HL Deb 28 February 2005 vol 670 cc9-11

3 p.m.

Lord Jenkin of Roding

asked Her Majesty's Government:

When they will publish their response to the report of the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology on Radioactive Waste Management (5th Report, Session 2003–04, HL Paper 200).

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the Government's response to the report of the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology on Radioactive Waste Management was sent to the committee on 23 February. The response addresses specifically each of the Select Committee's conclusions, and I hope is in a manner that will be helpful and informative.

Lord Jenkin of Roding

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that in rejecting the committee's strictures on the lack of expertise on the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (COR WM), the Government's response, at paragraph 22, specifically refers to, members with long and distinguished careers in areas such as nuclear health and safety … and risk assessment".

Why, then, has one member, Dr Keith Baverstock, an expert on nuclear health and safety who was formerly at the World Health Organisation, been suspended by Ministers from the committee? Why has another member, Professor David Ball, an expert in risk assessment, decided to withdraw co-operation in sympathy? What is going on? Is there not a risk that COR WM, in which Ministers have invested so much political capital, is now coming to pieces in their hands?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I do not think that the work of COR WM is coming to pieces. It is unfortunate that we have had to consider the position of Dr Baverstock. Ministers have jointly agreed to commission a review of Dr Baverstock's position in the light of representations received from the chair of CoR WM, Gordon MacKerron, and from Dr Baverstock. That review is being carried out now with an independent assessor. I hope that the noble Lord will understand that there is not much more that I can say on that.

My understanding is that Professor David Ball voluntarily suspended himself from the committee. The review is therefore in the process of being carried out. But CoR WM's work is going on and will meet its timetable.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, the Minister will know, because I have sent him a number of Written Questions on the subject which he has kindly answered, that there is still a great deal of nuclear waste—both spent plutonium and depleted uranium—and that, as yet, it is undecided whether it is waste or an asset. The Government have given me both answers; that is, sometimes it is an asset and sometimes it is waste. In order that committees such as this can effectively deal with the size of the waste mountain, is it not time far the Government finally to decide whether it is waste or an asset?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, it depends on how it is generated and for what it might subsequently be used. Therefore, there is not quite such a clear-cut answer to the noble Baroness's question, which I suspect she already knows. Certainly, the issue of how we deal with radioactive waste of all kinds and, in particular, high-level radioactive waste, which CoR WM is addressing, needs resolution. It needs resolution before we can take any longer-term decisions on the future of nuclear power.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, does the Minister think that solving the waste problem and new build should be concurrent or consecutive activities?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, setting us on the course to resolve the problem of radioactive waste is essential for any consideration of nuclear power's role in the future. Subsequent to that, questions of energy provision and the economics of nuclear power, as against other possible sources, would obviously bear on whether there was any new build in that area or others.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, does the noble Lord expect CoR WM to report on time, despite the present hiatus? Can the Minister also explain why we need that report before we can take any further decision relating to nuclear power when, to my shame, governments of all parties have prevaricated on this matter for 30 years? The nature of the problem has not changed in its essential essence, nor has the basic knowledge which is required to take a decision.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, there is not a hiatus in CoR WM's activity, as I said in response to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin. The work is continuing and CoR WM will soon be reporting on its shortlist of options for dealing with radioactive waste, following which it will make its detailed recommendations. It was necessary for CoR WM to assess all feasible, and some not very feasible, options that were put to it and to consider how we deal with the issue in relation to public opinion, which, as the noble Lord will recognise, is a very delicate issue.

Lord Tombs

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that there is widespread scepticism about CoR WM, evidenced in the Select Committee report, which will not be remedied by the situation described by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin? Will the noble Lord undertake to publish the results of that inquiry in an effort to re-establish any degree of public confidence that may remain in the activity to which, as the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, said, the Government have committed a great deal of their own political capital?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the position of Dr Baverstock as one member of the committee does not in any way undermine the confidence in the totality of the committee. I will not commit myself to publishing the report of the assessor since it will involve some very personal issues, on which I am not sure that it would be sensible for a Minister to give such a commitment.

Lord Hunt of Chesterton

My Lords, CoR WM should be looking at the whole range of science and technology issues. Can the Minister comment on how much the scientific community is being involved? Some of the issues, for example, of connecting fusion and fission power and dealing with wastes are being considered in Russia and the United States. We have no such long-range and wide-ranging programmes in the UK, about which there is a great urgency for the Government to talk to their colleagues in the OST. Does the Minister agree?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the Government keep in touch with all the developing technologies. The role of CoR WM relates specifically to what to do with radioactive waste, much of which exists already, as we have said earlier, irrespective of any further decision on nuclear power. As the noble Lord will know, we are in touch, through the various nuclear authorities, including the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency, with developments internationally and, at research level, with development internationally on fusion as well as current technologies.