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Radioactive Waste (Disposal)

Volume 115: debated on Friday 1 May 1987

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11 am

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the disposal of low and intermediate-level radioactive wastes.

I have received a letter from the chairman of NIREX reporting on the results hitherto of the investigations at Bradwell, Elstow, Fulbeck and South Killingholme, and giving me his current assessment of the economics of shallow disposal of low-level waste; and of the alternative of deep disposal together with intermediate-level waste.

The letter from NIREX, which I have placed in the Library together with my reply, concludes that, although a safe near-surface disposal facility could certainly be developed at any of the four sites currently being investigated, the economic advantages of separate near-surface low-level waste disposal are nothing like as great as NIREX earlier thought. Consequently, NIREX concludes that it would be preferable to develop a multi-purpose deep site for low-level waste and intermediate-level waste rather than proceed with the investigations for a near-surface facility at any of the four sites currently under investigation.

I accept that conclusion. NIREX will therefore now concentrate on identifying a suitable location for a deep multi-purpose facility for both intermediate-level waste and low-level waste. It is already evaluating the relative merits of techniques of deep burial of intermediate-level waste in a repository on land, tunnelling under the sea from the shore, and disposal into the seabed from a sea-based rig and it will now extend this study to embrace low-level waste as well. It will not proceed with the investigation of a near-surface facility for low-level waste at Bradwell, Elstow, Fulbeck or South Killingholme.

I should like to pay tribute to the staff of NIREX and its consultants for the quality of the technical work they have done, and also for their very great efforts to establish good working relations with the local communities.

This is a sensible development of our policy to establish not only safe but acceptable facilities for the disposal of radioactive wastes.

The Labour party welcomes the decision by Her Majesty's Government to abandon this policy, which we have long argued from the Dispatch Box, is misconceived, undemocratically perceived and has been found to be deeply flawed technically, as we suggested it would be. We can fully understand the relief that will be felt in the communities in the vicinity of Bradwell, Elstow, Fulbeck and South Killingholme. I pay tribute to the hon. Members from both sides of the House who fought against that flawed policy.

However, we recognise, as does the rest of the country, that the Government have acted only in a squalid attempt to save themselves from electoral embarrassment. There can be no other explanation for this announcement being made today. If I lived in one of the four constituencies affected, I would need more reassurance than that given by the Government that they will not reverse the policy if by any accident they happen to win the next election.

The policy that the Secretary of State has abandoned today has been found to be bankrupt. I wonder whether he will give the country an assurance that the next round of decision-making will be done openly, with full input from local and environmental groups and with full consideration of all the international experience. That is vital. Will he now acknowledge that decision-making in secret by a small group of Government technicians simply does not work? As the Secretary of State has now acknowledged, they simply could not get their costings right.

In his statement, the Secretary of State told the House and the country that the Government, in their attempt to tackle this serious problem, will concentrate on a single, deep, multi-purpose facility for nuclear waste. We all know that that is the Swedish solution that has been advocated by the Labour party and the Select Committee of the House for a considerable time. Some of us have seen it in Formark in Sweden.

The Government's estimate of the amount of waste that will be accumulated and accelerated by the decision to go ahead with the Sizewell proposal will increase the problem, without finding solutions. In his evidence to the Select Committee, the Minister said that by the year 2000 we would require facilities for up to a dozen multi-storey tower blocks. That is the extent of the problem in Britain.

Does the Secretary of State realise that, although we admire the Swedish system, we would require up to 16 Formarks to cope with the problem? What work is going ahead on that issue? What procedure will be used to identify up to 16 seaside towns that will be examined and used for a deep mine facility? Have the Government considered the full implications for the health of workers in the nuclear industry and in the nuclear transport industry of this continued delay? Will the Secretary of State act urgently on that problem?

Does the Secretary of State recollect that in 1976 the Flowers report said that we were a long way behind our neighbours with a policy on the problem? Will he press ahead as quickly as possible and give the House some indication of when he intends to start work on the problem? How will he overcome the problem of blight that we have experienced on the four sites, when he is looking at a further 16 areas?

