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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180 - 185)




  180. If they do not need to I think we would be quite happy.
  (Mr Johnston) On the point about being very clear about what is a storage issue and what is a disposal issue, I think the Royal Commission in 1976, and again last year in their Climate Report, were referring to disposal rather than storage and there are different time frames involved as well.

Mr Breed

  181. Can we turn to decommissioning. You have said that Government's proposals are quite complacent in terms of decommissioning. Can you tell us what sorts of aspects of the programme you are unhappy with? In respect also of the Environment Agency, which argues that decommissioning would be safer if it were delayed, on what grounds do you disagree with that view?
  (Mr Johnston) We think that decommissioning of reactors certainly is being delayed by motives that are largely economic.

  182. They say it would be safer.
  (Mr Johnston) The issue at the heart of that is the worker dose, the dose of radioactivity the workers doing the job would get. The assumption within that though is you have a team of workers who are working on that full-time for the time that it takes and that it would be possible, and also preferable, to be dismantling nuclear reactors sooner than that. The way to do that is in essence you use more staff so that the dose the worker might receive in one shift or one year's employment is not as great because his or her exposure on—bad analogy—the coal face, so to speak, is not as great, their time exposed to the dose would not be as great.

  183. Your view is that we should put a lot more people in and do it a lot quicker?
  (Mr Johnston) That is the view based on how we see the principles of sustainable development being applied. There is also a technical advantage in that the sooner we do it the more residual experience of those reactors there is that still exists. If we wait 80 years the people doing the job then will not be those who are around now operating the plant and knowing how they operate. By doing it over a shorter timetable then there is more experience of the nature of the problem and, therefore, a greater ability to deal with it.
  (Dr Western) Certainly the Japanese and the Italians plan to decommission their Magnox stations within around 20 years. In addition to the number of staff there is also an issue of how much money we spend on equipment. I think you could spend money to apply robotics. I have also got a quote here from the DTI from 1996 which says "The UK is poised at the early phases of a new industry, nuclear site decommissioning. Not only does it provide a source of business opportunity but on its success rides the long-term future of the nuclear industry". The amount of money that the nuclear industry can make from clean-up and decommissioning by gaining expertise is of the order of $300 billion. This was five years ago and the UK has not taken that initiative. BNFL has burnt its fingers overseas by not taking clean-up seriously. BNFL really need to get their act together on this.

  184. So what you really want to do is to stop producing any electricity, shift away from that totally and move totally into decommissioning, for which you would say they would make more money in doing it and become a world expert in the whole process and end up as a more profitable organisation and decommission more quickly?
  (Mr Secrett) With a slight caveat. They are not to stop producing electricity overnight because obviously we have got the transition period that we would have to go through because you have got to keep the lights on, as it were. Certainly we believe that in the marketplace at the moment BNFL still have a considerable comparative advantage in terms of their current holdings, especially in America but also in this country, to be able to take advantage of those huge existing markets for not only decommissioning but also for safe site storage and clean-up. Starting early helps to retain and further develop expertise. It also gives one that comparative advantage. It also means that waste would be treated and not be held in its more dangerous uncontaminated form for far too long. We believe that something else would also happen with this type of strategic repositioning as a business. We think, although we cannot prove this, that it is much more likely that BNFL would be able to attract new entrants into the industry if the company had a far more positive public image from going around solving problems and making money out of solving problems rather than trying to continue perpetuating them. That is a very, very important consideration because, as you undoubtedly know, there has been a fall off in terms of new entrants and a fall off in university courses at an advanced level into precisely the areas of expertise that we need to deal with existing problems. That is something that very rarely gets commented upon. We think that it is an extremely important strategic consideration. As courses close and graduates, or undergraduates, do not want to go down this route, so we also build up a legacy problem that we could well do without.

Mr Borrow

  185. Can I finally touch on the issue you discussed earlier which is the Government's announcement last week to set up a Liabilities Management Authority. I would like some initial views from both organisations, a few comments on the suggestion about whether there should be a segregated fund for the civil side and also the suggestion has been made that the total liabilities could be in the region of 85 billion and other people have said that is not accurate, so if you could comment on that as well.
  (Mr Johnston) Briefly, on the accuracy point, the total of 85 billion is on the record and accepted by Margaret Beckett, the Secretary of State. The difference between that figure and the figures reported in various arena last week is essentially the difference between civil nuclear liabilities and military nuclear liabilities. The military total represents 30 out of the 85. There is a little bit missing in there from the civil public liabilities and that is attributable to British energy in the private sector.
  (Mr Higman) In terms of the statement itself, the inclusion of the Sellafield site and the MOX plant and the Thorpe reprocessing plant suggests that the Government might be thinking those are liabilities, but we understand that BNFL is going to continue to operate those. Our concern is that it might be that the liabilities arising from those sites are somehow publicly owned whereas the profits arising from those sites are somehow privately owned at some future point. We would certainly be very, very concerned if the restructuring of the industry in this way were to lead to the profit centre being seen as new build and liabilities being seen as a public responsibility because we believe, as we have said, that the real market incentive, the real business for BNFL is in developing expertise as a centre of excellence of management of the waste so it can then use that technology around the world. Therefore, we would be very concerned if it directed BNFL into what we would see as an unsustainable business with no future and for the privatisation to focus on the new build aspect rather than clean up.
  (Mr Secrett) I think also there is a very important point of principle here which is the way that the LMA potentially may be used to palm off costs to the taxpayer. We cannot see how that is justifiable in any circumstance, particularly just to try and make BNFL a profitable new build or continuing to service nuclear power stations' operation. At a level of principle that is wrong, in our view.

  Chairman: Dr Western, gentlemen, thank you very much indeed for coming to speak to us. You have promised us quite a chunk of additional material which we are looking forward to receiving but we are grateful for the evidence you have given to us today.

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