Members present:

Mr David Curry, in the Chair
Mr Colin Breed
Mr David Borrow
Mr Michael Jack
Mr David Lepper
Diana Organ


Memorandum submitted by Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Examination of Witnesses

RT HON MR MICHAEL MEACHER, a Member of the House, Minister of State for the Environment, MR RICHARD WOOD, Head of the Radioactive Substances Division and DR MALCOLM WAKERLEY, Research and Technical Support Manager, Radioactive Substances Division, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, examined.


  1. Minister, you are the Minister for the Environment; Mr Richard Wood is Head of the Radioactive Substances Division and Dr Malcolm Wakerley is Research and Technical Support Manager, Radioactive Substances Division. This is an inquiry which has taught us a whole new nomenclature, including a whole set of committees where it is extraordinarily difficult to see what the differences are in what they do, but no doubt we will find out in due course. Minister, can I start by asking the question I just asked your predecessors, are decisions on this really urgent or could it not be left to just potter along?
  2. (Mr Meacher) I entirely agree that we need to come to a decision as soon as we reasonably can, and I want to very strongly refute any suggestion that the Government is dragging its feet, or thinks there is all the time in the world. That is absolutely not the case. However, I do have to remind you, and I hope it is not a painful memory and I certainly avoid party political points all the time, the previous Conservative Government with the best will in the world made two very serious attempts to deal with this. One was its selection of a number of sites, which was done quietly - I think about a dozen sites in the 1980s - inevitably it got into the press and there was a great furore about it, and I think the lesson we all learn from that is that it has to be an open and transparent process if it is going to work. The Government returned to this issue in the 1990s, quite properly, and because there was a view, after the experience of the 1980s, that the only part of the country which would tolerate a nuclear repository was likely to be Cumbria, in and around Sellafield, there was a proposal to build, as you know, a deep repository near Sellafield, and in 1997 John Gummer took the decision that Nirex had failed the safety case. Against those attempts to resolve this issue, we I think have to be very cautious. No one, neither you nor I nor anyone else, wants a third failure. If I thought there was an easy option I could point to, if there was a management option which was clearly the right way to go, then we would go for it, but we are not in that situation. There is great uncertainty about this. There is no consensus in this country about a deep level repository or alternative modes of disposal, and there is certainly not a consensus about where it should be, except in the sense that I think everyone wants it to be not near them - nimby-ism here is rife. This is a very difficult issue therefore. What we are trying to do because there is time - and I do not think this is contrary to my initial opening remarks - and this is a decision which is going to apply to the management of radioactive waste, not just for thousands but possibly tens of thousands of years, is therefore get it right, both in terms of political consensus, which is acceptable to the British public, and also which is going to stand the test of time. I always show my oddity by saying before we get to the end of this time there will almost certainly be another Ice Age. The last Ice Age produced an ice sheet of two to three miles thick coming down to the area of London and the pressure on the earth is so massive that 10,000 years after the last one receded the earth is still gradually rising. We are in a very, very, very difficult situation. I think we are right therefore not to go for a management option but to go for consultation on a public policy programme. That is what this is. It is not meant to delay things, it is not meant to drag our feet, it is just I think it is the only way to proceed.

  3. Leaving aside Professor Stephen Hawking's assumption that by then we will all have migrated to the stars so we can leave it behind us, the fact is at the end of the day no matter what the process of consultation, whether it is front-ended, rear-ended, pushed, shoved or tugged, there has to be a site which is chosen. Do you think at that point the end game will be any different from the end games we have seen up to now?
  4. (Mr Meacher) I think it could be. Dare I mention that there is one other issue which is exceedingly difficult in my portfolio, and that you will immediately know is GM. I do not think one can resolve this issue, which is hugely polarised, as in a narrower way is the decision on the nuclear, unless there is a broad measure of public acceptability. If one can, and this is very difficult, induce a public debate which is broad-ranging, has some depth, is not just shallow, and is not just conducted through the sensational headlines of some tabloids but does engage the British public in some serious discussion for some months, that I think can actually lay the foundations for taking a decision which I am keen to do, which is likely to get broad public support. So I do not think if we wait it will just be the same as now, I think it could be different, and that is our intention.

  5. Of course this decision is an autonomous decision, whereas the decision on GM is one which will possibly be taken at the European level, so there are some differences as well.
  6. (Mr Meacher) True.

    Chairman: But we will not pursue that.

    Diana Organ

  7. As you said, Minister, it is about really getting public acceptance, about public trust, about having a debate, but really are you not being very cynical about this, because is not the consultation which is going on now not just a small PR exercise? You are not really opening this up for public debate, you are not really asking people to have an opportunity to influence policy, are you? The way the whole thing is structured does not allow that.
  8. (Mr Meacher) We are trying to, maybe we are failing, in which case I take that at face value and we need to try a lot harder. Let me just spell out the things we are planning to do over the next three months; the consultation ends, as you know, on 12 March. We are seeking to reconvene the Citizens Panel from the 1999 Consensus Conference; we have commission an omnibus survey of a representative sample of people; we have commissioned a facilitated discussion with a group of people over a weekend with a chance to question witnesses, BNFL, Nirex, the NGOs, and indeed in my view we should do a lot of those all over the country if they work. We are arranging a Radioactive Waste Seminar, which is targeted at people who are delicately defined as Apreviously unconsulted@, which I suspect is the great majority of the people in the country. We are arranging meetings with specific non-nuclear groups, pensioners, youth organisations, small campaign groups; and we have actually even commissioned a schools pack, because it probably is future generations who are going to bear the brunt of this perhaps more than we are. So maybe we need to do more. I entirely agree with your premise that unless we succeed in opening it up, we are going to fail in this consultation.

