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

Memorandum submitted by the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee


  1.1  The Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee (RWMAC) is an independent national advisory committee whose terms of reference are:

    "To advise the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and, in relation to devolved matters, to advise the Minister for Environment and Rural Development in Scotland and the Minister for the Environment in Wales, on the technical and environmental implications of major issues concerning the development and implementation of an overall policy for all aspects of the management of civil radioactive waste, including research and development: and on any such matters referred to it by these persons".

  RWMAC's views on the three questions posed by the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee are as follows.


  2.1  There are currently a number of deficits in radioactive waste management policy. These apply to policy for the control of radioactive discharges and the remediation of radioactively contaminated land (both on and off nuclear sites), as well as that for the long-term management of solid radioactive waste—as covered by "Managing Radioactive Waste Safely"1. Whilst initiatives are underway to decide all these elements of radioactive waste management policy, it is RWMAC's view that, in recent years, the initiatives have been taking far too long to bring to fruition. That said, the timescales proposed henceforth in "Managing Radioactive Waste Safely" are probably of the right order given the work that needs to be done and the difficult decisions that have to be made. These points are elaborated in the following paragraphs of the response to this question.

  2.2  It should also be noted that there are important inter-relationships between the solid waste management, discharges control and contaminated land policy elements, and in practice, therefore, these elements need to be considered in a holistic way. For instance, treatment of radioactive wastes, to put them into a suitable solid form, and nuclear site decommissioning will both lead to radioactive discharges. Decommissioning includes the remediation of large areas of contaminated ground on nuclear sites, and the policy and standards for doing so will affect the amounts of solid radioactive waste that need to be dealt with.

  2.3  That said, RWMAC welcomes the publication of the "Managing Radioactive Waste Safely" consultation document in September 2001, as the first step forward on the road to deciding future UK policy for the long-term management of its solid radioactive waste. The policy for solid intermediate level radioactive waste (ILW) has essentially been in a state of limbo since the collapse of the Nirex repository programme in March 1997 (ie, for more than one complete Government lifetime). The failure of the Nirex programme also has implications for the long-term management of high level radioactive waste (HLW) discussed in the 1995 Cm 2919 Government White Paper2. In practice, there needs to be a clear policy for management of all categories of the UK's radioactive wastes. "Managing Radioactive Waste Safely" has taken a relatively long time to produce—the Government's response3 to the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology's report on the Management of Nuclear Waste, published in October 1999, indicated that the consultation document would be published in "early 2000".

  2.4.  In the meantime, RWMAC has been assembling its own ideas on the way in which future policy for the long-term management of UK's solid radioactive waste should be decided. This has been set out in "The Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee's Advice to Ministers on the Process for Formulation of Future Policy for the Long-Term Management of UK Solid Radioactive Waste" supplied to Ministers in July 2001 and published in September 20014. This advice is referred to in the Government's consultation document. RWMAC is currently considering precisely how it should respond to the "Managing Radioactive Waste Safely" consultation in light of this advice.

  2.5  RWMAC's view is that any programme for deciding solid radioactive waste management policy in today's public opinion climate needs to be substantive, logically structured, comprehensive in its consideration of the options, and able to deliver a result that can be seen to flow logically from the process.

  2.6  RWMAC also believes that there are two key constituencies that will need to be involved in deciding policy. The first is vested interest groups, those who normally respond to consultations. The second is the much larger constituency of members of the general public, who might not normally get involved in consultation exercises. It is seen to be particularly important to involve the public in this instance, since a demonstrable understanding of the public's views will be a key element in legitimising the choice of future policy in this obviously controversial area.

  2.7  It will be important to involve members of the public throughout the policy formulation process, including from the very start when the means of deciding policy is itself debated. Relying on written consultation responses alone will not be enough, because of the probably very limited numbers of members of the public who will choose to submit their views. A range of techniques for achieving wider public involvement, which will need to be applied on a "horses for courses" basis, are discussed in RWMAC's report4.

  2.8  RWMAC believes that the process for the formulation of future policy for the long-term management of all the UK's solid radioactive wastes should provide for all the practicable options to be assessed against a set of common evaluation criteria. To date, consideration has focussed unduly on single options, for example, underground disposal of ILW as a result of the Nirex repository initiative. Both the list of practicable options, and the criteria against which they are evaluated, should be developed through a process of open discussion.

  2.9  A possible five-stage approach to this assessment is set out in RWMAC's policy formulation process advice4. Possible evaluation criteria are discussed in Annex 2, paragraph 2.13, of the advice. The set criteria is wide-ranging and intended to cover all future risks and relevant considerations.

