Motion to Take Note
That the Grand Committee takes note of the draft National Policy Statement for Geological Disposal Infrastructure: A framework document for planning decisions on nationally significant infrastructure.
My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, to the deliberations. Our purpose here today is to debate the national policy statement for geological disposal for higher-activity radioactive waste. For 60 years, this type of waste has been produced from electricity generation, defence activity, healthcare, academic research and industrial processes. Most of this waste is low in radioactivity and disposed of safely every day. However, some materials remain radioactive for thousands of years and require more specialised disposal facilities. Currently, this waste is held safely in stores on the surface, most of it at the Sellafield site in Cumbria, but this is only an interim measure. A permanent solution is needed.
A geological disposal facility is internationally recognised as the safest and most secure means of permanently managing this type of waste, with countries such as Finland, Sweden, France, Switzerland and Canada also pursuing this option. Alternatives to geological disposal have been carefully considered and options are kept under review, and they will continue to be so. At present, they are not technically achievable or not as environmentally safe, or isolation cannot be guaranteed, or they are too dangerous to implement.
The geological disposal process involves the encapsulation and isolation of radioactive waste in a highly engineered facility deep underground, within multiple engineered barriers and suitable rock, to ensure that no harmful quantities of radioactivity ever reach the surface. Building a geological disposal facility will provide a permanent solution for handling the UK’s significant legacy inventory of radioactive waste. Without it, we will continue to incur significant storage costs. It will also support a new generation of nuclear power stations in the UK by providing a safe and secure way to dispose of the waste they produce. This is key to the future new nuclear build programme. The geological disposal facility project is also part of the Government’s modern industrial strategy supporting our ambition to deliver highly skilled jobs, investment in science and innovation and regional growth and to upgrade infra- structure. In addition, the project speaks to our clean growth initiative, where we are looking to grow the economy while at the same time reducing harmful emissions.
To deliver a permanent solution to this issue in 2014 we published the White Paper Implementing Geological Disposal. This White Paper committed to delivering a national geological screening exercise to: bring together existing information on geology relevant to the safety of a geological disposal facility across England, Wales and Northern Ireland; develop a policy for working with communities on the siting process for a geological disposal facility, involving interested local groups and organisations including local authorities; and bring the facility and the investigatory deep boreholes that will be needed to find out more about the geology at depth within the definition of nationally significant infrastructure projects. In support of this approach, it will designate a national policy statement for GDFs in England.
On this last commitment, legislation was passed in 2015 to bring the geological disposal facility and deep boreholes within the Planning Act. The central policy of any national policy statement is to help the Planning Inspectorate and the relevant Minister to make decisions on any applications for development. It provides clear and concise guidance on the issues that need to be considered to determine whether a particular development can go ahead. It underpins the delivery of planning decisions by the Secretary of State and enables the Planning Inspectorate to examine the eventual application before any recommendations are sent on to the Secretary of State for consent. This process also helps the developer with their application for development consent under the Planning Act and enables the developer to use the national policy statement as a framework to consider the impacts of their proposal.
This framework is evaluated by two supporting assessments: the appraisal of sustainability and the habitats regulations assessment. The appraisal of sustainability ensures that the likely national environmental and socioeconomic effect of the national policy statement are identified, described and evaluated so that, where appropriate, measures to mitigate any adverse impacts can be incorporated into the development. The appraisal assesses a number of topics ranging from nature conservation through human health and on to cultural heritage. The habitats regulations assessment identifies and assesses the likely effects of the national policy statement on European nature conservation sites, including Ramsar sites, special areas of conservation and special protected sites.
Earlier this year, the Government went out to consultation on both the national policy statement and the working with communities policy. The separate working with communities consultation set out a framework for a consent-based approach to finding a community willing to host a geological disposal facility. The consultations closed in April this year. The national policy statement has been scrutinised by the BEIS Select Committee in another place. Its report and recommendations were published on 31 July 2018. We are considering the responses to the consultation on working with communities and aim to publish our final policy in the autumn.
It might be worth saying a little bit at this stage about how we intend to work with communities. The White Paper sets out a framework for a consent-based approach to finding a community to host a geological disposal facility. The separate proposed working with communities policy has been developed to allow communities to learn about hosting a GDF without commitment until they are in a position to make an informed decision on whether this is the right option for them. We propose that communities constructively engaged in the siting process will receive up to £1 million per community per year; later, £2.5 million per community per year will be made available. This can be used for initiatives to support the development of the local skill base, investment in social and community infrastructure and environmental improvement. The Government will also make available additional investment which will be significant when compared to other international GDF projects, and capable of generating intergenerational benefits specific to the community that hosts a GDF.