  9. There are two very important issues in how you are taking the consultations process through. For instance, we have heard just recently from Mr Fred Barker, who came with the Radioactive Waste Management Committee and he said, there is nothing in this consultation about the really important issues such as people deciding what are the range of materials that are going to be deemed as waste. The concern that Professor Judith Petts had was that her primary criticism of the consultation document was there is no detailed discussion of the objectives of engaging the public other than to earn support. In other words, you have not given people real questions to answer which will influence the public policy that follows on after consultation.
  10. (Mr Meacher) I do not think that is quite fair. What we are saying is that we cannot expect the public to take an interest in this issue without first understanding, which means a good deal of education about the nature of what is a very difficult and complex problem which frankly most people would rather went away, but it will not, and then telling us how they want us to involve them. If we could go straight to people and say, AHere are our options, what do you think about them@, I would, but frankly I do not know what they are. I had much the same discussion with their Lordships in the House of Lords Select Committee, and I put it back to them, because they kept pressing me, why is it so thin, why do you not come forward with some more positive proposals, and I said, AWell what do you think those proposals are?@

  11. One of them is what is deemed to be waste and what is not. What materials are we going to consider and what are we not?
  12. (Mr Meacher) The consultation document does have material in it about the nature of waste we are concerned about. Obviously the definition of radioactive waste and its parameters are relatively simple - well, is it relatively simple? - factual, technical questions which can be answered and should be answered, and I think that material is in the consultation paper. But that is not really the issue. I do not think it is a problem of knowing what it is we are consulting about, it is actually energising people to take this seriously and realise that is not something they can just put off to the Government, AThat is for them up there whom we've elected, they are going to settle it, nothing to do with us.@ It is to do with them and we cannot solve this problem unless they are involved and broadly consent.

  13. On another angle, there has been criticism that in some parts of the consultation there have been very detailed, technical questions which actually are almost too technical and too detailed when people are trying to formulate a consultation about general, basic principles and general choices and general policy. Why was that not held back to a later stage, because it is slightly confusing to people, is it not? There are sections of it which are very technical which could have been delayed until, shall we say, the next consultation, once we have decided the framework of the policy.
  14. (Mr Meacher) That seems to me to cut across your earlier question.

  15. No. The first point I was making was that there are some fundamental questions which are not in there, such as what is deemed to be waste and what is not, which is a fundamental question.
  16. (Mr Meacher) It is, but I will insist that that question of what is radioactive waste is answered. I agree with you, this is not intended to be a document which goes into a great deal of technical detail, that should come at a later stage, when we begin to focus on what is the appropriate management option. Clearly this is meant to be, as we say, a consultation about the form of involving the public; a consultation about consultation. What is the way by which you, the public, are going to take an interest in this. How do we energise and activate them in order to get involved. That is what this is about, and it should have no more technical detail than is necessary for that.

  17. Having done this consultation process and moving on in March, in your next stage, how are you going to put that into place and how quickly are you going to move from that to the body which is going to oversee this, so you can have the public's views coming through forming policy? Because we have a really crucial time, do we not, between March 2002 and possibly the next nine, twelve months.
  18. (Mr Meacher) Yes, I entirely agree. We are proposing that the period 2002-04 should be the time where all the research requirements are brought to bear. We have an information needs project which is looking at the research data which is available, that which is not currently available but which we need to know, it is also of course for this new advisory body to determine what further research should be commissioned and how it should be done. These are very broad timescales, I am not being very precise, but that might take up to two years and will take us to about 2004. We then, in the light of that, should begin to be able to identify a number of management options. We would then, perhaps a year after that, consult on those, that consultation again might take six months or so, we would get the results back, in the light of that and further discussions we would begin to focus on a single management option and we would consult on that. So we are maximising ---

  19. So we are having three consultations?
  20. (Mr Meacher) Yes. This might take us to 2006-07, but I repeat we are now in 2001, so we are talking about five or six years. If we were talking about where you build a new hospital or whether we have Terminal 5, that might seem an awfully long time ----

    Chairman: Not Terminal 5, I do not think!

    Mr Breed

  21. Interminable 5.
  22. (Mr Meacher) If you are talking about where we should put radioactive waste, where even if there is no new nuclear build we have half a million tonnes to dispose of, and it is going to remain hazardous for thousands or tens of thousands of years, five or six years is the twinkling of an eye. I do not wish that to be taken complacently, I just think it needs to be seen in context.

