HL Deb 29 October 1999 vol 606 cc480-509

11.6 a.m.

Lord Tombsrose to move, That this House take note of the Report of the Science and Technology Committee on Management of Nuclear Waste (3rd Report, HL Paper 41).

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I should first declare some interests, past and present. I am an honorary Member of the British Nuclear Energy Society, and from 1978 to 1990 I held a series of posts in the electricity supply industry in which I had a close involvement in the policy and practice of nuclear power. I am also a director of UK CEED, of which more later.

The bulk of the nuclear waste existing today, and that which is certain to arise in the future, arises from past military and civil programmes. The problem exists and it has to be solved. It cannot be avoided by deciding today to discontinue nuclear power or to stop the reprocessing of spent fuel.

The time-scales which characterise the life and behaviour of nuclear waste are quite unique, requiring the safe isolation of the waste from the environment for hundreds of thousands of years. The difficulties of arriving at technical solutions, and of securing public confidence in those solutions, occupied much of the time of our Committee.

The inquiry, which lasted for 16 months, was occasioned by the rejection of the Nirex application for planning consent for the construction of a rock characterisation facility at Longlands Farm near Sellafield to determine whether the site would be suitable for the construction of a deep disposal facility for intermediate level nuclear waste. The declared government policy for disposal at that time envisaged the construction of deep geological facilities. The refusal of planning permission threw that policy into some confusion.

The chairman of the Select Committee on Science and Technology at that time was the late Lord Phillips of Ellesmere, whose breadth of knowledge and analytical mind are greatly missed by his colleagues. He considered the topic to be of such importance that he decided to chair the sub-committee himself. Unfortunately, his health problems worsened rapidly and he had to relinquish the chair after the first few meetings. He asked me to succeed him as chairman, a task which I undertook with great sorrow and a recognition of the difficulty of following him adequately. He remained interested in the inquiry even when he was too ill to attend meetings, and he made many useful suggestions in the course of our conversations.

The inquiry was complex and interesting. I should like to take this opportunity to thank my committee colleagues for their patient support and help: our Clerk, Dr Don Rolt, for his devoted and skilful approach to the organisation of our work; our special adviser, Ms Marion Hill of W.S. Atkins, whose experience and expertise proved invaluable in exploring and evaluating the many issues which arose in the course of the inquiry; and our special assistant, Tim Bradshaw, whose diligent research clarified many complex issues. I should also like to thank the many organisations and individuals who provided written and oral evidence to the Committee and who gave generously of their time and experience in doing so. Our overseas visits to the United States of America, Canada, Sweden and France added greatly to the perspective of our study. Our thanks are due to the organisations we met in those countries and to the staff of our High Commission and embassies for their help.

Although the immediate cause for the inquiry was the rejection of the Nirex application to build a rock characterisation facility—in effect, a large underground laboratory—with a view to establishing the suitability or otherwise of that site, it rapidly became clear that many other issues vital to a satisfactory solution remained open.

We examined the question of geological disposal in stable rock formations at depths of 300 metres or more; we looked at the Nirex proposals for Longlands Farm at some length; and we sought the views and experience of organisations in other countries. We were greatly impressed by the volume and quality of the research and development work in this field, which has progressed steadily around the world; and we accepted the overwhelming view of experts here and abroad that understanding of the issues made geological disposal a practical and desirable solution.

But we departed from the early Nirex view, which had characterised much of the work being done abroad, that the waste could be sealed in a repository and left in complete confidence. We concluded that provision for monitoring and, if necessary, retrieval could and should be made for a considerable period of time, and that sealing of the repository should take place only when a sufficient level of confidence had resulted from continuing research and experience. We call that "phased disposal" and recommend its adoption. The recommendation seems to be gaining support in other countries.

Organisations opposed to geological disposal, such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, proposed instead indefinite surface or near-surface storage while research work continued on alternative solutions. They were not able to suggest useful lines of research which might meet that goal. We concluded that their opposition to geological disposal was not well-founded and that the proposal for indefinite surface or near-surface storage would place unreasonable demands for supervision and control on future generations and, indeed, on the stability of society itself over the very long time-scales that we had to consider.

Any future provision for the management of nuclear waste will require public acceptance. We examined ways in which that problem is being approached in other countries and suggest ways in which it might be achieved in the United Kingdom. We recommend wide public consultation before the policy is settled by government and endorsed by Parliament, and recommend regular reports to Parliament and subsequent endorsement by that body in order to preserve the necessary level of public support. We also looked at economic incentives to secure the willingness of local communities to accept disposal facilities, and we make some suggestions that might suit the UK.

A number of novel methods of public consultation have emerged around the world in recent years, and a Consensus Conference on Radioactive Waste Management was sponsored by Nirex, the NERC and the OST which was held in London in May this year, following the publication of our report. The report of the conference has been published by the organisers, UK CEED, of which body I am a board member, although I played no part in the conference or its preparation. The conclusions of the lay panel were carefully argued and thorough and offer a useful way forward in the necessary task of involving the public in a carefully considered examination of the complex problems involved.

Beyond the immediate question of geological disposal lie other matters which would greatly affect any future management strategy. There are wastes for which no long-term policy has yet been adopted, and there are a number of materials for which no use can be foreseen but which are not currently classified as waste. As a result, future storage and disposal needs are not well defined and some hazardous materials continue to be stored by essentially temporary methods. Until those matters are addressed, we shall not know the size of the disposal facilities required and we shall not know whether one site will be sufficient.

Further complication arises in the MoD nuclear programme, in which obsolete submarines are kept afloat pending a decision on disposal. That "wait and see" attitude applies also to spent submarine fuel which is in store at Sellafield. That policy carries the risk that the MoD may one day request space in a repository for which no provision has been made. The long-term management of both submarines and fuel should be brought into a national strategy, and we so recommend.

The present fragmentation of waste management policy that I have described is unacceptable, and we recommend the creation of an independent nuclear waste management commission charged with the development and oversight of a coherent and comprehensive strategy. We suggest that that body could well organise the national consultation exercise and would eventually become a statutory body with responsibility for establishing repository requirements and standards and overseeing the work of a "radioactive waste disposal company" charged with the exploration, development and operation of disposal facilities and the necessary enabling research.

Nuclear waste is generally divided into low, intermediate and high levels, representing the activity level of the wastes. The Nirex proposals, in accordance with government policy at the time, proposed the geological disposal of intermediate-level waste. Our proposal is that both intermediate and high-level wastes should be placed in a deep geological facility.

Turning to low-level waste, there is at present only one facility for its disposal; that is at shallow depth and is at Drigg, near Sellafield. The site is owned by BNFL. We understand de it has a limited capacity for some types of low-level waste (for example, contaminated soils and building rubble) and that its capacity will be exhausted by about the middle of the next century. A new site will be needed well before then.

It is important to recognise that nuclear wastes are stored carefully at present, and I should like to take this opportunity to praise the professionalism of the organisations involved, including BNFL, British Energy, Nirex, the Health and Safety Executive, the Environment Agency and RWMAC. But effective management on a short time-scale does not satisfy the need for a safe, robust long-term solution for long-lived wastes, including those that will be produced by dismantling obsolete facilities. Their effective isolation from the environment in a reliable way, one that does not depend on the expertise of the current management of the industry, is an essential requirement for dealing with the present inheritance and an essential prerequisite for any extension of nuclear power.

We did not examine the merits or objections to the extension of civil nuclear power, but we might note here that its important contribution to our present-day economy, and to our international obligations to reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide is falling as the early Magnox and AGR stations reach the end of their lives and no provision is made for their replacement. I believe that even to retain the option of further nuclear power for the future will require a clear and effective strategy for dealing with the waste products of the process.

I turn now to the vexed question of plutonium, about which much has been said and written. Some seek to demonise the material, incorrectly claiming it to be the most hazardous substance known to man. Others seek to defend it as a store of energy which may be of great value to society. The fact is that it is a hazardous material with a very long half-life and it is fissionable, making it attractive to terrorists.

