HL Deb 29 October 1999 vol 606 cc510-28

1.5 p.m.

Debate resumed.

The Earl of Liverpool

My Lords, as so often happens in this House, it is an elegant quirk of fate that it falls to me, as a hereditary Peer who will probably not be with you for very much longer, to thank the Clerk for that announcement and to congratulate all noble Lords who won in the election. If it is not too presumptuous of me to do so, I should like also to commiserate with all those who did not get through. There are more elections coming up and there is still hope for them, I think. Having made those brief remarks, I continue with the debate on the Science and Technology Committee's report.

I speak with some trepidation because I am a rank amateur among so many professionals in your Lordships' House. However, I wish to declare my reason for standing up today. I did speak some five years ago in the debate on the low level waste repository at Billingham, to which my noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding, referred. So maybe this is my swan song but at least there is continuity: I have spoken before on this subject in your Lordships' House.

I join other speakers in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, and all members of his Select Committee, for an excellent report. I thought it very thorough and very detailed. It is a veritable mine of information about the state and size of the problem which faces us, going into great detail. More particularly, as my noble friend Lord Cavendish stated, it is important to future generations. It faces us, but more importantly it faces future generations. It is a sobering prospect to read in paragraph 2.13 that safety assessments of high level waste disposal indicate that potential risks to humans may be significant for hundreds of thousands of years.

This is an international problem. Reading through the report I was interested to see a table which lists in descending order the countries, showing the percentage of electricity generated there by nuclear power stations. Top of the list was Lithuania, with just over 81 per cent of its electricity supply generated by nuclear power. France came second with 78.2 per cent. The United Kingdom was quite a long way down the list, at only 27.5 per cent. I know that we are having a little local difficulty with our neighbours across the Channel at the moment but we share a common problem with the disposal of nuclear waste. Certainly, with their placing on the list, it is a significant problem for them too. I hope that we shall be able to discuss this problem with our neighbours and seek to resolve it in the near future.

It is difficult for me, as an amateur, to understand in volume terms the size of the problem. The report states that the total stock of all radioactive waste as at April 1994 was 40 million terabecquerels. I hope I have got the pronunciation right. Not knowing what terabecquerels were, I turned to the glossary of the report, as suggested. It told me that a terabecquerel was 1012 becquerels. I was still somewhat confused, but I understand from inquiries I have made in the Library that this is a unit to measure the relative speed of nuclear fusion or fission—I am not sure exactly which. However, it still does not enable me to visualise the volume or the weight of this waste. I could not find that anywhere in the report. It would have been of great interest to me to have been able to visualise the actual dimensions in terms of size and scale of the problem. I do not know whether the Minister will be able to enlighten me when he responds.

As my noble friend Lord Cavendish said, this is a big problem. It is getting bigger; and it has to be addressed. I was pleased to see in the report that disposal of radioactive waste in deep oceans has now been excluded effectively as a practical viable option. That had always concerned me. As has been said, the most favoured option is the emplacement of vitrified or synroc high level waste in deep geological formations on land. This would require the creation of deep mined tunnels and caverns. When I read that, my thoughts turned to the possibility of adapting one or two of our disused coal mines. That might make sense; and it would provide employment opportunities in some areas of high unemployment. There may be insurmountable geological problems in doing so. As my noble friend Lady Platt of Writtle said, there is always the NIMBY problem. I do not know whether that suggestion is a "runner", but I hope that at least it may be considered.

The executive summary states that the present policy for waste management in this country is fragmented. It goes on to say that the problems require changes in the organisational structure of waste management. Other noble Lords have referred to that. It proposes the setting up of a nuclear waste management commission and a separate radioactive waste disposal company. When established, those would subsume the role of Nirex and the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee. This seemed like a very sensible suggestion; I know that other noble Lords felt so too. Even if the Government respond with all possible speed to implement the Select Committee's report—it has been said by some noble Lords that they have dragged their feet thus far—the report states that it will take about 21 years even to start construction of some sort of deep mine facility. So time is our enemy; we have to move quickly.

I understand that the Government will be issuing their Green Paper early next year. I hope that the impetus as recommended by the Select Committee will be maintained thereafter.

1.12 p.m.

Lord Craig of Radley

My Lords, I shall leave it to the bench of experts behind me to enlighten the noble Earl on becquerels. Perhaps I may say at the outset what a privilege it was to be a member of the Select Committee which studied this complex and at times emotionally charged topic, under the firm, courteous, expert and enjoyable leadership of the noble Lord, Lord Tombs.

