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Mr. Spicer : I understand, Mr Deputy Speaker, that it may be for the convenience of the House if we take with this group the following Lords amendments : No. 28, in clause 32, page 24, line 42, leave out from "with" to "and" in line 43 and insert
"the suppliers concerned, by order require each public electricity supplier in England and Wales or each supplier in Scotland, before a day specified in the order, to make (in so far as he has not already done so)"
Amendment (a) to the Lords amendment, leave out
each such supplier in Scotland'.
Nos. 29 to 35.
No. 36, in clause 33, page 26, line 21, after "above" insert "in relation to public electricity suppliers in England and Wales, or public electricity suppliers in Scotland"
Amendment (a) to the Lords amendment, leave out
or public electricity supplier in Scotland'.
Amendments Nos. 37 to 50, 78 and 79.
Mr. Spicer : Amendments Nos. 28 to 79, dealing with the non-fossil fuel obligation and associated levy, are technical amendments. If any hon. Member has questions, I shall be happy to answer them, but if not, I shall leave the amendments to one side.
The first group of amendments deals with safety and seeks to provide that when a nuclear power station is defined as unsafe, its ownership and control should fall back into the hands of the Secretary of State. The main reason why the Government disagree with that is simple. Under the Nuclear Installations Act 1965, the nuclear installations inspectorate has powers to shut down nuclear power stations or to modify their licences. Indeed, should there be any question of their being unsafe, it has virtually unlimited powers over power stations and their operators. The obligation for safety placed on the operators within the general restrictions and safety conditions laid down by the inspectorate has served the country well, so the amendment is not necessary.
I do not want to make a debating point, but the Opposition are trying to suggest that we should take safety for North sea oil operations out of the hands of the Secretary of State whereas the other place at least supports the view that safety at nuclear installations should be in the hands of the Secretary of State. It will be interesting to see whether the Opposition can solve that conundrum.
Both sides of the House agree that the present legislation is tight on safety. The Bill further strengthens the safety provisions relating to the regulator. We have had a debate on that subject and the Government have brought forward amendments to that effect. We agree about the paramountcy and importance of safety, but the Bill provides a regime to ensure that safety provisions will be complied with.
Mr. Morgan : We are in something akin to uncharted waters this evening, in more ways than one. First, we seem to be operating in a Minister-free zone. I have some sympathy for the departing Secretary of State and his Under-Secretary of State, who were near to ascending their own parliamentary Everest. Just before they reached the summit, the Secretary of State, at least, seems to have slid back to South Col on his backside. Since then, he seems to have found a convenient bus operating from
Column 795South Col back to Katmandu. His future parliamentary survival may depend on him seeing what he can do to live down the consequences of his announcement earlier today that Magnox stations would be left out of the Bill at the last minute of its parliamentary consideration. There is a further reason why we are in uncharted waters. The Secretary of State told the House at 4.30 pm that Magnox stations should be taken out of the privatisation process and brought back into the public sector, because that was the only way to protect potential investors. Now the Minister is telling the House, at 7.50 pm, that for reasons of public safety he is not willing to consider bringing nuclear power stations back into the public sector. He is willing to strengthen protection for private investors, but he wants to weaken protection for public safety. That is an extraordinary contradiction. It may even be the ultimate statement of what the Government are about. They do not care as much about public safety as they do about the safety of the privatisation process, and the advice that they receive from merchant banks on the electricity industry ranks higher than any other.
Lords amendment No. 21 makes it clear that, should there be any doubts about the public safety of nuclear power stations, the Secretary of State would have the right to draw them back into the public sector, if they had already been privatised. I assume that that is confined to AGRs and PWRs. Even after today's announcement, we have no details about that and there could still be an element of privatisation. For that reason, I shall speak as though Magnox stations could be privatised on a sale-and-leaseback procedure. That has by no means been excluded by the Secretary of State's extraordinarily vague announcement. That is another reason why we are in uncharted waters.
