Energy: Radioactive Waste Management (S&T Report)

– in the House of Lords at 3:25 pm on 29th October 2007.

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Photo of The Earl of Selborne The Earl of Selborne Conservative 3:25 pm, 29th October 2007

rose to move, That this House takes note of the report of the Science and Technology Committee on Radioactive Waste Management: An Update (4th Report, HL Paper 109).

Photo of The Earl of Selborne The Earl of Selborne Conservative

My Lords, I move the Motion in the place of the noble Lord, Lord Broers, the chairman of the Select Committee, who is unable to be present today.

This is the fourth time that the committee has returned to the subject of radioactive waste management. The first report was produced in 1999 by a sub-committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Tombs. We benefited greatly by his co-option on to this inquiry, together with the noble Lords, Lord Flowers and Lord Oxburgh, and my noble friend Lord Jenkin, all of whom have a great deal of expertise in this subject going back a long time. I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, and my noble friend are participating in today's debate.

The 1999 report concluded that phased disposal in a deep geological repository was the most feasible and desirable method for dealing with radioactive waste. It called for the establishment of a new, statutory body with responsibility for developing an overarching and comprehensive implementation strategy, and recommended that implementation proposals should be subject to explicit endorsement by Parliament at regular intervals.

After four years' delay, the Government appointed in 2003 the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM) to review the options and make recommendations. CoRWM duly reported in July 2006. We welcomed this report as it broadly echoed and developed the recommendations we came to seven years earlier. It particularly stressed that a suitable site could only be determined by a combination of geological criteria and by a participative process in which potential host communities could have full confidence. Much of the trouble we have got into has been the result of an obvious lack of suitably and properly structured participative processes.

The key difference between CoRWM's recommendations and our 1999 recommendations is that we would have established an independent body outside government control which would have been established by primary legislation and would have required explicit endorsements by Parliament at regular intervals. CoRWM recommended an independent body to oversee implementation, but did not recommend either a statutory basis or accountability to Parliament. As we say in paragraph 1.6 of our report, CoRWM's proposals, although not inconsistent with our own, were in certain important respects watered down.

The Government's response to the report in October 2006, which broadly accepted CoRWM's advice, diluted the recommendation to establish an independent overseeing body still further. The Government decided to give responsibility for the implementation of radioactive waste management to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority under its responsibilities derived from the Energy Act 2004. CoRWM's successor will be constituted as an independent advisory board. That will be the new CoRWM.

We are firmly persuaded that this dilution of successive recommendations is not the way to build up public trust. Radioactive waste management is a difficult and controversial area of energy policy. Past efforts to resolve the issue of legacy waste disposal have been tainted by secrecy, leading to an erosion of public confidence. The Government's decision is likely to lead to increasing the potential for conflict and confusion in the institutional arrangements. The Energy Act does not explicitly mention geological disposal. If the Government cannot accept our original proposal for a single independent body with responsibility for overseeing the entire programme, scrutinising and holding to account key players on behalf of Parliament, then, as we say in paragraph 2.18 of our report, at least they should accept CoRWM's advice, watered down though it is, to set up an independent overseeing body. Given the division of responsibilities between the Government, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and the regulators, it is critical that the remit, responsibilities and lines of accountability of the key players in the programme are clear and transparent. The committee struggled to understand the "alphabet soup" of responsible organisations.

We do not dispute that the terms of the Energy Act are sufficiently broad—indeed, some would say vague—to allow the NDA to undertake this function without amendment to legislation. However, vagueness is not enough. The Act does not appear to have been drafted with these extended responsibilities in mind, and we are not aware that the role of the NDA in geological disposal has ever been debated or endorsed by Parliament. Therefore, to achieve that, we recommend in paragraph 2.41 that the Energy Act be amended to reflect the changing nature of the NDA's responsibilities.

We refer to the new role of the CoRWM—now reconstituted in an advisory capacity—in paragraphs 2.49 to 2.71. In paragraph 2.50, we quote the Government's insistence that,

"the Committee will have teeth, in that we shall expect the Government in conjunction with NDA, to consider and respond to its advice".

We recently met the new Minister, Phil Woolas MP, and we were encouraged to hear that our recommendation has led to CoRWM's terms of reference being strengthened to include the statement that the Government will respond to all substantive advice.

On the point of scrutiny, we recommend in paragraph 2.62 that the new CoRWM should have a clearly defined and authoritative role in scrutinising geological disposal strategy and development. The terms of reference set out that CoRWM's primary task is to provide independent scrutiny on the radioactive waste disposal programme. There is a danger that the term "scrutiny" will be interpreted differently by different people. The chairman of NDA, when asked what he understood scrutiny to mean in this context, told us that he imagined,

"it means that there will be an opportunity for such a body to comment on whatever we do".

That seems a very limited concept of scrutiny. In paragraph 2.68, we call for the relationship between the new CoRWM and the NDA to be clarified to avoid confusion leading to a lack of confidence in the integrity of the scrutiny CoRWM is intended to deliver.

As our committee has been critical of the years that it took Government to determine a radioactive waste disposal policy, we obviously welcome the progress that is now being made, but would caution against undue haste. The public must have confidence in the quality of the science, the scrutiny, the regulation and, above all, the opportunities for public dialogue and participation. Much will depend on the right mix of skills and expertise in the membership of CoRWM under its chair designate, Professor Robert Pickard, whose appointment we welcome.

