Infrastructure Planning (Radioactive Waste Geological Disposal Facilities) Order 2015
Motion to Consider
25 February 2015, 3.45 pm
That the Grand Committee do consider the Infrastructure Planning (Radioactive Waste Geological Disposal Facilities) Order 2015.
Relevant document: 19th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, 24th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Baroness Verma) (Con):
My Lords, I will introduce the order before providing background on geological disposal and why the Government recommend that this order should be approved.
On 12 January, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change laid before the House a draft order to bring certain development relating to geological disposal facilities for radioactive waste within the definition of “nationally significant infrastructure projects” in the Planning Act 2008. Making this legislative change will help us to implement geological disposal, an action vital for both for our energy past and energy future. As a pioneer of nuclear technology, the UK has accumulated a legacy of higher-activity radioactive waste and materials. More will arise as existing nuclear facilities reach the end of their lifetime and are decommissioned and cleaned up, and through the operation and decommissioning of any new nuclear power stations.
Most noble Lords will be aware, but it is worth reiterating, that geological disposal is recognised across the world, and by our own independent Committee on Radioactive Waste Management, as being the best available approach for the long-term management of higher-activity radioactive waste. A geological disposal facility, or GDF, is a highly engineered facility capable of isolating radioactive waste within multiple protective barriers, deep underground, so that no harmful quantities of radioactivity ever reach the surface.
Last year, my department published a White Paper to move the process of implementing geological disposal forward. It set out three initial actions for government and the developer, Radioactive Waste Management Ltd, which were informed by a review of the GDF siting process that had operated since 2008. The purpose of these actions is to better inform communities on issues of geology, development impacts and community representation and investment before they are asked to get involved in discussions about potentially hosting a GDF. A national geological screening exercise will consider the available geological information across the country and provide guidance on features relevant to building a safe GDF. The detail of how the Government and the developer will work together with communities will also be developed. These are important and challenging issues, on which there must be clarity before communities are asked to get involved in formal discussions with the developer, from which they will have an ongoing right of withdrawal.
A GDF for the UK’s higher-activity radioactive waste is clearly an infrastructure project of national significance. The Government believe that it is appropriate that the approach to land use planning decisions reflects this. The Planning Act 2008 created a new regime for development consent for certain types of nationally significant infrastructure, such as major energy, transport and waste projects. The process is designed to streamline the decision-making process for these projects and, while ensuring there is still a thorough examination of the benefits and impacts of the projects, make it fairer and faster for communities and developers alike.
The purpose of this order is to bring both a GDF, and the deep borehole investigations necessary to assess and characterise the suitability of potential sites, within the scope of this process. This will provide a clear process for the developer seeking consent, as well as placing specific requirements on the developer to consult local communities, local authorities, and other interested parties.
I wish to make it very clear that the process of seeking development consent to assess or develop a site for a GDF is distinct from any process to identify a potential site. The Government continue to favour an approach to siting a GDF that is based on local communities’ willingness to participate in the process. The 2014 Implementing Geological Disposal White Paper is clear that the final decision to apply for development consent and regulatory approvals for a GDF will not be taken until, and unless, there is a positive test of public support for hosting a GDF at the site in question.
In support of this approach to land use planning, the Government will produce a national policy statement to set out their policy on the need for these types of infrastructure in more detail. This will be subject to an appraisal of sustainability. The Government intend to bring forward the preparation of a generic national policy statement as soon as is practicable to help inform the process of working with communities on GDF siting. This approach to land use planning would of course apply only to the development of a GDF in England. The development of a GDF elsewhere in the UK would need to be progressed through the appropriate devolved planning system.
The purpose of this order is to put in place an appropriate process for land use planning decisions in relation to geological disposal facilities and facilitate the provision of greater upfront information to interested communities through the production of a national policy statement. In this way, it will help to ensure that we are able to implement geological disposal, which will contribute to securing our energy past and our energy future. With this in mind, I commend the order to the Committee.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a Cumbrian resident and a member of Cumbria County Council. I want to set my position on record right at the outset: I think that the Minister should withdraw this order. I do not believe it is right that the Government should be able to impose what we all colloquially refer to as a nuclear dump on Cumbria, regardless of the views of the whole Cumbria community and its county council, which is essentially what the Government are trying to do.
I emphasise that I am a strong supporter of nuclear power and always have been. It would be a tragedy for the country if we were to retreat from the proposed programme of new nuclear power stations, one of which is at Moorside, adjacent to Sellafield in Cumbria. To sacrifice the nuclear programme because of some temporary fall in the oil price—and because a lot of people are talking about the prospects for fracking in Britain and Europe, which are extremely uncertain—would be to risk our long-term energy security, as well as our ability to meet our carbon reduction targets.
