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Mr. Dalyell: I am an old-fashioned person who thinks that it is the job of Members of Parliament to lead the public debate and to try to inform the public. Personally, I am proud of what Scotland, Britain and the British nuclear industry are able to do in offering expertise to the world to overcome a real problem. It would be selfish of me to speak at any greater length. I simply ask the Minister: is he not also proud of the British nuclear industry?

11.54 am

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I had come to the Chamber with the intention, not of speaking, but of listening and possibly intervening. However, I should like to make a couple of points to add to the analysis of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), who, in an interesting and analytical explanation of where we are in relation to plutonium disposition, made many points that I share, if not wholly agree with.

We must understand that there is the factor of the basic integrity of the nuclear industry. This is an interesting industry because it is split so many different ways. It transcends the public and private sectors and military and civilian purposes and it is commercially driven. At the same time, it has international obligations and has to meet basic needs in terms of the general purpose of the world's population.

Whether we like it or not, there is a proliferation of plutonium, and we have to do something with that, whether it is through the civilian route or the nuclear industry. There is also the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Various people have spoken about the problems in India, Pakistan and elsewhere. We must hope and pray for non-proliferation treaties, but realpolitik tells us that, at the moment, we have to remove that plutonium in whatever ways we can.

The nuclear industry has a purpose, a role in the future of the world. We cannot disinvent it. It is there. It is functioning. Many Members here today believe that we will have an energy shortfall in 40 or 50 years' time. Even if the most ambitious ideas of those who support--as I do--the alternative, the reusable sources, are put into practice, we still almost certainly have an enormous shortfall in energy, particularly as securing more energy is the only way in which the third world can develop. Many countries are energy deficient and must look for ways in which to reach developed status. They will need to be able to share in that.

I have a problem with all the allegations and emotive attacks on the nuclear industry. I share some of the concerns about the secrecy and lack of transparency in the

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way in which the nuclear industry has tended to operate both in this country and the wider world. What concerns me is that, unless we face up to the reality of the situation, we will lose the technological know-how. We will face a world where there are no people to solve the problems that we have to solve because they will not go away.

This country was particularly well known as the leading advocate of nuclear industry. Many of our brightest brains and the people who slaved hard to come up with answers are either working in other parts of the world or leaving the industry and not being replaced. My only plea is that we do not lose the advantages that we have. We have to face up to our responsibilities and to look at what is possible at the moment. I strongly believe that, whether we like it or not, reprocessing is the best way in which to remove plutonium for the time being. We have examined how to store it, but that is neither safe nor necessarily the better alternative.

There may be ways in which, by keeping our integrity in this industry, we can find better solutions. Science in different parts of world is trying to come up with ways to find the better alternative in dealing with the problems of plutonium. As a non-scientist, in upholding faith in science, I ask hon. Members and the Minister to have a little faith in the nuclear industry and to recognise that it is about not only commercial obligation but the basic requirement of mankind to find both energy and a safe way of disposing of plutonium.

11.59 am

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): The hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) performed a considerable service to the House by raising these important issues, and by the general tone in which he did so--a tone which has been followed, with perhaps one exception, by subsequent speakers--given the great public concern and emotion about these matters.

Plutonium is a highly toxic material in certain applications, although its nature, which emphasises radiation through the emission of alpha particles, means that it is less penetrative than some nuclear fissile materials. In certain cases, it can be rendered relatively innocuous in use. However, on the applications side, apart from its potential use in nuclear weapons, it is a nasty substance that needs proper respect, as do many other substances that are used variously in industrial processes, from chlorine to arsenic. Plutonium is not unique in being toxic; it is perhaps unique in potentially being of very high value. It has been said that, per kilogram, it is perhaps the most valuable material in the world. The stockpile is a considerable asset in terms of its capacity for use, and not simply for nuclear fissile or nuclear warfare activities.

The concern that is rightly expressed in public debate about nuclear issues, as opposed to other industrial processes, perhaps goes further than it should. I think that that has much to do with the fact that nuclear radiation cannot be perceived, visually or by means of any of our senses. Inevitably, public debate is mediated by experts who may or may not have vested interests. Radiation has to be measured by instruments and we must be reassured by scientists. That is not always a happy situation.

Although the nuclear industry generally has a good safety record worldwide, and certainly in the United Kingdom, there have been exceptions, of which the

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clearest example is Chernobyl. I had some experience of that when I worked in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Twelve years ago almost to the day, we had to put the sheep population of parts of the United Kingdom under control. It is a sobering thought that some of those sheep are still under control because of the very high safeguards that we needed to impose, rightly, to reassure the public. Things can go wrong but mercifully they do not generally go wrong, and they certainly have not gone wrong systematically in relation to the United Kingdom's stockpile of plutonium.

This is a timely debate because, as the hon. Member for Bury, North said, the Royal Society has rightly expressed its concerns and its wish that the Government should consider the long-term disposition of the United Kingdom's growing stockpile. That stockpile is owned by a number of operators, and reflects both the retirement of nuclear weapons and, more particularly, the growing output of commercial reactors. I agree with the Government--I am sure that they will confirm that this is their position--that there is no immediate need for a decision. It would be wrong to rush into one. It needs proper consideration. While the material is being held as it is, I am broadly satisfied about its safety, but I would like the Minister to confirm the position.

The hon. Member for Perth (Ms Cunningham) and other hon. Members mentioned that concern has been heightened by recent events. The acceptance of the Georgian high-grade uranium material for reprocessing at Dounreay on a one-way ticket has inevitably reignited concerns about the security of nuclear installations generally. They were highlighted in recent days by the apparent failure of power supplies at the plant. I shall return to that later, because the interpretation of safety data and precautionary action is important.

