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Angela Eagle: Some of the increased discharges that have been experienced in this decade have been caused by decisions made in previous decades. The idea of the forward plans is that such matters should be taken into account, rather than there being a lag between a decision about how to deal with particular waste and the realisation that it requires greater dispersal a year later.

Sir Robert Smith: I think that I understand the Minister's point about the need to plan for the future. The Government recognise that it would be preferable not to discharge radioactive substances. Therefore, it is important for the Government to say why we should be doing so now, and why they want to carry on doing it at the moment.

An important part of the Minister's reply should be the setting out of the Government's attitude towards reprocessing--whether they still see the necessity for it and whether they are reviewing it, as the Labour party

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seems to want them to do. The economics of the industry and the driving forces behind reprocessing when it first started have now changed. The availability of fuel has changed and the need for plutonium has changed. We have debated plutonium and the worry about creating a plutonium culture when we do not need plutonium. There is also the worry that we allow such discharges because we want to continue reprocessing. We are importing waste from other countries, but are we certain that we can return it? It would be pointless to pollute our seas and end up as a nuclear dustbin for the rest of the world. Clearly, as in the Italian case, there is a danger that such waste will not be returned.

With the process in abeyance, if there are economic uncertainties and occasional technical uncertainties, which reduce capacity, the danger is that we shall not be able to carry out the contracts in the way that was originally intended by returning the high-level waste. In addition, because we cannot dispose of the low-level and medium waste, the argument behind the original reprocessing set-up seems to be falling apart. It would be reassuring to hear that the Government intend to review that. We have reached the point where the uncertainties are becoming greater and the foundations are looking rocky. The Government should ensure that their strategy fits the needs of the industry and the country at the present time.

On the radio, the Deputy Prime Minister mentioned background levels, but background levels of man-made substances are, obviously, zero--plutonium, for example, does not naturally occur, so its background level is zero. Will the Minister clarify what the Government mean by background levels and what kind of radiation emissions they are talking about?

I note that not too many hon. Members want to speak, so the Minister should have enough time to respond, which is crucial. In the debate on plutonium, we did not leave the Minister enough time to give a reply on which hon. Members could intervene. I hope that she will be able to deal with a wide range of issues, questions and facts.

I urge the Minister to say what the Government's attitude is to reprocessing and to a review of reprocessing. Why do the Government believe that it is necessary to continue discharging radioactive waste into the marine environment? I hope that we shall hear that, ultimately, they are committed to protecting the environment from man's activities, so that this generation, which benefits from cheap electricity, does not leave to future generations a problem from which they receive no benefit but with which they have to deal.

11.50 am

Mr. Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd): I have campaigned about pollution in the Irish sea for the past 10 years. The two main towns in my constituency--Rhyl and Prestatyn--are traditional seaside resort towns that depend on tourism for their prosperity. They expanded as tourist towns because of the clean seas and beaches, so any marine pollution threatens their viability and that of dozens of others on the Irish sea.

Radioactive pollution must be viewed in the context of the many other forms of pollution that affect the Irish sea, which is relatively enclosed. Industries that pollute the sea either deny that the problem exists in their industry or minimise the effects. Sewage sludge--human waste

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mixed with heavy metals--has been dumped in Liverpool bay for 10 years at a rate of 90,000 tonnes per year. Indeed, dumping came to an end only this month--under a Labour Government, I am proud to announce. The Irish sea has for decades also been used as a huge chemical toilet by the water companies. They believed that long outfall pipes in the sea were the answer to sewage pollution, but--as has been the case in Blackpool--all that happened was that the sewage took longer to reach the beaches.

The main rivers that run into the Irish sea--especially those with industrial hinterlands, such as the Mersey and the Dee--have caused much pollution. In 1992, there were nearly 900 industrial spillages into the Irish sea from the Mersey. The dumping of munitions and chemical weapons since the end of the first world war has led to further pollution--flatfish caught in the Irish sea have 10 times the permitted level of arsenic. The rivers running into the Irish sea that have a rural hinterland have deposited hundreds of thousands of tonnes of fertilisers, leading to the worst cases of algae blooms in Europe.

Oil exploration and extraction have also contributed to the pollution of the Irish sea. Indeed, only four weeks ago, there was a major spillage of 47 tonnes from the Douglas field, for which Broken Hill Proprietary claimed responsibility. The spillage affected both my constituency and its neighbour, Clwyd, West--5 tonnes of it ended up on the shores of Rhyl, Prestatyn, Pensarn and Abergele.

The Irish sea is a busy shipping area. Many of the ships that visit the ports illegally flush out their tanks into the sea, and other ships, such as the Sea Empress, run aground--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but the debate is about radioactive discharges into the marine environment from Sellafield--he must make his remarks fit in with that subject.