I also believe that a long-term solution to the problem of nuclear waste must be found. Indeed, I would like to see a massive research programme undertaken into this issue because it cannot be beyond the wit of scientific ingenuity to find new solutions to this problem in the next 20 or 30 years. However, had I been a member of Cumbria County Council in 2013—which I was not because I was elected only in the May of that year—I would have personally advocated that our cabinet take forward the exploratory work of locating a geological repository in Cumbria on the basis that it was not an irrevocable commitment and that there was a clear legislative commitment on the part of the Government to establish the right to withdrawal, which we still await. I would have wanted to put the Government on the spot as to what they were actually prepared to deliver for Cumbria if, scientifically, it could be shown on the basis of independent geological advice that a safe site could be found. As a democrat and a Cumbria citizen, I just cannot support the current proposal that the final decision is taken out of the hands of anyone in Cumbria and left to the Secretary of State.
I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, has been extremely conscientious in her efforts on this issue, and I have no personal criticism of her role whatever. The Government argue that they have given the clear assurance that nothing will go ahead without a clear demonstration of local support. However, it is clear from the consultation document that the Government issued last year that they do not regard the support of the county council as an essential element of that clear demonstration of local support. I think that there are very strong objections to the position that the Government are now taking—objections both in logic and in terms of democracy.
If community benefits, which the Government talk about if this major development—something on the scale of the Channel Tunnel—goes ahead, are to be meaningful, they will involve huge infrastructure investments that stretch well beyond Sellafield and Copeland Borough Council, which covers the Sellafield area. For example, at present there is no dual carriageway road to the Sellafield site. If there were to be a proper connection to the M6 by one route or another, surely the county council should be involved in that decision. Similarly, it takes longer to go by train from Carlisle round the Cumbria coast through Whitehaven, Sellafield and Barrow to Lancaster than it does to go from Carlisle to London, so primitive is the infrastructure in this area. Indeed, the latest proposals from the Department for Transport will worsen services on this line as a result of the refranchising of the TransPennine and Northern rail services. Therefore, if we were talking seriously about community benefits, we would be talking about how to improve rail services, making them modern and efficient, between Sellafield and the west coast main line. Again, how could you conceivably do this without involving and getting the support of the county council? It would be both impractical and a democratic outrage.
However, there is another reason why I do not like the Government’s policy. We are currently generating a very important debate in Cumbria about local government reorganisation. The creation of a unitary authority for the county is, in my view, an extremely desirable goal and would spare local government in the county the necessity of making £28 million of cuts to local services—that is according to a recent independent report that Ernst & Young has done for the county council. My suspicion is that the Government will be determined to block any efforts to create a unitary council in Cumbria and to spare Cumbria this scale of local government cuts because they want to retain Copeland Borough Council as their badge of demonstrating local support. If so, that would be quite wrong. If they are serious about this, I would like to see the Government do something now to prevent our having to make £28 million of cuts to local services, which would be devastating for libraries, children’s centres and the rest.
At the moment, many people in Cumbria believe that, on this issue, the Government are playing games to demonstrate a measure of seriousness about their long-term ambitions for a repository simply to justify the grant of planning permission for new nuclear power stations, when there is not the slightest prospect of anything going ahead or the Treasury agreeing to the vast expenditure involved. The consequences for Cumbria would be very serious indeed.
For all these reasons, I believe that it is wrong for us to endorse an order that basically gives the Secretary of State the power to do what he wants and ride roughshod over the elected, democratic representatives of the county. That is why I would like to see this order withdrawn.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer (LD):
My Lords, as the Minister said, this order is simply to bring GDFs within the nationally significant infrastructure project regime of the Planning Act 2008. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, has had to find out the hard way that that Act, brought in by Labour in 2008, has such an anti-democratic flavour, which at the time we feared it would. As he said, the order will remove from local planning authorities and their respective communities the final say in the planning process. I find that extraordinary when we are looking at something that we have never had before. It is not like a road, which can be a nationally significant infrastructure project if the Government choose to designate it as such; we have lots of roads. A railway, such as HS2, might be one. We have not had GDFs before; this is new. That is another reason why it should be subject to the proper rigours of a democratic planning process.
Perhaps one of the best things that the Labour Party did in the previous Government, during the time when it brought in the Planning Act, was in February 2005 when the UK ratified the UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, which became known as the Aarhus convention. That is the main thing I want to ask the Minister about today.
I am very pleased to see the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, in his place. Back in 2006, I asked him whether any of the provisions in the Aarhus convention had yet to be implemented in the United Kingdom. He confirmed that we had ratified it and that the full lists of what that meant were now available. Those set out the UK’s range of obligations on access to information and public participation. I think that this GDF proposal would fall within Annex I to the Aarhus convention. It would be most helpful if the Minister could make some reference to that in her reply.