It is all very well for the Minister to tell the House, as he did two minutes ago, that we have well-established procedures for dealing with safety issues on the nuclear side of the electricity generating industry. No one has more regard for the inspectors and employees of the nuclear installations inspectorate than the Opposition Front Bench. We hold Eddie Ryder and his staff in the highest regard, but several relatively new factors tend to undermine one's confidence in the bland assurances given by the Under-Secretary of State a couple of moments ago.
We know from the nuclear installations inspectorate itself that it is seriously under-staffed. It would like a very much larger complement because it will have to deal with a much wider range of problems in future. It will be dealing with three separate nuclear installations technologies-- Magnox, AGRs and, before long, PWRs--which it has never had to do before. It will also be dealing with a whole new ball game because of the number of stations being decommissioned. It looks as though the inspectorate may even have to deal with three separate companies, although that is not necessarily so. Clearly, it will have to deal with the nuclear divisions of National Power and the SSEB and it now seems possible that we shall have some sort of cross-border dog's dinner of a nuclear company to deal with Magnox in its declining years until Wylfa is decommissioned in 2001 or 2002, so the NII may be having to deal with three separate management teams. The Minister argues that there is no need to worry because we have the NII, whose terms of reference are clear--that the NII licences the operators and the types
Column 796and that that means that we in Britain have a much better system than other countries and that no problems can arise. As I said, no one could have more regard than the Opposition for the staff of the NII and their dedication to their duties, but the fact remains that they will be facing new problems.
Take the decommissioning of the Magnox stations. The staff of the NII take the view that with the present complement the inspectorate will have its hands full simply dealing with the annual reports for the Magnox stations. It will be almost a full-time job. In addition, the NII will have to consider for the first time the licensing of the operating side of PWRs when the construction phase of Sizewell B is eventually completed in about 1992. In the light of those new problems, the Minister's bland assurances are inadequate. When the Magnox stations are running down, a whole new series of safety problems will arise. Let me give this idea to the Minister to chew over in case his mind is turning to other matters--such as whether he will be here tomorrow. As Magnox stations fall in temperature, they produce weapons-grade plutonium, rather than civil-grade plutonium. A whole new series of protective measures may be required to cover that accidental by-product of the running down of Magnox stations. The nuclear installations inspectorate and other international inspectorates may well take a great deal of interest in that unintended side effect.
In terms of public safety questions such as terrorist attack or theft of plutonium stocks, the decommissioning of Magnox will give rise to a whole new series of questions. We have never had to deal with such questions before because we have never decommissioned stations before, whereas now a whole series of Magnox stations are to go out of business over the next 13 years, until the Magnox problem is behind us.
For those reasons Opposition Members have a great deal of sympathy with the Lords amendments. The Government may say, "We have solved that problem ourselves by taking the Magnox stations out of the privatisation process and keeping them in the public sector. And if they are in the public sector already we do not need the power to take them out of the private sector." We need an assurance from the Minister that the Magnox stations will not enter the private sector by way of sale-and-leaseback arrangements because the Secretary of State was extremely vague on this issue in his statement earlier today. He gave us no idea what form the company would take--perhaps another Secretary of State will have to handle that particular hot potato-- and until we know that, we must assume that there is a possibility that the privatised nuclear power industry will include at least the management of the Magnox stations. In that case the provisions of Lords amendment No. 21 would need to apply to Magnox stations as well as to AGRs and PWRs.
Even if we assume that the Magnox stations stay in the hands of a state nuclear corporation--being incorporated with BNFL, being placed in the hands of a separate Crown nuclear company or remaining in legislative limbo --we must still ask whether the state should have the right to reacquire ownership of AGRs if a public safety threat such as a military, terrorist or type-fault threat arose. Given all the criticisms that have been made about AGRs, that possibility cannot be excluded. Should the Government have an easy route to reacquire the stations on public
Column 797safety grounds or should we have to go through the whole dreary process of introducing legislation to transfer the industry from private to public?
