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DECC - Second Triennial Review of CoRWM

The Department of Energy and Climate Change have launched the Triennial Review of the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM). Details of the consultation and the Terms of Reference can be found on the government website. The submission produced by the Geological Society can be found below:

Submitted 18 March 2015

  1. The Geological Society is the UK’s learned and professional body for geoscience, with more than 11,500 Fellows (members) worldwide. The Fellowship encompasses those working in industry, academia and government with a broad range of perspectives on policy-relevant science, and the Society is a leading communicator of this science to government bodies, those in education, and other non-technical audiences. 

    Do the key functions performed by CoRWM continue to be necessary and appropriate for the successful management of higher activity radioactive wastes / the GDF programme in particular?

  2. The main functions for CoRWM set out in its Terms of Reference (ToR) are to provide scrutiny and to offer advice to ministers on matters relating to management of higher activity wastes. Scrutiny will be required of a number of aspects of the Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) Programme (and indeed of other aspects of radioactive waste management) as it proceeds, as will advice to ministers on a wide variety of matters. At issue is how various elements of those scrutiny and advice functions should be best carried out, and by whom. The observations we offer here relate principally to the GDF Programme, this being the area in which we have been involved in recent years.
  3. The context in which CoRWM and other stakeholders are now operating has changed significantly with the publication of the 2014 White Paper. As we and others have observed in the past, the previous siting process for a GDF lacked clarity regarding the respective roles of government, RWM and others, to the detriment of the process. This also added to the difficulty of defining coherently the scrutiny and advice functions with which CoRWM was charged. The White Paper is helpful in making it much clearer than previously that DECC is responsible for establishing a policy framework which is fit for purpose, and that RWM is charged with advocacy and delivery. Other aspects of the landscape have changed or are clearer as a result of the review of the siting process and the White Paper, and the resolution of continuing uncertainty in some areas is being addressed as part of the set of initial enabling actions before engagement with local communities gets underway. For example, the Geological Society has been asked to establish an Independent Review Panel to scrutinise the development and subsequent application of national geological screening guidance by RWM. DECC is also discussing with a number of societies and academies the establishment of a mechanism to allow potential host communities and other stakeholders to access an independent view of contested scientific and technical statements made during the process. This changed wider landscape is a helpful context to think in a more focused way about what other scrutiny and advice functions will be necessary or desirable in the GDF Programme going forward, how they should be delivered, and by whom. 
  4. CoRWM’s ToR are extremely broad, and permit it to scrutinise or offer advice on any aspect of the GDF Programme. The committee’s limited membership, time and financial resources mean that its work programme cannot be exhaustive. We understand that the work programme is agreed between the committee and ministers, but it is not apparent what principles drive its development, and the committee’s activities range very widely. All this makes it difficult to ascertain what the key strategic functions of CoRWM are (or should be), other than to say that they offer scrutiny and advice and, despite ministerial oversight, appear to be self-tasking. A number of other organisations are also charged with or contribute voluntarily to aspects of these high-level functions.
  5. The permissiveness and lack of focus of the ToR and CoRWM’s resultant ‘roving brief’ seem unhelpful to the process and to the committee’s own credibility, as they give the impression that CoRWM has ambitions to set and pursue its own agenda. This is compounded by lack of clarity regarding in what capacity CoRWM members speak at events, even if they state that they are attending as observers and presumably as a delegated representative and with the authority of the Committee or are speaking personally, resulting in the lines between observing, contributing a view and offering commentary on what others do or say becoming blurred. To say that one is an observer from a body charged with scrutiny is not a neutral statement – it sends out the message that other participants’ statements are being evaluated. If those ‘observing’ on behalf of CoRWM also participate in discussion and put forward their own views, albeit in a personal capacity, this can give the impression that they are speaking with the authority of CoRWM, especially if those views quite understandably resemble views also set out in documents issued by CoRWM. This potential confusion and conflict of functions would be avoided if members attending events as observers did not take part in discussions and remained silent.
  6. As noted above, GSL has been asked to establish an independent panel which will scrutinise the development and subsequent application of national geological screening guidance by RWM. We understand from a document sent to DECC by CoRWM in November 2014, which DECC subsequently sent on to us, that CoRWM has set up a sub-group to scrutinise both the work of RWM and that of the review panel. We cannot find this document or any other reference to the sub-group on the CoRWM website and we have not been contacted about this. To scrutinise elements of scrutiny with which others in the process are charged in this way falls within CoRWM’s permissive ToR, although we have not seen a version of CoRWM’s work plan which includes this task, and DECC may wish to consider whether there are risks of one scrutinising body being perceived to second-guess the work of another.
  7. The same CoRWM document includes statements about how the Geological Society should or must go about establishing the panel and communicating this to others, what the panel’s remit should be, and how the panel should do its work. We construe this as having been intended as advice to the Geological Society while it was in the process of establishing the panel, and advice to the future panel itself, despite CoRWM not having conveyed this advice to us directly. This is outside CoRWM’s ToR, which say that CoRWM will provide advice to ministers. To make unsolicited and strongly worded statements about how an independent body should go about a task which it has been asked to carry out by government risks damaging the credibility of the independent body, the process and of CoRWM itself. 
  8. DECC may wish to consider whether CoRWM’s scrutiny and advice functions are compatible. It is also important to be clear about what is meant by ‘scrutiny’, which should be the subject of a request against defined criteria. For example, the Independent Review Panel established by the Geological Society is charged with assessing whether the guidance produced by RWM is geologically and technically sound; can be applied using existing geological information; and provides a basis for assessing the prospects for developing a long-term safety case in a range of geological settings to accommodate the UK inventory of higher activity waste. Much of CoRWM’s current work might be better described as offering a critique rather than scrutiny.
  9. CoRWM’s members are highly skilled and experienced, have a high degree of integrity, are well motivated and have much of value to contribute to the process. Our observations are not intended to be critical of these individuals, but to highlight some of the pitfalls arising from the lack of clarity regarding strategic function, ToR and ‘rules of engagement’, all of which are DECC’s responsibility. The present arrangement makes CoRWM’s remit a difficult one to fulfil, especially while also retaining the confidence of a wide range of other stakeholders. It leaves CoRWM’s members potentially vulnerable and may not make best use of their extensive skills and experience.

