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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)



  20. This Committee will be in a position to tackle the Minister about that, and I am sure we might want to, but you do take my point, do you not, that if people are to have faith, as it were, that we are in a different era of greater openness, that, here we are, there is a stumbling block straightaway?
  (Mr Murray) Indeed.

  21. And that is not helpful, it does not help to build confidence, it does not help to build my confidence?
  (Mr Murray) I agree, and it is an issue that we should be addressing.

  22. I accept what you said about the Government taking a position, although you did not entirely blame the Government, and you have said that personally you might be persuaded; is it not also a factor of Nirex's structure, in as much as it is overwhelmingly owned by the industry, and, again, that is the public credibility issue as well? And do you not think that, however you behave in the future, perhaps revealing the 12 sites and other proofs of openness, there will almost be a doubt, at least, and possibly worse than that, that you are not independent because you are almost entirely owned by the industry? Do you think there is a case for separation from that industry, changing Nirex into an independent organisation?
  (Mr Murray) There is a case, and it would be naïve to say that there was not. When we talk to the public and when we do surveys, time and again people raise this issue with us, it is a central issue with people, `how can you do what you do, how can you advise the industry and set standards and specifications for them if you are owned by the industry, that's simply not a credible position?'. On the other hand, the industry, it could be argued, are taking responsibility for the whole problem by owning the vehicle that was set up in the first place to try to deal with it. And we are going to debate this point at a Board meeting, the one I was referring to earlier, at the beginning of December, we are going to try to set Nirex's view forward for the DEFRA consultation on this kind of point; and, until that discussion, I would feel that, actually, it is wrong of me to prejudge that. But, the point that you are making, it is a big issue for the whole DEFRA consultation. Let us not call it Nirex, it is Nirex's successor, the waste management organisation, in the long term, who have to look at that issue.

Diana Organ

  23. Is Nirex still in favour of deep repositories?
  (Dr Hooper) I think, given the very long-lived radionuclides in the waste that we have historically had a remit for, that it does offer a very good solution to the safe, long-term management, and this is on the basis of work that both we and others have carried out. But what we do accept is that, where we are now, it is just one option which would have to be considered, hopefully, on an equal basis with a number of other options, some of which might well play a role in also ensuring the safe, long-term management of wastes.

  24. Given that it is an option that you would like to have within your armoury, and my colleague just talked about a little bit more transparency on your side and becoming clear about where the identified sites from the eighties might be, but there are only certain sites within the UK that could be used, are there not, because of the geology of the United Kingdom?
  (Dr Hooper) The requirement to retain the wastes, ideally within the engineered part of a disposal facility but certainly within the deep rock part, means that you are looking for certain characteristics which are not available right across the deep geology of the United Kingdom. We have given the Committee a schematic diagram of what we call the'phased geological disposal concept', but what we judge at the moment is that we could dispose of the intermediate-level wastes that we are responsible for, within such a concept, in about 30 per cent of the deep geology of the United Kingdom, and I must stress, on a technical basis.

  25. Given that it is on a technical basis 30 per cent of the UK could have them, in realistic terms, there are only a limited number of sites that would be practical to do this in; have you numbered how many practical sites you could look at for this facility, for a deep repository?
  (Mr Murray) No, we have not done that.

  26. You have not?
  (Mr Murray) Because that is part of the discussion that the UK as a society needs to have. You are raising a very good point. Technically, it is 30 per cent, but there are a whole host of other issues to be brought in, social issues, political issues, issues to do with devolution, for instance, and, quite simply, it would be wrong for Nirex to have even done any work at all, at this stage, on that kind of basis; and, I can tell you, we have not done that work because that needs to emerge from a credible process. And we see the DEFRA process as the beginning of what, hopefully, will be a credible process, where everybody plays a part in the discussion, and all these factors that you are talking about can be brought in.

  27. But if you want to move to being seen as more transparent, more sort of friendly, more talking about the debate that needs to go on, do you not think it would be helpful that you made available your thinking on where these sites may be? Because you talked earlier about needing to have discussion about how the Finns have been very successful with their, if you like, tit for tat arrangements, of community benefit or the veto option that a community has, but you need actually to identify where these sites are, in your thinking, and where they, logically, practically, economically and geologically, could be, so that those communities could start to think about it?
  (Mr Murray) I do not think so. I think that what we need is a debate of all the issues that you have referred to, so we need a debate about social issues, we need a debate about the veto; and it is certainly not the place of Nirex to prejudge any of that, that sort of flies in the face of what we are trying to do, of the kind of approach that we are trying to adopt, actually. We believe that there are more important people than Nirex in this part of the debate; we need to listen to the local authorities, we need to listen to the ordinary people, as they voice what their issues are, and that these then need to be built into any process, if you choose deep disposal, that then seeks to identify a site. That is the way round to do it. It is simply not our place to do it, that would be wrong.

  28. Okay; so why have Finland been successful in being able to have deep repositories and actually get communities on board and we have signally failed to; we did not even get the agreement for the characterisation facility?
  (Mr Murray) And I think that the reason that we did not, and the reason the Finns have succeeded, is to do with these very social questions that you are referring to. I think, where the Finns went, a number of years ago, was that they realised that they had to be open, transparent, with what they were doing, they had to listen to what people were worried about, and they took on board a process that was much more open than we ever had, as we were trying to get to the rock laboratory; and I have no hesitation in saying that. Some of the lessons that we would like to put into the new process are to do with the fact that an organisation charged with the kind of work that Nirex was doing has got to be far more open about what it was doing, the processes around it have to be open. Finland, for instance, let me give you an example of how the Finns dealt with site selection; the Finns announced their sites when they were at the stage of something like 100 sites.