Having looked at the Government’s response, which was handed out with these papers today, it is very hard to balance the Government’s statement that they will not proceed without a positive test of public support without thinking that the ultimate test of public support for a planning issue is exactly that the local authorities involved make planning decisions. That is why the system was invented in the way that it was: so that there could be democratic representation and people could have a say. Something as important as this is not only about burying waste in the ground. Bear in mind that it is also about the transport of waste to that facility, which will have an enormous impact.
For all those reasons, I should like the Minister to assure us, for a start, that it complies with the Aarhus convention and, secondly, to consider whether the exceptional nature of GDFs should make them inapplicable to the process envisaged by the 2008 Act.
My Lords, as a humble citizen of Cumbria, I was very reassured to hear my noble friend Lord Liddle speaking as powerfully as he did. He certainly reflects widespread feeling within the county. It is sometimes easy to exaggerate but I think that there is almost a breakdown in trust. There is a feeling that the Government have for a long time been absolutely determined to drive through this project in west Cumbria, and that everything will therefore be done to ensure that it happens. Scepticism, to use a milder word, is inevitable if you have a situation in which, under the established rules, the permissions of the local authorities—and very much the county council—were essential if the project were to go ahead. When it turned out that the county council, with its greater strategic responsibilities, was not in favour of the recent attempt to develop further research into the possibilities, the rules of the game were revised so that in further consultations it would not be necessary to involve the county council but other local authorities could be involved. This inevitably leads to doubt.
It is also important to realise that while my noble friend Lord Liddle was absolutely right to emphasise the strategic issues of transport and all the rest—just think of the A66, the Penrith junction with the M6 and the consequences right across to Scotch Corner—this has immense implications for the wider region. That is why the local authority most responsible for the wider region, since this goes well beyond the county, should be closely involved.
I want to raise one other issue that we do not like talking about. The difficulty is that if you raise it, you will be accused of scaremongering. However, there are risks in a development of any kind to do with nuclear energy and nuclear power. We are living in an absolute world of absurdity if we believe that the consequences of anything going seriously wrong would be limited to Cumbria. It would be the whole north-west, to say the very least, and would probably be wider than that. These are issues on which we need a great deal of reassurance. I have not yet heard anything that reassures at the level necessary.
We must also recognise that there is a fundamental contradiction in the approach to governance because, as I understand it, the Government have been insistent that they favour localism—and very much on any project of this kind, because the involvement and approval of the local community has repeatedly been stated as essential. Yet the whole idea of strategic projects of this kind is to cut back and streamline what has been there traditionally and was very hard won: the possibility for local communities to pursue the things that disturb them and their consequences.
I must emphasise an interest here. Apart from being a citizen of Cumbria, I am also a patron of the Friends of the Lake District and a vice-president of the Campaign for National Parks. It seems to me that these issues about which we started talking in relation to Cumbria apply to the country as a whole. I like the idea of localism but I am not the slightest bit persuaded—and I do not believe that I could be persuaded—that issues of strategic significance such as this can be shuffled on to local authorities, with their limited resources, for them ultimately to decide whether or not to go ahead with them.
Although I am by no means an enthusiast for nuclear energy, I accept that a new generation of nuclear energy will be necessary. It seems to me that, by definition, nuclear energy and its development is a national responsibility, and that the consequences of that must be seen as a national responsibility. Therefore, I would like specific assurance from the Minister that at the outset of any such project it will be considered essential to undertake a transparent and convincing national survey to establish the best, most favourable and least dangerous place in which to develop it. When that has been established, then, of course, local involvement becomes crucial.
I make my position clear: I have said all along that I have very strong views on this project. However, I have also said all along that if, at the end of such a national convincing exercise, it became clear to me that the least dangerous place for such a project was west Cumbria, I would put myself 200% behind it and consider how we could make it the safest and least environmentally and scenically damaging project possible. That would be the responsible thing to do. However, we are nowhere near that point. We are being asked to approve the means before we have had the wider strategic assurances—of course, that will add to doubt. My noble friend was right to say that we are not in a position to approve this measure at all.
I hope that the Minister, with whom I have had many consultations on this issue in the past, can now reassure us. I believe that there is widespread anxiety, not only in the county, but certainly in the county as a whole and beyond it. This is my last point, although I could make many more. If I may use the terms in this place, there is, in an authoritative sense, an intellectual dimension to this issue. Many geologists of great distinction are already saying, and have done for some time, that Cumbria is not the place to have a project of this kind because of the situation with subterranean water. There is a feeling that these scientists of distinction have never been given the hearing on the project that they should have had. Some have made their work available at their own expense as they feel so concerned about it and have put it on public record.