Lastly, we refer to the need to ensure the supply of the specialist nuclear skills required for the long-term geological disposal programme. An expert workshop held at the University of Loughborough highlighted the significant decline in the nuclear skills base. The meeting called for a nuclear skills renaissance to revitalise the skills base in this sector. We have serious concerns that without such a rebuilding of our nuclear skills capacity, the radioactive waste management programme would be at risk and public confidence in the programme would be impossible to maintain. I beg to move.

Moved, That this House takes note of the report of the Science and Technology Committee on Radioactive Waste Management: An Update (4th Report, HL Paper 109).—(The Earl of Selborne.)

Photo of Lord Hunt of Chesterton Lord Hunt of Chesterton Labour 3:34 pm, 29th October 2007

My Lords, I speak in support of the report of the Science and Technology Committee. Nuclear waste is an essential part of restarting the UK nuclear energy programme. I declare an interest as a member of the stakeholder advisory group of EDF Energy, but my remarks are entirely my own.

The report makes some welcome points, particularly about the need for an independent body to advise and scrutinise on behalf of the Government, Parliament and the public about these issues of nuclear waste, and, in particular, the geological places to store it. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response on the report.

The report recommends setting up a nuclear research and development facility. It is essential that both bodies have broader terms of reference than envisaged in the report and will be able to explore widely all the scientific and engineering aspects. At the moment it is almost impossible in the UK, even in scientific and engineering meetings, to hear about the wide range of technologies and policies for nuclear energy and waste processing being considered by independent and government experts in the United States, France, Russia, China and even the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. Indeed, the only place where some of these issues can be raised seems to be in the House of Lords and published in Hansard. For example, correspondence with the leading French expert was refused by Nature, New Scientist and all the UK national newspapers, even though these are openly available in the bulletins of the American Physical Society, the IAEA in Vienna, and so on.

The issue that the UK establishment—here I exclude Hansard—wishes to suppress is the fact that nuclear waste does not need to be stored for tens of thousands of years in geological repositories. That is only one possibility. However, temporary storage is certainly highly necessary to start our nuclear programme, and probably necessary there for many tens of years. But, as my noble friend Lord Sainsbury explained to this House, which many Members have forgotten, on 5 June 2006 in his reply to my Question,

"research into emergent technologies such as partitioning and transmutation is being supported by such organisations as the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority"— a UK authority—

"and via the UK's membership of international bodies such as EURATOM. However, as the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management has highlighted in its preliminary recommendations on the disposal of higher activity radioactive wastes, it will be many years before technologies such as transmutation are capable of dealing with such wastes on an industrial scale".—[Hansard, 5/6/06; col. 1041.]

The implication of this reply on behalf of the department is that one should not preclude the possibility that in future such technologies will be available, and therefore the form of temporary storage in geological repositories should bear that in mind. There is no reference to that in this report or in any other official document that I have seen.

Officials in the United States and France talk openly of the possibility of reusing uranium nuclear waste over timescales of hundreds of years when the resources of uranium may well have to be used more efficiently. India, China and Russia are actively looking into those issues. In my discussions in Parliament I have found that no one knows about these possibilities. Some colleagues, indeed, have said—in one case after the intervention of my noble friend Lord Sainsbury—that if these future scenarios were explained they would have a more positive view of nuclear energy. So I urge the committee, the Government and the UK scientific and engineering establishment to join the world discussion and to participate much more fully at IAEA in Vienna where it seems that the UK is represented by diplomats and officials—quite rightly—dealing with very difficult issues; but it should be a major forum where these future strategies and scenarios are considered. They should be thinking the unthinkable about future fission and fusion energy cycles, some of which were proposed by UK Nobel Prize winners as long ago as 1945. Then we could perhaps begin to have a debate about genuinely sustainable policies and practices for nuclear programmes. Using our geological storage over the next decades would be just the beginning of the stage.

My experience is that having a longer term vision, which many other countries do, will help the debate and the decisions, as opposed to these discussions about what are we going to do this month, next month or a few months ahead. We must raise our perspective on this. I believe that that will help the political debate.

Photo of Baroness Sharp of Guildford Baroness Sharp of Guildford Spokesperson in the Lords, Innovation, Universities and Skills 3:39 pm, 29th October 2007

My Lords, I speak as a member of the Science and Technology Select Committee, although I was not involved in the initial report on the management of radioactive nuclear waste back in 1999, and only peripherally involved in the 2004 report which was under way when I joined the committee in 2004. So this report is the only one with which I have been personally involved.

The report comes after the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management had reported. Although in the 2004 report, we were extremely critical of CoRWM, especially at the length of time that the committee was taking and its concentration on stakeholder engagement to the exclusion, we felt, of scientific analysis, when it came to it, there was much in the CoRWM report that we welcomed. In particular, we welcomed the following points: first, its agreement with our 1999 report that deep geological disposal at present represents the best procedure for the management of high-level and intermediate waste—I take on board the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt; secondly, that the site for such disposal should be chosen not just by its geological suitability but by the process of consultation and the willingness on the part of the local community to participate in that process; thirdly, that a robust programme of interim storage must play an integral part in such a long-term strategy—if for no other reason than that it is likely to be at least 30 years before any long-term storage facilities are completed and ready for use; and, lastly, that the implementation process should be overseen by an independent body.

