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12.13 pm

The Minister for Science, Energy and Industry (Mr. John Battle): It is traditional when Ministers reply to an Adjournment debate to congratulate the hon. Member concerned on winning the ballot. On this occasion, I sincerely congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) on the tone of his speech. I say that because it is rare that an hon. Member manages to raise the level of an Adjournment debate above a constituency concern to a national and international concern and puts the arguments so forcefully on the agenda both of the House and of the public.

My hon. Friend accepted the difficulty and complexity of topics ranging across the economy, the environment and national and international safety. He and others

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emphasised the international aspect of the debate--one that we cannot neglect. I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for doing that. Let me start by responding on that matter.

It was with dismay that we heard of the Indian decision, to which my hon. Friends have referred. Our Government have expressed their dismay at the news of the nuclear tests. I understand that further tests have taken place this morning, although I am not sure whether they have been officially confirmed at this moment. As holder of the presidency of the European Union, the Government have expressed our dismay to India. Foreign and Commonwealth Office Ministers are summoning the Indian acting high commissioner to express our deep concern about these worrying developments.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North explained, the problem of disposal of nuclear waste is a legacy. I acknowledge the work of the Socialist Environment and Resources Association. In a recent report on reprocessing, it said :

I want to make that the starting point, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North and other hon. Members did.

When the Labour Government came to office just a year ago, we inherited a legacy and the concomitant liabilities, just as we inherited an energy generation market in which two thirds of the major generating capacity of the nuclear industry was privatised. We resisted that move by the previous Administration, as they failed to resolve the problem of nuclear waste disposal, despite spending some £450 million on the Nirex inquiry without solving the problem of long-term dry storage. Today, in the new open energy markets, following privatisation and the opening up of the whole market to great changes, nuclear energy contributes about a third to the United Kingdom's electricity generation. That is a different climate from that which existed even a few short years ago.

As for the future of nuclear generation, it is obvious that there is no longer an economic case for building nuclear reactors in the present energy market structures. The Government certainly do not intend to subsidise the construction of any new power plants. That ought to be made absolutely plain. For those who accuse us of simply following the previous policy and doing nothing, I should add that we introduced the fossil fuel levy early in this Parliament to remove the subsidy of nuclear energy generation and switch it to support for renewable energy sources. That move was welcomed.

The House will know that the Government's policy on radioactive waste management policy is currently being considered by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, following the decision of the previous Secretary of State to refuse planning permission for the United Kingdom Nirex proposed rock characterisation facility at Sellafield, which was being investigated for a proposed deep disposal facility for intermediate-level radioactive waste. My right hon. Friend's consideration continues.

The House will be aware that the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology is conducting an inquiry into radioactive waste management. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has announced that he

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intends to study the Committee's conclusions carefully before initiating a period of public consultation. I am sure that, when that happens, my right hon. Friend will welcome all comments from Members of Parliament and others, as we try to move the policy forward.

In the 1960s, the Government of the day committed the United Kingdom to a programme of reprocessing spent fuel from nuclear power stations to separate plutonium for use as a fuel in future reactors. The Royal Society report said:

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North that the premise on which that decision was built no longer obtains, as the situation is radically different.

There has been major investment in reprocessing technology in the United Kingdom. Nuclear technology in Britain is world class, so we have been able to assist in incidents such as the one at Chernobyl. It is important to remember that those skills have been developed in this country.

United Kingdom generators have signed contracts for reprocessing work with several other countries. A stockpile of 54 tonnes of separated civil plutonium oxide from UK nuclear power generation has been built up, and, as the power stations are still in use, it is projected to be more than 100 tonnes by 2010. In the United Kingdom, plutonium has been separated from the other products in spent fuel from nuclear reactors since the 1950s. The Royal Society report acknowledged:

The legacy of the stockpile will remain, and no matter how hard we try, we cannot wish it away: we must deal with it.

