HL Deb 18 June 1986 vol 476 cc1004-20

12.1 a.m.

Lord Holderness rose to move, that an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the order [S.I., 1986 No. 812] be annulled.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

I offer to those noble Lords who have been steadfast enough to remain to take part, and also to my noble friend Lord Elton, an apology for keeping them (in so far as I am responsible) at this late hour on a matter of some technical complexity. However, although technical, these proposals closely concern and greatly worry a number of ordinary men and women. While I can claim no expertise whatever in these matters, particularly in this difficult matter of disposing of radioactive waste, someone should ask simple and inexpert questions in the hope of receiving expert, comprehensive and, it is to be hoped, comprehensible answers.

Last month this order was approved in another place by a less than usual majority—a modest majority of 78. However, it was decisively approved and the significance of that decision will be evident to all Members of your Lordships' House. If one of these four sites were provisionally selected, I understand that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment would order a public inquiry before reaching any decision about future development. Therefore, my noble friend will probably assure me that there is no cause for immediate anxiety. However, although I would willingly certainly accept his assurance, looking back over my own political life, I am conscious of missing a number of opportunities by not voicing anxieties or opposition early enough before attitudes and proposals hardened into firm Government decisions.

Of the four sites, the one which I know best is at Killingholme on the south bank of the Humber. As I live in that county, I am better aware of the attitude of the Humberside County Council than of the other authorities affected.

No proposal of this kind can expect popularity. There are, after all, plenty of things that one does not want outside one's front door, outside one's back door, or even discreetly hidden at the bottom of the garden. Therefore, a proposal to examine a site of this kind for the possible storage of nuclear waste is virtually certain to attract the opposition of the vast majority of those who live near the site. That in itself does not necessarily prove the decision to be wrong. We can all think of a great many circumstances in which the national interest must take precedence over the natural protests of those locally affected. However, before conflicts of that kind between national and local interests can be resolved, there are always important questions to answer.

I should like shortly to come to the more general questions to which I urgently seek an authoritative answer from my noble friend. However, the local issues not only in relation to the site that I know best, but in relation to the other three sites as well, must be looked at in the widest possible context because it is in the vicinity of these four scheduled sites where the Government's intention, even to give consent to preliminary investigation, will have immediate and considerable effects.

I do not wish to exaggerate those effects but I have lived for a number of years close to the unemployment problems of Hull and its hinterland and the Humber estuary, and I know how delicately balanced industrial siting decisions can often be; for instance, between, on the one hand, the north and south banks of the Humber, and, on the other, alternative sites elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

The Government, to their great credit, have produced massive assistance towards the development of the estuary. If they are fully conscious of the threat to their own economic policy posed by the introduction of this order, but are nonetheless convinced, and can convince us, that there is an overwhelming case for including Killingholme among the four possible sites, then I myself should find it hard to argue that that site should not he investigated. But I shall remain profoundly worried on behalf of the county of Humberside unless my noble friend can assure me that the Government have taken account of all the facts, physical, environmental, economic and so on, before reaching even this first stage of decision, and that at a subsequent public inquiry, if one became necessary, at either Killingholme or the other three sites, the terms of reference will be equally unrestricted.

Turning to the wider issues, I myself find it hard to believe that there can be any logical connection between the disaster at Chernobyl and the search for a disposal site for low-level radioactive waste in this country. But I doubt whether this is the way it appears to men and women living very close to one of these sites, or even to a lot of people who live in other parts of the country. For a number of reasons, public opinion at the moment seems greatly rattled. It is far more apprehensive than I, with my limited knowledge, think it ought to be. But that really is not the point. Whether or not these apprehensions are justified, I think that the Government must take seriously the need to allay them.

Long ago when I was Minister of Power I enjoyed, or suffered, considerable responsibility for the nuclear generation of electricity. Fortunately for me, there was then relatively little alarm about nuclear matters, and it was not until a good deal later, as the Environment Committee of another place very well put it, that, an awareness grew, that the benevolence of civil nuclear power was tainted by some of the malevolence of its parent, manifested primarily as radioactive waste.".

Looking back to those early 1960s before these nuclear fears revived, I doubt whether I, or responsible members of subsequent governments, gave sufficient—or sufficiently constructive—thought to the problem of disposal. And so here we are in 1986, some 40 years after the problem began, still apparently searching rather uncertainly for a solution. Drigg, in Cumbria, which is the major disposal site at present, is said to have a life of two decades or more. But the Environment Committee, to quote it again, firmly concluded that, it is not an acceptable model for any future site. Therefore the Government seem to be looking for what I might call a superior Drigg, more efficiently and certainly more strictly organised but still based on the same philosphy of near-surface disposal. I fervently hope that my noble friend Lord Elton can convince me that the Government are right in judging near-surface disposal as the best solution. because research and experience abroad certainly suggests that it is not the only solution. In my opinion public anxieties are unlikely to be allayed by the pre-emptive choice of a shallow site and the rejection of any deep alternatives, particularly in view of the paucity of research by the present and past governments, the scepticism of many experts and the very different decisions reached by many other countries. Therefore I ask my noble friend whether this is really the time to go ahead with the investigations authorised by this order when foreign experience may convince us before long that the future choice of another near-surface site would be wrong technically, environmentally and in terms of public opinion.

