Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180
MONDAY 3 DECEMBER 2001
180. If they do not need to I think we would
be quite happy.
(Mr Johnston) On the point about being very clear
about what is a storage issue and what is a disposal issue, I
think the Royal Commission in 1976, and again last year in their
Climate Report, were referring to disposal rather than storage
and there are different time frames involved as well.
181. Can we turn to decommissioning. You have
said that Government's proposals are quite complacent in terms
of decommissioning. Can you tell us what sorts of aspects of the
programme you are unhappy with? In respect also of the Environment
Agency, which argues that decommissioning would be safer if it
were delayed, on what grounds do you disagree with that view?
(Mr Johnston) We think that decommissioning of reactors
certainly is being delayed by motives that are largely economic.
182. They say it would be safer.
(Mr Johnston) The issue at the heart of that is the
worker dose, the dose of radioactivity the workers doing the job
would get. The assumption within that though is you have a team
of workers who are working on that full-time for the time that
it takes and that it would be possible, and also preferable, to
be dismantling nuclear reactors sooner than that. The way to do
that is in essence you use more staff so that the dose the worker
might receive in one shift or one year's employment is not as
great because his or her exposure onbad analogythe
coal face, so to speak, is not as great, their time exposed to
the dose would not be as great.
183. Your view is that we should put a lot more
people in and do it a lot quicker?
(Mr Johnston) That is the view based on how we see
the principles of sustainable development being applied. There
is also a technical advantage in that the sooner we do it the
more residual experience of those reactors there is that still
exists. If we wait 80 years the people doing the job then will
not be those who are around now operating the plant and knowing
how they operate. By doing it over a shorter timetable then there
is more experience of the nature of the problem and, therefore,
a greater ability to deal with it.
(Dr Western) Certainly the Japanese and the Italians
plan to decommission their Magnox stations within around 20 years.
In addition to the number of staff there is also an issue of how
much money we spend on equipment. I think you could spend money
to apply robotics. I have also got a quote here from the DTI from
1996 which says "The UK is poised at the early phases of
a new industry, nuclear site decommissioning. Not only does it
provide a source of business opportunity but on its success rides
the long-term future of the nuclear industry". The amount
of money that the nuclear industry can make from clean-up and
decommissioning by gaining expertise is of the order of $300 billion.
This was five years ago and the UK has not taken that initiative.
BNFL has burnt its fingers overseas by not taking clean-up seriously.
BNFL really need to get their act together on this.
184. So what you really want to do is to stop
producing any electricity, shift away from that totally and move
totally into decommissioning, for which you would say they would
make more money in doing it and become a world expert in the whole
process and end up as a more profitable organisation and decommission
(Mr Secrett) With a slight caveat. They are not to
stop producing electricity overnight because obviously we have
got the transition period that we would have to go through because
you have got to keep the lights on, as it were. Certainly we believe
that in the marketplace at the moment BNFL still have a considerable
comparative advantage in terms of their current holdings, especially
in America but also in this country, to be able to take advantage
of those huge existing markets for not only decommissioning but
also for safe site storage and clean-up. Starting early helps
to retain and further develop expertise. It also gives one that
comparative advantage. It also means that waste would be treated
and not be held in its more dangerous uncontaminated form for
far too long. We believe that something else would also happen
with this type of strategic repositioning as a business. We think,
although we cannot prove this, that it is much more likely that
BNFL would be able to attract new entrants into the industry if
the company had a far more positive public image from going around
solving problems and making money out of solving problems rather
than trying to continue perpetuating them. That is a very, very
important consideration because, as you undoubtedly know, there
has been a fall off in terms of new entrants and a fall off in
university courses at an advanced level into precisely the areas
of expertise that we need to deal with existing problems. That
is something that very rarely gets commented upon. We think that
it is an extremely important strategic consideration. As courses
close and graduates, or undergraduates, do not want to go down
this route, so we also build up a legacy problem that we could
well do without.
185. Can I finally touch on the issue you discussed
earlier which is the Government's announcement last week to set
up a Liabilities Management Authority. I would like some initial
views from both organisations, a few comments on the suggestion
about whether there should be a segregated fund for the civil
side and also the suggestion has been made that the total liabilities
could be in the region of 85 billion and other people have said
that is not accurate, so if you could comment on that as well.
(Mr Johnston) Briefly, on the accuracy point, the
total of 85 billion is on the record and accepted by Margaret
Beckett, the Secretary of State. The difference between that figure
and the figures reported in various arena last week is essentially
the difference between civil nuclear liabilities and military
nuclear liabilities. The military total represents 30 out of the
85. There is a little bit missing in there from the civil public
liabilities and that is attributable to British energy in the
(Mr Higman) In terms of the statement itself, the
inclusion of the Sellafield site and the MOX plant and the Thorpe
reprocessing plant suggests that the Government might be thinking
those are liabilities, but we understand that BNFL is going to
continue to operate those. Our concern is that it might be that
the liabilities arising from those sites are somehow publicly
owned whereas the profits arising from those sites are somehow
privately owned at some future point. We would certainly be very,
very concerned if the restructuring of the industry in this way
were to lead to the profit centre being seen as new build and
liabilities being seen as a public responsibility because we believe,
as we have said, that the real market incentive, the real business
for BNFL is in developing expertise as a centre of excellence
of management of the waste so it can then use that technology
around the world. Therefore, we would be very concerned if it
directed BNFL into what we would see as an unsustainable business
with no future and for the privatisation to focus on the new build
aspect rather than clean up.
(Mr Secrett) I think also there is a very important
point of principle here which is the way that the LMA potentially
may be used to palm off costs to the taxpayer. We cannot see how
that is justifiable in any circumstance, particularly just to
try and make BNFL a profitable new build or continuing to service
nuclear power stations' operation. At a level of principle that
is wrong, in our view.
Chairman: Dr Western, gentlemen, thank you very
much indeed for coming to speak to us. You have promised us quite
a chunk of additional material which we are looking forward to
receiving but we are grateful for the evidence you have given
to us today.