Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Third Report


Nuclear Institutions and Environmental Groups

39. The new approach Nirex has adopted towards openness was acknowledged by several witnesses during the inquiry. The other parts of the nuclear industry seem to be continuing with a 'business as usual' approach. Mr Secrett of Friends of the Earth said "in our evidence what we are trying to do is draw a distinction, a relative one between the way Nirex is beginning to transform itself in a way that we do not think BNFL is".[61] Mr Stephen Tindale of Greenpeace referred to the fact that his organisation had withdrawn from a stakeholder consultation held by BNFL "because we felt that there was insufficient commitment within the company to real change".[62]

40. We urge other parts of the nuclear industry, and notably BNFL, to examine how they could provide more information and adopt a more open culture generally. The public will need clear and unambiguous information which is not massaged by institutional imperatives. The environmental groups also appear, at times, to be pursuing a rather narrow anti-nuclear campaign and, in some cases, place conditions on their participation in the policy formulation. For example, Mr Mark Johnston of Greenpeace told the Sub-committee that his organisation would not be prepared to be part of a body to oversee the policy making process for radioactive waste disposal while waste was still being produced.[63] Pressure groups should engage fully in the debate, irrespective of their views of nuclear power. It is incumbent on all sides of the nuclear debate to enter into the more open and constructive dialogue that is being envisaged in the consultation paper and endorsed by all the witnesses we spoke to.

Definitions of Waste

41. Up to now, 'waste' has been defined in the UK so as to exclude both spent reactor fuel and uranium and plutonium derived from reprocessing spent fuel. This definition was criticised by the House of Lords Select Committee of 1998-99[64]. The suggestion was made that the inventory of nuclear waste should be expanded to include such radioactive materials which are presently held in store, but for which any future use is uncertain and which will be added to as reprocessing continues. So far, no action on this matter has been taken.

   42. In his evidence to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee in October 2001, Mr Meacher implied that reprocessing may well cease in 2014.[65] The spent fuel produced by nuclear power plants then remaining operational will have to be classified as High Level Waste, since there is no use for such material unless reprocessing continues. British Energy argued, most recently in evidence to the Sub-committee, that reprocessing of spent fuel from its nuclear plants is uneconomic; it still hopes to renegotiate its long term reprocessing contract with BNFL. The company said that should this renegotiation be successful, the build-up of unprocessed spent fuel would start soon.

   43. BNFL argue that plutonium, a by-product of reprocessing, is a highly useful energy resource. For example it said that it could be used in the manufacture of MOX reactor fuel. Its point is that should the nuclear industry expand in future, it is conceivable that raw uranium prices could reach the point when a 'nest egg' of plutonium may become very useful. Whether this will ever happen, and if so when, is uncertain.

   44. Either way, high level waste volumes will increase. Such waste will need a safe and secure intermediate home until eventually acceptable final disposal site(s) are developed. Nirex is not responsible for the interim management of ILW; that remains the role of the operators and especially BNFL managing the stores at Sellafield and this exercise should be informed by an independently-produced report evaluating the worth the worth to the nation of the current stocks of this material. Nirex is responsible for identifying a solution for the long-term management of ILW and LLW. Meanwhile, HLW, spent fuel, Plutonium and Uranium are stored at Sellafield. There are no plans for their long term management. Responsibility for the storage of all these wastes will eventually pass to the LMA, but it has been suggested there is a case for giving Nirex or its successor bodies the same responsibility for HLW as it presently has for ILW. The technology required to treat and dispose of wastes is unlikely to be very different whether or not plutonium is reclassified. But it may well be that public response to the prospect of testing a repository including plutonium, however justified, would be different to a proposal for other substances. We recommend that the consultation process seek from an early date to establish the sensitivity of public support for a facility to the possible presence of plutonium.

   45. We recommend a review of the remit and independence of Nirex or its successor companies to ensure that there is neither duplication nor a gap in the responsibilities of the many parties involved in the disposal of nuclear waste, especially in view of the formation of the Liabilities Management Authority. Resolution of responsibilities for the various waste streams would make the resolution of the definition of waste a great deal easier.

New Build

46. British Energy's submission to the Government Review of Energy Policy as well as their evidence to the Sub-committee argues the case for replacing nuclear plants at the end of their working life with new nuclear capacity. The Company also argues that the waste from 60 years of operation of such new nuclear plant would only cause an increase of less than 10% in the total volume of historic and future HLW in the UK. The effect, it is suggested, of such a small increase on waste policy would therefore be minimal.

47. Although the results of the Government Review are not as yet available, it is plausible that it will argue for the option for more nuclear capacity to be kept open. The effect of such a policy on the consultation process is likely to be relatively small. However, the effect of the consultation exercise on the possibility of new build could be substantial because an acceptable resolution of the waste issue is likely to improve the political climate for nuclear power. The decision on new build could also affect the final policy on disposal of waste. If waste is likely to continue to arise, a solution such as a repository would need to be capable of receiving waste at regular intervals, rather than being managed as a completed and closed operation. We recommend that the process of consultation cover at the appropriate stage the possibility of a facility requiring regular receipt of additional waste.

