Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100 - 119)



  100. About five or six.  (Mr Meacher) And within the first commitment period, 2008-12, I would be surprised if it is expected that more than one or two of those might close down. Again, if that is the recognised life expectancy of that particular reactor that also will have been factored in.

Patrick Hall

  101. Minister, why did you authorise the mixed oxide reprocessing plant at Sellafield?  (Mr Meacher) There has been enormous discussion about this over a period of four or five years. There have been four, if not five, consultations. The two latest ones—the first one was done by PA Consulting, the second by AD Little—both came to the conclusion that there was a net present value which was positive to the level of around £200 million over the lifetime of the plant. It is of course recognised, and the opponents of this have made very clear, that it is dependent on the premise most notably about the likelihood of Japanese markets reviving and the MOX being sold at a price which would make the plant viable. These two consultations came to a clear figure. The Government, of course, took the advice also of the Environment Agency. We also listened to the consultees to those consultancy processes. Having taken account of all that evidence the Secretary of State for DEFRA and the Secretary of State for Health came to the judgment that on balance it was justified.

  102. That is a controversial decision. The economists do seem very dubious, do they not? I take what you said about the consultants' reports but there is a credibility factor here, whatever the consultants' reports say, at this point in time. There have been the dubious management practices we had reports of a couple of years ago with regard to the falsification of data. We have got the international situation now, the risk of terrorist activity which would not have been taken into account in the consultants' reports and also is not the economic viability of MOX reprocessing fundamentally flawed by its dependency on taxpayer subsidy to write off the capital costs? Could I ask you to comment on that write off of capital costs? It is a big question but could you also comment on the terrorist risk assessment? You took the decision very shortly after 11 September. Why, in the light of all of those factors, do you still believe that on balance there is a strong business case?  (Mr Meacher) Chairman, I always try to be helpful to the Committee but, as Members will know, this is now subject to judicial review by two of the NGOs, by Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. This matter is going to come to court I presume. I fear I am inhibited in going into detail about the case. We have set out the ministerial decision which is over 70 or 80 paragraphs, if I remember. It is in detail there. I am tempted to answer more directly the questions that Patrick Hall has raised but I think it would be unwise for me to do that when this is now sub judice.

  Patrick Hall: I thought you might comment, Chairman.

  Chairman: When the Minister says there is a sub judice issue, there is a sub judice issue.

  103. Indeed, there is, but that does not mean we cannot explore the issues at all and I am trying to explore what you are able to respond on. There are significant areas that you are not able to comment on at this point but perhaps, Chairman, we will be able to have that opportunity in the future. Could I probe a bit more and see whether you are able to assist at this point in time. Leaving aside the economics then, which is rather an important area, and the terrorist target issue, which I am surprised to hear is part of the judicial review.  (Mr Meacher) It is not.

  104. It is not.  (Mr Meacher) The two items in the judicial review are, firstly, the fact that the capital cost is regarded as a sunk cost and, secondly, the question of economics, to which you did refer.

  105. Okay. Perhaps you would comment a little on the new very worrying situation which has to be borne in mind with regard to the possibility of adding to terrorist targets as a result of that decision. Could you comment on that? I do want to raise a couple of other points as well if the Minister is able to answer that.  (Mr Meacher) All I can say is, of course, that the plant was built, it was built under the previous administration in 1995. It is there, it is not a question of whether it should now be built, and it is one of the very many nuclear installations at Sellafield and of course the potential terrorist threat applies to all of those buildings. It is being looked at very, very thoroughly and urgently by the Office of Civil Nuclear Security. Obviously in the light of their reports to Government we will hold open the possibility of taking whatever necessary action needs to be taken.

  106. On the Environmental Impact Assessment, that is doubtless part of your decision to authorise reprocessing. I think I did not word my question accurately right at the beginning, I think I implied you authorised the plant to be built, it is the reprocessing. What are the principal environmental risks associated with reprocessing there?  (Mr Meacher) This question is going a lot wider. The reprocessing plant, THORP, the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant, of course predates the SMP, the Sellafield MOX plant, because the MOX plant is simply a consequential of having a process in reprocessing of separating plutonium and uranium from waste. What the MOX plant does is to bring together the separated plutonium and uranium in the form of a mixed oxide fuel which might be used for a further round of fuelling reactors either in the UK or around the world. That is the purpose of it.