We have to face the fact that nuclear waste exists and there is a whole realm of anxieties about its security and the integrity of the facilities that contain it. We are going ahead to the next generation of nuclear power, which will generate more waste, so we have to find a solution—that is the bottom line—for both existing and future waste. When we have found the right place and mobilised public confidence that everything possible has been done to make the project as safe and secure as possible—I do not believe that it will ever be made completely safe for future generations—we can get into that debate. However, we must be reassured that a national survey has been done and that there is a list—preferably prioritised—of the sites that are right and those that are not, and of those that are better and those that are less well suited. That has not happened. The Minister must put us in the picture about this and give us specific reassurances.
My Lords, like previous speakers in this debate, I am a Cumbrian, and I declare that with pride. I also have a number of interests associated with Cumbria. They are in the register, but I am not sure that there is any particular need to enumerate them now.
I am not an enemy of nuclear power. I am not a fanatical supporter of it either; I stand in the middle. As the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said, we have a lot of nuclear waste and we will have to deal with it. We are likely, almost certainly for the right reasons, to generate more of it in the immediate future. I come from that perspective.
In the context of discussion of any possible disposal facility in west Cumbria, it is important that we stop trying to blur the issues about the locality. In my view, Cumbria County Council is right in thinking that this is a matter that affects the entire county. I do not think that you can curtail the definition by saying that it is simply Allerdale and Copeland. It may be that they have a greater interest than the rest of Cumbria, but Cumbria as a whole has an interest that is different from the rest of the country. That is important and needs to be properly taken into account in considering this matter.
Secondly, it is important to appreciate that, in the context of the immediate history, the order is interpreted locally as sour grapes. It is perceived by a large number of Cumbrians that the Government in Westminster wished, one way or another, to get their way and have a long-term geological disposal facility in the county. Having set up a system to do that, when that form of democracy produced the wrong answer, rather like a number of countries in the Middle East and further afield, they just changed the rules. That is deeply unfortunate and has not helped the progress of the debate about this important topic.
Having said that, I want to touch on three things. First, in his opening remarks, my noble friend said that this relates only to a geological disposal facility in England. The nuclear industry in this island—in the United Kingdom—covers England and Scotland. What steps are being taken to ensure that there is a consistent and homogenous process across the two jurisdictions—if I can put it that way—to ensure that a sensible outcome is reached not only for the English, and not only for the Scottish, but for the country as a whole? That is very important. One thing that is deeply felt by those concerned about these matters is that, to put it in the vernacular, Scottish nuclear waste will be dumped at Sellafield and nobody will get in the way of that.
Secondly, going back to a point made by my noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, if you write local authorities out of the process in the manner that has been described, how do you at the same time ensure that that will not take place in Cumbria without local support? Will the Minister spell out to us exactly how that local support will be measured and dealt with—and at what point in the process, because that is terribly important? I understand the argument that this is a national infrastructure project and that the way in which it is handled should take that into account. I am not criticising that, but, against that background, how, if it must have local support as a condition of proceeding, will that local support be measured?
Finally, it is also important in the context of the county of Cumbria that the proposal is not a stand-alone measure; it will bring a great deal of benefit with it. Against that background, it is very important that the benefits are spelt out and fully explained in the same detail and at the same time as the project itself. You cannot simply salami-slice the bits off each other. I very much hope that my noble friend will be able to give me some responses to the points I have raised that will reassure me.
Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb (GP):
My Lords, I am not Cumbrian and I have absolutely no connection with Cumbria—I live in Southwark—but I support the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, in his request that this order be withdrawn. It is clear that he was speaking from a democratic point of view, which is an incredibly valid thing to be concerned about. The fact that it is Labour legislation does not mean that it has to be used; there is a lot of quite bad legislation still on the books that really ought to be repealed.
There are a few environmental concerns expressed in a report called Rock Solid?, which was produced for Greenpeace specifically for this sort of action. There are concerns that have to be answered and the relative risks and dangers, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said, have perhaps not been assessed as stringently as they might have been. For example, copper and steel canisters and overpack containing spent nuclear fuel or high-level radioactive waste could corrode more quickly than expected; we do not know. The effects of intense heat generated by radioactive decay and the chemical and physical disturbance due to corrosion, gas generation and biomineralisation could impair the ability of backfill material to trap some radionuclides.
The build-up of gas pressure in the repository, as a result of the corrosion of metals and/or the degradation of organic material, could damage the barriers and force fast routes out through crystalline rock fractures or clay rock pores. There are also poorly understood chemical effects, such as the formation of colloids, which could speed up some of the more radiotoxic elements such as plutonium. Unidentified fractures and faults, or a poor understanding of how water and gas might flow through the ground, could lead to the release of toxic materials into groundwater. These are concerns that cannot be ignored, and the order needs a little more research about whether this is an activity that can be supported with a view to complete public safety. I would argue that it is not, but I look forward to the Minister reassuring us.
