HC Deb 24 July 1979 vol 971 cc216-9W
Mr. Nicholas Winterton

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services if he will give the numbers of persons awaiting admission to hospital for treatment in the Macclesfield area at the latest convenient date and a breakdown of the figures for each category of medicine.

Dr. Vaughan

On 31 March 1979 there were 2,511 patients awaiting admission to Macclesfield hospitals. The detailed information requested is as follows:

land and for Wales, is to ensure that there is adequate research and development on methods of disposal of wastes arising from the civil nuclear power programmes. Wastes which cannot be disposed of at present are safely stored, but the long-term aim is to identify safe disposal routes.

Research on one of the major options for the treatment of high-level waste for safe disposal—vitrifying the waste in glass blocks—is well advanced in the United Kingdom. A plant to manufacture these blocks should, on current plans, be in operation by about 1990. The blocks would probably need to be stored in water or air-cooled vaults for some years, but after cooling they would be suitable for disposal. Several methods of disposing of them safely are being researched, but have yet to be demonstrated.

There are three possible methods of disposal: on the bed of the deep ocean, into stable geological formations on land, or under the ocean bed. No judgment can be made among these methods until more is known about them. The Government are accordingly undertaking a comprehensive research programme into each of these options. The work so far supports the view that a safe disposal route can he identified but at this stage there is no commitment to any one method in preference to the others. The aim is to have a demonstration facility, or facilities, for one or more of the methods in operation during the 1990s with a view to having an actual disposal facility in operation early in the next century.

Disposal of high level radioactive waste is of world-wide interest. Research and exchanges of information are co-ordinated internationally through the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and the European Economic Community. The United Kingdom plays a full part in these activities. So far, research has been mainly directed towards determining the feasibility of disposing of high level waste in formations deep below the land surface but there are now signs of increasing international interest in the possibility of ocean disposal, and the United Kingdom is initiating an expanding research programme to assess the seabed options.

The United Kingdom research programme into the feasibility of disposing of high level waste into land formations is already well under way. Desk studies carried out by the Natural Environment Research Council at its institute of geological sciences indicate that potentially suitable rocks lie under about 16 per cent. of the land area of the country. Specific areas, listed below, have been identified for research purposes so that information can be collected about a wide range of rocks. The next step is a programme of geological research involving test drillings to examine fully the properties and characteristics of different geological formations in situ.

So far the programme has concentrated on areas containing hard crystalline rock, and it is intended that the next group of planning applications for drilling test boreholes will also include areas of clay or salt or both. Only when full information is available, and has been properly evaluated, will it be possible to judge whether or not disposal deep underground is an option to be pursued; and, if it is, which of the rocks would be most suitable.

I emphasise the importance of test borings for these purposes. The United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority has so far made four planning applications under the Town and Country Planning Acts to carry out preliminary geological investigations involving the sinking of test boreholes in selected areas. One application, in Caithness, has been granted; one in the Kyle and Carrick district of Strathclyde region, and two in Northumberland, have been refused. The authority has submitted appeals against the refusals in Northumberland and Kyle and Carrick, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has recently announced the setting up of a public local inquiry into the authority's appeal in the Kyle and Carrick district. Appeals will of course be decided on their merits, after the most careful assessment of all the evidence. I would stress that these applications concern operations which are solely for geological investigation. There is no question of carrying out experiments with radioactive wastes in this phase. Nor have the Government any commitment to disposal of waste underground rather than on, or under, the sea-bed. There should be no permanent environmental effect of any kind from the geological research.

These four applications relate to the first few of about 15 areas which have so far been identified in England, Scotland and Wales as likely to provide useful information about the structures and characteristics of the relevant geological formations. The following list indicates in general terms, and without attempting to establish any priorities, the areas and types of geological formation identified as suitable for further investigation in this first stage. Other areas may be identified in the future for exploratory investigation and added to the list. On the other hand, some of the areas identified may prove unsuitable for further examination. All exploratory work, including test borings, in any area, whether or not on land owned by the Crown or by a Government agency, will be the subject of appropriate planning procedures and publicity will be given to the proposals.

When research has been conducted for about ten years the Government expect to have obtained sufficient information to enable decisions to be taken about the development of demonstration disposal sites underground or on, or under, the ocean bed. These would be fully engineered and in the case of land facilities would involve the construction of access shafts deep into the selected formations. There is no question of each of the 15 areas chosen for the geological research programme being developed to this stage. At the most, two or three sites would be selected. Vitrified waste would be placed in the demonstration disposal sites so that detailed measurements and tests under operating conditions could be made. For the first time radioactive wastes would be used; at the end of the tests the wastes could be recovered if required.

Any proposals for demonstration disposal of radioactive waste deep underground would be the subject of separate appropriate planning procedures which would investigate thoroughly the effect of the site on the environment. If, in the event, it were decided to go ahead with the development, its operation would be studied over a further period of perhaps 10 years. At the end of that time, underground disposal methods would be evaluated side by side with alternative disposal methods on or under the ocean bed. Decisions could then be taken whether and how to proceed with a full-scale disposal operation in the next century.



Region or County or Island Area and

Geological Rock or Formation

  • Cheshire—hybrid Clays and Salts.
  • Cumbria—granite, argillaceous (clay).
  • Grampian—basic igneous intrusion.
  • Gwynedd /Powys—argillaceous (clay).
  • Highland—lewisian gneiss, granite moine granulites, migmatised moine granulites.
  • Leicestershire / Nottinghamshire—argillaceous (clay).
  • Northumberland—granite.
  • Somerset—hybrid clays and salts.
  • Strathclyde—granite.
  • Western Isles—lewisian gneiss.
  • Worcestershire—argillaceous (clay).