Motion to Take Note
My Lords, before discussing the Science and Technology Select Committee’s report, Radioactive Waste Management: a further update, I wish to compliment the coalition and the previous Government on their firm support for nuclear power as a major component in the UK’s energy strategy. At last, we seem to be moving forward and the Minister and the Government are to be congratulated.
The Revised Draft National Policy Statement for Nuclear Power Generation (EN-6) identifies eight sites that are judged by the Government potentially to be suitable for new power stations before 2025. We are told in paragraph B.4.1 of annexe B of EN-6 that the first such station is expected to start generating electricity in 2018. This would not set any records in terms of timescale. Anne Lauvergeon, CEO of Areva, told us in a Royal Academy of Engineering lecture last week that the Chinese are building power stations in 48 months, but China’s ability to focus with singular determination is unlikely to be achievable in this country, or in fact in any of our competitor nations in the west. However, after more than two decades, we are at least on the move.
That is particularly gratifying to the members of the Science and Technology Select Committee. For more than a decade, the committee has been on record as supporting nuclear power as the most predictably affordable source of low-carbon electricity. We have long held the view that, without it, the expense of meeting our carbon reduction targets would be impossible. To get this far, it has been important to change the public perception of the risks of nuclear power and, especially, to persuade people that it is possible safely to dispose of the various grades of waste that will be produced in the new plants. Again, significant progress has been made in the past few years through the efforts both of the many engineering and science organisations and of this and the previous Government, so to a large extent most of the political obstacles that have prevented us from even getting started have been removed.
We need, however, to be continually vigilant that transparency is maintained so that public superstition is not reawakened, and we must be aware that we are yet actually to do anything practical in terms of geological storage. The scale of what has to be done is huge and it is necessary that we dispel what has appeared to be a sense of complacency and replace it with a sense of urgency. This is perhaps the main point that I wish to make this afternoon. Some of the targets laid out in EN-6 for getting solutions in place for storing waste are too late.
Turning to the committee’s report, let me here express my thanks and appreciation to the noble Lords who will be speaking in this debate, despite the fact that it has been scheduled late on Thursday afternoon. At the end of 2009, the Science and Technology Select Committee decided, largely because we were concerned about the perceived complacency, that we would look at the matter once again and conduct a short inquiry. This was the fifth time that the committee had reported on the subject of radioactive waste management—the first was in 1999. As there was little point in repeating what had already been said, it was decided to limit the inquiry to assessing how the reconstructed Committee on Radioactive Waste Management—CoRWM—had performed over the previous two years and gauging its impact on the implementation of the Government’s managing radioactive waste safely—MRWS—programme.
We limited ourselves to a single evidence-taking session. We were fortunate that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, the then Minister for Energy and Climate Change in DECC and his colleagues were able to answer our questions as were the chairman of CoRWM, Professor Robert Pickard, and his colleagues. I thank them all for their time and for their submissions to the committee. Subsequently, in November 2010, we received the Government’s response to our report from the new Government’s Minister of State in DECC, Mr Charles Hendry. It is Mr Hendry’s response that I will address today. I also thank and acknowledge Christine Salmon, clerk to the Science and Technology Committee, and her colleagues for supporting the committee so well, and especially Antony Willott, clerk to the sub-committee that conducted the inquiry, and from whose clear and concise drafts the report emerged.
The first three recommendations in the report concern how we feel the Government should respond to recommendations made by CoRWM. We urge the Government to act—and be seen to act—upon CoRWM’s recommendations that the Government should publish an annual report setting out what action has been taken towards meeting CoRWM’s other recommendations and also enable CoRWM to effectively monitor the Government’s progress in implementing its recommendations.
