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Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend will find when she reads the board of inquiry report that it exposes the fact that in recent years some complacency in dealing with SCOGs appears to have crept in. SCOGs are not an integral part of the submarine, but they are a considerable item and there should have been a full appreciation of the dangers inherent in the equipment. We must understand that and in our internal investigation ensure that we leave no stone unturned in understanding what went
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wrong. The HSE has jurisdiction in the workplace in the United Kingdom. It will do what it chooses to do, having received all the advice and information. We will of course fully co-operate with the HSE in any investigation that it might choose to hold. However, that is a matter for the HSE. I have no control over it, and rightly so.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): Tributes have rightly been paid to the men who died and to the men who did so much to fight the fire. Does the Minister agree that the work that they were doing was no less important or inherently dangerous than the work that our men and women are doing on our behalf in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere in the world, and that we should honour their memory and the sacrifice that they have made? The Minister said that there had been developments to upgrade the design of the canisters and to replace emergency stocks, and that the Ministry is developing an alternative solution to meet further operational requirements. What effect has that had on the deployability of our submarine fleet and how long will it be before the new arrangements are fully in place?

Mr. Ainsworth: The right hon. Gentleman asks us to do what we ought to do, which is recognise, first, that all submariners are special people to put themselves in such circumstances. The operation that Tireless was involved in, under the ice near the North Pole, is about as close as anyone can get to the cutting edge of capability, which we need to maintain. We must also appreciate the skill and bravery of all involved, not just those who were injured.

On capability, we have removed standard SCOGs from almost the entire fleet. Instructions have been given to use none at all, other than for an emergency. I am told that under-the-ice operations are still possible—SCOGs are a secondary oxygen-generation system. I am not sure whether our capability is effective at the margins—I would have thought that it is—but we are working to put in place a new system. The new SCOG, with improved resilience to damage, is already arriving, but it will be used to replace the emergency SCOGs. The new system that we are considering will be used as the back-up oxygen-generation system.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): As a humble former guardsman, I pay tribute to my former sister service. Those of us who have the honour of being friends of submariners or former submariners are not at all surprised that that very special breed of men were so brave in doing their duty. One particular brave man does not wish to be named, and that is typical of submariners.

One part of the Minister’s statement worries me. Although he says rightly that nobody who serves in our armed forces can be guaranteed that they will not be injured or lose their life—they know that when they join; we all knew that—losing one’s life to possible neglect or the fiddling of figures, which clearly took place in relation to the SCOGs, is a different matter.
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The Minister has said that he does not know whether those SCOGs were on the boat when it was on operations, but fiddling the figures and the documentation—for a reason that he has not told us, but that we can all assume is financial—seems astonishing. That is especially unfair to the families and loved ones of those who died, as the very honest report and very honest statement by the Minister have exposed.

The Minister says that the Crown Prosecution Services does not think that a prosecution could take place. Can he elaborate on why that is? Is it because there is insufficient evidence, or is there another reason—public interest, perhaps? Could not the MOD take a civil case against the contractors if they have been negligent in their duties?

Mr. Ainsworth: I understand the desire to do so, but we cannot jump to conclusions on blame. The question why those SCOGs were returned for use must be part of the investigation. We cannot scapegoat an individual without fully understanding the facts and waiting for the outcome of that investigation. We do not yet know what the circumstances were, and we need the investigation to find that out and expose any issues.

Mike Penning: You have had 14 months.

Mr. Ainsworth: We have not had 14 months. We have had an ongoing police investigation and board of inquiry, and one cannot pre-empt or interfere with a police investigation; one must wait for it to finish. The police investigation has examined whether there was criminal negligence on anyone’s part. The Crown Prosecution Service has told us that there is not evidence to support a prosecution. The further inquiry might expose blame, but let us please wait for that inquiry before jumping to any conclusions.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Both the Minister and my hon. Friend the shadow Minister have rightly paid tribute not only to the crewmen who lost their lives but to the injured crewmen who bravely contained what could have been a far more serious incident. Patrolling under the ice is perhaps the most challenging environment for any submarine. In that regard, is it not heartening to note the comments of the commanding officer at the time with regard to his entire ship’s company, who

Mr. Ainsworth: The uplifting parts to read of this deeply disappointing document are those that describe the incredible job that the ship’s company did in tackling the incident. I am not the slightest bit surprised by that, having been the Minister for the Armed Forces for slightly less than a year, because I see that extraordinary state of mind displayed throughout the armed forces, and it was certainly displayed on that occasion.