    Diana Organ

  23. Finally, throughout the three consultations, having learnt how we consult with the public and get in touch with all those people who probably have not been consulted before because this is an issue which society and Government have to sort out between themselves, having found out how we consult with people, how much in the end is it going to be down to the public's view coming back, that this is the policy? Or in the end, are we just going to go through three consultations and then the scientific boffins and Government will say, AThis is what we are going to do. We will have a deep repository at Sellafield@?
  24. (Mr Meacher) Obviously you are not saying that is desirable, indeed it is the cynical view, and I am not attributing that to you but some people might think that was what lay behind the Government's agenda, but the reason for denying that is that it will not work. We can have three consultations taking six or seven years and then say, AWe have decided on that@ but if people are not agreeing with it, we are in deep trouble. I just do not think you can build a repository which the vast majority of people are passionately opposed to. You have to get them to understand. Finland and France are two countries we have looked at, and obviously we look at international experience and what is done elsewhere. In Finland there are a combination of sweeteners to local communities - AYou are taking on this responsibility on behalf of the nation, we are prepared to recognise that financially@ - plus also, which I think they operate in Finland, some kind of veto - AYou do not have to do this. We might suggest this is the best way but if you are absolutely opposed you can reject it.@ That is one way of going but there are counter-arguments, I am well aware. The fact is, if you have a system of sweeteners, you are compromising the rights of future generations in order to satisfy the present one. If you have a system of vetoes, it does militate against objectively taking what you genuinely believe is the best option. So there are constant arguments both ways, but in the end, a choice has to be made, and that is what the Government is for. All that I say is that no democratic government can take a decision where a majority of people are strongly against. It will not work. We have to get people on side. If we cannot do that in six years, we are going to have to take longer.

    Mr Jack

  25. Are not all these a bit pie-in-the-sky, Minister, because, bluntly, the real crunch, as you as a constituency MP will know, is that people only get fired up when their location is fingered. I read this consultation document and it was quite interesting. The first line is a cosy-go-to-sleep line. It says, AMore than 10,000 tonnes of radioactive waste are safely stored in the UK, but await a decision on their long-term future.@ They are all quietly snoozing out there. Then I turn to Chapter 7, AThe Programme for Action@, and I think, AThis is it, we are really getting going@, and then I read in paragraph 7.2, AAs wastes can continue to be stored safely in the medium term (50 years) using current technology, the timetable for the consideration and implementation of policy should be ...@ and then I drifted off to sleep at that point. Then we reach paragraph 7.6 and a rousing call to action, AGiven that existing wastes can be safely stored for the next 50 years, we believe it is right not to give an artificial deadline for the research programme to end, but to allow the time required to explore the management options thoroughly.@ Is this not just like the man who always wants to buy the latest computer but never knows when to make the purchase? This is all out there, general elections will have gone so you might not have to carry the can, when your Government may not have to do it, some other Government may have to do it, and it goes on like this. Fifty years keeps appearing on all these pages. Where is the sense of urgency?
  26. (Mr Meacher) I am sorry that we did not excite you with the kind of irrepressible prose which we read every day in the newspapers. I have to say that when you have to deal with long-term problems it is not quite like that. I think we are right to say it can be stored safely. I am sorry if you regard that as soporific, I think it is a very important fact, a very important fact, that for 50 years - maybe 100, years, but let's say certainly 50 - there is no problem about surface storage, although after 11 September some people may begin to question that and that is a further and important issue, but it can be safely stored and that should be made clear. This is not a reason for evacuating Britain. It is not something which is a panic or emergency consideration. I think that does bear repeating. But, consistent with that, as I say, one needs to move towards a decision. I wish that we could get an earlier decision. If you, excited by this, wanted to get a move on to reach a quick decision, you can tell me what we should do, should it be deep level disposal and if so where, I would be very pleased to know. If you were frightened about the political consequences, perhaps you could pass a note to me which I will keep very confidential. It is a very difficult issue.

  27. I know that.
  28. (Mr Meacher) You only have to mention any suggestion that this nuclear dump, as it will be called - I would not call it that - will be near you, and it will be a huge political stink and the Opposition will make mince meat of the Government. That is why we are very cautious.

  29. But on that basis you are almost saying, AI know really that however much we talk about it, when push comes to shove, if it is not somewhere that is already fingered by a nuclear installation, it does not matter what technique we use, we are going to be in deep do-dos trying to convince members of the public to have whatever type of system - above ground, below ground, just below ground, deep and below ground - in their backyard. You said yourself that nimby-ism is rife.
  30. (Mr Meacher) It is, but I also said that other countries which have the same problems have approached this via a combined system of sweeteners and vetoes, and I think we should consider that.

