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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 224-239)




  224. Gentlemen, welcome to the Committee. For the sake of the record, Professor Charles Curtis is the Chairman of the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee, Mr Fred Barker is a member of the Committee, as is Dr Wynne Davies. We have heard a great deal about new fangled consultations, if I may put it in those primitive terms, and about how we are going to have a front-ended consultation, and how we are all going to define what the problem is and the general responses to the global question. Is it going to make any difference?

  (Professor Curtis) If I can introduce briefly my comments on that. I think that looking back to the Nirex inquiry, it was quite clear that the procedures we put in place then were not successful in bringing forward a successful policy for longer term management. I think the RWMAC view collectively has evolved along the lines that we simply must do something different in future, we cannot afford that we get it wrong again and, therefore, we have investigated that in some way—and other members are more expert than I in this area—these methods of consultation that I think we would say cannot guarantee in any sense a successful outcome for a long-term management process but we think, and hope, offer the best chance we have of delivering a satisfactory long-term waste management policy.

  225. There seems to be the feeling that after we have been through this process, then there will be some community somewhere which will say, "We have thought all this through, it is a public issue at stake, and we think it is okay so we will volunteer to have this waste, and perhaps you could throw in a new village hall and a bit of social housing and a new main road and what not." Am I just being simplistic in doing this? Has nuclear waste not got such a history to it that at the end of the day you are going to be faced with exactly the same problem that nobody wants it?
  (Professor Curtis) The first comment I would offer there is those policies of volunteerism or incentivism, or whatever you might call it, have been considered elsewhere in Europe and certainly in recent years there has been a smoother movement towards policy in those areas. But I think in terms of the actual merits and demerits of the different procedures which we shall have to take up, I will defer and ask my colleague Fred Barker who has studied a lot of these processes and provided us with much of the advice we are passing on, as it were.
  (Mr Barker) It is the case that international experience suggests that utilising a combination of measures, perhaps seeking volunteer communities, perhaps putting in place compensation packages, perhaps ensuring that local communities have an opportunity to veto proposals that they do not feel confident in, can deliver progress in siting potential radioactive waste facilities. There is, of course, an issue about whether or not what has worked overseas in America or Europe will translate in a UK context. And certainly there needs to be a hard look at international best practice to see what might work here. At this stage in the process we are concerned less with implementing a site selection process and more with appraising which long-term radioactive waste management option we should be plumping for, and that is what RWMAC sees as the critical first stage of agreeing the policy on a long-term radioactive waste management option.

  226. And the various parties expect to achieve this agreement on what is the best technical solution then before you start looking at the open consultation? I assume you are talking about whether we stay underground or go into a shallow repository?
  (Professor Curtis) Yes, indeed those are the kind of things. I think the fundamental position that we have taken up is that we think that it only makes sense to look at all the options, and to look at what are realistic options to take. You have to involve public stakeholders in that to some extent, but really you have to set out the options and my view is we have a hazard here, we have a problem, it has been around for a long time, it is probably getting worse, we really should do something about it and we think the best way of dealing with this is to say, "Okay, what are the realistic alternatives?" and then let us look in a balanced way at the merits and demerits of each of those. We think that is a different way certainly from the example of the case at Sellafield, which became very complicated in the sense that it was looking at permission for just one site specific example.

  227. If you were a betting man, what odds would you give at it being sited anywhere other than Sellafield, whatever your technical outcome?
  (Professor Curtis) Whatever my technical outcome?

  228. Or, if you like, give me the odds related to technical outcome?
  (Professor Curtis) I personally think as an earth scientist that there are many places in the United Kingdom whereby you could achieve safe long-term—

  229. I did not ask that. I said where do you think it will end up? It is not the same thing.
  (Professor Curtis) The bigger issue is the one of acceptance—local sympathy, local acceptance, local understanding and local awareness. I think you may be right, Sellafield is a setting where there is a great deal of local history and local understanding.

