Skip to main content


Volume 764: debated on Wednesday 8 July 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is the annual forecast cost for (1) storing, and (2) protecting, the stocks of plutonium at Sellafield in (a) 2015, (b) 2025, and (c) beyond 2025, if there is no decision to deal with the material otherwise.

My Lords, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, the body responsible for the decommissioning of the United Kingdom’s civil nuclear legacy, has a budget of approximately £3 billion per annum. The costs of storing and protecting the plutonium at Sellafield are a small proportion of this total figure. We do not give out the precise figure on the grounds of commercial sensitivity and national security.

I thank the Minister for that very informative Answer. What progress, if any, has been made in assessing the prospect of burning the stocks of plutonium in a CANDU reactor or a Hitachi PRISM reactor? This would not only dispose safely and profitably of the stock of plutonium but give a much-needed boost to Britain’s nuclear industry. I am aware that a report was sent to the Department of Energy and Climate Change by the nuclear decommissioning agency in January, after a considerable delay. Can the Minister assure us that a similar or greater delay will not affect the department’s assessment of the report?

My Lords, the noble Viscount is right on the need for a decision on this. We are expecting at the year end to have the options put in front of us by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and then move to a decision. He will be aware that even when a decision is made, there will be a massive stock of plutonium at Sellafield for many decades ahead.

My Lords, what progress has been made in establishing a deep geological depository for radioactive waste, as recommended by your Lordships’ Select Committee in 1999, and as broadly approved by the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management that was initiated by the party opposite?

My noble friend should be aware that we anticipate that a decision will be made on that in the relatively near future and that work will begin in 2017.

Is there any intention to review the rules regarding the Civil Nuclear Constabulary’s extended jurisdiction or mutual aid provision, bearing in mind the one-third reduction in the Ministry of Defence police—one of the three armed police forces—possible further cuts and the increased terrorist threat to the United Kingdom? This is a very important issue to look at.

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right that civil nuclear safety is crucial. We are keeping a very close watch on this. As he is aware, that force is one of the largest police forces in the country. There is no immediate review in place but we keep the general area under constant review.

My Lords, is the plutonium currently classified in the Government’s accounts as an asset, because it will be a fuel, or as a cost, because it is waste that has to be stored?

My Lords, the noble Baroness will be aware that there is a cost associated with decommissioning, as I have already indicated, which extends over a long period. I think the answer is there: over a long period, it is a liability.

My Lords, the stock of plutonium stored in Sellafield contains energy equivalent to the Morecambe Bay gas field, which has been serving us so reliably for 30 years. It is clearly an asset. When will the Government join the dots between our urgent need for investment in clean energy and infrastructure, and the plutonium stocks that are sitting there waiting to be used?

My Lords, the plutonium is a liability in the sense that it needs to be decommissioned, although the noble Baroness is right that it could be turned into an asset if, for example, we go for the MOX option when the options are put in front of us. We are looking at that, but we need to examine it very closely. It is unlikely that it will make a significant impact on the amount of nuclear power that is offered as a whole from this country by the end of the period up to 2080.

Could my noble friend tell us whether there has been any progress towards the use of thorium instead of uranium for nuclear fuel, as advocated by a number of people, including the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington?

My noble friend is right that it is important to look at this and that the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, and other Peers have advocated it. We are looking at it, along with, as I indicated some weeks ago, smaller nuclear reactors.

My Lords, in the light of the Public Accounts Committee’s observation that the current security arrangements at Sellafield are intolerable, what urgency are the Government giving to getting the situation right? Given that proven adequate arrangements for waste disposal are obviously crucial for the next generation of nuclear energy, will the Government confirm that this is a national responsibility—this is national, not local waste—and that the arrangements must therefore be implemented, in the end, by the Government?

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right. There is no question but that it is a national responsibility. As I have indicated, the options will be put in front of us at the end of this year and we will look at that as a Government. I also want to reassure people that the record on civil nuclear safety in this country is exemplary and that we have an excellent nuclear police force guarding Sellafield. But yes, it is a national responsibility—there is no question about that.

My Lords, from work I did a long time ago, I believe that some of this waste has a half-life of about 1,000 years. Is there not something wrong with the system—and maybe a certain amount of complacency—given that we are storing that material in concrete that has been around 100 years or so and still importing waste from other countries, to be an even bigger dustbin, without knowing what to do with it?

My Lords, the noble Lord knows a lot about this subject, and I hesitate to disagree, but we are not still importing plutonium. That is inaccurate. We are dealing with the plutonium that is there—127 tonnes, and a further 2 to 3 tonnes in Dounreay. We are where we are. We are looking at the options and will come back with a decision. In the mean time, the best way forward is to ensure that it is safely guarded, which it is, at Sellafield.

My Lords, the Minister, in answering my noble friend Lord West, agreed with the importance of the security and staffing element and said, I think, that no decisions had been made to cut the budget for those staff. Am I right in thinking that that means it could be cut in the future, or was he saying that we have decided that no cuts will be made?

I think the noble Baroness is slightly wrong on that. I said that these things are kept under close scrutiny but there was no specific review in prospect. No Government would say that these things would not lead to either budget increases or budget reductions.