HL Deb 16 March 2000 vol 610 cc1679-82

3.13 p.m.

Lord Tombs asked Her Majesty's Government:

When they will publish the consultation paper on nuclear waste which was promised in their response to the report of the Select Committee on Science and Technology on Management of Nuclear Waste (3rd Report, Session 1998–99, HL Paper 41).

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

My Lords, we aim to publish the consultation paper on the management of radioactive waste during the spring of this year. Copies will be placed in the Library, and copies will also be sent to the noble Lord and to members of the Select Committee on Science and Technology.

Lord Tombs

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, which is a repetition of his closing speech in the debate last October. I seek an undertaking that the promise made, the undertaking then given, will in fact be met. I should be grateful if the Minister could be more specific about the expected date of publication.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, in this House we always have some difficulty defining the seasons. I am afraid that I cannot be more precise than "spring". Spring comes before summer.

Lord Winston

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the Select Committee report carries matters of great importance which have frequently been shelved by previous governments and that it is in the country's interest to receive a proper answer to the report as soon as possible?

Lord Whitty

Yes, my Lords, I agree that there are some profound and long-term issues involved in the treatment of nuclear waste. It is also important, as the Select Committee underlined, that some of the mistakes made in earlier phases as regards not taking the public along with the decisions are also addressed in our approach to deciding these matters. That is why the basis for the consultation paper must be carefully thought through and the consultation process itself very thorough.

Lord Jenkin of Roding

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that at the consensus conference held shortly after publication of the Select Committee report, Mr Meacher said that the Government hoped to have the consultation paper by the end of last year. During the debate mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, it was stated that publication had been put off until the spring. Is the Minister aware that my consultations with the industry have evoked the response that the date is becoming increasingly hazy? Does he agree that the request for more specific information is justified by a growing feeling that the Government will kick the issue into the long grass before the next election?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I entirely refute the noble Lord's last point. It is important that we get the basis of the consultation right. I am indicating today the same timescale as that indicated in the debate mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Tombs. It is true that, at an earlier stage, we thought we might be able to get the consultations started by the end of last year. But now we are talking about the spring, and spring it will be.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the difficulty with the management of nuclear waste is that it is almost impossible to get rid of it? In those circumstances, does he accept that the right solution is to produce as little nuclear waste as possible—and eventually none at all?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, my noble friend tempts me into a discussion of the long-term future use of nuclear power, on which I am sure varying views are held within this House, as they are outside. The future contribution of nuclear power to our energy mix is an emotive as well as a technical issue. However, were we from now not to have any more nuclear power, there is already a significant waste disposal issue. That is what the Select Committee addressed and it will be the subject of the consultation paper, irrespective of any future positive decisions or otherwise on the use of nuclear fuel.

Lord Jopling

My Lords, in view of the recent lamentable events at Sellafield and the implications for employment in Cumbria, will the Minister say that, regardless of a response to the Select Committee report, the Government will take urgent steps, do their best to retrieve the situation and install more competent management at Sellafield?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, it is true that the recent identification of falsification of records in BNFL has been very unfortunate in relation to the credibility of the operation of Sellafield and BNFL more generally. The reports from the Nuclear Inspectorate have identified very serious problems. BNFL has a couple of months to put those right. Thereafter, it is important that BNFL works hard to restore the confidence of its customers and potential customers, and the Government will support it in doing so. As the House will know, a number of changes have already taken place in BNFL's management structure.

Lord Craig of Radley

My Lords, may I tempt the Minister to reveal part of the report's contents? Will the Government's position be that they rule out indefinite surface storage as one way of managing nuclear waste over the longer term?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, "indefinite" is perhaps an inappropriate word here. Clearly, long-term decisions must be taken. It is probable that the high level waste will be surface stored for 50 years. As to what happens to it thereafter, at present it appears that deep level storage is appropriate but other technologies may be developed in that period. The important point is what we do now and, in particular, what we commit ourselves to doing with the high level waste thereafter.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, does the Minister agree that if we are to meet, and in future do better than, the Kyoto emission standards, we must have a nuclear industry? If so, does the Minister agree that we must deal with the question of the management of waste? Does the noble Lord also agree that one of the real problems that faces the present Government, as it did the previous one, is that the pressure groups which oppose nuclear energy will put out all kinds of scare stories that can be countered only by government and industry being open and frank about what they are doing?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I do not believe that the noble Lord is correct to say that we need additional nuclear capacity in order to meet the target for 2010. In a sense, the question is what happens beyond 2010 and whether nuclear power or alternative non-fossil fuel-based energy sources can be developed. Those are very serious long-term issues both for our own energy mix and that of the world. It is certainly the position of the Government that nuclear technology should remain available for those medium and long-term decisions. It is also the Government's position that one of the problems with nuclear power has been misinformation by both its opponents and, unfortunately, those who have had responsibility for managing it. That distorts the debate, but the Government are determined that BNFL will put the matter right.

Lord Elton

My Lords, further to the Minister's response to my noble friend Lord Jopling, can he say whether the falsification of the safety records of the items which were attempted to be exported represented a danger only to the importing countries or to the citizens of this country? Does the noble Lord agree that this is a matter of considerable concern and another reason why the report should be published very soon?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I believe that the findings of the Nuclear Inspectorate are that the falsification did not of itself present a danger to safety. The problem is the credibility and robustness of the safety regime within Sellafield and the transport of nuclear fuel both here and, potentially, within the customer countries to which the fuel may be returned. Understandably, those customer countries are alarmed. We must reassure them that in future the safety regime will be robust and that there will be no further falsification.