A GDF is a key piece of UK infrastructure and will enable the Government to deliver their commitment on clean energy and their modern industrial strategy. Geological disposal facilities are internationally agreed to be the safest and most secure option and will create opportunities for skilled jobs. Innovation and local assessment, based on rigorous independent consideration of the options, will be supported by international consensus. The Government believe that the solution for the management of this type of waste is geological disposal. The NPS provides the framework for the planning decisions for that geological disposal infrastructure. I believe that it is the right way forward for those of us living in this country today and the right thing to do for those who follow us. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that introduction. Perhaps I may say at the outset how grateful I am to his officials for being so ready to talk to me and discuss the issues at stake. That has been very helpful. I think that we should also put on the record our thanks to the staff of the Library who have produced, even by their own standards, which are very high, the most clear and concise briefing on these matters. It really is a very good summary of the situation. I should declare my interests as I am a resident of the Lake District National Park in west Cumbria, a former president of the Friends of the Lake District and currently a patron, a vice-president of the Campaign for National Parks, and indeed a supporter of the Cumbria Trust.
What we are discussing in the debate is an immensely significant issue and there is urgency in it. Speaking only of west Cumbria, the waste facilities at Sellafield are in a seriously deteriorating condition. The exposed five-metre storage ponds are in a disturbing state of disrepair. I sometimes wonder how much radioactive wildlife and radioactive birds are flying around in Cumbria and beyond because, of course, the ponds are open and accessible. This all has implications over the long term, indeed for many thousands of years, not only across Cumbria but for the UK as a whole, as well as for Ireland and Europe. We are now to have a new generation of nuclear power stations. If we go ahead with these, and I can certainly see the need for them, we must ensure that we are meeting the challenges.
It is important to emphasise that the waste about which we are talking is not local waste, it is national waste and therefore a national responsibility. It probably has international implications as well, which underlines the importance of facing up to the national responsibilities.
Voluntarism, which seems pretty essential to the way forward as seen by the Government, is not a concept that, so far, is recognised in planning law. Obviously, local consent and involvement are essential, but we have not been helped by what I could describe, if I was being a little unfriendly, which I do not want to be, as the ducks and drakes that have been played with this issue in the past.
Last time we had a shot at finding a way forward, the views of Copeland and Whitehaven were involved, as were those of Allerdale and of the county. It was stipulated that if any one of those bodies, let alone more, failed to endorse the project it would not go ahead. The county did not do so, so it did not go ahead and the Government honoured their undertaking.
Now, of course, the indications are that, with new arrangements, the county council may not formally be consulted as a body, whereas it might be that Copeland and Allerdale are. I simply cannot understand this, because I keep saying that it is a national responsibility and that if anything goes seriously wrong with the project it will have implications way beyond those local authorities—certainly to Cumbria as a whole but also way beyond Cumbria. Therefore, it would be helpful if the Minister could more specifically clarify what is in mind. The formal views of those with elected responsibility cannot but be crucial, but just how widely is another issue. To repeat: exactly what do the Government have in mind?
Then we come to what is said in the recommendations before us about the national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. As a long-standing supporter of the national parks, I think that they and the areas of outstanding natural beauty are more important today than they have ever been because of the stress, strains and pressures in modern society. It is essential to have places of quietness and of spiritual and physical renewal, in contrast to all the hurly-burly of life elsewhere. They are a precious asset in our society.
In this context, Section 62 of the Environment Act 1995 is highly relevant and the Sandford principle crucial, stating that enjoyment of the national parks,
“shall be in a manner and by such means as will leave their natural beauty unimpaired for the enjoyment of this and future generations”.
That of course refers to any proposed developments around the national parks.
It is also highly relevant that world heritage site status has been granted to the Lake District; that the Lake District has adopted a statement of outstanding universal value; and that its inclusion in a search area will undoubtedly threaten the very special status that has been conferred. Again, in this context, it is so important to hear clearly from the Minister what is proposed in detail. It cannot be overemphasised that if such developments are being proposed, there has to be a convincing survey of non-designated alternatives—and that, of course, is some 91% of the United Kingdom. Is that, or is it not, convincingly happening? It seems to me that the tendency to go ahead with developments at any national park, such as the Lake District, must depend on our being convinced that there are no alternatives elsewhere.
I have the feeling that there are others here today who can speak with more authority on such matters, but since the 1940s, west Cumbria has been seduced and groomed to a nuclear dependency, and there has been a cynical disregard of the development of a balanced economy. If, for example, west Cumbria were to be transparently and convincingly found to be the best place to have this facility—or at least the least-bad place to have it—I would unhesitatingly throw myself into doing everything possible to make sure that it was absolutely safe as can be, and protected aesthetically, environmentally and in every other way. But that just has not happened: we have not had a convincing survey. There is plenty of evidence that this is exactly the wrong place. The mountains of Cumbria are the heirs to the collision of tectonic plates 450 million years ago. With the lapse of time, it is hardly surprising that there are extensive faults and a great deal of fracturing. Combine that with high rainfall leading to fast-flowing groundwater driven by high hydrologic gradients, and that is precisely opposite to the stable environment with low groundwater flow required for burying nuclear waste.
I do not apologise for having gone on for so long, but there are a couple of other things that I must mention. We must take into account the impact on traffic. Is there strategic planning to meet the impact of the traffic that will be involved? What would that do to the special character of the national park? There will also have to be boreholes—deep and shallow boreholes, with dynamite and explosives. How will that meet the stipulations of quietness and quiet enjoyment of the national parks? I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify how long they expect it to last.