We have much sympathy with the Lords amendment because we believe that the Lords took a long-term view. The public have a great many doubts about how they will live with the nuclear industry. For example, we know that one could never build a nuclear power station on a green field site in this country following the public inquiry process. One can build new nuclear power stations where there are already nuclear power stations because there is a nuclear vested interest in those areas. But if the public had known in the late 1950s and early 1960s what they now know about nuclear power, the existing sites would never have been set up, and that vested interest would never have arisen.
The Lords have sought to reflect the fact that, given the choice, no one would allow a nuclear power station to be built in his area. The public do not want to live in close proximity to nuclear power stations. That is also true in other countries, the possible exception being France.
The public would undoubtedly be greatly reassured if the Government embraced the spirit of the Lords amendment and said, "We understand how you feel about nuclear power and how you were conned into accepting nuclear back in the late 1950s," acknowledging that nuclear power was our weapon to defend ourselves against being exploited by high oil prices and that to be able to construct nuclear power stations was the macho symbol of technologically advanced civilisations. All those assumptions proved hopelessly inaccurate, but they were sufficient to persuade the public to accept nuclear power stations.
The Government must think seriously about how to reassure the public that in a privatised electricity industry public safety will be given the highest priority. We know that once the industry is privatised we shall have a jungle out there. We know that the public believe that in the jungle of a privatised industry corners will be cut. The Minister asked earlier where the estimate of £8 billion for decommissioning Magnox stations came from. I recall that Phillips and Drew the stockbrokers, who are under something of a cloud at present in relation to an entirely different matter, suggested that the possible cost would be £12 billion. That firm was assisting the Government in preparing reasonable estimates of the real cost of nuclear power and said that the decommissioning of Magnox would cost £4 billion if it were done over a century but that that could rise to £12 billion if it were done at the most rapid practicable rate--the rate at which the Swedish Government have told their industry to decommission.
The British Government may wish to choose a similar regime. The public might want them to make that choice rather than having huge concrete domes all over the countryside. The public suspect that in a privatised nuclear industry management will say, "We cannot possibly afford that ; we cannot do it ; we shall go bust if you force us to do it." What is the answer to that?
The public are crying out for reassurance about the safety of living next door to sources of radiation while the interests of investors and shareholders are pulling the other way. We want to know which way the Government will go. The public would like to see the spirit of Lords amendment No. 2 incorporated in the Bill.
Column 798The prime purpose of the Bill must be to reassure the public. Whatever the ideologies of hon. Members, the operation of the industry must be safe and electricity supply must be secure. The Bill's prime purpose cannot be simply to give potential investors a risk- free ride when they have a punt on the pylons and power stations.
In that spirit of asking the Government to reassure the public about the safety of nuclear power stations, I ask them to think again and move to the spirit of Lords amendment No. 21.
Mr. Malcolm Bruce : I support the general thrust of the comments of the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan). There are currently so many question marks over nuclear power that it should not move out of the public sector. It certainly should not move from the public sector when its monitoring, safety and emergency provisions have been exposed as underdeveloped. In Committee, we touched on such matters and gave examples to reinforce our argument.
The general attitude to the level of acceptability of radiation doses has changed dramatically over the years. We have moved from a feeling that any radiation was likely to be damaging, through a belief that quite high doses could be tolerated, to the current belief that we cannot accept the present dosages. The industry is about to be privatised when a public debate is going on about whether the acceptable levels of exposure to radiation are low enough. In the 1950s, the dose limit for workers in the industry was set at 150 mSv, but it was reduced to 50 mSv in 1977, the last time that there was a specific change. The National Radiological Protection Board believes that much lower levels should operate, and has suggested 0.5 or 0.2 mSv. Seven per cent. of employees at Sellafield have received doses of almost 50 mSv. People involved in decommissioning and reprocessing are particularly vulnerable to high doses. If the processes of reprocessing or decommissioning make it impossible for humans to do them because safety levels have fallen below what is acceptable, what will that mean for reprocessing, decommissioning or the private sector nuclear industry? The amendment at least ensures that the Government have at their disposal, at any time, the right to intervene and to say, "We are not satisfied that sufficiently high standards are being applied, so we propose to take direct responsibility."