I am pleased that we have had sight of the Government's response as a backdrop to the debate. But what a cautious response it is. The complexities of devolved responsibilities are no doubt an additional factor in the time it has taken to get to even this very cautious preliminary stage. But I was pleased to note the intention to bring as far as possible the Ministry of Defence's nuclear wastes under the civilian regulatory regime. Some of the MoD's holdings will present very difficult problems and their disposal will need very careful handling to sustain public confidence.

When they appeared before our Select Committee in December 1997, the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Prescott, and the Minister of State for the Environment, Mr Meacher, said that they would be very interested in the content of our report, on which we were then just embarking. The new Government recognised, following the collapse of the Nirex proposals, that they had inherited no viable waste management strategy. They would have to start to develop a new one.

Now two years on, we seem to be very little nearer to embarking on a comprehensive and coherent approach. Our 18-month inquiry has pointed a way ahead. I believe that there is great merit in what has been proposed by our committee, even if the Government are not yet ready to adopt our suggestions. But before they embark on their approach, I think that it would be helpful if the Government were to establish very clearly who will have the lead in mapping and progressing the way ahead. What has struck me very forcefully is the spread of responsibility within government for the policy and management of nuclear wastes: DETR, DTI, MoD, the Scottish Office and a number of agencies all have important responsibilities.

If there is to be a joined-up approach to this topic, I hope that there will be agreement as to who will have the lead responsibility. My experience on Select Committees has demonstrated to me more than once that there is a world of difference in dealing with government departments when it is clear that one of them is both in the lead and takes responsibility for co-ordinating a collective, cross-department government response.

I think that the same principle is required when dealing with the wider public and with specialist interest groups on a topic as complex as the management of nuclear wastes. I hope that the Government will be minded to tackle this topic in that way; to make it clear who has the lead responsibility, and not be tempted to rely solely on the multi-departmental committee methods and sometimes unco-ordinated and conflicting statements which may be made on the many issues which arise.

Devolved responsibilities, in particular for the environment, will not make it any easier for central Government to co-ordinate such a response. But would it be acceptable for one part of the United Kingdom to adopt an alternative strategy for nuclear waste management from another? This issue is not in the same league as the question of whether eating beef on the bone is safe or unsafe to human health.

In our report we have devoted a complete chapter to the topic of plutonium, reprocessing and MOX. As we have said, whether spent fuel is reprocessed is a key factor in determining what types and volumes of waste have to be managed. That in turn may well have a bearing on the long-term management strategy that can be adopted. It was clear from our witnesses that there are major conflicting differences of view about reprocessing. I shall not attempt to summarise them now. But what is clear is that a major effort will be required to get a broad measure of agreement on this one aspect alone. If we are to proceed eventually to a form of underground storage, and ultimately underground disposal, it will be difficult if not impossible to make progress on the management issues for the existing quantities of waste without agreement on our longer-term reprocessing strategy.

In their response to our Recommendation No. 1, the Government say that the, quantity and nature of the wastes will be important in considering the relative merits of the various management options". I agree, and so they must have reached a view about the plutonium stocks early in the consultation process. It may be tempting for the Government to argue that this is a commercial matter for the industry to determine. Up to a point I should like to agree with that, but the politics which surround all things nuclear will surely make such a purist approach a non-starter.

In his interesting response to the UK National Consensus Conference held last May, Mr Meacher said that site selection was, "an acutely political issue". I am sure that there is widespread agreement about that. It calls out for a central Government lead.

On all our visits to the other nuclear-generating countries, it was quickly evident that public acceptance of, or at least acquiescence in, the manner of disposal and the handling of nuclear waste had become a major issue. Indeed, there has been some criticism of our report in that it did not dwell sufficiently on the social, as opposed to the technical and scientific, problems. When on behalf of the committee I attended a Cumbrian County Council economy forum, which spent a day discussing our report and a number of other contributions on the subject, one of the points to emerge was that our report was seen as fundamentally science-driven. Some felt that it failed to carry an adequate weight of social and regional economic argument. I do not think that that is altogether fair. We are, after all, a science and technology committee.

Moreover, in a number of paragraphs we have drawn the reader's attention to the experience of other nations with their publics. Sweden—with perhaps the most sophisticated and sympathetic of publics on this issue—was still finding difficulties in getting a firm agreement to the siting of a long-term depository. Societal issues were seen as the challenge. Those required, first, an acceptance of the safety criteria and the concept of reasonable assurance.

Canada, which appointed the Seaborn review panel, found after almost 10 years' work that it would not be possible to proceed with site selection and examination until what it termed the "social issues" had been further addressed. In the United States, both site selection for use as a deep depository and the transportation of nuclear wastes across the continent were key issues of concern.

In France, with its major reliance on nuclear generation—and consequently a greater level of public acceptance of nuclear issues—there is a strong element of financial inducement to local communities to accept a depository site, or the search for one.