There has been a lot of talk about jobs. Of course there will be jobs if this goes ahead, but I am cynical, if I may be forgiven for saying this, about how many of these jobs will really be for west Cumbrians and how far high-tech, experienced industry will be brought in to do the job. As for the talk about a labour-intensive future for north Cumbria, that is rubbish. It might be labour-intensive while it is happening, but once it is functioning it will be a highly capital-intensive job, with very specialist people in a team looking after it. What will the benefits be for the Cumbrian economy as a whole?
I am also sometimes a bit sceptical about everything that is going on with United Utilities at the moment, with its new pipeline to divert water supply from Ennerdale to Thirlmere. Is it just coincidence, or something to do with the granite that comes available within the Ennerdale context and the thought that not many park visitors and local people would be very happy about having a nuclear storage facility under Ennerdale lake?
We have a huge national responsibility. Future generations will be watching us acutely. If anything goes wrong, we cannot escape that it is our generation making the decision. I believe that applies to all of us in Parliament, in both Houses. It certainly is the responsibility of government and shadow government. In my view, it is also the responsibility of this generation of civil servants. Can we live with whatever happens? Do we recognise that long, heavy responsibility into which we are entering?
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Judd, who speaks with great passion on this subject. I am also speaking in this debate as a native Cumbrian, and as a current member of Cumbria County Council—which, five years ago, ditched the previous attempt to locate this facility in Cumbria. I also have to declare a very personal interest. Where I live on the Solway plain was pencilled in on one of the maps produced in the last process as a possible site for this facility.
I may have one profound difference with my noble friend Lord Judd. I have always been a passionate supporter of nuclear power. I inherited this from my mother, who was a miner’s daughter. She was very much excited as a child by the opening of Calder Hall and the possibility that we might be able to generate all our electricity without lives being lost and health being damaged in the coal mines. I have stuck with that view of support for nuclear power throughout my life. But when this issue came to the fore in 2012-13, Cumbria County Council asked me to do a bit of bridging between it and DECC, when the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, was the Minister. I tried my best to do that.
It was my noble friend Lady Verma.
I am sorry, that is right. It was the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, who was the Minister. As a result of that involvement at the time, several things were brought home to me. It is clear that the problem of nuclear waste has to be addressed, but that the most urgent national problem we face is the one that my noble friend described at Sellafield. It is, I have to say, to the credit of the Government since 2010, and the coalition Government, that at a time of great austerity the amount of public money being spent on the clean-up of Sellafield has increased very considerably. As a result, it is hoped that progress is being made.
But, of course, with the clean-up, what is happening to that nuclear waste? First, it is basically being stored for decades to come, either above ground or just below ground, before there is any question of what happens to it then. Given that, dealing with the immediate problems at Sellafield is the most important priority. Secondly, what is always said about this is something that I think is true: we have not invested enough in research into how to deal with the problem of nuclear waste over the long run. I would have thought that, given the vast amounts of money we are spending at Sellafield—it is possible that I am getting the figures wrong, but it is something like £1.7 billion a year of public money; an enormous amount—alongside that we ought to be spending tens of millions on research into how to deal with the long-term problem of waste. Are we absolutely certain that if we invest during this interim period in a 10-year research programme, at the end of it we would still consider the only solution to be that of burying the waste in the ground? We might see advances in dealing with nuclear waste which would enable Britain to be at the forefront of nuclear clean-up activities.
Thirdly, there are very considerable geological questions as to whether burying the waste close to the Sellafield site in Cumbria is a sensible thing to do. It was said to me at the time that in fact the most suitable site is in the Thames valley under London because it has the best kind of geology to suit this development. We must not get ourselves into a situation where the only reason for locating the site in Cumbria is that part of the west Cumbria community would accept it because of the economic benefits.
Fourthly, on that point, I hope that the Government are not being cynical with west Cumbria about this. I know that for local authorities like Copeland, £1 million a year is a lot of money given that its budget is £8 million or £9 million—something like that, so that is the promise of a lot of money. However, the truth is that if we are to create a diversified economic base for this part of the world in the future, it has to be based on the Sellafield supply chain. If we are to build a Sellafield supply claim which is based locally and in Lancashire around Warrington and make that an internationally competitive cluster of activity that will bring great economic benefit in the future, the important thing we have to do with Cumbria is to invest in infrastructure and interconnectivity between the county and the rest of Britain and the rest of the world. That is the urgent priority for our part of the world.
What we cannot have is a situation where a terrible choice is forced on people between the future of the national park and our responsibilities to future generations—which my noble friend Lord Judd spoke of so eloquently, and which I support—and the economic future of the Sellafield area. This is a difficult subject. We have learned in the past few weeks that it seems that the Government are withdrawing their support for a new nuclear power station in Cumbria. This is the recommendation of the National Infrastructure Commission. This is a huge blow to jobs in the area. We also know that because of the huge investment at Sellafield the number of jobs there will decline over the next 10 years or so. There has been talk of 3,000 fewer jobs. There are huge economic pressures in West Cumbria. The Government must address them in a serious way. I hope that the new nuclear power station is not dead, but it would be wrong to try to bribe this local community into accepting something that is not right in the national interest for the sake of its economic future. That is my fear.