Mr Jack

  230. Can I just follow, Chairman, your line of questioning. I have to say I read your document but it was almost like people treading on egg shells. At times there was a lot of tortured thinking going on in this on what seemed to me and to those who have to deal with members of the public the blindingly obvious, that if you can engage a lot of people in the debate all well and good, but when it comes to Sellafield you said a second ago there are lots of places it could be, it is only when you come down to identifying those places that anyone is going to engage their brain in debate. The rest are going to breathe a huge sigh of relief and say, "Thank goodness it's not me, mate." Do you not think that we ought to get down to this specific identification? I really do not get the flavour for how this great national debate in which we are all supposed to be very interested is going to be triggered when the first question people are going to ask is, "Is it me?"
  (Professor Curtis) We are talking here about banking progress in steps. To begin with, you have got to narrow the debate down to an objective assessment of what the possibilities are. You have a lot of people saying that it is unsafe in the long term to do anything other than store at the surface where we can always go back and it is readily accessible to do something. There are lots of arguments which are around these different alternatives at this time. I think that our thinking, to begin with, certainly was to do this step wise. If you can get, after proper consultation, an agreement on which is the generic technical solution, at least you can move forward on that and that will narrow the debate at the second stage.

  231. Do you really think that is going to happen, given the terms of your document, which is lots of national discussion and the reference to the difficulties in here on the evaluation of the claims and counter-claims by different people putting forward various scientific opinions? I got the impression that this was a document designed to keep this discussion going for as long as possible and as broadly as possible, but we never seemed to get to an end game.
  (Professor Curtis) A preliminary point and then I will let Fred help. I do not think it is scientifically controversial, I think that if you go back to the Sellafield inquiry, people have often cited the example that the evidence was contradictory at that time. If you were to go to the international technical communities, they have been consistently arguing in favour of one solution for a very long time. If you even go to the learned society bodies in this country you have a fairly consistent view, yet the Sellafield example is always cited. I think this information needs to be brought out. I think that part, as we say, of the consultation process is the provision of information and a better quality of information than there has been in the past.

  232. Let us focus on the real world. There will not be anything to debate until the Government gets to the end of seven years with this great consultation exercise. You will have plenty of time to think about this. When in the process, after the Government comes to some conclusion on these great big matters, do you think we should get to being site specific and therefore involving those communities in the decision-making process? How soon after some broad strategic vision has been determined?
  (Mr Barker) Nirex talks in terms of a step wise progress in implementing a policy where it goes from areas which might be geologicaly suitable down from a long list of potential sites to a short list of potential sites.

  233. This is a long, lingering torture for some places, is it?
  (Mr Barker) I think so but the point in direct response to your question is that as soon as potential sites are being discussed and on the agenda it is at that point that the local community which contains the site needs to be involved in the process. That is rather different to what happened last time where it was only the communities around Sellafield and Dounreay when we got round to a short list of two—

  234. Hang on, let's be a bit more specific. I remember getting a letter just before the last Election saying, "Do you realise that your constituency is at stake?" And when I read through it, with reference to a geological assessment, in the judgment of those who had done the assessment there were quite large parts of the United Kingdom which, in their view, were geologically stable enough to have some kind of deep repository. Do we start with the big map and bring them in and then gradually drill down to that one? How do we do it in reality, while sustaining a sensible discussion, without mayhem and havoc on every village street and people saying, "Not here, we will never have a nuclear dump"? How do we avoid all that?
  (Mr Barker) It rather depends upon how many potential sites you choose at the stage at which you try and enter the dialogue with the community. Also it depends upon whether or not you are seeking volunteer communities.

  235. That is exactly the point. You made a fascinating point, you said you thought there ought to be a bit of vetoism in this, if I understand you correctly, so what happens if the country on the high level waste turns round and says, "No, do not want it here", where do we go from here?
  (Mr Barker) I was suggesting that the veto is one of the measures that has been used in other countries. It needs to be carefully looked at to see whether it would be an appropriate siting process in the United Kingdom. It is perfectly feasible, of course, that it will not be possible to site a radioactive waste disposal facility if it were decided the way to go was a centralised storage facility. The point is to try and find a way of improving the odds—the question posed to Professor Curtis about what odds would you place on being able to find a location for a facility—the point is to try and improve the odds at this stage and I think the key way of trying to improve the odds at this stage is not simply to announce a policy "we are going to seek a deep disposal facility" but to go through a process to enable you to decide a policy which gives you some confidence that you can carry a large proportion of the public with you in formulating that policy. So your starting point is far better than it was last time round and provides a better context within which you then try and site a facility, if indeed the policy suggestion is that is what you should be doing.

