HC Deb 09 May 1995 vol 259 cc425-6W
Mr. Bellingham

To ask the Secretary. of State for the Environment whether he is ready to announce the conclusion of the review of radioactive waste management policy. [23587]

Mr. Gummer

In May last year, I announced that my Department would be heading a review of radioactive waste management policy to be conducted in parallel with, but separately from, the nuclear review. Reappraisal of the policy was necessary in view of the developments that had taken place in the 10 years since the Department published its strategy for the long-term management of radioactive waste. Our primary aim in conducting the review has been to ensure that radioactive waste, irrespective of whether it is produced by public sector or private sector operations, is managed in such a way as to ensure that people and the environment are not exposed to unacceptable risks either now or in the future.

The review's preliminary conclusions were published in a consultation paper last August. All the responses received have been carefully considered and the final conclusions of the review will be published in a White Paper this summer. In advance of that, I am ready to announce the conclusions that have been reached on two issues—the timing of UK Nirex Ltd.'s proposed repository for intermediate-level waste, ILW, and the Government's policy in respect of decommissioning nuclear plant. These matters are relevant to the conclusions of the nuclear review, which my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade is announcing today. There are also proposals in the nuclear review White Paper about the future structure of Nirex.

The Government continue to favour a policy of deep disposal rather than indefinite storage for ILW and consider it appropriate that Nirex should continue with its programme to identify a suitable site. The question had been raised of whether a delay of 50 years in construction of the repository might have advantages. However, the review concluded that the balance of argument was against any such delay. The Government therefore believe that the repository should be constructed as soon as reasonably practicable once a suitable site has been found, although the precise timetable will depend on the granting of planning consent and compliance with regulatory requirements, including the establishment of a sound safety case.

We are aware of the concern expressed by environmental groups and others and that the options available to future generations should not be foreclosed by irreversible action taken now. However, given the length of time needed to develop the repository and the period over which it will remain operational, action now to pursue deep disposal leaves options open until at least the latter half of the next century.

A planning inquiry is due to be held later this year into Nirex's application to construct a rock characterisation facility RCF, at Longlands farm near Sellafield to test further the geology and hydrogeology of the site. I have already outlined the matters about which I particularly wish to be informed to help me reach my decision on this case. These do not include the merits of national policy on the deep disposal of ILW. It has been established through the courts that while, of course, Government policy can be a material consideration that may be taken into account at a local planning inquiry, it may not be disputed and made a central area of debate. Policy on deep disposal of ILW has, in any case, already been the subject of wide consultation in the course of the review.

On the decommissioning of nuclear plant, the Government's view is that this should be undertaken as soon as it is reasonably practicable to do so, taking account of all relevant factors. The Government will in future ask all nuclear operators to draw up strategies for decommissioning their redundant plant. These will need to include justification of the timetables proposed and a demonstration of the adequacy of the financial provision being made to implement the strategies. As with all other operations on nuclear sites, decommissioning will be undertaken in accordance with conditions attached to the nuclear site licence by the nuclear installations inspectorate of the Health and Safety Executive in order to ensure the safety of the site, workers and the public. Disposal of wastes arising during decommissioning will be subject to regulation under the Radioactive Substances Act 1993 by the environment agencies which will replace Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution and, in Scotland, Her Majesty's industrial pollution inspectorate.

The current decommissioning strategy for Magnox and AGR power stations involves three stages—defuelling immediately on shutdown, dismantling buildings external to the reactor shield five to 10 years later, and demolition of the reactor itself 100 years after shutdown. Given that regulatory approval for decommissioning is required on a case-by-case basis, the Government believe—as we said in the preliminary conclusions of the review—that it would be unwise at present for the operators of nuclear power stations to take steps which would foreclose technically or economically the option of completing the decommissioning process on an earlier timescale should that be required, and that they should recognise, when provisioning, the potential uncertainties regarding the timing of the second and third stages. Nevertheless, the Government confirm the preliminary conclusion of the review that there are a number of potentially feasible and acceptable decommissioning strategies for nuclear power stations available to the operator, including the safestore strategy proposed by Nuclear Electric and Scottish Nuclear. To ensure that operators' decommissioning strategies remain soundly based as circumstances change, they will be reviewed quinquennially by HSE, which will consult the environment agencies.

The Government recognise that, in addition to nuclear power stations, a variety of other nuclear facilities are in the process of being decommissioned, or are to be decommissioned in the future. As with power stations, decisions on decommissioning these facilities should be taken on a case-by-case basis and the same general principles apply in respect of timing. Proposals for dealing with such facilities will need to be included in the operators' decommissioning strategies.