My noble friend has emphasised the vital significance of geology. There are some who argue that, in a less-than-perfect geological setting, engineered geology would be possible. Does my noble friend agree that that is not a convincing comment because while geological possibilities are there for all to see and experience, alternatives have not yet been proved? I was interested to see that even Sweden has been questioning a copper engineering solution because there are fears that the copper corrodes quite fast.
I am no expert on these questions, but I am interested in what my noble friend has to say.
I must apologise to the Grand Committee for not putting my name down in time and therefore speaking briefly in the gap. I was very interested in the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, about London. I was trying to tie up in my mind whether it was anything to do with the nine-month postponement of the Elizabeth line and the tunnelling equipment under London. Maybe that is not the connection.
I was going to start by congratulating the Government because, going back to 2011, the National Policy Statement for Nuclear Power Generation (EN-6), which I am sure the Minister is well aware of, stated:
“Geological disposal of higher activity waste from new nuclear power stations is currently programmed to be available from around 2130”,
so at the moment we have 112 years to solve this problem. I expect it will probably be solved at the same time as the smart meter programme, but we will see.
I question whether the technology and the science in this area are moving on to such an extent that we need to invest in this type of facility, or certainly on the scale that is talked about. A Canadian company is looking at using high-level nuclear waste in small modular reactors for further energy generation. There is also the science of transmutation, where a particle accelerator is used to bombard with neutrons some of this higher-activity waste and break it down into other elements that have much shorter radioactive lives. This science is bound to move on at some pace. Nuclear fusion can also use some of these by-products, which we hope will come on stream with the ITER project in 10, 20 or perhaps 30 years. That is really important.
Paragraph 3.2.15, on page 25 of the document, referring to the spent fuel and radioactive waste directive, states:
“To the extent that these obligations under the Spent Fuel and Radioactive Waste Directive cease to be legally binding on the UK following its departure from the EU”.
Surely that is a mistake. Surely the withdrawal Act means the legality of that will remain in place. It is important to have the assurance, despite the other international obligations, that those Euratom obligations under the directive will remain in place. That clarification would be extremely useful.
The other area, from a macro point of view, that I want to understand is the Government’s estimate of what the facility will cost and, perhaps more importantly, who will pay for it. What will ensure that, as with other decommissioning in the past, the public purse does not pay for what will be an extremely expensive facility?
Lastly, in our new position as “Global Britain”, will we be inviting other countries to export their nuclear waste to this facility, which will become far easier if Brexit happens next year?
My Lords, it is a great pleasure and an honour to follow three such distinguished and wise speakers. I find myself in the rare position of not considering myself to be a Luddite, although I will perhaps speak in a way that sounds like it. To give your Lordships a little context, I shall burden the Committee with a bit of biographical detail, for which I apologise. For nearly 15 years, I worked for Schlumberger, which, as many of you will know, is the world’s largest reservoir evaluation company and has provided much of the technology that has evaluated those wells that have been drilled to date, in terms of working out what is going on below ground. Subsequently and for a much shorter period, I worked for the privatised part of UKAEA. This is not a declaration of interest nor is it a claim of expertise; it is to explain where I am coming from and what my disposition is.
Schlumberger taught me that reservoir evaluation and downhole logging is an inexact science. Even when you are as good as Schlumberger, you are always wrong, so you never really know what is going on down there. Working in the nuclear industry was a more salutary experience. For example, the facility at Dounreay went from being in the white heat of technology to being virtually a white elephant inside a generation. It demonstrates how neglected things become once they stop being new. By the time I was in the industry, plutonium pellets were washing up on Dounreay beach and people could not account to me how many there were and where they were coming from.
The issue of geologic disposal has been around for about 40 years—almost as long, I think, as the Minister has been in the House of Lords. As we have heard, many Governments have sought to solve this problem and stepped back from doing so. So why now and with this Government? New nuclear has been mentioned on a number of occasions. It offers the prospect—if “offers” is the right word—of a great deal more material to be disposed of and, clearly, the decision to go ahead with new nuclear was predicated on the assumption that there would be downhole geologic storage. However, we should also remember that this new nuclear stuff will be hanging around on the surface for a very long time and the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, about addressing some of the surface storage issues as well is something that I would ask the Minister to consider.
I want to make a point on semantics that may cast me in a Luddite mode. We use the term “disposal”—I have used it several times—but of course what we are actually doing is not disposing of it; we are either burying or hiding it. We are concentrating the hazard and putting it in a place where it will remain more or less forever and to all intents and purposes it will be toxic to organic life forever. So it is not disposal, it is hiding it by putting it in a downhole cupboard, closing the door and hoping that it stays shut.
