Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200-218)



  200. Could you say more perhaps about the extent of your budget?
  (Mr Simcock) My budget is just under a million pounds sterling, £940,420. That is two thirds staff costs and one third operating costs. We do not have a budget for research or consultancies. If that is needed that must be provided by the lead country.

Lord Oxburgh

  201. Could I ask where that budget comes from?

  (Mr Simcock) It is divided up among the 16 contracting parties by an extremely complicated formula which I can explain if you want me to, but it relies basically on the UN scale of assessments.

  202. And if you want an increase in that budget for any purpose you have to persuade the majority of those countries?
  (Mr Simcock) I have to persuade the unanimity of those countries because the budget has to be agreed unanimously.
  (Dr Roberts) Adding to that, I think the real constraint on capacity is the constraint of contracting parties to take on work. OSPAR may identify that an issue needs to be examined, but going further requires someone to say, "We will devote resources to doing that", and it is getting increasingly difficult to find people to take on that task. I think I can claim that in the United Kingdom we are doing our share, but the number of countries who are capable of devoting a lot of effort to this is reducing to a smaller core and not the whole of the fifteen, and there are some orphaned issues which should be progressed but are not being progressed.

Lord Hunt of Chesterton

  203. I would like to ask two questions of Dr Malcolm, who has been rather unasked this afternoon: one is that, clearly, monitoring is a vital part of the whole process and, as you know, monitoring has generally gone down in scientific sex appeal over the years and indeed NERC, when it was originally founded, was a major responsible for monitoring the environment and progressively the amount of NERC budget being spent on monitoring has gone down and down, so to what extent is the government now just relying on CEFAS to do Britain's contribution to monitoring, and to what extent should they be giving NERC a kick up the backside to make a better contribution?

  (Dr Malcolm) An interesting question, Lord Hunt. Thank you. We certainly take forward for Defra a major programme of monitoring and, in our terms, it is one of the sexy bits of work that we do. We do not share the overall scientific view that this is not a valuable activity and, clearly, we have taken that forward. We work in the context of the national marine monitoring programme which is co-ordinated by a United Kingdom body, the Marine Environment Monitoring Group, and the bodies that contribute to that are ourselves, our equivalents in the devolved administrations plus the environment agencies, and increasingly there is a process to draw in other sectors to this monitoring.

  204. Is NERC in that?
  (Dr Malcolm) NERC is not formally within that regime yet—I will come to that in a minute—but I think this is a major area where we need to make a step change. There are certain aspects of the work of NERC which are starting to be in a shape which would be entirely useable as part of the national monitoring programme, and I am thinking here of  developments in operational oceanography, operation through remote sensing and modelling, which I think is a key area that could be contributed from a research council perspective. It allows them to do some basic science and it would allow the nation to share in a wealth of further information. The discussions are just starting, I would say on that, through this wider co-ordination mechanism but it will be a short while before we have anything in place practically. Defra are clearly funding work that encourages that co-operation across their contractor base, so in taking forward work at CEFAS we are frequently working with other parties, including NERC institutes plus universities and others, to provide the overall evidence that we need. It is a major focus for debate and clearly with a development in OSPAR of a joint assessment and monitoring programme, internationally agreed, we need to make sure we are providing that level of evidence in a clear and transparent way.
  (Dr Roberts) Adding a brief comment to that, I think Lord Hunt has hit on a very important point: there tends to be a perception that research and development is good and monitoring somehow lags behind, but I think in this area it is crucial we have the regular and long-term monitoring if the science is going to make any sense, but it is in some ways easier to get money for research and development.
  (Dr Ion) Just commenting here, Lord Hunt, you may have implied some criticism of the governmental attitude to monitoring but, as a result of the manner in which we are regulated and the extent to which as an operator we are required to monitor and to report, that has increased over time and not decreased. We   are required to accommodate ever more sophisticated forms of both instrumentation and analytical regimes and to report on a much more regular basis than historically so.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff

  205. Mr Simcock and Dr Roberts alluded to orphan issues which need investigating, and I wonder if you feel able to give us some examples? It is a fairly tantalising statement.