In dealing with the complex issues involved in waste disposal, it is our view that it is no longer possible to rely on the "decide, announce, defend" principle to take account of these social pressures. However achieved, the demand is loud and clear for greater transparency and greater openness at every stage. However, I rather fear that those high-sounding phrases conceal a plethora of different and ambiguous meanings to different groups of people. There are some interesting parallels (which the Government will, I hope, consider) between this issue and the recent way in which genetic modification of crops and the BSE and related beef problems have had to be handled to gain, or attempt to gain, public, if not French, acceptance.

Our past approach to nuclear waste management has been shown to be flawed. That legacy will hang around the necks of those who are charged with mapping out and implementing a new way ahead. But the key question for government—it cannot be left to the industry to decide—is whether we go for phased underground disposal. We have proposed in outline, step by step, a way of tackling this all-important question.

I am concerned that the Government's preliminary cautious response will be seen by some as a lack of determination, a lack of resolve—even a lack of will—to take a lead on what will remain one of the most politically demanding long-term issues to be faced. I do not think that it is acceptable to allow the present major uncertainties to run on without resolution. It is time to start in earnest; time, once started, to keep up the momentum to secure an agreed waste management strategy for the long term.

1.24 p.m.

Lord Kirkwood

My Lords, I wish to start by welcoming from these Benches the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, and to congratulate him on his excellent and informative maiden speech. I am sure that we have in our midst a new star to present scientific information to your Lordships.

As the noble Lord, Lord Winston, indicated, this is the last time I shall address the House. I do so with mixed feelings: sadness that I shall no longer have the privilege of sitting in this Chamber and contributing in a small way to the work of your Lordships' House; but the satisfaction of recognising that the hereditary right to attend this House was, in my view, indefensible. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Winston, for his kind remarks. I find it slightly puzzling that suddenly I have been propelled to the Front Bench at the point where I am about to receive an ejection. I suspect that the sudden motion will cause me to be a little unwell.

I hope that the good manners, good sense and judgment that I have experienced in the House will continue throughout the interim period and be passed on to the rim reformed House, whenever it may come into existence.

Perhaps I may now turn to the subject matter of the debate. I was not a member of the sub-committee under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, which prepared the report. There was clearly a long and detailed investigation into the problem of nuclear waste management, involving a great number of witnesses. The sub-committee is to be congratulated on coming up with a good, readable report, with valuable conclusions and recommendations.

One of the points made early in the report, and which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, is that the problem of waste disposal is with us now, even if no further nuclear power stations are built. Like the noble Lord, Lord Flowers, I believe that in the long run we will have to turn to more nuclear power—it will be our only choice—either to reduce atmospheric pollution and global warming, or when fossil fuels are spent.

Furthermore, the high and intermediate level of radioactive waste now existing in surface storage will need to be treated within the next 50 years or we shall run into further problems. These statements seem to be the "givens" from which the debate must proceed.

The Government, in their response to the report, embrace the need for open and transparent consultation with the public in developing a national plan for the management of waste disposal which covers all levels of waste, in order to achieve some consensus, public acceptance and to avoid the mistakes made in the Nirex planning application. This is an excellent start and there seems to be no reason for delaying the start of this exercise, which the Government in their response have scheduled for early 2000, unless there is a blip.

The Government appear to be less than enthusiastic about the recommendation to set up a nuclear waste management commission which would be outside day-to-day government and which would have authority and permanence. They would prefer it to be established, if at all, after widespread consultation. It is difficult to envisage how there could be any co-ordinated management or policy—which the Government agree is necessary—without a single independent body of the type suggested in the report. How will the Government proceed if the creation of such a body is prevented? Will they simply accept that management must continue to be fragmented? One proper role for the consultation exercise is surely to comment on the powers that various bodies should have in relation to one another to provide open and efficient management.

One of the functions suggested for the proposed commission was the co-ordination of all UK research on the long-term management of nuclear waste. At present, it is carried out by Nirex for intermediate-level waste and by the DETR for high-level waste. The benefit of that approach should be the greater transfer of ideas and knowledge across the spectrum of radioactivity level and the avoidance of duplicated work due to lack of communication. That would also allow more long-term research of a generic nature, rather than the narrow problem-solving that is specific to a particular section of the industry, which I believe to be a danger.

I follow the noble Earl, Lord Shannon, in suggesting a new technology—although nothing quite so radical as the one that he suggested. I refer to an account of work carried out by a colleague in the Earth Sciences Department at the University of Sheffield, Dr Fergus Gibb, who is a geologist. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, may see some virtue in this proposal.