The Secretary of State has made the announcement, and we welcome it. We understand why it has been made, but we hope that the Government will follow the Labour party's approach when they go into the next round of decision-making and will decide to consult widely with environmental groups and the industry, because only by doing that and by taking the general public along with them will they be able to cope with this difficult problem.

The hon. Gentleman is muddled about a number of things. He says that he welcomes the statement—I am grateful to him for saying that—but then he describes it as squalid. He cannot do both. If his hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), who is in charge of shadowing my Department, were present—I am not regretting or complaining about the fact that he is not — he would say that he has always recognised the need for shallow disposal sites and believed that they were safe, as I still do. That policy was also endorsed by the Select Committee, to which I pay tribute. Therefore, there is nothing from which the hon. Gentleman can make political capital.

I wish to emphasise that the reason for the exchange of letters, which are in the Library, was that the work done by NIREX has shown that the large cost differential between shallow and deep sites has now more or less disappeared. As the reason for going for a shallow site was originally the large cost differential, it must now be right to ask NIREX to investigate a deep site, since the cost of storage is no longer greater.

The hon. Gentleman accused me of behaving secretly. As I received the letter from NIREX only yesterday, I believe that the rapidity with which I have come to the House to make the statement shows that I have nothing to hide or conceal from the House and that I wanted to make those fact available as soon as I received them.

I appeal to the hon. Gentleman not to start talking about 20 seaside towns, this town or that area, or that county, or the other constituency. We do not have any proposals from NIREX for a deep disposal site. The hon. Gentleman should know better — he is a Front-Bench spokesman. It is all too easy for him to start playing politics — [Interruption.] As the hon. Gentleman said that the Labour party recognises the need to find disposal sites for nuclear waste and that the nuclear industry would have to provide those sites, it is up to the hon. Gentleman as well as the Conservative party to co-operate in taking the matter calmly, reasonably and rationally.

I am sure that the residents of the four areas concerned will welcome very much the statement by my right hon. Friend. For whatever reason the decision may have been taken, happily, the economics show that another solution is equal, or even preferable, to the one that was being sought by NIREX. Nevertheless, what is the time scale proposed for finding alternative facilities?

Everyone has recognised and is agreed that the method used at Drigg is an unacceptable form of disposal and, furthermore, the time there is running out shortly. How long will it take to explore and find alternative facilities? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the recommendations made by my Select Committee, that compaction and pyrolysis should be used to reduce the volume of low-level waste, would resolve some of the anxieties that the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) mentioned, because the need for sites would be vastly reduced?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the report from the Select Committee, which he chaired, and for what he has just said about it being right to change course in the light of the changed economic figures that are now before me. The answer to my hon. Friend's question about the time scale is that the position until now has been that NIREX believed that a shallow site might be available for use in the mid-1990s, but that a deep site might not be available until about the year 2005. I hope that by asking NIREX to concentrate on looking for a deep site, it will be able to advance that date by a year or two, or even three, so that the deep site will be available soon after the end of the century. I am quite confident that the storage of nuclear waste in the meantime can well be accommodated, as the exchange of letters will show, which I commend to my hon. Friend.

With regard to Drigg, I confirm that we shall consult on a new draft authorisation for the storage licence there, and that there will be compaction to increase the capacity of the site. In response to my hon. Friend's Select Committee's recommendations, we shall also be tightening up the safety requirements on that site. I believe that NIREX and British Nuclear Fuels plc are satisfied about the capacity problem and that there will be no difficulty with that.

This must be about the greatest and quickest U-turn in the history of the Government, seeing that the letter was despatched yesterday and the Secretary of State must have been up early this morning to send his reply. The obvious conclusion—the Secretary of State must not try to deny it — is that when the public's environmental concerns were put forward, the Government turned a deaf ear, but when the political and electoral concerns of the right hon. Gentleman's party managers were put forward, like a response to a Mayday signal the Government came to the rescue at the last moment.