  (Mr Simcock) I can certainly give you some very straightforward examples. There are two of the hazardous substances identified for priority action that at the moment are awaiting a lead country. I always have difficulty remembering their full names. One of them is 6PPD in its short chemical name; the other one is somewhat longer neo-decanoic acid ethenyl ester. There are two substances there. We have, for example, in the biological diversity field a need to have a lead country on the investigation of the laying of submarine cables and its possible impact, and there are other fields like this. In each area we tend to have one or two issues where countries have not yet been persuaded to come forward. We have a meeting of our heads of delegation tomorrow at which I shall be endeavouring to persuade them to adopt some of these orphans.
  (Dr Roberts) One important area is we are seeking to develop ecological equality objectives to help us define the management standards that we are aiming for, and those all require scientific development. We are using the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas to do some of that, but we lack lead countries. The United Kingdom is doing four elements of the ten so in that particular area we are able to make a very positive contribution. There are two or three other countries doing some, but there are four or five ecological quality objectives that are currently orphaned.

Lord Oxburgh

  206. How are orphans identified?

  (Mr Simcock) This is part of the process that came from the joint working method to which I was referring of, on the one hand, the development of the strategies and, on the other, the assessment and monitoring work. In developing the strategies we had a process which was not very far from the process that Lord Hunt was advocating of a open-ended brainstorming as to what we ought to be addressing. The 16 contracting parties were invited to put in their ideas. Those attending the various working groups and committees were invited to put in their ideas. All the non-governmental organisations, the local government representatives and so on all put in their ideas and the strategies were drawn together from a very bottom-up approach. Once you have a strategy which is agreed for a period of 20 or 25 years the need to reopen that every so often is not so great, but we had a review of the strategies after five years which has resulted in ministers basically endorsing them as they were. At the same time we had the work on assessment and monitoring that I was talking about. This started in 1993 with the first Joint Assessment and Monitoring Programme which agreed on the issues where monitoring was needed and where data should be collected. From 1997 to 2000 we worked on the Quality Status Report and this produced five volumes on the various sub-regions, the Arctic, the North Sea, the Bay of Biscay, the Celtic Seas and the wider Atlantic and an overview of the issues. This contained in its final chapter a conclusion on priorities, issues that needed looking at and this was going on in parallel with the development of the strategies and since the review of the strategies took place in the light of it these have all been put together. Our working list has come in two directions: one from a general brain storming, one from a very thorough peer reviewed scientific review of the quality status and the problems that can be identified.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff

  207. What formal and informal modes of communication exist between the OSPAR Secretariat and Member Governments? Could these be improved and, if so, how?

  (Mr Simcock) Could I perhaps start, my Lord Chairman, by explaining the structure of the OSPAR Commission's working. We have an annual Commission meeting, as Dr Roberts has said. We have six committees, one for each of the strategies and one for assessment and monitoring and each of these is supported by a number of working groups. This means that there is a meeting within the OSPAR framework usually something like once every three weeks between September and the end of June and there is a lot of opportunity for discussion informally and formally. In addition, we have meetings of the heads of delegation to the Commission, in other words Dr Roberts and his corresponding officers from the other governments and this meets two or three times a year and, as I said, it is meeting tomorrow. This is an opportunity for informal and formal discussion. One of the main features we have is that the Secretariat submits to these heads of delegation meetings a progress report which draws attention to work within OSPAR that is not perhaps going as well as might be hoped or to issues coming up in other bodies which should be considered. So we have a very considerable programme of ongoing discussion. In addition, I have a formal series of letters to the heads of delegation on various issues, but the main thing is the telephone and the e-mail, there is a steady flow of e-mails in both directions all the time.

  208. Dr Roberts, did you want to add anything?
  (Dr Roberts) It is as the Executive Secretary has said, we are probably speaking to the OSPAR Secretariat two or three times a week across the various committees, so there is a very open and free flow of information.
  (Mr Simcock) That applies to the non-governmental organisations as well.
  (Dr Malcolm) Just to add something about the scientific subculture that exists below these formal levels. The experts who attend the working groups in OSPAR also have other fora in which they work and I think of ICES which Dr Roberts mentioned, the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas, which is a scientific clearing house and adviser in the European sector. There is certainly a lot of informal work that goes on between those experts communicating either through their scientific work or through work that is specifically directed to support the OSPAR Convention.

