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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 119 - 139)




  119. Gentlemen, lady, welcome to the Committee. We have for the sake of the record Mr Stephen Tindale, Executive Director and Mark Johnston, described here as Campaigner for Greenpeace. I do not know if that is a profession or title or what. Then we have Charles Secrett, Friends of the Earth Executive Director, Dr Rachel Western, Nuclear Research Officer, and Roger Higman who is the Senior Climate Campaigner. Let's start and I am sure you will not all need to reply to every question, if I may state the obvious; it would be helpful to establish that.

  (Mr Secrett) Perhaps it would be helpful if I open a little, Chairman.

  120. No, I am sorry, we are going to ask questions, if you do not mind. We have got votes coming so we are anxious to get through our agenda. Do you think there is a consultation process which will end up with a wonderful consensus that says, "this is the right technology and this is the right place"?
  (Mr Secrett) I think that what we would say, first of all, in terms of the consultation, and we are going to take the questions alternatively so that we will not duplicate anything, Mr Meacher said that the wrong decision would be catastrophic, so the consultation is clearly a very important process. The recognition that sufficient time should be allowed is welcomed by both our organisations but we are very concerned that we are already halfway through the first period and very little initiative has been taken so far by DEFRA, in our view, and we would want to see action as soon as possible. For example, the acceleration of the waste conditioning and establishing an independent Nirex should be taken on an earlier timescale than the five-year plan.

Diana Organ

  121. Obviously the most important bit for local communities is that they are involved in the consultation as fully and actively as possible. How can that be done when they may not know whether they are going to be involved or not?
  (Mr Tindale) They cannot. We think that there are two pre-conditions for a successful consultation. One is that the Government has agreed that no nuclear waste will be produced so we are talking about dealing with the legacy without the threat of increased volumes of nuclear waste than the past. The second point is full and genuine transparency on which sites are being considered, which local communities are being impacted. Despite the fine words in the DEFRA consultation paper, the Government currently is embarked in going in the opposite direction in the Terrorism Bill in restricting information on certain matters.

  122. As we know, in Finland where they did not have a debate on the principle but they just agreed the principle of deep waste repositories and then went out to local communities saying, "Let's consult about who is going to host one and who is going to have one", one of the ways that they got that through, if you like, was local communities were given a power of veto. Do you believe that should be the same here?
  (Mr Secrett) We do very much and we think that is one of the benefits of the Finnish process in that it helps genuine engagement and participation from a very early stage and we think participative decision-making is very different from consultative decision-making. We also think that apart from communities being fully informed about whether their area is due for a waste management site, that it is essential that communities are not bribed with sweeteners or offered compensation because we do not believe that that will fully account therefore in their-decision-making for the rights of future generations let alone in the context of the post 11 September world with the consequences of some form of tragic and horrific attack on such a site and therefore the dispersal of the radioactive problem over a much wider set of communities.

  123. But the Finnish system, if you like, was successful because all communities had the veto but there were community benefits offered to those that would host such a facility. Do you think that we should be doing that and what community benefits could be offered to that community offering to have a radioactive waste facility?
  (Mr Tindale) We are not in favour of a system like that because the decision on where to store nuclear waste must be made on environmental and safety grounds.

  124. But it was with Finland. We know that 30 per cent of the UK has a geological structure that might be used. There have been drafts of anything between 300 and 12 sites. Given we have made the decision that maybe 20 sites can be identified to those communities, should we offer them benefits if they host it?
  (Mr Tindale) We do not believe that would be the right way forward because it would be impossible to make an objective and impartial judgment if you were looking at socio-economic factors of that kind.
  (Dr Western) There are generic problems associated with nuclear waste disposal which have been identified at the Nirex inquiry. It will be a long time before they are resolved if they are resolved at all and I think it would prejudice the process by inducing a community to take on a repository with bribes, as it were, when we have no solution at present to nuclear waste management.

  Diana Organ: So a veto but no sweeteners?