    Mr Borrow

  31. I have understood the concept of coming down to management options, and the three which have been talked about are probably storage on the surface, storage in a bunker below the surface or storage in a deep hole in the ground somewhere, so we have gone through that process. The next process is, whichever one of those we get a national consensus on, we then have to decide where that piece of ground will be, if it is only one bit of land, or, if it is more than one site, which sites are going to be used. So then we come to not a national consultation but a local consultation. How do you see that process working and how do you see the local authorities being involved in those local community consultations?
  32. (Mr Meacher) This is going some way down the track. It is a perfectly fair question but at this stage we are talking about the manner in which the public is going to be involved in the decision-making for the future. Indeed, I suppose I could say that the question you pose is one we are actually posing to people - how do you want to be consulted over this. One of the objections about GM is that it happens and you do not have a right to say no, and a lot of people object to that. AIs it this time something on which you wish to be consulted? If there is a local ballot or whatever, is that one way of doing it? If there is a majority against then it shall not happen here. Is that what people are saying?@ That is fine as long as people also realise that in the end if everyone says that, we are still left with the problem. We have to confront people by not just saying, ADo you want it near you or not@, because almost everyone will say no, but, AHow do you think the Government on your behalf should decide how this matter is going to be resolved.@ That is what I am trying to get people to answer.

  33. You mentioned earlier the examples from overseas, and Finland has been mentioned where there are vetoes and sweeteners, and different countries tackle these things in different ways, but also of course we have got in the UK new planning guidelines coming out for dealing with major planning issues, which to a certain extent are seen by some people as not giving the local community the same decision-making involvement once a decision has been made nationally that this particular project needs. So obviously there is a difficulty in having decided that we want, for example, a deep hole in the ground option. How do we build from there, through this new planning process? Or are you not seeing the new planning guidelines or process as being relevant for nuclear waste disposal? Are you looking to develop a different decision-making process specifically for the disposal of nuclear waste which would not necessarily be part of the general planning guidelines for other projects?
  34. (Mr Meacher) What the Planning Green Paper is trying to do is to speed up and streamline the planning process over relatively more minor matters - small housing developments, small scale developments in localities. If it is a major development, and this of course is a very major development, there is no question whatever that there do have to be public inquiries. It would be impossible to get agreement for a particular management option selected at a particular site without there being an opportunity for everyone locally involved to have a say. The Planning Green Paper is not designed to prevent in any way public discussion but to streamline it where that can be done.

  35. One of the things which has been raised at a number of hearings the Committee have had over the last few weeks has been the question of the sites which were identified by Nirex as part of the process you mentioned in your opening remarks back in the 1980s, but obviously that list has never been published. Part of the reason that process fell down was the final handful of sites came out at the end rather than the whole process being open and obvious to the general public. Do you think it would be useful, even at this stage, to actually produce the details of that original list of sites for deep holes in the ground?
  36. (Mr Meacher) No, I do not. I really do think it would be counter-productive. First of all, we are not at this point saying that deep level disposal is our chosen management option. Secondly, this was in the past, and simply to dredge this up would I think simply create local alarm quite unnecessarily. People would immediately think there is no smoke without fire, that the Government is planning to do something here, and however much we denied it and said, AWe are really just openly giving you the information about what a previous Government did 20 years ago@, they would see it differently. I think that would be extremely unhelpful. All I would say is that all of us learnt the lesson from that particular episode that if and when - and I say Aif@ - we were to go down such a route, it would be open and transparent. Once we have made a decision, as I say, it can only be carried through if it is publicly acceptable, and it will only be publicly acceptable if the public know all the details, that we are cross-examined and provide honest and frank answers, so everyone knows exactly what is proposed, what the risks are, what the consequences are, they have cross-examined all the experts, and they are given all the information they need. That is the basis on which we will proceed.

  37. Just to clarify that. If we get to a situation where a national consensus has emerged in terms of the management option and the Government has made a decision on the management option in terms of what the solution is, the process then is to identify potential sites for the storage of nuclear waste material as part of a permanent solution, whichever management solution has been arrived at. That would then involve the creation of a list of potential sites, criteria for the selection of the best site, and are you saying it would be Government policy to release the long list of potential sites together with the criteria that would be used to gradually whittle down that long list of sites to a short list of sites, that would eventually be chosen between? I think the problem with the Nirex installation was that the original long list was never there and it was only a short list that was around which came out into the public.
  38. (Mr Meacher) There is a long process there involved in that question, each of which involves a major issue as to how we resolve it at that nodal point. The first question is, what is the management option. Deep level disposal is favoured by many people but it is certainly not a consensus, so there is no certainty we would go down that route. Whichever option, but particularly if it is deep level, there is then a question of whether one decides to restrict it to an area where there is already activity in the nuclear industry, particularly Sellafield but there may be some other nuclear sites, and that again is an issue which we are not at this moment confronting, or whether it should just be at Sellafield, because there is no doubt that the Cumbrian people have accepted the benefits of the nuclear industry in terms of jobs and in other ways, and there is a different attitude there from many other parts of the country. But you then have to look at a third issue which is where is an appropriate siting for deep level disposal, if one goes down that route, and the geology of the country does not necessarily accord with the political attitudes, but we would have to take account of that. All of these are decisions at a later stage, all that I am saying is that when we do begin to focus on two or three options or one option, we should be totally open about it, about the fact that if we go down this option, and it could be any of these alternatives I have indicated, there is a public discussion about the merits of each of them, so whatever is chosen harnesses as much public support as we can achieve. That I think is the best we can do.