It was gratifying that Mr Hendry in his response committed to producing an annual report to Parliament which will be published, with copies provided to CoRWM as well as other stakeholders. The response said that the report will include progress towards meeting the commitments given by Government as a result of CoRWM’s recommendations, as well as indications of progress towards milestones. However, there is no mention of this in EN-6. Paragraph B.3.7—in volume II of the revised draft national policy statement—says that,
“the Government … will provide annual reports to Parliament on the progress of the MRWS programme”,
but it does not mention CoRWM. I hope that this is an oversight and I would like the Minister to reassure us that the report will describe specifically what has been done to meet CoRWM’s recommendations. CoRWM is the independent body that the public will want to see is being listened to. The MRWS is a Government-driven programme, so reassurance that everything is going according to plan will come best from CoRWM. Let us not forget the lesson that we have learned about transparency and openness in communicating with the public.
Several of our recommendations relate to the need to develop a sense of urgency in the implementation of the MRWS programme and in the time-line for the programme. The NDA’s present plan is to place the first waste, which will be intermediate-level legacy waste, in a geological disposal facility in 2040. This is based on taking four years to complete desk-based studies of potential candidate sites, 10 years of seismic surveys and borehole investigations and 15 years of underground operations, including research, initial construction and commissioning. It is also pointed out that the overall timing will depend on the communities involved in the process. This schedule should be re-examined with the intent of introducing as much parallelism as possible. It should certainly be possible to pursue planning and consultation at the same time that several of the technical issues are being investigated. It should not be necessary to do everything sequentially.
The first high-level legacy waste will not be stored until 2075. Rather incredibly, EN-6 states that waste from new nuclear plants will not be placed in geological storage until 2130, when the storage of legacy waste has been completed. Setting dates 119 years ahead is bizarre. It would be like making plans for future telegraph systems in 1892, seven years before JJ Thomson discovered the electron. Nobody then, even in their wildest dreams, could have predicted that in 2011 there would be an internet based on optical fibres, silicon and glass switches called transistors, and magnetic and optical storage of books and moving pictures, any more than we can, with any credibility, predict where we will be in 2130, other than to say that if we have not completed the storage of our existing legacy waste by then we must surely have chosen the wrong method.
All of what I have been saying so far has related to geological storage, but it is also important to have a more detailed time-line for intermediate storage so that CoRWM can monitor this as well as the progress towards geological storage. There is some confusion about this in the government response, which says,
“it is not envisaged that detailed interim storage milestones will be included”,
in the NDA plans, but it goes on to say,
“an Integrated Project Team (IPT) made up of NDA, Site Licensing Companies and other waste owners … has a clear work programme as well as agreed milestones”.
I ask the Minister please to clarify the situation with respect to the availability of a comprehensive time-line for intermediate waste storage.
At present there are several different forms of intermediate storage and it is important that rapid progress is made with all of them. This is particularly important for the legacy waste, especially that stored in the water tanks at Sellafield which present such huge difficulties. This waste will have to be removed to intermediate storage before it can be placed in geological storage. The risks of leaving the waste where it is are considerable and must be reduced. I ask the Minister, in clarifying the time-line for intermediate waste storage, to be specific about when the content of these water tanks will be removed and placed in safer containers and the tanks themselves demolished. I appreciate that the Minister may not have this information at hand, but it would be very useful if the committee could have this.
The Select Committee is concerned that there be a co-ordinated and adequately funded R&D programme for radioactive waste, especially for higher activity waste disposal. The committee noted that the first recommendation in CoRWM’s October 2009 report on R&D was that,
“Government ... ensures that there is strategic co-ordination of UK R&D for the management of higher activity wastes”.
I was troubled therefore to read the Government's response to this recommendation in their November 2010 response to the CoRWM report, which goes on for three pages describing the plethora of committees and advisory bodies that were responsible for co-ordinating R&D and concludes in paragraph 3.10 that there is the need to which I have referred. The paragraph states:
“The Government will consider with the NDA whether a re-focussed Board can determine how best to get broader strategic coordination”.
I would be grateful if the Minister could give us an update on progress in co-ordinating R&D.
