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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160 - 179)



  160. Because it was our view that was not actually formally part of the consultation exercise which the Government is embarking on. Are you saying that you are going to comment on it anyway?
  (Dr Western) There are questions about should plutonium be regarded as a waste stream and how should it be treated, so it is part of that consultation.

Diana Organ

  161. Friends of the Earth have described the Government's statement that 10,000 tonnes of nuclear waste are safely stored in the UK and you have said that it is "either a political intent to mislead or evidence of extraordinary complacency". Earlier Dr Western pointed out about the amounts being wrong. I wonder if you can give us more examples to substantiate your statement and what evidence do you have that waste is not currently being stored safely? If you could give us a little picture of some examples or amounts, where and how you know this.
  (Dr Western) I can give you real pictures. This is the document from the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate 1996, it is Volume I, and if you look at the—

Mr Jack

  162. Can you hold it up, so we can see it.
  (Dr Western) There are guys going in there with bubble suits on because it is so dangerous.

  Mr Jack: Into where?

Diana Organ

  163. What are they going into?
  (Dr Western) They are going into building B733.

Mr Jack

  164. I presume that is part of Sellafield?
  (Dr Western) Which is the Drigg magazine, which is near Sellafield.

Diana Organ

  165. And you are saying the material there is not stored safely?
  (Dr Western) No, it is not.

Patrick Hall

  166. Is that intermediate waste or low level?
  (Dr Western) This is an audit of solid radioactive waste at Sellafield.

  167. But it is not the most dangerous material?
  (Dr Western) No. The most dangerous material is the liquid high level waste and, as I referred to previously, there was a STOA Report produced for the European Parliament. There was also a Nuclear Installations Inspectorate Report which came out in February 2000 which highlighted the need to reduce as soon as possible the amounts of liquid high level waste that are stored. The problem with liquid waste is it is easily dispersable, so that if somebody made the decision to crash a plane on Sellafield it would be disastrous, it would wipe out a huge area of the North of England.
  (Mr Secrett) If I could give you another specific example. In 1999 the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate reported that of that high level waste BNFL had conditioned just 15 per cent of the raw waste into a passive form and they have not made much progress since1999. Again, if there are specific examples like these that would be helpful for the Committee, we can certainly pull them out from our evidence and from other sources, presumably by the same Thursday deadline.

Diana Organ

  168. The question obviously was if you are going to say that it is not safe then evidence and examples would be most helpful.
  (Mr Secrett) Absolutely. There are examples in our evidence and we can certainly provide more. We absolutely stand by that statement.[58]

  169. Whose responsibility is it to ensure, do you believe, that the conditions in which waste are stored are improved? Who do you want to be responsible? You have highlighted problems of unsafe storage but we have to make it safe, who is going to be responsible to ensure that happens?
  (Mr Johnston) Certainly in the short-term the Health and Safety Executive or their—

  170. You have full confidence they will do that?
  (Mr Johnston) Or the NII. Not necessarily full confidence. They have noticeably been more proactive in recent years. The three reports in February 2000, for example, that came in the aftermath of the 1999 data falsification scandal, those reports and others around that time certainly were evidence of greater proactivity on the part of the Safety Regulator on site. That is only in the short-term though, in the longer term this debate is ongoing about institutional arrangements, about legacy waste. The LMA announced by the DTI last week is part of the institutional change that is now being debated.

  171. You would see the new authority that is being set up to be responsible for the improvement in safety of storage?
  (Mr Johnston) It could well do. There is a particular example at the moment. Both reprocessing lines at Sellafield are closed down because of the fact that the waste treatment plants downstream from the reprocessing lines actually cannot keep up, it relies on the storage tanks for high liquid waste and then the vitrification plants that follow, and unless that part of the system is working properly then the main reprocessing lines cannot work. We think British Nuclear Fuels took pre-emptive action in suspending reprocessing but certainly from some of the indications and signals that were coming from the Safety Regulator prior to that, if the company had not done so then the Regulator itself would have stepped in.
  (Mr Secrett) I think there is a general point worth making here too because I think you have pointed to one of the problems, not only in this sector and as far as this industry is concerned but the relationship between public sector agencies and private companies when it comes to managing safely potentially or actually very dangerous materials, whether one is looking at harm to environmental systems or harm to human beings. The history of regulation from a health and safety consideration would lead us to conclude that at best it has been a patchy job. The existing agencies, whether it is the HSE or the Environment Agency or the Foods Standard Agency, or any of the companies or other Government bodies involved, simply do not prioritise safety sufficiently, either in their planning or in their operations. I include in their planning, in their business planning. I think that this is an area where we would generally say if we were in charge we would not do it like this and a key part is to bring about not only cultural changes that prioritise safety aspects over operations and plant and materials like this, but that recognise that safety is expensive and that therefore you have to have the resources available to do it.

  172. Who would you have responsible for that?
  (Mr Secrett) In a sense that is bit like an open-ended question because if you have cultural change and resources, then existing agencies could do it.

  173. Given we are where we are, who would you want to see as having that responsibility? (Mr Secrett) We would like to see co-ordination. Different agencies have different responsibilities for different parts, if you like, of the safety cycle. If you are asking us whether we would take away those responsibilities to create a new agency, we would like to think about that perhaps because we are not in a position to be able to answer that question but resources, culture shift and strategic prioritisation of safety can be made to work through existing agencies, they can do it. In a sense institutions are not really the answer to problems like this although if one started again one could design the right type of oversight regulatory agency both on the environmental side and on the human health side. The existing agencies could do it if they worked together, if they prioritised it as an objective and if they had the resources to carry it out effectively. The past and current track record leaves many, many doubts as to the willingness to provide those resources or that shift in culture.