  39. Just to clarify the position. That was not the answer I expected, in the sense I was expecting criteria which were scientific would be the ones which would determine the list of potential sites for whatever management option was decided. You seemed to be bringing into your comments that part of the criteria which would whittle down the long list to the short list would be the attitude of the local population in a particular area rather than purely the scientific basis as to whether or not that particular site is the best site for ground level storage, storage in a bunker or a deep disposal unit.
  40. (Mr Meacher) Of course, you are quite right, one does not choose this on the basis of where one can get the minimum political disagreement, that would be very foolish, if it is not obviously an appropriate form of cover. One ideally needs what is called there is time VHRUSK, which is Very Hard Rock Under Sedimentary Cover. That exists in different parts of the country to different degrees. In Cumbria there is what I believe is called Borrowdale volcanic rock, which does not entirely meet that requirement. Indeed one of the considerations of course with regard to the safety case is to do with the geology and particularly the hydro-geology of the area, but of course it has to be decided basically in terms of appropriateness for storage. I should make clear that the criteria should be agreed and published for the initial selection of sites. When that has been done, we then have to consider the political acceptability. But you are absolutely right, it is the scientific criteria which must take preference, but they will not work either unless people are prepared to agree them.

    Mr Jack

  41. I would like to probe you about the membership of the independent body which is mentioned in paragraph 6.25 of the consultation document. Do you not think you are lacking in a bit of direction when you say, AYour views are invited@ on what this independent body should be? When it came to sub-contracting interest rate setting to the Bank of England, your Government was pretty clear on what a difficult decision it was and what kind of people it was very happy to deal with that. When it comes to dealing with nuclear waste, you seem to be at arm's length, saying, ACould you please tell us what you think would be independent?@ Why not give some leadership and give some models of what you think?
  42. (Mr Meacher) We certainly need it to be independent, otherwise we shall be charged ---

  43. What do you mean by Aindependent@?
  44. (Mr Meacher) It needs to be seen by the public to be giving impartial and objective advice. I accept you cannot exclude anyone who has serious or deep knowledge of the nuclear industry or works in the nuclear industry, because that is where a lot of the relevant expertise is, but I think if such persons had a majority or were seen to be over-influential, then it would lose credibility. So we need carefully to get a mix in terms of objectivity from people who have a track record in this area but not necessarily a technical record in working for the nuclear industry, but it has got to include some people from that area as well.

  45. So what about people who say, AI won't serve on this body unless you say >No more nuclear waste is going to be produced'@? I am thinking of people with powerful distaste for things to do with the nuclear industry. They might give you the balance but are you quite happy that they rule themselves out?
  46. (Mr Meacher) I think if people lay down conditions and say, AI will only serve if you, Government, take a particular view@, that is not acceptable.

  47. Coming back to this business of independence, because you were able to give me in a sentence what you meant by that, coming back to the document it says, AYour views are invited on the need for an independent body ...@, you are not even prepared to go so far as to say you think there ought to be one.
  48. (Mr Meacher) At this stage, I repeat again, this is asking the public to agree the process. I certainly think that is a very sensible proposal, to have a new advisory body to determine the research we need to give us advice on the programme we should follow and perhaps be responsible for some of its implementation. As I say, that could be RWMAC, it could be a modified RWMAC, it could be a completely different body. I think it is important, if we are going to do this, that people understand why we are doing it, and they accept it. Again it is the record, it is not that previous Governments have not tried hard, they have, they really wanted to solve this problem, but it ran amok, and I am extremely cautious at each stage to ensure we have public support. I am convinced that is the right way to proceed. This is not dragging it out unnecessarily, it is not because we are unable to take decisions, of course it is not, of course we could just set up some new body, but if people as a result of this process then said, AWe really do not think that is the right way to do it@, we would be caught out. I prefer to take people with me, even if it is slower.

  49. Why did you not just have the consultation process focused on the establishment of an independent body, who could then subsequently deal with these nasty issues, give you your advice and provide you with a ready-made solution?
  50. (Mr Meacher) That, with respect, is exactly the point I have just made. Whereas I can see that is a perfectly sensible way of proceeding, if it is possible - it may be unlikely but it is possible - that other people do not think that is a way to proceed, is it a good idea to go down a route which the public when they are consulted think is not the right way to go?

  51. I come back to this business about interest rates, not everybody agreed with that decision but you just took it, you said, AI want to do this, I think it is a good idea to have an independent body to set interest rates@, so the Chancellor got up a few days after you had been elected as the new Government in 1997 and said, AThis is very controversial, difficult and very important, so I am going to give it to the Bank of England@, and then set out who was going to do it and said, AHere you are, here is the inflation target, get on with it, write to me if you do not hit it either way.@ So you can take a difficult decision then which has in its own way just as much importance to the nation, but when it comes to this you are still busy asking what people think is independent.
  52. (Mr Meacher) I really do not think there is any analogy at all between giving to an independent body the responsibility for determining key aspects of monetary policy and this. This is an issue which has been hugely discussed in financial circles for a long, long time.

