With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the report of the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management—CoRWM—which was published on 31 July. Similar statements are being made in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. On behalf of the whole House, I thank the chair of the committee, Gordon MacKerron, and its members, for the outstanding effort that they put in to arrive at their unanimous report.
The issue of nuclear waste disposal has dogged successive Governments. CoRWM was asked to recommend the best option, or combination of options, for the long-term management of the United Kingdom’s higher-activity radioactive wastes, which provides protection for people and the environment. The Government believe that the CoRWM report provides a very strong basis for moving forward with clarity and consensus. We accept CoRWM’s recommendations that the UK’s higher-activity waste should be managed in the long term through geological disposal, as well as the continuing need for safe and secure interim storage until geological disposal is available. We also agree with CoRWM that we must continue to build on the momentum that it has helped to establish.
As CoRWM’s report observes, geological disposal is the approach that is being adopted in many countries, including Belgium, France, Finland, Germany, Japan, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States. Nevertheless, securing geological disposal represents a major challenge that will require a commitment over many decades. We accept CoRWM’s recommendation that the process for developing a geological disposal option should be undertaken on a staged basis, with clear decision points. That will allow Government to review progress and to assess costs, value for money and environmental impact before decisions are taken to move to the next stage.
Planning and development of the geological disposal option must be based on four key pillars: a strong and effective implementing organisation, with clear responsibilities and accountabilities; strong independent regulation by the statutory regulators—the Health and Safety Executive, the environment agencies and the Office for Civil Nuclear Security; independent scrutiny and advice to Government on implementation; and a partnership with the host community.
The CoRWM report observes that the safe and secure storage of civil legacy radioactive wastes already falls within the remit of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, which was established under the Energy Act 2004. The NDA also has responsibility in its current remit for low-level radioactive waste. We have decided that responsibility for securing geological disposal of higher-activity waste should also fall to the NDA, so as to create one organisation that is able to take a strategic view through all stages of the waste management chain, and that is clearly and transparently accountable to independent regulators and Government.
The NDA is already subject to statutory safety and environmental protection and security obligations under the Energy Act 2004, and its contractors are subject to regulation by the environment agencies, the HSE and the Office for Civil Nuclear Security. Its strategy and annual plans are subject to approval by Government. We will ensure that, in future, the longer-term radioactive waste management interests of Government are appropriately represented in the NDA’s strategy and that it has governance arrangements to reflect its increased responsibilities.
Nirex has played an important role in maintaining and developing the UK's knowledge of geological disposal, including the provision of advice to industry on waste conditioning and packaging, since the demise of its geological disposal development programme in 1997. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and I, as joint shareholders in Nirex, are grateful to the successive chairs and the board for their hard work, and, of course, to the expert staff involved. None the less, the Government believe that having two organisations on the same playing field with potentially overlapping responsibilities would confuse and blur accountability. Instead, we are determined to harness the skill and commitment of the staff involved within the NDA.
Following today’s statement, we shall allow Nirex a short period to comment on the proposed ownership transfer and how it could best be brought about. The independent environment and nuclear safety regulators believe that the proposal will provide a framework that they can regulate strongly and effectively. They are content that the NDA will be responsible for implementing the geological disposal programme, within the constitutional arrangements that I described earlier. The regulators’ support is critical, as strong independent regulation is key to ensuring the safety of people and the environment and securing confidence and trust in the delivery arrangements.
On the third key pillar of our approach, we remain committed to the independent advice that CoRWM has pioneered so well. Accordingly, a successor to the independent committee will be appointed to give continuing advice on the plans for long-term management of radioactive waste.
CoRWM has set the standards for open and transparent advice that takes into account not only the best available scientific and other expert input, but the views of the public and stakeholders. It has also built up support and—perhaps surprisingly, given a name that does not exactly trip off the tongue—brand recognition. The new committee will therefore maintain the current name, but its membership will be reconstituted to reflect its role in the next stage of the “Managing Radioactive Waste Safely” programme. The committee will be sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the DTI and the devolved Administrations.