Finally, we recommended that CoRWM formally provides the Government with independent advice on draft, as well as established, policies that have implications for the management of radioactive waste, and we note with pleasure that this has been largely accepted.
To end on another positive note, most of the issues that we have had with the way in which CoRWM prepares its reports have been resolved, and overall we commend CoRWM for its rigorous approach to evidence gathering and stakeholder engagement. It is pleasing that the Select Committee's concerns about the lack of members with experience of business and practical on-site operations and engineering have also been resolved. I beg to move.
I am happy to follow the noble Lord, Lord Broers, who was a most effective chairman in the short period that we had to look at this issue. The fact that this was one of a continuum of investigations into this difficult area does not necessarily mean that progress has not been made. However, when one realises that the report was published on 25 March 2010, the Government responded on 9 October 2010 and we are debating this on 10 February 2011, one gets a sense that there is a wee bit of frustration about this topic.
The noble Lord, Lord Broers, in his remarks today and in the publication of the report, reflected our concern about the apparent lack of urgency. In some respects, this is still the story with CoRWM. However, looking back to when CoRWM was first established, the seeds of doubt were certainly sowed in my mind that at that time its establishment was a device of the then Labour Government Ministers to give credence to the argument that in the absence of a clear and proper strategy for waste disposal and storage no more nuclear power stations should be built in this country. That is an assertion that we still hear echoed on certain parts of the opposition Benches; but I will not go any further down that road today.
Suffice to say, timetables have always apparently been relaxed, procedures have sometimes been unnecessarily rigorous, and programmes have always been long term. I know that there have been changes in personnel and that timescales have been shortened. Perhaps the leisurely approach to this intellectually challenging subject is not quite as relaxed and easy as it once was. Regarding our first recommendation, in which we spoke of the need for effective action, it is certainly fair to say that part of that challenge has been met by the public expenditure settlement that the Government arrived at with the NDA. There is now a clear basis of leadership in the NDA and a secure sense of budgetary security within the agency and it is therefore able to see the future that much more clearly.
It is also worth pointing out that the Government are consulting. I give them credit for that. I suppose that I should declare an interest as the chair of the Nuclear Industries Association. There is also fixed-price decommissioning and waste transfer pricing. The cognoscenti certainly know what I am talking about. It relates to a consultation document about the future pricing of electricity, which will take account of the new-build waste that will be part of what the storage facilities will have to accommodate.
We know that a far clearer view is emerging on how to deal with the waste. In some respects, there was always a clear view, in so far as there were examples from Sweden and Finland of how the waste could be treated and stored effectively. The confidence with which the Finns are going ahead, despite their difficulties with the construction of their nuclear plant, is based on the knowledge that they are happy that they are able to deal with their new nuclear waste. The problem, hinted at by the noble Lord, Lord Broers, is that we have the prospect not only of new waste from new power stations, but of sizeable amounts of waste from Magnox stations, and even greater amounts from our nuclear weapons programme. Some of the liability will become an asset if we are able successfully to address the challenges which a new Mox plant would create. Building a Mox plant that can transform some of the waste into Mox fuel for future use in our new power stations will be of considerable assistance and will reduce some of the burden of waste which we have to confront.
That brings me on to the timescale. In some respects, we as a committee were disappointed that we were being told, in a sense, that, “Everything will be all right. There will be four more years of desk-based analysis; then we will have test bores and the like for another 10 years. In the interim period, we will probably have the acceptance of sites by local communities; and then we will have 15 years until the waste is received—taking us until 2040”. It seemed to me and to a number of my colleagues in the committee that little attention was paid to the possibility of reprocessing waste, of improvements in mining technology or of geological storage. The noble Lord, Lord Broers, very eloquently showed off his scientific expertise in the context of telecommunications. I was able to point out that it seems daft that we are talking about a number of the challenges not being met for another 120 years. One of our concerns—it has in part been addressed by government—related to the composition of the committee. I have no complaint about the appointment of the people who are on it, but I thought that others should have been on it—people with not just geoscience qualifications but experience in finance, project management and risk management who could give a realistic idea of what work the implementation of the science would involve. I know that the Government are going some way in seeking to deal with that, and I hope that we can get a better balance in the committee. That is not a criticism of its membership; it is just that I think the membership base has been too narrow.