  107. I accept that. I understood that before. Are you saying there are not environmental issues attached to the bringing together of those products of the THORP plant in the MOX process?  (Mr Meacher) The liquid discharges from the MOX plant are very tiny indeed. With regard to the generation of further intermediate level waste, the best calculation that is over the projected operational lifetime of the SMP, it might generate about one per cent of total intermediate level waste generated at Sellafield.

  108. Has there been any assessment of the potential effects of that on the local marine environment?  (Mr Meacher) That is a question about the liquid discharges?

  109. Yes.  (Mr Meacher) What is discharged to the Irish Sea. As I am saying, the level of those discharges is very tiny indeed. Reprocessing is another matter. The SMP plant is a consequential of reprocessing and as such it contributes very little indeed to liquid discharges. It contributes a small but not insignificant amount in terms of waste.

  110. Finally, Minister, do you see your position with regard to MOX reprocessing as part of a renewed commitment, or long term commitment, by this Government to civil nuclear power? I know that the question was raised earlier by Michael Jack about the future of magnox and gas cooled, but is your decision, looking at it in the bigger and wider picture, looking ahead, an indication of perhaps some renewal of longer term interest?  (Mr Meacher) First of all, we have not made a decision about reprocessing. This is a decision about the MOX plant, not about reprocessing. As regards the wider question of a further future for the nuclear industry in terms of new nuclear build, which I notice has been mentioned in the press recently, the whole issue is being examined by the PIU Report on energy which of course includes nuclear and which is designed to look not just at energy policy, based as it has been for a couple of decades, on pricing and on markets, but also to look at environmental impact and security of supply. That report I would expect to be published by the end of the year.

Mr Lepper

  111. Less controversial matters perhaps. I want to return to an issue I raised earlier about departmental responsibilities. I think many of us felt back in 1997 when the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions was set up that it was sending out an important signal about an attitude to the environment and the integration of policy making, particularly in relation to transport and the environment. As recently as last year the Green Ministers' Annual Report made exactly the same kind of comment about that department. Do you feel that the split now between environment with DEFRA and transport with the Department of Transport, Local Government and Regions is hindering that integration of policy making?  (Mr Meacher) I hope it is not. I am well aware that there are two views on this question and we must, in practice, justify our view. Of course I am aware that the relationships which had built up between the environment and transport divisions within DETR are very important. There is also the relationship, again within that same department, between environment and planning and urban regeneration, which is also very important. Therefore, it could be argued that separating environment from that overall department and putting it in a separate department is a detriment. I would argue against that on the grounds that probably the area where sustainability has so far had least impact is farming and the agricultural system, partly driven by the need for reform of CAP, partly driven by the exceedingly tragic succession of BSE, classical Swine Fever and now Foot and Mouth, and the public perceptions arising out of that, there is clearly very strong demand for change. There is also within the CAP the need for a much bigger shift to the Second Pillar to the rural development regulation, agri-environment, land management, development of tourism, etc. Possibly also with the arrival of Renate Ku­nast, she has been there some time now in Germany, the beginnings of a change in the centre of gravity in agricultural politics in the EU perhaps. This is an opportunity for major change in this area. This is a fulcrum swing time. It is right, I think, that we have a department that is wholly targeted on making those changes. That is the rationale for the new department. We do not want to lose the benefits of what was there before. I have tried to retain those by establishing a detailed concordat with DTLR, with the transport division within DTLR, which is based on early exchange of information and proposals at an early stage of decision making, discussions between officials and raising the matter at ministerial level for discussion before matters are put into the public domain. So we are trying to retain close liaison between us and Transport and the same goes, as I said, for planning, the planning division within DTLR. Now it is easy for me to say, the question is how it works and we are going to be held to account on that and we should be but that is the intention. Can I make one further point? If, of course, every Department that Environment should be mainstreamed into was part of the Environment Department we would have half of Whitehall. No-one suggests that the DTI should be with us or we should be with DTI but it is very important that we integrate and mainstream environmental concepts in DTI policy making. It has never been a suggestion that we should be in the same Department. Well, we are now in that same relationship with DTLR and we have got to make it work.

