Select Committee on Science and Technology First Report



1. The Government welcomes the Select Committee's report on radioactive waste management. It has helped to encourage public debate on one of the most critical environmental issues facing the UK over the coming century. And it has helped u to identify ways of managing the debate more effectively.

2. The Committee published its report on 23 November, soon after the UK Government and the devolved administrations for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland had published their consultation paper Managing radioactive waste safely[5] . Unless otherwise stated, 'Government' refers throughout to the UK Government and the devolved administrations for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, who are working in partnership on this policy programme. The consultation closed on 12 March and - having considered the Committee's report and the results of the consultation process - we propose to go ahead with a review of waste management options. The review will seek the views of interested stakeholders, the public and government departments. The Government will appoint an independent body to oversee the review. Further details will be announced later.

3. This response sets out each of the Committee's recommendations in turn, and gives our view.


4. Recommendation (a) said:
While we fully support the development of policy with public involvement, the present consultation is flawed by providing insufficient background to enable meaningful responses - let alone encourage them. At an early stage, consultation should be more focused on some key general questions, posed in a suitably accessible way. (Paragraphs 11-14 of the Committee's report)

5. We agree that consultation needs to be focused and clear. While we provided a large amount of background information in our consultation paper Managing radioactive waste safely, a key task over the next stage will be to ensure it is clear and relevant to people's needs, so as to encourage debate of the issues. This must reflect the fact that people read and react to information in differing ways. It implies providing relatively simple information initially, while giving people access to more detailed or technical information if they want it, together with opportunities to challenge it or to seek alternative sources of advice.

6. We set out our general proposals here and we shall publish more detailed proposals later this year. These will include a more detailed programme for reaching decisions in the period up to 2007; we envisage that the programme will follow the broad outline suggested by the Committee: first, a comparison of different options for managing the waste; and secondly - if this concludes that a major new UK waste facility is needed - a process for site selection.

7. In contrast with last year's relatively long and detailed consultation paper, this time we are starting with a short statement setting out a framework for action, accompanied by detailed research reports for those who wish to read them, followed by more detailed proposals, and supported by an information strategy and opportunities for people to comment on our proposals as they develop.

8. Recommendation (b) said:
Much of the needed background analysis was provided in our 1999 Report although the new awareness of terrorist threats to vulnerable installations simplifies things by leaving deep underground storage as the only realistic option. Those threats also lead us to call for early action to make the present surface stores of radioactive material less vulnerable. (Paragraphs 11, 15 and 16 of the Committee's report)

9. We agree that security is one of the most important issues facing us. Security at nuclear sites, including radioactive waste stores, has been reviewed since the 11 September attacks and has been enhanced. As it is not Government policy to disclose details of security measures taken at nuclear sites, we do not believe that the Committee will expect us to go into detail on what these are.

10. As the Committee has pointed out, creating significant new storage or disposal facilities would take many years, could involve significant risks - for example, in transporting highly radioactive materials - and would not be a short-term option. Our priority is to find the best solution which provides long-term protection for people and the environment. Security will be one of the key issues against which different options would be tested. Our proposed programme of action will include a process for identifying the wastes that will arise over the next century or so, the options for managing them, and the criteria against which each option should be tested. The options can then be assessed and a recommendation made.

11. In the meantime, chapter 8 of the UK Government White Paper Managing the nuclear legacy[6] , published on 4 July, indicated that security had been enhanced and that further improvements were planned, for example those concerning the AEA Constabulary.

12. Recommendation (c) said:
The fact that the process of developing the necessary facilities will be a lengthy and difficult task is not an excuse for procrastination. Indeed, given the steadily accumulating masses of waste, it calls for early and deliberate action. The sustained decades-long effort then required provides a probably unique case for establishing a policy that commands continuing all-party support. (Paragraphs 18 and 19 of the Committee's report)

13. We agree. Several administrations will oversee this process over the years to come. While difficult decisions will have to be made, our proposals are based on the need to secure broad agreement, not confrontation. We envisage a series of progress reports to the UK Parliament, Scottish Parliament and devolved assemblies as a key part of this process. Our proposals today, and the reports accompanying them, show not only how far we have to go, but also the progress we have already made.