It was described at a recent meeting of the British Association which took place earlier this year. It is an example of a solution to the problem of waste disposal which could deal with both high and intermediate-level waste, and possibly plutonium waste. The idea is to lower the still highly active waste in a container down a very deep borehole—to a depth of four to five kilometres. That is much deeper than the 500 metres envisaged at Sellafield. At that depth the highly active waste heats up the surrounding rock to around 850 degrees Celsius. That is hot enough partially to melt the rock within a period of a few days. That process is followed by slow cooling—which is important to provide the right kind of structure—and crystallisation of the rock over a period of years. The container and its waste becomes entombed in a "sarcophagus of solid crystalline granite". It is important to note that at these depths any fluids in the rock do not interact chemically or physically with the groundwater, which is in the top 700 metres of the earth's crust. In principle, that approach could deal with high-level and low-level radioactive waste, as well as with plutonium, should that be declared a waste material. The concept has been demonstrated to work in the laboratory, simulating the pressures that are to be found at a depth of five kilometres. It also happens that at those depths there are large areas of the earth's land surface that have suitable granitic structures so that the siting of the boreholes is not so restrictive. I am well aware that that is not the phased approach recommended by the committee. However, one should keep an open mind in the light of further research.

Much more work remains to be done on such matters as container materials and on fluid circulation at those depths. Nevertheless, the concept of dispersal in very deep boreholes seems an ideal solution for dealing with spent nuclear fuel. As Dr Gibb says, Putting it back into the earth's crust—even deeper than where it came from—is probably the next best thing to never having dug it up in the first place". We need to fund more ideas of that kind to deal with a problem that could have tragic consequences if it is left unsolved.

1.35 p.m.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, it is a double pleasure for me to wind up this debate on behalf of my colleagues on these Benches. My first reaction is one of huge pleasure to be debating the subject again with so many noble Lords who are my former colleagues, from the days when I had the great privilege of serving on the Select Committee on Science and Technology. I have long felt that my time on that committee was the most useful that I have spent in this House.

It is a particular pleasure to add my welcome to the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh. He introduced a perspective on the subject that I had not previously heard. Indeed, he was the only speaker to touch on the physiological aspects of the body's reaction to radiation. That is an important consideration. His remarks added to the contents of the report and I regard them as a great bonus.

I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, may not be in this House for much longer. We on these Benches regret the passing of a number of colleagues at this time. There are many faces that we shall all miss.

The Minister's has also become a familiar face over the past few weeks and in the weeks leading up to the Recess. It is in a sense a pleasure to see him in his place waiting to reply to the debate. I look forward to his remarks.

The failure of the planning application for the rock characterisation facility at Sellafield brings us full circle. I found myself with a feeling of déjá vu as I read the report. I imagine that the feeling was common to many who had to deal with the report. Certainly the state of knowledge has developed since the initial actions undertaken by Nirex which led to that planning application. We know a great deal more today about the scale of the problem. But the problem was there in the 1970s and early 1980s when I was a consultee. Possibilities in my county were suggested. I also had to deal with the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster as they affected local government quite dramatically in certain areas of this country. So I am not wholly unfamiliar with the risks of the nuclear industry.

My first comment relates to an important point touched on by the committee regarding the implications of the refusal for the planning process. I do not intend to go into the report's contents in detail. The House will delighted to hear that I intend merely to touch on two or three subjects. They are largely non-scientific, but are none the less important for that.

There has long been concern about the planning problems for applications involving major national infrastructure. Serious questions have been raised as to whether the conventional planning process is adequate to deal with such applications. The suggestion in the report that the parliamentary process should be involved in these matters to a much greater extent seems to me to be worth while and one that I hope that the Government will consider seriously. I do not say that because the planning process is inappropriate. However, when one is dealing with matters that perforce involve national policy there must be some way to involve the parliamentary process. Further, for the sake of everybody, public inquiries into applications of this nature need to be rather better focused than is the case under existing practice.

My second point concerns risk. The noble Lord, Lord Flowers, and other noble Lords have touched on this matter. All risk is relative. When one deals with these particular matters one does not consider the risk of one solution versus a second or third solution; one is also concerned with the risk of any of those solutions versus the risk of doing nothing. If I have a marginal criticism of the report—I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, will forgive me—it is that it could have said more about the risks involved in doing nothing. I am a life Peer and so am allowed to refer to some worthwhile matters handed down by my father. My father had an aphorism which is all too true in the present situation: there are always reasons why things should not be done. However, we are in a situation where things need to be done.

My third point concerns the need to build public knowledge and acceptability of the risks and the solutions. It does not matter how good is the science, the decision-making process or the politics if the public are not knowledge able about the subject. If the public understand the issues involved, when the point of decision arrives there is at any rate an inclination towards acceptance. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, said that not only must we trust the public, but that we can trust them. I found that intervention particularly pleasing. Unless we build public trust in matters of this kind, acknowledging all the difficulty involved, a solution to the problem is not possible. The need to carry the public all the way through the process is well spelt out in the report.