Currently, we have a large stock of plutonium for much of which no use can be foreseen. That stock, now about 60 tonnes, is expected to rise to about 100 tonnes by the year 2010, largely as a result of necessary reprocessing. We recommend that the surplus stocks should be declared as waste and disposed of accordingly. We have examined the contribution which fast reactors and the use of mixed-oxide fuel could make to the problem and suggest the retention of a strategic stock. To put this in context, a fast reactor core would probably require about 4 tonnes of plutonium. Therefore, a strategic stock might be of the order of 10 tonnes.

We received representations that reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel should be stopped. We rejected those arguments, partly because of technical considerations which require the reprocessing of Magnox fuel and partly because of a study by RWMAC which demonstrated that, within the limits of the uncertainties involved, reprocessing is environmentally neutral. We discussed with BNFL the possibility of reprocessing for waste management purposes rather than to produce plutonium, and that may merit further examination.

The management of nuclear waste is a subject complicated by technical considerations and by public perceptions and fears. It is a problem shared by other countries but the way in which it impacts upon them, and consequently the solutions available to them, differs substantially given the history of the nuclear industry in those countries. Some began with weapons programmes and had early reprocessing of spent fuel; some continued to reprocess with the idea of recycling plutonium in fast reactors; and some never reprocessed their spent fuel and treated it as waste.

Despite those important differences, there are also many important similarities of risk assessment, safety standards and research requirements which make international collaboration desirable and fruitful. The organisations involved in this work perform a valuable role in collating and disseminating information and in promoting best practice. Great Britain is a valued and active member of these associations.

Occasionally, the idea of extended international collaboration leads to the suggestion of international disposal facilities for nuclear waste. This is an attractively simple idea but one which does not for long survive the realities of the problem. The nature and dimensions of the problem vary between countries depending upon their history. The need to win public support is difficult enough for any country when contemplating its own problems without the questions of transport, of acceptable safeguards and safety and of societal stability. That leads me to conclude that if there is to be an international approach to the provision of waste disposal perhaps it will be in the distant future when the many problems of public acceptability and technical organisation have been satisfactorily solved.

The Government's response was published last Monday, more than seven months after our report appeared. I welcome their careful and thorough examination of the issues and acceptance of the main thrust of our report. I have some comments on parts of the response which, given the length of time that I have spoken, I shall save for my closing remarks. I beg to move.

Moved, That this House take note of the Report of the Science and Technology Committee on Management of Nuclear Waste (3rd Report, HL Paper 41).—(Lord Tombs.)

11.23 a.m.

Lord Winston

My Lords, I echo the comments just made about the late Lord Phillips of Ellesmere whose initiative in setting up this inquiry was so important. As his successor in chairing the Select Committee I miss his guidance, kindness and huge insight into matters scientific. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, for taking over chairmanship of the subcommittee and doing such a splendid job over the course of a year. This was a lengthy and complex deliberation and an unusual amount of inquiry went into producing the excellent report. I believe that that shows the extraordinary strengths of the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology.

Perhaps I offend slightly against the conventions of the House if I say that it is not very often that I have the opportunity to speak before my boss. It is wonderful to see the House so full on a Friday morning. I am sure that one of the reasons is that we all want to hear the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh. It gives us great pleasure that he has devoted time to become active in, and to augment, the scientific work of the Select Committee. We shall listen to his maiden speech with great interest. I hope that that does not further increase his blood pressure. I always find it difficult to speak in this Chamber.

I note that the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, is to speak. Sadly, this may be one of the last occasions on which we shall hear from him, for reasons outside our control. We are grateful to him for the work he has done on the Select Committee.

Whether we like it or not, there is no question that we have to live with nuclear matters. Even if we remove the biggest source of nuclear waste—the power industry and weapons—we shall still require many products of nuclear engineering and items that cause radiation. It is interesting to consider the origins of the public mistrust of nuclear matters which are relevant to the debate. Public mistrust was perhaps initiated by the notion that nuclear weapons were a potent source of human destruction. Very pertinent to that was the measure of secrecy and deception practised in the early development of nuclear weapons. It has been pointed out that not even the Cabinet was fully notified at the time that a British nuclear bomb was being developed.

Further, a number of serious incidents have affected the public perception of the nuclear industry: Windscale in 1957; the meltdown at Three Mile Island; Chernobyl, which scattered radiation over a wide area; and the more recent episode at Tokaimura in Japan. However, if one adds up all of those events, the alarm that they have caused is completely disproportionate to their measurable harm. For example, they probably pale into insignificance compared with risks such as road accidents. In this country the commonest cause of death among those under 47 is not an accident on the railway but a road traffic accident on the MI or something similar.

The problem with nuclear engineering, power and waste is that the risk is seen as being imposed rather than a matter of individual choice. The nuclear industry has not been viewed by the public as being lily white. There have been examples of unsatisfactory record-keeping and, in some cases, monitoring. There have also been undocumented releases into the environment, notably at Dounreay. That was pointed out in 1995 by the Committee on the Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment and the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee.

As to risk, the irony is that the amount of exposure to radiation in domestic circumstances, for example, from radon in Devon and Cornwall, is well above the level that would be acceptable in the industry and, as far as is known, is never reached except on those rare occasions when there is a release. People do not refuse to live in Devon and Cornwall, and there has never been the slightest panic about radon exposure. There has been chronic comment, mostly in the press, but it has never achieved much public perception; nor should it, possibly.

It is worth pointing out that it has been calculated on good evidence that of the 50,000 exposed survivors of the nuclear explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, horrendous though they were, 400 died from cancer between 1950 and 1990. That is less than 10 per cent of the survivors of the two nuclear bombs.

We must address the issue of risk and we must recognise that the nuclear industry is capable of good and harm. When examining other sources of power, such as fossil fuel, it is almost unarguable that they are much more dangerous and have caused more deaths.

The real trick relates to the public's perception of these issues. I do not want to pre-empt what the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, will deal with in his next report for the Select Committee, but it is relevant to point out that there is a real need for public understanding and for the Government to accept public concerns.

Above all, we must be able to forecast issues of scientific importance. Frankly, we have done a bad job in that regard. We did an extraordinarily bad job over BSE. We did not recognise that it would be coming, but we certainly knew that CJD might be a problem. The classic, most recent, example is genetic modification. I do not believe that that story has yet ended. It relates only to foods, but it might extend. I believe that we could have had more foresight and seen the problem coming.

Therefore, procrastination is not a good idea. The noble Lord, Lord Tombs, referred to a wait-and-see policy. However, I am concerned about the Government's response. It is an extraordinarily detailed report which needs urgent action, but the Government have not taken it on board. We in this country have procrastinated over the disposal of nuclear waste for a long time and the report appears to advocate further procrastination. It is worth looking at its final sentence: The Government firmly believes that it will be important not to rush this process but to take the time required to make sure each step forward commands the widest possible public support". It sounds good, but we have not done much about pubic support and we must. That is a debate that the Government might stimulate in the near future.

Finally, a recent BMJ leader on radiation and medicine contained a good comment: In most human endeavour there is room for improvement.". In this case, one cannot help feeling that the industry could undertake better monitoring. There is a need for greater communication with epidemiologists and statisticians so that we can understand the risks in relation to the industry. There is a need for more dialogue with psychologists and sociologists about why the public are sometimes unnecessarily alarmed and how we might obviate that. We need to ensure that journalists do not exaggerate. What we must not do is procrastinate and leave it to the pressure groups. In doing so, we risk creating a serious problem in respect of something that is important to our welfare and economy. It is only reasonable to say that the Government could do more. I hope that they will consider implementing some of the Select Committee's suggestions more rapidly than appears to be the case.

11.34 a.m.

Lord Oxburgh

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Winston, for his kind remarks. Although I assure your Lordships that there was no collusion, there could not have been a better introduction to what I have to say. I know that maiden speeches should be uncontroversial and I may be unwise to make my first contribution on nuclear waste. But perhaps I, too, should begin by declaring not so much a personal interest as past involvement. I served for a time as the Secretary of State's nominated representative director on the Nirex board. Within the MoD, I had nuclear responsibilities and several years ago I chaired a government inquiry into the safety of UK nuclear weapons. Most recently, I helped to plan the Consensus Conference on UK nuclear wastes.