Recently I have been very disturbed by the doubts expressed by people whose balanced and sensible judgment I greatly respect on the whole question of the continuation of the nuclear programme. I should hate to see it discontinued, but the doubters I have met will soon be multiplied unless the Government show themselves more willing and more ready to examine alternatives. Nor do I think that this responsibility can be delegated to any public body. I have no reason whatsoever to question the integrity or the professional competence of Nirex, but I know that governments, even at times of temporary unpopularity, nearly always inspire the greater confidence because they are ultimately answerable and therefore more sensitive to what electors think and also because—I am sure my noble friend will take this as a compliment—experts generally find it harder to win our trust than do the intelligent amateurs who, by and large, preside over our affairs.

Therefore I am convinced that the leading of public opinion especially in a complex matter of this kind must be the responsibility of the Government. It would be wrong, in my opinion, to seek to overturn a decision reached by a considerable majority in another place. But in return I fervently hope that my noble friend will recognise his obligation to explain as convincingly as he can the need to explore in the near future possible shallow disposal sites at a time when Drigg, however unsatisfactory, still has more than 20 years of life and at a time also when past experience of and present research into alternative solutions do not demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt (to put it in the most moderate terms) that the near-surface method of disposal is either the only choice or the best available to us. I beg to move.

Moved, That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Order [S.I., 1986, No. 812] be annulled.—(Lord Holderness.]

12.13 a.m.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, the House is surely indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Holderness, for introducing this Motion to annul the order. I had the pleasure of close contact with him when he was Minister of Power and I was particularly struck then by the broad view that he took of energy problems. Listening to him speak tonight I notice that he still retains that breadth of view. He has raised a number of key issues arising from what might appear to be a relatively simple exploratory operation. As he rightly pointed out, public opinion is now profoundly disturbed about the whole nuclear issue, and it is important that there should be a period in which there can be some detailed explanation of the whole nuclear problem and such reassurance as can effectively be provided.

In these circumstances it seems unwise to be proceeding with this inquiry. The Drigg site, which plays a crucial part in this whole operation, is still capable of being used for more than 20 years. So the need for haste does not appear to be there. Would it not be wiser, therefore, to withdraw this order, to reconsider the various options for the disposal of nuclear waste to which the noble Lord referred, and then perhaps, in coming back to this, to proceed by way of normal planning procedures? By so doing, I believe that the Government could achieve some degree of reassurance in the public mind.

However justified the procedure now proposed may be, it nevertheless has created a great deal of concern, particularly in the areas affected, and until these inquiries are completed these areas will suffer as a result of the uncertainty to which they will be subjected. Then there is a long-running planning procedure to be followed in the case of that area which might be selected.

So long as the public is not reassured and convinced that shallow trenching is the right way to dispose of this particular category of nuclear waste, then I believe there is bound to be resistance. Would it not be worth while spending more time on such an inquiry? Most of the countries which have to deal with this problem are now using the deep-mine system of disposal. Some very impressive pictures were shown on television recently of the way in which this problem has been dealt with in Sweden. Comparing what we are proposing to do with what the Swedes are doing, it does look as if our approach is somewhat amateur. They seem to be taking a very professional and serious view of the matter. Obviously, the method they have adopted is much more costly, but, when one is dealing with matters of this degree of complexity and uncertainty, I should have thought that the more costly route might in the long run be the more effective route.

What all this adds up to is that there really is a strong case for re-consideration before this inquiry into the four sites is proceeded with. I very much hope, therefore, that after other noble Lords have spoken, and when the Minister replies, he will be able to tell us that the Government are prepared to reconsider this issue.

12.17 a.m.

The Lord Bishop of Lincoln

My Lords, I also should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Holderness, for initiating this debate, and also to support many of the points that the noble Lord, Lord Ezra has just made.

The two sites at South Killingholme and Fulbeck which is is proposed to explore are both in the diocese of Lincoln, and I know that I speak with the fullest support of the county councils concerned and of all the people in those areas. The Member of Parliament for Brigg and Cleethorpes has told me that whereas there is the usual vigorous and healthy cut and thrust over political matters in that part of the world, nothing has so united everybody of all parties as the proposals that are presently before us.