My Lords, I am also not from Cumbria, although I shall have the pleasure of visiting Sellafield in two weeks’ time. I know that it consumes a vast proportion of the Minister’s budget in DECC, and I look forward to that visit.
My question is more one of logic. The Explanatory Memorandum states clearly, as does the legislation itself:
“This Order will bring certain development relating to geological disposal facilities for radioactive waste, and the deep borehole investigations necessary to determine the suitability of potential sites, within the nationally significant infrastructure project (NSIP)”.
I suppose that my question is this: whether one likes it or not—whether one is pro-nuclear or anti-nuclear—there is a certain logic to the idea that a radioactive waste disposal site would come within the decision-making of a major project. This was set up by the previous Government, as my noble friend Lady Miller has pointed out, and taken on by this one. It sort of fits within that. The exploratory deep borehole investigations seem to be a measure on a completely different scale, so I do not understand the logic of having both of those in. The exploration side seems logically to fit far more within the standard local authority planning system. I would be interested to hear a comment from my noble friend about why both these scales of project have been put into this order, rather than just one or the other.
While I am on my feet and we are on nuclear waste, at the beginning of this Parliament we looked at the national policy statement for nuclear power generation, and it has always slightly amused me that a footnote states:
“Geological disposal of higher activity waste from new nuclear power stations is currently programmed to be available from around 2130”,
some 115 years from now. I wondered whether the Government intended to keep their foot on the accelerator on that policy.
My Lords, we seem to have overlooked that regular high-level nuclear waste is being generated at Sellafield already and plans have to be made for its safe storage and ultimate disposal. If plans go ahead to use the 140 tonnes of plutonium that have been stored up from previous nuclear programmes at Sellafield to generate electricity, as in the two proposals that have been put forward by CANDU and GE Hitachi respectively, there will be nuclear reactors on the Sellafield site using that plutonium and generating further waste. I suppose part of the Government’s thinking in having their eye on Cumbria is that this large quantity of nuclear waste has to be moved from the Sellafield site to the ultimate place of disposal. That concentrates their attention on Cumbria. However, when the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, said that he would like to see a survey of all the sites that might be suitable for this purpose, I was under the impression that a lot of work had already been done on the subject and that nobody had any thoughts of alternative sites that would be superior to Cumbria. I may be wrong and would be very interested to hear from the Minister whether that work has already been in train and, if so, what the results were.
The noble Lord is right to say that work has previously been done and, having fairly carefully scrutinised it, it was far from clear to me that there was an absolutely decisive case in favour of Cumbria.
This is what I am hoping we will hear more about from the Minister when she sums up: whether that work has been done or whether she agrees with the case that has been made for a national survey, which would obviously cause considerable delay.
That brings me to question of why this matter is urgent. Is it really necessary for a decision to be made now, for reasons that may be connected with the development of Sellafield, when we already have these additional reactors on the site, coupled with the existence of large quantities of high-level waste? Is it a matter of immediate necessity that we should have this GDF in the timescale that would be possible with the order and not without it? Suppose we were forced to wait for five years or so: would that have a catastrophic effect on how we dispose of the nuclear waste at Sellafield? Would lacking the GDF impose impossible or very difficult restrictions on the work that can be done at Sellafield because of the quantity of high-level waste that has to be stored there?
Other things being equal, obviously it is better for the GDF to be in the neighbourhood of Sellafield because the high-level waste has only to move a short distance and it avoids the necessity for rail facilities to move all this waste from Sellafield, where it is at the moment, to whatever alternative site is chosen. That would add enormously to the cost, I suppose, and is something we would like to avoid if possible.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for introducing the order and to all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate. We should focus on the topic at hand, which is whether the GDF, as described, should be classed as a nationally significant development project. Many speakers have reinforced the sense that this is clearly of national importance. There has been widespread support for continued use of nuclear power and acceptance that much of the waste derives from legacy projects that have accrued since the 1940s and 1950s. It is high time that we came up with a solution for the long-term storage of high-level nuclear waste.
Personally, I support the logic behind the order and believe that the wider debate about the siting—where in the country this should go, public engagement and the tests that we apply to the siting decision—is relevant, but it is not the matter before us. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, is correct that this all stems from a significant shift in how we view planning, through the 2008 Act, which was designed to enable us to move forward on nationally important projects in a way that respected democracy, but equally made it clear that there will always be tension between projects of national significance and particular local concerns. We have to get that balance right.