If I have one other worry about the report, it is that when I finished reading it I thought that perhaps it gave the Government the opportunity for prevarication. I read the report before I received the Government's response. Far be it from me to be cynical, but I believe that the response was generated more by the timing of this debate than any willingness to get on with the issue, which is regrettable. I hope that when the Minister comes to respond to the debate he will give an assurance that it is not the intention of the Government to prevaricate on this immensely important issue.

Two vital steps must be taken: first, the commencement of the process to build public acceptability. It is important that the Government do that. In so doing, I hope that they will clarify the risks involved, all the possible solutions and, most importantly, the risk inherent in doing nothing. Secondly, I hope that when the Minister replies he will give an assurance that the Green Paper referred to in the Government's response will arrive rather more promptly than did the Government's response to the report.

If this report is correct—we can reach conclusions only on the basis of the current state of knowledge and technology—we are looking for structures with a lifetime as long as 200 times that of the great pyramids. That is not only an interesting perspective but also an illustration of the significance of the problem. I welcome the report.

1.46 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, and his committee for producing this report and all noble Lords who have participated in this extraordinarily well informed and, in my case, informative debate. I particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, for his maiden speech in this House. I assure him that the points he makes have been received with considerable interest and will need to be considered in our whole approach to safety management. I also welcome the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Flowers, who I am glad to see back in his place. For a long time he has provided a major insight into this issue. His report in the 1970s was an early milestone in these considerations, none of which has yet been fully resolved.

I should like to place on record the Government's apology for the fact that it was not possible to produce the response before the Summer Recess. As many noble Lords have said, it was our intention originally to produce it earlier. However, it is an exceptionally difficult subject that merits consideration. Having apologised for the timescale of the response, I do not apologise for the content. It may be thin, as my noble friend Lord Winston said, but it is substantive. The response is not prevarication or procrastination. As the committee's own report indicated, it is a recognition of the need both to proceed cautiously and, above all, to consult and take experience and public support with us. I do not regard the response as procrastination but as a sensible recognition of the enormous problems involved, not least the problem of public acceptability.

It is plain from the evidence before the committee, the report itself and the Government's own assessment that there is an enormous amount of anxiety out there. It is also plain that whatever view is taken on the future role of nuclear power, nationally or globally, we already have a problem in addition to any that may result from future decisions. We must put the problem into perspective. I have some sympathy for the noble Earl, Lord Liverpool, in trying to grasp the size of the problem. I can tell him that at the last annual count the total amount of high level and intermediate level waste was 71,000 cubic metres. That is probably a concept he understands better than a becquerel—and a becquerel measures radiological impact, not volume. It is therefore not a huge volume, and only 2.3 per cent is the high-level waste. Nevertheless, the problem is of long-term, immense importance, as many noble Lords have said.

As the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, my noble friend Lord Winston and many others pointed out, an important aspect is public anxiety not only in the UK but elsewhere. Perhaps I misunderstood the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, in his suggestion that political reality was not a reality. In this case, it is a reality with which we must deal in taking decisions on these matters. The anxieties are not originated by the green organisations. Perhaps on occasions, there are distortions, but there are deep anxieties among ordinary people.

That spills over into wider debates about the perception of risk, and government and other leaders of opinion attempt to assess various risks. Many noble Lords have tempted me into that area, including the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith. I am glad to be debating another subject rather than the GLA Bill! Such wider debates are for another day. I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, has an inquiry on the public's perception. It will be intriguing and important for your Lordships to consider.

There are deeply held views on the issue. On the one hand, there are those who are convinced that intermediate and high-level waste should be disposed of in an engineered repository deep underground. They are committed to that. On the other hand, there are those who are not persuaded that we know enough about what will happen to radionuclides disposed of in this way over the long period that they would remain hazardous. In their view, while this uncertainty remains the waste should continue to be stored on the surface in properly constructed stores.

There are not many options. As the noble Earl, Lord Liverpool, indicated, sea disposal is not an option and rightly so. The previous administration considered that radioactive waste should be disposed underground and Nirex was charged with finding a suitable site. But efforts to obtain approval for a rock characterisation facility near Sellafield were proceeded with too hastily. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, referred to the fact that insufficient attention had been paid to the need to achieve consensus either on the principle of deep disposal or on the choice of location. It is not surprising therefore that so much opposition was mounted to the proposals.

There is local and national public opinion, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hogg, pointed out. Some of that public opinion manifests itself through the planning process, to which the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, and the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, referred, and we are taking steps to improve it. But there are planning considerations even after a clear option has been reached.

