June 3 2005
Top adviser quits 'bleeding obvious' nuclear committeeMark Henderson, Science Correspondent
GOVERNMENT plans for disposing of nuclear waste have been thrown into turmoil by the resignation of a senior adviser, who has accused a key committee of endangering public safety by ignoring scientific expertise.
David Ball, Professor of Risk Management at Middlesex University, has left the panel that advises ministers on the issue in protest at its “open antagonism” to the views of nuclear specialists.
The Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM) had become obsessed with public consultation at the expense of expert advice, Professor Ball told The Times.
It had spent a year considering far-fetched disposal options that were dismissed years ago by scientists, such as firing spent fuel into the Sun or shipping it to Antarctica, while hazardous waste languished in tanks that were vulnerable to an accident or terrorist attack.
That combination of inertia and a cavalier attitude to scientific risk management had jeopardised severely the committee’s ability to decide on the safest and most acceptable way to store 470,000 cubic metres of waste — enough to fill the Albert Hall five times.
Professor Ball said: “The committee has lost all credibility as far as I am concerned, and it should be wound up to save the taxpayer the expense. Its approach to this serious issue has been appalling. We don’t have all the time in the world to resolve it. We are all standing around with nuclear waste kept in less than ideal ways, and we are at unnecessary risk because of it. There is a real risk of a terrorist strike on nuclear waste, and the consequences could be scary stuff, as it is not being stored optimally.”
Professor Ball is the second scientist to leave CoRWM in acrimonious circumstances. Keith Baverstock, a former head of radiation protection at the World Health Organisation and the panel’s only health expert, was sacked in April by Elliott Morley, the Environment Minister, after attacking the committee as dysfunctional and amateurish. Similar criticisms have been made by the House of Lords Science Committee and the Royal Society, which have questioned whether CoRWM is making proper use of scientific advice.
Further controversy has surrounded alleged conflicts of interest held by four of the eleven remaining members, who are paid consultants for companies that have won contracts from the committee. CoRWM, which is chaired by Professor Gordon MacKerron, an economist at the University of Sussex, was established in 2003 to review Britain’s options for disposing of nuclear waste. It will report to ministers in July next year with a recommended solution that is both workable and most acceptable to the public.
In April the committee announced a shortlist of four options, after narrowing down the choices from fifteen during eighteen months of consultations. All involve either burying waste deep underground or storing it in specialised facilities on the surface. Many independent experts, however, have been dismayed that it took the panel so long to rule out many options that have already been examined and rejected by scientists all over the world.
Professor Ball said in his resignation letter that the options on the shortlist were, “to borrow from John Cleese, the bleeding obvious”. He said that proper use of technical expertise would have allowed CoWRM to have narrowed the list to six options within weeks.
A year was wasted in trials of a public consultation technique that had to be abandoned because of its flaws, Professor Ball said. An even deeper problem, however, was the attitude of many committee members to science, which they saw as secondary in importance to public opinion.
Professor MacKerron said: “We do not lack scientific expertise: over half of our members are scientists and many members have long experience and knowledge of the nuclear industry and nuclear policy.
“CoRWM is not a conventional scientific ‘expert’ committee. It is an oversight committee, charged with considering all potentially serious long-term options.”
April 27 2005
This is life and death, not a spinning matterMagnus 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.