  29. Well we are at about 30, that you have identified could be possible, are we not?
  (Mr Murray) No.

  30. In the eighties?
  (Mr Murray) No.

  31. Had you not identified, in the 1980s, about 30 sites that could be possible?
  (Mr Murray) We identified 500 sites and then we worked our way down to, effectively, two sites. But what I am saying is, that was all done in a way that was not obvious, it was not obvious to people how we got through the refining process; and my argument is that in the future we should adopt the Finnish process, set out how you are going to choose a site, so openly, step one. The second thing is, tell people what the sites are, so you look at the 30 per cent of the landmass, you decide how many sites there are, announce that, so that people can get ready, so that people can follow you, and then refine it down.

  32. I am just a little concerned that, you make quite clear that we have to be more transparent, that the process for us to be successful, as the Finns have been, is for everybody to see how the process is developing, and yet, in answer to the question from Mr Hall, about the sort of dump sites,'why don't you come clean about where those lists are?' and the answer to the questions that I have been asking you about what provisional sites could be used for deep repositories, you are saying, `no, we shouldn't publish, we shouldn't tell people.' Well, that flies in the face of saying, the process,'in order to be successful, we should be more open and transparent,' does it not?
  (Mr Murray) No. I think we are at cross purposes, probably. If we are going to have a new site-selection process, my view is that all the sites should be named from the beginning; but what you were asking me was, `could you not start before we begin and could Nirex not tell us which are the most likely sites in the previous site selection exercise?', now that is an entirely different thing.

  33. Have you published the named sites, and will you do so?
  (Mr Murray) Which ones?

  34. That you have identified?
  (Mr Murray) Do you mean all the 12?

  35. Yes?
  (Mr Murray) No; not until there is a discussion around the whole issue, and the Government has a discussion, and they think it through as well. Because there is an issue about old sites, because that is an old process.

Mr Jack

  36. What do you mean by the word `safe', in the context of deep repository and other forms of disposal of radioactive material?
  (Dr Hooper) What we mean by `safe' is that, whatever disposal or management concept is come up with, it will contain and retard radionuclides, so that they have decayed away to levels that are decided as safe by the regulators before they reach the surface, the environment where people live. So we are very much using regulatory standards as a benchmark for what we describe as `safe'.

  37. And, in terms of knowing whether any of the approaches that you are advocating to deal with these issues have the remotest chance of being successful, can you give any examples, outside of Finland, where the kind of discussion that you have just entertained, or Diana Organ, has actually convinced a group of people who thought something, by your terms, was unsafe that it was safe?
  (Mr Murray) In Sweden, they are not quite at the same stage as Finland, they are down to, I think, three sites, at the moment, and the Government has just announced that they are happy that our sister in Sweden, SKB, continues; in America, you have the WIPP[10]1 facility, which is open and running for long-lived military waste, and that is in New Mexico.

  (Dr Hooper) That is in New Mexico, and, in fact, those are the wastes that are most similar to the ones that Nirex has had a remit for seeking a long-term management solution for.

  (Mr Murray) And a key part of that process, where they were able to open the WIPP facility, was the level of dialogue that they had, actually, at the local level, in particular.

  38. Just for the benefit of the Committee, could you just give us a quick word picture of the sort of environment of that, because I think that some of the original sites which were dropped in 1983 were effectively in quite densely-populated areas, whereas, on the other hand, places like Sellafield and Dounreay, which in the past again have been considered, are in relatively depopulated areas? Could you just give us a flavour of where success has been in the US, is it sparse, or less populated?
  (Mr Murray) Let us start with Finland again and run through the three again. In Finland, actually, the final site, the site that they are looking at, is in a relatively populated area, it is in the south of Finland, where all the people are, it is not in the locality, it is not very populated, but it is in the south, it is not in the north where there are hardly any people at all. And the same thing has happened in Sweden. Now I am not so clear about New Mexico, I do not think that is very populated at all.
  (Dr Hooper) New Mexico is, I do not think, quite correctly, desert, but I think, superficially, that is how you would describe it, it is a very barren part of south west United States.

  39. A final question. I am intrigued by your first point, about engaging this wider part of the population, and yet do you not think that the only way you are truly going to engage people is once the populations who might be affected by deep repositories do actually know that, because how would they know whether to engage in this wider, pre-front-end-loaded, call it what you like, consultation, in the first place? Because people usually respond to what they see is a risk or a threat, and, if they did not know there was one there, how would they know to join in?
  (Mr Murray) It is a good question. What really needs to happen is that we, as a society, as a whole, need to decide whether we want to do this or not, essentially; it is not enough to look at it at a local level, there needs to be a decision by us, as a whole, that we are going to take on this issue, that we are going to look at the waste and say, `the waste exists, we have to do something about it.' Now that is what has happened in Finland, for instance; as a society, they have decided, `there is a problem, we are going to tackle it, we're going to take our time about it but we are going to tackle it.' And the same in Sweden. And that is why I believe it is so important that there is the national debate as well as trying to focus it down locally. We tried, the last time round, to work only at a local level, you had never heard of it, until we pop up in the news every so often, but, essentially, it was a local strategy that we were trying to follow, and that was a huge mistake, because you have to have a national backdrop to it. And some of the decisions that we were talking about earlier, when you were talking about, `do you give community benefit,' for instance, that most certainly needs to be decided at a national level, it cannot be something that is dealt with, you know, the developer to the local council, it would not be legitimate, I think.

10   1 WIPP is the acronym for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico, which has been licensed by the United States Environmental Protection Agency for the disposal of about 175 thousand cubic metres of "transuranic" uranium-and-plutonium-bearing wastes. Back

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