The committee’s primary functions will be to advise on the implementation of a geological disposal programme, including considering the strategy and delivery plans and the site selection process. It will make its advice available to the UK Parliament, the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales, as has been done by CoRWM.
The circumstances surrounding the long-term disposal of higher activity radioactive waste are unique. We have made it clear that we are not seeking to impose radioactive waste on any community. In that context, we strongly support exploring the concept of voluntarism and partnership, as described by CoRWM, with the local authorities serving communities that might be affected. As CoRWM recognises, there is a need to consider further how such arrangements will work in practice. Accordingly, we will look to develop further an approach that includes: the stages and decision points; how communities would be involved; the role of democratically elected bodies locally; and the potential for involvement and community packages as suggested by CoRWM.
Disposal facilities will be built only in a geologically suitable area, and we will also consider how geological and scientific considerations will be meshed with other societal considerations as, for a successful programme, all the criteria will need to be met. I invite any local authority—or group of local authorities—that wishes to be involved in those discussions to contact me, the Minister for Climate Change and the Environment, or my officials directly. Similar invitations are being extended by my colleagues in the devolved Administrations.
It must be stressed that any future facility-siting process will be a wholly new process, divorced from the historical Nirex process. Lessons have been learned from that. We are also determined that the new approach will be carried out from the beginning in an open and transparent way, with appropriate opportunity for public and stakeholder, as well as expert, involvement. In light of that further work, the Government will produce an implementation framework and publish it for consultation as soon as possible next year.
This announcement and the more detailed response that I am publishing today—copies of which have been placed in the Library—complete stage 2 of the “Managing Radioactive Waste Safely” programme. We are now entering stage 3: planning for implementation. We aim to be able to move to stage 4—the final implementation stage—in 2008, and we are confident that the sharing of information and viewpoints, and the transparency of the CoRWM process, will have been maintained.
The CoRWM report states:
“For over three decades, efforts to find solutions to the problem of long-term radioactive waste management in the UK have failed.”
Governments of all parties have struggled to develop a long-term approach to the problem that is founded on science and then driven by openness and transparency. I believe that the content of my statement today combines scientific rigour with clear accountability, and I commend it to the House.
I begin by thanking the Secretary of State for his statement, and for letting me have prior notice of its content. I also echo his comments on Gordon MacKerron and the members of his committee—the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management. They have undertaken a difficult, complex and sensitive task with skill and refreshing transparency. I therefore broadly welcome the fact that the Government have decided to proceed in accordance with the committee’s recommendations.
There are sharply differing views in the House on whether it is desirable or necessary to build new nuclear capacity. However, I trust that we can all agree that there is now an urgent need to find a long-term, secure solution to the problems posed by historic nuclear waste. Whether we like it or not, it is there and it has to be dealt with. Successive Governments have put off confronting that issue for far too long.
The Government have accepted CoRWM’s recommendation that geological disposal is the best available approach to the long-term management of all the material categorised as waste. They have also accepted that a robust programme of interim storage must play an integral part in the long-term management strategy. They are right to have done so.
What is likely to cause more controversy is the decision to give the responsibility for planning, implementing and managing that process to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority rather than to a new independent body. Is there not a danger that conflicts of interest will arise from the fact that the NDA, which owns the waste and existing sites, will also, under the Government’s plans, be responsible for implementing the geological disposal? How will the Secretary of State ensure that, in selecting the sites for storage, the NDA will not only act, but be seen to act, with complete impartiality?
The Secretary of State has rightly emphasised the need for openness and transparency throughout the next stages of the process. Is there not a risk that not only the transparency but the integrity of the whole process will be compromised by the decision to place it, effectively, in the hands of the industry? I strongly urge the Government to look again at this part of their plans; the Secretary of State will understand that it is absolutely essential that the procedures that they adopt are beyond reproach and, as far as possible, beyond controversy.
