|Previous Section||Home Page|
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Archie Hamilton) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) on his success in securing the Adjournment debate. I must confess that I cannot congratulate him on much else. I do not think that I have heard two more whingeing, scaremongering speeches in all my life, and I think it very unfortunate that the constituents of Swansea must have such representatives. The reality is that the safety record of the Royal Navy is second to none.
Mr. Alan Williams : I think that the Minister should accept that Adjournment debates are normally not times for indulging in personal attacks of the sort in which he has just indulged, because time is so limited. If that is the way in which he wants to conduct the campaign, however, I promise him that we can conduct it in the same manner. We tried to avoid personal acrimony ; we went out of our way to pay personal tribute to him, whatever our real feelings may have been, and I bitterly resent his comments.
Mr. Hamilton : We have heard very misleading information tonight, and it is a pity that such misleading information has been put about. The Labour defence policy review, which has just been produced, has changed attitudes on nuclear weapons slightly, but in practice we have, I think, seen one unilateral policy replaced by another. The Labour party claims that it is committed to conventional defence. It is extraordinary that it should adopt such an attitude towards nuclear-powered submarines. They are an essential part of our conventional capability. The capacity of the Royal Navy to fight wars would be seriously damaged if it did not have nuclear- powered submarines.
The hon. Member for Swansea, East said that he had never been told officially about the decision. A regional naval officer will be approaching the chief executive of the local county council. He would not be doing so if a decision had not been taken by the nuclear powered warships safety committee.
Swansea is not replacing Cardiff. Visits to Cardiff will continue to take place. As the hon. Member for Swansea, East said, there have been a number of visits by Royal Navy ships to Swansea. They have been extremely popular. I see absolutely no reason why visits by a nuclear-powered submarine should not be extremely popular, too. I welcome the opportunity to put the record straight on the safety of Royal Navy nuclear-powered submarines and to dispel some of the understandable but unfounded fears that have been expressed about the proposal that they should visit Swansea for rest and recreation. As I said earlier, the Royal Navy's safety record in operating nuclear submarines is second to none and is the result of meticulous care and planning in every aspect of the design and operation of nuclear reactors. For comparisons to be made with Soviet submarines is deeply insulting to the Royal Navy.
I should like to explain the vital role that nuclear submarines play in the defence of this country and the West and why visits to civil ports are so essential. In wartime, the Royal Navy would have a number of tasks, including the defence of shipping, the interception and containment of Soviet forces in the North sea and the provision of anti-submarine protection for NATO's Atlantic fleet.
The particular capability of the Royal Navy's nuclear-powered submarines would be critical to the United Kingdom's and NATO's ability to carry out those tasks. Nuclear-powered submarines are especially potent weapons in anti-submarine warfare. They have played an increasingly important role in the Royal Navy since the early 1960s. They will continue to be an essential part of any future fleet. The continued high morale of crews is a vital factor in the effective operation of all naval vessels, but that is particularly true of submarines whose crews have to spend long periods in a confined environment. Visits to civil ports for rest and recreation have an important part to play in maintaining morale. They also help to foster good relations between the Royal Navy and the community that it serves, which is of benefit to both.
Mr. Hamilton : In the past, Royal Navy visits to Swansea have been extremely popular. That is why I do not think that what we have heard from the hon. Member for Swansea, East and the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) is representative of the views of the people of Swansea at large. They enjoy having Royal Navy personnel ashore. Their visits have gone down extremely well. I do not believe that their attitude will change just because we are talking about a nuclear-powered submarine rather than a surface ship.
It is important not to forget the economic benefits that such visits bring. Crew members who are not on duty will stay in local hotels and will, of course, make use of local entertainment facilities. There have been many successful visits in the past by Royal Navy nuclear submarines to commercial ports such as Liverpool, Cardiff, Barry and Southampton. In the past 12 months there have been 13 such visits.
Column 497At present, there are only a small number of civil ports with berths that have been cleared to receive nuclear-powered submarines, and there are obvious advantages in having a wider variety. Moreover, as the number of submarines in service has increased, so has the need for port visits. Added to this has been our reluctant decision to discontinue vists to Hull because of navigational problems and, for the time being, to Barry, because we anticipated difficulties in maintaining the water level there at low tide. Swansea has been visited for many years by conventionally powered vessels and has always been very popular with the Royal Navy. For all these reasons, we decided to examine the possibility of nuclear-powered submarine visits to Swansea.
After preliminary discussions with port and local authorities, the Royal Navy carried out a feasibility study, which was approved by the nuclear- powered warships safety committee. The results of that study showed that the berth would be suitable for visits of nuclear-powered warships, and my officials will soon approach the chief executive of West Glamorgan county council to begin further discussion which will concentrate on safety matters.
