HC Deb 04 July 1995 vol 263 cc161-4W
Mr. Waterson

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment when he will announce the results of the Government's review of radioactive waste management policy, and if he will make a statement. [32968]

Mr. Gummer

The final conclusions of the review are being published today in a White Paper—Cm 2919— copies of which have been placed in the Library of the House. It includes the conclusions that I have already announced ont timing of the Nirex repository and strategies for decommissioning nuclear plant—Official Report, 9 May 1995, column 425—as well as on the siting of dry stores for spent fuel, Official Report, 21 February 1995, column 146. In reaching their final conclusions, the Government have taken account of responses to the preliminary conclusions of the review, which were published in a consultation paper last August.

The White Paper sets out the Government's conclusions on the general principles which should be applied to radioactive waste management as well as on specific policies. The primary aim throughout has been to ensure that radioactive waste, irrespective of whether it is produced by public sector or private sector operations, is properly managed and that people and the environment are not exposed to unacceptable risks either now or in the future.

The broad policy aims have been revised and updated to emphasise the respective roles of Government, regulators and producers and owners of radioactive waste, as well as to apply the concept of sustainable development and its supporting principles. Radioactive wastes should not be unnecessarily created. Such wastes as are created must be safely and appropriately managed and treated. They must then be safely disposed of at appropriate times and in appropriate ways.

The Environment Bill, which is currently before Parliament, contains provisions which will streamline the handling of applications to dispose of radioactive waste for nuclear licensed sites in England and Wales by making the new Environment Agency the sole authoriser, with MAFF and the Welsh Office as statutory consultees. In Scotland, Her Majesty's industrial pollution inspectorate—to be subsumed within the Scottish Environment Protection Agency—is already the sole authoriser. The White Paper also says that developers of major projects may, if they wish, submit early applications for disposal authorisations. The regulators will then be able to decide on these before major commitments of money and effort have been made.

The White Paper proposes that disposal to geological formations on land is the favoured option for the long-term management of vitrified high-level waste— HLW—once it has been allowed to cool. The Government are putting in hand the development of the necessary research strategy for this. In selecting a site for the disposal of HLW, the Government will take into account the recommendations in the recent report of a joint study group, drawn from members of the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee, RWMAC, and the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Nuclear Installations, ACSNI, about the need for transparency of decision making and for public reassurance.

For intermediate-level waste, ILW, the Government have decided that there would be no advantage to be gained from delaying the development of the Nirex repository and that, once a suitable site has been found, it should be constructed as soon as reasonably practicable. The precise timetable will depend on the granting of planning consent and compliance with regulatory requirements, including the establishment of a sound safety case. The Government have already promised to hold a full public inquiry into an application for the repository itself, wherever it may be situated, and sees no reason to depart from this procedure.

In the meantime, waste destined for the repository must continue to be safely stored. Where the demands of safety are overriding, the waste must be treated as necessary to improve storage conditions. In addition, where early treatment of the waste will secure worthwhile safety benefits, or worthwhile economic benefits without prejudicing safety, the general presumption against action which might foreclose future waste management options may be relaxed.

In the light of the genuine anxieties expressed by local residents who feared that they might have been affected by the proposal, the Government have decided not to encourage greater use by the nuclear industry of the "controlled burial" of low-level waste, LLW, at suitable landfill sites. Nevertheless, there are sound economic and radiological grounds for controlled burial and the Government believe that it should continue to be used as a disposal route, particularly for "small users"—such as hospitals, universities, research laboratories and non-nuclear industries—subject to the agreement of the site operators and to the necessary regulatory requirements being met. The Government will issue guidance to the environment agencies on the need to consult local authorities about authorisations for controlled burial.

The Government have adopted a policy of self-sufficiency in relation to the import and export of radioactive waste. Radioactive waste should not be imported to or exported from the UK other than in the circumstances set out in the White Paper. These recognise, among other things, that developing countries should not be precluded from taking advantage of the non-nuclear uses of radioactivity, such as medical diagnosis and treatment, because they do not have the resources to acquire suitable disposal facilities of their own. RWMAC will be asked to advise on what detailed guidance might be prepared for the regulators in implementing this policy.

Since 1976, all BNFL's contracts for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel from foreign companies have included options for the return of operational wastes to the country of origin. In line with the principle of self-sufficiency, the Government's policy remains that the options should be exercised, but they accept that this can be achieved by means of waste substitution—whereby radiologically equivalent amounts of additional HLW are returned in place of LLW and ILW, which would be retained for disposal in the UK—provided there is broad environmental neutrality for the UK. However, the Government consider it prudent not to become irrevocably committed to waste substitution in the absence of appropriate disposal arrangements within the UK. This means that BNFL may substitute for LLW now, but any arrangements it now enters into and implements with its overseas customers for the substitution of ILW must be conditional on confirming, at the time a Nirex repository receives planning permission, that waste equivalence has been properly calculated and provide for the ILW to be returned should the Nirex repository not be established by the time BNFL is contractually obliged to return the wastes.

The White Paper is the first comprehensive statement of Government policy on radioactive waste management for 10 years and I hope that it will be welcomed. I will form part of the guidance given by the Government to the environment agencies that are due to be established next year. It will also provide a clear policy framework for regulating the nuclear industry, which is to be restructured and partially privatised following the nuclear review.