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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 9 May 2007

[Mr. Mike Weir in the Chair]

UK Atomic Energy Authority

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Liz Blackman.]

9.30 am

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con): I rise because other hon. Members and I requested this debate, and Mr. Speaker granted it as his personal choice. We have several different concerns relating to reports about the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, some of which have been in the newspapers and some of which concern the chairman, although I shall discuss the UKAEA’s handling of events at Dounreay and its aftermath.

Let me say at the outset that I have generally been a supporter of using atomic power to generate UK energy. I have generally been open to the idea that we should increase the amount of energy produced by nuclear means as part of our control and reduction of harmful greenhouse gases. Although I do not come here to make a major case in that respect, I should add one caveat. For some time, I have been dealing with the concerns of my long-term friend Geoffrey Minter and his family, whose deeply troubling involvement with the UKAEA regarding the pollution of their land in Caithness and of surrounding areas has lasted several years. In that time, I have often been forced seriously to question my previous acceptance of many, it not all, of the nuclear industry’s assurances about the safety of nuclear installations and its sense of responsibility towards them.

Although others may want to make particular comments about the UKAEA’s chairman, I shall not do so, because that is not my concern today. I simply note in passing that Lady Judge was asked in an interview in the Daily Mail the other day about her qualifications for the job. There are many qualifications that one needs to be a chairman, but—perhaps this should be a lesson to us all not necessarily to give interviews to newspapers—she said that when she was offered the job, she prepared for her unique role by studying her son’s physics books. After the Deputy Prime Minister resigns, he could presumably put in for the job of chief scientific adviser to the Government on the basis of such qualifications, although I am not sure that we would be too happy to see that come about.

I simply want to raise the case of Mr. Geoffrey Minter, which highlights the abuses that have taken place and the UKAEA’s terrible failure in terms of its duty of care towards the land around Dounreay and the people whose livelihoods depend on what goes on there. In May 1997, the first hot particle—for those who are not aware of it, hot refers to metallic contamination—was found on the 4 miles of coastline at Sandside beach. The pollution continues to this day, and its effects will continue long into the future. Since that find, 91 items of nuclear waste have been removed
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from Sandside. In 2006, 19 were removed. Already, in the past four months, 14 have been removed, including the most radioactive ever. The UKAEA has strict liability in law.

I shall return to 1997 later in the chronology of what has been going on, and colleagues will be shocked to learn what has and has not been happening. In 1977, a shaft containing a cocktail of nuclear detritus exploded, but that was kept secret until 1996. In 1983, metal particles were found on Dounreay’s foreshore, which were presumed to be of the MTR—material test reactor—type.

In 1984, the UKAEA said in the Caithness Courier that non-metallic radioactive material found on Sandside beach was comparable

On or about 28 April, the Lyall team—the people responsible at Dounreay—found big radioactive metallic fragments of live nuclear fuel in the east bay using a Geiger counter, some of which were 18 in deep in the sand. The particles were between 10 and 100 times the magnitude of any found since 2005. No public announcement was made, and the find was kept secret until 2004. Such particles are simply not comparable to the luminous dial of a clock. The items that are being found are very dangerous and would kill somebody if ingested.

On 30 May 1984, the director of Dounreay stated in the Caithness Courier that some of the non-metallic matter at Sandside was


I have to say that I was not aware that coal-fired power stations produced fission materials. Such statements are good indications of the terrible way in which those charged with responsibility set about, essentially, to lie to the public and to those who need them to act with the necessary care.

In 1990, my friend Mr. Minter contracted to buy Sandside. He carried out full diligence and even contacted Sir Gerard Vaughan—an MP at the time—who, having checked with the Ministry and carried out voluntary checks, told Mr. Minter that there was no record of particular problems. The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) has been diligently working on this issue—he may want to say some words later—and he is fully aware that that was the case, as he has made clear on several occasions.

In May 1997, the first hot particle was finally found at Sandside beach, although, as I said, many others had already been discharged and were found but kept secret. In October, an emergency food exclusion zone was imposed 2 km around the sea outfall, but it did not extend into the bay, where metallic fragments are found to this day. In November, another fuel fragment was found, but the director of Dounreay told Mr. Minter that he should not worry, because a lobsterman stored shellfish in the centre of the bay. He added that the lobsterman would not do that if it was not safe, but I am not sure that we should judge the nuclear safety of areas on the basis of what lobstermen do. Even the fishing zone was not properly policed, and, as a result, people went in and out of it. In any case, I am not aware that fish read safety notices too well, and
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bottom-feeding fish tend to move out of exclusion zones, although that does not seem to have occurred to anybody at Dounreay.

Mr. Minter was advised to cease a number of activities and did so as a result. They included wild salmon fishing, cattle calving on dunes and using shell sand from the beach and harbour for farm fertiliser—for the lime equivalent that is extracted from them—or for roads, building purposes, cattle courts, grouse and so on. In other words, the whole area could no longer be part of a normal productive estate.