The evolution of this quest has been referred to by other speakers, but in the beginning the primary mover was geology. We have heard a little bit about geology but I am going to come back to it again in a moment because after flirting with salt and indeed clay, which would be the London solution, the focus came down on to granite because it was seen to offer the best opportunity to make a seal. Permeability, as the Minister knows, is the extent to which fluid can flow through a rock. Granite is more or less impermeable, but as two of the previous speakers have mentioned, it is susceptible to fractures and faulting. Fractures facilitate the movement of water, and I think that generally everyone agrees that that is a very bad thing. A campaign involving boreholes which looked in that direction was started, having been based on the geological rather than the sociological opportunity. Even then, volunteers were called for to some extent, and as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Judd, the focus was quickly made on west Cumbria, or an area that we could call greater Sellafield. I am sure that it is to the Government’s regret that the geology of the areas proved to be less hopeful in prospective terms than they had hoped. The point made just now about fractures and water flow is completely and absolutely apposite. It was apposite then because it started to put people off and it remains very central to the suitability of this particular location.
At the time, the Government met with a lot of planning objections when they tried to drill prospective boreholes in England and Scotland. The reclassification as a national infrastructure project changed that, which I suspect was the objective of making the change. It is possible that it made it easier for the proponents to get the opportunity to drill prospective wells. Part of that process has necessitated the Appraisal of Sustainability Report, produced by Amec Foster Wheeler. I know that the Government have welcomed the report in their draft policy, but there are two obvious and significant diversions. First, the report sets out some key considerations that any repository needs to follow. There is a list and then there is a description. The Government just about pick out that list, although inexplicably they have changed the order so that water comes lower down it than other issues. However, there is a significant difference when it comes to the geology. The report states:
“The geologic formations around the engineered facility will isolate and contain the radioactivity for a very long period, thus preventing any harmful amounts of radioactivity being released into the environment in future”.
That is clear. The Government’s equivalent sentence in the same place at the bottom of the list is:
“The stable geological setting (rock) in which the facility is sited”.
I put it that stability and sealing are fundamentally different, and there was knowledge of that when those words were changed because it opens up different available geology.
Secondly, on a point already clearly alluded to, the appraisal of sustainability report explicitly recommends that national parks be omitted from the process. The Government do not accept this, as we know. As we heard, the Select Committee pointed out that,
“despite the Appraisal of Sustainability report concluding that an exclusionary criterion would have the most positive effect, the Government decided against excluding National Parks and AONBs on the grounds that it did not ‘wish to foreclose future possible locations that could be more advantageous in addressing safety over the lifetime of the facility’”.
In his response the Minister, Richard Harrington, told the Select Committee that,
“the Government were not in favour of exclusionary criteria as they would preclude proposals from communities who may be interested in hosting GDI and that would have been designated to minimise the environmental impact”.
It is very clear where the Government are pointing their eyes on this occasion—on national parks. This is not an accident.
I mentioned that when the west Cumbrian studies were done there were two possible exceptions where there might been slightly more advantageous geology. Both of those exceptions, Eskdale and Silloth, are in the Lakes and in a national park. It is not hard to see what is going on in the clockwork brain of the Government for where they think the answer to this problem is. That is why the speeches from the noble Lords, Lord Judd and Lord Liddle, were so important.
So, to date, the principle of community consent has led us to only one place. As we know, it did not get very far, but as the Minister set out, we now have seven-figure bribes to back it up. I have two problems with this. First, it is immoral, and secondly, it fails to recognise what the community of these particular areas is. First, why is it immoral? It is because it is the reverse effect of demutualisation, which crystallised the values of centuries for one generation looking back. This crystallises value for essentially one generation looking forward. What about subsequent generations? Do not forget that this will be here for thousands of years, probably right until the end of the existence of our species. Despite saying that there will be money every year, the Minister cannot speak for Governments going forward. Quite frankly, using the Dounreay example, interest will fade.
Secondly, who is the community in this? The noble Lord, Lord Judd, alluded to this. First, groundwater does not respect county council barriers—as far as I know that is the problem. Also, who is the community in the case of a national park? I declare an interest: I spent a lot of my youth running up—or crawling up and down—the mountains of the Lakes. If it is a national park then I am part of its community, but I will not be consulted. Indeed, a very small number of people will be, relative to the population of this country.
Time is passing, but I have a couple of other points. One technical point is that I sense that the technology for this is depicted as a one-way street: we put it in and we cannot get it out. It seems inexcusable that we create something that we cannot reverse. There has to be the technology to reverse this if we find that there is a problem. We should not go down this one-way street without the ability to come back.
Secondly, the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, raised investing in future research. Time has moved on. There has been further research. Frankly, if we threw as much resource that needs to be put into building this repository—or indeed a fraction of that resource—into future research into ways to use this material, I feel sure that we could elicit results. I would like an undertaking by the Government that they will invest in the current surface technology—the holding tank, if you like—to make it safe and not use it as a reason for hastening downhole disposal, and that they will invest in real future technologies.
The Minister talked about technical feasibility and dismissed all other technologies as not being technically feasible. I am not clear that this is technically feasible. I know that it is the preferred option, and it is kind of more understandable because it is about building something, so therefore we think it is technically feasible. As my noble friend pointed out, we know that digging a tunnel under London is pretty difficult. It is technically feasible, but it is very difficult and very expensive. Technical feasibility is an interesting phrase to use because most things are technically feasible if you throw enough money at them. Once again, how much money makes this technically feasible and does that in the end make it economically unfeasible?
