Previous SectionIndexHome Page


12.3 pm

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): I shall endeavour to be brief, first, so that the Minister can reply adequately to the debate and, secondly, because I do not count myself one of the House's experts on this subject.

It was interesting to note how the hon. Member for Perth (Ms Cunningham) was stung by the intervention from the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) about whether she had ever visited Dounreay. I have visited neither Dounreay nor Sellafield, but I have visited the Magnox power station at Bradwell in Essex, which is adjacent to my constituency and in which I take a close interest.

I must admit that I have been hugely impressed by the attention paid to safety there and to ensuring that nuclear emissions are tightly controlled. The only incident that alarmed local residents occurred when one of the boilers overheated and the station had to let off a lot of steam, but no nuclear discharge was involved. The most common sort of nuclear alert is one caused by visitors wearing old-fashioned luminous watches. The staff advise visitors to remove them and to stop wearing them, because they pose a far higher risk to personal health than any nuclear power station.

I know the west coast of Scotland well. There are far worse environmental hazards there than the low levels of nuclear discharge that we are discussing today. For example, the release of mink has had a devastating effect

22 Jul 1998 : Column 1070

on local bird life, which raises questions about biodiversity. Acid rain caused by coal-fired power stations has also had a significant effect on Scotland's west coast.

Mr. Alasdair Morgan: Surely the hon. Gentleman is not arguing that the existence of other problems means that we should not tackle this problem?

Mr. Jenkin: No, I am not saying that; it is entirely in character that the hon. Gentleman should try to imply that I am. I am saying merely that the issues should be kept in proportion. The hon. Member for Linlithgow made a good fist of explaining how the emissions are hugely reduced, which is hardly the impression given by the hon. Member for Perth. We should be interested in reducing overall pollution, not only one sort of pollution. To do so, we must make uncomfortable and difficult choices, because the problem does not lend itself to the sort of single-issue fanaticism that the nuclear industry has always attracted.

I was most interested in the assertion by the hon. Member for Perth that we could reduce nuclear waste by stopping nuclear reprocessing. That flies in the face of the advice from BNFL, which argues that, on the contrary, reprocessing reduces overall waste and especially high-level waste. The hon. Lady neatly claimed to support alternative means of disposal, but all the advice so far assessed by Governments of whatever party shows that alternative forms of storage are not as efficient a way of dealing with nuclear waste as reprocessing.

The important considerations in this debate are responsibility and openness. Our prime concern should be the environment, and not only one kind of pollution, radioactive discharges; for example, we should also be concerned about CO 2 emissions. On the question of coping with radioactive materials that originate in different parts of the world, it is interesting to note how internationalist many environmentalists are when it suits them but, when BNFL provides a service to help the world to deal with the problem of nuclear waste, they suddenly complain that this country is being turned into a nuclear dustbin. That is not a consistent view.

Ms Roseanna Cunningham: I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman wishes to dismiss my views and fears; I understand that and I accept it, even though I do not agree with him. However, I should be obliged if he would tell us whether he believes that we should summarily dismiss the real concerns of the Norwegians, the Danes, the Irish, the Icelandic people and all the Scandinavian peoples, who share my concerns and make precisely the same demands as I do. The hon. Gentleman wants to dismiss my demands, but would he also dismiss theirs?

Mr. Jenkin: I certainly do not dismiss the hon. Lady's comments, nor do I dismiss the views of other Governments, however, it is important to recognise that, in countries that have proportional representation and where the Greens can hold disproportionate influence over Government policy, Governments can end up running before the vagaries of public opinion, instead of making a hard-headed assessment of what is in the interests of the

22 Jul 1998 : Column 1071

country concerned and of the world as a whole. Closing reprocessing plants will not make the problem of nuclear waste go away.

Sir Robert Smith: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Jenkin: I shall not give way again, because I want the Minister to give a proper reply to the debate. Halting reprocessing will not make the problem of nuclear waste disappear, but it is one way of fulfilling our international role.

Openness is key. The nuclear industry has learnt from past incidents that there is no substitute for openness and ensuring that as many people as possible understand the issues involved. There is nothing to be gained from rationing information in the hope of keeping fearful data out of the public domain. That has proved in the past to be a mistake, and the industry has clearly learnt its lesson. The Government and the nuclear industry must deal with the problem by continuing that policy of openness.