  2.10  RWMAC also believes that the policy formulation process should be overseen by an independent or, at least, balanced interest, body that is widely accepted as being capable of representing the public interest. This body would have responsibility for overseeing public participation events (including provision of information to facilitate public understanding of the issues), co-ordinating and commissioning reviews of existing scientific knowledge and required research, and assessment of policy implications. Ultimately, recommendations on policy would be submitted for Government to consider. The possible inter-actions with a Liabilities Management Authority, should one be established, would need to be considered.

  2.11  This represents a challenging programme of work. However, it is essential that the process should not be allowed to extend indefinitely. There is a need for proper understanding of the aims and objectives, sound management of the process and adequate resourcing (both in terms of manpower and funding). Planned timescales must reflect the needs of the work, but must also be clearly defined and adhered to. At first sight, the two-year period, from 2002 to 2004, indicated for Stage 2 of the proposed Programme of Action set out in "Managing Radioactive Waste Safely" does not seem unreasonable.

  2.12  In addition to UK policy for the long-term management of solid radioactive waste, there is a need for the Government's policy for control of radioactive discharges to the environment to be clarified as soon as possible. For a number of years now, RWMAC has been saying that the principles behind the control of radioactive discharges have been insufficiently clear5. In the Committee's view, this has stemmed essentially from lack of clear statements of Government policy.

  2.13  RWMAC expressed the same concerns in its evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs inquiry into the work of the Environment Agency. In its May 2000 report, the Select Committee said6:

    "It appears that the Agency is working almost in a vacuum where regulatory principles are concerned with the result that neither they, nor those they regulate, nor the general public, can be clear of what is required in this area. We strongly urge the Government to produce as soon as possible, in consultation with the Agency, a clear statement of regulatory policy and practice in the area of radioactive substances and waste".

  2.14  Subsequently, during the course of 2000, the Government released two consultation documents on radioactive discharges policy—a draft UK Strategy for Radioactive Discharges 2001-20207 and draft Statutory Guidance (to the Environment Agency) on the Regulation of Radioactive Discharges into the Environment from Nuclear Licensed Sites8. These documents aim to reflect the objectives for reduction of radioactive discharges to the marine environment agreed at the OSPAR meeting in Sintra in July 19989. RWMAC has welcomed both initiatives as a means of ultimately helping to clarify the principles behind the control of radioactive discharges, although has raised some substantive concerns in respect of both the draft Strategy and Statutory Guidance in its consultation responses10,11. For the reasons given in its responses, RWMAC does not feel that the current drafts provide the clear exposition of principles behind the control of radioactive discharges that is needed.

  2.15  The OSPAR Sintra agreement was signed almost three and a half years ago and yet its precise implications for the UK's discharge control policy have still not been fully assessed and published, There are no obvious signs of either the full Strategy or Statutory Guidance statements emerging, nor is it clear what timescales the Government currently sees for their production. In the meantime, the Environment Agency, as the discharge control regulator in England and Wales, is having to take decisions in respect of the latest authorisation for the UK's largest nuclear site, Sellafield, on the basis of the draft Strategy and draft Statutory Guidance material12.

  2.16  In addition to solid radioactive wastes and radioactive discharges, a third area where Government radioactive waste policy is taking a long time to be decided is in respect of the remediation of radioactively contaminated land. In February 1998, the Government issued a consultation document "Control and Remediation of Radioactively Contaminated Land"13. The outcome of that consultation, and the proposals for carrying the initiative through, were never published. There has been some ongoing work through the Safegrounds project14, on the management of radioactively contaminated land on nuclear and defence sites, but this still seems some considerable way from fruition. In the meantime. decisions on clean-up standards are having to be taken on an essentially ad hoc basis for decommissioning and land remediation projects.

  2.17  Overall, it is recognised that the formulation of radioactive waste management policy, including the clarification of regulatory principles, is a difficult and sensitive matter. Successive Governments have, nevertheless, exhibited an unwillingness or inability to progress these matters to completion to reasonable timescales.


  3.1  The main difficulties stem from the deficits in current radioactive waste management policy discussed previously. First, these deficits prejudice effective and efficient day-to-day decision-making in respect of management of existing waste.

  Second, they obfuscate the need to deal with future radioactive waste liabilities and its cost. These issues are considered in what follows.

  3.2  In respect of more immediate day-to-day waste management, the regulators need to be clear of Government policies so that they can regulate in a transparent effective and efficient manner. This is also true of waste producers, so that they can plan their future business requirements (waste producers include not only the nuclear operators but also "small users"15 of radioactivity such as hospitals and educational establishments)—investment decisions are being taken continually and these must be suitably directed. And the public has a right to have clearly explained to it how its interests are being served.