In Committee, I referred to emergency evacuation procedures for nuclear power stations. It is little short of a scandal that we still have no published, workable or known evacuation procedures for people within the vicinity of nuclear power stations, despite many requests for one by the Association of Planning Officers. Information is not available to local general practitioners about the effect of discharge of radiation on workers or people in the vicinity of a nuclear power station, although they have tried to secure such information several times.
The industry is being privatised, despite the fact that we know that major accidents can happen, and have happened. We have a moving position on safety and the possibility that, in an emergency, responsible local authorities and the public within the vicinity of a nuclear power station would not know what was expected of them. That example determines that the amendment is necessary to ensure that safety factors are taken into account.
Column 799The House should not allow the Government to be complacent about this industry, of all industries. It is a regrettable fact that the commercial climate created by the Government of the maximisation of profit and the allowance of commercial interests with the maximum deregulation has already led to major disasters in the private sector. I do not need to catalogue them, because we are all aware of them and because they have been referred to all too often in debates.
Do the Government want to put alongside Zeebrugge, Clapham or Lockerbie a Hinkley Point or a Dungeness B because they chose to privatise the industry with inadequate safeguards? I believe that that is what they are proposing. I believe that that is what their Lordships thought, and that is the reason for the amendment. It is regrettable that the Government do not appear to have learnt from the savage incidents that have occurred. The consequences for the nuclear power industry of the pursuit of profit and the compromise of safety standards that might occur as a result would be more far-reaching than the other disasters to which I have referred.
I should like to question the implications of the non-fossil fuel levy for Scotland, which is why I tabled two probing amendments. Scotland has substantial over-capacity in all electrical power generation, predominantly because of excessive investment in nuclear power stations. I suggested in Committee that, to reduce that over-capacity, the ownership of Torness should be transferred to National Power, thereby releasing some of the excess capacity in Scotland. That is not an ideal solution, because Torness should never have been built, but given that it exists and is operating, and given that under the Bill nuclear capacity is to be contracted to a percentage under the non-fossil fuel levy, it appears that it could make a contribution.
I ask the Minister to say whether the Government have any thoughts on when and if the non-fossil fuel levy will be applied to Scotland. It has been suggested that eventually it might, but will a different level apply? Perhaps more pertinent, it is important to impress on the Minister that the way in which nuclear power capacity is being forced on the industry is continuing to depress and prejudice the interests of alternative non-fossil fuel sources of electricity. Will the Minister comment on reports that have appeared in the press over the past few days that the French believe they can meet the target that the Government have set of 600 MW of alternative non-fossil fuel sources from their hydro facilities? Understandably, the Government share my suspicions that that would be a way of offloading their extra nuclear capacity. When one switches on a light, it is difficult to know what system of generation has produced the power that results. This is an important issue and the Government could have set themselves a much higher standard than their 600 MW objective.
It remains a matter of concern to me--I repeat it only at its face value-- that Scotland probably has the best potential of any part of the United Kingdom for developing substantial renewable energy. That is in no way to underplay what can be achieved in other parts of the United Kingdom, but, according to independent studies, our wind profile is better than that of Denmark and we therefore have the potential to secure a substantial amount of energy from wind power. The Norwegians are pressing ahead with wave power, and Scotland too has appropriate sites to develop that source of energy successfully.
Column 800However, the chances of those alternative sources of energy being developed are much reduced by the fact that Scotland has massive extra capacity, most of it nuclear. That would seem to pre-empt significant amounts of investment in Scotland. I know that the Minister will say that certain things are happening--I am aware of them-- but they are very small and I cannot see that significant commercial developments will result from them.
In any case, upgrading the interconnector is absolutely crucial if Scotland is to offload its capacity. That brings me to the crunch question for Scotland, to which I do not believe that the Government can give any answer. The method of calculating prices means that prices in Scotland will be based on the average rather than on Scotland's costs. The consequence of that will inevitably ensure that my constituents in the north of Scotland, who currently enjoy the lowest unit price of electricity in the country-- and need to, given where they live--will find themselves rising rapidly up the scale of charges as a direct result of this privatisation.