The report which the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, introduced today is a most valuable contribution to the debate. As he says, whatever our future policy on nuclear power, we must resolve the problem of the waste. Wastes remain toxic for a long time and somehow they must be made safe. But safety must be quantified. Present regulations state that the risk of a person dying as a result of releases from a repository should be less than one in a million.

In order to meet a requirement of this kind, one has to understand, first, how human health is affected by radiation, and thus what release from a repository can be tolerated; and then how to keep releases below that level by using geology and engineering. As the report shows, matters relating to geology and engineering have been pretty well aired. The physiological response to radiation has, however, received less attention and it is that which wish to address.

The health risk from radiation is calculated according to a time-honoured formula—really a recipe—that incorporates two important assumptions. The first is that the physical effects of radiation accumulate throughout our lives with, by implication, progressively more damaging consequences. This is known as the "dose accumulation assumption". Secondly, it is assumed that for any dose of radiation, the health damage is exactly proportional to the dose; twice the dose gives twice the damage and so on. This is known as "linear dose response".

Taken together, the two assumptions have some interesting implications. They imply, for example, that a succession of exposures at low level can be equivalent to a single exposure at a higher level. This is like saying that drinking two glasses of wine every day for a week is the same as drinking 14 glasses in one go; or, more relevantly, 30 minutes sunbathing every day for a week has the same effect as one exposure of three and a half hours. We know all to painfully that that is not true!

Throughout our lives, we are continuously exposed to radiation from sources that we cannot control, mostly from the earth's radioactivity. People on aeroplanes and mountains may be closer to God, but that means that they are less shielded by the atmosphere and receive an extra dose of radiation from space.

In fact, life-time total exposure can be quite large but generally does not seem to bother people. We know, however, that if someone received the same lifetime dose in a fraction of a second, as perhaps in a nuclear accident, they would at best be very ill indeed. This suggests that the human body's response to radiation is decidedly non-linear and that slow exposure to radiation over the years is very different from a single massive pulse, even though the total amounts of radiation are the same. That is probably the case because body cells have mechanisms that continuously repair damage to their genetic material. Provided that the repair processes can keep pace with the damage, there is little or no long-term harm to healthy people. Faced with a single massive dose, the repair mechanisms do not have a chance.

There is growing recognition that the assumptions in the current formula are probably wrong. It is likely that life has evolved in such a way that most individuals can tolerate a certain level of radiation—the threshold level—without permanent damage.

The idea of safe thresholds for contaminants in the environment is well established. It is not clear why they were not adopted for radiation in 1959 when the present conventions were proposed by the International Commission on Radiological Protection. It was probably because it was urgent at that time to agree a simple and precautionary means of estimating the effects of radiation exposure. What was adopted at the time as a quick, administrative solution has achieved a permanence and authority that was almost certainly never intended. That is now recognised by a number of authorities, including the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation which, earlier this year, decided to revisit the basic concepts underlying the current approach.

What has radiation response to do with today's debate? If current assumptions on which all planning is done are invalid—or substantially so—health and safety requirements for waste repositories, above or below ground, can be met with engineering and geological specifications significantly less demanding and less costly than at present.

To digress briefly, it may also mean that we are imposing heavy and unwarranted costs on all users of radiation such as hospital imaging units, university laboratories or even nuclear power plants. But worst of all, after the Chernobyl disaster, around 15 million people were moved from their farms and turned into refugees who are still in a desperate plight. Those people were moved because current radiological assumptions suggested that they were in danger. If they are wrong, they led the authorities to turn what started as a very serious nuclear accident into today's massive human catastrophe.

Science and experience have come a long way since 1959. It would be opportune now to review the working assumptions on how our bodies respond to radiation. Others are doing so and it could save substantial public expenditure, not to mention unwarranted personal anxieties and grief.

I very much hope that the Minister will give this matter some consideration and, in so far as a number of departments are involved, perhaps consult the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser.

11.43 a.m.

Lord Jenkin of Roding

My Lords, rarely can the House have heard a speech of such absorbing and fascinating interest and opening up an entirely new line of inquiry, of which the Select Committee might like to have been able to take advantage. I regard it as a great pity that the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, did not serve with us on the Select Committee. I hope that it will not be impertinent of me, as a mere layman, to offer him my warm congratulations on an outstanding maiden speech. It must be rare for a maiden speech to be delivered in this House which one would wish to see published in its entirety in the tabloid newspapers.

The noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, comes to the House with a long and distinguished career behind him. He is a geologist, He was a distinguished academic; for 13 years being Professor of Mineralogy and Petrology at the University of Cambridge. As a public servant he was the Chief Scientific Adviser at the Ministry of Defence for five years. He is now a university leader—the rector of the Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine since 1993. He could not have delivered a speech that demonstrated more clearly the advantages of including medicine in a general university establishment. He has numerous academic distinctions. He has served on many important committees, including the Dearing Committee on Higher Education. I am delighted to be able to tell the House that the noble Lord has been co-opted on to the Select Committee on Science and Technology and has joined the Science and Society inquiry to which the noble Lord, Lord Winston, referred. The noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, has spoken today with authority and humility. I am sure that I am not alone in looking forward to hearing more from him in the future.

The noble Lord, Lord Tombs, referred to the late Lord Phillips of Ellesmere. I should like to be associated with his generous words. Perhaps I may add, as the first member of the committee to have spoken, how much we owe to the noble Lord's expert and extremely patient chairmanship. We were a difficult lot, but we produced in the end a unanimous report which I believe will be one of the major milestones in the history of the difficult matter of nuclear waste.

I believe that I was the only former Minister with responsibilities in this area to serve on the committee. I was Secretary of State for the Environment from 1983 to 1985. So, addressing the Front Bench opposite, I can say that I have some understanding of the problems facing Ministers in dealing with this problem.

I should like to refer to the Government's response—if that is the appropriate word. Our report is dated 10th March 1999. On 16th April, the department wrote to the Committee Office which had asked when we could expect the Government's response. In its letter the department referred to two purdah periods: that between the local government and devolution elections in April and May, and the period following the elections to the European Parliament; that is between 20th May and 10th June. The letter then said: Ministers are currently aiming to publish the response between the end of the first purdah and the beginning of the second". That is to say, we could have expected the response before the 20th May. Then on 24th May, there was the consensus conference to which the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, has already referred. At the conference the Minister made a good and responsive speech, but said this: Can I just say that the Government's position is that we will be responding to the House of Lords' Report very shortly about the need for public acceptance at a local level". That was 24th May. The Minister continued: We will then be issuing a Green Paper, by the end of the year I hope, precisely to encourage this citizen involvement". We have had to wait until this week to receive the response that is before us: six months—three times the normal expected period.

Earlier this week I received a letter from the Minister, Mr Meacher. It begins: The Government has today published its response to the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology". He kindly enclosed a copy. Anyone who has read this response could be forgiven for thinking it is a non-response. It does not say anything of any significance. It is a "peace and motherhood" document. Yes, there must be public acceptability; yes, there must be a long period of consultation; yes, we shall issue a Green Paper early next year. But beyond that, there is virtually nothing. Today's debate has to be a debate on our report. It cannot be a debate about the Government's response.

For that reason, my first question to the Minister is this. The report and the Government's response to it talk about the need for openness and transparency. Indeed, those words occur frequently in our report. Why has it taken so much longer than was indicated by Ministers in the spring to produce such a thin and uninformative document? Perhaps we should start today with a little openness and transparency in the shape of an honest recognition by Ministers that they have faced difficulties in producing even this document, and then an account to the House of what those difficulties were.

As the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, indicated in his speech, the report raises a great many issues and I wish to comment upon only three. The first is public acceptability, to which all speakers so far in the debate have referred. For me the inquiry has been something of an eye-opener. I readily admit that for too long I have accepted unquestioningly that if the science clearly points to a solution, and if the overwhelming body of scientific opinion accepts that that solution is the best one, it only remains to inform the public of that fact in order to be able to proceed.