Lord Hunt of Chesterton

  209. OSPAR does not have a scientific committee, is that correct?

  (Mr Simcock) I think I would regard the Assessment and Monitoring Committee as our scientific committee. Those who attend it are from the research institutes of the contracting parties. We did at one stage, before the merger of Oslo and Paris, have a body that was formally called the Standing Advisory Committee on Scientific Advice, but in practice that was a mixture of science and policy. When the new Convention came in we divided the work between programmes and measures on the one side and assessment and monitoring on the other, and the Assessment and Monitoring Committee is undoubtedly a scientific committee and regards itself as such.

  210. But is this like an IPCC sort of thing, where the evidence is open and then we can see what its evidence is to the Commission and then see how the Commission makes decisions?
  (Mr Simcock) The summary record of every meeting of every OSPAR body is available on our public website and that contains the main arguments put forward and the advice put forward to the next tier.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff

  211. Without a formal scientific committee though you are taking scientific evidence that may be brought in in the course of your discussion but do you have any way of grading that or judging its quality and differentiating between the levels.

  (Mr Simcock) There are two answers to that. I think the Assessment and Monitoring Committee is a scientific committee, it operates in a scientific way. The second point is that we have a very close relationship with the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, which is a purely scientific collaboration between the North Atlantic governments including, in this case, Canada and the United States. We buy from them scientific advice. They have a scientific advisory programme for OSPAR, the budget for which we meet. On many issues we ask them to provide advice. On other issues we will ask one of our bodies to provide advice. In some fields such as nutrients and radioactive substances the Policy Committee is also to a large extent the scientific committee in that those attending are a mix of scientists and policy makers. The work there is done in exactly the same way as in the scientific committee, in other words one of the contracting parties will bring forward the proposals and that will then be discussed by the other contracting parties. For example, one of the things that OSPAR does is to collect information on the radioactive discharges from all nuclear installations in the OSPAR area. This information is sent in by each country to the Secretariat. We do the basic work of putting it together in tables. That then goes to an expert assessment panel which is led by a scientist, as it happens from Germany, who, along with three or four other scientific colleagues from around Europe, produces a draft assessment of what this information shows. That is then submitted to the Radioactive Substances Committee, discussed, agreed and submitted to the Commission for publication. That is the sort of process we have.

Lord Hunt of Chesterton

  212. What mechanisms exist within OSPAR to reconcile competing claims as to scientific matters? How does OSPAR deal with scientific uncertainty? Perhaps I could give you my spin on these two questions as it were. We have been talking about science this afternoon very much in terms of natural science rather than social science and increasingly all environmental issues really have to be considered in a social science context. Related to that, you have seen questions responded to in the House vis-a"-vis BNFL saying that measurements have become more and more accurate and therefore if you measure something people get worried about it and this issue of not to worry about something even though you can measure it seems to me a very difficult area of social science and natural science and obviously policy. I wondered whether even in your scientific committee and your general outreach you have the right groups of people dealing with this new area and how you deal with science.