Mr Jack

  125. I just wanted to probe a bit more that last point. In the evidence from Greenpeace there is a paragraph here that says the most important question of all which the government fails to ask is "Given that there is no solution to radioactive waste, should we halt its production?" It would appear that we have got a problem. You in your opening statement mentioned the legacy waste. You then go on to say: "Without an affirmative answer to this later question, it will be impossible to formulate an adequate or workable answer to the former question. Only when it has been agreed that nuclear waste production will end permanently could there be even a chance of reaching agreement about how to manage the radioactive waste that already exists. That seems to me an impenetrable barrier to any kind of solution to the problem. When you say there is no solution to the radioactive waste, does that mean that there are no technologies known to you that provide what you would regard as a solution or are the ones that are on offer currently, in your judgement, wholly inadequate?
  (Dr Western) The topic of my PhD was the Nirex safety assessment and the conclusions that I reached in that were shared with seven academic witnesses that we put forward at the inquiry and our evidence was compared to Nirex's evidence at the inquiry. It was a very excellent process, a very specific programme with technical advisers. The conclusion of the Inspectorate was that disposal was a novel technology which had generic problems. It covers many areas but essentially Nirex's notion that they can predict the amount of radioactivity that would leak from a dump to a sufficient degree of accuracy to be confident in their assessment was just shown not to be credible. We have a great deal of work before we can begin to make confident predictions that we will know what will happen to nuclear waste if it is disposed. We may never reach that decision and we should passively store the material in a retrievable form, and stop producing it because we do not know what to do with what we have got already.
  (Mr Tindale) We do not think it is an inpenetrable barrier. It is a very easy logical step for the Government to say, as the Germans have, that they will phase out nuclear power and production of nuclear waste. The reason why we say that is a pre-condition is partly technologically, we do not know what volume of nuclear waste we are talking about, and partly political. Whilst there is a threat of new nuclear facilities hanging over us, all we would say is it is absolutely impossible for the Government to get any consensus about the management of the existing legacy.

Patrick Hall

  126. I would like to pursue that one and maybe there will be a chance to come back on that. I think we all agree that the context of effective consultation and understanding and being informed on these difficult matters has to be greater openness and trust—openness from the industry in particular but also government. Friends of the Earth has drawn attention to the importance of Nirex's transparency statement or policy, whatever it is called, and contrasted that with BNFL's perceived position. Last week I asked Nirex the question how transparent are you? I then asked them to demonstrate their commitment to that by naming the 12 late-1980s dump sites and the answer to that was no, they would not be that open or transparent. Does Friends of the Earth wish to reflect upon its congratulations to Nirex's openness in the light of that key refusal of information which suggests that perhaps Nirex is not quite ready to treat the public as adults.
  (Dr Western) I work two days a week for Friends of the Earth and two days of the week I work for Nirex as a research associate with Lancaster University. I am very impressed personally with the integrity and commitment of people like Chris Murray, the Director, and David Wild, the Head of Strategy and so on and so forth. I think it is on a personal level that statements like transparency become important. As I understand it, the reason why Nirex will not release the information about the sites is because they have got an imperative from government not to release that information.
  (Mr Secrett) I think also in our evidence what we are trying to do is draw a distinction, a relative one, between the way Nirex is beginning to transform itself in a way that we do not think BNFL is. As you will see from the thrust our evidence, we see there is a very obvious market future for nuclear companies and that is around decommissioning, safe storage, clean-up and aspects of the industry like that. But that requires transformation not only in terms of how one deals with the public or specific communities but also in terms of one's business plan, and on both sides we see that Nirex is beginning to make significant shifts whereas BNFL is not. This is one of the things that concerns us so much, this emphasis on business as usual and new build by the back door or front door is going to take away from BNFL the opportunity to realise the real world market opportunities in decommissioning, clean-up and safe, passive, retrieveable storage. That is where the money and the jobs lie, not in new build or continuing reprocessing, which simply add to the problem of the waste.

  Patrick Hall: That is a slightly different issue, I was not asking that, and we might have the opportunity to look at that later. I am happy to take your comments, Dr Western, about individuals and how you have related to them, and I had a positive impression of Nirex's representatives here but the test is not whether individuals are nice or not nice but what the organisation does. At the moment although they sound okay on this subject we have little evidence that there is a genuine will to move. I think that is something that you may care to reflect on as an organisation when you are saying they are going to the right direction. Maybe we can come back on other matters.

