HL Deb 05 February 1997 vol 577 cc1670-2

2.51 p.m.

Viscount Hanworth asked Her Majesty's Government:

When they will be able to announce their decision regarding the application by Nirex for a site in Cumbria for the underground disposal of nuclear waste.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, Nirex has not made an application for the underground disposal of nuclear waste. Its application is to develop a rock characterisation facility. A decision will be made as soon as possible.

Viscount Hanworth

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for that elucidating reply. Will he give us some assessment of the hazards involved in simply allowing waste to accumulate in temporary storage, as has happened over the duration of the present Administration?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, high level waste is stored in a glass box and has to be kept above ground for some 50 years in order to cool down—rather like the Opposition, if I might say so. Intermediate level waste at sites is solid; some is set in concrete—rather like the Opposition, if I might say so—and remains dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years—rather like the Opposition, if I might say so.

The Lord Bishop of Carlisle

My Lords, in coming to a decision, will the Minister bear in mind the sustained opposition of Cumbria County Council to this proposal, opposition which has not been in any way diminished by the recently leaked memo from Dr. Holmes, which includes these words: we conclude that a Basic Under Sedimentary Cover type site is inherently not characterisable to the requisite level", and that in an area where there is considerable concern about jobs? It is not a matter of jobs at any price.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate is right to draw attention to the opposition of Cumbria County Council. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State is writing today to those who attended the inquiry, inviting them to comment (if they have any comments) on the memorandum. He will take those comments, and the views of Cumbria County Council, into account when he make s his decision.

Lord Jenkin of Roding

My Lords, is it not a fact that nothing was disclosed in that document which was not the subject of extensive investigation and inquiry at the public inquiry? There is nothing new in it. Is not the purpose of the exercise to establish the truth about the characteristics of the rock formation? Is it not the case that if the rock formation is not suitable, the project will be abandoned, and that if the rock formation is found to be suitable, there will be another public inquiry which will go into the whole question of whether radioactive waste should be deposited there?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, obviously there was concern when the memorandum was leaked. Therefore, it is appropriate that my right honourable friend should ask those who attended the inquiry whether they have any comments to make upon that leaked memorandum. My right honourable friend will take account of the comments that are made as well as the facts of the inquiry when he makes up his mind.

Lord Elis-Thomas

My Lords, can the Minister tell us what recent discussions he has had with the Government of the Irish Republic on this issue, bearing in mind that they made strong representations at the time of the public inquiry?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, my right honourable friend will also take into account the views of the Irish Republic when he makes his decision.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, we must all be indebted to the noble Earl for having explained that the application currently before the Secretary of State is for a laboratory, not a depository. If the Secretary of State decided that he did not want Nirex to go ahead with the construction of the laboratory, would we then be advised of the Government's views on how the problem will be dealt with ultimately?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, we should take one step at a time. The application is for a rock characterisation facility. If my right honourable friend the Secretary of State declines to give that consent, Nirex will have to reconsider its position and its proposals.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, is it not the case that the rock characterisation facility that is proposed will not contain at any point any radioactive waste or any other radioactive material?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, my understanding of the position is that the rock characterisation facility will involve setting into the rock two shafts some 650 metres deep. The rock characterisation facility will be there in order to see what the rock is like and in order to set up a laboratory in order to see what the rock is like.

Lord Cavendish of Furness

My Lords, perhaps I may declare an interest as a director of UK Nirex Ltd. Would my noble friend acknowledge, especially bearing in mind the remarks of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Carlisle, that the purpose of a rock characterisation facility is to resolve those uncertainties identified by Nirex as part of its research programme at the Sellafield site? Is my noble friend aware that the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee, the Government's own committee, known as RWMAC, and the Royal Society, support Nirex's programme?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, my noble friend, with his experience, makes a helpful intervention. It might be most helpful if I did not continue with such an intervention because my right honourable friend has a quasi-judicial role in the appeal and it would be invidious of me if I were to start commenting on various submissions.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is it not the case that Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution has said that the present plans would have the effect of contaminating Cumbria? In those circumstances, what do the Government propose to do next?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, we propose to consider the views of Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution together with the comments of everyone else.

Baroness David

My Lords, may I ask the Minister when the Secretary of State will pronounce on the planning application? The inspector's report went to him in November; we are now well into February and the delay causes everybody a great deal of expense, including the taxpayer.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, delays do cause expense and they are to be regretted. Obviously my right honourable friend has to take a great deal of account of what has been said. The inquiry ended in February. The inspector took some six months to make his report. It would be unreasonable to expect my right honourable friend to come to his conclusions too soon, particularly when there has been such an unfortunate aberration in the middle.