On top of that, if the Scottish boards find difficulty contracting the sale of their nuclear-powered electricity, it seems that Scottish consumers, as well as Scottish shareholders, will be stuck with a capacity that they cannot sell and with a debt that they still have to service. The consequences could be disastrous for Scottish consumers. Whatever the perception of the Bill in England and Wales--and wherever one goes, the Bill is opposed by the majority of people--I have no doubt that the opposition to it in Scotland is more substantial, basically because in this legislation the Government are refusing to acknowledge the different structure, traditions and history of electricial generation in Scotland. The Government have lumped all the provisions into a global Bill with the consequence that Scottish interests--and the differences in the mix, the organisation and structure of the industry in Scotland--have not been taken into account.
That is why I have tabled amendments to take references to Scotland out of the provisions. I admit that they are probing amendments, but they are based on the premise that, as we reach the end of the Bill's passage through Parliament, it is apparent that it is bad news for the United Kingdom, but very bad news for Scotland. That probably means that it will be bad news for the Government in the polls in England, and very bad news for them in Scotland, but they have become used to that and perhaps after the next election there will be no Tory Members left in Scotland to bring back the reports of what happened.
However, that is as may be. My conclusions are simply that the non-fossil fuel levy and the safety issues are serious considerations, that the Lords amendments improve the Bill, and that it is regrettable that the Government are trying to reverse them.
Mr. McCartney : In our Committee discussions on nuclear safety, those of us who have been involved in local government and in the preparation of plans relating to the nuclear industry argued for a bipartisan policy on this matter. Irrespective of whether one is pro or anti-nuclear, or pro or anti-privatisation, one must agree that it is essential to the nation's security that we come up with an acceptable and workable set of proposals not only for on-site, but also for off-site emergency planning measures for nuclear installations.
Column 801In Committee, in the Lords and again this evening, the tragedy has been the Government's unwillingness to accept a bipartisan approach to nuclear safety and to the development of off-site and on-site plans. In these privatisation proposals, the Government have missed a real opportunity to look at what has happened during the past decade between the nuclear industry and the emergency planning officers in local government, both at county level and at fire and civil authority level. All of us who have been involved in this issue over that period accept the need to resolve the inadequate relationship between planning officers and the nuclear industry as it currently stands.
In Committee, the Minister went some way to accepting the need for a radical change in the current position in relation to on-site, but especially to off-site, emergency planning. He acknowledged that by saying that it was the Government's intention to bring forward proposals similar to those that are currently operating in industry for large-scale petrochemical plants and for other industrial processes that can cause difficulties and accidents. However, he did not go on to accept the current inadequacies of our off-site emergency planning procedures in terms of the ability of local authority emergency planning departments to sit down in consultation with the nuclear industry and with those in the community who live close to a nuclear plant and to come up with proposals to improve the existing position.
It is because of the inability and the lack of willingness on the part of the nuclear industry in the past decade to take local communities and emergency planning departments into its confidence that in the past few years local authorities and, through their professional bodies, the planning officers, have attempted to initiate new plans and proposals to upgrade and modernise off-site emergency planning activities. That has included a number of table top exercises, paid for by local authorities, which looked at the current position in the industry and the likely response from the local community in the event of varying scenarios of nuclear incidents.
Each time, the exercises showed the inadequacies of the development of off- site plans in all regions, whether in the north-west, the south-west, Scotland or anywhere else with a nuclear installation. All such table top exercises have shown up the glaring anomalies and the lack of accountability of the nuclear industry. They have also shown the lack of an adequate relationship between the industry and those responsible for the development of local off-site emergency plans.
Therefore, although the Minister will not accept any of the amendments that have been tabled and will attempt to eradicate those from another place, I hope that he will accept, irrespective of his personal views and his political animosity towards Opposition Members, that we should come to a bipartisan approach to off-site emergency planning.
In Committee, both I and my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams) spent a great deal of time over several days dealing with amendments and general discussions in clause stand part debates trying to set out a framework and structure for the type of amendments that would be required if there were to be any meaningful
Column 802relationship and public accountability for off-site emergency planning or public involvement through emergency planning departments and officers.