One of our most fascinating witnesses was Mr Eric Faulds of Shell UK Exploration and Production. He described this process as "DAD": decide, announce, defend. We all know what happened to Shell when they followed that process in relation to Brent Spar. Mr Faulds then described, during an illuminating session of evidence, the lessons Shell learned from that episode. It is not enough to tell the public, however much consultation with stakeholders may have taken place and however much agreement may have been reached about a particular solution and however scientifically correct the solution may have been thought to be. In spite of all that, it will not have public acceptability if the public has had no say.

I realise now that it was that that lay behind what I now recognise as my failure, as the then Secretary of State, to make any progress on this 15 years ago. Yes, we had Nirex; we had RWMAC, the advisory committee; and, yes, we tried to engage in local public consultation. There may be some who will remember the furore over the suggestion that the ICI potash mine in Billingham would be a suitable store. Yes, I made regular Statements in another place. But we made no attempt to engage in a more general public consultation on the options open to us. If I may say so, the result was not just "DAD", but "DADA", with "abandoned" at the end: decide, announce, defend, abandon.

The lesson goes far wider than nuclear waste, which is why the Select Committee decided to set up the inquiry "Science and Society" to which the noble Lord referred. I must not pre-empt any recommendations which may emerge from that. However, I can say that my colleagues and I are much impressed by the evidence that the process of engaging the public on matters scientific must be a two-way process. The public has perceptions and, even more importantly, has values which, if not taken into account, will guarantee failure. That was also pointed out in the 15th report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. We have learnt that this proposition is now widely accepted, and the issue turns on how it is to be done. On that, the Government's response has been total silence. We shall have to wait for the Green Paper.

I returned recently with some colleagues from the United States with a great deal of food for thought about openness, regulatory bodies meeting in public, holding public hearings, the use of the Internet and much, much more. I hope that the Government will be able to take such actions into account.

My second point can be expressed much more briefly. However much public consultation is held, in the end decisions are decisions for the Government and they must have the approval of Parliament. That is why in paragraph 6.53 of the report we recommend that: The policy should have explicit endorsement by Parliament, as well as a large measure of public acceptance". We go on to add in the following paragraph 6.54: It is essential that the policy is endorsed by Parliament at regular intervals during its implementation". Parliament is the place where the nation should express its approval. Public acceptance is a necessary precursor to that, but it is Parliament that gives the Government the authority to proceed.

In my final point I shall return once more to the question of how it is to be done. The noble Lord, Lord Tombs, referred to the Consensus Conference held last May. Like the noble Lord, I should declare an interest as a board member of UK CEED. This is only the second such consensus conference to be held in this country. The House will be intrigued to know that the first was held on the subject of plant biotechnology. It was almost entirely ignored by all those concerned—scientists as well as the authorities. The result, as has been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Winston, was that earlier this year GMOs blew up in our face. Here again we must learn the lessons.

There are two lessons here, and they are both reassuring. Given an initial briefing on the facts and arguments, and given the opportunity to formulate the issues, to decide which witnesses to hear and to cross-examine them openly, 15 ordinary members of the public chosen entirely at random can make sophisticated cost-benefit analyses and will reach conclusions that will be widely regarded as full of common sense. That was what happened last May at the Consensus Conference on Nuclear Waste. Trust the public, or, as Churchill said, trust the people.

The second lesson is this. Two or three years ago when we were contemplating this matter, as a UK CEED board member I was deeply anxious that, on the sensitive nuclear issue, the process would be hijacked by the ultras and descend into confusion. However, I need not have worried. The process has in fact precisely the opposite effect. The panel of lay people quickly recognised that bodies like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have their own agendas, and are more concerned with publicity for their own causes than with helping to find a solution to the problem under study. On the final day of that panel's report in public, many witnessed the members shaking their heads sadly as, with his back to them, Charles Secrett, director of Friends of the Earth, delivered his comments on the findings. They realised, as I recognised, that the kind of openness and transparency inherent in the Consensus Conference process is what puts the single issue groups in their proper place. Yes, voices to be heard, but only one of many.

A similar moment of truth came for me during the course of our inquiry. My noble friend Lady Platt of Writtle examined the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, and Dr Helen Wallace of Greenpeace on their attitudes to shareholder consultation. I shall quote the exchange, in the hope that I am not pre-empting my noble friend. Question 4.70 of the oral evidence stated: If society were to decide, by whatever process, that disposal is the best option, then would Greenpeace be prepared to contribute to the debate on taking this concept forward, and select the location for a site in the United Kingdom? If so, what features would you like to see in any future site exercise? That was the question from my noble friend. The noble Lord, Lord Melchett, answered that as follows: The short answer to that, my Lady, is no". Honestly, one does not really need to say more than that. I hope that Ministers will take account of that. Mr Meacher has a good deal to do to convince the scientific community that he recognises the place of those groups in the scheme of things and that he will not give a wholly disproportionate weight to the single issue fanatics.

I am to be followed in this debate by the noble Lord, Lord Flowers. The committee's report, like the Flowers report of 20 years ago, must be seen as a major milestone on the way to finding a solution. I hope that its recommendations will be closely followed over the years ahead. I only wish that when I was Secretary of State I had had the kind of guidance, particularly in the public acceptability chapter, available to my successors. We tried to find a solution—I went back and revisited the files on the issue—but, like everyone else at the time, we were locked into the "DAD" mindset: decide, announce, defend. That was why we failed. This Government will have no excuse for failing again.


Lord Flowers

My Lords, I too should declare that I spent many years of my life in, or close to, the nuclear industry although that is no longer the case. I hope that I shall be forgiven if I do not follow the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, although I believe that I agreed with everything he said.

I listened to the distinguished speech of the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, with great interest, as I am sure did the whole House. I am glad that my friend and colleague from Imperial College is now my noble friend.

The noble Lord, Lord Tombs, gave the members of his sub-committee an enjoyable, if at some times exhausting, run for our money. Of particular value were the visits that we paid to other countries which struggle to safeguard nuclear waste. Some of them had gone further than we had in Britain, and that boosted our belief that the matter was not insoluble, as some would have us think.

The noble Lord, Lord Tombs, has given an excellent account of our findings and I certainly do not intend to repeat them. I want only, first, to emphasise our firm conclusion that what is required and can be provided is "phased geological disposal". That includes a vital element of long-term monitoring, and postpones the need for irreversible actions until it is generally agreed to be safe to take them.

There is no realistic alternative to phased geological disposal. Some propose that waste can be stored indefinitely on the surface. Certainly it can be kept alongside the power station that produces it during the life of that station—50 years or so, but indefinite surface storage would be irresponsible, given the need for maintenance and periodic hazardous repackaging, and the political instabilities that are likely over many hundreds of years.

Secondly, we proposed a sequence of actions by which there would be full public consultation at every stage of the process over 25 years or more, together with properly appointed bodies to oversee and manage the whole long enterprise. We now await the Government's own consultation process—I must confess with some unease, because it is not a matter that should any longer be delayed and I am not encouraged by the government response to think that it will not be.

Throughout our inquiry I was reminded of a much earlier inquiry referred to briefly by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, which was conducted by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, which at the time I chaired. In 1976 it produced a report entitled Nuclear Power and the Environment. In it we recommended that there should be no commitment to a large programme of nuclear power until it had been shown beyond reasonable doubt that the waste could be safeguarded for the indefinite future.

Those were the days when the industry was pushing for an absurdly large nuclear programme, which it is certainly not doing now. In any case, there is no point in making such a recommendation today. Thanks to several decades of civil and military production, the waste now exists in quantity and has to be dealt with. Neither expansion, nor indeed contraction, of production will greatly affect the scale of the problem to which we are now irrevocably committed.

However, global warming is also upon us, and it is generally agreed that we must reduce carbon emissions as a sensible precaution. Renewable resources seem unlikely to substitute effectively for oil and gas, at any rate for many decades. In these circumstances, there will surely be fresh demands for nuclear power in the coming decades.