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Radioactive Waste

12.53 pm

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): With your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the White Paper, “Managing Radioactive Waste Safely: a Framework for Implementing Geological Disposal”, which I am publishing today.

The White Paper follows the work of the independent Committee on Radioactive Waste Management—CoRWM—which recommended in July 2006 that geological disposal, coupled with safe and secure interim storage, was the best approach to the long-term management of higher-activity radioactive waste. It also recommended a voluntarism and partnership approach as the best means of working with communities to help to identify a site for such a facility.

The Government accepted those recommendations and consulted on a framework for implementing geological disposal in June 2007. A summary of responses indicating support for the proposed approach, including on how the voluntary partnership approach would work alongside site screening and assessment criteria, was published in January this year. Today’s White Paper confirms our approach.

We are therefore inviting communities to open up discussions with Government—without commitment—on the possibility of hosting such a geological disposal facility at some point in the future. To support that invitation, we have today opened a dedicated website, which can be accessed via the DEFRA website. I am also writing personally to every local authority in England to tell them about the invitation.

The House might wonder why communities should be interested in hosting a facility. A facility will not proceed unless it is safe, secure and environmentally acceptable. Its construction and operation will be a multi-billion pound, high-tech project, which would contribute greatly to the local economy, providing skilled employment for hundreds of people over many decades and bringing benefits for industry, infrastructure and local services. Many of those benefits would remain after the facility had been sealed.

In addition, any community that ultimately hosts a facility will fulfil an essential service to the nation and would expect the Government to ensure that the project contributes to its well-being. To that end, other benefits might be identified and developed through discussions between the community and the Government. Along with the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, we want to talk to any community that might have an interest in that. Any such discussions would be exploratory and would carry no commitment to hosting a facility. We want to build trust.

Indeed, let me be clear that communities which open discussions with Government will not automatically end up hosting a facility. There will be clear decision points at which progress can be reviewed, with safety, environmental impact, cost, affordability and value for money taken into account before decisions are taken to move on. The final stage would involve the local decision-making authorities deciding to proceed so that the Government would make an informed decision on a preferred site.

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The other issue is the waste itself. Discussions will need to take account of the amount and type of waste destined for disposal. We are today also publishing the latest UK radioactive waste inventory, which gives the current estimates of waste and other materials that could become waste in future. Estimates of the amount of waste will change over time as operational arrangements change and we find better ways of minimising waste. New nuclear power stations might also be built. We will therefore adopt a flexible approach to the design of the facility and a transparent process for updating the inventory for disposal.

Geological disposal is the internationally preferred approach for managing such waste and is being adopted in many countries, including Belgium, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, the United States and Sweden. It is likely to take several decades until a disposal facility is ready, but moving forward now towards a permanent solution is the right approach. It allows us to take decisions about disposing of waste that we have created or will create, and not place that responsibility on future generations. Today we are taking another significant step forward in dealing with that legacy, and I look forward to working with all those who can help us in the task.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for the advance sight of it.

The challenge of dealing with the legacy of toxic nuclear waste has dogged successive Governments for more than half a century. We strongly support the Government’s recognition of the urgent need to find a sustainable long-term management option to tackle the problem. I say “management option” rather than “solution”, because the only solution to the potential dangers of nuclear waste lies in hundreds of thousands of years of gradual degradation.

I pay tribute to the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management and particularly its chairman, Professor Gordon MacKerron, for the thoughtful way in which it has approached this complex and sensitive issue. It is important to note that the committee’s work related solely to legacy waste—the stuff that we already have, not the stuff that we might create if new nuclear power stations are built. I am concerned that the Government have muddled up those two distinct issues.

That matters because it is accepted that the taxpayer faces a huge and growing financial liability for dealing with the existing waste—£73 billion at the last count, I think, although the Secretary of State may wish to update the House on that figure—but it is not accepted that new nuclear plant should receive subsidies, hidden or otherwise, from the taxpayer. The Conservatives have made it clear that any new build will have to cover its own costs, including the costs of managing waste. The Government have now sent a confused message. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to clarify that, as they have said before, it is not the Government’s intention to subsidise new nuclear capacity or the consequential waste management need arising from it?

