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This is life and death, not a spinning matter

Magnus Linklater

Who would you choose to decide how to dispose of nuclear waste — a focus group or leading scientists?
IT IS A fair bet that, within a month or so of Labour being returned to power, nuclear energy will be back on the agenda. Ministers know that the options are running out, that the only viable alternative, wind power, is beginning to encounter formidable obstacles, and that if CO2 emission targets are to be met, the current policy of running down nuclear plants may need to be reversed. They also know that when they do change their minds, all hell will break loose.

Ensuring good scientific research in this most sensitive area would seem, therefore, to be a priority. Instead, an unholy row has broken out right in the middle of the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management, the body charged with finding a solution to storing nuclear waste. One of the leading scientists on the committee, Dr Keith Baverstock, the international radioactivity expert, has been dismissed by the Labour minister, Elliot Morley, and another, Professor David Ball, of Middlesex University, has fired off a letter which is as devastating a criticism of a government committee as I have ever seen penned by a scientist.
He accuses the committee of preferring PR advice to scientific opinion, says that it seems to view the “laws of science as changeable as the laws of parliament”; charges it with “a misplaced confidence in in-house amateurism”; says that it has been “an uphill struggle to get any respected expertise, scientific or otherwise injected into (the committee)”; and concludes with this devastating judgment: “I have never previously encountered such an attitude to the use of science, and other forms of hard-won knowledge, of the kind of which Britain is normally justly proud.”

Quite how this has happened is hard to explain, except when one realises that the committee comes under the auspices of Defra — the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs — which has a lamentable track record in encouraging and retaining scientific know-how. This is the body which, in its previous incarnation, refused to listen to the world’s greatest experts on foot-and-mouth during the 2001 outbreak, which allowed the leading scientists in its animal health laboratories to be poached by foreign governments, and which withdrew funding from Professor Alan Ebringer, who was reaching important conclusions on the alleged links between BSE and variform CJD.

Examining Professor Ball’s long and detailed letter to Mr Morley, the same syndrome can be detected. Defra has assembled a committee that draws together a broad range of laypeople rather than the best available experts in nuclear waste disposal. Defra’s objective has been to win round public opinion to an agreed solution. There is no question, of course, that the public needs to be engaged in this life-and-death issue. The figures are formid able: some 1,750,000 cubic metres of waste are currently stored in Britain. Of this, 475,000 cubic metres have yet to be found long-term storage space, and this includes 2,000 cubic metres of high-level waste, described as “intensely radioactive and generating heat”. No single acceptable solution has yet been produced that would guarantee the safe storage of this material for periods that may amount to many hundreds of years.

But in this case an exercise in accountability seems to have taken the place of hard research. Some twenty options were posted on the committee’s website and the public was invited to give their comments. The choices included burying waste beneath the seabed, storing it under the ice-cap, or firing it off in a rocket into outer space. Professor Ball reckons that taking soundings on the wisdom of sending nuclear waste into space occupied 17 months of committee time before it was dismissed as pointless. The choices have now been reduced to four — but that the public is in any position to decide which of these should be favoured is surely absurd.

Defra itself says that the reason for dismissing Dr Baverstock was personal and followed an independent assessment of his work. Defra denied to me that it had ignored scientific opinion, and said that its methods were “robust”. As to consulting the public, it said as follows: “The old ‘decide- announce-defend’ approach failed to deliver a solution. We need . . . an approach that engages with the public and stakeholders in a fully open and transparent way. It is imperative to have a sound science and technology input to this process, but it is equally right to expect that scientific and technological views be set out in a manner which the public and stakeholders can understand, if they are to be convincing. This is a societal problem that must be addressed in a manner that acknowledges societal views and needs.”

That is all very well. But when it comes to tackling an issue as critical and as far-reaching as storing nuclear waste, I need to know that it is backed by the very best scientific evidence available rather than that it reflects “societal views and needs”. Professor Ball’s views are too important to be waved aside. This is one problem that will never be solved by a focus group.