  53. So has this.
  54. (Mr Meacher) But that does not depend on public acceptability. The key issue is, is it going to work? If it works, people will be pleased, if it does not, people will kick the Government for having made the decision. This is a totally different issue.

  55. Plenty of people debate the question of the setting and level of interest rates. Not everybody agrees with each decision.
  56. (Mr Meacher) It is perfectly true in a fast-moving economy, where daily decisions have to be taken, someone has to take a particular decision. There is an institutional framework for resolving issues which have to be settled. It is controversial because not everyone would agree it, but clearly a rapid decision has to be taken. This is totally different. This is not short-termist in terms of what is going to be the impact in the next three to six months if we get the level of interest rates wrong. This is about what is going to happen in the next hundreds or thousands of years if we reach a decision which leads to radioactive material seeping back on to the surface, leads to the crushing of radioactive material which possibly could be unmonitorable, irretrievable, at a hugely later stage of human development if the human race is still on this planet. That is a totally different issue. There is no other issue I can think of in Government which has a 10,000-plus year timescale.

  57. What about the role of Parliament in this process? Do you think that Parliament should be consulted, involved, in some way, shape or form in this debate and process?
  58. (Mr Meacher) Very much so.

  59. In what ways?
  60. (Mr Meacher) I think it would be very helpful to have a debate in Parliament. I certainly would be very keen for MPs to take a lead in developing this debate. It is, of course, I am well aware, easy, particularly for Opposition MPs to pooh-pooh the slowness of this in the way some members, including yourself, have perhaps done a little this afternoon, but nevertheless it is worth taking that risk. I accept, as Diana Organ said, that unless we open this debate and get a genuine discussion in the news programmes, on television, with representatives of both sides arguing it perhaps passionately but in detail, with articles in Sunday newspapers for and against, I do not think we are going to arouse that degree of public opinion.

  61. If I tabled you a Parliamentary Question tomorrow to list the Nirex sites as part of the debate, would you answer it?
  62. (Mr Meacher) I would answer it in the same way I have today. First of all, I have not actually seen that list. It would be in records relating to a previous Government which I suppose I could ask for. I am still learning about Civil Service rules, I am not sure we would have access to it, but I really do not think it would be helpful. I do not think it would be helpful to you as a Conservative member to indicate again this is where the Conservative Government said there should be a nuclear dump site. I really think that is not productive for your cause.

    Mr Jack: Maybe, but your name is going to be on the Answer!

    Mr Lepper

  63. Last week I think all of us here went to Sellafield and we were shown Building B215, and one of the documents we have had an opportunity to read is an article or report by the World Information Service on Energy, which concluded, Aa severe accident or terrorist attack on the high level waste tanks in building 215 could lead ... to an impact several dozen times the global and long term impact of the Chernobyl accident.@ Shortly before we began our deliberations in this inquiry, the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology published a report, and I believe one of their conclusions was, Athe awareness of terrorist threats to vulnerable installations simplifies things by leaving deep underground storage as the only realistic option.@ What is your view on that factor which I suppose since 11 September has become an increasingly important factor in the way in which we approach this problem?
  64. (Mr Meacher) It has undoubtedly become more acute after 11 September. At the same time, bearing in mind again that the timescale is thousands or tens of thousands of years, I think it would be wrong to be panicked by that event into taking a very short-termist solution which we then had thousands of years to regret. I think in the short-term, of course, we have to take account of the risks. Security measures at Sellafield have been tightened up, they have been stepped up, and I am sure you will not press me because I cannot go into more detail but that is certainly the case.


  65. Just do not let any terrorist try to get there by Virgin trains, that is all!
  66. (Mr Meacher) UK civil nuclear sites are stringently regulated by the Office of Civil Nuclear Security. They are certainly buildings which are built to take the greatest impact of any buildings in Britain. Of course, that was reviewed in the light of what happened on 11 September. I repeat, even if we were to take a decision this week, it would take several years, minimum, before we could shift what is now on the surface deep underground. So it is not as though we could take a decision now and as a matter of emergency have it all underground in a matter of weeks. It is simply not in that timescale.

    Mr Lepper

  67. Related to that is another issue which has arisen in our discussions, and that is about the state of the 10,000 tonnes of radioactive waste currently stored in the UK. Several witnesses have told us that they do not believe the current storage arrangements are necessarily safe. What is your view of that?
  68. (Mr Meacher) We insist they are and indeed Mr Jack has been making it very clear from his reading of the document that we repeatedly assert this, and we do assert this. We believe that the risk of leakage from these sites, whilst it is never zero, is very, very closely regulated by the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate. The health and safety aspects are very closely regulated indeed by the HSE. I have met on several occasions the chief officer of NII and have pressed him extremely hard about measures of safety. I do believe that British regulation of nuclear installations is very tight indeed. I repeat, that is not to say that it is impossible for an accident to happen - I am not saying that - but, again, what is the alternative? We do have 10,000 tonnes and, I repeat, even if we take no further decisions about further nuclear build it is increasing. High level waste is increasing at a rate of about 240 tonnes in vitrified form, intermediate level waste mostly in cemented form is increasing at a rate of about 5,500 tonnes, there are small amounts of low level waste nationwide which are not maintained at Drigg, because it is not suitable, and there are something like 1 million cubic metres of low level waste disposed of at Drigg. These are very large figures. They are continuing to increase and we expect that they are unlikely to plateau below a level of something of the order of 5,000 tonnes of high level waste, which is about a 260 per cent increase on current stocks, and half a million tonnes of intermediate level waste, which is about a 300 per cent increase on current stocks. So the total, even if we take no further action in terms of nuclear build, is about half a million tonnes. That is an enormous total and it is not something that we can rapidly dispose of by any means. It is highly hazardous, particularly of course high level waste, but equally intermediate waste remains hazardous for hundreds if not thousands of years. This is a long-term problem and there is no other way of resolving it than a long-term solution, and making sure we get that right is overwhelmingly the top priority.

