HC Deb 14 February 1984 vol 54 cc131-40 3.45 pm
The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Patrick Jenkin)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a further statement about the abnormal discharges to the sea last autumn from the British Nuclear Fuels plant at Sellafield in Cumbria and about the Government's plans for the future of the discharges from the plant.

I have today published the report of the investigation made by the radio-chemical inspectorate of my Department, and copies are in the Vote Office. The Health and Safety Executive, which is responsible for ensuring safe operation, has also published the report of the investigation by the nuclear installations inspectorate, and copies of this are also in the Vote Office. I should like to express my appreciation of the care with which the inspectors have carried out their tasks and the co-operation that they received from the company.

The conclusions of the reports confirm the interim account that I gave to the House on 21 December. I am advised that it would be inappropriate for me to comment further at this stage on the events that led to the incident itself, because the Director of Public Prosecutions is pursuing inquiries into the circumstances with the assistance of the Cumbrian police and the two inspectorates.

I must, however, describe the present situation with regard to the environmental contamination resulting from the incident. As I have made clear to the House, there is no evidence to suggest that this contamination, although very unsatisfactory, could cause significant damage to anyone's health. The sort of risks we are talking about is that someone might suffer from localised irritation of the skin from prolonged contact with one of a number of pieces of material which have been found with much higher than usual levels of radioactivity. Continued monitoring of the beaches shows that this small risk remains. The advice not to use the beaches unnecessarily therefore must still stand for the time being. However, at the request of my Department and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, a more intensive examination of the nature, distribution and origins of the material is now being made in order to put us in the best possible position to take a safe and early decision about withdrawal of the advice.

As to the future of discharges from the plant, BNFL has already begun to implement a number of short-term measures put to it by the inspectorates. These include the installation of on-line monitors and automatic cut-offs for the pumps and will lead to safer and more reliable control of present discharges through the pipeline. The inspectorates consider, on the basis of the work done to date, that a discharge like that of last autumn could not now be repeated. The inspectorates have therefore agreed that the normal operation of the plant may be resumed. Other recommendations in the reports, which require action by Government Departments, are being urgently considered.

The main aim of the Government, and of the company's programme, will continue to be the reduction of discharges to the environment. BNFL already has in hand a major programme of investment costing over £100 million, which will reduce substantially radioactive emissions from Sellafield. As from next year, discharges of caesium to the sea will be reduced to one tenth of the maximum released in recent years. The revised authorisation sent to the company in draft will, when implemented, reduce discharges of plutonium and other alpha emitters to 200 curies a year, which is also a very sharp reduction from previous levels.

We now need to consider what further steps should be taken. BNFL is proceeding with design and construction for a second-generation reprocessing plant for oxide fuel. This will incorporate a much cleaner technology from the start.

The new standards for this plant are part of a comprehensive long-term plan for Sellafield to ensure that its environmental impact meets the highest standards that are reasonably achievable. In setting firm objectives and ensuring progress, my Department will work closely with the other Departments concerned, including the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, with which it has joint responsibility under the Radioactive Substances Act 1960.

The reduction in discharges to the environment will lead to an increase in wastes retained on the Sellafield site, and these wastes must also be dealt with. Schemes will therefore be formulated and carried out, within the framework of the national waste management strategy, for the effective management of stored wastes until disposal routes are available and for the decommissioning of redundant installations.

The authorising Departments will continue to examine the adequacy of their own programmes for environmental monitoring and associated research. Full account will need to be taken of the report of Sir Douglas Black's inquiry, which is expected in May. If improvements are shown to be needed, they will be made.

The generation of electricity by means of nuclear power is and will remain an important component of this country's energy supplies, and the Sellafield reprocessing plant is an integral part of that civil nuclear programme. The Government reaffirm their confidence in the future of the plant. The public has a legitimate right to demand that the environmental standards within which it operates are of the utmost rigour. It is the Government's intention to see that they are.

Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland)

The Secretary of State has made a long statement that was, in effect, another interim report. While a number of aspects of what he said are undoubtedly welcome, a number of matters in the statement are unsatisfactory.

I welcome the publication of the two reports, both of which criticise management systems at the plant for the control of radioactive waste, and that is a very serious feature of these investigations. It is argued in the reports that the existing plant is inadequate and that warning systems are absent from the part of the plant that deals with sea outfall discharges.

I welcome the commitment of British Nuclear Fuels to refurbish that part of the plant as a priority, but will the Secretary of State assure the House that the necessary funding for that priority work will be made available without further delay? In view of his assurance that this kind of incident cannot happen again, will he institute a review of all aspects of the magnox plant at Sellafield to give some backing to that assurance, because we have heard such assurances before? When the nuclear installations inspectorate carried out a review of all the plants in 1980, it gave similar assurances for the future, some of which now seem not to have been worth the paper on which they were written. Is it satisfactory for the nuclear installations inspectorate to remain below adequate strength?

