HL Deb 25 February 1986 vol 471 cc966-73

4.37 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Elton)

My Lords, it may be for the convenience of the House if I now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a Statement about the disposal of low and intermediate-level radioactive wastes.

"Following the Statement made on 24th January last year by my right honourable friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford, the Nuclear Industry Radioactive Waste Executive have now completed their search for available sites to be evaluated for a possible near-surface facility for shorter-lived radioactive wastes. In addition to the site at Elstow already announced, NIREX are today announcing that they wish to investigate sites near Fulbeck in Lincolnshire, Bradwell in Essex and South Killingholme in South Humberside.

"I emphasise that at this stage NIREX will only carry out exploratory geological investigations at these sites in sufficient detail to see whether they might be suitable. No proposal is currently being put forward actually to develop any of these sites. Indeed, if none of the sites is confirmed as suitable, none will be developed.

"This exploratory geological work will, however, require planning permission. This will be sought from Parliament by way of a Special Development Order which my department is today issuing in draft for consultation with the local authorities and water authorities concerned. A copy has been placed in the Library. We shall also consider comments from any others with an interest. We are not required by statute to consult but on an issue of this importance and level of concern it is right to do so. I hope to lay the actual order before the House in April and there will be an opportunity for debate.

"The types of work which the order will permit will be strictly limited. The order will cover the test drillings and soil sampling that NIREX will need to evaluate the geology and hydro-geology. It will also control operational matters, such as hours of working, and require that NIREX make good the sites once they have finished work upon them.

"I understand that the investigation of the four sites could take between 12 and 18 months. If any of the sites prove to be suitable, NIREX would at that time be in a position to decide what proposals they want to make the subject of a planning application.

"I shall call in any such application for my own determination. It will be considered at a public inquiry under an independent inspector at which interested parties will have the opportunity to make their views known. NIREX will also have to prepare a detailed assessment of the likely environmental impact of their proposals for the inquiry. I would hope that the inquiry can begin in 1988.

"If planning permission is given, the facility will still need a licence from the Nuclear Installation Inspectorate. Furthermore, waste disposal will require authorisation by my department and by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

"The House will wish to be aware that if an inland site is selected it may be necessary to establish a small separate coastal site for disposing of the reactor compartments of decommissioned nuclear-powered submarines. These items will be best transported by sea and disposed of to a coastal site. To meet this contingency my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence intends to authorise exploratory work on Ministry of Defence land subject to normal planning procedures.

"My predecessor, my right honourable friend, the Member for Wanstead and Woodford, in his statement on 24th January 1985, also asked NIREX to start the search for at least three alternative sites for a deep facility for longer-lived wastes. In addition, the nuclear industry was asked, in consultation with the Radiochemical Inspectorate and the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, to seek ways of improving the conditioning of intermediate-level wastes for disposal. In seeking sites for a deep facility NIREX will take full account of research into methods of containing the radioactivity in the wastes. They will in particular be examining the feasibility of deep-mined cavities for these wastes, possibly under the sea bed. Work on conditioning continues. I will of course keep the House informed on further progress.

"Mr. Speaker, I am well aware that people are anxious about the safety of the disposal of any sort of radioactive waste arising from the nuclear industry. These anxieties are I believe out of all proportion to the nature of the problems posed by disposal, and we and the nuclear industry must redouble our efforts to see that the general public are much better informed about the whole question.

"Mr. Speaker, we have a duty to ensure the safe disposal of radioactive wastes that already exist and which will arise in the future. The proposals announced by NIREX today are a necessary step to discharging that responsibility."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, we are grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place. As is indicated by the wording of the Statement, it is recognised that the question of suitability of the site is only part of the problem and that the real difficulty is public confidence. Will the Minister agree that public confidence has been considerably undermined by the recent difficulties at Sellafield and that it will need work on all sides to restore public confidence?

The last paragraph of the Statement says that, even if we do not develop a greater nuclear energy programme, we have an existing problem which must be solved, or words to that effect. That is something which means that we must all co-operate in the search for a means of solving it, whatever any future policy on nuclear energy might be. Thus we must seek safe methods of disposal. Can the Minister give us any assurances on efforts to find better materials? There is some mention of it in the Statement. As we all know, concrete is permeable and, in spite of claims made by NIREX in one of their entertaining advertisements which showed us the Coliseum in a slight state of disrepair; on the whole the life of concrete is not as long as the life of some of the materials which it will be required to encompass.