I was pleased to see the Select Committee recommend so clearly that we need to take time to build a consensus for whatever option is chosen in the long term. In the Government's response, we have wholeheartedly accepted that recommendation. We are currently preparing the consultation paper which will invite views on the approach that should be adopted in the long-term management of radioactive waste. We aim to publish that in the spring of next year. That is our timetable.

We also agree with the Select Committee that the policy on radioactive waste management needs to be fully comprehensive. Nirex's plans for a deep repository during the previous administration covered only intermediate-level waste. Decisions on long-term management need to cover high-level waste as well. The Government have just published the results of a study carried out by the company, Quantisci, which was a government research strategy for high-level waste. The Government also need to consider the Sheffield work, to which the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, referred, on deep borehole solutions.

As the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, mentioned, we also need to take account of military wastes. The Government are in favour of bringing military wastes under the civilian regulatory regime, provided that security and operational effectiveness can be guaranteed. The forthcoming consultation paper will therefore also seek views on the extension of the civilian regime to MoD sites.

Despite the Select Committee's emphasis on the need for full consultations, it opted heavily for its preference for phased geological disposal. It also recommended that wastes disposed of deep underground should be monitorable and retrievable. The Government views the committee's report and recommendation in this respect as the first steps in the consensus-building process. Therefore, it would be wrong for the Government to come to a decision on their preferred option. Nevertheless, it would be right to say that if eventually deep disposal were considered to be the right choice, we would regard monitorability and retrievability as important components of that decision.

The Government have therefore acknowledged that deep disposal may indeed be the only solution. However, I cannot stress too strongly that consultations must first take place. In particular, if disposal is to be the preferred solution, timing will also be a crucial issue.

The Select Committee concluded that a deep repository would be needed in about 2050. If deep disposal is to be the chosen option, the Government agree that this would be about the right target date. As the noble Baroness, Lady Platt, indicated, it is necessary to grasp the nettle somewhat before that. If a decision were to be taken to construct a deep repository, it would take 30 to 40 years from the time of that decision to the disposal of the first waste. Therefore, although 2050 is a long way off, it will not be long before decisions need to be taken on whether we wish to pursue that course. The Select Committee is right, therefore, to emphasise that progress needs to be made. But we have time to consider these difficult issues and therefore there is time for consultation and for bringing the people with you.

As several noble Lords indicated, the most difficult issue of all—assuming that a repository is considered the right solution—is that of site selection. For those outside this House, I need to be clear about the issue and say categorically today that no work is currently taking place on any potential sites. If the time comes when investigations need to start again, that would need to be on the basis of full consultation over the criteria to be adopted for the sites and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hogg, indicated, for local openness and early consultation.

The noble Baroness, the noble Earl, Lord Shannon, and the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, supported the Select Committee's recommendation of establishing a nuclear waste management commission to oversee the implementation of policy. The Government do not consider that the setting up of a new body at this stage would be beneficial during the early stage of consensus building. It could even be counter-productive. In the forthcoming consultation, the Government will be seeking views on the possibility of such an institution or of other institutions to implement and oversee the policy.

In that context, there is also the recommendation that Nirex's role should be taken over by the proposed new commission and disposal company. The noble Lords, Lord Kirkwood and Lord Cavendish, referred to the role of Nirex. The Government consider that Nirex should continue the generic research it is currently undertaking and continue to advise the nuclear industry on the packaging of radioactive waste. The Government are also consulting on other aspects of the planning process, as I have indicated.

The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, and others raised the issue of the multiplicity of government institutions involved. It is not quite as complex as he indicated. The committee's main recommendation was that the Environment Agency should be given statutory power over the storage of waste at nuclear licensed sites. Currently, the HSE is responsible for the safe regulation of these wastes, but its memorandum of understanding with the Environment Agency ensures that the agency's point of view is taken on board. On the wider issue of the number of government departments and institutions involved, I can confirm that my department, the DETR, is in the lead on radioactive waste management, but it is necessary to consult other interested departments as well as the devolved organisations.

The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, also referred to future decisions on importation and reprocessing. The Government are still considering the scope of the consultation on radioactive waste management. They have not yet made a final decision on the review. The reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel from both foreign and UK reactors is carried out in full compliance with all domestic and international regulations. There is only very rarely approval to import licensing. There are a number of decisions to be taken in that respect, as there are in relation to MOX which was also referred to by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig. As your Lordships may know, a consultation exercise was carried out over the summer into the economic case for the MOX plant. The responses to hat are being analysed and announcements will be made about those applications as soon as that process is complete.

