CoRWM (The Committee on Radioactive Waste Management) invited responses for the triennial review of its activities, here is ours:

Written by Rod Donington-Smith and endorsed by the  Cumbria Trust Board of Directors, this was sent to CoRWM following their request for comments on the way they are performing their duties:

(download as a printable pdf document)

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Dear Sir or Madam,

Triennial Review of CoRWM 2015

1. Do the key functions performed by CoRWM continue to be necessary and appropriate for the successful management of higher activity radioactive wastes?  

In normal circumstances the scrutiny and advisory functions that CoRWM is tasked to provide SHOULD help in the management of higher activity radioactive waste. But in reality its effectiveness is dependent on the calibre of the members involved and the Government’s willingness to take heed of their advice or recommendations. Sadly history shows that significant recommendations made in the past have been downplayed or simply ignored.

The original GDF proposal was to provide a solution to deal with the country’s legacy waste. It was clearly stated that, if further waste were to arise from new build, it should be dealt with separately. No new nuclear plants should even be considered until facilities were available to deal with the waste that would be produced. There now is an obscene rush into a nuclear future based on questionable ever extending timescales and astronomical guaranteed prices for power generated. Not only is it proposed to mix legacy waste with waste from new build but the originally recommended timescales to allow cooling prior to being put in a GDF are being reduced.

As for the calibre of CoRWM’s current members we have grave concerns when they appear to show blind faith in engineered solutions and talk of ”safety cases” rather than GEOLOGICAL disposal facilities. One member even gave a presentation to the Geological Society claiming that there had been 80% local support under the previous MRWS process to progress onto stage 4. This was blatantly untrue.

There remains a need for independent scrutiny and advice, but the ongoing failure to get to grips with the Sellafield site, where most of the high level waste is stored, suggests that CoRWM has at best been ineffective in this respect. CoRWM was formed 14 years ago, and yet the Public Accounts Committee still finds that Sellafield poses an ‘intolerable risk to people and the environment’, and costs continue to spiral out of control. The recent removal of Nuclear Management Partners, so soon after renewing their contract, suggests that the management of higher activity radioactive wastes remains chaotic.
Responses to recent freedom of information requests from Cumbria Trust, seeking information on the condition of the open air storage ponds, in particular B30, the First Generation Magnox Storage Pond, illustrate these failings. Seven pages of redacted photographs combined with the astounding admission that inspectors were unable to assess the integrity of the concrete structure due to objects and plant growth obstructing their view, does not inspire confidence. This is one of the most hazardous structures in Europe, and yet the NDA are content with only examining easily accessible parts of it which don’t require objects or plants to be moved. Why has CoRWM not been challenging the NDA on this? Why is it left to an independent and unfunded organisation such as Cumbria Trust to hold the NDA to account? This is within CoRWM’s remit, and it suggests that its work has been inadequate and unfocussed.
There appears to be a groupthink mentality within CoRWM as it exists today, with no lone voices willing to robustly challenge DECC. An independent CoRWM remains essential for the management of high level wastes, but with genuinely independent experts who are willing to challenge rather than follow are required. CoRWM should include representatives from NGOs and independent bodies who do not depend on government funding for it to provide genuine scrutiny.

2. Do the key functions performed by CoRWM continue to be necessary for the successful implementation of the Geological Disposal Facility Programme in particular?   

There remains a distinct possibility that the process laid down in the White Paper will not achieve a successful implementation of a GDF and CoRWM, if carrying out its duties with due diligence, should advise the government appropriately.

However many times Government ministers claim that no decision has been made where a GDF might be constructed, the suspicion remains that Cumbria is their location of choice. With the impending classification of GDFs as NSIPs, the Government is giving itself the power to impose a GDF upon a region, even if it has not been established that it contains the requisite geology for the construction of a safe disposal facility.

In respect of questions 1 and 2 you might wish to consider issues such as:  is independent scrutiny and advice, over and above that already provided by the independent safety, security and environmental regulators, necessary for the successful long- term management of higher activity radioactive wastes and the delivery of geological disposal? Is stakeholder engagement and transparency of information important?   