This aspect of the Government’s plans has already called into question the Secretary of State’s green credentials—and I know that he is very sensitive about them. There is a case for the implementation of the plans to bury nuclear waste to be overseen by a body that is clearly independent of the nuclear industry. I know that he will refer in his reply to the statutory regulators, but there will undoubtedly be concerns that that is not enough.
In respect of locating the disposal sites, the Secretary of State has indicated that he is keen to explore the concept of voluntarism. He is right to do that, but what indication has he received so far from local authorities that they would be willing to enter into negotiations on becoming host communities for nuclear waste? Also, what thought has he given to the scale and nature of any inducements that might be offered to local communities that agree to take such waste?
I am pleased that the Government have set out a timetable, although I note that it is described as “indicative”. Given the length of time that we have all already waited for this announcement, it would have been better if they had set out a firm timetable today. Although safety must be paramount, and there is no case whatever for a rushed job, there is an urgent need to make progress, and CoRWM has mapped out how to do that.
Finally, I have looked in vain for any indication of the likely cost of the Government’s proposal. Surely the Secretary of State would not have made today’s statement without having any notion of what the proposal will cost to implement in the short, medium and long term. I should be grateful if he shared that information with us and with the taxpayer. Out of which budget will the costs be met? It is hard to believe that the costs will fall to beleaguered DEFRA, which is cutting its budget to make up for the cost of incompetent management.
Overall, we welcome the announcement, which takes forward an important and serious issue that, shamefully, has remained unaddressed for far too long.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the serious tenor of his remarks and the engaged way in which he has tried to address the subject. One major issue, to which I shall return later, is the misapprehension on his part that the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority is anything other than a creature of this House. In fact, it was created under the Energy Act 2004, so it is not a creature of the industry.
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman that we must applaud and build on the work of CoRWM, and he is absolutely right to say that this issue should not divide people according to whether they are for or against any further nuclear build. He is also right to say—he could hardly be wrong—that we must both proceed with due speed and not rush he job. He was taking no risks in setting that out. I have yet to be approached by any local authorities, but I know that Members have signalled in debates in this Chamber and elsewhere that their communities are interested in those discussions.
I made it clear that we would give further details on the site selection process next year, which somewhat gives the lie to the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that we do not have a forward timetable. Financing obviously needs to be considered by the Government, rather than just one Department—and certainly not just mine. That is what we propose to do, in close consultation with the Department of Trade and Industry and other interested parties, not least the Department for Communities and Local Government.
As I said, the NDA was set up only two years ago by this House, so the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that we should have yet another new body, which would further complicate an already very difficult set of issues, does not seem—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman recommended setting up another new body, but our and the regulator’s argument is that it needs a singular focus to achieve the accountability that is being delivered. The NDA works not for the industry but for this House and this Parliament, which gave it a very clear mandate to serve the public interest. So the hon. Gentleman should look again at the 2004 Act—I am not sure whether his party voted for or against it, but my memory is that it enjoyed wide cross-party support. It is certainly quite wrong to suggest anything other than that the NDA is driven by the Act under which it was set up.
We on the Liberal Democrat Benches welcome the commitment to deep geological disposal as the least bad solution to the legacy of nuclear waste. However, we were slightly surprised by the statement, in that the Secretary of State congratulated—rightly—CoRWM and its chairman, Gordon MacKerron, on the work done, but then said that it is to be reconstituted. So on the one hand, CoRWM has done a good job, and on the other, it is being sacked. That is perhaps as bizarre a decision as the Prime Minister’s decision, following the incompetent implementation of the single farm payment, to promote the Secretary of State’s predecessor and put her in charge of Britain’s foreign policy.
May we please have a clear commitment from the Secretary of State that the distinction that CoRWM draws in its report—it was not picked up on in today’s statement—between dealing with the legacy of our waste and any new decision should be very clear? There should be no assumption that the decision taken today to set in process the means of dealing with that legacy will set a precedent for dealing with new waste. There should be no licence to create new waste from new power stations.