I will echo some of the questions that were asked about the tests that the Government propose to apply. The noble Baroness mentioned that there would have to be a positive test of public support. It is true that a county council’s decision could be used as a proxy for that. However, in such a project, which has such a long timescale and such huge significance for the country—we must look at it as a continuum from 1940, when we started developing nuclear power, to probably 100 years from now, when we will still use nuclear power—we do not allow shorter-timeframe decision-making or slightly more local concerns to override the national importance. That is not to say it should not be taken into account; it certainly should. I am sure that the noble Baroness is already preparing to respond to the noble Lord’s comment on this; could she say a bit more about that public test? It will be important.
In that context, it probably is time for a national debate. We have had this discussion before on people’s responses to and views about nuclear risk. As we now embark on a new era of nuclear build, it is probably high time for a discussion about the risks from radiation relative to other sources of hazardous waste, which we deal with, manage and store in different ways. Radiation seems to have a particular resonance in the public mind, some of which is justified and some of which is not. It is high time that we had a basic and scientifically grounded discussion about the nature of radiation. It is a fact that radiation is natural. We have evolved living with radiation; if you want to avoid radiation altogether, the safest place to be is in a hot air balloon, hovering about a mile off the ground. We are exposed to radiation from the ground naturally and from the skies.
I fear that this has become a polarised debate and that at times it departs from the science. We need to have a better understanding of the three types of radiation and the containment measures, which are very capable of containing them. We need to better understand what half-lives are and how radioactive material decays and becomes less of a problem over time. These are things that we really get to only when we get into the detail. We need to try to have a better education process. I hope that that will then allow us to have a more considered conversation about the fears that some local residents have over the GDF and the potential for ionising radiation to seep out, which is very unlikely. That is not to dismiss local concerns. There will be a big discussion about the transport infrastructure questions that were raised. I ask the Minister to clarify my reading.
I appreciate the noble Baroness’s point about getting a debate going on radiation, but we should put this in context. I, like many others, am not from Cumbria, but historically those of us in my part of the United Kingdom saw, over several decades, the flushing of material into the Irish Sea that today would be a criminal offence. We were assured in those days that the levels were perfectly okay and that neither fish nor other wildlife would be affected. However, by today’s standards, such activity would be regarded as outrageous. This is all a continuum. I support what the noble Baroness says, but we have to see where we came from. What I am saying is that, within living memory, vast amounts of toxic material were flushed into the sea, so let us at least take comfort from the fact that that has stopped.
Would the noble Lord agree, on reconsidering what he has said, that this is a matter not of decades but of centuries?
It is actually a matter of millennia, if you want to put nuclear into its proper context. I do not dispute that the pendulum of regulatory approaches to nuclear swings. I have visited Oak Ridge, the home of nuclear fission research, where nuclear gases used to be vented into the woods because people did not perceive it to be a risk—indeed, there is something to be said for the view that that was not a very risky activity. We have swung back towards very tight regulation for good reason, but that is not to say that that has to be set in stone and that our approach today is right—there is a constantly shifting understanding. I said that background radiation is natural to make the basic point that we as human beings have evolved in a radioactive environment. People are not always aware of that.
This is about getting back to the basics and having another look at the physics of nuclear, so that we can perhaps defuse some of the fears. There is probably no riskier way of storing nuclear waste—if there is indeed a large risk—than the way we use today. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for pointing out that we seem to be speaking as if there is no waste and that we are suddenly creating waste to put into a depository. The waste exists and it sits around the country, although it is correct to say that a large proportion sits in Sellafield. We need to find a solution, but that is not to say that this is the greatest risk that man has ever faced. The risk is manageable and engineered and we should see it in that context.
I will not detain the Committee any longer. I am grateful for the debate. I reiterate my request from our last debate that we should begin to have a national public conversation about nuclear and the risks involved. As other noble Lords have said, the issue has to be seen in the context of the much broader environmental risks that we face. There is an inherent logic behind the regulations. This is a nationally significant project and, although we do not wish local involvement to be excluded, we need to get the balance right, so we support the regulations.
My Lords, I am extremely grateful for all the contributions. As always, this issue needs greater debate. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, that this is an important national debate, which we cannot reduce down to one area or region.
I start by responding to the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, that this is a “dump”. Such terminology is unhelpful. If we are to have an informed debate, we need to ensure that the language that we use does not generate fears among communities. Taking things seriously, we need to be able to express an informed view to the broader public, who may not be as well informed as the noble Lord, Lord Liddle.
I think that I talked about—I hope that I did, anyway—what is commonly referred to as the nuclear dump. That is certainly how the local paper refers to it. I also emphasise to the Minister that, whenever the issue of the dump comes up, I point out that Cumbria is home to an extremely dangerous dump on the existing Sellafield site, about which something has to be done as a matter of urgency.