Sellafield and Dounreay provide reprocessing services, which are in demand from customers and users. Long-term contractual obligations have to be fulfilled. The customers are the energy companies. Changes have taken place within the industry. BNFL has been developed, Scottish Nuclear and Nuclear Electric are now owned by British Energy, and Magnox merged with BNFL. Privatisation has resulted in a range of companies in Britain.

The industry continues to be regulated in accordance with the highest safety standards to protect the workers, the public and the environment. The nuclear industry is rightly highly regulated by the independent Health and Safety Executive and the nuclear installation inspectorate. It is not left to market forces: it is a regulated business, and so it should be.

Dr. Lynne Jones: My hon. Friend refers to regulation of the nuclear industry, but is he not concerned about the transport of mixed oxide fuel in type B rather than type C packages, as recommended by the International Atomic Energy Agency? Conformity with the recommendation of type C packaging is not to be introduced until 2001.

Mr. Battle: A range of bodies, such as the Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive, are responsible for setting regulatory parameters. It is important that we press for the highest standards of regulation.

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Countries that use THORP are, unlike India, signatories of the non-proliferation treaty, so there is no question of plutonium from THORP being sold on the free market.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North mentioned the Sellafield liquid discharges. That matter is within the ambit of the Environment Agency, and I cannot answer for that body. It is not left to market forces or subject to prior political decision. The agency must monitor the industry and impose standards. I agree with the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) that the Health and Safety Executive's intervention is to be welcomed and not spurned, because it shows that the independent agencies are insisting that companies act responsibly.

On 30 January, a copy of my statement of Government policy on spent fuel management was placed in the Library. Paragraph 4 specifies:

They have the right to exercise their option, but it also states that it is

    "subject to fully satisfying the regulatory requirements that are set by the Health and Safety Executive."

The radioactive substance division of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions recently gave evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology. It said that there is no marked difference in environmental impact between reprocessing and direct disposal of spent nuclear fuel. Dr. Brown said:

    "The analyses that have been made of the comparative environmental merits of both processes in past years have shown that there is not a marked difference in environmental impact between the two, or that any difference is lost in the degree of uncertainty between the two."

The shape of the industry has changed. The United Kingdom was the first country in the world to adopt nuclear power on an industrial and commercial scale when Calder Hall was commissioned back in 1956. Since that time, 19 nuclear power stations and 41 reactors have been constructed, of which 16 stations and 35 reactors are currently fully operational and three stations with two reactors each have been closed down and are being fully decommissioned. We are dealing not with only one or two plants, but with an extensive industry most of which is privatised, although some plants are in the public sector.

On 1 March 1954, the Government announced that a large-scale, experimental, fast-breeder reactor was to be constructed at Dounreay, the purpose of which was to demonstrate the feasibility of the process to increase the effective utilisation of uranium fuel by converting the non-fissile uranium into plutonium. The process has a long history. In 1958, the scope of Dounreay was extended to include fuel manufacture and fuel reprocessing, thus incorporating the whole range of

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operational activities associated with fast-reactor technology. In 1977, the fast-reactor processing plant was shut down partially decommissioned, and reprocessing was moved to a new, refurbished plant.

At Sellafield, the Magnox reprocessing plant has reprocessed used nuclear fuel from the first generation power stations since 1964. The thermal oxide plant at THORP began operations in March 1994 following the granting of an appropriate discharge authorisation from the independent Environment Agency. It was designed and built to reprocess used fuel from advanced gas-cooled and light-water nuclear reactors. Since operations began at the end of March 1994, some 1,450 tonnes of spent fuel have been reprocessed.

The Environment Agency is considering responses to public consultation held between 14 and 16 March on the MOX applications. That matter is still being dealt with by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, so I cannot comment on it further.

On openness and transparency, I should like to say to those who accuse the Government of hiding information that I announced to the House on 2 December an agreement for an informal group of nine countries to publish guidelines so as to provide an internationally accepted framework for the management of plutonium.I hope shortly to announce the publication of the figures for the UK's holding of civil plutonium as at the end of December 1997. We are taking action to add transparency to the process in Britain and internationally.

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