The first point that I should really like to make is one about timing. Why are the Government in such a hurry to make these explorations, hustling through the special development order when the very questioning report of the Environment Committee has not yet even been debated? We know that the United Kingdom lags behind in its research, and therefore there is all the more reason not to proceed with irresponsible haste in matters where many important scientific factors are not yet really understood and where the procedures for the process required are, as set out in the Environment Committee's report, quite inadequate. The report says—and the Minister will know this very well: The poor state of research in the United Kingdom means that it is impossible at this stage for us to recommend any disposal option with total confidence. The point is also made in the report that the chairman of the CEGB himself has said that there is not really the haste that was once supposed, and not least, as has already been said, because the lifespan of Drigg is still two or three decades before us.

Surely it would be right that the many and varied questions that are posed by the Environment Committee report should be debated and engaged with before there is the exploration of any of these sites. It seems to me foolish to exacerbate public opinion in advance of convincing research. If the latter came first, in really convincing form, the inevitable problems of public relations would be very much more easily and very much more rationally dealt with.

The second point that I should like to make is about the political process involved. At the moment the main actors in the drama seem to be Nirex and the Government shuffling the whole matter around in a closed circle of their own. Nirex was set up in 1982 by the four public bodies concerned in response to a government White Paper, so that at least it can be thought of as an adopted child of government and, through the special development order, it is now able to make its applications direct to the Minister. This means that the local authorities on whom rests the main responsibility for the nation's planning are, over the important issue of the exploration of these sites, cut out of the picture.

I am told that Nirex in its 1986 and 1987 budgets has nearly a million pounds for public relations. Local authorities, on the other hand, are subject to very tight financial control and, anyway, are only allowed to distribute information and not to comment. Here again the important public debate is in danger of becoming damagingly ill-balanced. It is little wonder that the local outcry is so strong, not just because of what is being proposed but because of the way the proposals are intended to be handled.

In a democracy it is surely not proper that matters, just because they are complex and technical, should be taken so considerably out of public discussion as though ordinary local people were hysterical or ignorant. This is insulting to suggest, and it is felt to be so. And it is also not true. The people concerned in this matter in Lincolnshire and South Humberside fully recognise that there is a national problem of waste disposal, but they are demanding, through some very well-informed and technically able committees, the priority of the research which is needed.

There are among other things some scientific facts relating to possible re-entry into the environment of radioactive elements which are plainly not yet fully understood. I think that the Chernobyl disaster makes it quite clear that there are a lot of things that the experts do not yet understand and cannot yet handle. It is therefore all the more surprising that the detailed and well thought out proposals for handling the whole public opinion aspect of this matter put forward by the Environment Committee have, so far as I am aware, received no public mention by the Government.

The last point that I should like to make relates to this matter of criteria of site selection. The Environment Committee's report says about this subject: We therefore recommend that site selection criteria should be established in advance and published for each type of waste disposal route likely to be developed. Thereafter, the Department of the Environment should ensure that any possible future disposal sites identified by Nirex should satisfy the site-selection criteria for that disposal option. Thus, responsibility for final short listing of possible future sites should effectively rest with the Department of the Environment rather than with Nirex". We in Lincolnshire and Humberside have no idea what criteria have been used in the proposed selection of these sites. The geology of both areas is such that it raises very serious questions as to whether the criteria used have been geological ones. Nirex says it has been given geological advice by the British Geological Survey, The BGS provided information about several hundred sites but did not among them recommend Fulbeck. Fulbeck and South Killingholme and, I believe, the other sites are in public ownership. Was this, then, the main criterion of choice which would conveniently cut out the need for compulsory purchase orders? I think we have the right to know from the noble Lord the Minister what criteria have been used in selecting these sites as possible areas for exploration.

12.26 a.m.

Lord Kimball

My Lords, no Member of your Lordships' House would doubt the depth of local knowledge which my noble friend Lord Holderness has of at least two of these sites: the one in Humberside and the one in Lincolnshire. I am certain that your Lordships are all very impressed with the arguments which have been advanced by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln. He, after all, knows the feelings of the people throughout his diocese. His whole life as Bishop of Lincoln has been devoted to expressing those feelings, and I think it is very significant that at almost the end of his tenure of that see he should come here tonight to tell us how very sincerely concerned the people of his diocese are about the proposal.

My only excuse for intervening in this debate is that two of these sites—the one at South Killingholme and the one at Fulbeck—bracketed my constituency in Gainsborough, which I was privileged to represent for some 28 years. I too know the grave doubts expressed by people in those areas, which have also been expressed by their Members of Parliament in the other place. However, I am very conscious of the fact that I myself have offered the Atomic Energy Authority a site for the disposal of intermediate waste. True, it was in what is so often nowadays called a wilderness area. I think we should be perfectly clear that the wilderness areas are mostly on granite, and granite is unsuitable for storing nuclear waste. We come down to the fact that we are advised that the best method of storing this very low-level nuclear waste is in clay, and two of the sites which have suitable clay happen to be in the county of Lincolnshire.

