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11.38 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): I congratulate the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) on securing this debate on the management of military radioactive waste and on providing me with the opportunity to speak on this issue. I am also pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) is here. She takes a great interest in these issues, is one of the hardest working constituency MPs in the House and is a great champion for Plymouth.

I have listened very carefully to the hon. Gentleman and begin by assuring him that the Ministry of Defence fully accepts its responsibilities regarding the need for effective management of the radioactive waste it produces. The production of such waste is an unavoidable outcome of the need to maintain vital military capability, and we are fully committed to managing it in a safe and secure manner, both now and in the future.

I understand the concerns that many people have about radioactive waste. Some waste is clearly extremely hazardous if not handled appropriately, and the management of waste is a long-term commitment. We must face up to that commitment in a considered and robust manner and that is what we are doing, which is why we continue to invest the resources necessary to deliver practicable, sustainable solutions that will stand the test of time. Radioactive waste is produced from a range of military activities and is categorised in a range from very low-level waste to intermediate-level waste; that is the highest category that the Ministry of Defence holds.

Hon. Members will not be surprised to learn that the overwhelming proportion of defence radioactive waste is produced by the nuclear submarine and nuclear weapons programmes. There are also a number of other sources
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of waste, such as medical radioactive sources, depleted uranium ammunition and contaminated land. Our policies, processes and plans address the requirements for managing all categories of waste, whatever the source. The MOD is not alone in needing to manage radioactive waste and used fuel, and defence material is managed in a similar way to civil material. The MOD’s current and future liabilities amount to less than 5 per cent. of the total UK waste inventory, by activity and by volume, so we play an active role in working with the UK nuclear industry, other Government Departments and regulators to deliver long-term waste management solutions for the UK as a whole.

It is not in either the MOD’s or the UK’s interests to adopt solutions that diverge from those being developed by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, which is why we are working closely with it to produce a coherent and optimal strategy to meet our waste management policy. The decommissioning and disposal of nuclear submarines, in particular the management of the radioactive waste generated by that process, is a key area of work for the MOD at this time.

In July last year, the MOD signed a contract for the delivery of new facilities at Her Majesty’s naval base Devonport for defuelling and de-equipping submarines in preparation for their afloat storage. That £153 million contract is scheduled to deliver in 2012, and will enable the removal of more than 99 per cent. of the radioactive material from submarines, in a way that meets the highest modern safety standards. That material will then be placed in medium-term storage to a standard that is at least as high as that for civil nuclear waste, and its storage will be subject to statutory safety regulation by the Health and Safety Executive. Low-level waste from operational submarines is disposed of at the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority site near Drigg. The remaining radioactivity after defuelling is secured within the reactor compartments of submarines as they are maintained in afloat storage at Devonport and at Rosyth dockyard.

The ISOLUS—interim storage of laid-up submarines—project was established by the MOD in 2000 to deliver a sustainable solution for the interim storage of nuclear submarines’ intermediate-level radioactive waste over the next 60 years. That is a complex matter, whereby we must consider a range of factors including, as I have mentioned, the need to take account of broader UK policy. The Committee on Radioactive Waste Management recommended in 2006 that a programme of robust, safe and secure long-term interim storage of intermediate-level waste was required. The ISOLUS project has taken the Committee’s recommendations into account and, since its report was published, the project has been able to take forward technical and siting issues. The present intention is to store intermediate-level waste on land and to end the current practice of afloat storage. Detailed options for land storage are being considered in a technical options study that is expected to be completed by the end of this year.

Radioactive waste is generated and stored at a number of locations around the UK. I would like to reassure the House that when it is necessary for material to be moved between the sites, safety and security remain paramount at all times. Indeed, safety and security are paramount across all aspects of the management of radioactive waste, and the MOD is committed to complying with national policies in this
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area. Defence activities, whether conducted directly by the MOD or by contractors, are subject to safety and environmental legislation, where it is applicable, and where such legislation does not apply to the MOD we introduce standards and management arrangements that are, so far as reasonably practicable, at least as good as those required by legislation.

The nuclear sector is, as one would expect, highly regulated. The bulk of the MOD’s activities relating to radioactive waste management fall under the jurisdiction of statutory regulators—the HSE, including the nuclear installations inspectorate, the Environment Agency, in England, or the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. Where such activities are not subject to statutory regulation, the MOD regulator, the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator, applies an equivalent regime, and in doing so works closely with the statutory regulators.

I recognise that there is a great public interest in the MOD’s management of radioactive waste and we are committed to a policy of openness and transparency so
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far as is possible, given the demands of national security. Through measures such as the publication on the internet last year of the MOD’s radioactive waste disposal policy, we aim to demonstrate that the MOD is a responsible nuclear operator and owner. Project ISOLUS, for example, has already undertaken two major public consultation exercises and has established the ISOLUS advisory group, which has a broad membership and holds public meetings, to provide independent scrutiny of the project. We will continue to engage with interested parties throughout the decision-making process.

I am pleased to have been able to respond to the hon. Gentleman on this important issue, and would like to reaffirm the MOD’s commitment to maintaining the highest standards of safety and security, through the effective management of radioactive waste, both now and in the future.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes to Twelve o’clock.

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