Lords "astonished" by UK nuclear strategy

10 December 2004

After hearing evidence from Elliot Morley, minister of state for the environment and Gordon MacKerron, chairman of the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM), the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee produced a report which heavily criticised both CoRWM and the government’s handling of nuclear matters.

CoRWM was created by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in 2003 to review every strategy ever considered both in the UK and abroad for the management of intermediate- and high-level radioactive wastes. Their list of possible solutions ranges from disposal underground to disposal in space and they are required to report to government in 2006 with a preferred solution (see NEI December 2004, p8). The Lords found CoRWM’s terms of reference to be “dauntingly broad and in some respects astonishingly vague.”

Noting with frustration that almost 30 unfruitful years have passed since the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution stressed the urgent need for a long-term solution to the problem of storing radioactive waste, the report wastes no time in attacking the policies of successive governments.

The Lords’ report says that in the light of all the research supporting deep underground disposal they are “astonished that the committee should have been told to set about this task with a blank sheet of paper” and invited to consider options which have previously been ruled out by government and numerous authoritative bodies. In a clear reference to interstellar disposal they said: “CoRWM must waste no more time considering infeasible strategies.”

CoRWM’s composition also came in for criticism: the body is composed of people with a broad range of mainly non-nuclear expertise. This was intended to eliminate prejudice towards any particular disposal method but the Lords are worried that it has backfired. CoRWM’s original terms of reference require it to contain members with expertise in scientific and technical issues such as earth science, materials and their properties, and civil engineering, but the Lords “do not feel that these essential skills are adequately represented.” They “cannot understand” why Defra’s chief scientific advisor was not directly involved in the formation of the committee and “judge the composition of CoRWM to be inappropriate” for offering advice to the government on the technical aspects of its remit. They are unconvinced of CoRWM’s claims that peer review by consultants can ensure they arrive at the appropriate technical solution: “We regard it as essential that CoRWM should have more internal technical expertise.” The government was urged to consider “without delay” appointing extra personnel to CoRWM or establishing a technical sub-committee: “It is not too late for such experts to play an important role in the decision-making process.”

While supporting CoRWM’s objectives of openness, transparency and inclusivity, it is thought that the amount of time and money put into consultation is disproportionate to the public discussion likely to be generated at this stage in strategy selection. CoRWM is not required to recommend a site for any disposal facility in its 2006 report and it is the site selection process that will prove most challenging in terms of public acceptance.

Somewhat sarcastically, the report points out that science and technology aspects of radwaste management have changed little since the demise of the last strategy in 1997. “The desire of the government to embark on repeated consultation exercises looks increasingly like an attempt to put off taking a decision.” They find it unacceptable that no work is currently underway to prepare for the governmental-level policy selection stage that will begin after CoRWM’s report: the government must be clear as to what they will receive from CoRWM so that the next stage can follow promptly. CoRWM is not required to consider further issues surrounding the preferred solution, for example the siting of an incineration facility, geological issues for a deep repository or technical barriers to sub-seabed disposal. The government’s strategy is to put off thinking about these potential problems until after CoRWM’s report so as not to prejudice it. However, the Lords do not consider that to be adequate: “They must not wait until 2006.”

While neither endorsing nor rejecting the concept of new nuclear build in the UK, the Lords consider that “the small uncertainties that still exist must be balanced against the spectre of global warming. The consequences of not doing enough to limit greenhouse gas emissions may be catastrophic.”

The UK has set a target to reduce the carbon emissions by 60% by 2050. The Lords note that “the role that nuclear power can play in this respect is widely recognised, and is becoming a matter of increasingly urgent public debate.”



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