HL Deb 16 December 2003 vol 655 cc1052-5

2.49 p.m.

Earl Attlee

asked Her Majesty's Government: Whether the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management will examine the possibility of establishing a deep geological depository for high level waste.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management—CoRWM—will undertake a review of all the options for the long-term management of the UK's higher activity radioactive wastes and will provide recommendations to the UK Government and the devolved administrations. The options that the committee will be assessing will include that of a deep geological repository.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Can he explain why the committee does not have the benefit of either a geologist or a hydrologist?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the committee is able to call on expertise throughout industry and government—it does not necessarily need to have members with such qualifications on all aspects of this problem. Clearly, both the geological and, to some extent, the hydrological aspects will be part of any assessment of a geological site. As your Lordships will know, such committees cannot contain all the expertise required.

Lord Lawson of Blaby

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware—I am sure he is—that this matter has been under review, in one shape or form, for decades? It has become abundantly clear that the time has come not to have a further review but to find a solution. Since the key problem always tends to be the transport of nuclear waste, the only rational solution is to have proper storage in the places where the waste is created.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am aware that this issue has been discussed for some time. Were I not, various Members of your Lordships' House would remind me of it at regular intervals. Clearly, it is a difficult problem. At our last attempt to do this, when Nirex was looking at sites around the country, one problem was that we failed to look at all the options, and there was a lack of transparency in the system. We therefore do not wish to reach a conclusion before we have assessed all the options. Although aspects of what the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, says may well be correct, it is not necessarily the only option that will be available at the end of that reassessment.

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, is not the lesson we learned from the inquiry into the Nirex proposals for a depository in west Cumberland—an inquiry to which I gave evidence—that we will never find a site on the UK mainland because the public will always object and, ultimately, the public will win? Why cannot we finally see sense, stop squandering money on these UK mainland solutions and go for the offshore option, which is the only realistic option in the longer term?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, that certainly is an option and one which the committee will no doubt assess. But it is not necessarily the best option. While it is clear that there is strong objection to siting any such repository almost anywhere within the country, there are balancing arguments. My noble friend is correct that even in Cumbria, which is quite heavily dependent on the nuclear sector, there are strong objections. Any planning system has to take account of those objections. Even if we never build a single further nuclear facility, we have a legacy problem which the country must ensure is taken care of in the longer term. It is not sensible to rule out options at this stage.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is a difference between storage and disposal? With one method, you can retrieve the waste but with the other you cannot. Does he also agree that it would be irresponsible to dispose of it at sea?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, it would depend on the form of disposal. I think the terminology is quite difficult here. Clearly, in the relatively long term, storage is an option. On-surface storage may be an option for most sorts of waste for some considerable time, but in the long run, we have to find a final disposal method which will last not just for a few years but for centuries. By the time we adopt that option, it may be offshore or it could be on land.

Lord Jenkin of Roding

My Lords, how long will this committee sit before it reports? We have heard rumours that it may be another three years. Of course, that would be well beyond the next general election, would it not?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the committee will deliberate for as long as it takes to look at all the options.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, will the committee consider the middle of the Sahara desert?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, it is open to the committee to consider that option. However, I think that a number of international problems would have to be faced if we were to take that suggestion seriously. I suspect it would not be very high on the committee's list of options.

Lord Walton of Detchant

My Lords, the noble Lord is no doubt aware that a few years ago your Lordships Select Committee on Science and Technology had a report on the disposal of nuclear waste from an inquiry chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Tombs. May we take it that the Government are taking account of the very powerful recommendations in that report?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, one recommendation in that report was that we take steps to ensure that public opinion is informed and consulted about these issues. Certainly, it will be part of CoRWM's remit to do just that.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, reference has been made to the length of time we have already spent on this subject and the length of time we may still spend on it. Can the noble Lord indicate whether he thinks that as a result of some slight speeding up, this could be resolved when the proposed Nuclear Decommissioning Authority comes into office?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority will not deal with the kind of waste we are talking about here—it is about cleaning up sites. The timescale envisaged in the Energy Bill, which we debated last week, for the establishment of the NDA would probably be before the committee had completed its work.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, is it not the case that the very long life of these highly radioactive wastes is a convenient reason for not moving very rapidly towards a conclusion? The conclusion, ultimately, is that they have to be disposed of and not stored. It has already been said that this question has been around for 30 years. Will it be another 30 years before anything is done?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, it will not be another 30 years before we know what we intend to do. Storage is an option for some considerable time, as the noble Lord is aware. The point at which we find a final solution to disposal which will withstand several centuries may well be implemented some way down the line. We hope that the committee's deliberations will indicate the way in which we ought to go.