Mr Breed

  127. Can we turn now to the independent body to oversee policy decision making. There has been some discussion about the way in which that may demonstrate to the public that the public interest is being properly taken care of and looked after and such. Perhaps you could rehearse to us what you think would be the benefits of a properly independent body. More particularly how would you see the membership of that independent body being made up and what its terms of reference, its remit would be in order to ensure that we get something which is going to be seen as really looking after the broad public interest.
  (Mr Johnston) RWMAC, the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee, like Nirex, has often in the past suffered because of its domination by nuclear industry interests. An independent body would certainly help, we think, but still to us, and certainly to Greenpeace, it is a matter of detail that is a second order interest to the overall objective. For example, in theory it may be that somebody from one of the environmental groups could be part of that body to add to its independence. Certainly Greenpeace would be very reluctant even to consider that when we are in a situation where, as Stephen said earlier, nuclear waste is still being produced. So institutional arrangements may be resolved over time to deal with the legacy but we are in the situation where radioactive waste is still being produced today and also where the Prime Minister's Office is considering a new build nuclear programme. Until these bigger issues are dealt with, then the way in which society formulates institutions that deal with this legacy is, regrettably for us, going to have to wait.

  128. Can I take it from that if Greenpeace were invited to forward a member of an independent body which was being set up that you felt had broad independence, you would still not take up such an invitation?
  (Mr Johnston) Certainly not at the moment.
  (Mr Secrett) Can I add three points to that. In terms of the specifics of your question as to what we would like to see, we support the recommendation for an independent oversight body. We do not think that RWMAC itself fulfills that criteria because of its too close links with the industry. Any such institutional arrangements, apart from being distanced from both government and industry, must be supported by adequate resources. Thirdly, we would suggest that there would need to be an injection of new personnel with an environmental as well as a nuclear background. I think those are three particulars that we would like to see in such an independent oversight body.

  129. So you would not, as we have just heard from Mr Johnston, refuse an invitation to join such a body? You would need to ensure it had a financial independence and composition that covered the full range of not only nuclear technical ability but also the environmental aspects as well. Is that what you are saying?
  (Mr Secrett) Absolutely. In terms of any such invitation which we would treat with the greatest of respect, we deal with such invitations on a case-by-case basis. We do not have a general view as Friends of the Earth as to whether, if invited, we should join such bodies. We would look very much at the merits of the case and the particularities of the agenda that was being dealt with.

Mr Lepper

  130. Could we just go back to this question of the response of Friends of the Earth to Nirex on the one hand and BNFL on the other. In terms of transparency and so on can I just clarify for my satisfaction, I think it was Friends of the Earth that described the process of the BNFL stakeholder consultation as just a "cynical PR exercise". Does Greenpeace share that view?
  (Mr Tindale) We were involved and we withdrew because we felt that there was insufficient commitment within the company to real change, so I guess that is probably a yes.

  131. I just wanted to establish that it was a view shared by both organisations. And it is to do with structures rather than Dr Western was perhaps suggesting personalities and personal commitment?
  (Mr Secrett) We are trying to make relative judgments here and assessments in a changing—though slowly changing—situation as far as both bodies are concerned. I have been directly involved in stakeholder dialogue with BNFL and while those discussions were extremely interesting and informative I do not believe that they led to any real progress in terms of action on behalf of that which was agreed mutually as part of the stakeholder dialogue, and that is the problem. We are not going to sit here and pretend that Nirex are angels when it comes to consultation or freedom of information or transparency, but we do believe that they understand far better than BNFL do the nature of the crossroads that the industry is in and the importance of being able to change an old way of doing business, and that includes the old way of doing business in terms of engagement with outside bodies, including communities and the general public.

  132. There are those, I suppose, who might argue that one of the problems that we have here is an industry with some fairly entrenched views about its future and groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth with equally entrenched views with little chance of moving towards each other in any way. Is that too simple a way of looking at the situation?
  (Mr Secrett) Personally I would say from our point of view, yes, it is. I think that one of the tragedies of public debate over the nuclear set of dilemmas over the last 30 years is that all too often it has come across as a clash of religions or faiths and I think that is certainly something that we would accept and organisations on our side have contributed towards that perception, if not reality, but I think that what we recognise now is that there are grounds on both scientific, political and economic considerations for different approaches to be taken. We believe that the science of waste treatment and waste disposal is very much on our side and we think that, for example, the so-called Nirex inquiry has demonstrated that. We think that in terms of best practice consultation and participation and the involvement of outside bodies and communities that both sides have evolved positions but again the type of participative decision making and openness and transparency that sustainable development policy making argues for is something that both sides can engage with. Finally, we think that the economic case that we have made, the market case, for the future of the industry is one that far, far better sits with market realities and the political realities of whether nuclear waste disposal and nuclear site operation is publicly acceptable and that those aspects have taken on a new dimension since 11 September. So we do believe that there are grounds for common engagement based on objective assessment in all three of those areas, but it is also true to say that we think that our position requires less of a shift than the industry's position to be able to so engage and move forward together.

