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Mr. Jenkin: My faith in the hon. Lady's scientific analysis has been suddenly reduced.

Angela Eagle: The relationship between cause and effect is sometimes not easy to discern. I suspect that most would agree that the reasons for my right hon. Friend's appearance in his frogsuit have diminished--although we are not complacent about the dangers that continuing discharges of radionuclides present to the environment.

The Government share the concerns of those who call for improvements in the protection of our seas. All discharges of radioactive materials, whether to the marine environment or to the atmosphere--those are often the disposal alternatives--are subject to strict regulation in accordance with national and international standards. Those standards ensure that the discharges do not put public health at risk.

At the September 1997 meeting of Ospar, we committed ourselves to making progress on reducing radioactive discharges into the sea. Our aim at the current meeting is to agree a strategy for radioactive substances that is demanding but achievable and will guide the work of the Ospar convention over the next 20 years or more. The exact wording of the strategy will be agreed at the meeting in Portugal by the end of this week. As hon. Members have pointed out, several alternative proposals have been proposed, including one that calls for concentrations in the marine environment that are close to zero for man-made radioactive substances.

In deciding our response, we shall need to have regard to what is deliverable, and we shall also need to take into account the legacy of past actions. We cannot wish away the stockpiles of nuclear materials that have been created by past nuclear activity. We must find a way of either reprocessing or storing those materials. We cannot secure international agreements that do not take account of that legacy with which we clearly must deal.

To ensure that we are able to foresee and avoid problems related to radioactive discharges in future, we shall ask nuclear operators to prepare forward-looking strategies for the next 20 years. I tried to make that point when I intervened on the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir R. Smith).

Technetium-99 became an issue because of decisions taken in the 1980s to deal with radioactive storage materials from Magnox power stations. Those decisions concentrated on the higher toxic radionuclides rather than technetium-99, which, although it is a cause for concern, is not one of the most toxic radionuclides that could find its way into the sea. As a result of decisions taken in the 1980s, it has become obvious that discharges of technetium-99 have increased, and the Environment Agency is examining the matter. That is why I mentioned, during the speech by the hon. Member for Perth, that the Environment Agency has warned BNFL that it must look at abatement technology for removing technetium-99 so that it does not have to be discharged.

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However, there is a time lag between deciding how to deal with a particular form of waste and realising that there may be some radionuclides that were not at the top of one's priority list when the original waste reprocessing was decided.

Sir Robert Smith: Is there a fairly close link between those decisions? If waste is reprocessed, we have the problem of marine discharge; if it is not reprocessed, storage and other solutions do not result in marine discharge.

Angela Eagle: My understanding is that some nuclear waste has to be reprocessed, particularly from the Magnox power stations. If it is not, existing plant would have to be closed down and electricity would not be generated. I note with interest that 50 per cent. of Scotland's power needs are provided by nuclear power, as opposed to 25 per cent. of England's needs. If one decides to close reactors down, where else would the power come from, and what would be the effects of generating it in other ways? This is an holistic debate; the problem cannot be attacked from one side without realising that there are implications in other areas.

As I was saying, we must deal with the legacy as well as future planning in deciding how to generate the power that we all take for granted every day. To ensure that we can foresee and avoid problems such as the technetium-99 effect, we shall ask nuclear operators to prepare forward-looking strategies for the next 20 years.

Hon. Members have expressed concern about a number of incidents at both Sellafield and Dounreay, and the fact that reprocessing is currently not being carried out at either. The Government are determined that the regulators should bear down heavily on any laxness on the part of nuclear operators. We shall ensure that the nuclear industry is effectively and vigorously regulated.

The Government are committed to openness. I agree with the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) about the need to increase transparency in the way in which the nuclear industry deals with the public debate. However, a more open stance also means more awareness of incidents that, in the past, may have been hushed up. All hon. Members should deal with the matter responsibly, so that we can have a meaningful debate that is not alarmist and based on scaremongering, but based on scientific facts.

Following incidents in recent months, the Government's policy of openness has been seen in operation. Openness is essential if the public are to have confidence that the nuclear industry is well managed and safe. Following a breakdown in the electrical supply at Dounreay, the Health and Safety Executive required the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority to stop processing and reprocessing activities in the fuel cycle area. Following leakage from pipework within a contained cell at Sellafield, the thermal oxide reprocessing plant was closed down. In neither incident was there an adverse radiological impact to the work force or the general public. I want to reassure the House that the Health and Safety Executive will not permit either plant to reopen until it is satisfied that they can be restarted safely.

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The Government have available to them a number of expert and independent bodies that conduct research and make recommendations about the various aspects of radioactivity and radiation exposure. We shall ensure that the Government, the regulators, the nuclear industry and the public at large continue to have access to the best scientific advice, so that we can all have confidence that the industry operated within safe limits.