If that happens, as I believe it will, the situation envisaged in the 1976 report could recur, whereby nuclear production is to be held back pending resolution of the disposal problem. That is why it is so important that we lose no more time getting to grips with it. We have already had the expensive failure of Nirex at Sellafield, which represents a considerable delay. Further delay may well put the future of our electricity production in jeopardy.

There is a further lesson briefly to be drawn from a comparison between the 1976 report and the present one. The Royal Commission could not fail to notice the arrogance and condescension of the leaders of the nuclear industry in those days towards all environmental criticism. Nowadays, the tables are precisely turned. Now it is the leaders of the environmental movement who are arrogant and condescending, not even, as the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, mentioned, willing to accept an adverse decision of Parliament.

No doubt arrogance is endemic to public life. Lack of it is described as "grey". But arrogance contributes not a jot to the solution of great technological problems. What we need now is concerted hard work in which those who provide the technology and those who care for the environment gradually learn to trust each other to seek agreed solutions.

The programme of consultations, decisions and actions proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, provides the necessary public framework. I hope that the Government, when they have done their own consultation, will agree to implement it.

12.8 p.m.

The Earl of Cranbrook

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Flowers, for whose wisdom I have the greatest respect. I am glad that, as I depart from this House, he and others, who have reached their position on these red Benches by merit rather than by the anachronistic but biological process of birth, will be here to carry forward the wisdom and integrity of the House.

I pay tribute also to the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, for his vigorous and clear-sighted chairmanship, based, as he said, on his long familiarity with the issues. The noble Lord has politely and sensibly deferred his comments on the Government's reply until his winding up remarks. We do not have that opportunity, and I shall follow my noble friend Lord Jenkin in responding to the Government's position as stated in that response.

I should like to say how strongly I endorse the principal conclusions of our report. We avoided alarmist language but there are clearly very hard reasons for concern about the management of nuclear waste in our country. We make the point that there is a large legacy of existing and predicted waste that must be dealt with. We present the organisational arrangements, which are not satisfactory at the moment. We recognise that past approaches to find a solution have not worked, and we recognise that radioactive waste management is no less profoundly serious an issue now than it was in 1976 when the Royal Commission, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Flowers, first looked at it.

I read a few extracts from another report. A committee of your Lordships' House stated that it believed that, steady progress towards a solution of the radioactive waste problem should be independent of any decisions on the future of nuclear power … The need to take the first steps now does not mean that unsatisfactory solutions will be imposed in an arbitrary way without due consideration. The date of commencing actual disposal operations is a political and not a technical decision". The committee believed that, the nuclear industry and the regulatory authorities have to learn how to make better and more frequent use of the mass communication media … The history of sudden and rapid shifts in United Kingdom policy can hardly have improved public confidence". I do not need to go on. That was the report of a committee which I chaired in 1988. What has happened since? The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, says that he hopes our present report will be a landmark. It deserves to be because it is extremely sound and has excellent opinions. But there has been no shortage of sound and excellent opinions in the past and no government of any colour or description have taken sufficient notice of them.

This is a problem shared with, let us say, the world and certainly with our fellow citizens of Europe. There are those among us who have enjoyed the benefits of a secure power supply from nuclear facilities; we enjoy the benefits of radiotherapy when we are sick; and—perhaps this is more contentious—we have enjoyed relative stability and world peace during the fearsome confrontation period when the policy was defined as "mutually-assured destruction".

Let us consider briefly what is happening in the European Community. The European Parliament is engaged in very much the same debate. The report by Mr Giles Chichester, MEP, is available on the European parliamentary web. On the 22nd of this month the Parliament discussed the urgency of the problem of decommissioning nuclear power stations and other nuclear installations in Europe where there are 128 nuclear power stations in service and 39 being decommissioned.

At European Community level there is now serious concern over the decommissioning of the JRC installations that were installed in the first heady days of the EURATOM treaty of 1957 when EURATOM was given the task of contributing to the speedy establishment and growth of nuclear industries by creating the requisite conditions. It did so by setting up research stations which were scattered through Europe. One of those stations—Ispra—has been closed for a long time. Decommissioning has become a serious issue. The Commission's recent report, Cm. No. 114, recognises that the continuing maintenance of those research centres presents a steady drain on resources and an increasing risk to the environment. The safe disposal of the nuclear materials in those sites is now an urgent problem.

Our Government contribute to the decisions made in Europe through the Environment Council. I should like to ask the noble Lord how seriously our Government take this issue and how seriously they are urging the European Community to reach decisions on those facilities for which the Community as a whole is responsible.

In the Select Committee we had a small discussion on exactly to whom our report was to be addressed. The noble Lord, Lord Tombs, will remember very well what I said, which was that we were approaching devolution. Our report was published at the end of March, just a few days before the devolved Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament were instituted, although they did not, of course, become active until July.

The noble Lord, Lord Tombs, will remember that I wanted to address our report to the entire devolved administrative system which was about to be set up. As is still the case in legal documents in this day and age where "his" refers to "his or hers", we agreed that "Government and Parliament" should refer to the governance and the assemblies or Parliament throughout the devolved institutions that were about to be set up. I am pleased to note that, in the introduction to their reply, the Government clearly state: The Government and the devolved administrations propose to publish a detailed and wide-ranging consultation paper early in 2000". That is admirable. But, necessarily, I ask the noble Lord who will reply what consultations he or his department have undertaken with the devolved administrations. What debate have those devolved administrations engaged in to enable the noble Lord to make that very positive statement? I believe it is an extremely important statement because, unless we involve the devolved administrations, we shall not get anywhere at all. Therefore, although I agree firmly with my noble friend Lord Jenkin that Parliament must be the absolute arbiter, under the devolved arrangements there is not now only one parliament. There are parliaments and assemblies which must be involved.

We are agreed that the process should involve people. I rather abhor the phrase "the public". Some of the Eastern languages which I speak have a way of saying "you" which either means "you and me" or "you and not me". I have a feeling that when we use the word "public", we tend to mean somebody who is not us. I believe that we should talk about people and that we should go further. Instead of saying "the public", we should say "my spouse and I and our children and our grandchildren think this". I believe that that is the way in which the process must devolve. It must involve people.

The noble Lord, Lord Winston, aptly illustrated the public mistrust of science. The noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, gave us a brilliant exposition of science. I understand what risk means, and the noble Lord, Lord Flowers, gave a balanced view of risks. But, as my noble friend Lord Jenkin emphasised, it is not perverse of people to be unpersuaded by the cold facts of science. Through the focus groups and through the people's juries, we know more and more about the way that sensible people can reach sensible decisions. However, even sensible people are not persuaded by facts and figures. I remember that the noble Lord, Lord Howie, who has now left his place, became involved in a debate on exactly what is meant by "probability", which we all remember.

These are unfamiliar terms, and the hazards are so horrible that you cannot expect people to have balanced mathematical approaches to those hazards. Inevitably, the risks are more feared than the equally terrible but much more familiar road accidents, which have taken away a significant number of people, including in my case, close relatives. If we were to look around us, I believe we should all find that we had lost friends and relations through car accidents. None the less, we all drive.

We have agreed—and the report is very firm on this—that the public must have a say. There are processes for involving the public; there are processes for involving people; and, because I shall not be here, there are processes for involving in the future my spouse and my children.

In this report we recognise that one of the major institutional perversities of the present system is the planning system. We refer to this in paragraphs 5.35 and 5.36 where we call for improvements. The Government have responded to that by reference to their own documents. They have referred to the consultation paper, Modernising Planning—Streamlining the processing of major projects through the planning system. They have not referred to the paper by the right honourable Richard Caborn, published in April 1999 and also entitled Modernising Planning. There is also a document called Planning Policy Guidance Note No. 11 on the subject of regional planning.

Those are tinkering documents. Essentially, they are conservative with a small "c". I therefore hope that the Minister will say that the modifications to the planning system are anathema to the Prime Minister. They are not a solution to our present problem. As the report makes clear, we need a widespread process to develop a consensus.