I certainly welcome the undertaking that there will be ministerial involvement in the Geological Disposal Implementation Board because it is important that there is political accountability throughout this process. Although we have been able to secure in the Government’s response some measure of acceptance of the need for greater transparency, the presence of a Minister on a board of this nature is of some significance.
With regard to the role of CoRWM and the fact that it has to give independent advice to government, we know that there has sometimes been over-rigorous preparation of papers—perhaps I may use the expression “over-engineering”. Sometimes perhaps it has elaborated and deliberated rather longer than it needed to. However, we certainly also have to recognise that a degree of caution must be exercised when papers are being published in what might well be regarded as draft form. We were somewhat worried that, when papers emerge into the public domain and the word “draft” is written on them in very light pencil, that can create a lot of confusion. “Caution” is one of the watchwords that we always have to bear in mind when we deal with nuclear matters. We have to be careful not to frighten people unnecessarily. On the one hand, it is exciting and important that the science and the challenges that science offers can be embraced, but equally we have to avoid leaving ourselves open to sniping from people who are always prepared to challenge every aspect of nuclear, whether a challenge is merited or not.
I do not want to appear carping in my criticism of the delay in the Government’s response. Having been the chair of a Select Committee in the other place, I know that we used to try to screw them down to a six-week response period. However, there has been a change of government—there have even been changes of policy within ministries in recent months—so there is a reason for the delay. In some respects, we are able to debate this issue now knowing that the whole question of CoRWM and the work in which it is engaged will be on a sound financial footing. The NDA is going to be able to look at this in a far more constructive way than it has done before.
We see a clearer role for CoRWM in relation to this revitalised NDA and, therefore, if we can get a slightly more pragmatic approach, which is a little more urgent in character, we can begin to think of things more in the short term than we have in the past, so that 2040 might not seem quite so far away if it becomes 2035 for the best of reasons. It might be that the 120-year time span for the legacy to be completed and for other forms of waste to be stored could be reduced as well. I think that the work of CoRWM and the work of the Select Committee in producing the report will have gone some way to accelerating the process, which still needs a shove and constant monitoring.
I hope that this will not be the last debate that we have on this subject. I hope also that the successor Science and Technology Select Committee will have a similar inquiry in the future and that it will be even more positive than we have been so far.
My Lords, I genuinely welcome this report by the noble Lord, Lord Broers. I had not realised that this was the fifth in the series—I had counted up to three. I highly recommend that he keeps on the same track and that we have more, especially because of the timescale that has already been mentioned. Reading it afresh earlier this week, I found it quite strange because it referred to evidence from “the Minister” and that was the noble Lord, Lord Hunt. I wondered whether I had gone through a time warp or whether matters had changed yet again somehow. The fact that this report has taken almost a year is, as the noble Lord, Lord O’Neill, has said, a symptom of the problem, although I clearly understand that there was a general election in between.
This is a really important core subject. The previous Government were and this Government are entering into an era of new nuclear capacity, so there will be waste from that new industry. We already have significant waste from the current nuclear industry, the so-called legacy waste. I looked up how much we have and it is 1,700 cubic metres of high-level waste, 92,000 cubic metres of medium-level waste, rising to 3 million cubic metres of low-level waste. That is quite a challenge.
One thing that concerns me most about the nuclear industry is not so much security, important though that is, but the fact that we have not yet solved the problem of waste, not only from something that we have already created but also as regards the new era we are entering into. When we looked at the draft national policy statements for nuclear power generation, I was concerned that in part 2 of that report it simply said:
“Annex B of this NPS sets out how the Government has satisfied itself that effective arrangements will exist for the management and disposal of the wastes produced by new nuclear power stations”.