  (Mr Simcock) It is a very difficult issue. I wonder if I could concentrate on the radioactive substances area because this is obviously the focus that the Committee has chosen. I delivered a paper to an International Atomic Energy Agency conference on the protection of the environment against ionising radiation last December and I was asked to produce a survey of recent developments in international agreements in this field. I started with a short explanation of the way in which it had developed, some of which I drew on earlier this afternoon. I then discussed five types of argument that are relevant in this field. In fact the five can be broken down more broadly into three. First of all, you have what I called for want of a better name the prudential calculus, which is the risk assessment based on what one can call hard science, looking at the way in which organisms are shown to react in laboratory circumstances or by monitoring in the environment the economic assessments that can be made. This is very much the way in which engineers, accountants, the Treasury like to look at the world. There are then a set of arguments which you can call the absolute arguments. The first one I identified is the moral argument. A very good example of this was Mrs Bjerregaard, European Commissioner for the Environment, when she said that she would not let her children throw away a tin can as they walked down the street, so why should an offshore operator throw away a large tin can in the sea, which was the Brent Spar. This is based on an analogy with behaviour in other circumstances and is a quite different sort of argument. Another different sort of argument is the absolute value, when you privilege a particular type of value. In the environment field this is very often pristineness because pristineness is like virginity, once it is lost it is difficult to recover if at all it can be. This is something which in Germany a very great emphasis is put on because they see the marine environment as one of the last wildernesses that should be preserved and you must preserve it by stopping any impact on it. The third sort of absolute argument is inter-generational equity, how do you make sure that you are not limiting the choices of future generations by your own actions. Those three sorts of arguments I think form a class. Then the third main group is the sort to which you are referring, which is the management of the perception of risk. The UK Department of Health about four years ago did a very good paper on this in which it identified 11 fright factors and I think eight media multipliers, the features that make people worried. The sorts of things that come under the fright factors are things such as whether you are in control of the risk or not, the difference between a train accident and a motorcar accident and the way in which people react differently to it, whether it comes from manmade or natural sources, whether it damages identifiable victims or anonymous victims and so on. The UK Department of Health argued very strongly that you needed to think in terms of managing the risk perception as much as managing the risk itself. In the case of radioactive substances this question of risk perception is very considerable because they meet a positive response to about eight or nine of the fright factors. They clearly influence the attitudes in many other countries. The Irish, for example, are still responding to the Windscale disaster of 1957 and this gives rise to a lot of difficulty. These different types of argument can be separated out and identified. What I do not think you can do is to keep them separate, as our colleagues from BNFL were arguing, because in the end you have to come to a single decision and the way in which each mixes in will be different.

The Committee suspended from 4.58 pm to 5.05 pm for a division in the House


  213. If we could continue.

  (Mr Simcock) I had more or less finished.
  (Dr Ion) I would like to comment on Lord Hunt's question about the manner of dealing with scientific uncertainty. I would not necessarily disagree with Mr Simcock's view about perception, about absolute arguments and about the management of values within the overall decision-making process. I think it is important to keep the science that underpins the decision absolute so that you can understand what the scientific basis was on which you based your decision, even if you then place it within a context where you know that perception actually is weighing something else more important than your absolute science. My fundamental issue with OSPAR is that the manner in which it deals with radiological issues over and above those applied with hazardous substances tends in a way to be disproportionate. If you look at the way in which radiological impact is assessed, normally by dose, then what we are looking at, not just within the UK but internationally, is chasing ever diminishing limits which are well below those that the average person would get from background radiation in any event, like two orders of magnitude below. Whilst we can take decisions that get us into that position and chase targets that are even lower than that, it must be within the context of understanding what it will cost us to get there and to seek to ever diminish further the radiological impact, because at the end of the day we have finite resources and we have to make decisions as individuals and as a nation as to where those resources ought to be placed. I think the other issue that I would mention is that OSPAR is restricted in what it deals with in the context of dealing with the marine environment and when you come to look at what you must do in an environmental context in an holistic way you cannot just deal with the marine environment in isolation because to achieve a very significant improvement in a marine context may still lead to a detriment in a different context through concentrating store versus dilute and disperse and a full understanding of the impact in environmental space and in cost space I think is important to factor into any decision reached.
  (Mr Simcock) Might I just comment on that? There are three points that I would like to make. The first is that one of the big problems that OSPAR has to face is the fact that we are dealing with a resource, the marine environment, that is not entirely within any country's grasp. Most countries regard themselves as entitled to use the marine environment and many countries are concerned about one coastal country or a group of coastal countries using that part of the marine environment near them in a way that may eventually have repercussions on other countries. We are dealing with a shared resource in many ways. One of the fright factors that I referred to from the UK Department of Health paper is that the advantages and disadvantages fall on different people and I think this is one area in which that is relevant, in discussions about the marine environment. Certainly the countries in OSPAR that are most concerned about radioactive discharges are those that are most economically dependent on fish or agriculture. They undoubtedly have a concern over a collapse of their markets because of some fear of   radioactivity comparable to the collapse that happened in the beef market as a result of BSE. This has appeared in a number of discussions, it is recorded in the global programme of action on the protection of the marine environment from land based activities which was agreed in 1995, but this is undoubtedly one of the driving forces. The three points I wanted to make were, first of all, we are dealing here with the impact of one country's activities on a shared resource; secondly, the way in which differential advantages and disadvantages are a contributing factor to perception; and thirdly, the fear of a repercussion on fisheries or agricultural markets.

