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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240-259)

PROFESSOR CHARLES CURTIS, MR FRED BARKER AND DR WYNNE DAVIES

MONDAY 17 DECEMBER 2001

  240. I would imagine that for any such independent body to be seen to be legitimate, there needs to be a range of different views on it, including representatives from environmental organisations. Certainly this Committee has received some indications that some of the environmental groups might be willing to have their representatives on such a body were the Government to give a commitment to end nuclear powered generation. Have you given any thought as to how that scenario could be handled to keep the legitimacy of the process?
  (Professor Curtis) Was that a conditional?

  241. The Committee have already received indications that it may be that certain environmental groups would not participate in the independent body unless there was a commitment by Government to end nuclear-powered generation. If that happened, there would obviously be a problem of ensuring that the independent body had sufficient balance to still have legitimacy. Have you given any consideration to that?
  (Professor Curtis) Not in detail but we do have comments. Fred?
  (Mr Barker) One of the things to perhaps make clear about RWMAC's advice about the overseeing panel is that we did state we thought that the template should be filled on an ad hominem basis and not on a representative basis, so that across the board we would not have members of the overseeing panel representing specific organisations. However, the point you make is obviously an important one. It is clearly necessary to have people on the panel who can articulate in the sense of an environmentalist perspective, but you do not have to come from one of the main national environmental organisations to be able to articulate that perspective and there are a ranges of critical experts, for example, who do work for the major environmental NGOs who might be suitable candidates for such a panel.

  242. Finally, the Government announced at the end of last month the setting up of the Liabilities Management Authority. What relationship do you see that organisation having with the independent body?
  (Professor Curtis) I have to confess that we have only had very limited information on the make up of that. It clearly will introduce certain potential difficulties just with there being new boundaries between organisations which will have to be managed. But we really have seen no more than the press announcements and not the detail. For example, it is a complicated relationship between the LMA and the contractors in the relationship who will be the licensees, and to see what will be the regulatory interface. I think all of those things are quite complicated and we have not, as yet, discussed this in detail. I think I am right in saying that on Wednesday morning we are having a presentation from DTI on this and perhaps we might be a little better placed to offer that. It is clearly complicated. Do you mean where would RWMAC sit or the other body?

  243. The independent body.
  (Professor Curtis) I would think the independent body would still have an element of oversight process of the different bodies. Wherever there are boundaries there are potential tensions and I think it would still need to do that. That is a personal view.
  (Dr Davies) Just thinking in terms of the times, there is an important point here as well in terms of looking at the timetable that is being proposed. Setting up the LMA is going to take a certain amount of time and at RWMAC we see a need for pressing forward with some of the policy decisions earlier than that would be possible. That is an important point.
  (Professor Curtis) We do not know, the dates you are looking at are 2003-2004 before the LMA is in place, so it is quite a way off.

Mr Lepper

  244. Can I just clarify something that you said in response to a question of Michael Jack's earlier because I think in every session of this Committee there has been some reference made to the earlier list of possible deep repository sites and the question of whether or not that should be made public. Were you saying because that list is now between 10 and 20 years old that it may well be that for various technical reasons the list itself is out-of-date and not a good basis for discussion, even if it were to be released?
  (Professor Curtis) Again, this is not something we have discussed. Speaking personally, I think there have been changes in European views of different disposal sites. For example, we have the French and the Belgians and the Swiss looking very seriously shallow or deep storage repositories in shale in bunkers, which is very different from certainly the Sellafield Longlands Farm model. I do not know what that list was, but I think it is true to say there have been some changes nationally. And then, secondly, I do not know the reasoning process behind the choice that was made before. It strikes me that whenever you publish moderate sized lists you are running into difficulties of potential blight and all kinds of genuine concerns, genuine worries, so I am not saying that I am against publishing a list, but I think it would be better to look at that again rather than just go back and reveal something which is historical. I have no reasons for knowing that it is not sound but that is my concern.

  245. Time and thinking have possibly moved on?
  (Professor Curtis) Possibly. I suspect not a great deal but I can see no real benefit in just releasing that list.

  246. Thank you. One of the other issues that has come up in terms of community involvement—and our chair referred to it earlier—is this question of local communities receiving some benefit, as I think happened in the operation in Finland, in return for their agreement to host a site. Yet I think both Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth when they spoke to us in our last session felt that form of sweetener or inducement or compensation should not form part of any process of negotiation because choices of sites should be made solely on the basis of scientific, technical, geological or whatever evidence.
  (Professor Curtis) I think it is a difficult one. I will offer you a personal view and I will allow my colleagues to offer their views. There is a wide spectrum. I personally see this issue as a national problem and if a local community is solving the national problem, then I see no reason why it should not be receive compensation for solving a national problem. It sets all kinds of precedents but I do not see that the idea of compensation is necessarily any kind of bribery or anything like that, it is part of a process. There are lots of different ways of doing it. I guess, as we said, a sensible thing to do here would be to look very carefully at the practice in other countries where we do have different kinds and a number of different models. So summarising my views, I do not see anything ethically wrong in this at all, but then I would suggest looking carefully at practice elsewhere. Fred, would you like to add any comments?
  (Mr Barker) Just to say sometimes it is useful to break down the different types of measures that have been used internationally, measures which have involved funding to enable the local community to engage in the process of reviewing and assessing a siting proposal. That seems to me to be uncontroversial and perfectly legitimate. There is the question of legitimate compensation where there is stigma, or whatever, to improve infrastructure to enable a siting process to proceed, and then there is the issue of incentives to encourage an area to volunteer. It may be in that last area where most controversy lies and in the first two categories perhaps where there is less difficulty. Again, it is a matter of analysis and making sure that the best practice internationally is drawn upon in deciding what is appropriate in the UK context.