I am also concerned that the statement is rather mealy-mouthed about a key recommendation of CoRWM that there should be a commitment to voluntarism, and no imposition of radioactive waste on any community. The Secretary of State said in his statement:
“We have made it clear that we are not seeking to impose radioactive waste on any community. In this context, we are strongly supportive of exploring the concept of voluntarism and partnership”.
Many communities would be much happier if the Secretary of State could tell us clearly that no community will have radioactive waste imposed on it against its will.
Finally, I agree very much with the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) about the merger of Nirex with the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. Clearly, the build-up of skills in Nirex, to which the Secretary of State referred in his statement, is at risk of being lost in an organisation that has a financial incentive to deliver decommissioning at the lowest possible cost, rather than on the basis of safety or environmental concerns. That seems bad for safety and the environment, and it represents a considerable setback for the Secretary of State in dealing with the interests of the nuclear industry and the Treasury with regard to environmental protection.
In contrast to the official Opposition’s spokesman, the Liberal Democrat spokesman has distinguished himself by his failure, first, to read the CoRWM report and, secondly, to remember that my statement today is made jointly with the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. In the Scottish Parliament, the relevant Minister, who is a Liberal Democrat, has taken a responsible attitude. That tells me, first, that the Liberal Democrats say different things to different people and, secondly, that the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) will never miss an opportunity to be a complete opportunist. Let me run through his wholly tendentious points.
The hon. Gentleman suggested that we were sacking CoRWM. CoRWM itself recommended that a successor body should be appointed. That is what we are doing. We are also keeping in place the current membership of CoRWM until the new body is established. That seems a completely common-sense decision, and the total opposite of his insinuation.
On new waste, the hon. Gentleman again seems to have failed to read the CoRWM report, which says clearly that the technical arguments applied to dealing with existing waste apply just as well to future waste. Deliberately, CoRWM does not take a position on the desirability or otherwise of any future nuclear capacity. It does, however, address the technical arguments. I can say clearly that the principles underpinning the CoRWM report and my statement—those in respect of geological disposal and governance—not only could but should be the basis of future decision making about new waste.
On voluntarism, given that I made it clear that the former Nirex list is truly dead and buried, and that there is every commitment to make voluntarism—or partnership, as it is sometimes called—work in practice, I cannot understand how the hon. Gentleman thought that my statement was mealy-mouthed.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman complained that the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority is subject to independent regulation but, within that, should seek to maximise value for money for the taxpayer. That seems to me to be a completely reasonable position for any authority. The opposite is to say that, within the safety constraints, which are paramount, it should not seek to maximise value for money. That seems a completely ridiculous position. It has been made absolutely clear that the regulators will be able to regulate that model in a strong, effective manner. Anyone who wants to suggest an alternative will have to show me that the regulators will be as happy with such a model as they are with this one.
I admire my right hon. Friend’s courage in finally getting to grips with the legacy of our radioactive waste. The question dates back to the Flowers report of 1976, in which Professor Flowers said that an independent body tasked with storing Britain’s nuclear waste was needed. Many environmentalists are concerned that the body responsible for the ownership of our legacy waste is institutionally linked to the body responsible for storing that waste. That was clearly the view of my right hon. Friend’s predecessor when she made Nirex independent. Does he share my concern that the public might feel that in merging Nirex with the NDA there might be on occasion an attempt to store waste on the cheap? Does he agree that it is vital to retain public confidence as we go forward in disposing of Britain’s radioactive waste?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend that we must retain public confidence. The conflict of interest to which he refers could arise only were there no independent regulation by the Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive, and no independent ongoing scrutiny by a body such as CoRWM, which is being reconstituted on the basis announced today. On that basis, we can proceed with confidence, because the regulators, working in a totally independent way, will ensure that the public interest is met. Similarly, a new independent committee will provide confidence to Parliament and others that the process has integrity, above all, for the protection of our environment, not just for this generation but for future ones.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement because it addresses not only the issue of legacy waste but some of the underpinning matters affecting the future of our nuclear industry. In his statement, he mentioned the phrase, “geologically suitable area”. He acknowledged that the Nirex list of locations may be dead, but can he say more about the process to be undertaken to determine which areas will be “geologically suitable” for disposal, bearing in mind Nirex’s work and that the answer to that question will be profound for those who wish to volunteer?