Mr. Dalyell: Is there any news about the likely immediate future of THORP?

Angela Eagle: The HSE and BNFL are investigating the incident. They seek various reassurances about what happened, and will not authorise a re-start until they are satisfied that it is safe to do so. That involves investigating how the escape happened in a contained area.

The Government announced in June this year that there would be no new commercial reprocessing at Dounreay. The decision was taken on a number of grounds, including UKAEA's view that reprocessing there was no longer commercially viable. None of the factors that applied at Dounreay apply at Sellafield. For technical reasons, spent Magnox fuel must be reprocessed. For other spent nuclear fuels, the Government accept that it is for the fuel's owner to determine the best management option, but within a very strict regulatory regime. The reprocessing of foreign spent fuel does not increase the amount of radioactive waste to be disposed of in this country.

In answer to questions asked during the debate, I can confirm that each reprocessing contract provides for the resulting wastes to be returned to the country of origin. Those countries have all signed the non-proliferation treaty, so the mythical market in plutonium does not exist. There are very strict limits.

I am aware of the concerns about the discharge of technetium-99 from Sellafield into the Irish sea, and that deposits of technetium-99 have been found on the Irish side of the sea and as far away as Scandinavia. I hope that what I said about the Environment Agency's view, and the fact that BNFL will have to come up with abatement technology, will deal with that problem.

Much of the radioactive contamination of the seas around our coastline occurred in the 1970s and 1980s. It is important to bear in mind that overall discharges of radioactivity are significantly lower today than they were then. Taking all radioactive discharges from Sellafield--both to the atmosphere and to the sea--current discharges are just 1 per cent. of the peak in the 1970s. We shall ensure that that trend continues, but we must remember that previous discharges can still be found when tests are carried out.

The House will know that British Nuclear Fuels has applied to the Environment Agency for variations to some of the Sellafield discharge limits. The agency carried out a consultation exercise earlier in the year and is now considering its determination of the applications in the light of consultees' views.

The Radioactive Substances Act 1963 gives the Secretary of State for the Environment

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the power to decide radioactive discharge applications. A number of requests have been made to my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister to exercise that power in respect of the present Sellafield applications. I understand from the Environment Agency that it expects to be in a position to determine the applications by the end of September. I assure the House that the call-in requests are under consideration and that a decision will be reached about whether the applications should be called in before the agency issues any determination.

The House will appreciate that, because of the statutory function that my right hon. Friend has to exercise in this case, I cannot comment about the merits of the applications or say at this stage what decision will be reached on the call-in requests. I can assure the House that all the representations made to the Government on this issue, including those by hon. Members, will be carefully considered in reaching a decision. I can also confirm that the Government have made it clear to the Environment Agency that we expect to see progressive reductions in discharges and discharge limits at the Sellafield, site where practicable.

Let me remind the House of some of the positive steps that we have taken with regard to Dounreay. The Dounreay waste shaft was licensed before I was born, which illustrates my point about legacy. Since the explosion there in 1977, the shaft has been monitored. However, a range of options had been prepared to identify a lasting solution to that difficult problem. In March of this year, the Government announced that we accepted the site operators' recommendation that the waste in the Dounreay shaft and the related wet silo should be retrieved for treatment and storage. Current indicative costs suggest that expenditure may be between £215 million and £355 million, spread over 25 years.

On reprocessing activities at Dounreay, we announced last month that no further commercial reprocessing contracts would be entered into, which will allow Dounreay to concentrate on reprocessing its own fuel, the Georgian material and existing commercial contracts. That limited programme of reprocessing is likely to be completed around 2006.

We also took positive action in response to the detection, off shore from Dounreay, of fragments of irradiated fuel, by imposing a precautionary ban on the taking of sea fish from the waters within a two-mile radius, and work continues to identify the source of that problem.

That standpoint of openness with vigorous regulation is evidenced by our welcome for the prompt and wide-ranging review of safety management being conducted at Dounreay by the HSE and by SEPA. We expect the UKAEA to respond promptly to any recommendations made following the review. We also welcome the robust role generally adopted by the independent regulators. I repeat that we are not complacent on these issues, even though many of the problems we face are legacies.

The Government are committed to protecting the marine environment, and we are working with our partners in Ospar to secure progress on that. We have shown our willingness to act to protect our seas. Soon after we were elected, we announced in Ospar that we would give up the opt-out on dumping radioactive waste at sea, which effectively closed the door on any resumption of that practice.

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Recent actions by the regulators at Sellafield and at Dounreay show that the arrangements are open, and that tough action is taken when required. The decision to shut down operations in the fuel cycle area at Dounreay was taken on a number of grounds, but, as we made clear in announcing that decision, environmental considerations were taken into account. We shall continue to ensure that the industry is well regulated.


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