It is that latter point which, as the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, suggested in his introduction, has caused much of the discussion surrounding the current report which we put before the House. Although CoRWM endorsed the idea of an independent body, it nevertheless watered it down and the Government have watered it down yet further. The original 1999 proposal was that a new statutory body should be created with responsibility for developing an overarching and comprehensive implementation strategy. In other words, it should be a major board independent of government which would have responsibility for ensuring that the policy of deep geological disposal was developed and carried through—independent of government but answerable directly to Parliament.

The reasons why the committee put forward that idea were, first, that we felt that the Government had by 1999, after a series of very unfortunate developments with Nirex, when proposals had been turned down by lengthy inquiries, lost credibility and trust in the eyes of the public on nuclear issues and that a body was needed where discussion and decisions were open and transparent. Secondly, because the programme for deep geological disposal would be so long-term and expensive, there was a need to take it away from the vagaries of political manoeuvring—a 30-year programme outdistances the life of many a Parliament—and give it to a body with long-term commitment and credibility.

I have been trying to think of an equivalent analogue in terms of other boards. We have boards such as those of the British Library or the National Archives, which are guardians of our written and, increasingly, our digital heritage. I also thought of the National Physical Laboratory, which was set up at the end of the 19th century to safeguard the independence of weights and measures. But I do not think that any of them are direct analogies to what we are suggesting here. I do not know that there is a direct analogy, but it should be a board with overarching responsibility, but not necessarily for implementation, merely for making sure that the policy is implemented.

The CoRWM proposal was, as I said, a watered-down version of our proposals, and the Government have watered them down yet further. In their response, they made it clear that policy decisions would remain in the hands of the Government themselves, with Defra being the responsible department for managing nuclear waste, but with implementation in the hands of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, which was itself responsible to the DTI. I guess that it is now responsible to the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. The independent body—the reconstituted CoRWM, as the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, has indicated—would merely have the role of scrutiny of the NDA's actions and of advice to government, alongside that of two other committees: the Managing Radioactive Waste Safely Implementation Planning Group and a new departmental committee, the Repository Development Monitoring Committee, both of which are official committees made up of civil servants, not of outside members. In the mean time, the NDA itself was to be subject to the scrutiny of a plethora of regulators—the Environment Agency, the Health and Safety Executive, and the Scottish and Northern Ireland environmental protection agencies—while the Government were also setting up a new national expert group of scientists to advise them on these nuclear issues.

It is therefore hardly surprising that the committee has criticised the Government for muddying the field—amid this plethora of institutions, it is difficult to find out who is supposed to do what—and for watering down the original proposal to make it almost meaningless. Are scrutiny and advice the same thing? The Government's response seems to use them interchangeably. And what teeth does this imply for the new CoRWM? What if the Government simply neglect its advice? To do them justice, as the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, has indicated, the Government have listened to some of these criticisms and have clarified roles and enhanced the independence to be given to the new CoRWM in the revised terms of reference issued in July. It is, for example, to be able to lay its reports directly before Parliament, and in this sense to hold the Government and their agencies more directly to account. Nevertheless, it remains a very limp reflection of what the committee originally proposed.

I have two further points to make, which arise from the proposed timetable for geological disposal set out in Chapter 6 of the June 2007 consultation document, Managing Radioactive Waste Safely, which makes it clear that no work on the actual, physical work of developing geological disposal facilities will begin until at least 2020. The period up to then is taken up first by the geological screening and discussions with possible partners. The process is seen to take two to three decades, and there is construction only in the last quartile of that period.

My first question is therefore about what happens between now and then. The assumption must be that we maintain the stockpiles of high and intermediate-level nuclear waste in their current locations on NDA sites. This was the subject of CoRWM's second main recommendation—that a robust programme of interim storage must play an integral part in the long-term management strategy. The Government accepted this recommendation completely, and we were promised that the NDA's review of interim storage needs would be brought before the Government and form part of the future strategy. In our report, we raised the issue of nuclear security, and asked that the Government engage in much more open dialogue with local communities and stakeholders on the risks associated with the current storage facilities.

Among the evidence that we received during this inquiry was a very long paper from Dr. David Lowry, who I understand is an expert on nuclear security, in which he asks questions about the security aspects of nuclear storage. We followed this up with the NDA and the Minister and, as our report reflects, were reassured that the Office for Civil Nuclear Security—the OCNS—kept a strict eye on these issues, and that the NDA and OCNS work to a site-security plan on all sites. Obviously, the details of these plans must remain secret. Nevertheless, as Dr. Lowry points out on page 75 of the evidence that is published with our report, it is alarming that, in an exhibition at Sellafield hosted by BNFL and prepared by the Science Museum, the following statement was apparently among the displays:

"The high-level liquid waste that comes from reprocessing is stored in constantly cooled tanks at Sellafield. These tanks represent one of the world's most hazardous concentrations of long-lived radioactive material and are, therefore, a prime terrorist target. An attack on these tanks, similar to the one in New York in September 2001, could have extremely serious consequences for much of the UK and Ireland".

I do know when the exhibition took place but would guess that it was two or three years ago. Will the Minister therefore assure us that the Government are well aware of these risks and have taken or are taking appropriate action? In particular, with the build-up of high-level nuclear waste and spent fuel as a result of the decommissioning programme, can we be assured that further concentration of such material at Sellafield will be sanctioned only if it can be safely housed? As I said, since geological disposal is still some two to three decades off, we are talking about an interim not of two to three years but of 20 to 25 years.

