HL Deb 24 January 1985 vol 459 cc406-11

5.3 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (The Earl of Avon)

My Lords, with premission, I shall repeat a Statement being made in the other place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment on waste disposal planning procedures. The Statement reads:

"With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a Statement about the disposal of low and intermediate radioactive wastes. The House will recall that on 25th October 1983 I announced two things—a public consultation on the principles for assessing disposal facilities, and procedures for dealing with the possible sites which NIREX had inititally identified. These sites were at Billingham, in Cleveland, for deep disposal, and at Elstow, in Bedfordshire, for less deep disposal. The House will remember that the deep depository would be for the longer-lived, intermediate-level wastes, and depending on the geology, would be at least 300 feet deep; the other facility, for shorter-lived wastes, would probably consist of concrete-lined trenches up to 60 feet deep, covered by a thick layer of concrete, and a mound of earth.

"The final version of the assessment principles is published today, and I have placed copies in the Library and the Vote Office. The report on the consultation will be published shortly. The principles are now accompanied by detailed guidance about the environmental assessments which NIREX will be required to produce covering where and how waste would be disposed of. These will have to include discussion of alternative sites.

"This brings me to the planning procedures. To ensure a fair comparison of alternative sites. I have decided that NIREX should be required to carry out geological investigations for at least three possible sites for each type of depository. Such investigations will themselves require planning permission. I am therefore revising the procedures and now propose to ask Parliament to give these limited planning permissions by way of a special development order. These limited permissions, given only for geological investigation, would carry no presumption that permission would be granted for the actual development of any site. Before development could take place, a public inquiry would be held which would examine all the alternative sites and also the environmental assessment for each site.

"As regards the less deep facility for shorter-lived waste, which is the bulk of the waste to be dealt with, I have asked NIREX to select and announce as soon as possible at least two further sites for investigation in addition to Elstow.

"As for the deep facility, for the longer-lived wastes, I have asked NIREX to start the search for alternative sites. Further work is however needed to review the technical options. I am therefore asking the nuclear industry to do two things; first, in consultation with the Radiochemical Inspectorate and the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, to continue to seek ways of improving the condition of intermediate-level wastes for disposal; and, second, for NIREX to take full account, in the choice of sites, of research into methods of containing the radioactivity in the wastes. The necessary studies are bound to take some time. So, in order to avoid a further period of uncertainty at Billingham, I have invited NIREX, and they have agreed, not to proceed further with that site."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, I should like to thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place and to say, first, that the people of Billingham certainly will be greatly relieved when they hear of this Statement. The trouble is that if one shifts the place, one shifts the anxieties, and what the Statement does is to raise even more questions, but with very few answers. The instructions to NIREX should be fully published, not just in Parliament—and, incidentally, we have not yet had a chance to see the principles or the consultation instructions—so that the public themselves can know what is going on. This is a matter which causes enormous anxiety among people all over the country, particularly in those areas, certainly down the West coast, where they are concerned that theirs may be the place that is next chosen for nuclear waste disposal.

We do not know what is the time scale for the NIREX consultations and for NIREX to come forward with its suggestions and recommendations on areas. Have the Government any information about the areas that they have in mind? I am raising only the kind of questions which I think will be raised by people who are very concerned about this and about its effect on their own areas. What of the transport facilities for packaging the waste? The Tenth Report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution stated in its recommendations that, The terms of reference of either the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee or the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Nuclear Installations should be extended to cover the transport of nuclear materials". Do the Government have any intention of implementing that recommendation?

The Royal Commission recommended also that the membership of the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee, should be enlarged to include people with local government experience". Do the Government have that in mind?

The commission also recommended that NIREX, should be enlarged to include independent members, appointed by the Secretary of State for the Environment, who are able to speak from a knowledge of wider public concern, and to contribute suitable scientific and environmental expertise". I ask this question with rather a heavy heart because on 25th October 1983, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Mr. Patrick Jenkin, made a Statement in another place on radioactive waste. He said at column 147 of Hansard: I intend to seek the advice of the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee and to strengthen the committee by appointment of additional members". It is my understanding that no additional members have yet been appointed along the lines of the recommendation made by the latest commission. Perhaps the Minister can help me with that point.

What are the Government's views and proposals on the subject of dumping at sea? This is another area of concern in dealing with nuclear waste. Finally, can the noble Earl provide us with some idea of the amount of nuclear waste of this kind which has to be disposed of today? We know that it has been on the increase over the last few years. It may be that people believe the volume to be much greater than it is, or it may be that the volume is much less. It is important that the Government should be as open as possible about what I admit is an extremely difficult topic. It is one that requires a very careful balance. Above all, it requires the greatest concentration on the safety of the public.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Earl for repeating this Statement and to reiterate the concern expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, on this whole issue. This is a very delicate matter, and it is one of great public concern. It is satisfactory to note that the Government are dealing with this question with great care and circumspection, and particularly that the Billingham issue has been resolved.