Mr Jack

  133. You mention, Mr Secrett, the word "transparency", implying that the players you hae so far mentioned in the disposal business are not being as open as they should be about various aspects of this complex situation. Can you tell us where you think that Nirex, BNFL, and indeed the Government, are not being transparent? Would you go as far as to say they are being dishonest in terms of holding back information, where you believe you are not getting the full picture?
  (Mr Secrett) In terms of a specific answer to that question, sir, I may not be the best person to reply because I think you are looking for examples.

  134. Or areas where you are saying, "I wish I knew more, I think they are holding something back".
  (Dr Western) I would like to draw your attention to the document produced by the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate in 1999. BNFL gave evidence to you last week and an example of the dishonesty that goes on is that they told you that only 25 per cent of the waste remained unconditioned, at least they gave that impression because the whole that they gave was the total Nirex inventory, whereas, in fact, in 1999 the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate said that only 15 per cent of waste has been conditioned to a passive safe state. There is also the NII audit of 1996 which points out the abysmal state of nuclear waste at Sellafield. It is in a condition where it is liable to go critical or catch fire and a great deal of work needs to be done. On Friday BNFL press office refused to fax across to me a copy of a press release and I could not get from the NII an up-to-date figure for this Committee of the amount of waste that has been conditioned to a passive state. There are problems with the nuclear industry, particularly with the language that they use in terms of transparency, there is an attempt to bamboozle, but efforts are being made by the Food Standards Agency, by Nirex and by different institutions. Another example of the lack of information is the plutonium management report which has just come out from the Environment Council stakeholder dialogue with BNFL. The Friends of the Earth emphasised in November 2000 that our continued involvement in the stakeholder dialogue depended on whether BNFL would provide information. Before I came this morning I read what information had been supplied and there is column after column of BNFL being asked to do this and they have not yet done it. From BNFL we are getting more of the same and it is really very depressing.

  135. We are going as part of our evidence-taking exercise to BNFL at Sellafield. If there are further questions I would find it quite helpful to have a list of the main areas, not every small thing because it would be impossible to ask those questions, but it would be quite useful to know rather rapidly where you think they are not being open so that we might probe ourselves. I would find that quite helpful.
  (Mr Secrett) Mr Jack, Chairman through you, would it be helpful then if both Greenpeace and ourselves provided some supplementary evidence on exactly those generic issues and provide some specific examples?

  Chairman: Certainly but we will need it by Thursday to be realistic. David Borrow?

Mr Borrow

  136. Going back to the long-term storage or disposal of nuclear waste, which was touched on earlier, I am trying to clear in my own mind the position of both groups. From what you said earlier, am I right in assuming that both groups are opposed to storage in deep storage areas and the preference is for it to be stored on the surface until such time as technologies change, but also that we cannot really engage in a proper discussion about solutions until such time as the Government decides to bring an end to the creation of more nuclear waste? Am I right in assuming that that is the position of both organisations?
  (Mr Tindale) I think you have characterised it basically correctly. There is no safe or satisfactory solution to nuclear waste which is why we must stop producing any more of it. For dealing with the legacy that we already have the crucial principles are that it must be stored in a form which is monitorable, manageable and retrievable.