It goes on to say in another paragraph:
“The question of whether effective arrangements will exist to manage and dispose of the waste that will be produced from new nuclear power stations has therefore been addressed by the Government and the IPC should not consider this further”.
As a rational human being, let alone parliamentarian, that concerns me greatly. With this new programme, we already have a problem with waste, yet even in the planning process we assume that we have solved the problem when clearly we have not. That is why I welcome this report and I welcome very strongly the Government’s response to it, which I think has been extremely positive on the recommendations. I support the fact that CoRWM should become increasingly independent, that it should steer its own programme, that there should be milestones and transparency and that there should be an annual parliamentary report, which is particularly important because of the timescales.
I come back to timing, and the committee’s concern in its report that this matter is not given sufficient urgency. During debate in Grand Committee on the national policy statements, we were all shocked when my noble friend said, because the policy was inherited from the previous Government:
“The revised draft national policy statement reflects that we currently expect the geological disposal facility to be ready to take new build waste in 2130”.—[Official Report, 13/01/11; col. GC 151.]
Looking backwards, that is the equivalent of the 1890s. That is my greatest concern from the report. It begs the obvious question—I know that my noble friend has similar concerns—of where we now think that those timescales will lie. The year 2140 is not so far away, but if we are talking about another 120 years until we can cope with the waste created by new build, we have a real problem in our planning for the industry.
That is all I want to say about the report except to follow up some questions that arise from it, which have often been mentioned by other noble Lords. First, on waste minimisation, my noble friend said that he had commissioned a cost-benefit analysis of Mox. I would be interested to hear if he has an update of that. In waste disposal internationally, Finland has moved on with its Olkiluoto facility. Have the Government learnt any lessons from that which mean that our facilities can be brought forward? Are the Government thinking further about fusion technology? I know that there are all sorts of questions about that, but that is a way to use nuclear waste for further energy and to neutralise its effects. Lastly, I come back to the question of the timescale. It is not right that we move ahead with a new nuclear programme until we are a little more clear about how we are to clear up the mess that we have already created.
My Lords, I thank the Science and Technology Sub-Committee for its short report on the performance of CoRWM in the implementation of the managing radioactive waste safely programme. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Broers, on the excellent way in which he introduced the report. It has been a very useful and worthwhile assessment of this important policy area. We note that the Committee's recommendations have been welcomed and accepted by the Government.
With the Government's policy to re-emphasise new nuclear as a key element of the UK energy mix and the timetable for new plants to become operational, we on these Benches welcome the acceptance of the commitment to get on with the recommendations, and hope that effective action is implemented with greater urgency.
All speakers today have drawn attention to the general feeling that drift continues. The committee made two key recommendations to track progress and ensure that timeliness is maintained by the Government. The first is the publication of an annual report, and we welcome the committee's recommendation in this regard. In their response to the report, at paragraph 16, the Government said that they,
“will develop a clear high level timeline for publication”.
Can the Minister give us any update today on when the annual report will be published?
The second of those key recommendations is for milestones to be laid out for the monitoring of progress. Again at paragraph 16 of their response, the Government agree with this recommendation for the annual report,
“setting out indicative timescales and milestones on the programme of work”.
The committee's report, published in March 2010, said at paragraph 20 that it understood that the National Decommissioning Agency would shortly be publishing a document, Steps Towards Implementation. Can the Minister today update the House on progress of the publication of these documents? The noble Lord, Lord Broers, has also drawn attention to and expressed concern over the lack of publications coming forward. If the Government could be seen from the outset to be forthcoming in their commitments they would, through this transparency, build the confidence of the public.
