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11.30 am

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): I have had a very courteous letter from the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan), which he has also sent to the Minister, saying that he cannot be here because of his long-standing commitment to speak at an award ceremony of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. The right hon. Gentleman said:

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will answer that question.

May I ask two direct factual questions of the Minister, who is strongly supported by officials? The hon. Member for Perth (Ms Cunningham) said that, in lobsters, the level of technetium-99 was 42 times the European intervention level and that, in seaweed, it was five times the European intervention level. Do my hon. Friend's expert advisers concur with those figures?

In recent years, the discharges to the marine environment from Dounreay have been reduced progressively. The effect of those discharges to the group in Caithness that is most exposed to discharges from Dounreay--I am referring to the so-called critical group--is now less than 1 per cent. of the dose that the group receives from the natural background. Do the Government agree with that statement? Do they agree that the levels of discharges to the sea are a small fraction--currently less than 10 per cent.--of the discharge authorisation and that Dounreay has not exceeded its authorisation in the past 20 years? In truth, there have been "unplanned" discharges as recently as September 1996, due to the dissolver leak, but those have not led to discharge levels above authorisation. Will the Minister confirm in her reply that there have not been discharges above authorisation?

New plant for treating liquid effluent is being installed. That will further reduce the levels of radioactivity discharged from Dounreay. Do the Government think that that is proceeding as quickly as it should?

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There are radioactive particles in the marine environment as a result of historic activities in the 1960s at Dounreay. It has been confirmed that those particles have not been released as a result of present activities on the site. The likelihood of a member of the public coming into contact with one of those particles is judged by the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority to be extremely remote, but we have to await the outcome of an independent assessment commissioned by the National Radiological Protection Board. That is the assessment about which the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, who represents Dounreay, is concerned.

On Sellafield, are the Government satisfied with the level of activity undertaken by BNFL to reduce discharges? I have been to Sellafield on several occasions, sometimes in the company of the Member of Parliament who represents Sellafield, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my squash partner and friend of many years, and I know it well.

Through an investment programme of £750 million at Sellafield, BNFL has reduced the discharges of principal radionuclides to the Irish sea to about 1 per cent. of peak levels in the 1970s. Do the Minister's advisers accept that statement? The Environment Agency is currently completing its response, after public consultation, to an application by BNFL to vary its discharge authorisations to achieve a further net reduction in the permitted level of discharges to the Irish sea. Are the Government satisfied with BNFL's efforts in that respect?

Is it not a fact that discharges cannot be completely stopped for the foreseeable future because, as my previous remarks demonstrate, most of them relate to historic clean-up or Magnox reprocessing? Ceasing Magnox reprocessing would force the early closure of the Magnox stations, which, assuming the electricity was replaced by gas-fired power, would lead to an extra 16 million tonnes of CO 2 being emitted in the UK each year. The Government must reduce discharges of CO 2 by 35 million tonnes by 2010 to meet their commitment to a 20 per cent. reduction. How, without taking advantage of Sellafield and Dounreay, can we even attempt to fulfil the commitment that the Government have rightly made to reduce CO 2 in the atmosphere?

I have another question concerning a letter that I wrote to the Secretary of State on 4 June, asking whether the Scottish universities' research was correct in suggesting that Sellafield has increased concentrations of carbon-14 in the north-east Irish sea to up to 35 times the normal background level. My question was prompted by a statement in the New Scientist of 6 June, which aroused my curiosity. On 15 July, the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle) courteously replied:

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    Surely one can conclude from that letter that there is no cause for alarm.

The Minister's letter continued:

    "Both aerial and liquid discharges of radioactivity from Sellafield are limited by certificates of authorisation under the Radioactive Substances Act 1993, granted by the Environment Agency. The discharges of carbon-14 to sea via the marine pipeline increased from 1994 due to a planned plant modification that ensures the carbon-14 is discharged to sea and not to the atmosphere so as to reduce the overall impact of this radionuclide. The impact on the critical group is less for sea discharges than for an equivalent aerial discharge. The Environment Agency keeps the discharge authorisations under review."

Would I be right in thinking that the Government have total confidence in the Environment Agency and in its keeping that under review, and that, again, there is no cause for alarm?

The Minister finally says:

One of the most wonderful days that I have ever had in my public life was on an official visit to THORP, a marvellous technical performance by British engineering, which is one of the wonders of the modern world. I am an unapologetic champion of THORP as a great achievement of British engineering, and something that is able to do a great deal of good. I say "a great deal of good" for the reason that I interrupted the hon. Member for Perth (Ms Cunningham)--that, without nuclear power, heaven knows how we shall achieve any ability to control the nasty things of all sorts that are being put into the atmosphere.

Sir Robert Smith: Pursuing that argument, does the Member really believe that THORP is crucial to having a nuclear industry?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I gently remind the hon. Gentleman that all Members are honourable Members.

Sir Robert Smith: Does the hon. Gentleman believe that, without THORP, there could not be a nuclear industry?

Mr. Dalyell: There could be a nuclear industry, but it would not be anything like as effective a nuclear industry.

The Minister says:

But she adds:

    "In neither incident was there an adverse radiological impact to the workforce or the general public. HSE will not permit either plant to reopen until it is satisfied that they can be restarted safely."

I use this opportunity to ask the Minister about the latest advice from the Health and Safety Executive on the matter because, the sooner THORP reopens, the better for a lot of us.

Finally, on a personal note, as a Scottish Member of Parliament, I am greatly alarmed by the effect of what is happening on the morale of the work force at Dounreay. Neville Chamberlain and others really brought it home to me that, unless we keep up the morale of the work force and the challenge and seriousness of the tasks that they are asked to perform, there could be real risks, which there

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have not been in the past. In all this, do the Government have a clear strategy for many years to keep up the morale of those at Dounreay who have served society, the community and the world very well?

11.43 am

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine): The last point made by the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) is valid. The current openness about incidents that happened, sometimes very much in the past and at a different stage of technical understanding and knowledge, makes them newsworthy. Those incidents of the past--it is a matter of debate whether they are the sins of the past--are then visited on the current work force. It is important to recognise that the work force is composed of professional people doing a professional job.

There is a debate within society about whether it wants that job to continue, along with the question of what society wants to take place at that plant, but we should recognise the professionalism of the work force. There is the danger of it being labelled with the name of the place at which it works. There was much excitement last week, and it seems that, if one can link two famous things such as Brent Spar and Dounreay, it is even more exciting. The environmental debate can suffer if we try too hard to link everything that sounds dangerous or has a history of being dangerous.

As the hon. Member for Perth (Ms Cunningham) made clear, the debate is timely, and I congratulate her on obtaining it. It is disappointing that the Government are negotiating today and tomorrow at the international conference on the Ospar convention despite our not having debated in the House what we would like to see come out of that convention. Unless the Minister goes immediately from the debate to the telephone, this debate may not have much influence.

We had some idea from the radio this morning of the Deputy Prime Minister's stance, and some idea of the Government's stance on Friday from Hansard when, in a written answer on radioactive substances, we were told that they wanted to work with industry. It said:

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