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Give full power to the people

The Nirex nuclear waste inquiry opens in September. Tom Wilkie believes the Government is bent on emasculating it, and that the process will be a sham
As the frantic events of the past fortnight in Westminster reach their climax today, one curious aspect of the whole affair is the extent to which the public at large have been merely spectators to a political drama whose denouement will affect them profoundly. By coincidence, another event today, taking place far from the media spotlight on Westminster, also highlights the way in which the British system of governance disenfranchises the very people in whose name decisions are taken.

At the centre of this is nuclear power, the most momentous of all post- war technologies. For 45 years, first to build the Bomb and to generate electricity for civil use, Britain's nuclear industry has been piling up radioactive waste. Now, UK Nirex, the industry's waste disposal company, wants to bury it some 600 metres underground at Longland's Farm, just inland from the Sellafield reprocessing plant in west Cumbria.

As a first step, the company intends to dig a laboratory to test the properties of the rocks at depth. Eventually, the galleries excavated for the laboratory will be incorporated into the disposal facility itself and it seems likely that the laboratory's access shafts will be used to get men and machines down and to haul excavated rock up. The laboratory is so important to the overall project that it will be scrutinised by a public inquiry. A meeting in the village of Cleator Moor today will decide how that public inquiry conducts itself when the formal sessions open in September.

Already, the signs are that it will be a sham.

This will be the fourth major nuclear public inquiry in Britain. The forerunner of them all was the 100-day Windscale inquiry under Mr Justice Parker, which reported in March 1978. At the time, the inquiry into what is now called the Thorp plant at Sellafield was the longest in British history. It was followed by the Sizewell B inquiry, which ran for even longer under Sir Frank Layfield before reporting in 1987. The third inquiry, into a successor station to Sizewell B at Hinkley Point in Somerset, was overshadowed by electricity privatisation. These nuclear inquiries represented major constitutional events in recent British history. They ranged beyond the narrow issues of planning consents into national policy towards energy supply and into international issues such as proliferation of nuclear weapons.

But the Government seems bent on emasculating the Nirex inquiry. It will not even provide the money for a shorthand typist to take notes of proceedings. The Nirex repository will not be completed for at least 20 years. It will hold plutonium whose radioactivity will scarcely diminish over 10,000 years, yet once this public inquiry is over, nobody will have a full record of what was said. According to a spokesman for the Department of the Environment: "Our view is that a full transcript of a planning inquiry is not required. Ministers have concluded that the Nirex inquiry should be conducted according to normal planning procedures. There are no exceptional circumstances."

But the issue is not solely one of central government's arrogance towards people who must live near a nuclear dump. The Government is getting the science wrong, as well as the democracy. It looks like an outbreak of a very British disease - those who understand the policy do not understand the science, and vice versa. The Government, it appears, has not grasped the implications of the fact that Britain and France are the only two countries in Europe to reprocess spent nuclear fuel. Policies devised by other countries to deal with their waste will not answer our special problems. Wastes generated at nuclear power stations contain only short- lived radioactivity. They can be safely disposed of in a near-surface repository. Hartlepool nuclear power station, for example, sits conveniently on a seam of rock called anhydrite which would form an ideal geological host for such waste.

Reprocessing does create a new category of wastes: those contaminated with plutonium. Plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years and, although it is far from being the "most toxic material in the world" as claimed by some environmental scaremongers, wastes contaminated with plutonium have to be put deep underground for a very long time. But the Government's White Paper on radwaste policy, which may be published this afternoon, is expected to stipulate that all intermediate level wastes must go deep underground. If short-lived wastes were segregated from the plutonium- contaminated material, then the Nirex repository could be smaller and cheaper. This segregation of waste is, of course, exactly what the French do. The British policy will waste the taxpayers' money and will be bad environmental practice.

This is the sort of issue that the public inquiry ought to be examining. After all, it was triggered because Cumbria County Council, the planning authority, had concerns which ranged much wider than the matters of amenity which are usually the narrow focus of planning inquiries. Instead, it wanted to know why and how Cumbria was chosen, and whether there are better sites elsewhere in Britain. But central government has set the terms of reference so tightly that the inquiry will not address these local concerns, unless the inspector, Chris McDonald, takes the initiative himself.

The Department of the Environment's own expert advisers, the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee (RWMAC), have told ministers that this inquiry should be a wide-ranging one "which would cover generic rather than specific issues". The inquiry ought to assess not just the laboratory, but also the likely safety of the repository itself. In particular, RWMAC recommended that the pollution inspectorate, which is the safety regulator for this project, "should be required to make public its professional assessment of Nirex's ability to satisfy the safety case for the repository". But HM Inspectorate of Pollution is on record as saying that it will not volunteer to give evidence to the inquiry.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that there is something deeply wrong within the Department of the Environment. One little-noticed, small-scale fiasco was the recent non-appointment of a new chairman to RWMAC. The theme of arrogance coupled with ignorance was there, albeit in a minor key. Without consultation, ministers nominated a chairman with whom the committee had already disagreed on radwaste policy. Details are inevitably murky but, as a result, a distinguished academic and public servant, Dr David Harrison, had to resign before he had even formally taken up his post. (A new chairman, Sir Gordon Beveridge, has just been appointed.)

The major issue which the department botched was the start up of the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (Thorp) at Sellafield. The Government had had 15 years in which to prepare, yet the scale of public opposition to the plant (admittedly orchestrated by Greenpeace) seemed to take it completely unawares. At first the Department tried to tough it out. Then John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment at the time, announced a round of public consultations to check that there was a "justification" for this project. Thorp had been authorised by a public inquiry, commenced by a previous (Labour) government after full parliamentary debate, actively promoted by the current government, and costing several billions of pounds of taxpayers' money. No one with the slightest grasp of realpolitik could have thought that the "consultations", although they observed proper legal forms, were anything more than a sham. It should have been manifestly inconceivable that this Government could possibly have called a halt to Thorp. And of course, in the end, the plant was authorised.

But consider the consequences of this. Decent, honest citizens of this country who trust their government to speak the truth (and not only the Government, but the supposedly independent regulators, HMIP) hear that their advice is being sought, that they have a chance to participate in important decisions democratising the control of science and technology. They can make their voices heard in the corridors of power. They may even have a veto. So they expend their scarce and valuable leisure time in sitting down and writing letters, in participating in the democratic process. Except that there was no real political prospect of the decision being altered. This was not an exercise in democracy. It was precisely the inverse. While the legalistic forms were observed, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the political substance of the matter was a cynical deception upon the electors. It will make them cynical in their turn. It will ultimately have been corrosive of democracy.

Today's meeting in Cleator Moor, and the public inquiry which will follow in September, represent a chance to defeat that cynicism and to assert democratic control over at least one technology.