I have already referred to the importance of involving the new devolved assemblies and the Scottish Parliament. The Welsh Assembly has responsibilities for sustainable development. I praise the Government in their approach to sustainable waste management in England. Their publication, A Way with Waste, recognises that waste solutions are an essential part of sustainable development. As the noble Lord, Lord Flowers, said as long ago as 1976, we should not develop any process until there is in hand a scheme for disposing of the waste that will be created. That is a key element in sustainable development.

The UK Round Table on Sustainable Development recommended that the Scottish Parliament should charge its Executive with the same duties that the Welsh Assembly is charged with by statute. The regional development agencies are charged with sustainable development duties. Each of those should be reminded by the Government that sustainable development carries within itself the concept of sustainable management of waste. As I have emphasised, every one of us benefits from the nuclear facilities we have, be it through power, medicine or, probably, defence. This task must involve not only the Government but the entire gamut of regional and devolved administrative, consultative and policy-making institutions set up by them.

We are beginning to understand the exercise of the new devolved system in the United Kingdom. It is important that that whole system should be brought to bear on this problem.

12.21 p.m.

Baroness Platt of Writtle

My Lords, first, I join other noble Lords in welcoming to this House the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh. After hearing his fascinating speech and knowing of his reputation in the past, we are grateful that he is to join our committee in the future.

As has been said, our report was published in March. The government response was finally published four days ago, on 25th October. I hoped that it would at least agree with our emphasis on the urgency of the present situation. I am glad that they will publish a consultation document in early 2000. However, nearly all the other recommendations of our report seem to be put off and we are left with little government encouragement after all our careful work.

As mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Winston, there is a whiff of procrastination about decision-making in the future, which we believe is wrong. The time taken to arrive at decisions must depend, as we and the Government say, on public consultation. Nevertheless, the programme will need government drive with all patties behind it if safety is to be safeguarded for future generations.

It is nearly two years since Lord Phillips of Ellesmere, who chaired the main Select Committee on Science and Technology, suggested with his customary courage that we should study this difficult subject. He chaired our sub-committee expertly and openly until his illness overcame him and, to our great sadness, he died. The noble Lord, Lord Tombs, stepped into the breach magnificently, as always. He chaired the committee equally expertly until the publication of our report. We were fortunate in the experience and expertise of both of our chairmen, our expert adviser, Ms Marion Hill, and our clerk, Don Rolt.

As we all knew from the start, the problem of the management of nuclear waste is unique in its difficulty, bearing in mind its hazardous nature and the fact that the hazard may continue for hundreds of thousands of years. Some people may wish to bury their heads in the sand and put off decisions for as long as possible, emphasising the long-term nature of the hazard. We took the opposite view: that waste exists as a result of past civil and military nuclear programmes. It will not go away. Whatever decisions are made in future about nuclear power and the reprocessing of spent fuel, it will continue to exist and must be dealt with. We owe that responsibility to future generations so that they too can continue to deal with it safely and responsibly.

Our consultations with witnesses were all open to the public. Many witnesses with considerable expertise provided evidence, both written and in person, which again is published. We believe deeply in the importance of openness and transparency in dealing with this difficult subject in order to build up public trust in the future. We therefore operated in that manner during our inquiry.

Members of the committee travelled abroad to gather international opinion on the options available for disposal as it is an international question; for instance, disposal on the bed of the deep ocean might have been a feasible solution but is now prohibited by international agreements.

It is clear that while learning from each other's experience and sharing expertise, individual nations will have to make their own responsible decisions for disposal of their own nuclear waste. As research continues internationally, results need to be available to all nations so that they can benefit in their future decision-making. However, we were impressed by the majority view from the scientific and technological communities world-wide in favour of deep geological disposal.

Our conclusion, therefore, is also in favour of phased deep geological disposal in a repository where the waste can be monitored and, if necessary, retrieved; the repository being kept open while research data is accumulated and closed only when there is sufficient competence to do so. That is a key decision of our committee.

We hope that a long time-scale of open consultation and public government decision-making, which we expect to stretch over a period of about 24 years, will build up public trust and acceptance of the resultant programme set out on pages 51 and 52 of our report, including a timetable of many years. We believe that our suggested programme of parliamentary and government decision-making, interspersed stage by stage with open and transparent consultation, is the best way to build up that trust. We set out our suggested programme, including the publication of both Green and White Papers, for consideration, both publicly and by Parliament, as an important stage in the process leading to a Bill establishing future policy.

I am glad to say that the Government's response accepts the need for that kind of consultation before controversial decisions are made. However, these nettles will need to be grasped firmly in future. That will include establishment of a nuclear waste management commission, outside government, which, to begin with, can operate in a non-statutory way in gathering public opinion. A Bill would later give it powers of oversight. It must operate openly, making annual reports, have expert scientific and technical staff, and be properly funded over a long period so that it can carry out necessary research and maintain records of research already carried out. In that context, I was glad to see that the Government, in their response, specifically value the strong research base and expertise of Nirex in the mean time.

The commission will also need to ensure adequate long-term funding for repository development, operation and closure by the Government. The Environment Agency needs to be given statutory powers over the storage of nuclear waste, not only on civilian sites but also, over a period, on military sites to ensure similar safety standards. I am glad the Government give encouragement to that.

Eventually, there will be a need to design, construct, operate and close repositories. For that, we recommend the setting up of a radioactive waste disposal company, industry and MoD-based, which will also have to operate in an open way. At that point, Nirex and RWMAC should be disbanded.

With the Bill through Parliament, the commission and company in place reporting annually to Parliament and the public, the most difficult part of the operation will need to start. I refer to selecting a site or sites for the repository. We are all deeply aware of the NIMBY (not in my back yard) syndrome. I was involved as a councillor in Essex's fiercely fought battle against the third London airport at Stansted. However, one of the things one learns in public life is that one cannot win them all, and the site for the third London airport, sadly, is in Essex.

Similarly, the actual site or sites will have to be found for this repository or repositories. The search must be open, transparent and involve the public, especially the local population who must be compensated practically for the blight that may be caused. We have not been good at that in the past as a nation. We must consider the anxieties of individuals and the local authority in planning practical support, both financially and in terms of local infrastructure, in good time and make sure that the scale of support is well known locally.

There is no doubt of the public's anxiety about the consequences of the disposal of nuclear waste, both in its extreme form by single issue groups, to which my noble friend Lord Jenkin referred, but also through its technical complexity and lack of understanding of the effects of radiation by the general public. There will be a need for patient and clear explanation by the scientists, as illustrated by the example given by the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, this morning, and the technologies involved. Public education will take time. The media need also to present balanced, factual information and to seek confrontation and sensational stories less avidly if a good decision is eventually to be reached.

The present storage is not designed to last for ever, and within 50 years the waste will need to be repackaged and transferred if proper decisions have not been laid long before that. That would mean leaving a crisis legacy to our grandchildren, which is neither right nor proper, nor is it responsible. The nettle needs to be grasped now to set our timetable lines of action in motion so that a stable and controllable situation is left for future generations. The Government need to start that action without delay.

12.32 p.m.

The Earl of Shannon

My Lords, we should all be grateful to my noble friend Lord Tombs and his sub-committee for this well-prepared report on a subject which has, for far too long, been one of weeping, wailing, hand-wringing and wondering where to go, especially by green pressure groups.

It was in October 1997 when I tried, by means of a debate in your Lordships' House, to draw your Lordships' attention to the problems of disposal of high level nuclear waste. At the time I was unaware that the Select Committee on Science and Technology had only just decided to form a sub-committee to inquire into that subject. Unfortunately for me, that deprived me of what should have been the star speakers in my debate, as they were all now members of the sub-committee. However, the debate proceeded, albeit slightly lamely, and I drew your Lordships' attention to the neglected use of synthetic titanium ceramic rock instead of borosilicate glass for the safe encapsulation of high level and possibly other nuclear waste. I was privileged later to give evidence to the subcommittee. In the meantime, I was invited to join the company, Synroc International Limited, which was trying to encourage the use of such synthetic rock, and so I must now declare that interest.

