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Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Whitty: From time to time one disagrees. I personally believe that whatever the share of nuclear power in Britain's energy generation, the world probably needs nuclear power and it is therefore important to get these questions right. Since the end of July, I have taken dual responsibility in this area. I am responsible for the Health and Safety Executive within my department, but I am also responsible, with my colleague Michael Meacher, for the climate change dimension. I believe that nuclear power has a serious role to play and that decisions on nuclear power will be important in getting those

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very difficult equations right. The safety issue, the contribution to the planet's future energy needs, are all involved here.

In the light of that, it is probably sensible for us to be a little cautious and perhaps a little considered in our response to what is an immensely valuable piece of work by the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, and everyone involved in the committee. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, and the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, that at the appropriate point there will be proper parliamentary consideration of these issues. I have no doubt that as background to that, whenever it comes, this report will play a major part. I would like once again to thank the committee and all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate.

The Earl of Cranbrook: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, since I did give written notice of this question I would be most grateful if he could be more explicit about the nature of the consultation between the Government and the devolved administrations. Can he say whether or not the statement, which I quoted briefly from the introduction to the paper, would be regarded by the devolved administrations as firmly placing their name on that reply? It is very important at this stage of devolution that we should establish what the nature of these processes are, how they can be facilitated, and how there can be unified approach to these problems.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I thought I had made it clear that, so far as devolution is concerned, the devolved assemblies have been fully consulted over this report and are therefore party to it. Clearly, future regulatory requirements and the relationship of any new organisations in this field, were we to pursue the committee's option, would need to be discussed and implemented via, in some respects, the devolved administrations. And, of course, already in Scotland the Scottish Executive and Parliament have the oversight of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency which is one of the major institutions already in this area. There is agreement with the devolved administrations and any forward movement would have to be taken with their agreement.

2.7 p.m.

Lord Tombs: My Lords, we have had a long but comprehensive and useful debate on a subject of great importance to present and future generations. I should like to express my thanks to all the speakers who took part and to those noble Lords who did not take part but listened with great patience.

The noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, made a distinguished and authoritative maiden speech to which many other noble Lords referred with justified admiration. As a long inhabitant of this field, I would observe that very cautious assumptions were made at the beginning of the nuclear process which have survived despite a growing amount of evidence that they are cautious. So I think that the suggestion for a review is extremely timely.

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I should like to pick out one or two individual contributions. The noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, drew attention to the fate of past reports, which seem to have a great facility for attracting dust. I hope that this does not prove to be one of them, though I am perhaps less convinced than I sound. The noble Earl mentioned, too, that he had wanted to import the devolutionary problem or mechanism into the report. At that time I took the view that that would probably produce a problem of similar complexity to the one we set out to examine. It may be that the time-scale of the response, to which I shall return later, supports that view.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hogg, made a very penetrating remark that policy does not invent itself. There is a need for leadership in policy. That is a fine balance, of which we were conscious throughout the committee's deliberations--the balance between consulting in an open way and appearing to pre-empt a decision. It is a problem which has obviously troubled the Government and they have come down perhaps rather more in one direction than I would have considered desirable. But I shall say more about that in a moment.

The noble Earl, Lord Liverpool, described himself, I think unfairly, as an amateur. Even if he were, the position of amateurs is very important in this debate. It cannot be left to experts alone because the public generally tend to want to be involved in some way which is not wholly professional. Had he gone on to look beyond terabecquerel to becquerel, he would have found it defined there as one nuclear disintegration per second; and that is a very small amount--hence the use of powers to reach anything of importance. However, in relation to the noble Earl's comments, there is an inverse relationship between the radioactive inventory and the volume of the product involved. One cannot generalise from a radioactive inventory to the size of a repository. Disused coalmines are not likely to be very useful to us. A requirement for a deep geological repository is a stable body of rock. That is almost ruled out by moving chunks of the rock in the course of exploration. Most of our coalmines are in any case very heavily faulted.

Perhaps I may take up the rather distressing criticism of the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood. He felt that we had not spelled out the risk of doing nothing. I thought that we had. I quote two points from the executive summary alone. Point II states:

    "The problem exists and has to be solved".

Point IV states:

    "The long time-scales involved might be thought to be a reason for postponing decisions. The contrary is the case, since existing storage arrangements have a limited life and will require replacement, and eventually the repackaging and transfer of stored waste. Reliance on supervision for very long periods increases the probability of human error".

Both of those observations are spelled out at length in Chapters 2 and 3 of the report.

Perhaps I may turn to the Minister's response and to the published response of the Government. I said in my opening remarks that I welcomed it. That was more from a sense of relief after the series of false

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dawns, to which the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, referred. The report accepts the general thrust but proposes an earlier stage of consultation on the methodology--a further consultation. That seems to be not so much taking the first step on a long journey, which is important, but talking to others about how one might be able to take the first step on a long road. I found that somewhat disappointing. In some ways it reflects much of the tone of the report. I shall come back to that point.

It is not easy to understand why it took more than seven months to prepare the report given what amounts to its very general content. I hope that this leisurely pace will not characterise future actions on this important topic. I am very much afraid that it may, particularly in view of the oblique comments made in the report to the consultation of other assemblies. Perhaps we will have a very long discussion about how it might proceed rather when it can start.

Of major importance and something which may offer some amelioration of that essential or inherent delay was the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hogg, and the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood. I had it on my list as an important mechanistic route. We recommended that the national waste management commission could be set up at an early stage to organise the method of consultation and the basis of consultation long before it became statutory and inherited the duties described in the report. That would offer a way of taking the issue away from governments who are essentially transient in their nature and, it would seem, complicated and somewhat--I was about to say "dilatory" but perhaps that is not the right word--casual in approaching a matter of great urgency.

Perhaps I may make one or two comments on particular responses to recommendations. I was disappointed that in response to recommendation 11, the Government are reluctant to contemplate a leading role for UK organisations even, as we suggested--and this is an important caveat--when public consultation is complete and if the chosen policy is geological disposal. That is quite a constrained recommendation. I found the rejection of that to be regrettably timid.

The response to recommendation 12 on the issue of plutonium as waste seems rather confused, perhaps reflecting divergent departmental interests. It appears to miss the point that a decision on this matter would influence the physical size of the problem that must be addressed and hints at a solution. The response expresses a welcome intention to keep the committee informed of future developments and a willingness to welcome further scrutiny and comments as matters develop. Noble Lords will know that at the end of an inquiry the committee is wound up and its staff dispersed so that the aim, though gratifying, may be difficult to realise in practice. Nevertheless, I shall be happy to give any help that I can, and I am sure other members of the committee will say the same on an individual basis. Furthermore, I can promise the Minister that, irrespective of any invitation, we shall take every opportunity to harry the Government through Questions.

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I have greatly enjoyed both the chairmanship of the committee and the debate that has followed. We have exposed the issues and I look forward to more positive action from the Government, first, in involving the public to a greater extent and, secondly, in offering their lead on the matter. I commend the Motion to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

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