My final question also relates to this timetable and the costs of deep geological disposal. Among the papers distributed to the committee was an answer to a freedom of information request to the NDA to provide the figures underlying the graph in its annual report for 2005-06 relating to NDA annual site costs at undiscounted current prices. I note that the figures show a satisfying drop in expenditure each year from the current level of £2.3 billion and level off at around the £500 million mark in 2030. Do these figures include the cost of building a deep geological disposal facility, and, if so, is it really assumed that the costs will cause no substantial increase in expenditure over the five to 10-year period that it will take to build such a facility? I look forward to hearing the Minister's answer to both those questions.

Photo of Lord May of Oxford Lord May of Oxford Crossbench 3:52 pm, 29th October 2007

My Lords, I begin by declaring an interest albeit a rather diffuse one: before I was personally transmuted into a theoretical biologist with interests in ecology and conservation biology, I was a plasma physicist working on the basic science underlying fusion reaction. I spent 11 years at Princeton as the officer of the university responsible for oversight of the United States' major fusion lab. Fusion and fission are different things, but they both have problems of disposal. I was a member of the Science and Technology Committee that produced this report but not of the previous ones.

I wish to make three points in connection with the report. The first has already been emphasised by the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, and I am sure that it will be mentioned in the debate by other noble Lords, most of whom, unlike me, have experience and knowledge of the earlier reports. The point was summed up well by the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, but bears repetition. In 1999, the Science and Technology Committee called for the Government to set up,

"a wholly independent, permanent body, subject to regular endorsement by Parliament".

We again urge the Government to do that. A further recommendation states that if that is already beyond accomplishment, then for goodness' sake let us use the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management to get as close as we can to that recommendation for an independent body.

What is the idea behind this and why do we keep banging on about it? We are dealing with a problem the life of which is much longer than any one parliament or government. For continuity over such a prolonged period, the 1999 Science and Technology Committee and its successors saw—and see—the need, reaffirmed yet again, for an empowered, authoritative oversight committee with regular reference to Parliament. It should report at least once in each Parliament, with accompanying debate in both Houses and consequent ongoing approval of the process. It should not be just a formal report made to Parliament, but a debate in both Chambers.

We had a very constructive informal meeting with the relevant Minister of State, Mr Woolas. However, the exchange around this recommendation suggested that it is an unusual procedure and has no precedent. The noble Lord, Lord Flowers, who is not able to be with us today but who is vastly experienced in these matters, put it well. He said that this is a unique issue and that the process we are seeking to put in place is one that will deal with it—something that will probably never occur again. Given that, it is possible to adopt unique methods for dealing with it. We do not have to bother with precedents and parallels because there are not any.

Noble Lords would expect me, as a pedantic academic, to add a technical appendix to my first point. If the 1999 recommendation is beyond retrieval then we strongly urge that, at the very least, as one of our other recommendations, publication of the envisioned consultation document should be delayed until the terms of reference for the new Committee on Radioactive Waste Management have been finalised and its members appointed. It should be involved in the consultative process. I shall come back to another aspect of that in my third point.

My second point is a bit of a digression and concerns the Government's emphasis of this as an issue of "legacy waste", a point which pervades the process. Like others, I understand and sympathise with the motive behind that; this is a difficult and divisive topic. We already have legacy waste, and by focusing on that one can in a sense avoid the issue of the future. But that makes no sense, because waste is waste. It is difficult to imagine a conscientious and sensible evaluation of future energy generation in which nuclear does not play a part in the medium term, so we should not try to hide behind the pretence that this is meant to solve a legacy issue. We should be looking at the issue of waste.

I want to dwell on that subject for a moment. Currently, roughly 80 per cent of the world's primary energy comes from burning fossil fuels, thereby releasing CO2 into the atmosphere. Ten per cent of our energy comes from burning biomass—wood—most of which also puts CO2 into the atmosphere. Of the 10 percentage points of global energy that do not do so, nuclear comprises 7 per cent and all the renewables—hydro, thermal, windmills and everything else—make up the sum with 3 per cent. Furthermore, in considering energy from radioactivity, we should remember that we would not be here without radioactivity. If it were not for radioactivity from the core of the Earth—the underlying source of thermal energy, because it is hotter down there—the Earth would have frozen over a couple of billion years ago. For Darwin, a killer argument for the theory of evolution was that, in his day, they could not understand how the planet had been here for more than a couple of million years.

These issues have to be viewed through the prism of everyone's points of view, but public attitudes are changing. Modern, generation III nuclear reactors are designed to limit the consequences even of extreme accidents and they produce by an order of magnitude less waste than contemporary versions. It is also worth stressing, on my second point, that the attitudes which we adopt to these issues depend on what we take for granted. I should like briefly to summarise an interesting Australian study. It pointed out that there would be severe questioning of any proposal to develop a power-generation method that for each gigawatt year of electricity produced waste streams of 9 million tonnes of carbon dioxide and 3.3 million cubic metres of solid waste—the volume of 1,352 Olympic swimming pools say the Australians, who are into swimming pools for understandable reasons; and waste containing heavy metals including arsenic, uranium and thorium. Yet that is the waste stream from a single existing large coal-fired power station in New South Wales.