I hope that the Minister will reply to all the questions raised in the debate. I also have one or two of my own. Do the Government agree with the decision taken by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) at the end of the last Parliament that nuclear reprocessing remains the best option? Has the Minister received any advice to suggest that the decision to continue reprocessing is wrong? What advice have the Government sought regarding overall stocks of plutonium? That issue was raised in an Adjournment debate earlier this year, but the Minister did not have time to reply on that occasion.

Are there physical or political constraints on the amount of plutonium that we can accept into this country? Can the Minister confirm that we will continue to re-export much of the reprocessed materials? I am interested in the Minister's views regarding the implications of radioactive levels in shellfish--which was perhaps the main issue raised in the debate. It is suggested that levels of radiation in shellfish, such as lobsters, are dangerous.

Nuclear energy is a vital part of this country's energy industry. Privatisation may have raised questions about its economic efficiency, but it remains one of the cleanest forms of electricity generation. It would be impossible for the Government to meet their targets on greenhouse gas emissions without a continued role for nuclear energy. In addition to those considerations, sites such as the plant at Sellafield are major employers and major contributors to the United Kingdom's balance of payments. BNFL is Britain's biggest yen earner.

Regrettably, the production of nuclear energy generates a limited amount of radioactive waste. It is right and proper that the Government should take all steps in their power to minimise the discharge of such matter and to ensure that as little as possible enters the ecosystem, causing risk to this and future generations. However, it is not possible to prevent those emissions completely, and it would be unrealistic to set a target of reducing future emissions to zero.

The Environment Agency monitors closely the levels of radioactive discharges, and it is ludicrous to suggest that it is somehow implicated in a pro-nuclear conspiracy.

22 Jul 1998 : Column 1072

The agency is an objective body whose job is to ensure that the general public suffer no appreciable risk. Less than 0.1 per cent. of the total radiation to which the general public in the United Kingdom are exposed comes from waste matter discharged by the nuclear industry.

We therefore give our broad support to the Government's negotiating position at the Ospar meeting. We believe that the Deputy Prime Minister has come some way since his stunts in a wetsuit outside No. 10. However, I must ask how such issues would be dealt with by a Scottish Parliament that was perhaps dominated by alarmists and those seeking to hijack these extremely sensitive issues for their own party political advantage. What would happen if the Scottish Parliament diametrically opposed the Government's negotiating position in Ospar? The Government failed to answer that question during debates on the devolution legislation, and I doubt that they will have an answer today.

12.13 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of Statefor the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Angela Eagle): I congratulate the hon. Member for Perth (Ms Cunningham), who is well known for taking a close interest in such issues, on securing this timely Adjournment debate--although we might have been more enlightened about the subject if the debate had occurred after Ospar's conclusion next week. No doubt we shall return to the issue later.

I was astonished to hear the hon. Lady confirm that Scottish National party policy dictates that nuclear waste should be stored where it is generated. That would mean that the 170 tonnes of nuclear waste generated by Scottish power stations, Chapelcross and Torness, and transported to Sellafield every year would have to be stored in Scotland. I am interested to know where the SNP proposes to store that waste material. I think that Dounreay has the capacity to store about 10 tonnes of waste, so where would the SNP store the large amount of waste that travels from Scotland to England every year if it had the chance to put its policy into effect?

As many contributors to the debate have pointed out, my right hon. Friends the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for the Environment are today in Sintra, Portugal representing the United Kingdom at a meeting of the Oslo and Paris convention, which is concerned with the protection of the Atlantic ocean. An important feature of that meeting will be considering ways of reducing radioactive discharges to the marine environment. The Government are fully committed to that objective, and I assure the House that they are working positively to secure an agreement to which all contracting parties to the convention--including the Scandinavian countries--can subscribe and which will ensure improvements in the protection of the marine environment.

The Government share the concerns of those who call for improvements in the protection of our seas. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister appeared in his frogsuit--as various hon. Members have described it--a year ago, and there have been significant reductions in

22 Jul 1998 : Column 1073

discharge levels since then. One might conclude that there was a causal effect--perhaps that should be investigated by scientists.


Next Section

IndexHome Page