Going back to my point about Dounreay—I am sorry to mention it—how is this facility going to be operated? Who is going to be in charge? How is it going to be managed? This matters. The draft national policy states:
“Implementing geological disposal, including identification and characterisation of potential sites, is the responsibility of the developer, working in partnership with a community”.
Bearing in mind that the Government expect this site to be active for 150 years and then to be sealed for many thousands of years, who do the Government envisage being the developer and the operator of this site? Again, this matters. We need to know what is happening a generation ahead because we can see what happens when we do not have a plan. What are the financing and the funding for this going forward? It is not just how much money we spend on building it, it is the operational expenditure because once we start clipping back on the operational expenditure, that is when we start to have problems. Let us face it: is this a private sector operation or a public sector operation? Carillion could not run a hospital for six years, so who is going to run this for 150 years and then several thousand years? How on earth do the Government plan to put in place the institutional support to deliver a functioning facility for generation after generation? Perhaps the Minister can describe to me in a few words—there is no need to go into every detail—how this will be done.
The Select Committee in the other place produced a very useful report, but I had one quibble with it in that it stated that safety trumps all. I understand why the Select Committee said that, and safety is vital, but environment is also very important and there should be a double key, not a single key, on this issue. It is about safety and environment.
Finally, the Government have yet to convince that this is a route we should be taking. They have to restore the geological imperative to isolate and contain because without that they are being extremely disingenuous, and they need to rule out national parks, as per the sustainability report which they themselves commissioned. They should make safety and environment the double lock for further progress. They should undertake to make the repository reversible rather than a one-way street and demonstrate good faith by continuing to invest in research into alternative options for reprocessing and decontaminating this waste. They should explain how this site is going to be operated and managed. Until these points are addressed, it is impossible to support the process going forward.
I thank the Minister for his opening remarks outlining where the Government have reached following Cumbria County Council’s 2013 rejection of hosting nuclear waste. I am also grateful for the contributions from my noble friend Lord Judd on national parks and from my noble friend Lord Liddle on local authorities in Lancashire and Cumbria. They are both correct that this is an extremely difficult subject. The noble Lord, Lord Fox, made us all feel humble in the face of the difficulties.
In 2014, the coalition Government established a new approach to siting deep geological disposal based on the willingness of local authorities to participate. This has been followed up with the BEIS committee in the other place commenting on the Infrastructure and Projects Authority’s annual reports, which continue to highlight meaningful risks. All of these deliberations have sought to simplify the processes, reduce areas of conflict and define the issues in a hierarchy of importance. The reports are cogent and reasonable, yet the various competing viewpoints still remain, as has been evidenced today. I thank the Friends of the Lake District, an organisation dedicated to protecting and enhancing Cumbria’s landscape, for its briefing note, and BEP Surface Technologies Ltd for its note regarding technology solutions in other countries and their relative positions on geological disposals.
It is important that the Government, in publishing the results of the consultation, need to restate their position regarding the competing merits of the priorities expressed. What is the order of priority and what feature can be compromised, and by how far, to find what solution? The trilemma between the importance of the security of the geology, against community consent to host a waste site, against the environmental priorities, needs to be answered by the Government.
There is a contention in Cumbria that the geology is unsuitable or at best marginal to the area for long-term containment of radioactivity. Internationally, suitable geologies have been defined as impermeable lithologies, such as clay or salt, as has been expressed. Some contend that the geology has been made to fit the possible sites. By extension, Canada’s strategy for nuclear waste could contravene international guidelines. Will the Minister commit that the Government will follow the standards set by the IAEA on this matter and define the minimum coherence standards in their geological assessment of sites’ suitability, thereby clarifying all options available in the UK? Is geology the first requirement, or is community acceptance to host a site the defining parameter? What measures and what degree of agreement are acceptable? What initiatives could be followed to secure that accountability?
What is the balance between environmental importance and security of disposal, such that both features can be acceptable to the other? How will the Government reconcile them? While the BEIS committee provided the answer that the higher priority is the security of geology, we need to find a way to assess the integrity of national parks. The noble Lord, Lord Fox, has spoken of very clear competing arguments that there is no real one priority over another.
I agree that the Government are appreciative of these issues and are moving cautiously forward. However, the urgency of the long-term answer to disposal is increasing. Not only is the present waste becoming increasingly precarious and expensive in its temporary containment, but future new build and new policy initiatives, such as small modular reactors, make the present predicament unjustifiably risky. The Government need to define the size of the waste and the site capacity for generations ahead.
The Minister gave a very good outline of the Government’s position at the outset of our debate. Are they still working on the current assumption that there will be willing communities to host the infrastructure? Is this realistic, and what will be the Government’s intention if it becomes apparent that there are no willing communities to host geological disposal? All these deliberations are defined by the focus that the only good solution is long-term geological disposal. However, the Minister will be aware that technology relating to nuclear waste disposal is fast-developing and new avenues are opening up for the recycling of waste to be reused as fuel. The process, which could include a focus on plutonium as an energy source, could see the spent waste converted into a mixed oxide that can be reused in nuclear power plants to produce more electricity.