  247. This whole issue of the industry and indeed government engaging with the public is a very tricky one obviously. Several of our witnesses have drawn a fairly sharp comparison that they see between the attitude of Nirex and the attitude of BNFL and the way in which they engage with the public, and I think in a written presentation to us the Nuclear Free Zone Local Authorities said the nuclear industry and government were perceived to have a "track record of dishonesty". Is that something that you would agree with, without agreeing necessarily with that sentiment, that that view colours every discussion on this issue?
  (Professor Curtis) These perceptions of honesty and dishonesty and trust—I think trust is an important one—

  248. A better word than dishonesty perhaps.
  (Professor Curtis) There have been some sharply changed perceptions. I can remember when I very first became involved with the Nirex repository which was not that long before the programme was termimated and at that time Nirex were regarded as the villains of the piece and BNFL, certainly locally, were regarded as the people who were the honest brokers, so there has been a sharp change. I can only offer one observation on that which is that at the present time Nirex has a number of duties but in the area of the repository development it actually is not proposing anything at the moment, it does not have anything controversial in mind, whereas BNFL is continuing to reprocess and all kinds of things. So it may be that the perception links to what is actually going on. But that is a purely personal observation.

  249. After 11 September is any real advance in openness and transparency and this engagement between the industry and the government and the public possible, or is it likely that these matters will become less transparent and open?
  (Professor Curtis) There are many strands to that. The easiest one to start with is the fact, which is not responding directly to your question, that the scene has changed in the sense that I wrote before 11 September pointing out the differences between surface and sub-surface storage or disposal purely from natural physical responses, so I think there is a new dimension, a demonstration of a risk or a threat which there was not before, but that is a technical point that was not the main thrust of your question.
  (Mr Barker) There are clearly going to be areas of the industry's activity where there are going to be legitimate restrictions on discussion because of security concerns. I do not see that that would impact on the process of policy we are going to engage in which is about identifying a long-term management policy, whether it be deep disposal or surface storage. That can still take place with the requisite amount of openness and public participation.
  (Professor Curtis) I did ask a question after 11 September on behalf of RWMAC about potential security implications and was informed that security measures were in place but they were subject to the usual restrictions, so we are reassured that things are in place.

Mr Breed

  250. As you probably know, we had the opportunity of visiting Sellafield last week and I have to say personally and I know many others feel this, it was extremely interesting and done in an informative way. Perhaps just to return to what we are doing now in advance of longer term policy development and so on, we looked at the various storage methods for high level waste and intermediate level waste of which there is a quite a significant amount. Are you perfectly satisfied that the current arrangements for that conditioning and the storage of all that waste are entirely satisfactory?
  (Professor Curtis) I think I will certainly ask Fred again to answer. Fred at the moment is chairing a joint RWMAC-NuSAC group looking at ILW in particular and I think he will be able to offer us an up-to-date view.
  (Mr Barker) I think it is definitely the case that there are at various locations older facilities storing raw wastes where there is clearly a need to move forward with retrieval operations and conditioning programmes, and our awareness is that the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate is in a sense, doing a good job in terms of chivvying the industry along to make sure that the historic waste in facilities which do not meet modern standards is tackled as quickly as is practicable and those facilities have to be distinguished, in a sense, from the bulk of radioactive waste.

  251. What was surprising to me, and perhaps to others, is that with some of the 50-year-old waste and the way in which we stored things 50 years ago, as each successive extension of the store went on, so did the increase in the amount of physical containment and such, and it almost seems as if we are learning as we go along. Therefore, how confident can you be that what we are storing at the present time under the present conditions is likely to be satisfactory for the immediate future?
  (Professor Curtis) I can offer a comment on that which is not an answer in one sense, but if you look at the history of the nuclear industry and remember the conditions under which it was born and first developed here, I would have said that almost no thought was given to the long-term.

  252. We soon came to that conclusion ourselves.
  (Professor Curtis) If you went to Dounreay you would find that even more so.