There is just one thing I should like to say, and it is this. I wonder whether we could look at the situation in France, where in some of the rural areas the disposal of low-level nuclear waste has become a good, sound, rural industry. I do not understand what the financial position is, but could Nirex not arrange for Lincolnshire County Council and the district councils involved to go to France to see how the storing of low-level nuclear waste is welcomed in the parishes in France in which it is now dumped? I think they would find that what is done for the people who live in those parishes is of immense benefit.

Of course the immediate worry of people who are faced with having this low-level nuclear waste dumped near their homes is the depreciation of the value of their property. I think that if we look at France we will find that over the period of the next few decades they will not have to pay any rates. I should like to suggest that Nirex should begin to enter into negotiations with the local community so that if one of these sites was finally chosen nobody should have to pay more than 10 per cent. of their rates for the next hundred years. I should like to think that the farmers within the parishes which adjoin the area might well get a payment of, say, £50 an acre, index linked, for the next hundred years for every acre in those parishes which adjoins the area where this low-level nuclear waste is stored.

You could get into an area where there was some public scare as a result of which all the crops in one year were unsaleable; so it would be a good comfort to think that for the next hundred years the farmer would get £50 an area, index linked, for the acres in those adjoining parishes.

As the electricity industry is the main beneficiary of the nuclear programme, could we not have cheap electricity for a considerable period in the parishes surrounding these dumping areas? I think my noble friend will find that that is certainly a concession which is extended in France. I mention these three points as opening the bar. If we are going to have low-level nuclear waste stored, could we not have a carrot by which a new rural industry could be profitably established in these areas which might make it a great deal more acceptable?

12.31 a.m.

Lord Monson

My Lords, the noble Lords, Lord Holderness, Lord Ezra, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln have made the case so well that there is little more I can do other than to dot a few "i's" and cross a few "t's". I live in the former constituency of the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, 17 miles from one of the proposed sites as the crow flies—which is not my normal mode of travel—and 28 miles from one of the other sites. The distances by road are perhaps 25 per cent. greater in each case, so I do not think that development of either site would adversely affect property values in my immediate neighbourhood. However, if anything were to go wrong, if there were to be any sort of malfunction, one would have more serious things than property values to worry about.

It cannot be denied that there is a great deal of official scepticism about the safety and reliability of the proposed method of disposal, to say nothing of public scepticism. The right reverend Prelate has already quoted from the House of Commons environment committee's report. May I quote one further sentence? It reads: Considerably greater emphasis must be given in research, development and policy to sea-bed options, especially to the use of tunnels under the sea-bed from land. It cannot be denied, either, that internationally there is a swing away from near-surface radioactive waste disposal, even for low-level waste. Belgium, Finland, Sweden, Switzerland and West Germany are all concentrating upon deep disposal. Indeed, the West Germans are actively contemplating burying their waste at a depth of up to 1,000 metres—that is to say, over 3,250 feet. In the United States,no fewer than 50 per cent. of the existing shallow burial sites were closed during the 1970s because of water infiltration, lumping of trench covers and erosion, which resulted in a dangerous leakage of radioactivity. The necessary remedial action cost millions of dollars. Who can put his hand on his heart and swear that a similar misfortune might not occur over here?

To a scientific layman like myself, such a possibility seems a distinct, even if statistically remote, possibility at one of the proposed sites, Fulbeck, if not in our lifetime, then at least in our grandchildren's lifetime or in our great-grandchildren's lifetime. Not being a metallurgist, I am unsure of the lifespan of steel drums but I have good reason to know that concrete does not last for ever.

It so happens that the Army used Fulbeck airfield as a training site, and the Army's records demonstrate that trenches when dug tend rapidly to fill with water, showing that for a good part of the year the groundwater level is extremely close to the surface. The risk of harmful material getting into the water system is thereby greatly increased. The UK Nirex Ltd. submission agrees that the first prerequisite for radioactivity from such a site to harm human beings is that water must reach the waste itself. At this particular site, there seems a statistically significant increase of such a possibility in comparison with a less waterlogged site, This possibility is heightened by seismic data which shows that Fulbeck happens to be in the above average zone of earthquakes of high intensity in the United Kingdom, and that there is an above average probability of earthquake return within a 200-year period in Lincolnshire as a whole. Echoing the right reverend Prelate, one fears that there may be some truth in the allegation that these four sites were shortlisted not for reasons of optimum safety but because they happened already to be in public ownership which makes things so much easier from any government's point of view.