Further research is vital to change our thinking from considering the problem as nuclear waste to looking at it as a resource for fuel. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, for raising this issue. Is the Minister considering the use of technology as an alternative to geological disposal and is this answer being given suitable resources? Successive UK Governments have been reluctant to set funds aside for any solution and instead have been prepared to wait and see. The hope is that it might be possible to reuse the high-level waste and that the storage facilities we have will last long enough, something which is clearly not a realistic prospect, given the current state of disrepair at the Sellafield site.
Other countries have not been prepared to take the risk. For example, France is developing a solution via its waste management agency, Andra. In Finland, a repository is now under construction and is likely to be ready to start to bury its waste in the next five to 10 years. Sweden is expected to receive its regulation approval in the near future while in Canada, where there may be some difficulties which I have mentioned, the Government are in the process of selecting their site and securing buy-in from the proposed local communities. The Government are correct to be cautious about finding the right approach, but speed is becoming more important. They must provide our answer to one of the world’s greatest problems, and I am sure that the answer can demonstrate that the UK is at the leading edge of technology and innovation while creating hundreds of jobs in the process.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to the debate. In particular I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Judd, for acknowledging my officials in the department. He made it clear how useful he found the meeting. I offer something similar to all other noble Lords should they find it useful to come and talk to officials and hear more about this matter—just to get the issues better into their heads than might be the case as a result of the responses from me. I should also make it clear that despite my origins and those of the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, being in Cumbria, despite the noble Lord, Lord Judd, being a resident and despite the noble Lord, Campbell-Savours, being in his place, this debate is not about Cumbria and we are not making any decisions that the GDF that we are seeking should be in Cumbria or in any other part of the country. We are not targeting any areas or communities. It is very important to remember that all the way through the debate. Similarly, nor are we targeting development in national parks. No decisions have been made.
The important point to remember is that we believe that GDF is a suitable way ahead, but I accept the point that other noble Lords, in particular the noble Lord, Lord Fox, have made that further technological developments always come along and bring with them new answers that we cannot imagine. They might make it unnecessary, or in 100 years’ time they might provide a better solution, in which case we can extract what has gone down before it is finally sealed and do something else. There is the possibility that technology will provide the answer to the problems, as it often does. However, there can be no guarantee of that, so it is vital that we look to what things we can do at the moment. Again, no decisions have been made. I want to make it quite clear that we want to find a site that is suitable geologically and is where the community wants it. It is those two items that we must continue to address the whole way through these arguments.
Despite the interventions that have been made about Cumbria, the earlier debate and the various briefings that many of us, particularly those of us from Cumbria, have received from the national park and the Cumbria Trust, this is not about Cumbria. This is about finding the right site that people want, in the right place, and going ahead from that. From that point of view, I think that it was the noble Lord, Lord Judd, who complained that the county was being ignored and that we were listening to Allerdale and Copeland, the two districts that could be affected or were affected previously, and that the county, which made the decision on the previous occasion, was being ignored. This is not about taking away any democratic influence. The planning process we are looking at ensures that local communities, local authorities and statutory organisations will all be consulted before any geological disposal facility can be built. The consent-based siting process provides that further layer of protection, as the project will not go ahead without consent from the local community through a test of public support.
The noble Lord, Lord Liddle, made it clear, as did the noble Lord, Lord Fox—or the noble Lord, Lord Teverson—that this is a national issue. That is why we feel it has to be dealt with nationally. The Government are, after all, democratically accountable. On some occasions, things have to go beyond the county and be dealt with at a national level. I repeat that the county is not being ignored, but the decision has to be made at a national level. The process will give local authorities a key role while maintaining flexibility on the extent to which they choose to get involved. We consider that the role of local authorities will be critical in the process. They will give democratic legitimacy to that community partnership when making decisions that affect the local community.
There was a desire that we should automatically exclude all national parks. I understand that. I am not a resident of the Lake District National Park, but national parks are a national matter and we all have an interest whether we live in Cumbria or elsewhere. With the current legislation we already provide a very high degree of protection to national parks and permission for development will be granted in those areas only in exceptional circumstances and if it is in the public interest to do so. That is entirely in line with the Sandford principle, which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Judd. I assure the Committee that this matter was looked at very carefully by the BEIS Select Committee in another place, which made it quite clear that sufficient safeguards are in place to protect our national parks.
I move on to the question of geology. I do not want to go into detail of the geology of the Lake District and I am not going to speculate, as did, I think, the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, that the best possible geology is in the Thames valley. We will leave other bodies to consider that matter. Nor do I want to speculate on the geology of other parts of the country. All noble Lords were right to say that it is important that we look at geology because we are not going to look at or put forward a site, whether in Cumbria, the Thames valley or wherever, unless the geology is right. I hope that all those who are more expert than me—all other noble Lords—will bear in mind what the noble Lord, Lord Fox, said about geology not always necessarily being the most exact science when he spoke about his experience of the evaluation of projects relating to lakes. Obviously, if it is difficult and we will continue to do so.
I thank the Minister for the way in which he is summing up. Will he say specifically that when he says the geology must be right, he means the geology must be right and not that some engineered containment area within imperfect geology will be acceptable?
