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Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield): When did the request come, and who made it? Was the International Atomic Energy Agency consulted about the transaction? Was Euratom consulted under the European arrangements?

If it is a fact that the importation of nuclear material without the requirement that the waste be re-exported is to be Government policy, would it not be sensible to allow the House to debate it, as occurred in 1978 when, after the Parker commission, there was a full debate and a vote before the THORP project was established?

Mr. Henderson: The Government were originally approached by the American Government in autumn 1997, to seek a UK Government view on this international problem, which had to be dealt with. Some weeks ago, after considerable consultation had taken place with those involved, the Government decided that the project should be supported. I hope that I have made it clear that this is an exception to UK policy, because of the particular circumstances. The House is, of course, free to discuss the matter in a wider debate on these matters at any time, as appropriate.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): Will the Minister confirm that the Scotland Bill, if enacted, would provide that Members of the Scottish Parliament would not have a competence to discuss in Edinburgh transport arrangements of nuclear waste of this kind? Will he agree to place in the Library a note, setting out in precise terms the agreement struck with President Clinton, and the particulars in which the normal licensing regime has been relaxed?

Mr. Henderson: When I give the House the full information that I have committed myself to give, that information will be part of it.

Mr. Hogg: In the Library?

Mr. Henderson: Any detail that is not announced in a parliamentary answer or from the Dispatch Box will be placed in the Library.

The Scottish Parliament will have legislative and executive competence over the regulation of radioactive discharges--the functions that are currently carried out by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. Nuclear energy is, however, a reserved matter, so the Scottish Parliament will have no direct responsibility for the operations at Dounreay, nor for regulating the storage of nuclear material at that site.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West): Would my hon. Friend care to comment on reports that this matter

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involved a breach or waiver of some regulation, whereby nuclear material should be processed in the UK only if it is to be transported back to its country of origin? If there was such a breach or waiver of a regulation, does not that reinforce the case for seeking prior parliamentary approval or, at the very least, for a prior statement to be made in the House?

Mr. Henderson: I understand my hon. Friend's point, but two issues are involved. One is security. It would not be possible to return any processed products to Georgia because that would present a security risk. That was not an option. Therefore, if the United Kingdom was to contribute to the international effort, another means of dealing with the products had to be found. It was agreed that an exception should be made to our normal practice in this case. It was not possible to announce the decision in advance, because that would have given notice to potential terrorists in Georgia or elsewhere that there were dangerous materials on their doorstep that could be used to make devastating nuclear weapons. For those reasons, confidential measures had to be taken in advance.

Ms Roseanna Cunningham (Perth): Notwithstanding the Minister's remarks about Dounreay, he must be aware that long-standing concerns about safety standards at the facility are expressed frequently in Scotland. Not five days ago, an article appeared in The Herald in Scotland under the headline, "Dounreay's days as the nuclear dustbin to end", with the sub-headline, "Watchdog bans storage of irradiated waste without means of reprocessing". Given that the reprocessing plants at Dounreay have not been operational for the past 18 months and that, as far as we know, there is no current licence, the waste will not be reprocessed in the near future. In those circumstances, can the Minister explain why the secret deal was done?

Mr. Henderson: I thank the hon. Lady for her question, but I must state emphatically that Dounreay is not a nuclear waste bin. Dounreay is a modern facility which processes by-products from other important areas. The hon. Lady will know that safety is always at the forefront of concern at Dounreay. Dounreay provides important technology for medical isotopes, which are an important constituent in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. That is just one important task that is undertaken at Dounreay. I think that the hon. Lady should be a little more objective in her consideration.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): Is it not the blunt truth that some hon. Members have gone over the top on this issue? It is a storm in a teacup: in terms of international waste disposal, we are talking about microscopic amounts of material. The hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter), who led for the Opposition, acted thoroughly irresponsibly by suggesting that the transport of the material across Europe, by sea or by other means, should be advertised internationally before its arrival in the United Kingdom. That is the most irresponsible response to a statement that I have heard since the election last year.

Does not the question of international collaboration point to the need for the international community to get together and find a single international solution to the

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problem of nuclear waste disposal? We cannot continue to pick on different parts of the United Kingdom, as Nirex did in west Cumbria, or as was done some years ago at Dounreay, at the sites in Lincolnshire, or in Leicestershire or Bedfordshire about four years ago. I recall also the Billingham argument of about six years ago. We must abandon that approach and find a single international site that will allow us finally to resolve the problem of nuclear waste disposal.

Mr. Henderson: Hon. Members will know that my hon. Friend has considerable knowledge in this area, and that is much respected by the House. He understands the important considerations involved--as did the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, who asked the private notice question. Non-proliferation issues are key matters of international security, and there are ways of carrying through the policy safely and securely. It requires international action and international obligations, and we are playing a major part in that process.

Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell): In respect of the Minister's last comments, it is important to find an international solution to the problem. I hope that the Foreign Office will take seriously the suggestion offered by my right hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, of further international discussion to clarify the position. On the subject of secrecy, the criticism is not that the details of the transfer were not made apparent, but that the principle of the transfer was not revealed. The Minister should address that issue.

On the specific issue of Dounreay, the Minister's statement makes it clear that not all the material can currently be processed at Dounreay. Can he give us an idea when that material can be processed? If there should be further undue delay, is there a possibility that it may be transferred elsewhere in the United Kingdom, such as to Sellafield?

Mr. Henderson: On the hon. Gentleman's first point, it would have been impossible to draw any distinction between the principle and the particular circumstances. All those involved who have any knowledge, and principally potential criminals and terrorists, would know the exact nature of the problem if a major debate were opened up on the issue. The hon. Gentleman will understand that.

Mr. Taylor: Rubbish

Mr. Henderson: it is not rubbish. As members of the previous Government will understand, that would become known in those circles in countries such as Georgia.

On the question whether the spent fuel will be reprocessed at Dounreay, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that that is the intention. I cannot say when that will take place, as that is an operational matter. On the question of storage, that requires further consideration.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet): As I have told the House before, I was once upon a time a radiation biologist. I have also been a campaigner in an election in a constituency that was dominated by the atomic energy industry. That experience taught me that the industry

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cannot, does not and will not accept the public's perception of the risk, and equally that the public will never accept the assurances that the industry gives about the measure of the risks. More openness is needed.

I am sure that the action that the Government have taken in accepting the material has decreased the risk to the world as a whole, at the expense, perhaps, of a slightly increased risk to the UK. I do not believe that the public will understand the trade-off that was necessary there.

I strongly urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consider the sort of international response suggested by some of my hon. Friends. We need a Kyoto-like conference between producers of waste, reprocessors of waste, Governments and environmentalists, in order to get a worldwide approach to the issue. At present, the British Government have the standing in the world to lead that effort.


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