I do not wish to go over my evidence again or what I said in the debate of 1997, save to emphasise that borosilicate glass, admirable in its day, came into use for the purpose of packaging high level nuclear waste, although comparatively less research had been done into it, unlike ceramic which had been researched to death for 15 years, all of which has been highly satisfactory. Yet it was never used commercially and the original patents have expired. The organisation originally possessed of the proprietary rights for commercialisation proudly announces that it has had a continuing programme of research but omits to say how it failed commercially. All that is now past and new technology from elsewhere is available.

As your Lordships may know, I have been extolling the use of titanium ceramic as being today's technology over glass; but I now find that I may be in error. There is yet another technology—described in paragraph 3.10 of this excellent report we are now debating—which in my opinion is set fair to become tomorrow's, if not today's, technology. I refer to transmutation, already well researched and a fully viable technology, especially for surplus plutonium. The only bar to its use so far seems to be the totally uneconomic and large size of accelerators, apart from physical or chemical partitioning, to provide the necessary energy to the protons used in the bombardment of the waste.

So there is an accepted technology, unable to be used owing to the uneconomic size of parts of the equipment. However, recent developments show that with backward wave linear accelerators of Los Alamos connection, protons can be given the necessary energy and, through a subcritical nuclear reactor to process nuclear waste by splitting long-lived actinides into short-lived isotopes, at the same time produce useful energy. Being a subcritical reactor, there is no question of any possible damage to the environment, any more than would result from an accident at a big contemporary, non-nuclear power station.

Even this BWLAP technology produces a requirement for an unfortunately large accelerator. But there is better news yet with the latest technology incorporating a three-dimensional accelerator. The size of the accelerator comes down to a manageable, and even almost portable, unit of a 10-metre cube, giving the possibility of its additional use in medical and other industrial or security projects.

In this excellent report we have the recommendation that we should have a nuclear waste management commission. I heartily support that and can only hope that they will see and use the advantages of the newer and later technologies which provide for the better immediate packaging of high level waste with ceramics, rather than the ageing leaking glass and, best of all, render the waste far less radioactive as well. This will, of course, facilitate the use of phased, safe, deep deposit in areas at present undesirable on hydrological or other grounds.

Please let us not allow the new technology to become, as has happened for so many years with the ceramics, just a professor's "toy" and the subject of continuing endless research without practical application. Perhaps we may hope that the Government will produce their fully comprehensive policy as quickly as possible, for both parliamentary and public acceptance, so that the proposed commission can get to work and help to solve this pressing problem.

12.40 p.m.

Baroness Hogg

My Lords, as a member of the sub-committee, I have interests to declare in the chairmanship of an economic consultancy working in the energy field and as a former director of the Energy Group.

In contributing to this important debate—what a pleasure to hear the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, and what a sadness to think that we shall hear no more from the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, or even from his mobile phone—I should like to join other members of the Select Committee in thanking the Government for their response but in a tone somewhat tinged by disappointment. They are in danger of entering a closed loop on this issue. It is essential that a policy for the disposal of nuclear waste should command general support. But policy does not create itself. The general attitude to the problem can be expressed as hoping that if this particular sleeping dog is left to lie, someone may have a better idea of how to manage it when it wakes up.

Of course, it is true that immediate solutions are not needed, but that attitude can lead to sheer irresponsibility with respect to the issues involved in the use of nuclear power. The ongoing management of nuclear waste from our use of energy is enough of a burden to pass on to future generations. It would be quite unconscionable to pass on all the burden of thinking about it as well.

I commend the Government on undertaking to begin consultation in the new year. However, I have to say that their reluctance to commit to a timetable for the whole process of policy formulation fills me with gloom. With merely the intention to "see how consultation goes", it seems to me rather too clear that successive Ministers will find it easy to dump the problem in the too difficult box labelled, "Leave for my successor".

The Government have rejected the committee's advice to appoint a commission to undertake this consultation exercise. To be fair, I think that the arguments for doing so are indeed finely balanced. On the one hand, if a commission comes up with a policy that Ministers do not like, the process of policy formulation becomes more rather than less difficult. On the other hand, a commission might attract greater public trust than politicians or their Civil Service departments, so that its proposed solution would be more likely to command support or at least acquiescence.

I would assert that with greater confidence if there were not evidence of greater mistrust in scientists than in the past, making it rather harder to believe that a committee of experts could walk where Whitehall fears to go. But to my mind, the clinching argument in favour of a commission undertaking this work is its visibility. Government is perpetually consulting on almost anything that you care to mention, for indefinable periods of time and a range of reasons, including a simple desire to prevaricate. A visible commission would be under much greater pressure to complete its work and report.

The Government are right to say that such a commission could not sensibly consult and advise on whether it should itself have charge of the process of disposal. But if Ministers understood that to be the recommendation of the committee, there must have been a failure of communication. Once policy had been decided by Ministers and legislated on by Westminster, a new statutory commission, essentially different from the original advisory commission, would of course have to be appointed. The Government are hedging their bets by saying that decisions on management should await the outcome of consultation. That is reasonable enough. But in declining to express a view even on the advisability of appointing a statutory commission, answerable to Parliament, to oversee management, I think that they are being just a little constipated.

There is one other issue of acceptability that I should like to stress. The mechanisms of consultation and consensus-building are important in the development of a viable national policy. But they are, as our report emphasises, quite distinct from the problems involved in securing local agreement to a disposal site. National consensus on such issues, however carefully constructed, will always be fragile. I do not believe that it can or should be mobilised to force acceptance of a disposal site on any local community. I personally believe strongly that we must proceed, as the Swedes are doing, only on the basis of consent.

That has some very important implications. Most obviously, there will be no hope of achieving agreement unless a particular local community sees some benefit. That, of course, strengthens arguments for proximity between production and disposal. But let us make no mistake about it—achieving acceptance will depend not merely on government sensitivity but also on government generosity. The usual Treasury attitude, which is to concede as little as possible to begin with in the hope of ending up without spending too much, would be highly counter-productive. On this most sensitive of issues, I believe that—as in Sweden—the views of the local community must be respected. Once lost, the local argument cannot be rewon. Therefore, Whitehall must learn from past mistakes in this respect, and think well ahead.

Our report ranged widely not only over the science of disposal, but also over the perception of risk and the issues of accountability and acceptability. We did not, of course, all agree on all issues. I should, therefore, like to pay heart-felt tribute to our chairmen: Lord Phillips, who is so much missed, and the noble Lord, Lord Tombs. The noble Lord, Lord Tombs, showed immense skill in achieving consensus and bringing this inquiry to a substantial conclusion. His achievement has been to lay out a way forward for government in this difficult area. I hope that his efforts will not be wasted.

12.46 p.m.

Lord Cavendish of Furness

My Lords, it is difficult to exaggerate the debt of gratitude owed to the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, and his colleagues on the Select Committee for this remarkable document entitled, Management of Nuclear Waste. I join other noble Lords enthusiastically in welcoming the report, which is more than just an excellent review of the present position. It is also more than just a series of recommendations, good as they may be. It seems to me that it presents the Government with a wonderful opportunity because it provides a new foundation upon which to build a clear policy for the future management of nuclear waste. Moreover, it unambiguously services notice that this is a national issue of first importance and that it should no longer be delayed.

As some noble Lords may know, I was involved in the issue of nuclear waste when I had the honour to serve for six years as a director of UK Nirex Limited, appointed by the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. For a time, I was a colleague of the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, whose maiden speech it was such an extraordinary pleasure to hear. As it happens, in June of this year I was hugely gratified, and slightly surprised, to be re-appointed by the present Secretary of State. Unfortunately, I do not think that I measured up to his exacting standards because I survived in that position for only a day—or was it a day and a half?

I cannot let this occasion pass without saying how greatly I was struck, as a director of Nirex, by the tremendous professionalism and commitment I found among Nirex staff at all levels. There was also a vast base of knowledge and experience in that relatively small organisation. It has been and remains an anxiety of mine that the considerable values that have accumulated through science programmes and other work could be lost, perhaps by accident.