The report also provided guidance to CoRWM with recommendations that it applies its usual rigorous approach to all publications; that it focuses its activities where it can concentrate on the science, with evidence-based advice; and that it widens the skill set of its membership with the addition of experience from practical business operations and engineering. We note this undercurrent of anxiety concerning CoRWM, and welcome the agreement in the Government's response and comments on the expertise of CoRWM members that the requirements of CoRWM will change over time. The noble Lord, Lord O’Neill, has made the case powerfully today that a widening of this expertise at an early stage would be helpful in bringing forward activity. We agree that a science-based approach must be right and vital in building confidence and the participation of communities in developing opportunities. We call for science to seek to use innovation to reduce the cost burden.
In the energy debate at the start of the year the Minister underlined that the nuclear industry will not receive any subsidy and must pay for all its costs, including reprocessing and waste storage. The UK has some of the most developed decommissioning infrastructure in the world, as well as associated indigenous capability. Given that the Secretary of State expresses frustration that half his department’s budget is spent on decommissioning and clean-up costs associated with the oldest nuclear plant, has a review been undertaken on the progress at Sellafield, and can the Minister say whether he is satisfied with the work being undertaken in regard to its quality, results to date and pace of progress? In paragraph 6 of the government response to the report, the Government agree that research and development needs to be appropriately funded. Are the Government satisfied that the funding is there? Can the Minister confirm where it is coming from and that it has not and will not become another victim of government cuts?
It is encouraging that progress is being made in the identification of sites for storage. Although it is recognised that all the implications for both short and long-term storage are important, does the Minister nevertheless agree that the pressure for more and more geological research must not be overbalanced in the search for the perfect at the expense of the fit-for-purpose? A robust tendering process is enhanced by the competitive tension from alternative sites. We welcome the expression of interest from Cumbria, but I press the Minister on what action the Government are taking to stimulate interest from other local communities. We would welcome an update from the Minister on any action and any progress that has been made recently.
Experience gained by UK businesses through their involvement in domestic decommissioning is highly significant in developing UK capacity in specialist decommissioning activities. Much of the dialogue has been focused in Cumbria. Cumbria has developed its west coast economic strategy with support from the North West Development Agency, and is progressing its partnership programmes to deliver benefits in developing the UK skills base and hub of technical innovation that will be vital to the nuclear industry, compatible with the nuclear new-build programme and transferable to a range of other sectors. Will the Minister update the House on what activities his department has undertaken to encourage investment? Does he agree that the challenges that these activities bring require the development of centres of excellence, in which Cumbria and the UK could lead?
The report underlines the importance of concentrating on the accepted solution strategy of interim storage followed by deep geological long-term capacity. The Minister will understand that we regard the security of these sites as being of the highest importance. We know that he shares our view because he assured your Lordships that he was personally reviewing the security of these sites, including Sellafield, during the debate on the national policy statement on nuclear on Thursday 13 January. Is he satisfied with the operation of the current security arrangements and the management and operation of the civil nuclear police service? Is he able to update the House on the progress of this review? When does he expect it to be concluded?
The global market for nuclear commissioning services will grow considerably over the next 20 years. We understand that the industry is confident that it is leading the way in four key aspects regarding managing radioactive waste safely—namely, understanding the challenges, focusing resources, encouraging innovation, and driving progress—which will deliver a distinct advantage to the UK in playing a major world role and in securing future contracts. What activity has the Minister’s department done at an international level to develop rigour and consistency in standards for nuclear waste storage?
We have had a very interesting debate on a subject on which your Lordships’ House shows great expertise. It is a vital area of public policy on which we expect the Government to come forward with further information at the shortest interval possible. We greatly look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I am very grateful to noble Lords who have spoken, particularly to the noble Lord, Lord Broers, who instigated this valuable debate, and to the committee for its work and recommendations. We have covered a number of key areas, and I hope I cover some of the questions raised, if not all of them, in my remarks.