  137. The consultation that the government is now starting, part of that consultation would be to create a consensus about how nuclear waste should be disposed of. In your view, is it reasonable for the Government to adopt that method of consultation and should that method of consultation come down in favour of deep storage, which seems to be the evidence that a lot of scientific communities have been giving? Do you have a problem with that method of consultation?
  (Mr Tindale) It is wrong in principle to enter a consultation knowing what your outcome is going to be. We do not believe there is any way of disposing of nuclear waste. You can bury it, dump it, out of sight out the mind, but the radioactivity will come back to haunt you, if you like, so we are opposed to deep disposal in principle because it will give the impression that the problem has been solved and what, in fact, has happened is it has been shuffled off the stage.
  (Mr Secrett) That is certainly our position as well and perhaps we could arrange to give you one or two specific reasons as to why.
  (Dr Western) My first degree is in chemistry and the thing which is particularly problematic with nuclear waste disposal is the nuclear industry have no idea how much radioactivity will dissolve in the groundwater and seep through the ground. So the errors in the calculations—Nirex do not call them errors, they call them a range of probability distribution functions—the evidence shows that the figures could be one million times different depending on which numbers you actually use. When you are talking about a risk factor of one in a million you could end up with doses very much higher than Nirex give the impression that you are going to get. That is one thing. The second thing is the very process of digging the hole, digging into the ground damages the rock and creates fractures. That is called an "evacuation damage" zone. The Swedes have called that a super-conductor, whereas in the evidence that Nirex put before the Nirex inquiry, they completely excluded that route of transfer. If you tell a computer that a problem does not exist the computer is going to pump out the answer you want. All the way through the Nirex case there are these technical errors and gliches and they need to be fully examined. Nirex are at the moment looking at something called the phased disposal concept which is where you would store the waste underground initially and then make a decision about whether or not you seal that hole up. There are even problems there because the hole itself might collapse. Friends of the Earth very much welcomes the consultation process in that they have taken a step back, they have recognised the scientific problems with disposal and they are proposing to spend a great deal of time in looking at the way forward, whereas the House of Lords are recommending that you should push through disposal foisted on communities using the planning process.

  138. To come back on the House of Lords' Report just briefly, the House of Lords' Report recommended fairly strongly in a post 11 September situation that deep storage had even more support than it had before. They argue that that was the case, there were strong reasons for storing nuclear waste in deep storage rather than on the surface. Post 11 September the Friends of the Earth are reviewing their policy in terms of the nuclear issues. Has that led Friends of the Earth to look again at their approach to surface storage of nuclear waste?
  (Dr Western) We are looking for firm information from the nuclear industry on this one, but one of the new pieces of information we are feeding in is the STOA Report produced for the European Parliament, which shows that an accident at Sellafield in the liquid high level waste tanks could be 40 times worse than Chernobyl and could kill two million over 50 years. So the main things in terms of focus and how we manage nuclear waste is that conditioning should be accelerated, particularly of liquid, high level waste stores. What we are beginning to think about is maybe having something which is below ground but not deep below ground so that it is not forgotten, so you would have the benefits of avoiding the terrorist crash situation but you would not have problems of waste leaking into the ground water system in an uncontrollable way. We very much appreciate the consultation process and believe that all these things need to be on the table and there needs to be firm information from the nuclear industry. The technical reports need to be commissioned to find out what the numbers and figures actually are.

  139. It is interesting these were issues that were raised when we interviewed people from Nirex last week and the idea of not on surface storage as being the best solution or deep storage being at this stage the best permanent solution, but some intermediate underground storage that allows the nuclear waste to be retracted and dealt with should technology change, is one way that a consensus could possibly emerge. If work went along that way of thinking, would your organisation or both organisations be prepared to engage in discussions and consultation irrespective of the decision by government on whether or not the nuclear industry should continue to produce nuclear waste?
  (Mr Secrett) Yes, all of us have an obligation and responsibility to try and find at least partial solutions to seemingly intractable problems. Echoing the point that Stephen made earlier and we ourselves have made in our evidence, it is important to proceed from principle and the principles are that the waste should be safe, retrieveable and conditioned into a passive state. Pre 11 September we felt that the physical conditions, the site conditions that most met those three principles were above ground storage on existing sites. Post 11 September—and it is not only waste here, as we all know, but also the sites and plant themselves—we have another safety consideration to take into account. We know that deep disposal is scientifically flawed. It does not meet those three principles. From a safety point of view from terrorist attack, above ground storage may not meet that principle, so we have to look again at where we can meet both sets of conditions and fulfil those essential principles and from our point of view we would certainly take part in investigating that sort of solution even as we continued to make the case, if that were the circumstances you suppose, of the Government deciding to proceed with new nuclear build, and we would continue to make the case, as we have done over the last 25 years, against new nuclear build.

  Mr Borrow: Can I just confirm that is Greenpeace's position as well.

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