New organisations are envisaged in this Select Committee report. If the existing structure of Nirex were dismantled, I earnestly hope that the Government would take a lead in protecting—or cause to be protected—the assets that successor organisations could take advantage of. I pay tribute also to the chairmen under whom I worked at Nirex. I believe that Nirex was fortunate in the leadership of both chairmen with whom I worked: first, Sir Richard Morris and then the present chairman, Mr. David Bonsor. They did, and continue to do, a wonderful job, often operating in extremely difficult circumstances.

Nirex has never been short of critics and the company itself acknowledges that many lessons were to be learned from the events leading up to the refusal of planning permission for the rock characterisation facility in Cumbria. Science, as my noble friend Lord Jenkin says, is not enough. First and foremost is the approach to gaining public acceptance for any policy on how best to deal with radioactive waste. The report is, I am sure, absolutely correct, as other noble Lords have said, in recognising that full consultation in an atmosphere of openness and transparency will be essential if any government policy is to succeed.

I and, I am told, former Nirex colleagues welcome the Government's intention to consult on all aspects of policy and policy development so that the whole landscape can be minutely explored and thought through before attempting to move forward. I understand that Nirex has just implemented its own transparency policy which is designed to give interested parties access to the scientific and technical information needed to take decisions. This is an important step forward and a practical demonstration of how lessons have been learnt by Nirex.

Mistakes were made in the past but the central fact remains that radioactive waste exists—as my noble friend Lady Platt said—and more is being produced as we speak. It is simply unacceptable for anyone to try to ignore the problem and hope that something turns up eventually to "magic" this beastly material away. Britain has to develop a long-term policy designed to protect current and future generations from the hazards posed by this material.

Further work and further consultation are essential features of any future strategy. I join the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, and other noble Lords in commending the conference organised by UK CEED—in which noble Lords were so much involved—last May. It seemed to me an excellent example of how to involve a broad spectrum of people in discussions with policy makers. It showed that when people learn about issues of site selection, risk analysis and how one can engineer practical solutions to problems, they in turn pose highly intelligent questions which need good and proper answers from the experts. This, I venture to suggest, is the way to generate trust and reduce fear. The technicians and the decision makers need to learn from such exercises and design processes that take account of the concerns of people at large. Only then will there be any measure of public acceptance for any future policy.

There is one aspect to this debate that needs consideration. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, who will reply for the Government, makes no secret of his membership of Friends of the Earth and therefore probably knows better than I what is the current thinking of Friends of the Earth and other "green" NGOs towards building a repository. I hope that he may take the opportunity of telling us that. In the past it seemed always to me that they adopted a tactical and ideological line which held that the very concept of a repository was to be opposed because it enhanced the nuclear industry's chance of securing new build once this generation of nuclear power stations is decommissioned. This of course generated contrived criticism and gratuitous hostility towards Nirex. What the "greens" most feared, put simply, was a solution being found to the intractable problem of nuclear waste.

The question of whether Britain maintains the option to build new nuclear generating capacity will be central to future debates. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, touched on that point. I do not think that that is a matter for today's debate but I hope that it will be decided sooner rather than later because it is such a closely related matter. But today we can all concentrate on the issue in hand which is that radioactive waste exists, more is going to be produced, especially with decommissioning, and the country needs to have a long-term policy on the safest place for these materials. It seems to me self-evident that below ground is better than on the surface.

The issue of the science is another area of much discussion. I welcome the Government's intention to review all the science of deep disposal to see exactly where more work needs to be done and where there are areas of consensus. Obviously, there needs to be a sound scientific underpinning to the whole endeavour.

The issue of radioactive waste is one where there are few if any votes to be won. This is an area where the population relies on the Government to do what is right rather than what is electorally expedient. Like radioactive materials, governments also have half lives. All administrations decay with time; their will and their authority decline. But this Government are relatively young and on this issue Ministers can surely dispense with political advice and do what Ministers should do, which is decide. With a huge majority in another place the Government have the chance to develop and implement a policy on radioactive waste management that will serve the country well for generations to come. It will be an enduring achievement of Ministers if they accept this challenge.

12.55 p.m.

Lord Chorley

My Lords, I begin by congratulating my noble friend Lord Oxburgh on a marvellous and important maiden speech. He is a great addition to this House.

I put my name down to speak in this debate on this excellent report for two reasons, although I can claim no expertise at all on the subject. First, like my noble friend Lord Flowers, I believe that it is likely that the global warming problem of fossil fuels may give rise to strong pressures to return to nuclear power generation. We should remember that if the economies of China and India take off in a sustained and serious fashion in the years ahead, the current level of CO2 emissions will seem rather modest if they have to rely on fossil fuels. Therefore, industry and government need to find acceptable ways—both technically, and, just as importantly, politically—to deal with nuclear wastes.

The second reason I want to speak in this debate is that the nuclear waste problem is part of a much wider problem which is, in large measure, a political problem. I refer of course to the public perception of risk and the widening gap between actual risk and perceived risk on which many have spoken with great effect, in particular the noble Lord, Lord Winston. There is, indeed, a breathtaking muddle-headedness, particularly in the media, leading to deep suspicion of science, scientists, engineers and technical experts. I shall return to that point.

I found the technical side of the report thorough and convincing and I can readily go along with the basic but important conclusion of "phased geological disposal". I find irresponsible, to put it no higher, the much touted "indefinite surface storage" proposals which are based on the hope that something better might turn up and which are advanced by some of the so-called "environmental organisations". Indeed, I sometimes wonder whether they want to find any solution. In that connection, I noted with the greatest interest the quote from the report from the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, and the question of and answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Platt.

To me, the most important part of the report is chapter 5 on the problems of public acceptability and chapter 6 on policy development and organisational issues. I believe that it is wise to separate the decision on which method or process of disposal should be adopted—which is clearly a national issue—from decisions on which site or sites should be used, which are locational issues. It is wise to separate widely these issues in time—by years—and it is wise that there should be extensive public discussion and that Parliament should be involved at each stage. To recognise that the whole process will take at least 25 years is both prudent and proper. We should be under no illusions, however, that the locational stage—which the noble Baroness, Lady Hogg mentioned—of where to site such facilities will be fraught with difficulty. There is, indeed, a big educational process to be gone through if public acceptability is to be achieved.

It seems to me that this part of the report has been carefully thought through and I look forward to the Minister's response. I have to say that I was not aware that the Government had produced a response. When I inquired at the Printed Paper Office at the end of last week, there had not been a response.

It is in connection with that response that I revert to the issue of public attitudes to risk and the perception of risk in general. I suggest that the wider problem is now becoming a very serious cause for concern which needs to be tackled by government. This report is helpful in this regard, but equally, if government—and for that matter society—also start to tackle the problem on a wider front, it will serve to help in progressing the nuclear waste disposal problem.

The problem I am alluding to arises in its most strident form when we have a disaster such as the recent rail crash at Ladbroke Grove, or equally, for example, at Clapham Junction. It arises in a rather more complex way over BSE and new variant CJD. There are, of course, many other examples, to which there have already been references today. The characteristic of all of them is the demand for, and indeed the implicit notion of, completely safe systems. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, was close to answering questions on this only two days ago.

This problem also gives rise to the well identified paradox that people are happy to take enormous risks in their private lives but react violently against statistically minute risks in the public domain. It gives rise, as I have said, to the unfortunate issue of the credibility and trustworthiness of professional experts. It also gives rise to serious distortions and anomalies in investment decisions. It hampers, delays and distorts policy-making. I suspect that the economic and social costs of those distortions is colossal. Again, the noble Lord, Lord Winston, has given a number of examples. However, I realise that the House is expecting an important announcement in a moment and so I shall not add to the examples that he gave.

In the hot-house world of health and safety regulation, rationality goes out of the window, and so we are left with a situation in which reality—let us call it "measured risk"—is swamped by perceived risk. In other words, the political reality is what is perceived, not what is real. All this is of course well known. It was the subject of an important Royal Society report in 1992. In recent years, the social scientists, through ESRC funding, have done a lot of work in this area. What is not clear to me is whether we are getting any closer to ameliorating the problem.

It seems to me that a huge educational effort led by, but not confined to, government over a period of years is now necessary. I should like to think that this report has shown us part of the way forward. That is valuable, but I rather suspect that a much wider effort will be required.