Lord Oxburgh

  214. Is there not a slight difference here because in one case what you are doing is balancing a real cost in a particular area to a hypothetical damage in another area experienced by other people? How do you weigh these things against each other?

  (Mr Simcock) As I said, to my mind there are three great types of arguments here and at the end of the day you have to come to a decision recorded in words that takes account of the different arguments. I am not sure that you can form a calculus to weigh those off against each other. It is basically a political decision.

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon

  215. It seems to me that we are talking about radioactive substances in a very generalised way. Could we turn to Technetium-99 in particular, which is what the Norwegians are concerned about and I think also Iceland is concerned about it in their fish. Could you explain why that is a particular concern? Is it different from other radioactive substances or is it that the Norwegians have been particularly concerned about their lobsters? It is within the context of the very interesting broad arguments that you have been placing and presumably BNFL would be looking at strict science whereas OSPAR thinks some other issues can be taken into account.

  (Dr Ion) Not necessarily. What I would say is that BNFL believes that the science ought to be clear such that it is placed into context and if other issues are then taken into account at least we understand why and on what basis we are actually taking decisions. One of the concerns that I certainly personally have is that the focus that we have on ever decreasing limits with respect to matters radioactive automatically leads to a perception that if it is higher than that limit it is dangerous and that if the limit needs to be decreased even further and further then it must have been dangerous beforehand. So it fuels the view in the public's mind that everything radioactive is dangerous and should be eliminated. It does not put into context the fact that we actually live in a radioactive environment as human beings in any event and many people do not realise that. Taking Technetium specifically, Technetium is an issue because it is a material that is created during the process of nuclear reactors. It is present in nuclear fuel and as far as the UK is concerned it is discharged to the marine environment as a result of processing Magnox fuel, which is the fuel from our older types of reactors. So it is released into the environment as a consequence of older designs of reactor and older designs of recycling plants and the waste management plants that were associated with the UK's operations. It has a long half life and so it is present in the environment for a long time, although it is a relatively low energy emitter. It is very easy to measure and so it is detectable in minute quantities a very long distance away after dispersal. It is man-made, it is produced from a UK site and yet it is traceable to coastlines like Norway, Ireland etcetera, nations who do not benefit from the activity at Sellafield other than, one could argue, a reduced carbon burden in the UK's atmosphere as a result of nuclear electricity. That is why there is an issue. There is certainly a perception, therefore, that it might have an impact on the fishing industry of the nations concerned and for hypothetical reasons, as Lord Oxburgh has indicated, they obviously would wish that the material was not there. We have an issue in the United Kingdom associated with the requirement to deal with the legacy of our nuclear programme and the issues associated with Technetium are all to do with our legacy from our Magnox system and our older assets. There is no other way to deal with Magnox fuel other than to recycle it and to process it through the existing assets. For the duration of the remainder of the UK's programme we have to make sure we deal with that Magnox fuel safely and consign it to safe packaging thereafter. There then comes the question as to how best to mitigate the Technetium which arises from that processing and are there any ways that we can do so in a timely manner because time is also of the essence and in a cost-effective manner. As a company I think we have done our very best to look at all the options that are available to mitigate Technetium and to take steps to do so.
  (Professor Clegg) I would just like to add to Dr Ion's comments. There is no scientific evidence that Technetium-99 has a significant environmental impact and that is not just our view in BNFL but it is the recorded stated view of the Environmental Agency, Defra and also the Norwegians and the Irish.[1] Just to wrap some figures around this as well, just looking at the dose impact of Technetium-99 compared to what people receive from just natural background radiation, if you take the average person in the United Kingdom, their radiation exposure from natural background is about 2,200 units of radioactivity, or microsieverts a year. The dose the most highly exposed people close to Sellafield would receive from Technetium-99 would be less than one per cent of that natural background burden, it is about 16 microsieverts.