Mr. Minter also met the UKAEA’s then chairman—I hasten to add that it was not the present chairman—who, as witnessed at the time, told him:

At the same time, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace called for Sandside beach to be closed.

It is interesting that as early as 1998, Donald Dewar, the then Secretary of State for Scotland, called for the Scottish Environment Protection Agency to ensure that

Importantly, SEPA also called for Sandside

but that has never happened. As hon. Members will see in a second, Donald Dewar’s clear statement has never been properly followed through at all. The detection and checking never covered more than half the beach, and even then, the level of detection was very low, with many of the more radioactive particles deeper in the sand simply being ignored.

I shall rush through the next part of my speech a little, but I want to give hon. Members a flavour of the abuse that has taken place. It is no good saying that these things are all history, and I hope that the Minister will not do that. I must tell him and the Department of Trade and Industry that history is about what happens now as much as about what happened then. The effects of what happened, which are referred to as history, are destroying Mr. Minter’s estate, and the family has suffered enormously without receiving any serious reparation.

In 1999, from July to December, five more radioactive fragments were found, and in 2000 hundreds more fuel fragments were found on the sea bed. UKAEA monitoring was found, by key officials, including Dr. Day of Manchester university, who was also employed, I understand, by the UKAEA, to be less than 1 per cent. efficient in detecting and removing those particles. Six more MTR fragments were found in that year. In 2001 a peculiar statement was made by the UKAEA solicitor, D. J. West, who promulgated a very false choice. He wrote from Harwell to the local newspaper:

It is such statements that must leave the public with a very peculiar sense of the priorities. This is not a matter of a Labour or Conservative Government; this is about the responsibility to be discharged by all Governments and their officials. The very idea that there is a choice
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to be made between schools and hospitals and returning the environment to a usable state is a strange one.

The chairman resigned in 2001 and the chief executive officer then offered to buy the coast at valuation plus. Mr. Minter refused that, on the simple basis that he did not trust the authorities in question. The idea that once any of them were to take over an area they would become diligent and careful, and clean it up, is shown to be nonsense by the history of their involvement.

More particles were found in 2002. On 17 November 2002 Dounreay finally admitted that hundreds of thousands of hot particles—irradiated fragments—were now located on the sea bed in the bay. It took those responsible that long to admit, absolutely, what was happening. In 2003 Mr. Minter had to proceed to a court hearing, because he was getting nowhere with the UKAEA. Finally the UKAEA admitted to groundwater pollution from the shaft as well. On 8 August the judge in the case, Lady Paton, ruled in favour of Sandside—Mr. Minter—that the public were not being protected. She was highly critical of the UKAEA’s behaviour throughout, and its deceit. Dr. Day, of Manchester university, to whom I referred earlier, produced some raw data analysis showing that only half of Sandside beach was being monitored. Thus, in October, Mr. Minter simply withdrew access to the beach, because it was pointless and allowed the UKAEA to engage in a cosmetic process in which it told people that it was dealing with matters when it was not. There were 23 more hot particles found in that year.

In March 2004 Dounreay agreed to fit a filter on the discharge outlet, after pressure from a number of people, including Mr. Minter. It is worth reminding the House at this point that all other Scottish nuclear plants, which do not even discharge into the sea, have filters already fitted. Had a filter been fitted at Dounreay in the first place, particles would never have been discharged as they were into the bay. I remind hon. Members of the date that I gave at the outset: the problems had been going on for nearly 10 years, when it was finally decided to fit a filter on the discharge in question.

In 2005 the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, sadly, tried to suggest a lack of due diligence, in an inquiry and interview with the then chairman. Mr. Minter wrote to the Committee to correct that, and I am sad to say that the Committee never responded to his letters. I hope that one day it will. I understand that in that year the then Minister, the present Minister for Science and Innovation, wrote to the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross that he wished for a new spirit of openness and co-operation and to learn from the mistakes of the past. He also wrote to me in 2006, saying much the same thing and hoping that he would put right all that had gone wrong in the past.

I shall return to what happened then, but I want to complete the litany that I have been engaged in. Despite all the assurances from the then Minister, and, after he moved on, the present Minister, Lord Truscott, it is fascinating that even at the beginning of the year, at the time of Mr. Minter’s meeting with the new Dounreay management—who are infinitely more positive and constructive than their predecessors—and
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even as some agreement is reached about the heads of terms under which a resolution can be reached, and as that decision is passed on to the UKAEA board and then, as I understand it, to the Ministry, Mr. Minter is informed of an issue that the Department of Trade and Industry is now raising. I shall return to that, because it is quite important in relation to the final discussions and what should have been happening.

