The 1997 Nirex debacle, in which the British public effectively vetoed a proposed deep waste repository beneath the Sellafield site in Cumbria, taught the UK government a painful lesson in public engagement. Having no doubt vowed never to repeat the experience, in September 2001 the government launched a public consultation and from this, in November 2003, the independent Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM) began its work reviewing options for managing solid radioactive waste in the UK. These materials, of which the majority are currently stored temporarily around the country at the sites where they were produced, already amount to some 20,000t and are expected to increase to a total of more than 470,000m3 when current facilities are decommissioned.

In order to maximise public acceptance and engagement, CoRWM is required to conduct its review in an open, transparent and inclusive manner, ensuring that members of the public and stakeholders have an opportunity to express their views. This is a fundamental concept in the development of the committee and its processes and, by way of example, all committee meetings are open to the public where opportunities for dissent, disagreement or objection are freely given.

The 13-member committee is not due to report to the government until July 2006 but has recently concluded the first three-month stage of public and stakeholder engagement, delivering a provisional short list of disposal options. This first stage took place from November 2004 to January 2005, and considered issues such as a long list of possible disposal options and the short listing process, the inventory of radioactive wastes, and CoRWM’s future programme. The second stage of engagement began in April and will consider the provisional short list of options and the process for assessing these options before the final short list is agreed in July this year. The four provisional short listed options are interim storage; near-surface disposal (for short-lived intermediate-level wastes); deep underground disposal and phased deep underground disposal.

Measures rejected include disposal in ice sheets, in geological subduction zones, in space, or under the seabed, along with a number of other techniques. Each short-listed option will now be considered against criteria such as the impact on human health, vulnerability to terrorism or a breakdown of society, environmental impacts, economic considerations and a number of other factors such as retrievability of the waste.


The CoRWM process has received significant criticism, not least of which came from the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee in December. The Lords’ report expressed “astonishment that CoRWM, in seeking the best technical solution to the problems of radioactive waste management, had been required to start from a ‘blank sheet of paper.’” The report also raised concerns over the level of technical expertise within the committee and the lack of involvement of the chief scientist at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), Howard Dalton. Critics have also appeared within the committee itself, with Keith Baverstock’s suspension and the voluntary suspension of David Ball over the progress and direction of the committee under its chair Gordon MacKerron.

While MacKerron declined to comment on Baverstock other than to say that any disagreements are unrelated to questions on substantive issues, he defended CoRWM’s membership and progress to NEI in London on 21 March: “Firstly, it is not our fault if we are the wrong committee, we didn’t appoint ourselves, but there is a clear science and technology background within the membership of the committee.” MacKerron adds that “while both social acceptance and a scientific basis are required, the committee deliberately decided not to do much science initially as most options fall at the first hurdle.” As an example MacKerron refers to sub-seabed disposal, which while technically a feasible solution breaches a number of international treaties.

Certainly, the committee is already backed by a large number of specialists, consultants and subcontractors from firms like NNC who between them provide services ranging from advising on space technology or terrorism risks, to running a website. In addition, now that the first phase has been concluded, the committee intends to convene a panel of widely respected experts to evaluate how well each short-listed option performs against the criteria. CoRWM is calling on organisations to tender for input into the short listed options.

The CoRWM quality assurance group also started work in early January in developing ground rules for peer review. The group also agreed to co-opt a small number of distinguished scientific or other experts to provide an advisory function. The first, Geoffrey Boulton, has agreed to participate and the committee is also discussing proposals by Defra’s Dalton, to offer scientific advice. These measures go some way to addressing recommendations made in the Lords’ report and the government response to the Lords indicates that Defra is content both with the progress made by CoRWM and its membership, saying the committee’s role “is that of overseeing an assessment of the options for the long-term management as opposed to that of being a scientific advisor per se.” While this position still differs from that of the Lords, the government adds: “what CoRWM has is a broadly-based membership comprising both members with a good exisiting understanding of the nuclear industry and others who have the necessary knowledge and experience to supply a fresh, but suitably informed, view of the issues.”

Whether this is sufficiently forceful to stave off further criticism remains to be seen, but the crucial factor is whether a publicly acceptable solution to the UK’s waste problem can be found.