  216. Suppose you ate lobsters every day.
  (Professor Clegg) Those are the people who are receiving 16 microsieverts, so they are those people with very extreme dietary habits.
  (Dr Ion) I think the other supplementary to Professor Clegg's statement is that lobsters have inherent radioactivity as well as that which they absorb with Technetium and the radioactive dose received by a lobster eater is dominated by substances other than Technetium.
  (Mr Simcock) Could I just comment on this because it is relevant to what I was saying earlier about the way in which OSPAR tries to deal with the scientific aspects of this. This obviously was an issue that was largely discussed in the preparation of the Quality Status Report on the Celtic Seas. You will find in that report, which was agreed by all the OSPAR countries but was prepared and agreed in the first instance by Ireland and the United Kingdom, a clear statement about the way in which Technetium-99 concentrations for example in bladder-wrack have increased as a result of some of the new machinery at Sellafield in the mid-1990s and an overall assessment which makes quite clear what has just been said by BNFL. The OSPAR system produced an agreed statement of the basic underlying science. The question then in negotiating the strategy was very much how to interpret that in the light of the sorts of arguments to which I have been referring.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff

  217. What steps does your organisation take to inform itself as to the current state of scientific understanding as to the potential effects, if any, on human health?

  (Dr Ion) As a company we do seek to maintain an overview of the impact of our operations and we do have, within the company, experts on Technetium chemistry who are internationally recognised experts and we do routinely deal with academic groups within the UK who have a particular specialism towards Technetium to try and understand what improvements are being made in understanding, and whether or not there is anything that we could usefully take account of in our processes going forward. We also took the step four years ago under Professor Clegg's initiative to try and improve the situation with respect to the research going on in universities to do with radioactive materials. Within the United Kingdom our academic base had declined significantly over time and no nuclear courses were being taught. Things like radio chemistry in the UK were becoming very seriously challenged in terms of ability to sustain academics in post and students who would study. We set up four university research alliances. One that is materially significant to this is the one at Manchester University where we set up an alliance in radio chemistry, where we have a pool of academic staff and postgraduate students studying radio chemistry, including the environmental aspects and including Technetium.


  218. The International Commission of Radiological Protection has recently adopted a new publication committing to a broader consideration of the environmental (as opposed to the human health) impacts of radiation, including at low doses. What input have you had into that process? Secondly, are you satisfied with the outcome to date?

  (Dr Ion) On that particular one, not just the ICRP but also the IAEA has been involved in discussions with the WNA on the protection of non-human species and we have had an input. Our data has concentrated mainly on human dosimetry and worked on the premise that if mankind is protected then other species will likewise be protected. The development that is now coming forth from ICRP has not been driven by any particular concern over environmental hazards necessarily, but it has been developed to fill a conceptual gap which I think we would support needs filling. There is no evidence that radioactive discharges from nuclear sites that are controlled to levels consistent with ICRP criteria have got any discernable effect on ecosystems generally. Even for sites with the most significant historical discharges like Sellafield experience with biota assessment methodologies indicates that doses are significantly below levels where effects would be expected. Having said that, we have got to make sure that future systems are capable of simple and practical implementation and we must make sure there is not a disproportionate burden placed on issues associated with nuclear technology. We certainly support the initiative taken and we have contributed views into it.

  Chairman: Thank you for that. I think this may be an appropriate moment to finish. I would like to thank everybody for coming. I think it has been very useful certainly from our point of view. I think there was some additional information that is going to be supplied to us which we look forward to seeing. Thank you very much.

1   See letter from Martin Cullen, TD, Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government page [?] Back

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