Obviously, it is in no one’s interest that a community with completely unsuitable geological foundations should go through a long and laborious process without being informed of the scientific basis. In my statement, I talked about the need to mesh the voluntarist principle with the best scientific advice about where is appropriate. The sort of discussions that I have described, which I want to start with potential communities, can bring together the best scientific advice with expressions of interest in a way that ensures that we have not a sequence of impositions, but a dialogue and conversation that uses the science instead of imposing it.
As the Member of Parliament whose constituency currently houses all the nation’s low-level waste, 70 per cent. of its intermediate-level waste and all its high-level waste, I comprehensively welcome today’s recommendations and the work done by the Secretary of State. For the best part of 10 years, one of the principal obstacles to the effective implementation of radioactive waste policy in this country has been the existence of Nirex, which, as an organisation, is without credibility or trustworthiness—[Interruption.] I say that as a former employee, and I know what I am talking about. How long will it be before the incomparable intellectual property and skills of the Nirex work force are transferred to the NDA?
As I hope I made clear in my statement, the jewel in the Nirex crown is its staff and their skill, commitment and intellect. After the short consultation period on the legal transfer that needs to be undertaken, I want to ensure that the NDA and Nirex work closely together so that Nirex staff are brought into the NDA fold in the most appropriate manner. My hon. Friend may raise this question later, but there is no reason, in our view, for any discussion of compulsory redundancies or anything like that. There is a full commitment to a full transfer of Nirex staff on a TUPE basis.
I hope that not just Members on both sides of the House but all players in the arena, whether they represent regulators, Nirex or any other body, will send Nirex staff the message that we want to do right by them, because they are critical to the future success on which this process depends.
I join my colleagues in thanking the Secretary of State for his statement. May I return him to the comment of the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson) about the independence of those charged with overseeing the burial and refer him to what has been going on in Caithness, at Dounreay, where a geological burial site exploded in the mid-1990s, sending huge amounts of radioactive material into the bay? The United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority then spent all its time lying and denying that any such thing had happened. Since then the problem has worsened—there has been contamination on the beach.
The public need to be confident that what happens will happen with transparency, openness and full accountability. Will the Secretary of State now say that any mistakes that occurred in the past will be cleared up by future Governments and that there will be independence in the oversight?
I want to respond positively to that question. Of course, any Government must make up for errors, dreadful or otherwise, that have been perpetrated in the past. It is precisely because of experiences such as those in the mid-1990s that we need the reforms that we are announcing today. It is precisely because of that lack of transparency that we want to ensure not just independent regulation, but independent oversight. Although there have not been many questions about the independent oversight body, I think that our experience of CoRWM is of a body that, without fear or favour, has asked tough questions of all parts of the industry and all parts of Government. I welcome that, and I think that it must continue.
I am somewhat surprised that there has been no mention of the controversy in CoRWM itself. An all-party group of Members met two of the scientists who walked out of CoRWM because they felt that the scientific evidence was not being taken seriously. They could not understand how a view could be taken on risk management without geological, hydrological and climate-change expertise. Will the Secretary of State guarantee that whatever reconstituted body replaces CoRWM, the areas of scientific expertise that are essential to the risk assessment process will be incorporated before we reach the risk management stage?
I think that I am right in saying that one of the two resignations from the committee occurred not because there was too little discussion of the science, but because there was too much and it was taking too long. However, I shall be happy to write to my hon. Friend if that would be helpful. As for his second question about the future composition of CoRWM, I want it to have as broad a base and as deep a knowledge base as possible. I think it essential for all views and expertise to be represented there, and that is what we shall try to achieve.