CoRWM is essential to the successful implementation of a GDF, and yet unless it operates in a genuinely independent manner, there is a real risk that it just provides a façade of independence which simply rubber stamps DECC’s proposals.
Sweden is perhaps the best example here, having both a genuinely independent safety authority, SSM, and funding an independent non-governmental organisation, MKG, to scrutinise its work. This ‘critical friend’ approach has been highly successful. It has discovered that the KBS-3 storage concept has a critical flaw, in that the rate of copper corrosion in an oxygen-free environment will be significantly faster than predicted. In fact some of the canisters are likely to have failed within hundreds of years, rather than the hundreds of thousands of years which had been modelled.
KBS-3 is also the storage concept proposed by the NDA. Had this independent Swedish scrutiny not discovered this problem, there is a real risk that the UK could have gone ahead with this flawed technology. This illustrates the need for CoRWM to include genuinely independent and knowledgeable people. At a CoRWM public meeting in April 2014, a panel member denied that problems had been identified with the canisters in Sweden. Either she was being deliberately misleading or simply ignorant, which is hard to believe.
During MRWS stage 2 there was a clear example of scientific manipulation, which a body providing independent scrutiny such as CoRWM, could/should have objected to, but it remained silent. It either failed to notice, or it chose not to speak out. Both of these possibilities are unacceptable given CoRWM’s role. In July 2010 the British Geological Survey produced a draft screening report which correctly excluded the Solway Plain on the basis of oil and gas potential, and water resources, as specified in the 2008 White Paper. By the time that this screening report was published in October 2010, those criteria had been removed, which brought part of the Solway Plain back into play.
To make matters worse, the draft report was then suppressed as it would have provided clear evidence of this scientific manipulation. We had to rely on someone with a conscience at the BGS who was so concerned by this abuse of the scientific process, that they leaked the draft report.
How could a properly functioning CoRWM have allowed this to happen? This is why we need genuinely independent scrutiny to ensure that the science is rigorous, and that we don’t allow DECC/NDA to simply ignore or hide inconvenient results. CoRWM must include experts who do not depend on government funding and are prepared to speak out.

3. If you consider that CoRWM’s functions remain valid, are these functions best delivered by a Non-Departmental Public Body (NDPB)?  Please consider the following alternative options in giving your answer:
• Abolish the function
• Move out of Central Government (e.g. to voluntary or private sector)
• Bring in house (e.g. into the Department of Energy and Climate Change)
• Merge with another body
• Delivery by a new Executive Agency
• Continued delivery by an NDPB  

CoRWM could remain as a Non-Departmental Public Body, but it needs to include people who are independent of government and willing to criticise it. There appears to have been a policy of removing or side-lining those who don’t support the government view. Dr Keith Baverstock and Professor David Ball are examples of this.
There are some examples of CoRWM members taking irrational and incorrect positions in order to support DECC. Former member, Professor Rebecca Lunn used some incorrect and highly misleading figures to suggest that there was significant support for a GDF in Cumbria in a public lecture. CoRWM denied that this lecture was endorsed by them, and yet it was placed on the CoRWM website. Professor Robert Pickard appeared to have such a weak grasp of the MRWS process that he wrote “It could be argued that the British process has also screened out unsuitable geology before asking communities to volunteer” in response to a question from a Cumbrian resident. This was either an attempt to mislead, or a fundamental misunderstanding of how MRWS worked, and not something we would expect from a CoRWM Chair.
We would like to see greater involvement of NGOs within the NDPB structure, including representatives on the committee, to ensure that CoRWM doesn’t simply mirror DECC’s views. It is essential that it does not become part of DECC/NDA.

4. What do you see as the benefits and risks of delivering the functions of CoRWM in these alternative ways?   In particular, do you view any of these methods of delivery as beneficial, and why?

The benefit of including genuinely independent people, including those from NGOs is self-evident. This has produced substantive benefits in Sweden, and appears to be working well in France. A Non-Departmental Public Body could work as a structure, provided that it doesn’t fall into the trap of recruiting those who just toe the line.
5. If you consider that an advisory NDPB is the right delivery mechanism for the functions of CoRWM, what improvements could be made to support the effective and efficient delivery of CoRWM’s remit?
You might wish to consider issues such as:  does CoRWM do a good job – does it offer value for money?  Is CoRWM politically impartial? Do you trust CoRWM as a source of  independent advice and authoritative information? Has CoRWM the necessary skills and experience to fulfil its remit?

While we do consider that an NDPB could be the right structure, we don’t feel that CoRWM is currently doing a good job, for the reasons stated above. In fact as currently structured, CoRWM increases the risk of poor decision making by DECC, since the current committee appear unwilling to materially criticise, yet they can be cited by DECC as evidence of independent scrutiny to validate their approach.

CoRWM as currently structured cannot be trusted as a source of independent advice. We have concerns over their failure to pick up on the scientific manipulation which took place during MRWS stage 2 and the failure to hold Sellafield management to account is unacceptable. Cumbrian people still face an intolerable risk, some 14 years since CoRWM was created. It clearly isn’t working as it should do, and until CoRWM includes genuinely independent people who don’t depend on government funding, it is likely to stay that way.

Yours faithfully,

Rod Donington-Smith
Director Cumbria Trust

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