I hope that I may be allowed to intervene in support of the noble Lord, Lord Liddle. It is indeed the case that this is known in the general locality as the nuclear dump. I must put my hands up and say, “Mea culpa”, as I am chairman of the newspaper company to which the noble Lord referred. However, we on the board do not exercise editorial control.
My Lords, I reiterate that it is important that the usage of language informs the debate. Wherever we sit, we must be careful that the language used is informed and does not excite people even further.
A number of questions were raised and I will try to go through them as quickly as possible but I would like to go back to the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington. These matters are nationally significant and nationally important. We live with this currently. As my noble friend Lord Avebury pointed out, this is not something that is going to happen. It is already here and we need to deal with the issue. We are already dealing with it in the short to medium-term and, even then, we are talking about many decades rather than a few years. It is right that after the last process came to a halt, the Government took the sensible approach by stepping back to reflect and see what more could be done to make it a better informed debate. When I looked at the process, it was particularly to see how we could better engage with the public and other stakeholders, beyond the elected members. I agree that the role of the elected members is really important but the debate has to reach much further. Those communities that will ultimately be involved must be assured that they have the final say.
The noble Lord, Lord Liddle, said that the Government do not care about the county council being part of public support but the consultation has made it clear that the detailed process of how community representation operates from 2016 will set out that all stakeholders, including elected members, will be a part of the process. They will be able to feed in and be involved in looking at the processes before any formal discussions take place. We have two years within which that process is going to take place and the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, is fully aware of that. I look forward to his participation in it, along with his colleagues’.
However, I would also reiterate that noble Lords from Cumbria have just assumed that Cumbria is the given choice. At this time, no community has been identified. No site has been identified and we must not pre-empt, or be premature in, the assumption that it will be Cumbria. I also made it clear that, from looking at the last process, the debate needed to go much wider and further. Communities needed better information to come forward. That is why I continue to push back when people say, “This is ultimately going to be in Cumbria”. We do not know at this stage. We have two years in which people will be involved and able to be better informed.
The noble Lord also asked whether the siting process would be voluntary and why we are taking decisions away. The process of obtaining consent to develop a site is separate from the process of identifying a site in the first place. The final decision to apply for the development consent will not be taken until—and, as I think I reiterated in my opening remarks, unless—there is a positive test of public support for the GDF site in question.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, asked whether I could guarantee that the GDF would be safe. She read off a number of scenarios where she believes that there is risk. Let us first be very proud of the fact that we in the UK have regulators who are among the toughest in the world. As with all standards around nuclear, the standards for the GDF are incredibly high. If we cannot satisfy ourselves and the independent regulators that a GDF is safe then it will not be built. We would need to be reassured that the standards of the stringent international and national regulations were met before we would even endeavour to construct and operate a GDF.
My noble friend Lord Inglewood asked about the England and Scotland question. The nuclear industry covers England, Scotland and Wales. However, the planning legislation—which is what we are discussing today—covers only England. Planning and radioactive waste policy are devolved issues, and colleagues in Scotland and Wales will have their own processes to deal with planning and waste policy issues in their jurisdictions.
The UK nuclear industry is UK-wide. My noble friend fairly described the scope of this order and how the devolved powers work, but what is happening to make sure that we have a UK-wide policy for dealing with this? However you look at it, if we were to end up with three geological waste facilities, that would seem a bit foolish.
I re-emphasise that planning remains a devolved issue for those devolved areas.
My noble friend Lady Miller asked whether the local planning system was not the means for testing public support. The process of identifying a site and demonstrating public support is separate from, and additional to, the process of obtaining development consent. The planning consent process will not replace the siting process. A GDF is clearly a nationally significant piece of infrastructure, and it is appropriate that an application for development consent should be made under the system which was designed to examine such projects.
The noble Lord, Lord Judd, asked whether the screening exercise ruled out Cumbria, which has already been shown several times to be unsuitable for a GDF. The national geological screening exercise will treat all parts of the country equally, as I have already said, and the first step will be the development of guidance based on safety requirements for a GDF. The guidance will be developed openly and—a point made by the noble Lord—transparently through engagement with interested parties and the public. It will then be applied to produce maps and accompanying information about the potential for the development of a robust GDF safety case in different settings across the country. I hope that the noble Lord is reassured that we do not focus, as he and others have done, just on Cumbria.
If I may say so, the Minister knows very well that this is not the first time she has given me such reassurances. All I can say is, “We hear the words”, but it will be the transparency, to which she refers, and the convincing nature of this operation of national research for all to see that will be crucial.
While I am on this point, we have referred to Northern Ireland and Scotland in this context. However, in terms of the hazards, presumably at some point the Irish Government have to be taken on board.