  3.3  For example, given the uncertainty concerning policy for the long-term management of solid ILW following the collapse of the Nirex underground repository programme in March 1997, are the interim Government objectives for the conditioning, packaging and storage of waste as clearly stated as they should be? The Nirex "Letters of Comfort" system (which is designed to provide assurance that performance and safety standards for the packaging of radioactive waste are being met) still apply and, recently, in guidance to its inspectors, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) endorsed the Nirex 150-year containment objective for interim storage. But does the Government have a view of this issue and, if so. where is it stated? It remains unclear to RWMAC whether the tension between the Environment Agency's past policy for seeking to delay conditioning, so as not to foreclose future management options, has yet been sufficiently reconciled with the HSE's policy, as on-site regulator. The HSE's policy endorses early conditioning and storage in a "passively safe" form given that a relatively long period of storage now looks inevitable. RWMAC is strongly in favour of moving to passively safe storage and believes that the two policy approaches can, and should, be reconciled.

  3.4  RWMAC has recently embarked on two joint studies with another national advisory committee—the Nuclear Safety Advisory Committee (NuSAC)—that will serve to shed further light on the issues discussed above and identity needs and opportunities for improvement. These are:

    —  a study of the requirements for conditioning. packaging and storage of UK intermediate level radioactive waste; and

    —  a review of current arrangements for civil regulation of nuclear safety and management of radioactive materials and radioactive wastes within the UK.

  The first results of these studies are anticipated for Spring 2002.

  3.5  In respect of the control of discharges, there is a further important example of regulatory, and thus producer, problems caused by absence of clear Government policies. The HSE, as onsite operators, regulates according to the Tolerability of Risk principles. These are based on the tenet that there is an upper limit beyond which a risk would be intolerable, regardless of the benefit which society derived from the activity involved, and a lower level, below which the risk is negligible in comparison with the other risks we run in our daily lives—and therefore broadly acceptable. The area in between is the region in which risk is tolerable only it is "as low as reasonably practicable" (ALARP)—ie, to reduce it further would involve disproportionately high cost. In the case of radioactive wastes, risk stems from radiation dose, which leads to increased risks of contracting cancer. Discharges of different radionuclides have different radiation dose implications.

  3.6  On the other hand, the draft National Discharges Strategy7 seeks progressive and substantial reductions in discharges, with no direct reference to the radiation dose that they give rise to, and its risk implications. There is no identified limit to this continuing downward pressure.

  3.7  The RWMAC small user report15 draws attention to the threat to services in the health sector that are posed applying continuous downward pressure on radioactive discharges without considering the balance of benefit versus risk. The strategy envisaged in Department of Health policy for modernising the NHS is to extend the use of nuclear medicine facilities, potentially increasing radioactive discharges.

  3.8  In its response to the proposed National Discharges Strategy7, RWMAC observed10:

    "RWMAC believes that it is right for the Government and the public to expect improvements in technology to be able to deliver progressively lower levels of radioactive discharges than in the past. It is clear that what has been regarded as acceptable in the past is no longer regarded as acceptable today. The development of technology is the primary vehicle for delivery of such improvement and there must be appropriate pressure on industry to continue to invest in the development and use of such technology.

    Equally, as levels of discharges diminish, so does the of risk to the public. It then becomes increasingly important to ensure that a justifiable balance between risk, cost and practicable benefit is also maintained. Otherwise, there is the risk of wasting resources. This is also one of the objectives behind the government's Regulatory Impact Assessment procedures for new legislation. RWMAC's view is that the principles of such Assessment should apply equally to areas of existing legislation. including the regulation of radioactive discharges.

    The proposed Strategy is also acknowledged to be based on the ICRP principle that radiological doses and risks from a source of exposure are kept as low as reasonably achievable, consistent with the relevant dose or target standard and have been reduced to a level that reflects a balance between radiological and other factors, including social and economic factors (the ALARA principle). The latter part of the ALARA principle definition—that is the need to take into account social and economic factors—thus also reflects the need to balance risk, cost and practicable benefit, subject to relevant social factors.

    What is of some concern to RWMAC is that, in the light of this need, the proposed Strategy does not appear to acknowledge that there will inevitably come a point where the benefit of further reductions in discharge levels are likely to be outweighed by the cost of their achievement. RWMAC believes that the Government must be clearer on this aspect of ALARA application, namely how it views the trade-off between the three primary Strategy principles[1] and cost, either in its eventual strategy or in its guidance to the environment agencies".

