuclear fusion, proliferation and so on and at the moment in Britain it is discussed in a series of separate boxes. Will the Government broaden out the issue, as happens in other countries?

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Food, Farming and Sustainable Energy)

My Lords, some of these points are being pursued elsewhere. Certainly the overall approach to nuclear power as a possible component of future energy policy will take into account all those wider issues.

Photo of Lord Lewis of Newnham Lord Lewis of Newnham Crossbench

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, could he answer my question on the liquid waste? He emphasised the point that CoRWM is concerned with the disposal of solid waste, whereas the high activity waste will probably be in a liquid form for the best part of 20 years because of heat generation.

Photo of Lord Oxburgh Lord Oxburgh Crossbench

My Lords, we have had a full and most valuable debate. I thank noble Lords for their diverse and interesting contributions to the discussion. There is no time now to pursue many of the points that have been raised, but it is important to make two points.

First, the Science and Technology Committee took no position on the future of nuclear power. We were primarily and solely concerned with dealing with the current and present problem. Secondly, I want to emphasise, if I did so inadequately when I first spoke, that we intended no criticism of individual members of CoRWM. Our belief was that the Government, through Defra, had selected the wrong team for the job. We were particularly concerned how that could have happened without taking proper technical advice from his internal, departmental resources. The Minister did not address that point. However, I thank the Minister for the clarifications he has given on a number of important points. We are very grateful to him for that.

I hope that today's debate will be of value to the Minister and to his department in framing and sharpening their reply to our report. The committee, from tonight's showing, and the wider House will await that reply with great interest. In the light of that reply, the committee will take a view on whether to bring these matters to the attention of the House again. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned at a quarter past nine o'clock.