Despite promptings from me and other hon. Members to come to see what was happening at local authority level, Ministers still insisted that the Government totally accepted the current position, and that there was no need for any major changes. However, that is flying against all international views on this and against the advice that is currently being given to the Government by the chief emergency planning officers and their professional bodies.
The Government are still refusing to amend their proposals on "reference accident"--although the International Atomic Energy Agency sees the reference accident scenario as inadequate under the current proposals. The reference accident is based on analyses of possible failures of components and systems, and fails to take into account that accidents that have happened overseas in the nuclear industry have not been because of a failure in the fail-safe component systems, but have been mainly through human error, especially those at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. The Government's proposals do not take account of on-site and emergency planning for such human errors and the accident that would flow from a major disaster involving the culpability of people working in installations.
Experience also shows that site operators fail to provide efficient on-site and off-site plans. It is therefore an absolute necessity that the Government proposals should bring about a system whereby the nuclear industry would sit down and work out in consultation with emergency planning departments a comprehensive plan for each nuclear installation, whether in the public or private sector. It is important, too, that we have a proper system of notification in the development of such plans to ensure the involvement of local communities and community organisations.
I shall quote from a recent report prepared by the chief emergency planning officers' professional body, which I believe the Minister has seen. Perhaps he will tell us tonight whether he is prepared to accept the report's recommendations. It states :
"Nuclear installations should come under similar legislation to other industrial major hazard sites in that the operator should be required to engage County Authorities in producing the off-site plan for which the operator would pay. The operator would then have a duty to provide information to the public about the activities of the site and the appropriate counter measures to take in the event of an accident in response to an agreed warning system and the management of an off-site emergency plan would be in the hands of the Civil Authorities"
and not in the hands of a nuclear industry as it currently stands. It is important, therefore, that the Minister does not simply reject the Lords amendment, or reject out of hand the Opposition's proposals, but that he comes up with a positive response to the genuine fears not just of politicians but of people in the community, community leaders and emergency planning officers, who have had experience of emergency procedures in, for example, the armed services, the Home Office and other Government Departments. None of them has been appointed because of a political allegiance to any particular party or policy on nuclear matters. They are appointed because of their experience and qualifications on emergency planning matters. When people with such experience and understanding of the
Column 803situation tell the Government that the current position is inadequate, the Government should respond positively to their proposals.
In the recommendations for change, the Government should accept the abandonment of the reference accident as a basis for plans. They should accept an increase in the minimum emergency planning zone from 3 km to 10 km, two further planning zones of 25 km and 100 km, and an automated and extensive warning system should be established, coupled to a pre-arranged local radio station for the transmission of emergency information. There should be a legal requirement for county-level authorities to prepare and maintain composite off-site plans and for the site operator's role in the off-site emergency responses to be curtailed, and the responsibility for setting up the off-site operational support centres and implementing
counter-measures should pass ultimately to the police.
We require the development of a mutual aid agreement between adjacent counties, because we have seen in Three Mile Island and in Chernobyl that accidents are not just contained within a region or a sub-region, but can cover the globe and create a European scenario or, in the United States, affect a whole state. It is important, therefore, that off-site emergency plans are not just developed for the immediate hinterland around an installation, but are co-ordinated regionally and ultimately at a national level. That must mean the creation of a national disaster unit, which would co-ordinate emergency responses at a national level. There would be an emergency planning inspectorate to evaluate all areas of emergency planning and to possess the power to withhold site licences for those operators whose off-site plans are not of the required standard.
Those are the minimum requirements and they are well within the grasp of the Government if they are prepared to take a non-party political view and to accept that the priority should not be to ensure that the industry is sweetened up for privatisation by downgrading and keeping to a minimum the basic measures needed for emergency planning. That is in the interests of no one, and especially is not in the interests of the industry.