  3.9  What RWMAC is again saying here is that the absence of clearly stated and consistent Government radioactive waste management policies is liable to prejudice transparent, effective and cost-efficient regulation.

  3.10  A third example of this problem is in respect of decommissioning and clean-up of contaminated sites. The Government and the regulators are currently in the process of considering the Dounreay Site Restoration Plan (DSRP) produced by the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, itself a Government-funded body. The proposed Plan, if accepted, could cost in the region of £4 billion. Thus, in the foreseeable future, decisions are going to have to be made on clean-up needs in the absence of clear policy and standards for the remediation of radioactively contaminated land. There will be a need to decide how much contaminated soil will need to be dug up and how it is to be managed—clearly expensive tasks. If erroneous decisions are taken, they will, potentially, need to be revisited at some future date. RWMAC's view of the potential impacts of policy deficits on implementation of the clean-up plan for Dounreay are discussed further in its advice to Ministers on the DSRP16.

  3.11  The "Managing Radioactive Waste Safely" consultation concentrates on the longer term. In the shorter term, however, there are large quantities of unconditioned wastes stored in tanks and silos in old buildings that require to be treated. The kinds of policy deficits described above effectively prevent such work being planned on an assured basis and, in particular, the apparent lack of cohesion between the HSE and the environment agencies' regimes seems liable to prejudice the achievement of optimum operational and environmental choices between treatment options.

  3.12  Looking further ahead, the policy deficits complicate liabilities estimation and provisioning. How can the cost of site clean-up be estimated when land remediation standards remain unclear? How can the cost of dealing finally with ILW and HLW be estimated when the eventual destination of these materials remains unknown? (The eventual fate of LLW, through disposal to a facility such as Drigg, having, for the moment at least, been provided for and costed.) Such estimation will be complicated further if additional materials—such as plutonium, uranium and spent fuel—come to be designated as waste, as is mooted in the "Managing Radioactive Waste Safely" consultation document.

  3.13  In practice, since 80-90 per cent of all radioactive waste liabilities are owned by Government—through organisations such as MoD, UKAEA, BNFL and Urenco—they will presumably have to be dealt with through the public purse whatever the cost. In an answer to a Parliamentary Question on 18 October 2001, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs gave an estimated cost for UK radioactive waste management liabilities of £86 billion. RWMAC believes that there must be considerable uncertainties associated with this figure given the factors outlined above.

  3.14  RWMAC gave some consideration as to the amounts of plutonium and uranium that might ultimately be produced in its May 1999 report on the waste implications of reprocessing17. In this report, RWMAC reiterated views on plutonium given in its response to the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology report on the management of nuclear waste18. The response stated:

    "The RWMAC supports the Select Committee's recommendation that Government should develop and declare a clear policy for the management of the UK's stock of separated plutonium. It agrees that there can only be a limited use for the stock in the foreseeable future and that the remainder of the plutonium should be declared a waste unless a credible reason for doing otherwise can be given. This would, of course, have implications for the way in which spent nuclear fuel is handled within the UK and the case for its reprocessing.

    It is certainly true that the management of plutonium from past and committed actions represents a significant problem. However, the waste implications of future activities such as reprocessing must also be fully considered.

    Debate and resolution of these issues should be undertaken alongside the process of developing policy for the management of currently declared wastes. In particular, work will need to be put in hand to identify options for dealing with the separated plutonium if it is to be ultimately declared as waste, and its possible implications for wider radioactive waste management policy. A start on this issue has been made as part of the Government's High Level Waste and Spent Fuel Disposal Research Strategy Project"19.

  3.15  RWMAC will be giving consideration to the nuclear operators' statements on possible future uses of bath plutonium and uranium that appear in the "Managing Radioactive Waste Safety" consultation document, and setting out definitive views of them in its consultation response. If any of the stocks of these materials were to be declared as wastes, the means and costs of dealing with them would remain to be decided. "Managing Radioactive Waste Safety" is silent on these issues. Whether or not these materials are declared wastes will inevitably impact on the current debate about future UK energy policy, including security of electricity supply.


  4.1  None of these issues is likely, in itself, to be a primary determinant of future radioactive waste management policy decisions.