There have also been disturbing revelations about apparent leakages and high levels of ambient radiation from French trains carrying material for reprocessing. That has not been mentioned today. It is right that the House should be vigilant on behalf of the public, and of the world environment, about unplanned discharges. Our job is to ask Ministers the questions that Ministers should be regularly asking their officials. I hope that they are. In particular, we must ask whether they continue to be satisfied that security at our nuclear installations is adequate, that messages are passed to other nuclear operators outwith the United Kingdom about their security and, in particular, that Sellafield is now doing what it should, given its stockpile.

Dr. Lynne Jones: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there should be accountability regarding the location of material such as plutonium in a form that it is possible to convert into weaponry? Even the smallest amount of material should be accounted for. Is he not concerned that that will be difficult if there is reprocessing and dispersal of plutonium across the world?

Mr. Boswell: I am grateful for that question. The effect of reprocessing on the whole complex of high-level waste is to reduce and concentrate it. That creates plutonium, which has to be secured. The alternative may be to allow proliferation, or expansion, of the total amount of high-level waste kept in dry storage unprocessed. That is a difficult judgment. I had no part in it, but the previous Government had to consider it in respect of THORP, the

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thermal oxide reprocessing plant. Of course what is done with plutonium, and the extent to which there is accountability, are important. It is for the Minister to say how precisely he can account for it and whether there are any unaccountable losses that concern him. He can assure us that it will not happen in future. It is for the operators, who carry out the process primarily on a commercial basis, to decide whether something is economic and appropriate, and for those who license and control their activities to ensure that the matter is properly accounted for; it is right to separate the capacities.

As the hon. Member for Bury, North said, plutonium waste could possibly be converted into fissile material. Although it is not the material of choice, it is important that we view it on its merits as a potentially fissile material, and account for it appropriately. That needs to be got right. However, as the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) did in relation to Dounreay, it is important to put on record the safety achievements of Sellafield.

That is an important point in the argument about industrial activities involving various scientific applications, whether in the nuclear industry or in other industries such as genetic engineering. We must consider the alternative. We must also consider the built-in propensity, when we measure and impose safeguards and insist on the highest possible standard, to expose more items which in a sense--I speak not as Sir Humphrey but as a concerned member of the public--reveal the robustness of the safety system. The inspectorate's decision to shut Dounreay shows that it was not satisfied with standards, not that something was inherently wrong with the plant when it was in full operation. That is relevant to Sellafield.

British Nuclear Fuels plc can declare a secular decline in the accident rate, which affects the overall housekeeping of the plant. More precisely, there has been a systematic and dramatic lowering of the discharge consent levels, whether involving ambient discharge or discharge into the sea, reflecting the fact that society rightly wants higher standards and will, I hope, enforce them. If they are occasionally departed from, that shows that the system is broadly working, not that it is failing.

It is also important to record that BNFL is the major employer in Cumbria. Some 8,000 are employed at THORP alone. It has set a new standard in being open with the public. It has created a visitor centre, not to tell people just what they need to hear, but to give them a chance to see what is going on. I have not visited it yet, but I hope to do so in due course. That readiness to open up suggests not an attempt to cover up, as some people suggest, but a readiness to take the public into the confidence of both the Government in relation to regulation and the operators in relation to their activities on the important overall issues.

We cannot expect the Government to say things that bear directly on security, but the more sunlight that can be let in, the better. Then the argument for confidence and concern about matters that we cannot measure ourselves--we do not know what is going on without the aid of instruments and interpretation--can be turned round. As the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) rightly said, the Kyoto requirements may well in due course lead

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to some reappraisal of the balance of energy sources. That will undoubtedly be one of the Government's review of wider energy issues.

In his response to this important and timely debate, I should like the Minister to comment on several aspects relating more directly to its specific subject--the disposition of plutonium. As other hon. Members have said, the debate goes wider than the remit of the Minister's Department. It involves environmental concerns and Foreign and Commonwealth Office diplomatic matters. What is the latest position of the United States and Russia in respect of their ex-weapons plutonium? Where are we with that? What is likely to happen in terms of the preferred options of either incorporation through vitrification and deep disposal or otherwise, or the use of mixed oxide fuel? The United States and Russia are obviously major sources of ex-weapons plutonium, and that is not stuff that should be readily available to anyone. It needs to be turned into something else and made safer.

I have said that I do not want to press the Minister for an immediate decision on a change in policy--it is right that the matter should be considered over time--but how long does he feel, in the light of the Royal Society's comments, that we can continue to accumulate the United Kingdom stockpile of plutonium before a decision is forced on us? Is there a physical constraint? Clearly there is a security consideration. Will he give us a flavour of his feeling about that? Has he appraised mixed oxide fuel for United Kingdom conditions? There is a strong technical indication against its use here, and any that has been produced at Sellafield has been exported, but it would be helpful if he would say something about that.

Almost the last decision of my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) as Secretary of State for the Environment was his valedictory and correct decision to discontinue the possibility of deep storage at Sellafield. Is there still an interest in the country in deep disposal elsewhere? How is the Minister considering the various alternative disposal options for the United Kingdom's waste, which is strictly the subject of our discussion today?

In reaching his decisions in due course, whatbalance will the Minister strike between financialcost, environmental considerations and security considerations--nailing this stuff down for the future? Can he confirm to the House that public safety remains the principal concern of Her Majesty's Government? That is bound to be of interest to all of us as legislators.


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