My Lords, why the rush? On the basis of the Government's own estimates, there is no need for any additional disposal facility for low level waste until the year 2010–24 years from now. The pragmatic French tend to store their low waste near existing nuclear power stations, thereby concentrating the risks in areas where the population are already accustomed to the nuclear industry and have made their dispositions accordingly. This seems a better bet and is fairer than risking the long-term pollution of hitherto unspoiled areas.

But there is a better alternative still. I refer to the method of disposal developed by Dr. Wheeler which involves burying the waste in steel drums beneath the sea bed, which both the French and the Thai Governments happen to be actively considering at present. Surprisingly, the cost is estimated at only £4.10 per cubic metre compared with £6.20 per cubic metre for the shallow trench method on land favoured by the Government. The ocean floor method would be demonstrably safer, would be much cheaper (costing just over 66 per cent. of the method currently proposed), would be electorally vastly more popular, with a general election less than two years away—although I know that this is the last thing that is in the Government's mind.

For all these reasons, I hope that the Government will seriously think again, and at the very least that they will serious consider the interesting suggestions made by the noble Lord, Lord Kimball.

12.37 a.m.

The Earl of Liverpool

My Lords, I, too, should like to join other noble Lords in expressing my gratitude to my noble friend Lord Holderness for enabling us to discuss this matter tonight. The whole question of the nuclear industry programme and the way in which it deals with waste is, I believe, of great concern not only to those people who live in proximity to the four sites which it is proposed Nirex will investigate, but to all of us in this country. The Chernobyl factor has of course only heightened that concern.

The special development order will do nothing to increase the public confidence in the general safety of the nuclear industry and its methods of disposal of waste. I say this because I believe that the sites have been selected not for their inherent suitable location in terms of road or rail links, geological strengths or depopulated areas, but because all happen to he in public ownership. This remark has already been made by other noble Lords.

Surely this is not the basis on which to build public confidence in the industry. Public confidence is one of the most important factors and one which we must attempt to build up. The report of the Select Committee on the Environment of another place states in paragraph 242: The industry's actions alone will convince the public, not its words. The disorder of the Sellafield site, the crudeness of Drigg, the remoteness of Nirex—these have created far more damage than any amount of facts, figures and PR work will ever repair". We must have a totally credible and convincing plan for the disposal of all levels of nuclear waste. The responsibility we have in this area is colossal because some elements or fuels used in nuclear power stations have a half life of 24,000 years. I know that that is high-level waste and tonight we are debating low-level waste, but my suggestion is that we could apply one method of disposal to all levels of nuclear waste.

I believe that if we are to succeed in carrying the public with us, we must not only be safe but be seen to be safe. If the strategy is expensive and if it is overcautious, then so be it. What future generations will condemn us for using ultimate safety as the criterion for decision-making, rather than fiscal restraints? So I am in favour of the Rolls-Royce approach, as it is becoming known. I believe that the shallow trench system of disposal that noble Lords have already questioned has been discredited by leakages that have occurred at three such sites in America, which had to be closed down at a cost of millions of dollars.

The alternatives, as we have already heard from the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, and other noble Lords, include the deep mining proposal, which is the option favoured by Belgium, Finland, Sweden and Switzerland. Another is the bore hole into the continental shelf in the North Sea, some 3,000 feet deep. We have also heard about that tonight.

As we have further heard, there is no immediate hurry. I should like to join with the other noble Lords who have spoken tonight in asking: why cannot we consider the other alternatives that are available to us and which Sweden, to take one particular country, has taken so much care to develop?

It is said that we are at least 10 years behind other countries with significant nuclear programmes in our consideration of funding of studies relating to geological disposal of radioactive waste. Is that not a little shaming? Surely now is the time for the Department of the Environment to become fully involved with the industry in setting standards for the future. I do not believe that the implementation of the special development order is the way to catch up with those lost years. I therefore support my noble friend Lord Holderness in his Prayer.

12.42 a.m.

Baroness David

My Lords, we, too, are very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Holderness, for giving the House an opportunity to discuss the special development order. I believe we would all agree that the situation is very difficult. Low level waste must be disposed of and it will continue to have to be disposed of, whatever decisions are made about the future or the nuclear industry. Drigg will be filled in by 2010, which, although 24 years away, is really not all that distant when plans of this kind have to be made.

It is very easy to understand the fears and doubts of the local community, particularly at this moment, after the disaster at Chernobyl. It is not surprising that public confidence needs to be restored. I hope that the Minister will be able to do something about that matter, and about the methods being proposed, when he answers the debate.

The local authorities are upset, and that is not surprising. They feel that they have been bypassed once again and that their powers of planning have been taken from them. It is just one more example of central government taking over. However, I will admit that the Government, in their responses to the Select Committee's report, have shown some sensitivity towards the feelings of local communities, particularly in their responses to Recommendations 8 and 21.2.