Mr Jack

  174. If there were to be a solution in the way you have been moving towards this bunker that satisfied you, and if there were to be the right regulatory framework, and if there were to be the resources that would satisfy you, if all of those ifs were answered, would you still maintain your objection to new build of nuclear power stations and, if so, why?
  (Mr Higman) I think the thing to remember is that there are other reasons why nuclear power is bad for Britain in terms of economy and in terms of discharges, which are not to do with the long-term storage of waste, and are to do with threats and hazards to surface level operation of nuclear plant such as the Thorpe reprocessing plant which are not to do with the storage of waste. Then you have to compare that to alternatives in terms of extra energy efficiency. We know that we can get up to 40 per cent improvement in our energy use by cost effective measures alone and development over a period of 10, 15, 20, 30 years of a variety of different forms of renewable energy. We know we have a vast capability to take advantage of that and under those circumstances nuclear power looks like an unsafe route. We also have to remember that this storage mechanism we are talking about is not a solution as such. It is the least worst management option for the foreseeable future which is 10, 20, 30 years. In those circumstances I think you can see that the balance of evidence rather favours the other sources of energy over nuclear.

  175. Given that science moves forward and there might be new ideas to deal with those problems that come along which we cannot immediately see, you said that part of the energy demand can be satisfied by renewables that will be developed over the next 30, 40 or 50 years, and you said that with a great certainty, but it might be that somebody over the next 30, 40 or 50 years comes up with a solution to this and we are faced today with a question of taking decisions about sustainability of energy supplies against an environmental background where the EU is projecting, for example, that by 2030 we will still be 67 per cent dependent on hydro carbon fuels in their latest consultation document. Do you think the public in terms of the consultation exercise we talked about earlier ought to have been given the opportunity to give their views on the question of whether nuclear power ought to be part of the future strategy or not?
  (Mr Secrett) When one is trying to project ahead to choices in 15 or 25 years' time, we are on very, very dodgy ground wherever we are. If we got super-conductivity in as a scientific breakthrough at room temperature, and there has been tremendous progress on that bringing it down from near absolute zero conditions of transmission, all our energy problems could be solved. We just do not know. We have got to look at choices made today in the context of a sustainability matrix and those are environmental, economic and social considerations. We believe that in the present day the case against nuclear power is absolutely stacked against it and that there are opportunities in renewables and in energy efficiency and energy consrevationwhich will deliver the type of energy services as well as energy supply that we need now if we put the right investments into it and if we have the right commercial and government policy strategies. Let's look at what the Germans are doing on just one renewable energy source, which is offshore wind. They have committed to a £20 billion offshore wind programme which will generate within 20 years twice as much electricity as Britain's current nuclear capacity. Rather than add to the problems of environmental, political and public acceptability, let alone the difficulties of what to do with the waste as you produce more power stations, given that these things are flipping expensive to build by comparison with an offshore wind station or putting solar tiles onto all the buildings in this country, these are the sorts of opportunities we have. And the other point from an economic perspective is that we can see there are far clearer job creation, company development and export opportunities out of going down the renewable route, not only in terms of solar or offshore wind but in terms, if one is considering baseload electricity supply, of wave power. These are all technologies that Britain could be developing. They are safe, they can become cost effective, particularly if one removes the subsidies and fiscal arrangements that currently make the market playing field discriminate against the emergence of those new technologies, and that is the basis on which we would argue these types of judgment might be made. In 15 years' time or 20 years' time it may well be that the economic, the technical, and the environmental problems associated with nuclear power are solved and one then may get a very different political or popular climate in which new build could take place, but we are not there yet, so why not invest in the cheap, safe, reliable alternatives which we know can deliver if they are given the right incentives in the market place. That requires government and industry working together and that is where we can see already not only assessments by environmental organisations but assessments by the PIU and by the Sustainable Development Commission that I am a member of, making exactly the same arguments and exactly the same case based on current day evidence. That is where we think the energy policy should go.

Patrick Hall

  176. That is the wider context of course but this is an inquiry into nuclear waste and although we may want to look at those very interesting issues we are not quite doing so. The Royal Commission's advice 25 years ago was that there should be no new nuclear build until safe storage of the waste was demonstrably solved.
  (Mr Secrett) That is quite correct.

  177. I do not want to misrepresent anyone, that is what you are here for, to correct me if I am wrong, but your logic seems to be (both of you) that the country cannot solve the issue of safe storage until a decision is taken not to build new nuclear power stations. (Mr Secrett) It is not a solution, it is the least worst option.

  178. Yes.
  (Mr Secrett) Even if you get over the problem of how much it costs to build nuclear plant, as soon as you have another nuclear station you have more waste that adds to the problem that we do not know how to solve, and that is our perspective. Why add to a problem when there are alternatives that meet economic, social and environmental criteria?

  179. The Royal Commission's position is inherently logical, it says no new build until we solve the problem of waste. I think you were saying that you cannot really demonstrate safe storage until you have made a political decision not to have new build. Surely there are such pressing problems with regard to waste and the dangers, about which we have heard in evidence from Dr Western, that that is the imperative and there are examples of very poor storage at Sellafield and those issues will have to be addressed irrespective of any decision on the future of nuclear power. Are you not in danger of diverting attention from those imperatives with regard to the safety of storage of nuclear waste by bringing in a debate on the storage of waste and the wider and very interesting issues on the future of nuclear power?
  (Mr Secrett) I think you go immediately into that wider set of issues through Mr Jack's line of questioning on the economics and also on the line of questioning; is there a solution to the waste problem? No, in the context of this particular inquiry we do not want to distract from the imperative that was laid down by the Royal Commission. We have referred to that in our own evidence and that absolutely from the waste point of view is the starting point as far as we are concerned. I do not know whether colleagues want to add to that.

58   The witness later indicated that current high level waste storage is not safe. Back

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