We all recognise that radioactive waste management is complex and probably not the most exciting area in the world. However, it is a very complex and important subject, particularly as we move into the arena of new nuclear, which has not happened for 27 years. I do not want to underplay the fact that we have given the green light for new nuclear where nothing has happened in the past. This is a very big strategic decision, and I am glad it finds favour on all sides of the House. In the past, I have complimented the contribution by the now opposition Benches in changing public attitudes towards new nuclear when they were in government. That gave us a springboard, but we acted upon it, and it is important that that is taken on board. I also want to make it clear that the Government take these issues with great responsibility. Ultimately, we will make the decisions. We welcome reports and advice, and we are very open to them, but ultimately we will decide how to manage radioactive waste safely and fairly using the available evidence and analysis and the contributions that we get from all sides of the House.
The NDA is the UK’s competent body responsible for that, particularly in respect of nuclear waste. The NDA reports to government. I compliment the previous Government, who sorted out a serious problem in the management of the NDA. I believe that the NDA is now a well run organisation. We in government have a great deal of confidence in it. It reports to me personally, I have an excellent working relationship with it, and I want to pay compliment to the work it is doing. As a Government and as Members of this House, we must trust and empower it to operate and act in this extremely difficult area.
I shall refer to the progress we have made on geological disposal. As all noble Lords have said, this is a timeline that most of us cannot associate with. I may be around in 2040; some noble Lords may not be. I am keeping my fingers crossed that I will be. The noble Lord is quite right that, if we look backwards, 1890—when some of the noble Lords opposite were born—seems like an awful long time ago. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, knows what I am talking about, I think. It is a timeline that is very difficult to associate with and a timeline that we have to improve. It would be irresponsible if we did not. However, it is not entirely dependent on us. It is set by the co-operation of the people of Cumbria, who are critical to this process. Since we have been in Government, we have published an indicative timeline for implementation. As I have said, that is not enough. We want to reduce it. We have agreed to produce an annual report to Parliament on progress and we are committed to improving the timeline, which noble Lords will see as we progress. We have established the Geological Disposal Implementation Board chaired by my colleague the Minister of State for Energy, Charles Hendry, to enhance accountability for delivery.
We have carried out and have published the initial geological screening of the volunteer area in West Cumbria. We have supported the second round of the West Cumbrian MRWS Partnership’s formal public and stakeholder engagement programme and have agreed a strong funding settlement for NDA in the latest spending round to enable it to make progress in this area. However, it is much more important that we send messages to the people of Cumbria that Cumbria can become a nuclear place of excellence. We have indicated that it can be the site for a new nuclear power station.
I shall come to the Mox plant later, but the hopeful signs of such a plant, which have been sitting in the wings for years, will give good encouragement to the community. I hope that the community will feel that we are supporting them and establishing them as a centre of excellence, and that they will respond by supporting us in the geological storage timelines.
On Mox, on Monday, I launched the consultation on the management options for the UK plutonium stocks. We have the largest plutonium stocks in the world, as the noble Lord, Lord O’Neill of Clackmannan, has rightly said. I think we agree that it is time to get to grips with this issue and to develop a coherent, strategic and comprehensive plan for the future. There is no point in having this enormous amount of waste sitting there when we can turn it, we hope, into revenue or less cost. That is what the consultation will look at.
I have done some cost evaluations with the NDA. We have sought advice from a number of the experts in this field in reviewing it. Through this consultation process, we should be able to deliver clear signals, which is our ambition. But if at the end of the day that ambition cannot be met with reality of cost, of course we will not do it. As I mentioned earlier, it sends clear signals to Sellafield and the people of Cumbria that we are very committed to that part of the world.
The noble Lord, Lord Broers, and other noble Lords rightly mentioned the importance of high hazard. I was deeply concerned when I visited the high hazard sites and saw the lack of progress. As a result, the first thing I did in the spending review was to negotiate with the Treasury, in very difficult times, an increase in spending for the NDA so that we could tackle and confront these issues head on. We have reduced by two years the timescale of dealing with the emptying of silos. We should have completion of that by 2016 to 2018. This fundamental increase in timescale needs to be carried out because it is in the national interest. We are putting real energy and significance into this. The NDA is under no illusions that this is the main priority of this Government.