I must stress that the visits will be only for the purposes of rest and recreation for the crews. There is no question of nuclear-powered submarines undergoing any kind of servicing or refuelling during their visits to Swansea. The submarines will be prohibited from discharging any radioactive material into the environment during the visits, and the fears tht submarines will pollute the environment around Swansea are entirely groundless.
The Royal Navy has placed the greatest emphasis on ensuring that we have never had an accident involving the reactor of a nuclear-powered submarine. Our safety standards for the design, construction, operation and maintenance of nuclear reactors and their associated systems are extremely rigorous, and we are continually seeking to improve them still further. All processes are carefully monitored and recorded, and there is a thorough system of checks at every stage, from initial design through to operation.
In addition to the several Ministry of Defence organisations that oversee nuclear safety matters, an independent committee--I emphasise that it is independent--known as the nuclear-powered warships safety committee advises my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and other Ministers on all public safety measures concerned with the construction, operation and maintenance of nuclear-powered warships.
Mr. Hamilton : Although the committee has no executive powers, in practice this Ministry has always followed its advice on matters which fall within its terms of reference. Eighteen of the 23 permanent members of the nuclear-powered warships safety committee are from outside the Ministry of Defence. They include experts from the National Radiological Protection Board, the Department of Health, Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution, the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, the nuclear installations inspectorate and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, as well as academic experts in the nuclear field.
It is not right to describe these people as faceless. I do not name them, for security reasons. They have expertise
Column 498in nuclear matters. It is not good casting aspersions on their integrity. They act independently. We take heed of their advice.
Mr. Alan Williams : Will the hon. Gentleman answer a simple question : who has decided the composition of the committee? The hon. Gentleman has said in an answer that his Department meets the committee's costs. Who has decided whence the membership should be drawn and who are the appropriate people to be represented on that committee?
Mr. Hamilton : I suspect that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State makes that decision. These people know about nuclear matters. It is important that people with that skill and understanding of nuclear matters are put on the committee. It makes no sense to go miles outside the nuclear world. These are complicated and difficult matters and it is important that people who understand nuclear matters are on the committee. The committee has carefully examined the public safety aspects of the proposed Z-berth at Swansea, and has decided that the berth is suitable for use by nuclear- powered submarines.
The best testament to the Royal Navy's safety precautions is its excellent record. During the period of almost 30 years for which we have been operating nuclear-powered submarines, there has not been a single incident which has endangered a reactor, or caused a radiological hazard to service men, base personnel or members of the public. It would be useful if the right hon. Member for Swansea, West and the hon. Member for Swansea, East made these points to their constituents. The Royal Navy's concentration on safety measures has been responsible for this record, which is second to none. Clearly, though, we must not be complacent. The probability of accidents and their possible consequences have been examined in great detail and the accuracy of the calculations checked by independent assessors. We maintain comprehensive plans to react to any accident involving the reactor of a Royal Navy submarine, and test them regularly in exercises. Every civil port where Royal Navy nuclear-powered submarines are allowed to berth is covered by a special safety scheme, prepared in full consultation with all the relevant county, city and local councils and local emergency services.
Those are constantly reviewed and revised when necessary. The purpose of the schemes is to co-ordinate the various agencies involved in protecting public safety in the unlikely event of a nuclear accident.
Mr. Hamilton : We are saying that the recommendation from the nuclear safety committee is that we should use Swansea. We will now consult with the county council, and a decision will probably be made after that.
Mr. Hamilton : The consultation will cover the tying in of the whole business of safety precautions and exercises that will be done with the local authorities. They are, of course complimentary to the Royal Navy plans that deal with the reactor itself. A special safety scheme will be
Column 499prepared for the berth at Swansea and copies will be available in public libraries. My officials intend to raise the subject with the local authorities as soon as possible.
Special safety schemes contain predictions of the probability and consequences of accidents which are based on our best and most up-to-date technical advice and are carried out in line with the recommendations laid down by the International Commission for Radiological Protection. Those predictions, which are scrutinised by external consultants, show not only that the possibility of an accident involving the reactor of a Royal Navy nuclear-powered submarine is remote, but that, even if such an accident did occur while a submarine was in port,
Column 500the chances of any significant radiological hazard to the local population are still slim. That is partly because of the strong containment provided by the hull of a submarine, and partly because we choose the location of berths carefully to ensure that they are as far away as possible from homes and schools.
Local authorities are informed three weeks in advance of all nuclear- powered warship visits, and for the duration of each visit a naval emergency monitoring team, a MOD health physicist and a naval incident commander are located at the port concerned as a precautionary measure.
The motion having been made after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker-- adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to Standing Order. Adjourned at fourteen minutes to Two o'clock.
|Written Answers Section