The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, the noble Earl, Lord Liverpool, and the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, referred to the international dimension, both in terms of other countries facing similar problems and the need for co-ordination. The UK has a good record for participating in such discussions but at the start of deciding what our option is, it is probably inappropriate at this stage to take a new initiative in international disposals. Nevertheless, we would wish to join in the overall international activity on this front.

With regard to the particular point in relation to European facilities raised by the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, on the disposal of obsolete joint research centre nuclear facilities, it is the case that member countries are being consulted on the decommissioning of these facilities. The Government's concern has been to ensure that the Commission draws up a robust, properly-researched and costed plan for dealing with this.

Going back to the institutional element, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, and others, raised the question of devolution. The Government's response, outlined today, has already been agreed with the devolved administrations which have a role in this matter. It refers to the fact that part of the Select Committee's report covers some issues which are reserved and others which are devolved. The response also confirms that terms of response have been agreed with those administrations. Clearly, when decisions need to be taken on a long-term management of radioactive waste, there will also need to be consultations with devolved administrations.

The noble Earl, Lord Shannon, raised the issue of synthetic titanium rocks, ceramic rock and the work of Synroc Limited. As I understand it, the noble Earl is aware that Synroc has yet to demonstrate the viability of disposal of large volumes of radioactive waste. Nevertheless, the department and the nuclear authorities welcome being kept in touch with these new technologies and also the technology, mentioned by the noble Earl, of transmutation through accelerators for plutonium. We are keeping in touch with developments on all those fronts.

This is a very complex and difficult area. The views expressed during today's debate reflect great experience from various dimensions of the nuclear industry. I myself, although possessing no degree of experience of the industry, share some of the concerns of the noble Earl, Lord Liverpool, about how this is made clear to the public we are about to consult.

I have at various stages in my life had dealings with the nuclear industry. In the 1960s I worked at AEI, Harwell when there was great enthusiasm for nuclear power as the salvation of many of our ills. Indeed, in one sense, at that time nuclear power was seen as the green option for the future. But there were even then doubts about its economics and safety. Along with my noble friend Lord Burlison, I represented the trade union membership which was very much based in Sellafield, with its big interest in the nuclear power industry and economic and employment prospects in the county of Cumbria. There were also safety problems to be addressed. This balance between safety considerations and the undoubted benefit which nuclear power could bring is always there.

In response to the noble Lord, Lord Cavendish, I do pay a subscription to Friends of the Earth. It does not mean I necessarily agree with all their policies. I pay a subscription to the Labour Party as well.

Noble Lords


Lord Whitty

From time to time one disagrees. I personally believe that whatever the share of nuclear power in Britain's energy generation, the world probably needs nuclear power and it is therefore important to get these questions right. Since the end of July, I have taken dual responsibility in this area. I am responsible for the Health and Safety Executive within my department, but I am also responsible, with my colleague Michael Meacher, for the climate change dimension. I believe that nuclear power has a serious role to play and that decisions on nuclear power will be important in getting those very difficult equations right. The safety issue, the contribution to the planet's future energy needs, are all involved here.

In the light of that, it is probably sensible for us to be a little cautious and perhaps a little considered in our response to what is an immensely valuable piece of work by the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, and everyone involved in the committee. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, and the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, that at the appropriate point there will be proper parliamentary consideration of these issues. I have no doubt that as background to that, whenever it comes, this report will play a major part. I would like once again to thank the committee and all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate.

The Earl of Cranbrook

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, since I did give written notice of this question I would be most grateful if he could be more explicit about the nature of the consultation between the Government and the devolved administrations. Can he say whether or not the statement, which I quoted briefly from the introduction to the paper, would be regarded by the devolved administrations as firmly placing their name on that reply? It is very important at this stage of devolution that we should establish what the nature of these processes are, how they can be facilitated, and how there can be unified approach to these problems.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I thought I had made it clear that, so far as devolution is concerned, the devolved assemblies have been fully consulted over this report and are therefore party to it. Clearly, future regulatory requirements and the relationship of any new organisations in this field, were we to pursue the committee's option, would need to be discussed and implemented via, in some respects, the devolved administrations. And, of course, already in Scotland the Scottish Executive and Parliament have the oversight of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency which is one of the major institutions already in this area. There is agreement with the devolved administrations and any forward movement would have to be taken with their agreement.

2.7 p.m.

Lord Tombs

My Lords, we have had a long but comprehensive and useful debate on a subject of great importance to present and future generations. I should like to express my thanks to all the speakers who took part and to those noble Lords who did not take part but listened with great patience.

The noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, made a distinguished and authoritative maiden speech to which many other noble Lords referred with justified admiration. As a long inhabitant of this field, I would observe that very cautious assumptions were made at the beginning of the nuclear process which have survived despite a growing amount of evidence that they are cautious. So I think that the suggestion for a review is extremely timely.