My Lords, as the noble Lord is aware, discussions on these issues are always ongoing. We are always talking to our colleagues in the devolved authorities. Coming back to the transparency argument—
I am talking not about devolved authorities but about the Government of Ireland.
My Lords, as I said, those discussions are always ongoing and I will broaden them out to all devolved Assemblies and Governments.
Coming back to the question on transparency, I hope that the noble Lord will think that the process we are taking forward this time is far more transparent than the previous process. It takes into account far more exploration and discussion with a greater number of stakeholders to get a positive view of where communities lie. I urge the noble Lord to be reassured by the work that has been undertaken on the process since 30 January 2013, when the process came to a stop.
Lord Hunt of Chesterton (Lab):
If I may just finish my point, I will happily give way. We need to look carefully at why an issue as important as this did not generate the breadth of engagement that I believe it deserves, and why there was not much broader input from the wider community. Indeed, a number of organisations told me that they had been excluded.
Will the Minister reassure us that, as part of these discussions, consideration will be given to the fact that these facilities will store waste for a period, so that if technology develops it can be reprocessed? Many other countries, particularly Sweden, have a policy of putting the waste in rock formations. I believe that many nuclear energy programmes around the world are looking at the possibility of reprocessing this material when the relevant technology has been developed. However, there are other solutions whereby it is put in the ground permanently. As the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, commented, it has a decay life of perhaps 10,000 or more years. Therefore, an important aspect of the discussion concerns whether this is a temporary process, as I believe it should be.
My Lords, as with all these things, we are talking about thousands of years. I am sure that as technologies evolve, those who have to take decisions thousands of years from now—it will not be me—will look at the decisions that we are taking now and consider whether our planning measures are as robust as they can be. Of course, new technologies and techniques will be developed that will change the sector. The nuclear industry itself will evolve, as will other technologies that will provide energy. However, we need to ensure that the decisions that we are taking now are being taken on the basis that we need a long-term solution to high-radioactivity waste, which needs to be put away safely so that it is secure and poses little danger to us all.
My noble friend Lady Miller asked about the Aarhus convention. The Planning Act 2008 provides for extensive levels of community engagement and public consultation but it also requires environmental assessments to be carried out at various stages of the planning process. Therefore, the Government believe that the process is compatible with the requirements of the convention and with associated European Union legislation.
My noble friend Lord Avebury and the noble Lord, Lord Judd, asked whether geological screening was being carried out. Radioactive Waste Management Ltd has begun the work, including engaging with interested stakeholders. It will produce draft screening guidance for public consultation. This, and the final screening results, will be reviewed by an independent group formed by the Geological Society of London. As stated in the 2014 White Paper, that will be carried out over the next two years.
I hope that I have managed to answer most of the questions. However, coming back to what we are discussing today, the Committee is simply being asked to consider the order, not to approve it. The Motion to approve will be tabled in the Chamber and noble Lords can oppose it then if they are strongly opposed to it. However, I suggest that if we are to make progress in finding a long-term solution to this significant national programme, we need to ensure that we provide the public with facts and not just bear in on myths that have been peddled over many years.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, pointed out, this debate needs to be properly informed. I would be happy—I am sure that the noble Baroness will welcome this—to widen that engagement and make the debate much more informed, so that people understand what we are trying to develop here.
I hope that there is nothing in the order that precludes the decision being made including whatever Scotland decides it needs in the way of long-term facilities for the disposal of high-level nuclear waste. As the noble Baroness was asked earlier, surely we are not going to have GDSs in all the jurisdictions of the United Kingdom. I want an assurance that there is a facility within the ambit of the order for the Scots to come along to talk to us about what they are doing about long-term disposal, so that we do not have to have two separate facilities.
My Lords, having obviously not satisfied noble Lords, if I undertake to write to them, that might be a better way forward.
I thank the noble Baroness for her comprehensive reply to the debate. However, I seek clarification. In her speech, she emphasised the difference between the siting decision and the planning decision. Clearly, if the order goes through, Cumbria County Council becomes a consultee on the planning decision taken by the Secretary of State—I would hope, a prominent consultee.
However, the planning decision would come only after the siting decision. I would like an assurance—I realise that it may involve consulting DCLG as well as the Minister’s department, so she may not be able to answer this today—that, if Cumbria decides to go ahead with a local government reorganisation that gets rid of the district councils and has one or two unitary authorities, they would become the key bodies that would have to approve a siting decision.
My Lords, given that there is no inspiration floating from behind me, I undertake to put my response in detail to the noble Lord. I finish by saying that, even with all those processes, it will still have to go out to the public for public support. Ultimately, it is for the public to decide.