I would ask, as almost everybody has asked, whether there really is such a need for haste. Is there not time for more research? Could not the decision be postponed, at any rate for a little longer? I may also ask the Minister this question: if the investigation of the four sites goes ahead, and if a site appears to be unsuitable, will that information be given very quickly to the public and the investigation stopped, so that possible planning blight—which is almost inevitable in the four areas concerned—can be removed as soon as possible and some reassurance given to the public? I think it is public concern and public confidence which worries us all. We very much hope that we shall have some reassurance from the Government tonight.

12.45 a.m.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am much obliged to my noble friend for his tenacity, if nothing else, in providing an opportunity for discussing an important matter which we had on the Order Paper for yesterday and which we are now approaching, bright eyed and bushy-tailed, today.

I will try to be concise but my noble friend asked specifically for comprehensive and technical answers to his questions and I do not doubt that what I say will be quarried in the weeks to come for evidence of either neglect or excessive care according to who is doing the quarrying. I must therefore give a fairly full reply; but I will try to be concise.

My noble friend made a speech that reflects his intimate knowledge both of energy and of government and of what used to be called Yorkshire and what some people think is Yorkshire still and always will be. Before I reply to his questions I must put the special development order as well as the debate itself in the context of the Government's policy. It is a policy that dates back to 1976, when the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution produced its sixth report, on radioactive waste, under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Rowers. The report was well received. Among many other things, it identified the need for national disposal arrangements for low-level and intermediate-level waste. Since then it has been the policy of successive governments to ensure that suitable facilities for disposal are provided. But it is not government which is responsible for the actual development of such facilities. That falls to Nirex, a public company owned by the nuclear and electricity industries. It is government's job to set the policy framework and the regulatory controls within which Nirex operates.

In 1982 this Government published a White Paper on Radioactive Waste Management. This concluded that new disposal facilities for low and intermediate level wastes were needed. It envisaged trench facilities for low-level and some intermediate-level wastes: and a deep mine or cavity for other intermediate wastes. In February this year Nirex announced four sites which it wished to examine as potentially suitable for a near surface or trench facility. Only one such site will actually be needed, but the Government asked Nirex to name at least three to ensure a fair and detailed comparison of alternatives. The sites are at Bradwell in Essex, Elstow in Bedfordshire, Fulbeck in Lincolnshire, and South Killingholme in Humberside.

Nirex has carried out desk studies on these sites. It now wishes to undertake detailed investigations of the geology of each. Before any site can be developed Nirex must have sufficient information to determine whether a site is suitable and can be defended at a public inquiry. A proper assessment of the sites' suitability and safety cannot be made without the investigations that the SDO would permit.

A facility, wherever it is established, will be based on the multi-barrier concept. This relies on a number of barriers to retard the return of radioactivity to man. One of these barriers is provided by the geology of the site itself. For the investigation of that geology Nirex needs planning permission. We hope to give it that permission by means of the special development order.

At this point I think I should remind some of your Lordships of what I shall be saying again in a moment in my catalogue of what has happened so far—that we are only talking about low-level waste. Some of the remarks by your Lordships will, on reflection, be considered by your Lordships appropriate not only to intermediate-level but to high-level and long-lasting waste. We are talking about items such as damaged equipment, protective clothing, air filters and ash from the burning of low-level combustible wastes; such items as telephone dials and emergency exit signs. We need to remember that what we are burying are not aggressively lethal materials which can cause great damage in a short time at a long range. We are talking about items which the day or week before may actually have been in a hospital laboratory being worn by a technician.

The next matter that I think I shall be asked to explain is why the Government consider that the special development order procedure is appropriate rather than the normal planning procedures advanced, for instance, by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra. We considered whether those investigations should be subject to planning inquiry, to be followed by a further inquiry into any subsequent proposal to develop a site. The result might have been two long inquiries laid end to end which could have taken a number of years, several of them unnecessary. We believe that it would be wrong to subject communities to such a long period of uncertainty unnecessarily. We were strengthened in that belief by views pressed upon us by some honourable Members in another place.

Some noble Lords have criticised the Government for proceeding with the SDO before Parliament had an opportunity to debate the Government's full response to the environment committee's report. The government position on that is that we wanted to reduce to a minimum the period of uncertainty for the communities affected by the SDO. At the same time, we wanted to consider carefully all the committee's wide-ranging recommendations. That led us to set out in a first stage response our comments on all those recommendations that were directly relevant to the SDO, and I repeat all of them. The chairman of the environment committee himself recognised that that was a valid and proper approach when he spoke in the general debate on nuclear energy on 13th May, and a Motion which included an endorsement of that approach was subsequently approved in another place.