  4.2  The currently-designated wastes arising from all existing UK nuclear plants, together with past arisings, should be accounted for in the UK Radioactive Waste Inventory, compiled jointly by Nirex and DEFRA20. ILW and LLW from decommissioning of existing plants are unlikely to cause any novel problems vis a vis arisings from the preceding operation of the plants. However, RWMAC has commented that additional capacity over and above that of Drigg will be required for LLW disposal at some future point21. There must also be some question of how accurately arisings from decommissioning and site clean-up can be accounted for at the present time. RWMAC will be carrying out a review of the accuracy of the Radioactive Waste Inventory as part of its 2001-2002 work programme. The timing, and hence cost, of dealing with arisings also remain uncertain in the absence of formally approved nuclear site decommissioning plans. Where the wastes will be held, pending a decision on their long-term management, and the nature of the facilities required, will also need to be decided.

  4.3  As regards the Sellafield MOX Plant (SMP), RWMAC understands Environment Agency estimates to be that SMP would add around 2 per cent by volume annually to Sellafield arisings of plutonium-contaminated waste. It has also been estimated that SMP would add less then 1 per cent to total aerial discharges from the Sellafield site, and less than one-thousandth of 1 per cent to all annual liquid discharges from Sellafield. That is, relatively, it would give rise to extremely limited additional arisings.

  4.4  For new nuclear power plants, arisings of both solid radioactive wastes and discharges would depend on the number and type of any new reactors. A full study would be required to determine the precise types and quantities of waste that any new reactors would give rise to.

  4.5  In practice, any decisions on future policy should, insofar as is reasonably practicable, incorporate sufficient flexibility to allow for different future new build scenarios.

Radioactive Waste Management Advisory

November 2001


  1.  Managing Radioactive Waste Safely: Proposals for Developing a Policy for Managing Solid Radioactive Waste in the UK, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs et al, September 2001.

  2.  Review of Radioactive Waste Management Policy: Final Conclusions (Cm 2919), HMSO, July 1995.

  3.  The Government Response to the House of Lords Select Committee Report on the Management of Nuclear Waste, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, October 1999.

  4.  The Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee's Advice to Ministers on the Process for Formulation of Future Policy for the Long-Term Management of UK Solid Radioactive Waste, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, September 2001.

  5.  The Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee's Advice on issues which need to be addressed in the Guidance to be given to the Environment Agencies on the Principles for determining Radioactive Waste Discharge Authorisations—the "Principles Document", Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, July 1998.

  6.  House of Commons Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee Sixth Report: the Environment Agency, The Stationery Office, May 2000.

  7.  UK Strategy for Radioactive Discharges 2001-2020; Consultation Document, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, November 2000.

  8.  Statutory Guidance on the Regulation of Radioactive Discharges to the Environment from Nuclear Licensed Sites: a Consultation Paper, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, November 2000.

  9.  OSPAR Strategy with Regard to Radioactive Substances, Paper No 1998/17, Ministerial Meeting of the OSPAR Commission, Sintra, Portugal, July 1998.

  10.  Twentieth Annual Report of the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee (Annex 9: Response to the Government Consultation on the UK Strategy for Radioactive Discharges 2001-2020), Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, November 2000.

  11.  Twenty First Annual Report of the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee (Annex 5: RWMAC Response to the Consultation on Statutory Guidance on Regulation of Radioactive Discharges into the Environment from Licensed Nuclear Sites), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, October 2001.

  12.  Explanatory Document to Assist Public Consultation on Proposals for the Future Regulation of Disposal of Radioactive Waste for British Nuclear Fuels plc Sellafield, The Environment Agency, July 2001.

  13.  Control and Remediation of Radioactively Contaminated Land: a Consultation Paper, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, February 1998.

  14.  The "Safegrounds" Learning Network has been set up to provide best practice guidance for remediating radioactively contaminated land on nuclear and defence sites. The network is run by CIRIA on the basis of support contributions from various industry, regulatory and Government bodies. Details can be found on the website.

  15.  The Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee's Advice to Ministers on the Problems of Small Users of Radioactive Materials, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, September 2000,

  16.  The Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee's Advice to Ministers on Restoration of the UKAEA Dounreay Nuclear Site, Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, September 2001.

  17.  The Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee's Advice to Minister s on the Radioactive Waste Implications of Reprocessing, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, November 2000.

  18.  The Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee's Response to the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology Report on the Management of Nuclear Waste, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, May 1999.

  19.  An R & D Strategy for the Disposal of High Level Waste and Spent Nuclear Fuel, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Report DETR/RAS/99.016), October 1999.

  20.  The 1998 United Kingdom Radioactive Waste Inventory", Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and Nirex, July 1999.

  21.  Twenty First Annual Report of the Radioactive Management Advisory Committee (Chapter 5: Management of UK Solid Low Level Radioactive Waste), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, October 2001.

1   Essentially parallel reductions in the radioactive content of discharges, radiation doses to the public, and concentrations of radioactivity in the environment. Back

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