The Secretary of State has said that the new process will be completely divorced from the old Nirex process, but given the type of disposal that is being discussed, is it not inevitable that the new body will opt for the same or similar sites as Nirex? Can the Secretary of State tell me whether Scotland has been ruled out as a site for a long-term repository?
The ball is not in the scientists’ court; it is in the community’s court, and the first move must come from communities that are interested in participating in the programme. That seems to me to be the right order. As for the devolved Administrations, they are, as I have said, publishing similar statements today—in fact, exactly the same statement—and they will be proceeding with the process.
As the Secretary of State knows, his statement was made against the background of the sale of British Nuclear Group, announced yesterday by the Department of Trade and Industry. Will he confirm that two key principles will always be foremost in his mind and those of his colleagues? First, the national interest should be of paramount importance; secondly, there should be a key role for the public sector rather than for a series of privatised organisations, particularly those whose ownership is abroad.
I consider it essential for the process to be driven by the national interest and by a public body. That is precisely why the NDA will play the role that I have described. As I have said, it was created by Parliament with express purposes. When it comes to the appointment of contractors, its best-practice model is the running of open competitions. I think that I am right in saying that that procedure is now proceeding satisfactorily and appropriately in respect of lower-level waste at Drigg.
Following the excellent CoRWM report and his welcome statement, will the Secretary of State be sure to take on board the experience of Finland and France in particular? They made it very clear that consultation and the building of public confidence do not come free but are expensive educational options, and that public funds provided for the purpose are not a bribe when there is accountability and transparency. That should apply both to this long-overdue disposal of nuclear waste and to the position when we proceed, as we undoubtedly will, to the next generation of nuclear power production.
The hon. Gentleman has made an important point, and he is absolutely right. Anyone who reads the CoRWM report will see how much time and effort CoRWM devoted to engaging not just with scientific experts, but with members of the public with no expertise, and will recognise that time and money were well spent.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned France and Finland in one breath. While I would like to learn from the experience of both countries, I would not wish to give the impression that they are the same. The Finns are adopting what might be described as a consensual or voluntarist approach, while the French have a Napoleonic tradition that is rather more dictatorial, or at least centralist.
Does my right hon. Friend intend the reconstituted CoRWM to undertake a separate assessment of the disposal of nuclear waste from new nuclear build? If so, does he also intend to develop a paradigm of what that separate assessment might consist of? I am thinking not just of the technical aspects, but of the costs that will be involved, including the opportunity costs of new nuclear waste riding on the back, as it were, of the disposal of existing nuclear waste in new sites.
The CoRWM report deals with that question. It says that on technical grounds there is no requirement for another assessment. However, if there were a decision in favour of new nuclear build, the inventory of waste would depend on the type of build. That inventory would be critical to the method of waste disposal, but according to the report no new technical assessment is needed. What we must ensure is that discussions with potential partner communities are open and transparent about what they would receive.
The Secretary of State mentioned societal considerations. Does that include recognition that the purposes for which national parks such as Northumberland national park were created are inconsistent with their use for nuclear disposal? What options and procedures would be open to any section of the community that believed that a site was being imposed on it?
Surely Nirex’s work in identifying suitable geological areas is still valid today, unless my right hon. Friend is saying that the commissioners of the original report placed political constraints on it. If the geological analysis remains valid, can we not today identify the geography that would encompass potential sites? Would they not be predominantly in areas identified by Nirex in the first place?
I shall not cast aspersions on work that has been done by Nirex, because that would not be right. Over the past 10 years, the board and staff have made serious efforts, on which we want to build. Indeed, we want to build on all relevant information. The Nirex list turned out to be quite long and we want to learn from that. The scientific evidence is there for anyone to work from, but the important founding principle that I have tried to enunciate today is that the starting point is the interests of the host community, rather than the science.