I am not going to speculate on what exactly will be found to be suitable—I will give way in a minute if the noble Lord, Lord Fox, will let me answer the question. As the noble Lord made clear, it is not the most exact science. We have to find a suitable area and it might be that it can be adapted in some ways. I cannot speculate on that; it must be a matter for future processes. It is not only the community involvement that we are looking for; it is also getting the geology right. Then we can move ahead.
I was actually rising to help the Minister. The answer is in the appraisal of sustainability report which specifically states that the geology should,
“isolate and contain the radioactivity for a very long period”.
That wording is dropped in the national policy statement and is replaced merely by “stable”. Will the Minister confirm that the imperative to contain and isolate remains the Government’s definition of the correct geology?
I am fairly sure that that will be the case. I congratulate the noble Lord on spotting a marginal difference in the two—the noble Lord speaks as a greater expert than I am. I would be grateful for the opportunity to write to the noble Lord in greater detail. It is important that we get these things right. That is why I have made it quite clear that no decisions have been made. This is not an attempt to impose something on Cumbria that it does not want; it is not something to impose on the Thames Valley—I am thinking of community involvement in Staines or Heathrow or wherever. It is not something that we are proposing. We want to find somewhere with the right geology and the right community involvement.
In 1995, Nirex appealed against the decision of Cumbria County Council to refuse permission for a rock characterisation facility which would have led to the construction of what we are looking at today. Will that report and the evidence taken at that inquiry be fully considered when decisions are taken in dealing with this application when it comes?
The noble Lord will be aware that I have been around for quite a long time and references to that were made earlier. I am not an expert on the Nirex report. I know that it did not rule out Cumbria as being unsuitable geologically, but again it would be right and proper if I wrote to the noble Lord on that point. I welcome him to this debate. Certainly, we will address the point in due course.
Will the Minister put a copy of the response to me in the Library?
I will make sure that my response is available not only to the noble Lord but, as always, in the Library.
Community involvement and who the community should be were also matters of concern, particularly to the noble Lord, Lord Fox. The Working with Communities policy proposals state that those who have a say in whether the GDF is sited, once we have decided on geology, will be those who would be directly impacted by the construction and operation of the GDF. The noble Lord, Lord Fox, dismissed this as a bribe, but this is a multi-billion pound infrastructure investment—I shall say a little more about costs—that is likely to have a positive effect on the local community. Those benefits will not materialise for decades after the initial interest is shown and will benefit future generations rather than current residents. That is why the Government are making community investment funding available to those communities that participate in the siting process in order to demonstrate that we are serious about the opportunities and benefits that hosting a facility will have and to recognise the efforts of the local community early on in that process.
The noble Lord, Lord Judd, was, I think, worried that, although this might bring jobs, the number of jobs will diminish over time. That is true. In the very long term the number of jobs will go down, but I recommend that he looks at what has been happening at Sellafield with all the cleaning up that is going on there. On my last visit I was assured that the clean-up is going to continue for many years to come—I see the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, nodding—and it is quite likely that those who are going to be involved in the final clean-up at Sellafield have not yet been born. We are talking about a very long timescale on that front, and I think the same will be true of the development of this facility.
The noble Lord, Lord Fox, asked who exactly will be doing this and how we can be sure that they will be there for a long time. Radioactive Waste Management, a wholly-owned subsidiary company of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, is the body involved with the long-term clean-up at Sellafield. As he knows, the NDA is a non-departmental public body responsible for implementing a safe, sustainable and publicly acceptable geological disposal programme. Under the Energy Act 2004, the NDA is required to decommission and clean up designated nuclear sites and for the operation of the designated facilities for the disposal of hazardous material.
I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, who asked about costs. It is very difficult to speculate on what those long-term costs might be. One remembers the American senator with his “a billion here, a billion there and pretty soon we are talking about real money”. I have a figure—I do not know how accurate it is likely to be—of around £12 billion for legacy waste for the likely inventory that we can foresee at the moment. How long that will last and how accurate that will be will be a matter of speculation. We are in the process of updating the cost estimate in line with the wider update of the programme business case, in line with best practice, and that will need to allow for risk, uncertainty and optimism.
I see time is drawing on. There was one final point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, about post-2018 and the European Union (Withdrawal) Act and whether the spent fuel and radioactive waste directive will cease to exist after exit. The 2018 Act has gone through and preserves most parts of existing law, as the noble Lord will remember from the long discussions. Requirements in Euratom directives do not have direct effect—that is, they do not give rise to enforceable rights for individuals that are not directly preserved by the Act, and that is the case for the relevant part of the spent fuel and radioactive waste directive.
I hope I have answered most of the points that were put before me. I will go carefully through what has been said in the course of this debate and respond to points that noble Lords have made if I feel that I have missed them. I also repeat the offer I made at the beginning, and I hope my officials will bear with me repeating it. If any noble Lord wishes to talk further to officials on this, I am more than happy to make them available and I recommend that noble Lords get in touch with my office to arrange that should they wish to do so.
Committee adjourned at 3.24 pm.