Paragraph 10 of the Statement refers to the longer lived wastes. We believe that these sites should be available for monitoring at all times in the future. Thus, if in future management policies improved ways of coping with them can be discovered they will then be capable of being implemented. Is it in the Minister's mind to see that the sites, when they are built, should have the facility for monitoring, not simply from the top but from the sides and also from underneath? I believe this matter has been gone into in France and I think also in Sweden, though I am not quite sure about that. However, it is certainly a technical possibility and I hope that the Government will look at it.

We note that these are exploratory investigations. We have no comment to make at this time on the choice of sites, although we note that one is not in fact talking about four sites; there are three others which will have to be identified in the future. Those are the longer level ones. The Minister looks puzzled but in the Statement there is reference to a further three sites for longer lived material.

4.45 p.m.

The special development order procedure, which seems appropriate at first sight, would mean, if one considers it with the later procedure for calling in the planning application, that the local authority would have no opportunity to have an input as a planning authority. Local authorities will be consulted at the very beginning of the special development procedure, but I think that will be a very superficial consultation and not a planning discussion as such. Can the Minister reassure us about the degree of consultation that will take place with the local authorities? I feel that one of the ways of reducing public anxiety about the sites would be to involve the local authorities, who know their constituents and know the problems. That seems to me the only way in which they could come in.

Then there is also the question of planning blight. The Minister referred to a time of I think 14 to 18 months before all these sites can be determined, before even the inquiry begins. Can the Minister assure us that, if at any time during those months it becomes obvious that any one of those sites is not suitable, he will remove planning blight by immediately saying so and not leaving the constituents in doubt about their future? I understand that already in some of the areas under discussion it is impossible to sell a house. I am sure that no one wishes that to continue any longer than is necessary. Those are all the questions we have at this stage.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, the noble Lord has repeated to us a Statement today which indicates the further steps which the Government intend to take to deal with this very difficult problem of finding a safe way of disposing of nuclear waste. He has also, as has the noble Baroness, referred to the mounting amount of public concern on this issue. It therefore may be asked whether this is the right time to proceed, even at this measured pace.

We have, for example, as the noble Baroness reminded us, the question of Sellafield subject to inquiry at the moment by the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate. Very shortly the report of the Select Committee on the Environment from another place is likely to be issued and that could well be relevant to this whole problem. The European Parliament has concerned itself with this issue and may be issuing reports before long. All these impending developments therefore suggest that this might not be the right time even to take the step which is proposed today.

There are ways of still holding these wastes where they arise and of deciding later what further steps should be taken and indeed what materials should be used, as the noble Baroness mentioned. Thus, the point that I should like to raise with the noble Lord, Lord Elton, is whether in view of these other developments the Government would not decide to postpone what they have proposed in this Statement and await the results of the inquiries and the report of the Select Committee and that of the European Parliament which we can expect before long.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am much obliged to the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for their reception of this Statement. The noble Baroness raised a number of points. Her first was the suitability of concrete as a material. It is not necessary to go as far as the Parthenon, if that is what she looked at, which I think is mostly held up by gravity and geometry. Hadrian's Wall gives good examples of concrete which has lasted for over a thousand years. I believe it is also possible to add things to concrete which make it impermeable and more durable.

It might be as well therefore if I said that the concept for the shallow sites, the nest-deep sites, is that of a series of barriers. The waste will be embedded in sand and concrete inside steel drums placed in concrete-lined trenches, covered in clay and concrete and finally covered in topsoil. I understand that the trenches for low-level wastes will be up to 10 metres deep and the trenches for shorter-lived, intermediate-level wastes, up to 20 metres deep. We probably do not want to go into a technical description, but if that is in a clay field where the movement of the water table is measured in metres per century, that is a very considerable level of protection and it is a level of protection against something which (I entirely agree with the noble Baroness) is a good deal less worrying than perhaps media treatment and public perceptions have led people to believe.