One of the problems that has bedevilled the nuclear industry over the past decade, and still continues to do so, is people's unwillingness to accept the industry's assurances about its safety record. One thing that the industry could do to help itself, and that the Government could do to help the industry if they are interested in promoting nuclear power, is to give the public and the bodies that represent the public the opportunity to have a real say in the development of off-site emergency plans. Unless the Government give such a commitment and the resources to do it, there will still be public scepticism and fear about the nature of the emergency plans, their adequacy and who would control them if there was an accident. I hope that the Minister will for once be positive in this matter and accept that the Opposition have some good ideas and some common-sense views about the development of such plans. Perhaps, if there was some co- operation between us, the fears that many people have about the nuclear industry and of a nuclear accident would, while not being completely ameliorated, be calmed, and for once, during the lifetime of the nuclear industry, the general public and local authorities would be involved
Column 804in a real sense in the development of emergency plans, and their structure and criteria would be established in an effective and efficient manner.
Mr. Alan W. Williams : I address my comments to Lords amendment No. 21, which is a simple one. It gives the Secretary of State the power to take over a nuclear power station on grounds of safety whenever there might be a serious incident. In nuclear power, accidents do happen. There was a time when the nuclear industry used to claim that there were so many fail- safe systems that a serious accident could never happen--it was, for example, one every 1,000 million reactor years.
Then, in 1979, came the accident at Three Mile Island, when a pressurised water reactor came to within one hour of meltdown and, in 1986, there was Chernobyl, when a reactor went completely out of control. It burned furiously for two weeks or more and spilled out 5 per cent. of its radioactive content. That led to the evacuation of almost 100,000 people and the declaration of a zone 30 km around the reactor as uninhabitable. I read recently that more villages have just been evacuated in that area. The fallout went north of Chernobyl, and it is clear now that the soil and the food that is grown there are contaminated. They have therefore had to evacuate a further 25 villages.
Now, post-Chernobyl, they are finding deformities in animals, an increase in ill-health, thyroid problems among children and a doubling in the incidents of cancers to the lip and mouth. That shows that, when there is a major nuclear accident at a reactor, it can be disastrous. The cost of Chernobyl was conservatively estimated at £5 billion. The Government have argued that such accidents could not occur with our reactors, but that is transparent nonsense, as our reactors could fail just as disastrously.
I am pleased that, as a result of the statement, the Government have decided not to privatise the Magnox power stations, because those reactors are clapped out and, at any time, one of them could fail disastrously. I wish that the Government were not going to privatise the AGRs, PWRs or any other part of the electricity industry. At the Hinkley inquiry, the CEGB has now conceded that the newly designed PWRs could suffer a meltdown. It would be in such circumstances that we want the Secretary of State to have the power to take over a nuclear power station.
I am aware that clause 92 gives the Secretary of State some power to give directions for the purpose of
"preserving the security of buildings".
That wording is extremely vague. The Minister spoke about the nuclear installations inspectorate and its powers. We are well aware of those powers, but the NII is incredibly under-staffed, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan) has already drawn attention. It is a national scandal that the NII, in common with all anti-pollution inspectorates, is understaffed. If a serious accident on the scale of Three Mile Island or Chernobyl were to occur, the NII would have insufficient powers to rescue us.
The public are genuinely worried about nuclear safety ; perhaps that is the No. 1 reason why the public are so anti-nuclear. That concern is already felt about an industry that is in public control, but once that industry passes into private hands that concern will grow. There will be great
Column 805concern about privatised PWRs that will be able to produce 1,000 MW or 1,200 MW, the largest capacity in the world.
The new clause proposed in Lords amendment No. 21 would give the Secretary of State a reserve power, which we hope that he would never have to exercise. If there were a major incident, the Secretary of State, as the public would want, could take over a nuclear installation. It is a long- stop amendment, as we hope that that power would never be needed.
If there was a major incident, chaos and confusion would reign. That is what happened at Chernobyl and that was our Government's reaction to that accident. The Lords amendment would give the Government the power to intervene and to tell the people that it was their responsibility to take over a particular installation rather than to act as passive bystanders.
The Government should accept the sensible amendment, as it would give the Secretary of State an absolute right to take over a nuclear installation in the interests of public safety.
Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley) : My hon. Friends the Members for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) and for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams) have made good contributions and, although their comments may have been somewhat wide of the amendment, the Government should take on board what they have said about emergency planning.
My hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen was right to say that Lords amendment No. 21 is a long-stop amendment for the Secretary of State. We all hope that he would never have to use the power, but as the other place said, that power is a response to the fears that have been expressed by many of our constituents about nuclear power. More important, it reflects the fears held by many about the nuclear power industry being transferred to the private sector, especially as the private sector has not had a brilliant record in many sectors. It may be argued that the Secretary of State has control over institutions such as the NII and that, therefore, there is no need for the Government to accept the amendment, despite its inoffensiveness. My hon. Friends have already demonstrated, however, that the NII is currently under-staffed. Until that is put right to the satisfaction of the inspectorate and everyone else, no one can be too happy.
The Minister said that amendment No. 28 and the other amendments in relation to the non-fossil-fuel levy were technical amendments. That is probably right as those amendments take up two and a half pages to amend two pages of the Bill covering clauses 32 and 33. Technical amendments of such length have been introduced on Report on all manner of Bills ; they are symptomatic of this Bill and of the Government. Somewhere deep-seated in No. 10 we have a policy unit that devises schemes to move things out of the public sector into the private sector. The maxim is : public sector bad ; private sector good.
Here we have two and a half pages of amendments to cover just three pages of the Bill that we discussed in December on Second Reading. Those two and a half pages relate to perhaps the most dogmatic part of the Bill, the Government's action to ring-fence the nuclear electricity industry as opposed to any other part of it. That action
Column 806distorts the competition in the Bill, the very competition that we are told is the main reason for the Government to privatise the electricity supply industry.
Today, we have heard the bugles of retreat sound in relation to some of that ring-fencing as the Magnox stations will no longer be part of the private sector, because they are unsustainable. It appears that, although everyone else failed to convince the Government of that, the sounds from the City in the past few days did so.
It is ironic that the only good thing to come out of clause 32 and the ring -fencing is that the Government have given a slight commitment to sources of renewable energy, something that has been largely forgotten for the past 10 years. It now appears that sources of renewable energy may be given a lifeline because of the non-fossil-fuel obligation to which suppliers will be bound. Hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber argued that combined heat and power should also be considered in relation to renewable sources of energy. That request was rejected in our earlier discussion of the Lords amendments. It was sad that, during the course of those very debates, the combined heat and power scheme put together by Leicester city council and a private consortium collapsed. It was intended that that scheme would lead the way in combined heat and power, but it collapsed because it was not allowed access to the grid. It believed that the East Midlands electricity board was operating its old cartel to keep out small and new producers.
Although we shall not divide the House on the non-fossil fuel levy, we should take this last chance to remind people who are reading our debates and who look with interest to the outcome of electricity privatisation how distorted the Bill is from beginning to end. The non-fossil fuel levy and the events of the past few hours in the Chamber have shown this legislation to be nothing more than an ideological attack on the public sector. It has been ill-thought out and in years to come we shall find that it will make electricity, which was once easy to come by, more difficult to get hold of and more expensive when it arrives.
The hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan) asked whether leaving Magnox stations in the public sector would affect the safety regime ; the hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams) asked the same question. The structure of the industry has no bearing on the safety regime, which will be controlled by legislation that is already on the statute book. The operator is responsible for safety, under the command and control structure of the nuclear installations inspectorate.
In this context, the hon. Member for Cardiff, West perfectly properly asked --as did the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron)--whether NII staffing would be adequate for the future of the industry. NII staff numbers have been significantly increased lately. We entirely agree that the inspectorate's staffing must be adequate, and I assure the House that it will be adequate to meet the NII's responsibilities.
There were 120 inspectors at 1 April 1988, and the inspectorate has the authority to increase their number by 33 per cent., to 160 inspectors, by 1 April 1990. We shall discuss all aspects of the new arrangements, including staffing requirements, with the NII to ensure that high
Column 807standards are maintained in the industry. We agree with the Opposition about that and I hope that they are reassured by what I have said.