14. Recommendation (d) said:
It will be essential to ensure that planning arrangements do not form an insuperable obstacle in the implementation of the strategy. We hope the Government's intended wide-ranging reforms to the planning regime for large projects will accommodate this. (Paragraphs 22 and 23 of the Committee's report)

15. We agree. We must provide the widest possible opportunity for people throughout our society to participate in the decision making process. It would be impossible to get agreement to a particular management option and a particular site unless people locally involved get the chance to have their say. The Deputy Prime Minister announced on 18 July that the Government does not now plan to introduce the new Parliamentary procedures for major infrastructure projects which it proposed last year; though it will still look at ways of speeding up the public enquiry system. We shall work closely with national and local agencies - including Parliament, the devolved administrations, local authorities, community groups and others, including the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister - to ensure that the process includes full national and local debate. Planning in Scotland and Northern Ireland is a matter for Ministers there.

16. Recommendation (e) said:
We feel that too much is being made of gaps in current knowledge as an excuse for inaction, although we do suggest further work - in parallel with developing the waste strategy - on methods of containment and the physiological response to radiation. (Paragraphs 26-30 of the Committee's report)

17. We agree that the review will need to identify the best strategy even though some information will not be known for many years, if ever. The Committee has pointed to areas - in particular, better waste containment to reduce reliance on geology, and physiological response to low level radiation over long periods - where further research would be useful. The Information needs research project, carried out by Wilkinson Environmental Consulting Ltd, will be published later this year. This will provide some initial ideas of where further research might be needed.

18. The years needed to implement a policy will provide a further opportunity to fill any remaining research gaps, including those of a site-specific nature, as well as to keep other options under review in case a still-better solution emerges. As the Committee says, that is no excuse for inaction: we must press ahead.

19. Recommendation (f) said:
The current absence of a radioactive waste strategy need not inhibit thinking about the possibility of new nuclear power generation. If new construction is in prospect, however, the currently proposed timetable for establishing permanent waste disposal arrangements will need to be compressed. (Paragraphs 31-33 of the Committee's report)

20. We agree that of the possibility of new nuclear power generation should be considered, and that is what the energy review being conducted by the UK Government is doing. Any future role for nuclear would depend on a range of factors, including its costs and securing public confidence about issues such as safety and the environment including managing the waste.

21. The aim of reaching and implementing decisions on radioactive waste is not to pave the way for more nuclear power plants. Most of the waste that we have now, or that will be created, will come from existing nuclear facilities as they reach the end of their lives. So we need to identify and implement the best long-term management strategy as soon as we can, because we want to achieve long-term protection for our people and our environment.

22. Recommendation (g) said:
We therefore encourage the Minister in his intention to think again about the best way of delivering this essential but hitherto rather neglected policy for the ultimate disposal of radioactive waste. (Paragraph 34 of the Committee's report)

23. We agree that managing the UK's radioactive waste safely is an essential policy - indeed one of our greatest environmental challenges now and over the coming centuries; that we should reach and implement decisions as soon as we can; and that we should think again, and again throughout the process, to judge whether we are moving as effectively and expeditiously as we can.

24. We hope that this response, and the proposals that will follow shortly, will inspire confidence in the Committee and in UK society as a whole. Words are easy. We have set out some aspirations. We must now put them into practice.

Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs July 2002


5   Published by DEFRA, the Scottish Executive, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Department of the Environment under the full title Managing Radioactive Waste Safely: proposals for developing a policy for managing solid radioactive waste in the UK - text available on  Back

6   Managing the Nuclear Legacy: a strategy for action, Cm 5552, July 2002. Back

previous page contents

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2003