It is appropriate at that point to address the question of whether it is necessary to subject the communities to any uncertainty at all at this stage, because the Drigg site, for instance, will be available until after the end of the century. The site will be full, I am advised, between the years 2005 and 2010 as it is at present being used. But proceeding with a near-surface site, as we propose, is unlikely to provide a new site available for use before about 1992. The opening of a new site at least a decade before the Drigg is full will allow better use of Drigg, which can be reserved for wastes from Sellafield and which would, if there was no new facility, have to be transported round the country.

The noble Baroness, Lady David, asked whether we could not extend the period simply in order to conduct more research. But it is clear that as regards this low-level waste the amount of research that has been done is adequate for the risk and the technology in question.

The order that we are considering is not quite the one that was issued primarily to the local authorities and water authorities concerned for consultation in February. We received many comments, and my right honourable and honourable friends in the department met well over a dozen deputations to discuss the order. That is not exactly the closed circuit and secretive exchanges between government and Nirex that the right reverend Prelate felt was the procedure.

The most important change to the order reflects our decision to allow Nirex to carry out test drilling for the investigation of a site to take, as I have already said, low-level waste only. We have dropped the original intention that a near-surface site would take shorter lived intermediate-level waste as well. We took that decision because of the concern of communities around the site and because of views expressed by the Select Committee on the Environment of the House of Commons. I should emphasise that the best scientific advice we have is still that a near-surface facility would be the best option for disposal of some intermediate-level waste. However, pending the identification and development of a deep site, or until the radioactivity has decayed sufficiently for disposal at a low-level waste facility, both short-lived and long-lived intermediate-level waste will now be stored.

My noble friend Lord Liverpool suggested that everything should go into deep bore holes. He rightly called that the Rolls-Royce solution, because apart from being very good Rolls-Royces are extremely expensive. The idea of drilling holes 3,000 feet into the earth's crust to drop into them overalls and gloves from hospital laboratories seems a touch extravagant.

Other significant changes have been made to the order which should be of direct benefit to communities around the sites. For instance, the order as originally drafted was open-ended. As now drafted it will run for only five years. All Nirex's investigations will have to be complete within that time. Nirex expects its main work to be over within a year or 18 months, but if a site went before a public inquiry, the inspector could ask Nirex to take additional measures or measurements. That is why although we have introduced a finite period it is one which should overlap the inquiry.

A recommendation of the House of Commons Select Committee that is not reflected in a change in the drafting of the order is its first: that the department's classification of low-level waste should exclude alpha bearing waste and long-lived waste. The committee also recommended that shallow disposal should be limited to short-lived low-level wastes. This simple approach could lead to an unintentional absurdity. All natural materials contain trace amounts of natural long-lived radioactivity. Some granite contains about one part uranium per million, which is radioactive, long-lived and alpha-radiation emitting. If there were an absolute prohibition on shallow disposal of such radioactivity, we could not even put into the facility the granite chippings from the roads that lead to it. That gives your Lordships an idea of the levels about which we are talking.

The geological investigations in themselves should have neither a significant nor a permanent effect on the local environment. I think that your Lordships have seen enough of onshore drilling for me not to spend much time reassuring you about that at this time of night. If during investigations any of the sites is shown to be unsuitable, it will be dropped at once at that stage. Once results are analysed, Nirex will be in a position to decide which, if any, of the sites it wishes to develop. I am sure your Lordships will realise that a full public inquiry will of course be held into any planning application Nirex eventually submits.

My noble friend Lord Holderness was anxious about blight—and other noble Lords chimed in. I understand his concern about blight. I appreciate that Humberside has a fair share of hazardous industries, and that Grimsby Borough Council is trying to establish the area as a centre for food processing.

I have to say, however, that there is no good reason why a Nirex facility should blight an area, still less why a proposal to carry out investigations should do so. Industrial development around Bedford does not seem to have suffered, for example, even though Nirex's interest in Elstow has been known about for over two and a-half years.

Even if the site at Killingholme were to be developed, many firms already operate successfully in Humberside alongside industries far more dangerous than anything Nirex might propose.

I must say a cautionary word about unintentionally induced blight. If the risks of disposal of low-level waste are exaggerated, then the blight that everyone fears could be brought about. Noble Lords and the noble Baroness were right to say that the principal difficulty at the moment is public ignorance resulting in public fear. We do not want to mislead the public. By exaggerating the risks of disposing of these materials in carefully controlled conditions we may talk ourselves into an unnecessary blight. I can give my noble friend the assurance that he expected that the public inquiry will be as full as is necessary. An inspector has considerable discretion in deciding what should be discussed. Furthermore, we have laid down that Nirex must prepare for the inquiry a detailed environmental assessment for any site put forward. The assessment will be drawn up in consultation with relevant bodies and will address a broad range of factors, including physical, environmental, economic, safety and social considerations. I think that those were the points that my noble friend raised with me.