I should like to ask two specific questions. First, does the Secretary of State accept that the Opposition parties have argued all along for what he has now concluded is the better option? He was wrong. the Conservatives were wrong, but the Opposition parties were correct. Secondly, does the right hon. Gentleman agree with the chairman of NIREX, who says in his letter that ready public acceptance of low-level disposal will not be achieved in the short term? The public are not happy with nuclear waste, and the Government's belief that they could be persuaded was wrong. The costings could have been worked out first without putting those four communities to all the trouble of the drillings and the test bores. If the Government had been minded to be fair about that, the four communities could have done without a year and more of enormous concern, which in the end has vindicated them and shown that the Government have been going in the wrong direction for the past three years.

It was typically squalid of the hon. Gentleman to try to make those political points about a serious and important matter for the future of our economy and for our environment. The reason why that exchange of letters has taken place is that the fundamental difference in costs between shallow and deep disposal of low-level waste has, after exhaustive examination by NIREX, been shown not to be there. That must be something that the hon. Gentleman will accept, just as I accept it. I will not take it from the hon. Gentleman to be criticised for coming to the House and announcing that fact as soon as I had time to make the statement, having replied to NIREX.

The hon. Gentleman is incorrect in saying that the Opposition parties have all been arguing for this solution, because the hon. Member for Copeland has always believed that a shallow disposal facility is right, and he is in charge of the Labour party's environment portfolio. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about this. I have no reason to believe that a shallow disposal site is not totally safe, and no such decision would have been made if it had not been for the cost differential.

The hon. Gentleman talked about public acceptance. He has misread the letter from NIREX. He will find that there is a problem, in Mr. Baker's view, with public acceptance of the disposal of radioactive waste as a whole, not just low-level waste.

Order. I remind the House that this is a private Members' day. I ask hon. Members who are called to be brief in their questions.

As my right hon. Friend knows, not only I and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Sir A. Buck), but all Essex Members of Parliament and all elected local authorities in Essex, were opposed to the Bradwell project from the start. I hope that my right hon. Friend will appreciate the relief and delight at the wise decision that he has announed. He will know that Bradwell is in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, South and Maldon (Mr. Wakeham), who, as Chief Whip, has been precluded throughout from expressing his very strong oppostion to the project, because of the conventions of the House, but is my right hon. Friend aware that I have been in close touch with my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip throughout? We have worked together in close harmony, and I am empowered to say how delighted he is, as I am, at this wise decision.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his support and for what he has said, but I think that it would be right if I made it absolutely clear that my right hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, South and Maldon (Mr. Wakeham) and I never discussed the matter until last night. He has been scrupulous in conducting his duties as Chief Whip, irrespective of his views on the issue that we are now discussing.

I am not by nature a vindictive person—at least. I hope I am not; not any more than any other hon. Member—but if I were to try to pretend that I did not relish today's event, I am afraid that I should be guilty of being somewhat economical with the truth.

As an engineer, the justification of economics in regard to shallow disposal compared to deep disposal leaves me somewhat breathless with astonishment. The only thing that I can detect is the erosion of electoral support. If there is a difference in cost to justify the statement, will NIREX and the Department publish the costings so that everyone can test the validity of the claim? If the Department now backs deep disposal sites, will the right hon. Gentleman give a repeat performance of the two previous statements and say that the Billingham and Cleveland areas will not be identified for that purpose?

As the Secretary of State has allowed himself to be persuaded that the less-blinkered perspective of those who are not experts in the industry is acceptable, how will he justify trying to persuade the House to accept the proposals for Sizewell B a week on Monday?

I remind the Gentleman that he is not the only engineer in the House, because I am also a qualified engineer. The costings have already been published and are to be found in the letter that is in the Library. I cannot comment on what proposals NIREX might put to me in the future, because that is a hypothetical question.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his statement will be warmly welcomed by my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown), who has worked tirelessly on behalf of his constituents and who is, even now, with his constituents?

My hon. Friend speaks in accordance with what my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown) would have said if he had been here.

May I remind the Secretary of State of the comment that I made when his predecessor made the announcement about investigating the four sites? I said that because the four sites had been identified the black clouds that had hung over other parts of the country had moved to four specific areas. As a result of today's statement the black clouds have moved from those four areas — I am happy about that—but every hon. Member representing a constituency with a coastal boundary must face the possibility of an investigation in his constituency.

