Science lost in PR, nuclear duo warn

February 24, 2006

Two academics ousted from a government committee advising on the disposal of the UK's nuclear waste stockpile have accused the group of "ditching science for public relations" and putting the country at risk through "dangerous incompetence".

David Ball, professor of risk management at Middlesex University, and Keith Baverstock, former head of the radiation protection division at the World Health Organisation, claim that the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM) failed to properly commission appropriate scientific advice.

The pair said that this left the committee unable to produce anything more than "shallow pointers" on how to deal with one of the most pressing issues facing the UK as the Government contemplates a new generation of nuclear power stations.

They said that despite a £5 million management budget and three years of work, CoRWM will have to be superseded by "yet another" agency, after the committee reports this summer.

This will further delay moves to deal with the UK's 470,000 cubic metres of nuclear waste, currently stored at more than 20 sites.

In an article in the February edition of the journal Nuclear Engineering International , the scientists write: "Behind a thickening PR smokescreen, the mood is seemingly that while it may be an unholy shambles, it is better to paper over the cracks, rewrite history, and let CoRWM fade quietly into the night."

The article goes on: "There can be no doubt that CoRWM's approach to science has been defective, even negligent, and likely to continue so. All the PR in the world cannot hide that."

In their piece, the academics claim that CoRWM includes "no expertise" in waste management, is dominated by public relations experts and has omitted from its published guiding principles "any reference to the need for sound technical input".

They say that the group examined "bizarre options" such as "sinking waste in ice caps" and did not reveal peer reviews that criticised these ideas.

They also say that attempts to initiate a discussion on a science strategy had been made but were rejected by the committee, "not on the basis of logic but politics".

The article says that when the committee set up expert panels, the process was so "prescribed and compartmentalised as to inhibit proper science".

They say that one member declared that the group should have "experts on tap, not on top".

They write: "What seems to have happened is that the formula of experts on tap was coded language for a much reduced, highly circumscribed role for expert input, whether natural or social science, and substitution of amateurism.

"Effectively this amounted to a trade-off of sound science for public relations, a deeply disturbing trait considering the waste has implications for countless generations."

CoRWM was set up in 2003 by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to advise on options for disposing of waste.

Professor Baverstock was dismissed from the group in April 2005, after Defra rejected his allegations that the group was incompetent. Professor Ball resigned from the group, claiming that Professor Baverstock was being victimised for speaking out.

A Defra spokesman said that Professor Baverstock had his contract terminated because he failed to make a sufficient contribution to CoRWM's objectives.

He said: "The committee has said that the first phase of its work was more to do with gaining public opinion and the scientific phase followed on from that. It feels it has had sufficient advice to make its recommendations."

phil.baty@thes.co.uk

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