On the other hand, a modern nuclear power plant producing the same amount of electricity would produce a waste stream containing 16 cubic metres of spent fuel and, in its total lifetime including its manufacture, less than 1 per cent of the CO2 input, and that is the issue on which we are focusing. Returning to the matter of Olympic swimming pools, of which I as an Australian am fond, for the past 25 years France has produced 80 per cent of its electric power for domestic use and for export from nuclear stations, but the total waste produced as a result would not fill one Olympic pool. So we need to look at this not only as a legacy issue but in the round.

My third and final point is a brief and non-trivial procedural matter concerning the method of appointment to the new Committee on Radioactive Waste Management. We were reassured that there would be a commitment to getting the best people through re-advertising and so on, but I found the assurances less than reassuring. Regardless of whether we get the ideal arrangement wished for by those informed of the issues or a compromise, it is vital that the oversight committee should have the best people. They have to be good and be seen to be good. Therefore, like any good business or good university, we have to engage outside experts and get them to help us persuade the best people. Comparisons between our committees in this area and those in France are embarrassing to us. We not only have to ask the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society about the matter but must engage them and their good offices in it.

This is not only a legacy issue but a long-term issue that deserves an empowered and independent oversight committee of the best people who will report in a substantial form to each Parliament, which will have debates. That is the way to do it right and the way to be seen to be doing it right. That is of overriding importance.

Photo of Lord Jenkin of Roding Lord Jenkin of Roding Conservative 4:03 pm, 29th October 2007

My Lords, many of the points that I might have made have already been well made by others. I was a member of the original Select Committee in 1999, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, and I have had the privilege of serving as either a member or a co-opted member of all the subsequent committees.

My noble friend Lord Selborne has set out very clearly the preferred structure that we put forward in the 1999 report. There were three main features: a new permanent independent statutory body to do the job; an expert advisory body to scrutinise and report, with direct accountability to Parliament; and, as the noble Lord, Lord May, has emphasised, regular debates in both Houses, with votes to endorse the continuation of the process.

As has been said by previous speakers, we are dealing here with a unique situation. Governments have not hitherto had to address the problem of processes that have to last for hundreds of years. I recently read a report on the various half-lives of the products with which we shall be dealing and it is perfectly clear that this requires a very long-term policy indeed. That was why the 1999 report recognised that existing precedents were not reliable and so we made our own proposal. That proposal has been rejected by the Government, and there seems to be an assumption that it is beyond retrieval. I am not sure that I necessarily accept that.

Then we had the CoRWM proposals—again, an independent body to oversee and scrutinise the programme and its implementation. That too has been rejected by Ministers, who have proposed instead the very watered down advisory body, the so-called new CoRWM.

Finally, we have had the Government's proposals that, instead of the new statutory body, they will entrust the implementation to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, which has to add this huge long-term task to its existing, much shorter-term decommissioning role. To my astonishment, Ministers and their advisers pretend that that was always in mind. Indeed, that was among the evidence that we heard. Mr Chris De Grouchy, an official of the department, said on page 31 of the evidence in our report:

"I think that was an issue that was in minds at the time that the Bill was being discussed".

Part of the problem arises from the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, who is not with us, had to take the Bill through the House as a Defra Minister when it was clearly primarily a DTI Bill. He was the hapless victim of this rather foolish divided responsibility.

The NDA was certainly not the kind of body envisaged by the Select Committee. In their evidence, the two Ministers we have seen—Ian Pearson, whom we saw last January, and Phil Woolas, whom we saw on 11 October this year—sought to defend their proposals against some pretty powerful advocacy, if I may say so, from members of the committee who know much more about the subject than I do, such as the noble Lord, Lord Flowers, who I am sorry is not able to be with us today. I remain wholly unconvinced by what they are now proposing.

What has happened to the clear proposal, appropriate to a really long-term policy, of there being in every Parliament—not every Session—a full debate in both Houses with a Motion to endorse the process going forward? I have put that to successive witnesses. The chairman of CoRWM said that, although it was not anything his committee had recommended, he thought it was rather a good idea. I think it is an extremely good idea, and it would be a very important part of the process, but it does not appear to be part of the Government's thinking on this issue.

Our view that the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority may well not be the most appropriate body to take this forward is reinforced by two rather worrying factors. Last February Sir Anthony Cleaver let it be known that he would not seek a further term as chairman of the NDA, and duly vacated that post earlier this year. Despite having nearly nine months' notice, we still do not have the name of his successor. I put that to the Minister, Mr Woolas, who said, "It's the Nolan rules that make it very difficult for us to move any faster". I do not accept that for one moment. I suspect that the difficulty is that, with the confused responsibilities that are inherent in the Government's structure, Ministers are finding it difficult to find a suitably qualified person to apply for the job. In the mean time the NDA, which is going to have to be responsible for this very long-term policy, has no chairman.

The second worrying factor is that the NDA recently announced a major hiccup in its decommissioning programme. It has divided the decommissioning sites into two groups, a north sector and a south sector. I am told—I have checked this again this morning—that while tenders for the site licences in the north, which include Sellafield, Calder Hall, Capenhurst and eventually Windscale, are at what the NDA calls the "competitive dialogue" stage, the invitations to tender for the southern Magnox sites, which include Sizewell A, Dungeness A, Bradwell and several others, are being held back. Why is that being done? The NDA explained in a statement at the beginning of this month:

"Before proceeding with the remaining elements of the competition schedule the NDA is taking the opportunity to reflect on feedback from its ongoing market engagement activity and is reviewing this with Government".