    Model for delivery of required functions

  10. Given the context above, rather than start by asking whether CoRWM’s current functions as a whole (or those set out in its terms of reference) are required, and what kind of organisation might deliver them, it could be more productive to map the functions that DECC expects to be required to those organisations which are charged with delivering them in the new policy framework (or which could be charged if seen to be most capable of delivering them), with or without CoRWM continuing in something like its current form. It would be possible then to consider whether the allocation of functions is optimal, where there are current or prospective gaps in provision, and how these might best be addressed. To be meaningful, this would have to be considered at a greater level of granularity than has previously been the case. Reframing of the question in this way may help to assess whether CoRWM’s current remit, activities and approach meet the needs of government, local communities and other stakeholders; whether they provide value for money; and whether they are capable of improvement.
  11. The White Paper goes some considerable way towards matching functional requirements to those best placed to deliver them, and recognises the need to involve different actors with relevant specific expertise in aspects of scrutiny and advice functions. As we noted in our response to the House of Lords inquiry into the work of CoRWM in January 2010, a one-size-fits-all approach to scrutiny is unlikely to meet all needs. We noted then that there would be a need for detailed independent scrutiny of the geoscientific work to be carried out in the MRWS process by the then NDA RWMD and others, and that CoRWM did not have the range of geoscientific expertise required to effectively scrutinise these aspects of the programme. We made clear then, and restate now, that these observations are in no way intended to question the considerable geoscientific expertise and experience of a few members of CoRWM. But the range of specialisms on which these individuals can speak knowledgeably is necessarily limited. Furthermore, they do not have in-depth knowledge of the UK and international geoscience community, and the ability to draw on those with a wide range of relevant expertise, as has the Geological Society.
  12. It is not for us to second-guess what the conclusions of such an approach to analysing functional requirements might be, or to offer advice on what institutional and governance arrangements might be most appropriate to delivering functions falling to CoRWM or a successor body. 

    What improvements could be made to support the effective and efficient delivery of CoRWM’s remit?

  13. CoRWM, or any new or existing body which takes on any of its functions, needs well-defined strategic roles and responsibilities; a clear, achievable remit within the resources made available to it ; and ToR which flow from these. A minimum requirement is to define these so as to recognise that others have responsibility for aspects of scrutiny and advice. ToR which imply that CoRWM has sole responsibility for these functions are likely to cause uncertainty and lack of clarity over roles, which will be to nobody’s advantage.
  14. As noted above, it would be unrealistic to expect any reasonably sized committee to possess all the necessary skills and experience to fulfil CoRWM’s current broad remit. Its ToR explicitly recognise this, and state that ‘the committee will need to decide how best to secure access to other appropriate sources of expert input’. In the first few years after the establishment of the ‘new’ CoRWM in 2007, the committee consulted extensively with the Geological Society. We convened round-table meetings on geoscientific matters for two CoRWM working groups, which we understand were valued by members of the committee and were influential on these groups’ reports. It is now some years since CoRWM sought our input. We do not know whether the committee now lacks the capacity to engage in this way, whether its work programme has simply not necessitated its drawing on external geoscientific expertise, or indeed whether our experience is typical. Over this period, RWM and DECC have built more effective working relationships with the Geological Society and the wider geoscience community, and have become more adept at drawing on geoscientific expertise. If CoRWM is perceived to lack the geoscientific expertise and experience appropriate to its remit, or the capacity to access these, it may undermine its authority among the professional geoscience community and possibly more widely.