In May 1997, Harwell sought consent to access to the 500 acres of land. That was subject to a formal agreement. I remind the House that rights of property have always been enshrined in common law, and are only ever overturned with real reason. Governments should hesitate to do anything of the sort, so it is right that any agreement to gain access to someone’s land should come with some financial arrangement and reparation. To this day the UKAEA has never stuck to the agreement or paid any such reparation.

In 2001, following the difficult mediation that the owner of Sandside, Mr. Minter, had agreed to, the UKAEA offered, peculiarly, to buy the demised land on surrender of all his legal rights. He does not want to sell, as I said earlier, because he has always been concerned that once it is sold the land will be shut up, no one will ever know more about it, and no pressure will be brought to bear to clean up the effects of the damage. Anyway, that damage will go on affecting him whether he sells the land or retains control of it, unless it is cleaned up.

The important thing about the monthly collecting at the beach is that on average removal is less than 10 per cent. efficient. The points made by Dr. Day are still relevant. Mr. Minter has always been allowed to deal directly only with the polluter—never with those who hold the purse strings or the decision-making capacity at the Ministry. It would be far better if the Ministry would engage directly with him to resolve the matter; it seems, at this stage, to be the sticking point for any further resolution.

Mr. Minter has always been the recipient of considerable public vilification, throughout the process that I have recounted. The part of it that really concerns me is that the UKAEA has too often tried to shoot the messenger—to try to deal with him, because he is a pain in the neck, will not go away, and cares about his land and the environment. He has been subjected to the force of the UKAEA publicity machine, which has been turned on him. I find it unbelievable that an organisation of that kind should have attempted to use its power to crush someone who was simply worried and making complaints, and who wanted a resolution of the situation, and reparation for damages resulting from its action.

The three ministerial letters that I referred to are relevant to what I want to say about the position today. They all seemed to me—and, I suggest, to the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross—to refer to the positive resolution that would be in everyone’s interest. In fact, in correspondence of 6 and 26 March, Lord Truscott, the Minister for Energy, wrote of wanting to ensure a settlement that would be in everyone’s interest, and positive. The problem is that despite such public expressions of good will, I have been horrified in the past few weeks—this was the catalyst for my application for the debate—by
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the fact that something else seems to be going on at the DTI, which undermines those statements by the Minister.

At Dounreay, after all these years and all the problems and false starts, some sort of agreement to settle the matter, at least in the framework, appears to have been reached. However, behind the scenes at the DTI, where the matter now rests, notwithstanding the earlier statements of good will, someone is trying to figure out a way of not having to deal with Mr. Minter; in fact, they have decided on that. They believe that the Radioactive Contaminated Land (Scotland) Regulations 2007, which come into force in October, will allow them access to the land without any further discussion. There is an attempt to settle this problem and deal with this awkward individual by bypassing the whole concept of property rights and simply dispossessing him of his normal and acquired rights over his land purchase.

Mr. Minter has taken the matter up with the dean of the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh, who is, arguably, Scotland’s most senior QC. The dean makes it very clear to the DTI that it is barking up the wrong tree and that the delay is complete nonsense. We know what it is all about, but I will come back to that. The dean said, categorically, that under section 15 of the enabling Act, the Radioactive Contaminated Land (Scotland) Regulations 2007 do not apply to Sandside beach and never will. I shall not get into a legal debate with the Minister today, but if that is what the DTI is doing, the relevant Ministers are breaching expressed articles of good faith. Ministers should be ashamed if they have been saying those things while attempting to reach a back-door settlement by seizing the land. I have even heard, from a reliable source, that when this case was passed back to the DTI, an official said, when they were told of the dean’s advice, “Well, that section can be altered by the Government, so it doesn’t matter.” In other words, if the Government do not like a law, they simply change it so that they can abuse it and the individual concerned.

I hope that the Minister will understand why I consider this case to be an appalling breach of duty of care. The DTI has expressed a desire to settle, but at the 11th hour is looking for a cheap way around the problem. That raises questions about who is really running the show. We cannot have the Minister writing and making those sorts of statements while others attempt to trample over Mr. Minter’s land rights. I remind the Chamber that the concept of property rights was established by an Englishman, the Bishop of Chartres, in the 11th century. Those rights have always set English law pretty much above others; the same applies to Scotland and Scottish property laws.

After years of the UKAEA’s prevarication, deceit and deliberate delay, which have resulted in it being found guilty of four charges of breaching the Radioactive Substances Act 1993, this issue should have been settled, but still has not been. All that has led to concerns about the UKAEA, which, I suspect, it could have done without. Even after those years of deceit, prevarication and delay, it wants a settlement, but it is now up to the DTI to get on with things and agree a settlement. The current chairman, Lady Judge, wrote to Mr Minter on this matter. In her letter, she
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made an interesting statement that shows what has been the problem with the UKAEA’s mindset. She said:

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