On the specific questions, how many local authorities have already approached the Secretary of State with a view to discussing the matter? Did the Government consider identifying areas with suitable geological sites
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and approaching the relevant authorities, rather than writing to every council in England? It is essential not to compromise the geological security of the exercise for the sake of a local deal.

What is the position in relation to Scotland? How many repositories does the Secretary of State believe we are going to need? What happens if no communities come forward to take on the responsibility? Is there a plan B? What will be the role of the unelected Infrastructure Planning Commission? Which arm of the Government do the envisage taking the final decision on where to locate a geological storage facility?

It may seem ironic that this announcement, involving as it does the payment of inducements to people to persuade them to do what some might describe as the Government’s dirty work, comes the day after the controversial vote on the terrorism legislation. However, in this context, that approach may well be justified. We need collectively to deal with the problem of existing nuclear waste responsibly, safely and as soon as possible.

Hilary Benn: I thank the hon. Gentleman for the spirit and content of his response, with the exception of his last point. I know that he takes these matters seriously. I echo his thanks to Gordon MacKerron and to CoRWM for the work that they have done. I also pay tribute to Professor Pickard, who now chairs CoRWM in its new guise.

The Government have not sent a confused message on new nuclear build. Indeed, we consulted on waste from new nuclear build as part of the nuclear consultation. We have said clearly that companies involved in building new nuclear will have to build up a fund to cover the costs of decommissioning and waste management, and we are going to set a fixed price, which will include a significant risk premium, to cover the costs of accepting new waste and contributing to the cost of building a geological facility. The hon. Gentleman will know that the nuclear liabilities financing assurance board will oversee the process.

The truth is that in the past we tried an approach of scouring the country to find places. The last time it was tried, the final site identified in the mid-1990s was turned down by the inspector, and the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), who was then Environment Secretary, confirmed that decision. We have to find a new method that is based on winning consent. That is why I thought it sensible to write to all local authorities. It is for them to decide to come forward. I assure the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) that there will be no compromise of geological security. Indeed, once expressions of interest have come in, one of the very early stages is to screen those areas to see whether they would be suitable. As for the final decision in the process, we are minded to put that into the new planning arrangements, although the House is still in the process of considering them.

The Scottish Government have decided not to participate; they will continue with near-site, near-surface storage. That is entirely a matter for them. The Welsh Assembly Government support the process, but have reserved their position on whether they wish to host a facility. Any expression of interest in Wales would have to go to the Welsh Assembly Government for consideration.

On the hon. Gentleman’s point about communities that decide to come forward, I think, and I hope that
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the House will agree, that it is not unreasonable for those who say, “We are prepared, potentially, to host this facility on behalf of the nation,” to receive support and consideration for doing that. That is the right approach. When hon. Members have had a chance to read the White Paper, they will see the very careful step-by-step approach that we are taking to win trust, build confidence and be open with information, so that communities have up until the very last minute to say, “Thanks, but no thanks.” I think that is the right way to do it.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on making that final point. The whole question of nuclear waste has been bedevilled by a lack of trust in those who have the stocks of waste. It is not actually the Government’s dirty business, but the whole nation’s dirty business. If we are to move beyond the current situation and have a long-term and secure solution, the concepts of voluntarism, trust and proper partnership are fundamental and vital to ensuring that the nation can entrust both the Government and other partners to do this necessary job for us all. My right hon. Friend is to be congratulated on the spirit in which he has introduced the White Paper.

Hilary Benn rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I do not think that a question was included there. I call Steve Webb.

Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for advance sight of it.

I want to raise four issues with the right hon. Gentleman, the first of which is safety. Ten years ago, the British Government Panel on Sustainable Development said:

storage underground. Ten years on, can he tell us whether those technical difficulties have been definitively resolved? If they have not—my question on plan B is slightly different from the one posed by the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth)—and there are technical and scientific difficulties that cannot be resolved, what is plan B?

My second question relates to interim arrangements. According to the White Paper, the storage will not be available for perhaps 20 years or more, but new nuclear will be up and running before that. Is it the intention to store the waste from new nuclear on site at the new nuclear plants? Will the Secretary of State confirm that that waste will be more radioactive than the waste coming from existing plants? Should people be worried by the thought of high-level, highly radioactive waste being stored on site at lots of locations around Britain? In a terrorist age, should we be concerned about that?

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