Certainly, the recent leaks at Sellafield have been unfortunate in that context. The causes of these incidents, the ways in which they have been handled and their potential radiological implications are all being thoroughly investigated by the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, the Radiochemical Inspectorate and by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The public will be kept informed of their findings and I believe that that will be reassuring.

The noble Baroness asked about the involvement of local authorities in the process of the SDO. All local authorities immediately concerned are being consulted on the draft special development order. Six weeks is being allowed for this consultation; all comments will be considered on their merits and my honourable friend the Minister for Local Government will be very glad to meet and discuss the orders with the authorities concerned. So she need have no fear that they will not be taken into account or, indeed, confidence. As to the monitoring of the sites, I am not sufficiently expert to know how one would monitor beneath a 40-foot trench, but I imagine that it would be by some means of remote investigation.

I can tell the noble Baroness that monitoring of the sites, both near-surface and deep sites, will be entirely adequate. My department, the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and NIREX will all carry out monitoring. Details will be settled once the actual proposals have become clearer. The noble Baroness asked about compensation. We have not as yet seen firm evidence of significant blight in the two areas in which NIREX so far has been interested, but NIREX are prepared to consider paying compensation for reductions in house value attributable to their developments.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, I did not ask about compensation. I asked whether the noble Lord was aware that planning blight could be caused; and if it became obvious that one or more of those sites was obviously impossible before the end of the investigation, could the public be told so that any blight was lifted?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am subject to advice but I would imagine that if NIREX decided to abandon the project they would not make a secret of the fact. And the fact might be rather obvious by the removal of their vehicles from the site. I will write and confirm to the noble Baroness what I believe to be the situation.

The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, suggested that now was not the right time to proceed and had in mind, I think, the results of the BPEO and the Select Committee reports. We shall take full account of the conclusions and recommendations from these studies and reviews. If we decide the conclusions require it, there will be ample opportunity to modify the national strategy including the provision of new disposal facilities on land. We shall reach decisions on the two reports long before any irrevocable steps are taken on the development of new land facilities by NIREX. In other words, we are not committing ourselves to something which either report could make otiose. We think it is necessary, having taken so long, now to move.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, may I put two questions briefly? First, to put this subject in proportion, will my noble friend confirm that the most recent survey by the National Radiological Protection Board estimated that medical procedures using radiography are causing annual population exposure to radiation more than 100 times greater than that of all the discharges and disposals of radioactive waste? Secondly, coming from the Department of the Environment, is this Statement addressed to England and Wales? If so, is Scotland being considered separately and can we expect a Statement from the appropriate Minister there?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for reminding me of those helpful figures. I have others but I think that I will rest upon his. As to the Scottish question, I undertand that clay is very much the best medium for the entombment of materials with these properties and that it is not abundant in Scotland. As I understand it, there is no further search intended in Scotland.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, I should like to raise two points with the Minister arising out of the Statement made by his right honourable friend which he has repeated. The first arises on paragraph 5 of the Statement in which it states that NIREX will be required to make good the sites once they have finished work upon them. I am sure that everyone would agree that that is something easier said than done. From personal experience of exploratory work of this sort in one of the national parks, I should be very grateful if the Minister could give any indication of the extent of the work on each of these sites in terms of hectares or acres. My second point is in paragraph 10 which relates to the deep facility for longer-lived wastes and the search that is going to start for that. Could the noble Lord give the House any reassurances, even at this early point, that no such exploratory work will be undertaken in any of the national parks?

Lord Elton

My Lords, as I understand it, the exploratory work will in the main consist of test borings and the work of making good should not therefore be onerous. But whether it is onerous or not, I can assure the noble Lord that it will be thoroughly done. As to the area in which future search for deep facilities is intended, I understand that none is intended in the national parks.

Lord Layton

My Lords, the Minister mentioned the use of concrete, as I think did the noble Baroness, in regard to the burial of these materials. One of the problems of concrete has always been that it is not an impervious material. We are fortunate—and I wonder whether the Minister realises it—that there is today a material which has been made by the use of polymerised cement, which has been tested highly over the last 25 years and which is totally impervious to water and almost any acid; and the problem of burial of these materials, which is the problem of the pollution of the surrounding area through water penetration, would be completely stopped by such material. I wonder whether the Minister is aware that such materials, if used in a container in that condition, could well last for 150 to 200 years by the tests that have currently been made.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Layton, for that intervention. As I understand it, the half-life of the materials that we are now considering is 30 years. Your Lordships will find that reassuring.