As to the criteria adopted by Nirex for choosing sites, it took into account a number of factors, including geology, demographic considerations, accessibility, proximity to national conservation areas and availability. These were not formal criteria, and there was no question of Nirex being allowed to look at certain individual sites only. I understand that private sites as well as publicly-owned ones were considered but Nirex concentrated its search on publicly-owned land because of its difficulties over the privately-owned mine at Billingham which was a potential deep site of which it has experience.

My noble friend asked whether near-surface disposal was the best solution and suggested that paucity of research and other countries' practice threw doubts on this, and referred to the limitations of Drigg. I think that I have probably said enough about research. Since your Lordships and others outside the House are concerned about Drigg, I would repeat that the present arrangements there pose no risk to the public but the site has been operating since 1959 and there is now room for improvement. From 1987, BNFL will be compacting low-level wastes from BNFL before interment. Loose tipping will be replaced by stacking in trenches. Old trenches will be capped to make them impermeable to rainwater, and the site drainage system is to be renewed.

My department recently completed a study of the best practicable environmental options for the management of low and intermediate-level wastes. This showed that, taking social and economic factors into account, near-surface disposal on land was the best option for low-level wastes.

The noble Lord, Lord Monson, advocated disposing of wastes under the seabed. This is an interesting concept. I note what he says about Thailand and others. We consider it more appropriate to the disposal of intermediate-level waste. Nirex has commissioned two feasibility studies of this form of disposal for such wastes. The results are expected later this year. We think it unnecessarily elaborate and costly for low-level waste. Our recent study of options to which I referred confirms this.

A deep site on land would also be unnecessarily elaborate, and I have said enough about that already. I agree with my noble friend when he says that we must build up public confidence. We are convinced that the way to do this is to be as open as possible. Nirex, too, is aware of the need for openness. It has recently agreed to make an interim report of the site investigations available to the local councils concerned after the first six months. This will let local people see the sort of data being gathered and arrange for their own assessment if they wish. It will also publish the final report of the investigations and is currently considering other ways in which it can disseminate information. I hope that your Lordships will not feel that the fact that it has a public relations budget, as I think it was described, is entirely against the public interest, because the public must know. We also have to get across more forcefully than we have so far the fact that the Government have a whole range of stringent controls to ensure that disposal is handled responsibly and safely.

My noble friend Lord Kimball, to whom I am grateful for a robust and pragmatic approach and also for some interesting suggestions, proposed that there might be some form of compensation payment to the locals. That might form a difficult precedent. Many communities have dangerous or difficult works or developments in their midst. Government have said in their first stage response to the environment committee's report that its recommendation on this point will be seriously considered. And so will that of my noble friend.

The rest that I have written here is by way of an elegant and flattering conclusion. I hope that I have made the point that we are dealing with material that is a great deal less dangerous than popular myth suggests. I hope that I have made clear that it will be treated with a seriousness far beyond what it would appear to deserve.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, the noble Lord has mentioned so often the relatively little harm associated with low-level waste that it seems to be a crucial part of his argument. Grave doubts seem to be expressed in paragraph 17 of the environment committee's report about the classification of this waste. Indeed, there is a sentence at the end that I find rather worrying. The Committee said: no one was able to assure us…that harmful higher activity wastes, alpha-emitting and toxic radionuclides, could not find their way into Drigg and leach out into ground water". This seemed rather disturbing to me. Therefore in addition to all this cast-off clothing and so on there might be lurking amid this something much more serious. That is what the committee seems to be suggesting.

Lord Elton

I am obliged to the noble Lord for that point. I think that I recognise the paragraph to which he refers. I think that I dealt with it in the reference in part to granite chippings; that is, that there is also a difficulty with the definition proposed by the committee in that it goes too far downwards. However, I think that rather than prolong these exchanges I ought to write to the noble Lord; and in order that my speech shall not have this loophole in it for public consumption, I shall place a copy of my letter in the Library in the usual way.

The fact remains that we are not even going to be burying the intermediate-level waste, which my noble friend happily invited the authorities to deposit on his home ground. We are talking about something less dangerous than that. We are talking about placing it in impermeable clay at a great depth, surrounded by concrete. I hope that what I have said about both the method of disposal and the method of public inquiry and the research that has been done will encourage my noble friend to allow us now to let this order through.

1.5 a.m.

Lord Holderness

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady David, noble Lords and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln for having taken part in the debate and made very constructive suggestions.

Finally, I should like to thank my noble friend for what he said, and for providing some comfort and relief for some doubts that noble Lords and many people outside have. I am particularly grateful to him for his obvious considerable awareness of the need to reassure public opinion. He will be well aware that this is a task that is not going to be achieved or completed tonight, but it will have to be carried on very enthusiastically and energetically in the future. In those circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned at seven minutes past one o'clock.