  112. I was not trying to encourage departmental imperialism on your part, Michael, at all. I take the point you make, it remains to be seen if it works, as you seem to be suggesting. The annual report of the Green Ministers, which I think has appeared since 1997-98, that will continue to appear annually?  (Mr Meacher) Yes.

  113. Therefore we will have some basis for assessing the success of the new arrangement?  (Mr Meacher) We will indeed. Green Ministers, which I chair, and which has now been upgraded to a sub-committee of the Cabinet ENV Committee looks at three things. Firstly, is what is sometimes rather rudely called housekeeping in Whitehall, which is how well the departmental estate in each case does in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, consumption of water, energy efficiency, management of waste, etc. Secondly, whether environmental concerns are properly taken into account in policy making, and that is obviously a potentially far bigger issue. It is more intangible but much more important. Thirdly, to expand awareness of sustainable development throughout Whitehall. We will continue to provide annual reports. I will have the most detailed table setting out in quantified form the progress we are making on the first of those, I cannot do that on the second or third because there are not the measures. I am very keen to be as transparent and open as possible about the progress we are making in Whitehall and that will certainly include how far environmental concerns are reflected in DTLR.

Mr Todd

  114. The British Civil Service does not have a good reputation for working together across departments and this reshuffle has certainly perhaps slightly extended the need to do that. You mentioned the use of concordats. Are there specific projects, as were announced I remember in the various spending reviews, specific cross-departmental projects, which will be initiatives led by your Ministry and which will seek to build co-working?  (Mr Meacher) Rapidly trying to think. There probably are. Nothing is coming to my mind. It is not so much cross-departmental projects as what I call environmental mainstreaming, namely that in the preparation of the MoD estate strategy, in the DTI sustainable development strategy, the environmental component is very clear and strong. That is really what I am trying to achieve. There probably are, as I say, cross-departmental projects. I suppose you could say road building is a cross-departmental project.

  115. The mainstream you talk about often produces in my view a tokenism of just putting in a quick paragraph saying "Yes, we have examined the environmental implications of this and they are this" and move on to the core subject we are interested in. The evidence of this Government to date has certainly been that only when people are forced together to achieve certain clear goals does joined up Government actually happen.  (Mr Meacher) That is probably right.

  116. That is why I am encouraging you to consider the possibility of some joint projects which are there to achieve particular goals.  (Mr Meacher) Well, if they are joint projects which are organic to the development of policy, fine. I do not think we want joint projects for the sake of it, just to show we are joined up. I very much agree with you that tokensim is very easy and there is a measure of it and that it is useless. It has to be internally felt, it has to be internally developed, there has to be a real commitment. My problem as Chair of Green Ministers is how do you get colleagues actually to take this on board. I think many of them have. I think we have made some quite considerable progress since 1997 but I absolutely agree that it is very far from ideal and there are clear gaps and deficiencies. Indeed, if I may say, your role is very important here. I do not want to drop my colleagues in it but I do think that it would be helpful, not only if you interviewed me—it is such a pleasurable experience—but if you also interviewed some of my colleagues to talk about these matters. I try and put pressure on them and I think you have probably an even better opportunity to make sure they agree and actually carry through the commitments that we all share.


  117. We have happy memories, Minister, of when you shared the podium with a Treasury Minister on the levy to deal with intensive agriculture, I think. There was a figure you were going to give us at some stage before you leave, Minister, that you sent out for.  (Mr Meacher) This is not the question that was asked. The question that was asked—

Mr Todd

  118. What was the UK contribution?  (Mr Meacher) Sorry. I think the note that was handed to me makes a general comment but I have already used it. What it is saying is that the burden sharing aid to developing countries is in the form of a political declaration. The details of that and how it would work will be discussed, including the formula, in Washington in December, so there is not at this stage a—

  119. Developing countries cannot spend political declaration.  (Mr Meacher) No, they spend the money which a political declaration is about. What this meeting is about is deciding what the formula is, how it will be allocated and on what it will be spent.

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