When we debated those clauses of what is now the Energy Act 1994, we had long, questioning debates about the competitive process to appoint the site licensees to be responsible for decommissioning. Here we are, only a few years later, and the NDA states that it does not know how to do it and has to reflect on the lessons. That does not engender confidence in the process which the Government are producing.

It has been suggested to me by a knowledgeable source that the real reason is that the NDA is not being allowed by the Treasury to offer terms of engagement which are attractive enough to secure potential bidders for the process. It undermines confidence in the NDA's ability to run even its own original remit, let alone to take on the much greater responsibility of dealing with long-term waste. I hope that the Minister, whom I warned that I would raise these points, will offer the House reasons for such a long delay in appointing a new chairman for the NDA and for the NDA's having to withdraw the southern sector from the decommissioning process.

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

"If you want to maintain the inclusivity of the debate and if you want to ensure as much collaboration and consensual discussion as possible, we have to limit it to the legacy waste. There is a divide in people's minds, certainly in the NGO fraternity and I think in other stakeholders' minds as well. There is a clear distinction between legacy waste and other waste that might arise from a new build programme".

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

"At the end of the day, I find it personally difficult in my own mind to envisage that there will be a repository here for the existing waste and another one being built over there for new waste".

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

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

"Problems on the disposal of nuclear waste are also threatening delays. The document suggests that the Treasury is resisting plans to invite councils to bid for the right to house the waste because it fears that only one council—the one that includes Sellafield in Cumbria—will apply. This lack of competition would leave it able to demand extra funding of more than £1bn".

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

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

Photo of Lord Tombs Lord Tombs Crossbench 4:16 pm, 29th October 2007

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

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

The 1999 report recognised the need for widespread consultation and was quickly followed by a "citizens jury" organised by UK CEED later in the same year. A number of randomly selected volunteers with widely differing backgrounds met at weekends over a period of several months to examine evidence from parties chosen by them. They presented their findings in public and by doing so they demonstrated a sense of purpose and commitment wholly lacking in government actions over recent years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo of Lord Redesdale Lord Redesdale Spokesperson in the Lords (Agriculture & Energy), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Spokesperson in the Lords (Energy), Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform 4:23 pm, 29th October 2007

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

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

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

Photo of Lord Hunt of Chesterton Lord Hunt of Chesterton Labour

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

Photo of Lord Redesdale Lord Redesdale Spokesperson in the Lords (Agriculture & Energy), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Spokesperson in the Lords (Energy), Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform

My Lords, I am on the Liberal Democrat Benches, but I have never said that we are unanimous on this subject. As on many other issues, we welcome a plethora of opinions within the party. However, party policy is quite clear: we are anti-nuclear, mainly because of nuclear waste, but also because of the cost of nuclear development.

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

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

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

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

"Government will be presenting proposals for a phased site selection process in its consultation document. It is acknowledged that this process will take years. There has never been any suggestion that it will take three or four months".

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

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

Two issues should not be underestimated. When one of the NGOs ran a viral campaign on the internet against nuclear power, it showed people holidaying on a beach looking up and seeing a jumbo jet being aimed at the nuclear power station next to them. Having looked into this matter, I know that it is quite possible that many nuclear power stations would survive a direct hit from a jumbo jet. That is heartening. However, the nuclear waste storage facilities are soft targets, which would not survive such an attack. This has been discussed openly, including on Radio 4 the other day, so it is not a national secret.

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

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

Photo of Lord Taylor of Holbeach Lord Taylor of Holbeach Shadow Minister, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs 4:30 pm, 29th October 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is dismaying to see yet another half-hearted Government attempt to deal with a problem with such potentially dangerous consequences. My noble friend Lord Jenkin has exposed the Treasury dabs on this issue, as on so many. A weak department of state is no match for Treasury interference and short-termism. I hesitate to call the Minister irresolute, but his department's proposals certainly are. They suggest just the sort of ineffective management which has bedevilled Defra. They show an unwillingness to vest responsibility with clear and impartial authority, and provide too many opportunities for bureaucratic bungling—fears which have laid behind many contributions to this debate. As the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, pointed out, the complicated lines of responsibility can lead to confusion and muddle. As the report and the contributions to this debate have made clear, a strong and independent body should be backed. We should back expertise. Where is the hang up?

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

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Sustainable Farming, Food and Animal Welfare), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Sustainable Farming, Food and Animal Welfare), Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 4:42 pm, 29th October 2007

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

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

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

Photo of Lord Redesdale Lord Redesdale Spokesperson in the Lords (Agriculture & Energy), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Spokesperson in the Lords (Energy), Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform

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

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Sustainable Farming, Food and Animal Welfare), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Sustainable Farming, Food and Animal Welfare), Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, in that respect, I was not referring to the Lib Dems. There are plenty of other people who are anti-nuclear—and that is the end of the argument for them—who say, "You can't deal with the waste". When someone comes along to try to deal with the waste, their argument is undermined because then they have to get involved in whether it will work and help with the problem of climate change. We are therefore dealing with the issue on two levels.