I should like to pick out one or two individual contributions. The noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, drew attention to the fate of past reports, which seem to have a great facility for attracting dust. I hope that this does not prove to be one of them, though I am perhaps less convinced than I sound. The noble Earl mentioned, too, that he had wanted to import the devolutionary problem or mechanism into the report. At that time I took the view that that would probably produce a problem of similar complexity to the one we set out to examine. It may be that the time-scale of the response, to which I shall return later, supports that view.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hogg, made a very penetrating remark that policy does not invent itself. There is a need for leadership in policy. That is a fine balance, of which we were conscious throughout the committee's deliberations—the balance between consulting in an open way and appearing to pre-empt a decision. It is a problem which has obviously troubled the Government and they have come down perhaps rather more in one direction than I would have considered desirable. But I shall say more about that in a moment.

The noble Earl, Lord Liverpool, described himself, I think unfairly, as an amateur. Even if he were, the position of amateurs is very important in this debate. It cannot be left to experts alone because the public generally tend to want to be involved in some way which is not wholly professional. Had he gone on to look beyond terabecquerel to becquerel, he would have found it defined there as one nuclear disintegration per second; and that is a very small amount—hence the use of powers to reach anything of importance. However, in relation to the noble Earl's comments, there is an inverse relationship between the radioactive inventory and the volume of the product involved. One cannot generalise from a radioactive inventory to the size of a repository. Disused coalmines are not likely to be very useful to us. A requirement for a deep geological repository is a stable body of rock. That is almost ruled out by moving chunks of the rock in the course of exploration. Most of our coalmines are in any case very heavily faulted.

Perhaps I may take up the rather distressing criticism of the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood. He felt that we had not spelled out the risk of doing nothing. I thought that we had. I quote two points from the executive summary alone. Point II states: The problem exists and has to be solved". Point IV states: The long time-scales involved might be thought to be a reason for postponing decisions. The contrary is the case, since existing storage arrangements have a limited life and will require replacement, and eventually the repackaging and transfer of stored waste. Reliance on supervision for very long periods increases the probability of human error". Both of those observations are spelled out at length in Chapters 2 and 3 of the report.

Perhaps I may turn to the Minister's response and to the published response of the Government. I said in my opening remarks that I welcomed it. That was more from a sense of relief after the series of false dawns, to which the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, referred. The report accepts the general thrust but proposes an earlier stage of consultation on the methodology—a further consultation. That seems to be not so much taking the first step on a long journey, which is important, but talking to others about how one might be able to take the first step on a long road. I found that somewhat disappointing. In some ways it reflects much of the tone of the report. I shall come back to that point.

It is not easy to understand why it took more than seven months to prepare the report given what amounts to its very general content. I hope that this leisurely pace will not characterise future actions on this important topic. I am very much afraid that it may, particularly in view of the oblique comments made in the report to the consultation of other assemblies. Perhaps we will have a very long discussion about how it might proceed rather when it can start.

Of major importance and something which may offer some amelioration of that essential or inherent delay was the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hogg, and the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood. I had it on my list as an important mechanistic route. We recommended that the national waste management commission could be set up at an early stage to organise the method of consultation and the basis of consultation long before it became statutory and inherited the duties described in the report. That would offer a way of taking the issue away from governments who are essentially transient in their nature and, it would seem, complicated and somewhat—I was about to say "dilatory" but perhaps that is not the right word—casual in approaching a matter of great urgency.

Perhaps I may make one or two comments on particular responses to recommendations. I was disappointed that in response to recommendation 11, the Government are reluctant to contemplate a leading role for UK organisations even, as we suggested—and this is an important caveat—when public consultation is complete and if the chosen policy is geological disposal. That is quite a constrained recommendation. I found the rejection of that to be regrettably timid.

The response to recommendation 12 on the issue of plutonium as waste seems rather confused, perhaps reflecting divergent departmental interests. It appears to miss the point that a decision on this matter would influence the physical size of the problem that must be addressed and hints at a solution. The response expresses a welcome intention to keep the committee informed of future developments and a willingness to welcome further scrutiny and comments as matters develop. Noble Lords will know that at the end of an inquiry the committee is wound up and its staff dispersed so that the aim, though gratifying, may be difficult to realise in practice. Nevertheless, I shall be happy to give any help that I can, and I am sure other members of the committee will say the same on an individual basis. Furthermore, I can promise the Minister that, irrespective of any invitation, we shall take every opportunity to harry the Government through Questions I have greatly enjoyed both the chairmanship of the committee and the debate that has followed. We have exposed the issues and I look forward to more positive action from the Government, first, in involving the public to a greater extent and, secondly, in offering their lead on the matter. I commend the Motion to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.