Mr. Ruane: I come finally to the pollutant that is being discussed--radiation, specifically radiation leaks from Sellafield. In 1991, my constituency experienced some of the worst storms of the century. Parts of it, and of the neighbouring constituency of Clwyd, West, were under five feet of water. The crashing waves disturbed the sandy sediment on the beaches. HTV commissioned research that found radiation levels way above the average.

The Irish sea has been described as one of the most radioactive seas in the world. The Government made excellent headway in the reduction of radioactive pollution by announcing last September a complete ban on the dumping of radioactive waste, which was in stark contrast to the dilute-and-disperse policy of the previous Government.

I realise that reducing to zero radioactive discharges into the marine environment will not be easy. There has been a £7 billion investment in Sellafield, the plant has £12 billion of orders and tens of thousands of jobs are at stake. However, I urge the Minister to consider seriously the reduction to zero of radioactive pollution at Sellafield. I urge her to consider radioactive pollution in the wider context of the overall pollution of the Irish sea from the many sources that I have mentioned, and to take account of the negative effects of radioactive discharge on the

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economy, especially on tourism and fishing. The effects of radioactive discharges on the marine environment could be profound, and could last for hundreds of thousands of years.

11.56 am

Mr. Alasdair Morgan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Perth (Ms Cunningham) on obtaining this debate, to which I want to make a brief contribution. I am concerned about the discharges from the Sellafield plant in Cumbria. The longest coastline adjacent to Sellafield--apart from that of Cumbria itself--is on the Solway firth in my constituency. For some years, there has been great concern about the increase in radionuclides in the firth and on the beaches. As my hon. Friend said, particular concern has been expressed about the levels of technetium-99 in the environment, which are largely a result of the processing that began not so long ago of the waste from the Magnox programme. Although discharges are now falling from their historically high levels, we need to ask whether current or future levels are, or will be, satisfactory--indeed, we need to ask whether there is such a thing as a satisfactory level.

Various claims have been made about the level of radioactive concentrations in seafood and various kinds of seaweed. Concentrations are high not only near the end of the Sellafield discharge pipe--where British Nuclear Fuels says one would expect them to be high--but all along the Solway coast and as far round as Cape Wrath in the north of Scotland, where pollution in seafood and seaweed is increasing.

According to Scottish Environment Protection Agency surveys, radioactivity in lobsters caught on the north Solway coast increased from 390 bq/kg in 1994 to1,700 bq/kg two years later. In winkles from Southerness--a village in my constituency--levels increased from 200 bq/kg to 730 bq/kg over the same period. At Port William in the Machars in my constituency, the level in seaweed has increased from350 bq/kg to 2600 bq/kg over that period. At Cape Wrath in the north of Scotland, the level in seaweed has increased from 22 bq/kg to 290 bq/kg. We have a major problem of increasing cumulative levels.

BNFL says that eating seven or eight lobsters of the sort found in my constituency gives radioactivity equivalent to eating one Brazil nut. I must admit that I have never eaten a Brazil nut, despite the world cup, but the real point is the cumulative and long-lasting effect of the build-up of such concentrations of radioactivity and the effect that that will have on future generations. As my hon. Friend the Member for Perth pointed out, technetium-99 has a half-life of 213,000 years, so it builds up. The result is that we can expect the increase in pollution in sea foods and seaweeds to continue until an unacceptable level is reached.

Reference has also been made to leukaemia clusters. Although the number of cases is too small to permit any definite conclusion as to whether there is a noticeable effect on the coast of Wales, as the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Dafis) pointed out, there is genuine concern among people in those areas that their environment and health are being affected. The Environment Agency plans to allow BNFL to increase its discharges of various radioactive gases, including iodine-129, carbon-14 and ruthenium-106.

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The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) referred to discharges of carbon-14, but the significant feature of carbon-14 is that it has a half-life of 16 million years, so although discharges might not yet have built up to a significant level, the problem is cumulative and it will prove to be long lasting. The problem will certainly be around long after most of us have left the Chamber.

We have to take into account the international perspective. Some hon. Members regard people involved in the anti-nuclear movement as a bunch of cranks, but I do not think that we can put the Irish Government, the Norwegian Government or the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations into that category. They are all responsible bodies with which we have cordial relations, and we have to take seriously their views on the need to eliminate such discharges.

Ideally, we should not discharge radionuclides into the atmosphere or the environment. However there is a danger that even the low-level discharges that BNFL, SEPA and the Environment Agency seek will not be achieved because of cost considerations. There is a danger inherent in the "best available technology not entailing excessive cost" principle that, because of the cost, we shall not even achieve the far from ideal levels that are being talked about.

Many of my constituents have a long and honourable record of opposition to nuclear pollution, going back to the campaign against nuclear dumping in Mullwharcher in the 1970s, which was led by one of my predecessors, Mr. George Thompson. They are still concerned about health and the environment, and about the potential effect on tourism, to which the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Mr. Ruane) referred. They have no desire to be the victims of nuclear dumping by stealth from Sellafield.


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