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

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

Photo of Lord Jenkin of Roding Lord Jenkin of Roding Conservative

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

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Sustainable Farming, Food and Animal Welfare), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Sustainable Farming, Food and Animal Welfare), Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

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

"However, taking account of the Committee's comments, Government will give consideration to any needs for amendment of the Energy Act 2004, or appropriate ministerial direction to the NDA, as its work proceeds".

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

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

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

A number of recommendations in the committee's report address the institutional arrangements and the Government have consistently stated their belief that the roles, responsibilities and accountabilities of the organisations involved in the management of radioactive waste safety programme must be clear.

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

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

"a single independent body with responsibility for overseeing the entire programme, scrutinising and holding key players to account on behalf of Parliament and the public".

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

As the Secretary of State set out in his Statement to Parliament on 25 October 2006, allocating responsibility for securing geological disposal of higher activity waste to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority creates one organisation able to take a strategic view of all stages of the waste management chain for all wastes. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time that I have addressed this issue in the 20 months that I have been at Defra, other than maybe repeating that Statement. I believe that there should be frequent debates on this. It is possible for people to make sure that there are frequent debates on this. If the Government are reluctant, they can soon be brought to the Dispatch Box in both Houses.

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

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

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

Turning to the appointment of the reconstituted CoRWM, we committed to strengthening the scientific, technological and social science expertise as the Science and Technology Committee advocated. The learned societies, as well as the Science and Technology Committee, were invited to draw the advertisements to the attention of those who could have been suitable members. As well as ensuring that the right mix of skills and expertise were sought, a representative of Defra's Chief Scientific Adviser advised the appointments panel on the relevance of the science behind the applications.

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

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

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

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

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

The "Managing Radioactive Waste Safely" consultation closes at the end of this week—on 2 November. We are looking for a broad range of responses from a variety of organisations. My experience of consultations in Government is that they nearly all arrive on the last day or the day before, so it is no good anybody asking me about what has happened up to the present time; I have no information. Current thinking is that the outcome will be the basis for a White Paper policy statement during the first half of 2008—next year. This will potentially be accompanied by an invitation for communities to acknowledge an initial interest in opening up without prejudice discussions.

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

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

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

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

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

No one has mentioned the amount of legacy waste. I know that most people in the Chamber are experts on this, but I think that it is worth putting on record. We are dealing with three categories of waste, as is well known: high-level waste, intermediate waste and low-level waste. CoRWM's estimate of the volume by 2120, which is what we are dealing with, is 477,000 cubic metres. That is the five Albert Halls that we have constantly read about. That is a considerable volume. Of that, less than 0.3 per cent is high-level waste. There is an enormous amount of intermediate and low-level waste. So we are dealing with a considerable amount. There would of course be an increase if there were any new build, but this would be over a very long period. The idea that one can simply deal with legacy waste and not even talk about new build does not really add any weight to the argument. Indeed, one would be laughed at, because if there is a programme for dealing with legacy waste on this scale over the decades that we have talked about, it must take account of any potential waste from new build.

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

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

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

The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, asked me about costs before 2020, when construction begins. One thing is for sure; the costs are complicated. I will have to write to her separately on that. She is quite right that to parliamentarians "interim" usually means a couple of years or perhaps several months, but that, in this case, "interim" could be a couple of decades. In response to CoRWM's recommendations, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority is reviewing the adequacy of its planned and regulated interim storage programme to ensure the sufficiency and longevity of captivity. The result of this review will be published in the next update of the NDA's strategy, which is due in 2008. Its strategy will be subject to public consultation and the agreement of the Government. The existing stores for packaged waste are designed to provide a life service of 50 to 100 years or more. The NDA's current view is that the service life of these stores can be extended as required to provide longevity sufficient to meet the prolonged repository development programme. New stores are planned on NDA's sites, and will have potential design lives of 100 years or more, subject to meeting the regulatory safety and security arrangements.

Security is an extremely fair and, in some ways, very obvious issue to raise. It is certainly not the case that the current security arrangements for nuclear waste are inadequate. The UK's civil nuclear sites apply stringent security measures, which are regulated by the security regulator, the Office for Civil Nuclear Security. This office works closely with the Health and Safety Executive, the safety regulator that provides advice on safety implications and events, including external hazards such as plane crashes at nuclear installations. Civil nuclear operators must have site security plans dealing with security arrangements for the protection of nuclear sites and nuclear material on such sites. These arrangements cover, for example, physical protection such as fencing, CCTV, turnstile access, the role of security guards, the Civil Nuclear Constabulary, the protection of proliferation-sensitive data and technologies, and the trustworthiness of individuals who have access to them. Security at nuclear sites is kept under regular review in the light of the prevailing threat and has been significantly enhanced since the terrorist attacks in the United States of America on 11 September 2001. It is not our policy, of course, to disclose the particular details of those.

I have been told that I have two minutes, but I will finish answering the questions asked in this debate. I did say I would not take more than half an hour and I am taking too long.

The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, asked about tendering on the Magnox South sector. He said that it would undermine confidence in the capacity of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. One of the fundamental reasons for setting up the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority was to establish a competitive market in order to help drive innovation and efficiency. In order to optimise the process and ensure that we have the best possible timing and scope of competitions to attract the highest quality bidding teams, the authority and the Government will always consider any lessons learned and review the best way forward. Feedback from the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority's ongoing market engagement activity around the Magnox South bundle identified issues around the sequencing, scope and timing of remaining competitions. As a result, the authority chose to hold back issuing the prequalification questionnaire. This pause in the competition process will enable the authority and the Government to consider any lessons to be learned before proceeding with the remaining elements. There is an ongoing issue there.