The Minister made reference earlier to the ambition of creating a centre of excellence in the north-west and Sellafield. Does he agree that such a centre of excellence at present exists in so far as we have the National Nuclear Laboratory, which is engaged in fantastic work and will greatly facilitate the achievement of the ambitions that I think we all share?
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord O’Neill of Clackmannan, for pulling me up on that point. He is right that a centre of excellence exists. There is no question about what he has just said. The most important point is that we continue to have Cumbria as a centre of excellence and that in times of recession that is put beyond doubt for the people who live there.
CoRWM has provided three formal reports to government since 2008, alongside numerous position papers and regular informal advice. The three formal reports cover the government policy areas of geological disposal, interim storage and associated R&D. I accept the important point that the papers should be clearly marked, placed and presented. CoRWM now explains the nature of its papers, but I take on board the point that was made.
We have responded to the reports and are committed to responding to all CoRWM’s substantive advice. We look forward to further discussions with it and to receiving ongoing advice, as we do from all experts in this area, particularly the committee.
I turn to the committee’s recommendations. We believe that there should be the right mix of personnel, as the noble Lords, Lord Broers and Lord O’Neill of Clackmannan, rightly mentioned. Over time, the precise skill set required may vary. We need to ensure that CoRWM changes correspondingly to confront the various issues arising out of contemporary nuclear needs. Currently, the committee is split between two-year and four-year appointments. We will look to refresh the membership in time for the current two-year terms ending in 2012. The committee may also co-opt additional expertise to support its examination of specific topics and utilise other appropriate means of securing expert input, such as sponsored meetings or seminars.
I return to R&D, which is of fundamental importance and again touches on the matter of a centre of excellence. We have instructed the NDA to reconstitute the R&D board and to co-ordinate an R&D strategy. I say in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, that we will look at its recommendations extremely favourably, as we have done so far by increasing our financial support for it.
The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, referred to fusion. As he well knows—he asks me this as a trick question— that is not a subject for my department. I would be happy to go at length into the subject of fusion, but as he is closely associated with BIS, I can with great confidence expect him to discuss it with that department.
The noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, drew my attention to a point that I had made on the subject of nuclear security. We are undertaking a significant review. I thank previous Ministers, including the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, who kindly gave me advice on the subject. He indicated that we should consider a review of the current and future security of nuclear sites, because the issue is ongoing and we must make sure that they are fit for purpose. I am undertaking that review at the moment. It is throwing up a lot of interesting subjects and we will report on it in the near future. I assure the House that this is a high-priority item for us, and that I will be happy to keep noble Lords involved in any decisions.
In summary, I hope that noble Lords, and in particular the noble Lord, Lord Broers, do not think that we are sitting back and accepting airy-fairy timescales, or that we are not committed to doing things. We have increased the spend on solving our waste problems; we are attacking the incredibly long-term geological timescale for dealing with waste; we are looking at how we can make the best of our plutonium stock and turn it into an asset; and we are taking very seriously the high-hazard problems that we have encountered. I commend my fellow Ministers and officials for the great amount of work that they are doing. I also thank the committee and all those involved in the subject for the great advice that they give us. We have an open-door policy and welcome advice and support. This is not something that can happen today or next year; it is a 10-year programme that transcends governments, and all of us must work together with great energy and commitment.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that encouraging response. I am particularly pleased that he has been to Sellafield and seen some of the problems, which has spurred him to action. I am encouraged that he has sought additional funds and that the Government are putting their mind to pulling in some of these schedules, which are—I had to use the word—bizarre in the extreme.
I thank all noble Lords who have spoken today. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, for his detailed analysis and strong support for the report. I thank the noble Lord, Lord O'Neill of Clackmannan, who played such a senior role in the industry and therefore speaks with such authority. The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, conscientiously follows all matters of energy and his views are highly respected.
House adjourned at 5.11 pm.