Governments of all kinds have moved with geological speed on this issue over many decades, so I welcome the statement insofar as it goes. Given the need to restart the nuclear programme, which the Government have signalled elsewhere, will the Secretary of State widen his invitation to local authorities to include not only long-term storage, but other aspects of the programme such as decommissioning, short-term storage and even the search for new sites? Is he aware that Sedgemoor district council in Somerset has already had informal discussions with the NDA with a view to bringing tangible benefits for local people from other aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle?
I am not aware of Sedgemoor district council’s approach to the NDA, but it is welcome in the context that I have set out today. It is important to emphasise that the statement is about high-level waste, which raises particular issues of interim and long-term storage. In respect of other procedures, the process that the right hon. Gentleman describes is welcome, but I would like to believe that we are ensuring that the first principle at every stage is public safety, enforced by independent regulators. That is key to the whole process.
Will my right hon. Friend make it clear that, despite claims by one environmental non-governmental organisation, there are no plans to dispose of high-level nuclear waste in Nottinghamshire’s collieries or former collieries? Given the notion of voluntarism that he has espoused and the real geological difficulties in the area, the issue should be as dead as a dodo.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s emphasis on both safety and security in his statement, but I was a little surprised not to hear any mention of the civil nuclear constabulary, of which I am a great admirer. The geological disposal scheme will add considerably to the headaches that that organisation will have to face. What plans does the Secretary of State have either to expand it or reform it, and where will the money come from?
For obvious reasons, we do not have widespread discussion of the counter-terrorism measures that we take in respect of those sites. The work that is done by the constabulary is very important, but it would not be judicious to venture further into that area. However, many people believe that long-term geological disposal is by far the safest security option, compared with the interim storage we have at present.
I heard what my right hon. Friend had to say about the CoRWM report in relation to new waste from a new generation of stations, but when the Trade and Industry Committee took evidence we were told that the radioactive waste would not be of as great a volume, but would be much more radioactive than that from the existing stations. That has implications for geological disposal. Will my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Minister for Energy continue to try to reach some understanding that no new build should take place unless the appropriate geological depository is in place?
I acknowledge my hon. Friend’s long-term interest in the issue. It has certainly been the case that the failure to come to terms with a waste-disposal option has blighted the discussion of nuclear power in this country and I hope that today’s statement will allow us to debate the pros and cons of nuclear power with the waste issue in a different context. The discussions that he mentions should continue, and he is right about the difference between volume and activity, but CoRWM made it clear that in technical terms the principles that it set out would continue to apply. It is important to emphasise, however, that it did not take a view on the desirability or otherwise of new nuclear build.
To say that Nirex is based in my constituency might be a better way to put it. I hope that the Secretary of State will move as quickly as possible to reassure my constituents who work for Nirex about their future. I simply cannot understand why the Secretary of State has made this decision. On the one hand, he says that it is because of the potentially overlapping responsibilities with the NDA, and on the other he tells the Liberal Democrat spokesman that it is a cost-cutting measure. The Secretary of State also claims that he wants to retain the expertise and the jewel in the crown status of Nirex. He should save much time and effort and keep Nirex as an independent body that gives independent advice on one of the most important issues in the country—the safe disposal of high-level nuclear waste.
I wish to correct the hon. Gentleman on one point. The fundamental issue that has weighed with me and my colleagues from the DTI and elsewhere when we discuss this issue is that it is far more effective to regulate one organisation that is responsible across the whole cycle than it is to regulate two organisations with overlapping responsibilities. The discussion that I had with the Liberal Democrat spokesman about costs was in a different context and it is wrong for the hon. Gentleman to suggest otherwise. I hope that he will join me in sending the important message to his constituents that the work they do is invaluable, and the skills they have need to be preserved and delivered in the most effective way in the new organisation.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the design of any repository will ensure that the waste is indefinitely retrievable and that any design that proposed sealing the waste would be rejected? Is he inclined to build on the recommendation from the royal commission on environmental pollution that the nation’s plutonium stockpile should be defined as waste?