  236. You would not be in favour of Nirex reissuing the list of favoured sites at this stage? You would keep that under lock and key, would you?
  (Professor Curtis) To answer that one I think is to answer the question—what would be served by that? I have not seen that list. I do not know how up-to-date it is so I am not sure what would be served by doing that. That is one question. My second answer—and I have to be careful here—I think all of you should be aware that as a Committee we work responsibly to a programme agreed with Ministers but we also investigate a number of other issues on our own bat—is that in this arena now it is not necessarily true, although we will be trying to draw attention to that, and what we are saying is our personal views as opposed to Committee views. I think it is true to say virtually everything we have covered up to now has had a sound Committee background but as we go forward you have got to be careful. I will say something on a slightly more personal note, if I may. This is not a light-hearted business. There is a hazard, and that hazard is being managed effectively by the regulators. It is our purpose as a Committee I would like to think, above all else, to look to ways and to advise government on how best to reduce that hazard in the interests of people. So it is a serious issue here and we should be letting people point that out. It is not in any sense a trivial issue. One of the things which I was glad to see come through on our paper was that doing, nothing or the status quo, should be something which was looked at carefully, and my concern is that we tend to lose sight of the problem and I think that we should not do this. One does not want to go scaremongering but, equally, this is not a trivial game we are all playing. I do not know if that helps.

Mr Borrow

  237. Can I go on a slightly different issue which is to do with the legitimacy of the actual consultation process itself, this idea of an independent body to oversee the process. There is some divergence between your Committees's point of view and the point of view of the Government. The Government sees the role of any independent committee or independent body as simply saying these are the bits of information we require and that is the advice that is given by the independent body to Government, whereas I think your concept was a wider concept of an independent body that would also manage the whole consultation process and at the end of the day give advice on policy to Ministers. Would you like to comment on the difference between your judgment of what is the correct role for such an independent body and the role of Government?
  (Professor Curtis) I will defer to my colleagues in a moment but my view is in this initial stage that the consultation as envisaged will end up with information and an assessment and a recommendation which then goes to Government and it is wholly for the Government to decide what to do. I would hope that it is not just recommendations but that it includes the evidence. Just as we would hopefully try to involve the public and present the information and allow them to have some say, equally, I hope we would draw up recommendations and provide the evidence, the basis and audit trail, if you like, of how those recommendations were established. They, in my view, would be handed out to Government and that would be the end of the matter as far as the independent overseeing body was concerned. I hope that is what is said.
  (Mr Barker) There have been over the last year or so various studies commissioned by different organisations which have sought to talk to members of the public in discussion groups or in a citizens' panel, for example, to try and ascertain what it is that the public would place greater trust in in terms of some sort of body to carry forward a process of policy formulation, and the sorts of views that do come from those exercises suggest that there should be some sort of body which has a degree of independence from government and which is able to operate in an open and transparent way and involve a fairly wide range of stakeholders, and it is that sort of feedback from those sorts of studies which seek to discuss matters with the public which informs RWMAC's perspective that there should be an independent or at least a balanced interest body to take forward the policy formulation process. As Professor Curtis said, it is the case that we see the role of that panel as delivering advice backed up by evidence but, of course, it is the Government's place to take the policy decisions.

  238. It may be a bit of a leading question but given we are going to be seeing the Minister later on we might as well get it on the record, and that is the Government is not at this point in time recommending that sort of independent overseeing body. Would you like to make any comments on the likely success of the type of independent body that the Government at this stage is recommending, in other words one that is simply saying this is the information we should be looking at rather than overseeing the whole consultation process?
  (Professor Curtis) I think that our advice went into a little more detail than the Government's proposal does and I think that certainly we are in the process at the moment of further debating amongst ourselves to flesh out our advice in the context of the paper, particularly going through an exercise of contrasting the timetables and content. I do not think we are yet in a position to go very much further. Fred, do you have any specific points?
  (Mr Barker) My own personal view is that if you do compare the remit that we are suggesting for this overseeing panel with the remit suggested in the Government consultation paper, then I draw the conclusion that the Government is seeing the remit of its proposed body as being far too narrow. It is not simply a matter of advising information to clients that is required of this overseeing panel, it does go more widely than that.

  239. On membership you mentioned different stakeholders which you felt it was appropriate to have on the independent body. What sort of organisations do you think ought to be represented?
  (Professor Curtis) We have not yet fully addressed that, I think it would be fair to say. I think that the way in which you would achieve that would be through some kind of template and I think that in order to look at that and look at the central requirement for analysis of the options and to give out information and to analyse it, that we would certainly want to have technical expertise on that panel. You would certainly expect to see some technical experience on that panel and I think that there would be a number of other stakeholders who have been on comparable bodies, but certainly we have not yet gone through that in detail. But the point is it must be a panel which goes with a template which must contain technical expertise, but that is by no means sufficient in that template.

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