  69. Is there a case for accelerating the process of reconditioning?
  70. (Mr Meacher) If I understand the question, that is something that RWMAC either have studied or are studying. I think it is one of the five investigations which they are making this year. Am I right in saying that?

    (Mr Wood) They are certainly looking at the inventory of radioactive waste, I do not know whether they are studying separately the scope for accelerating conditioning. We can certainly look at that and prepare a note for the Committee, if that would be helpful.

    (Mr Meacher) 10,000 tonnes has already been conditioned.

    Mr Jack

  71. Have you or your officials yet had sight of the draft conclusions of the PIU Report?
  72. (Mr Meacher) I have, yes. I am sure my officials have, yes.

  73. In terms of nuclear build, and you mentioned this in your response a moment ago, is it your judgment that until the issues of the disposal of waste have been satisfactorily resolved, there should not be any new nuclear power stations built in the United Kingdom?
  74. (Mr Meacher) I think you ought to wait and see what the results of the PIU Report actually are, and what proposals they make or do not make about any further nuclear build. I do not think I can go beyond that point at this stage.

  75. What about the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, which again said that until there was a demonstrated solution to this problem there should not be any nuclear build? Are you constrained from commenting on that 25 year-old conclusion by virtue of this report?
  76. (Mr Meacher) No. The Royal Commission Report is already on the table and certainly before any new nuclear build was determined it does seem to me extremely important that the Government should have a view about the long-term disposal of waste. I am not saying that there should be no new nuclear build until the waste has been disposed of or until a decision has even been taken as to how that might be done, I am simply saying it is a decision of very great importance considering its cost and considering the long-term implications. Mrs Thatcher was very good about talking about sound finance, which I understand to be taking decisions today on the basis of today's conditions which did not involve having to borrow or find yourself in difficulties years hence, I think that is quite a good way to go in respect of waste as well.

  77. Clearly the Chancellor in looking at his golden rule knew where to look for the origins of it. As far as the CO2 emission targets are concerned, as I understand it the closure of the Magnox stations is factored into us achieving our Kyoto target. What about the situation thereafter against your own target, which sees a greater reduction of Kyoto and CO2, of the programme for the closure of the advanced gas cooled reactors? Is that reduced target achievable without having a programme to replace the AGRs?
  78. (Mr Meacher) The reprocessing of Magnox fuel is due to end about 2012, and that of course is well before the Sintra (?) target date of reducing radioactive discharges to background levels by 2020. Even if reprocessing in Thorpe continued to 2020, the discharges will by that stage be extremely low and not inconsistent with the strategy. You are asking a wider question about the achievement of the climate change targets, not just the 5 per cent under Kyoto but a significantly higher level which I would expect to be discussed at Cop 8 (?) in November of next year when we perhaps, having got the mechanism to deliver Kyoto under our belt through Bonn and Marrakech, will then turn to what is called the Aadequacy of commitment@ which is in fact the targets. I would expect that many Annex 1 countries, particularly in the EU, will be arguing for further commitment periods beyond 2008-2012 to be looking at a level of 20, 25, 30 per cent. The Royal Commission, of course, was talking about 60 per cent by 2050, and indeed that is what the scientists tell us is the minimum reduction necessary to stabilise the level of CO2 in the atmosphere, which is the only way to try and arrest the future increase of climate change. So it is extremely important. Britain, happily, is in a very strong position, probably more so than any other country in the world, or equal with Germany, in terms of our targets. We have to achieve a reduction under Kyoto of 122 per cent in the six greenhouse gases by 2010 compared to 1990, and we are on target to achieve around 23 per cent. That does give us a certain leeway. I am not suggesting we are complacent, but I do not believe the argument that it is necessary to maintain a significant nuclear source for electricity generation in order to achieve the climate change targets. There may well be other arguments for doing it, in terms of security of supply, in terms of balance, possibly in terms of cost although it rather looks the other way at the moment, but not I think the climate change one. The reduction will be gradual and, of course, over time - and again it is a question whether these are synchronised - the increase in renewable sources of energy will come on stream more and more. You will have seen, and I am not giving away any secrets because it has been leaked in the papers, a suggestion there should be a 20 per cent target for renewable sources for generating electricity by 2020, that is pretty ambitious, but again many of the companies like Shell and BP are themselves in the market intending and expecting to reach 50 per cent by 2050. If all those happened, and they are broad orders of magnitude but if that kind of progress and momentum is achieved, it is not necessary to reduce carbon generation by new nuclear build or by extending nuclear reactors. There may be other arguments for doing it but not climate change ones.

