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11.22 am

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) on securing the debate and on his excellent outline of the issues that should be addressed both in our debate and by the Minister in his reply.I recognise that the Minister will have to speak with many tongues for the many Departments involved in the debate.

We heard news this week of the Foreign Office view on this country's role in damping down a resurgence of interest in nuclear weaponry. Regrettably, we have reached a point in history where, although the cold war as a driving force behind proliferation is ending and states are reaching a point where they can negotiate on weapons reduction and non-proliferation, the nuclear problem is bubbling up in another area and as a result of other motivations. It would be sad if, while our Foreign Office is trying to play that damping role, in another guise we were providing the materials--raw materials that can be processed, or at least the precursors--and the wherewithal to enable countries to expand their weaponry. A reassurance from the Minister that the Foreign Office is in the picture and part of the loop would be welcome.

In debates such as this, it is difficult to avoid topicality, but the public will be concerned that a JCB can bring a nuclear reprocessing plant to a halt. That is clearly not the modern level of operating safety that people want. Explanations will come in the fulness of time, but such stories do not help to instil confidence that we have adopted the right long-term strategy or to reassure us that the matter is under control.

The role of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions is important. I listened to the five steps outlined by the hon. Member for Bury, North, who spoke of the need to bring a political decision to bear

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on the MOX issue. With my knowledge of planning and environmental law, I do not know whether the fact of the decision being called in by the Secretary of State makes it a purely political decision, because Ministers are constrained by judicial review in the courts. It may be that, if there is to be a political element, Parliament will have to be involved and review the legal framework surrounding the decision and the way in which it can be taken.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): The hon. Gentleman stated that Dounreay was brought to a halt, but that is not quite the situation, is it?

Sir Robert Smith: I think I said that the reprocessing part of Dounreay was halted, and that was the situation. The hon. Gentleman is right: when we analyse the details and the science we may find that the incident was not as dramatic as the headlines suggested, but the reality is that such events generate public concern. When dealing with complex nuclear material in an environment where there is at least the potential for something to go seriously wrong, one would expect higher levels of safety management to ensure that we do not get that close to having to shut down parts of the operation.

There is major environmental concern about where we go in the long term. The dry storage and continued research option has the greatest potential to produce, in the long term, a solution that protects the next generation, so it is worrying that further reprocessing contracts might be issued. We do not seem to understand that, although in its time there may have been a logic to reprocessing--some say that even in its time it was not logical--movements in the price of materials and developments in the nuclear industry tend to suggest that the time for that process has passed. It is time for a review, and time for the Government to make clear what role they envisage for the reprocessing industry.

Taking an international lead is important. If we show that we can take a decision on this matter, we as a country can play a major role in international negotiations on the future uses of plutonium. It is not clear that having a new Government has brought about any great change in strategy, so it might be interesting were the Government to step back and ask whether they should review the whole subject, bring together all the Departments and consider carefully whether we are trapped in inertia. Are we still in charge? Are we taking a lead? Are we driving the agenda in the direction we want to go? What future role do we envisage for plutonium?

It would be interesting if the Minister could outline his understanding of the current disposition of plutonium. How much is in military hardware? How much is sitting awaiting reprocessing? How much has been set aside for medical uses, such as pacemaker batteries? What percentage of plutonium use do other uses represent? It seems that the biggest use is for fuel and recycling. We do not want to be sidetracked into how we could power pacemakers on the back of the nuclear industry; that is a useful by-product, but it should not be the driving force.

We want to feel that the Government want to take charge of the situation, will not allow it to drift, and will not allow policy momentum to mean that we miss an opportunity. Above all, we do not want this country to

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play a part, by default, in encouraging nuclear proliferation and undermining the hard work that has gone into driving away the threat posed by nuclear weapons.

11.29 am

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) on his perception and foresight in raising an important issue.I also thank him for his information-packed speech: I, for one, have learnt a great deal.

When my hon. Friend applied for the debate, he could not have known how relevant it would be, following events in India earlier this week. I have received a telephone message saying that India has, unfortunately, exploded two further nuclear devices, presumably overnight. The testing of nuclear devices in India is a perfect example, were one needed, of the horrors that can ensue when there are inadequate controls on nuclear materials--such as plutonium--and their associated technologies. The House should note that the principal supplier of the material and technology that underpin the Indian nuclear programme was another Commonwealth country--Canada. There was also ample help from other countries, such as the United States, which supplied the uranium.

These are extremely good arguments in favour of an international, universally applied and agreed fissile material control and disposition policy. They demonstrate the need to move away from the current fragmented approach, involving three separate Government Departments, towards a single, over-arching British fissile material control and disposition policy. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will agree, will take seriously the views that hon. Members express today, and will work towards implementing such a policy.

I shall write to Pakistan's ambassador to urge restraint. If Pakistan follows its neighbour's extremely unfortunate example, the entire population of the sub-continent will be the losers. The question of Kashmir will remain unresolved, along with various other disagreements between India and Pakistan. These two countries are among the poorest in the world. Their people need basic education and health care, adequate shelter, pure water supplies and a decent diet; they do not need the means to kill each other on a massive scale. I trust that these sentiments will be supported by my Pakistani-Kashmiri constituents, and that those constituents will press their Government to stay out of the nonsensical arms race.

It would be helpful if our Government adopted a do-as-we-do approach to the international nuclear weapons non-proliferation treaty, instead of their present do-as-we-say policy. Perhaps our representations to India would then carry much more weight.