However, as the noble Baroness pointed out, the Statement still leaves certain questions to be answered. I should like to add to the points she raised—and I hope that the noble Earl will reply—by asking this question: why have we been presented with this Statement before the consultation report has been put before us? We could have studied that first.

Secondly, in regard to seeking to revise the planning procedures, why are we being asked to short-circuit the normal procedures, in view of the fact that the areas likely to be affected even in the preliminary investigations would certainly like to be consulted in the normal way? If they were consulted in that way, and the points were put to them very clearly, this could serve further to allay public concern.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, before the noble Earl answers—

Lord Skelmersdale


The Earl of Avon

My Lords, perhaps I may reply to the noble Baroness and the noble Lord. I am grateful to them for their reception of the Statement and for the even-handed way in which they are looking at this problem. I agree with the noble Baroness that it is important that the public know, that the public are brought along, and that the public are informed about Government thinking on this subject. I believe also that it is very necessary that a clear understanding of the problems attached to this particular nuclear waste are understood by people, so that they do not get into a panic about it, when such clear directives are being laid down.

The noble Baroness asked some specific questions. She asked about the timing. Subject to the outcome of the review I have mentioned, we would expect that a deep facility could be in operation in the mid-1990s; so there is nothing tremendously rushed about this. My right honourable friend has asked NIREX to start the search for alternative sites. However, it is also sensible to review the options for longer-lived waste on the basis of the most complete scientific information before alternative sites for a deep facility are identified.

The noble Baroness asked about the membership of NIREX. I can tell her that this matter has been looked at and is being watched. The Government are considering the appointment of independent members. They have taken the recommendations of the Royal Commission seriously. We now have additional medical members appointed to the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee. So far as dumping at sea is concerned, we wish to pursue the suggestions of the Holliday report before there is any suggestion of this happening again.

The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, asked whether there was not a danger of pre-empting the planning. I do not think so. I believe that all this is about right. The planning ideas as laid down will enable the locals to have their say. At the same time they will ensure that all possibilities will be looked at.

The noble Baroness asked about the quantity of waste involved. I understand that the current accumulations of untreated, intermediate-level waste total some 30,000 cubic metres and that an additional 15,000 cubic metres can be expected to arise between now and 1990. By the year 2000 some 80,000 cubic metres will have been produced. Of this, it seems likely that at least 72,000 cubic metres would have to use the deep facility.

I have endeavoured to answer specific questions and I should like again to thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for their positive response.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, can my noble friend shed a little more light on the question of dumping at sea, to which he alluded obliquely? Is it not the case that the sea surface of the globe is many more times than the land surface? Therefore, one automatically thinks first of dumping at sea, and was it not mistaken of this Government, and other European Governments, for that matter, to have allowed themselves to be pressurised by the maritime unions, whose scientific expertise is not very special?

Does not my noble friend agree that given the advances in vitrification, and its encasement in concrete systems, there are far better prospects for dumping at sea now than there have been hitherto? Is it not also the case that the Atomic Energy Authority in this country would much prefer to see dumping at sea restored?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, sea dumping does of course remain an option, but its resumption will depend on the results of relevant international reviews which are currently proceeding and the best practical environmental options study recommended by Holliday. We have all discovered over the past few years that however one proceeds with this matter, the Government must bring the public along with them. I believe that sea dumping in particular is a case in point. Before we can proceed further we must not only look at these reports, but also try to educate the people involved.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, does the figure which the Minister has given for waste to be dealt with include imported waste, or was he speaking only of our home product? If the figure includes imported waste, what proportion represents such waste and what proportion represents, as the noble Earl called it, a short-term hazard? Am I right in thinking that a short-term hazard in terms of radioactive waste really means a term of 300 years?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I am told that the figure includes some imported waste, but I do not know the proportion; I shall let the noble Baroness know what it is. My understanding is that the term involved is not as long as the noble Baroness suggests. Again, I shall let her know the answer to that question.

Baroness White

My Lords, as a member of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, which produced the sixth report on nuclear energy, and having studied the relevant parts of the tenth report, I support the questions put by my noble friend Lady Birk. I also emphasise that I hope everyone in public life will encourage further scientific research into the problem of what we are to do with nuclear waste which already exists, which will not go away and which cannot remain indefinitely in the present storage conditions.

This is an emotional subject, as I know very well because I live in a part of Wales which has the geological conditions which might be conducive to exploration for storage purposes. People get extremely emotional about the subject and it is incumbent upon all of us to emphasise and re-emphasise that this is a problem which has to be faced and that the more scientific evidence we can obtain, the better.

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I would not cavil with one word of what the noble Baroness says. In fact, I think I agree with every word.