Storage and Conditioning of Waste

48. The consultation document opens with the statement "More than 10,000 tonnes of radioactive waste are safely stored in the UK, but await a decision on their long-term future."[66] Mr Meacher told the Sub-committee "I do believe that British regulation of nuclear installations is very tight indeed."[67] Mr Barker of RWMAC said "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."[68] We are alarmed at the size of the backlog and the staggeringly slow process of conditioning the legacy waste. The current inaction on reconditioning legacy waste detracts considerably from the positive message the Government is attempting to convey with its consultation process.

49. The process of conditioning existing 'legacy' radioactive waste is not strongly related to the long-term solution and should therefore not be delayed by the consultation process. Rather it should be accelerated. We anticipate that the establishment of the LMA will be one of the major steps in this process and hope that the Government will find time for the primary legislation in the next session so that this process is not delayed.

50. At present the responsibility for regulation of sites licenced under the Nuclear Installations Act 1965 and storage, conditioning and packaging of radioactive waste on those sites lies with the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). The Environment Agency's inspectors are responsible for regulation of disposal of radioactive waste. The working arrangements between the HSE and the Environment Agency are set out in a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). The consultation document states that "The intention of the MoU is that the activities of the Agency and HSE in relation to licensed nuclear sites are consistent, co-ordinated and comprehensive. The possibility of conflicting requirements being placed on licensees, or others concerned, is eliminated, and duplication of activity is minimised"[69]. It will be necessary for the LMA to establish whether or not there is a problem with the current system of regulation of the storage and conditioning of waste. Should this prove to be the case, it will be necessary to act quickly to rectify the problem.

The Long-Term Options

51. Earlier in this report we commented on the need for a staged process to develop policy and the need to develop criteria for evaluating the options for radioactive waste disposal. Perhaps the first question for consultation is to develop a list of options for dealing with nuclear waste which on first sight appear both feasible and acceptable. Appendix 1 of the consultation document itself lists nine long term options:

52. Others may be suggested by Government, industry, NGOs or the public. It might be tempting, because of the long timescales involved with radioactive waste, to arrive at a solution which would limit the options of future generations to change their minds about decisions made in our lifetimes. To debate the various pros and cons will require a great deal of information, such as order of magnitude capital and operating costs, possible timing, etc. Such information must be open to discussion, especially as regards the main assumptions made in developing the data.

53. Perhaps an analogy for the type of process required is the work done by Shell during the last decade in finding an acceptable way of disposing the redundant Brent spar unit. That commenced with a request to a wide range of interested parties for ideas, a very open analysis of these, followed by debates to narrow down the options to one most acceptable solution.

Actions Required at the End of the First Consultation Process

54. The Government should be preparing to act quickly at the end of the first consultation period in March. Various questions should be dealt with relatively rapidly: for example, the independent body should be established as quickly as possible; it may also be possible to determine quickly whether the stockpiles of uranium and plutonium should be declared as waste. The whole process is due to take several years and unless some momentum is gained fairly quickly, by establishing clear staging posts along the route, the Government risks feeding the cynicism of the public by overseeing a process which limps from stage to stage without establishing legitimacy.

We suggest that the following should have high priority:

Subsequently, the new body should commence investigation of alternative methods of disposal by requesting proposals for radioactive waste disposal from industry, Government, other stakeholders and the public.

The Committee requires that the Government submit to it a report on progress with the consultation process by 31 December 2002 and that it should do so annually thereafter.

Evidence taken on 3 December 2001, Ev 48, Q.126. Back

62   Evidence taken on 3 December 2001, Ev 49, Q.130. Back

63   Evidence taken on 3 December 2001, Ev 49, Q.127 and 128. Back

64   House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology, "Management of Nuclear Waste", 1999, Par. 4.47 and 4.50 Back

65   H.o L. Select Committee on Science and Technology, "Managing Radioactive Waste : the Government's Consultation" HL Paper 36, 2001, Minutes of Evidence, Item 16. Back

66   Managing Radioactive Waste Safely: Proposals for developing a policy for managing solid radioactive waste in the UK, DEFRA, September 2001, Executive Summary p 7. Back

67   Evidence taken on 17 December 2001, Ev 89, Q 297. Back

68   Evidence taken on 17 December 2001, Ev 79, Q.250. Back

69   Managing Radioactive Waste Safely: Proposals for developing a policy for managing solid radioactive waste in the UK, DEFRA and the devolved administrations, September 2001 p.59. Para 7.15 Back

70   Managing Radioactive Waste Safely: Proposals for developing a policy for managing solid radioactive waste in the UK, DEFRA, September 2001, App 1. Back

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