Not only is the depositing of low-level nuclear waste a problem, but so is the transporting of it. Will the Secretary of State confirm that any constituency with a coastal boundary is a potential site for the depositing of low-level waste? My constituency has a coastal boundary, although I might be considered fortunate because coal workings exist all along the coast. All hon. Members with a coastal boundary must be worried.

The hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) first used the phrase "coastal boundary," but if the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Thompson) reads my statement he will see that NIREX is now

"evaluating the relative merits of techniques of deep burial of intermediate-level waste in a repository on land, tunnelling under the sea from the shore and disposal into the seabed from a sea-based rig".
Those are the three options. The first is on land, the second is tunnelling under the sea from the shore, and the third is disposal into the seabed from a rig.

I plead with all right hon. and hon. Gentlemen not to play the game of guessing where something might or might not be, when at the moment there are no proposals from NIREX. Indeed, it was only today that I asked it to make proposals.

I welcome the statement, which will also be welcomed by many people in Yorkshire and Humberside, not least by those who live in the Brigg and Cleethorpes constituency. Will my right hon. Friend give priority to finding a deep site as far north as possible?

This is not the proper occasion to introduce arguments about the north-south divide.

The Secretary of State has made it clear that economic factors are the reason for the change. Does he accept that while investigations into the three options are taking place economic factors could change yet again? May we have an assurance that the most important considerations are not economic, but those of safety, and the public concept of that safety?

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman accepts that the reason for the statement is the economic change described in the letter to which I referred. Of course economics are not the only concern, but at the outset when the four sites were considered the economic differential was about 20:1. It has now shrunk to nothing. Obviously economics are a factor, but there is no question but that whichever site or type of site is chosen—deep, shallow, in the sea or on the land — safety will be the Government's paramount consideration.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the NIREX facilities in my constituency alongside the important nuclear research institution at Harwell laboratory? Does he recognise the importance of an early resolution to the problem of nuclear waste disposal? Will he confirm that Britain cannot will the end of achieving nuclear power without willing the means of nuclear waste disposal?

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend's last comment. We cannot have a nuclear industry unless we find a repository for its waste. We are to have a nuclear industry, so we shall succeed in finding a repository.

I regard today's statement as an evolution; an improvement in our knowledge and in our costings of the difficult question of waste disposal. It is a step forward. We now know that the ultimate answer is likely to be in one of the three options, and that increases our preparedness, so that we no longer waste time on false avenues.

Is the Secretary of State aware that I am committed to the principle of a nuclear industry? Does he accept that the people of Northumberland, Tyneside and Cumbria, where mining interests go back centuries, are aware that mines have been closed in those areas and that deeper mines exist under the sea? The people are not naive, and they are aware that nuclear waste is likely to be transported in their areas. Will the Minister inform NIREX as soon as possible that it must be open and frank and educate the people to the realities of the transport and safe storage of nuclear waste? If he does that, he will do the people in those areas a favour.

The hon. Gentleman is doing the people of the country a favour, both in his stand that the nuclear industry is essential for our economic development and in his recognition that people must be persuaded that they cannot have the benefits of nuclear power without the difficulties associated with waste disposal. If the whole of his party was as realistic, it would not be experiencing its present difficulties.

It is extremely unlikely that any old coal mines will be acceptable. An immense amount of care is required in the selection of rock formations that have no water fissures and of particular types of rock suitable for such a facility. I can give the hon. Gentleman an assurance that a new shaft would be bored into a new strata of rock that had all the required properties. An old abandoned coal mine would not be used.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I have been able to contact my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Lyell), who are heavily involved in ministerial and constituency duties? They have asked me to say how grateful they are, on behalf of their constituents, for this statesmanlike decision by my right hon. Friend.

I must not accept gratitude from my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Lyell) because, equally, I would have had to accept their curses if the decision had gone the other way. The truth is that this matter has been decided entirely on economic merits and not at all on my hope for favours from my hon. Friends' tongues.

