Has the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management lost its independence?

The Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM) which advises BEIS on dealing with nuclear waste, has recently published a paper which Cumbria Trust believes calls into question their independence.  They are supposed to act as an independent body, but some of their recent actions suggest to us that they are too close to BEIS and failing to adequately perform their advisory function and to challenge poor decision-making.

A government department which surrounds itself, and only listens to people who agree with it, is at significant risk of repeating past mistakes. Cumbria Trust have written the letter (below) to CoRWM expressing our concerns.


F-B Logo

Sir Nigel Thrift
Committee on Radioactive Waste Management
CoRWM Secretariat
3rd Floor
1 Victoria Street

10th November 2018

Dear Sir Nigel

Response to: CoRWM Position Paper: GDF Should only Target Best Geology 25 October 2018

We have a number of concerns about the position paper (doc. 3468) which CoRWM published on 25th October 2018 and would appreciate it if you would pass this letter on to the CoRWM members.

Stakeholder replies

We feel that you are using an over-literal interpretation in responding to stakeholder consultation replies which advocated a search for the best geology, by taking this to mean the single best site in England and Wales.  While a few stakeholders may have intended that in its very narrowest sense, which is clearly incompatible with voluntarism, we believe that the majority did not.  By confining your response to this narrow interpretation, you have missed the opportunity to examine a more realistic and widely-held view.  It is quite possible to combine the principle of voluntarism in site selection, which we accept, with some level of geological pre-selection.  Cumbria Trust advocates actively seeking volunteers from areas which have promising geology, as recommended by many experts including the Lead Inspector of the Nirex Inquiry, Chris McDonald.

International comparison of rock types

You appear to be implying that Finland and Sweden choosing a hard rock site, while France has chosen a clay rock, somehow supports your premise that no one of the three rock types is preferable to the others.  We consider the use of this example to be misleading.  Sweden was forced to choose a hard rock due to the absence of a suitable clay rock, while France had the choice of both and opted for clay. If Sweden had the choice of a hard rock and a suitable clay, they would have chosen to construct their GDF in clay.

We refer you to the transcript of a meeting that took place in 2013 between MPs, the head of the NDA and geological experts, in which Professor Yardley, who subsequently became RWM’s Chief Geologist, was forced to concede this point [Lines 185 – 212] :

The UK’s radwaste inventory, in common with France, includes the results of an extensive programme of reprocessing spent fuel, leading to a significant amount of carbon-14 being present. This poses a particular risk to a GDF project and increases the need for an effective gas barrier to prevent radioactive methane, amongst other gases, from escaping.  Studies in the Irish Sea have shown that the carbon-14 from Sellafield’s reprocessing activities has been found in marine predators.  The requirement to contain the gases produced by the UK’s radwaste inventory when sealed in a GDF is a further reason that a clay host rock may well be preferable for the UK.

Failure of the NGS to screen out unsuitable geology

We are concerned that CoRWM seems to have reversed its position on screening out areas of unsuitable geology.  You previously supported screening out areas and now in this latest position paper you have switched to oppose it; something which we feel may substantially reduce the value of the geological screening report.

In June 2017 you published document 3341 ‘CoRWM: thirteenth annual report 2016 to 2017’ stating “CoRWM provided advice to RWM that the NGS output should be separated into three parts. The first part would focus on geological information; the second would relate this information to the safety of a GDF and the third would cover the areas that have been screened out from further consideration.” 

And you reiterate this point when you go on to highlight key recommendations “Recommendation 1: National Geological Screening Outputs Part 1 of RWM’s National Geological Screening output should comprise the British Geological Survey’s Technical Information Reports; Part 2 should show the relationship of this information to the safety of a GDF and Part 3 should contain information on areas that have been screened out from further consideration.”

Why has CoRWM now changed its view in this way?  This change is likely to increase the chances that mistakes of the past are repeated.  A screening report which is watered-down to such an extent that it no longer screens out any areas is of very limited use, if any.

The independence of CoRWM

While Cumbria Trust supports the principle of an independent committee to scrutinise the approach taken by RWM and BEIS, this latest change of view brings into question CoRWM’s independence. We have previously highlighted the public misuse of a MORI poll by one of your former members, which created a highly misleading view of the reasons behind the failure of the MRWS process. A committee which tells a government department what it wants to hear is not merely pointless; it’s potentially dangerous, since BEIS uses CoRWM’s stance to validate their own position.

We recognise that CoRWM has over the past decade and a half been a positive influence at times, but genuine independence is the key to this.  With a history of poor decision making on management of nuclear waste going back many decades, the last thing the government needs is an echo chamber.  CoRWM must feel able to openly disagree with BEIS and RWM if it is to help shape the process and ensure that past failures are not repeated.

Yours sincerely

Geoff Betsworth (Chairman)

Cumbria Trust