5 p.m.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, it is never the right time to grasp a nettle. Thank goodness this long-overdue nettle is now being grasped. I have always maintained a tidy laboratory and insisted that you must wash out today what you will have to scrape out tomorrow. We have left this stuff lying about for far too long.

I think that a very big effort needs to be made in the field of public education. We are in danger of becoming as neurotic over radiation in the 20th century as we were over witchcraft in the 17th century when people went on witch hunts. What the strange love-hate relationship is between the human psyche and something dangerous, I do not know; but people seem to want to have something to be afraid of and the media, like a hungry wolf pack ravening for headlines, are always waiting to catch out the unfortunate officers of British Nuclear Fuels. If you tell them that only two people who have blown their noses show any trace of radiation, that can be dealt with within an hour. To test the air monitors that they wear takes a week. If at the end of that time 11 of those monitors show a positive result you are told you are contradicting yourself. It takes three weeks to get a test on faeces and urine.

Public education in this field is absolutely essential. The excuse, "You can do it anywhere else, but you can't do that there 'ere" is really something that must be disallowed at public inquiries. If the thing is intrinsically safe, then people ought to submit to having it in their locality; if it is intrinsically unsafe it ought not to be done at all.

I would ask the noble Lord the Minister this: has anybody considered the utilisation of the innumerable skerries that lie off the west coast of the Hebrides? There is no clay but a lot of granite; there is a possibility of deep mining. There are no human habitations—at most a population of sheep landed there during the spring and summer months for cropping the grass. It would be very easy to monitor.

Lord Elton

My Lords, as to the noble Earl's last and only question, I think I have already said that we have covered the isles and that no further search for the less deep facilities is intended at present. I note that the skerries are made of granite and I understand that granite is naturally radioactive anyway—which a lot of people do not realise, and that relates to much else that the noble Earl has said. As to the rest of his contribution, I think it deserves quotation rather than answer.

Lord Kimball

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that two of the proposed sites are in the old county of Lincolnshire and that anybody who knows that part of the world is well aware of the strength, the stability and the holding qualities of the clay? Would my noble friend recognise the very genuine public concern that there is over this issue? Could he emphasise once again what steps NIREX will take to ensure that there are no risks to the public from this disposal facility?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for reminding me of the "lovingness", I think, of the Lincolnshire clay, which of course does make it a candidate. I think my best short answer to his question about safety is that the target which we have set for safety is one milli-sievert per annum. Rather than try to explain what that means in mathematic or scientific terms, I would say it is what you get on two round trips to New York by air.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, although most disused coalmines would be unsuitable for this purpose, there a few very deep mines which are completely exhausted near the coast; indeed several of them run under the sea? I wonder whether some of the problems he has mentioned might not be overcome by using these very deep coalmines. Has that possibility been considered?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I understand that the research by NIREX for a deep facility, to which my noble friend refers, is at present at the desk stage. I would be surprised if this idea had not occurred to them, but I will certainly see that it is passed on.

Lord Newall

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether he is aware that many of these land sites, albeit admirable from the point of view of NIREX and BNFL, are always going to involve this terrific problem of public outcry, as has already been proved in the case of Billingham? Is he aware that there is a very good alternative in using off-shore drilled boreholes? That has already been mentioned in many publications considered by the Government and in the latest environmental study it has been proved to be the best possible option. Would it not save an awful lot of trouble if only that study could be looked at more closely?

Lord Elton

My Lords, if my noble friend is referring to the low-level and short-lived intermediate-level waste to which the Statement is principally addressed, NIREX have commissioned a feasibility study for disposing of long-lived waste in the seabed using boreholes. That option has also been considered in the department's study of the best practical environmental options. At present it appears to be over-elaborate and unnecessarily costly for the low-level and short-lived wastes for which I have announced possible sites this afternoon.

I would say also that the risk target for disposal facilities is 0.1 milli-sieverts a year and not one milli-sievert. I had actually written it as 1/10 and then read only the top line. I apologise. But the quantity which I gave for the air traveller remains.