Now that it has proved so difficult to get rid of what the Secretary of State termed as safe waste, and after 18 months of negotiations the Government have had to say that they will not dump waste at the four sites, will the right hon. Gentleman accept that there is strong evidence that four opinion polls which were taken in those areas where the waste was to be dumped and which were due to be published shortly would have shown that the Tory candidates in those seats were in severe jeopardy? That is why the Secretary of State has come along in this hasty fashion today. Will he acknowledge that, having faced this black hole of the election, he had to try to cobble together some other proposals? Will he say categorically, notwithstanding what he said about existing coal mines, that no suggestion will be made about placing any of this waste in what are known as opencast areas, where giant holes have been created in places such as my constituency where lots of waste has been dumped, including dioxin and other toxic products, and that they will not be used for this kind of proposal?

I gather that an opinion poll which was taken at the four sites as to people's attitudes to waste disposal was published yesterday. Against the decision that I have taken, they show a slightly more favourable attitude towards shallow disposal of low-level waste than perhaps the House would have expected.

I know of no other polls. They are the polls that matter and they are the polls at which I look.

The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) mentioned toxic and other waste in his constituency. I believe that those sorts of waste are far more dangerous than any low-level intermediate waste could ever be, particularly since they have not been properly provided for in storages such as we were making.

I am not giving any assurances whatsoever as to what sites, areas or techniques NIREX might suggest. We must wait and see what it proposes.

As a strong supporter of nuclear power, I say to the Secretary of State, quite modestly, that when the original announcement was made I predicted that in the end the Secretary of State would not proceed, on the basis that there is a distinction between what is safe and what the public perceive to be safe. It is a remaining problem which we cannot resolve because of public prejudices. If west Cumberland is to be examined for further disposal, in the light of what the right hon. Gentleman has said he would do well to remember that while the people of west Cumbria accept nuclear power, because it provides much employment, they would object if, in the longer term, his announcement led to any escalation in the amount of nuclear waste that we are required to take. What I originally suggested to the Secretary of State three years ago stands. There must be an international settlement of these matters. We need an international bank for waste. That is the only way in which we will solve this matter in the long-term.

The hon. Gentleman claims prescience about this decision, and I think that it is the exception that proves the rule—for once the hon. Gentleman is right.

The hon. Gentleman has been right to support nuclear power which is an important industry in west Cumbria. I pay tribute to him for looking after the interests of his constituents, by the attitude that he has taken throughout. Nuclear power is vital to the area — I was there a fortnight ago — and I welcome anything that can be done to demonstrate to the rest of the country that the people of west Cumbria not only make their living from nuclear power in the main, but are very happy to accept the assurances that the safety standards are as high as I believe them to be. It is other people who spread scare stories about west Cumbria, not those who live there.

I have no idea what NIREX and BNFL will propose, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would be wise to talk to them about future plans for the Drigg site. It is referred to in the exchange of letters and I am satisfied that all precautions will he taken to ensure that that site is totally safe and under control. This is a help to those who would like to see disposal facilities advanced, and not long ago I was asked by the Copeland district council to accelerate the bringing forward of a deep hole for intermediate-level waste so that the waste could be removed from the site at Sellafield. This statement does exactly that.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. We have listened to a statement that is of great interest to the House, and most of all to the four hon. Members in whose constituencies NIREX's explorations have taken place. Not one or those hon. Members has been able to attend the House and we have had, at best, an attendance of about 30 hon. Members. On any other day than a Friday, the House would have been almost full. It is an extraordinary discourtesy to inflict on the House on a Friday morning a statement that lacks the urgency that normally attends statements that are made on a Friday morning.

In addition, it is a grave interruption of private Members' time, of which there is all too little in the House. The Secretary of State would have served the House far better if he had postponed his statement until Tuesday and I, like my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), can only conclude that political reasons made him decide to make this rushed statement this morning ahead of the publication of the opinion polls.

That is not a matter of order but a matter for the Government whether there should be a statement. However, it is a private Members' day and there is little enough time for private Members.