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House of Lords

Thursday, 16th December 1999.

The House met at eleven of the clock: The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Southwark.

Rolls-Royce Nuclear Energy Services Ltd

Lord Methuen: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so I declare an interest as a sometime member of Rolls-Royce and a pensioner of that company, though never in the nuclear division.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are satisfied with the contingency plan to protect the public from the effects of radiation in the event of a major nuclear incident at the factory of Rolls-Royce Nuclear Energy Services Ltd at Raynesway, Derby.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, Raynesway is a civil site operated by Rolls-Royce to produce fuel for nuclear submarines. It is subject to UK civil nuclear regulations which are among the most stringent in the world. It is inspected regularly by the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, which is part of the Health and Safety Executive. The Government are satisfied that the NII would not allow operations at the Raynesway site to continue unless it was fully satisfied that there was no unacceptable risk to the workers on the site or the public.

Lord Methuen: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. However, is she aware of the extreme disquiet of local inhabitants about the siting of this plant in a largely residential area? Is she aware also that her colleague in the other place, Mr John Speller, said in a recent communication to Nick Clegg, MEP for East Midlands:

    "Because there are no foreseeable off site circumstances of an accident at Raynesway, it has not been necessary to establish a public emergency plan".

In the light of the Tokaimura incident, which I know was a totally different process, does not the Minister feel that there should be such an emergency plan, because accidents can happen in spite of best endeavours?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Methuen, is referring to a good deal of press coverage which was generated after the Tokaimura incident. That occurred in October this year. The main thrust of the arguments put forward in the press at that time was that Rolls-Royce were keeping their activities secret and that local residents were at risk because they did not know what was going on. There are two points here. First, regular visits--around every six weeks or so--take place when the NII

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seeks to ensure that the establishment is safe. Secondly, there is nothing secretive about what is happening at the site. A local liaison committee is hosted by Rolls-Royce. It was established at the site to provide a means of liaising with the community in order to provide the sort of reassurance that the noble Lord feels is necessary. I agree that it is necessary, but the disquiet is not based on any real problem at the site itself.

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, my noble friend told us that there are no "unacceptable" risks on this site. Can she now tell us what are the acceptable risks?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I regret to say that risk is part of our everyday experience. I dare say that all of us on our way to your Lordships' House today ran some risk or other just in relation to traffic. When we are dealing with enriched uranium, which is a dangerous material, there must of course be stringent controls. The controls that the United Kingdom has in place are among the most stringent in the world. There are regular inspections and I can assure your Lordships that there is no reason to believe that there is any undue risk either to the workers or to the residents around the site.

Heathrow: Flight Path Changes

11.9 a.m.

Lord Annan asked Her Majesty's Government:

    How often the flight paths into Heathrow airport are changed.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, the only fixed flight paths into Heathrow are those for the final approach; that is, after the aircraft have joined the instrument landing system. They are aligned with the runways and have not changed since the airport opened. They usually extend from 14 to 35 kilometres from touchdown, depending on how busy the airport is. There are no fixed routes for aircraft to follow before joining the final approach paths. A system of alternating the runway used for daytime landings at Heathrow during westerly operations has operated since 1972. This provides predictable periods of relief from landing noise for communities directly under the final approach paths up to about 12 kilometres from touchdown.

Lord Annan: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that London is the only great city which has passenger aircraft flying over it into its main airport? It does not happen in Paris, New York, Berlin, Rome or even Athens.

I must declare an interest, in that I live in Pimlico. Is the noble Lord aware that in west London people in modest houses with tiny gardens like my own take pleasure from sitting out in the evenings and in the

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afternoon? However, it is almost impossible to do that when the noise of one aircraft as it disappears into the west is followed by the noise of another aircraft approaching from the east. Surely something can be done to ameliorate this situation, which affects anyone who lives west of Lambeth Bridge? Finally, does the noble Lord agree with me that it would be pure folly to have a fifth runway at Heathrow? Such a situation would be intolerable.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, in relation to the final point, the issue at stake is an additional terminal rather than an additional runway. It does not have direct implications in terms of number of movements but, given that it is a matter for public inquiry, the noble Lord will understand that I cannot comment in substance.

As it happens, I too live in Pimlico when I am in London and I am aware that a significant number of regular flights take place across central London. However, it is a much better situation than that which I experienced when I spent a fair proportion of my boyhood living in the Hounslow area. At that time the level of noise from individual aircraft was considerably higher and there were more night flights. Technology has significantly improved the amount of noise that comes from aircraft. There will be another change in that in the year 2002, when the Chapter 2 aircraft will be phased out entirely. That will again improve the noise levels.

As to whether it is necessary for aircraft to pass over central London, it is an advantage that aircraft landing rather than aircraft take-off occurs over the built-up area, because take-off, at least in the immediate vicinity, is much noisier.

Lord Elton: My Lords, the fact that things are worse in Hounslow surely does not make it undesirable to make things better in Pimlico. Can the Minister tell us whether he manages to sleep at night with his window open, or does he, like many residents who live west of London, find it impossible to sleep healthily because of aircraft noise?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the comparison I was making was with Hounslow in the 1950s and 1960s, when aircraft were considerably noisier. Clearly it is of benefit to reduce the total amount of noise to any communities which are overflown. Indeed, the international aircraft industry has made great advances in recent years, while meeting increased demand. As regards my sleeping habits, I shall not bother the House any further in that respect.

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, is it not the simple truth that there have far too many aircraft landing at Heathrow and that a substantial number of them should be obliged to land at other London airports which are available?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, put simply, there is a significant increase in air traffic. Although much of it

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has been taken care of by increased capacity of individual aircraft, the demand is there and it is on all London airports. It would be difficult to see any significant reduction in the number of aircraft going into Heathrow in the foreseeable future. Although we take an overall approach to regional airport planning, the pressure on London airports as a whole is likely to remain.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, can the Minister tell us whether anything has been done to alter the profile of the landing path by bringing the aircraft in at a higher level nearer to the threshold?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the air traffic control operates tactically to get aircraft into the final approach level. I cannot explain this very easily without visual aids, but there are four stacking places as they come into the final approach. Depending on the weather conditions and the wind, some aircraft start further out and from a higher level than others. However, all that forms part of the tactical decisions that the air traffic controllers have to take as regards the aircraft, and so on, on the particular day. Of course, at the end of the day they all have to come down to the same level.

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