The noble Lord also asked about the chair of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. There is currently an interim chair. By any stretch of the imagination, that is not to criticise the person concerned. The noble Lord rightly said that in February the then chairman gave notice and we have had nine months since then. Before I knew that I was dealing with this debate, some months ago I saw an advert for the chair of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. I am not buck-passing because I am answering for the Government, but once the new Session starts, I invite noble Lords to make sure that they get my noble friend Lord Jones of Birmingham to the Dispatch Box as the Minister for the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Minister, because the issue is very much one for that department.

The post was not filled following the advertisement in June or July. Noble Lords may be unaware of this, but nobody mentioned it in the debate: the post was readvertised just over a week ago at more than double the salary offered in the summer. I presume that that is because—this is not a criticism—they could not get any one good enough for the job. I do not know why there is a delay and neither does my department, but the closing date for applications—in case any noble Lord knows anyone who is of special quality—is 12 noon on Monday, 19 November. This issue is being dealt with, but I cannot explain all the reasons for the delay. I invite noble Lords to table questions, because that is the department dealing with the matter.

I do not want to be too brief in answering the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, given his vast experience. He is quite right, I accepted in my opening remarks that the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority's work will take many decades. It has been set up by statute for that purpose. We are willing to look at amendments to the Energy Act 2004 if necessary.

I have already covered the issues of accountability and responsibility. Ministers at this Dispatch Box will come and go. I will not be the last Minister to answer questions about this issue, far from it; there will be others over the years. They will have to come to the Dispatch Box on an annual basis. That is self-evidently the case. The committees of this House and the other place can do that, even if the Government were unwilling, which we are not. We are more than willing to debate the White Paper next year once we have produced our plans. Obviously that will be a matter for public statement and a debate.

The problem of confusion was raised. If there is clarity once the work starts about who is responsible for setting policy, for executing it, and for checking on the people actually doing the work—the regulators and scrutineers—I think we can overcome many of the doubts that have been expressed over the years. That was fully explained in the consultation document and I hope that members of the committee and other noble Lords will appreciate that the Government have thought about this and have taken on board many lessons from the committee's work.

The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, asked how long it would take to plan and build the facility. It is true that the timing is uncertain, but the consultation document reflects an estimate of 20 to 30 years until the first waste replacement. In practice we shall look to proceed as swiftly as we can, commensurate with all the caveats I set out earlier in my speech. Whether there is to be any new nuclear build is currently the subject of a consultation, the responsibility for which does not lie with my department. I do not seek to avoid it, but my personal view—I always speak for the Government at this Dispatch Box unless I am speaking for myself—is that we need a mix of energy supply and we need security. I am not in favour of putting all our eggs in one basket, especially with politically unstable countries. It is as simple as that. That was my view when I was at the ODPM and we discussed this issue in terms of planning.

Some people say that they do not even want windmills, and there is a row over whether to build a Severn barrage. There will always be arguments about renewables. There will also be arguments about clean coal technology, and here I refer to the noble Lord, Lord Ezra. We are trying to sell that technology to the Chinese, who are opening up a coal-fired power station every week. If it is clean coal technology, fine. If it is dirty coal, that is not too good. But the Chinese are now waking up to that. So nuclear has to be an option. It provides something like 20 per cent of our energy. I believe that two stations closed on New Year's Day last year and we lost 1.5 per cent of our capacity, so it is important that it is looked at as an option, and that is what we are consulting on now. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, accepted that, and in turn I accept his challenge that I will be required to come to this Dispatch Box to answer questions much more frequently than has been the case over the 20 months that I have been at Defra.

We have had an incredibly useful debate. I can assure the House that it has been taken on board by officials in my department. I do not say this defensively, but the fact is that the committee has produced a robust report. Members have been very critical about the Government's response overall, although I hope that I have been able to show that we have amended our proposals in the light of the committee's discussions. It is true that a central tenet of the committee, one that has been repeated by virtually every member, concerns the need for an independent body that will oversee everything and last for ever, although I am not sure how appointments would be made or renewed. We need a system that will meet the worries behind that demand, and it is one that has to be met and satisfied by the Government. I may not have been able to do that adequately today, but we have a plan and it will be thoroughly scrutinised as the months and years go by.

Photo of The Earl of Selborne The Earl of Selborne Conservative 5:14 pm, 29th October 2007

My Lords, the whole House, and particularly the members of the committee who participated in the preparation of this report, will be grateful to the Minister for his very full and helpful reply. I believe he said that he thought his response might be inadequate, but he should be assured that 36 minutes provided an absolutely excellent response.

I want to reflect one last message from this debate, which I agree has been incredibly useful. If there is to be public confidence in the institutional responsibility for radioactive waste management, which there must be, we need the components of transparency, continuity of management over very long timescales—by which we mean millennia, a long time by anyone's standards—high-quality science and accountability.

A number of noble Lords said in relation to the existing and evolving proposals for agencies and committees—I recognise that the Government have responded already to some—that if it were possible to simplify and improve accountability, and therefore public acceptability, then clearly such measures should be adopted. I thank everyone who has participated in the debate.

On Question, Motion agreed to.