On the first question, the CoRWM report addressed the issue of retrievability in some depth. I do not know whether my hon. Friend considers 100 years to be a short or long time, but CoRWM said that retrievability would be preserved for up to 100 years. In the context of nuclear waste that would last for 10,000 years, it proposed that after about 100 years—I do not suppose that it intends to be kept to the month—there should be a ceiling on the waste emplacement. That is the best scientific advice, although I do not know whether that will reassure my hon. Friend.
In respect of the royal commission on environmental pollution, we have responded to that at length and I am happy to go into details with my hon. Friend on another occasion. The report made 36 recommendations and we should perhaps consider them in a different context.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on facing up to this vexed issue, and not before time. In terms of the way in which cost is apportioned, does he think that a distinction should be made between the legacy waste from, for example, the nuclear weapons development programme and the waste directly generated by power generation?
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is referring to new build, because we have made it clear that waste costs should be incorporated into any new plans. The costing exercises are difficult and complex, and as they emerge I hope that they will show in the round how the nation can face up to the long-term financial as well as scientific challenge.
May I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement today? I wish to register an interest as I am chairman of the all-party nuclear energy group. From that, the House may gather that I am pro-nuclear.
Although I share some of the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson) about putting everything into the NDA, my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr. Reed) assures me that that is the right way to go, and I look forward to examining the arguments as time goes on. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) that it is important to have retrievable waste that one day, when we are more technologically aware and expert, we might be able to use as an energy source. In addition, I hope that my right hon. Friend will ignore the chirpings from Liberal Democrat Front-Bench Members, who make the sort of noises in this House that the Scottish National party makes in Scotland.
Will my right hon. Friend allay my fears about the openness and transparency that the entire industry—as well as both Opposition and Labour Members—says are so necessary? Does he agree that it is important that we know what is going on at every stage?
My hon. Friend speaks on this issue with considerable expertise, and I completely agree with him—I want that openness and transparency as much as he and the Opposition do. What is going on should be transparent to me, as Secretary of State, but also to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, to the House and to the wider public. If anything has been made clear by the 30-plus years of what CoRWM calls failure, it is that a secretive approach—sometimes described as “decide, announce, defend”, although it often became “decide, announce, defend, abandon”—does not work. We must have full openness at every stage, and public confidence is critical.
I appreciate that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) wants to look at the details, and I said in my statement that a detailed response to all of CoRWM’s recommendations has been made available to the House. It contains more detail than I was able to supply in my statement. If my hon. Friend reads that, he will see that the Government are committed to transparency and to independent and rigorous scrutiny and intervention by the statutory regulators, which are the only bodies with statutory responsibility in these matters at the moment. Although Nirex has played an important role in advising the industry, it does not have any statutory powers. The independent regulators are the only bodies with statutory powers, either under the current system or in the future. I believe that that is the right approach, and the existence of an additional oversight committee made up of scientists and lay people means that we have an important double lock on these matters.
I share the admiration expressed already for the courage shown by my right hon. Friend, but despite his assurances about the independence of the oversight, what is the rationale behind designing an infrastructure that contains an obvious and inherent financial conflict of interest and then saying that everything will be all right because it will be regulated? He had an opportunity to set up an organisation that was clearly and obviously independent.
The hon. Gentleman calls that nonsense, but if he thinks that regulating two organisations with overlapping responsibilities would help the regulatory process, enhance transparency and tackle confusion, I am afraid that he will have to return to the land of the living.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon) made an important point. The NDA structure contains clear checks and balances, as set out in debates held in this House and in the legislation that we have passed. That is the best safeguard for the sort of independent, effective and properly regulated waste management system that we need.
Local Planning Authorities (Energy Generation and Efficiency) Bill
Colin Challen presented a Bill to enable local authorities to make requirements for energy saving in local development plans and in the determination of planning applications; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 17 November, and to be printed [Bill 232].