The UK House of Lords harshly criticised the government on 12 January while debating a scathing report on the activities of the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM).

CoWRM must choose an appropriate technology to store the UK’s solid intermediate- and high-level waste and report to government in July 2006. Made up of non-nuclear experts, it aims to engage public stakeholder groups and start from a ‘blank sheet of paper’: CoRWM is considering every disposal option that has ever been tabled from disposal in space to deep geologic disposal – the obvious front-runner.

The Lords Science and Technology Committee heard evidence from CoRWM’s chair, Gordon MacKerron, and Environment Minister Elliot Morley before publishing a damning report in December 2004. The Lords declared astonishment that decades of research into geologic disposal had been deliberately ignored and that the chief scientist at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) was not consulted on CoRWM’s membership, which the Lords consider to be lacking in technical expertise.

Science and Technology Committee chair, Lord Oxburgh, stressed that he intended no criticism of CoRWM’s members, but insisted that the government had chosen the wrong team for the job.

Lord Flowers, who chaired the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution when it reported on Nuclear Power and The Environment in 1976, said it was inappropriate that his 1976 recommendation that there should be no commitment to nuclear power until a proven method exists to safely contain waste was still government policy. He said that we must take 30 years of progress into account, particularly the fact that underground storage has been demonstrated to be adequate by Finnish engineers.

There was a widespread feeling that the government is delibrerately wasting time, Baroness Miller accusing Blair of NIMTOism (Not In My Term of Office) but Flowers told the House: “what we need now is not a nuclear option, but a nuclear reality” and Lord Tombs pleaded for a government roadmap including a committed time-scale for positive action.

Prime Minister Tony Blair has carefully voiced support for nuclear as a carbon-free technology but his government is putting off any decisions until after a public debate. In turn, no debate will be mentioned until after the coming election.

The government’s embarrassment will continue when Defra responds to the issues raised by both the Lords’ report and debate.