    Mr Breed

  79. Can I turn to the Liabilities Management Agency. As soon as we started this investigation all sorts of things happened. First of all, the House of Lords' report was published and then suddenly we had an announcement on the LMA. You will be aware that there has been a fair bit of criticism about the way in which it is perceived, that the public sector is taking over the liabilities of BNFL and leaving them with potential profits, so it may be an area for partial privatisation in the future. How do you respond to those sort of allegations? That the setting up of the LMA is effectively lifting those massive liabilities off the company and putting them very much on to the taxpayer?
  80. (Mr Meacher) We have to deal with what is there. I do understand the force of that argument. There is political force behind that argument. The total level of liabilities is calculated at around ,85 billion. Much of that is military and of course it is over a long period of time. Approximately ,34 billion of that is attributable to BNFL, something like ,30 billion to MoD, about ,14 billion to British Energy and about ,7 billion to UKAEA, so it is not all BNFL by any means and of course this is over a long period of time. I do understand the argument, but the question is what at this stage, and this is an uncomfortable decision, are the options. Now clearly one has to manage those accumulated liabilities in one way or another. Do you just leave it with BNFL or does one find another way of trying to manage them better? Do you then look at the rest of the organisation and decide on a business plan which might enable the remainder, either in one or two parts or whatever, to be profitable? That is the discussion which is now being undertaken at the present time. It is uncomfortable but one cannot just say, AWe have huge losses, let's ignore them.@ We have to deal with it.

  81. Doing that, effectively that is what we have done. We have lifted those liabilities and put them very much on the responsibility of the public sector.
  82. (Mr Meacher) Half, or thereabouts, as I have indicated, are in the military sector.

  83. But it has been suggested that that ,85 billion itself may not be accurate in respect of the potential long-term waste and exactly what those liabilities are. RWMAC said it may be considerably more than ,85 billion.
  84. (Mr Meacher) I cannot speak to that. The advice I receive is that is approximately the level. It does seem to me to be a gigantic figure and I think it is serious enough. Whether or not it is ,90 billion or possibly more, let's assume it is ,85 billion, it is a huge total. One does have to ask the question, if you think the Government's proposal is not the best, what is the alternative?

  85. There was some suggestion about a segregated fund for the public sector civil nuclear aspects of that, but that would have to be agreed with the Treasury presumably. Has there been any further discussion or any further movement on this whole idea?
  86. (Mr Meacher) No, but of course there is a consultation on this. Clearly those who have got proposals are going to tell the Government, and I am quite sure there will be parliamentary debates about this. This is on such a massive scale that I do not think there is not going to be a serious and sustained public debate; there ought to be.

  87. Are there any other options which might be available?
  88. (Mr Meacher) The Government has proposed its option, I think it is for others to suggest theirs.

  89. Lastly, does the LMA itself have a role in developing policy? How will it interact with any independent body? Is it going to produce its own evidence? Is it going to be actively involved in the policy-making?
  90. (Mr Meacher) It will of course still be subject to regulation in exactly the same way as BNFL is at the present time. It may well play a role in policy formation but it is subject to exactly the same parameters as BNFL at the present time.


  91. Minister, you have said quite frequently that you have to take a decision which is good for 10,000 years or more. We have had people suggest to us that in fact we do not want to do that because we do not wish to commit future generations to a policy which they cannot retrieve, that in fact we should do something which, if they change their mind or their technology improves, would enable them to improve on what we do. How do you respond to that? What are the implications which flow from a philosophical acceptance that that might be the sensible way forward?
  92. (Mr Meacher) I have a lot of sympathy with that. Unless we reach a solution which everyone shouts and claps their hands and is excited that this is obviously right and sensible, and I do not think we are going to achieve that ----

  93. In which case you will panic, no doubt!
  94. (Mr Meacher) --- there will be considerable opposition to whatever we do. To that extent, the more we can avoid irreversibility the better it is. That is why, even if one goes for deep level disposal, I think it should remain retrievable and monitorable for a long period of time. But I repeat, there is a lot of technological work being undertaken in many countries - Sweden, Finland, USA - trying to resolve this problem. I think it would be very unwise prematurely or precipitously to come to a conclusion when, as you indicate, it is possible there might be some kind of break-through in 10 or 20 years in one of these countries. We have got 50 years, 50 years is a long time with some of the most able people in the nuclear industry in the world having their minds concentrated on this problem. I think there is a reasonable prospect that we will find technology not available today which is better than anything currently at our disposal.

  95. A week is a long time in politics, Minister, we have been talking about slightly longer timescales than that today. We are grateful to you for coming to see us. You are one of our more regular customers, or we are one of your more regular customers. We thank you for your evidence today, we look forward to seeing you in the New Year and, leaving all politics apart, we wish you a Happy Christmas.

(Mr Meacher) Thank you, and may I you.