  253. Perhaps we will not not go there!
  (Professor Curtis) Where, for example, facilities were built with a 40-year life span, of quite good quality but no thought was given in the design to the eventual repackaging requirements. I am sure that the underpinning science on a lot of this has not changed very much, the engineering may have changed to some extent, but I think the evolution that you mention is not really an evolution of the science and technology of waste handling and management, it is an evolution of people's priorities at the time for the different facets of the programme, such that in the early days very little attention was paid to waste management and it was really, I think, a relatively low priority concern. First of all, with the weapons programme—I am only interpreting this—and then with the development of the nuclear power, the Magnox programme, it simply did not seem to be a very high priority then. I think the view was that the problem could be solved in good time, but I think in recent times that has not been acceptable.

  254. So the increase in the security arrangements and containment solutions and everything else are not to do with a change in the risk but a change in the potential time that these things are going to be stored?
  (Professor Curtis) Again I am speaking personally, I think it is the time-frame for the management of projects that people are thinking of. When you are concerned to develop a reactor programme or concerned to develop a weapons' establishment, you are concerned on a shorter time-frame. As soon as you start to think properly about the implications of what you doing with waste then you are forced to look at a different time-frame. It is always much more difficult to project manage something even just for the financial risks which have got a very long time-frame.

  255. Can we turn now to the regulatory bodies. There has been discussion on perhaps having a single regulator and there has been the whole of the debate around effective scrutiny and how an effective regulatory system is undertaken. In your opinion, is that in any way delaying the conditioning of the waste and, if it is, how do you think it might be resolved?
  (Professor Curtis) I am going to defer to Dr Davies, but we have on a relatively local and specific level gained the impression that there have been delays caused by the regulatory interfaces. However, that is not sufficient in a way because you have got to go back behind that to look at what are the principles and policies that are driving those regulations and in some areas they are starting from a rather different starting place, the obvious one being the Health and Safety Executive looking at risk based criteria and on the other hand the OSPAR principles[2] looking at driving discharges downwards with no consideration of risk or cost or loss. So I think there are some fundamental background things which are behind the regulations. They are in the law, they are in the principles and the development of the principles. That is a broad picture at a much broader level. I think I would be much better to defer to Wynne as Wynne, I should say, is Safety Director at Amersham International and therefore is working with regulators.

  (Dr Davies) To reinforce the answer that Professor Curtis has given, I would certainly endorse that there is a tension been the tolerability of risk philosophy which the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate as part of the Health and Safety Executive are adopting and some of the philosophies that are coming through the Environment Agency's drivers, and also, of course, there is the past policy of delaying conditioning so that you do not foreclose any future management decisions you might make or options you might take into account versus the Nuclear Inspectorate drivers for early conditioning. They are saying we want the stuff to be stored passively. So there are definitely tensions in that area and when we are looking for a way forward we have got to make decisions on these policy areas.

  256. So the way forward is not necessarily a single regulator but a means of allowing the current two regulators to agree on a more combined basis how we are going to achieve the objective.
  (Dr Davies) There are memoranda of understanding between the Nuclear Inspectorate and the Environment Agency currently and certainly we are hearing reported that the working relationships are improving in those areas, but it is the policies that we need to clarify—just exactly what it is we want to do? Referring back to one of the earlier answers, the timing is critical and some of these decisions really do need to be taken now.

  257. Are there any other issues that you think the Government should be tackling now in advance of the long-term policy ultimately being decided, any one of the major critical things that should be looked at now?
  (Mr Barker) One of the early decisions that is required is a decision on what range of materials is going to be defined as "wastes" because you need to know that when you are appraising your options for long-term management against a common set of criteria. I would see that as an early decision that needs to be made.

  258. And can be made now? The information is there?
  (Mr Barker) For example, plutonium and uranium are materials which are talked about in the consultation paper and the opportunity has been given for public views/stakeholder views to be expressed on whether those materials or some of these materials should be declared a waste, and I think it would be beneficial if there were an early decision on that so that when we move forward with a policy formulation process on long-term management options we know what range of materials we are including.
  (Professor Curtis) If I can bring you back very quickly to almost where we started talking about—incessant delays. Looking at the proposals in the Managing Radioactive Waste Safely paper, it looks as though we are going to have a consultation ending March 2002. By the end of 2002 we need to have this body set up. It must have a remit which will involve the kinds of things which it must cover, the kinds of things which Fred has been talking about. It must know what it is dealing with, what are wastes, what are not wastes, so there are a number of decisions to be taken in formulating its remit. If it is to do its job, then it must have resources to take this over, so there must be a consideration of those resources. Our view, our initial view I hasten to add, is that we would like to see that body in place at the latest by the end of 2002 and we have been trying to think what we might do to encourage that so that there is no delay following the end of the consultation period. Certainly there should be a quite specific statement of what must be done by that date and maybe a timetable to get there.

  259. What we do not need is another period of consultation.
  (Professor Curtis) At that point no.
  (Dr Davies) Could I say on the point about decisions that there are a number of other linked issues as well on which decisions need to be made. It is not simply the solid waste debate, you do need to take into account the discharge policies as well. Clearly that links into how you decommission and deal with material in the future and also the contaminated land regime. There are many inter-linking policy decisions which need to be taken before the process can go forward effectively.


2   A reference to international agreements made under the Oslo-Paris Conventions for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic. Back


 
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