11.32 am

Ms Roseanna Cunningham (Perth): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) on obtaining an extremely important debate, even if he did beat me in the great Adjournment debate lottery.

As may be expected, I shall refer to events at Dounreay over the past few weeks. First, however, let me quote from the Government's policy on nuclear reprocessing, which, as far as I can see, may have been cobbled together without debate late last year. Hidden away on the

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Department of Trade and Industry internet site, under the heading "UK Civil Nuclear Policy including Plutonium", it states:

    "The UK Government believes that the question of whether to reprocess (and if so when), or to seek alternative spent fuel management options should be a matter for the commercial judgement of the owners of the spent fuel, subject to meeting the necessary regulatory requirements."

The Minister for Science, Energy and Industry (Mr. John Battle): The hon. Lady will, I think, accept that that information was placed in the Library, and not, as she said, hidden away on the internet--which is in the public domain in any case. I hardly think that she can claim secrecy.

Ms Cunningham: I am glad to hear that. We obtained it from the internet; perhaps we are more wised up than others on new information technology.

Mr. Chaytor: Let me support the Minister by saying that the statement that has been quoted was contained in an answer to a parliamentary question towards the end of January. There was no concealment.

Ms Cunningham: Indeed.

Perhaps we can move on to focus on the words of my quotation. As I was about to say before people began to leap to their feet, the policy has been reiterated in a number of recent written answers. We appear to have a laissez-faire policy for what is possibly the most dangerous of global industries. That is a frightening thought, particularly when we think of the extraordinary catalogue of incompetence and cover-up at Dounreay, which is one of the owners of spent fuel referred to in the Government's policy statements.

Spent fuel management is left to companies' commercial judgment, not their environmental judgment, or a judgment based on thoughts of international security. The economic viability of the nuclear industry would fill an entire debate, but after the Government's high rhetoric over the past few weeks about doing our bit for the world's problems, their policy shows little interest in doing anything to diminish the problem of nuclear proliferation.

The United States Government, who conducted a thorough and open debate into plutonium disposition for several years before they took substantial steps to address the issue, regard Dounreay as a proliferation threat. They refuse to allow their spent fuel to be processed there, saying that

My source for that is the United States Department of Energy's Safe Energy Journal No. 108, January to March 1996. Meanwhile, an unidentified spokesman from Dounreay was quoted, in The Scotsman on 23 April, as saying:

    "If our customers want bomb-grade material, they can have it."

That is not terribly reassuring. Nor is it terribly surprising, when the Government are asking only for the nuclear industry to apply its commercial judgment.

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It is slightly comforting to know that no plants at Dounreay are currently operational. It was announced yesterday that, in the light of events last Thursday, which led to both a loss of power and the failure of the back-up electricity supply, the nuclear installation inspectorate has directed the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority to ensure that all processing activities in the fuel cycle area remain shut down until a safety case can be made that gains the consent of the Health and Safety Executive.

The whole issue is generating enormous debate in Scotland. Today, there is an entire page of analysis inThe Scotsman, which is, in part, indicative of the tone of the response that is emerging. Let me quote two sections from Christopher Cairns's commentary. The first states:

He says, secondly:

    "This, remember, is the safe haven for the uranium which came out of Georgia last month. Of course, a war-torn corner of the former Soviet Union is not the place to keep bomb grade material. But a reprocessing and storage facility which is incapable of even guaranteeing its own power supply must surely run a pretty close second."

That is the tenor of coverage in Scotland of what is happening at Dounreay, and the Government ignore it at their peril.

I want assurances from the Minister that the safety case will involve more than just electronics. The whole condition of the fuel cycle area must be looked at to avoid any more unforeseen accidents.

In its latest quarterly report, the nuclear installations inspectorate referred to an unpublished report of its own identifying the deficiencies in the fuel cycle area. The NII is willing to release the document, but until now UKAEA has blocked its release. In the light of recent events,I would ask the Minister to have that report placed in the House Library, as it is clearly a matter for public concern. I believe that the NII has never served such a wholesale direction on any installation since its inception, which serves to highlight the seriousness of the situation at Dounreay.

It is also worth noting that the D1203 plant, destined to process parts of the Georgia waste into targets for medical isotopes, and the only plant still operational at this time last week, is now closed until further notice. The remaining plants are old and falling to bits. UKAEA has put in an application for funding from the DTI to upgrade plant D1206, a reprocessing plant that would churn out even more plutonium. When can we expect a statement from the DTI about that? What criteria will be used to arrive at a decision on D1206?

To assist the Minister with his decision, I should like to give him a resume of some of Dounreay's recent achievements. In 1977, a waste shaft filled with an explosive mixture of waste and chemicals exploded, spraying radioactive material into the surrounding environment. In January this year, UKAEA's chief constable, Tony Pointer, resigned, apparently over security inadequacies at the plant. In March, a mock evacuation was so unsatisfactory that the NII demanded a re-run. Last week, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency served a notice on UKAEA for grossly underestimating its radioactive discharges. A worker was

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found last week to have been subjected to more than the annual allowable dosage of plutonium radiation. Then there was last Thursday night's complete failure, which could have had disastrous consequences had any of the reprocessing plants still been in an operational state.

There should be a full inquiry into all aspects of management and operations at Dounreay, not more funding for plant D1206. I believe that the findings would show that all its plants should be retired before there is any more opportunity for error. Our continued opposition to the operations at Dounreay is founded not only on the evidence of its incompetence and state of disrepair but on the fact that it exists to reprocess spent fuel--

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