Why has it taken three months for the right hon. Gentleman's Department and other Departments to ask for a more intensive examination of the nature of the pollutants? Is he not aware that Cumbria as a whole is being damaged by the situation which obtains and that the public has been advised against using the beaches for many weeks, which is affecting tourism in the area and all other aspects of life, in my constituency in particular but throughout west Cumbria? Three months to take a decision about a further investigation is far too leisurely an approach.

If the Secretary of State and the Government—and I am sorry to be long about this, but these are crucially important matters — intend to rest on the ALARA principle, "as low as reasonably achievable", is it not time that a definition was put on record of exactly what that means in practice, for no such definition appears ever to have been attempted? Would it not be better to accept now that, for the future operations of the industry—not just the new Thorpe oxide plant, but existing magnox processors—discharges should be eliminated altogether and that no discharges to the green environment should be allowed within a reasonable time scale?

I say to the Secretary of State that the statement comes odd from a Government who have leaked these reports comprehensively over the last 48 hours and tipped off the press about the statement. I arrived at Westminster yesterday to have four messages from the press asking me to give interviews about this statement today, so the press clearly knew what was going on. Is it satisfactory to have off-the-record briefings of correspondents of The Observer, and at the same time to have the police pursuing Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth over the availability of documents like this which carry a restricted covering and which contain information that is in the public interest?

I realise that the Secretary of State can say nothing now about the Black inquiry into health, which is perhaps the most important of all the inquiries taking place. I make no criticism about that, because the inquiry is continuing, but the House will wish, in the fullness of time when the reports are available, to debate all those issues.

Mr. Jenkin

No one would criticise the hon. Gentleman for treating this matter with great seriousness. He was right to put it in the context of the previous private notice question today, which my right hon. Friend the Minister for Overseas Development answered about the deaths from natural causes of hundreds of thousands of people in other parts of the world. It is important to make it clear that there is no risk of death to anyone as a result of this discharge. However, it was an unsatisfactory discharge and we should treat it seriously.

I can give the hon. Gentleman a categoric undertaking that there will be no shortage of funds for the necessary plant changes which are being and will be made to eliminate the chances of a repetition of this accident and substantially to reduce the discharges of radioactive material. British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. has in hand a programme costing more than £100 million, of which the largest part is devoted to the new SIXEP plant, which is due to come on stream next year. If further measures are necessary in order to reach satisfactory standards, they will be taken.

As a result of the report, the company will conduct a review of all the operations in the plants at Sellafield. The hon. Gentleman referred to the earlier review following the Windscale trial. That was a review of the entire operation, but it did not examine the detailed management of individual plants. As the hon. Gentlemen rightly said, the errors which gave rise to this incident occurred in the detailed management of this plant.

I am dealing with the inspectorate urgently. We are considering a variety of possibilities to strengthen our monitoring capacity, including the possibility of using independent contractors to do the work.

The hon. Gentleman asked why it had taken three months to undertake a review. The early signs were of a rapid decline in the amount of contaminated material washed up on the beaches, and I certainly hoped—as I am sure did the hon. Gentleman—that this contamination would be short-lived. Events have proved otherwise. In those circumstances, with evidence of continuing detritus or radioactive material being washed up, we decided to examine the matter more systematically to try to find out how it was happening.

As to the definition of ALARA, the hon. Gentleman must realise that this is an obligation upon the nuclear industry in addition to the numerical limits placed upon discharges. I assure him that we have in mind the possibility of extending the numerical discharges so that they cover not only a rolling three-month period but shorter periods. That will remove some of the uncertainty of which he complained.

I do not believe that any Government have been more open in their dealings with the House and the public than the present Government have been with this discharge, and I shall continue to keep the House as fully informed as possible on those matters. It is not for me to decide whether an official should be prosecuted for disclosing a restricted document to Greenpeace in breach of undertakings.

Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton and Wallington)

As my right hon. Friend is Secretary of State for the Environment, will he accept that many hon. Members on both sides of the House applaud the responsible line that he has taken on this important issue? However, will he also realise that, although progress is welcome in reducing emissions, particularly of caesium and plutonium, the matter of concern to this House should be the long-term effects of low-level emissions of all radioactive substances, whether into the air or water? Will he make absolutely sure that that aspect of this environmental problem is taken fully into account by Sir Douglas Black and by everybody else who will be looking at the continuing effects of this incident?

Mr. Jenkin

I am well aware of my hon. Friend's long concern with these matters, and I assure him that we shall treat the findings of Sir Douglas Black's review with the utmost care. We expect his report perhaps in May. It will be one aspect, one of the pieces of evidence, that we shall need to maintain continually in view in looking at the environmental impact of this and other nuclear plants.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

Will the Secretary of State confirm that Sir Douglas Black's inquiry will not be confined to the vicinity of Windscale but will extend right up the west of Scotland in the light of increasing radioactivity levels in fish there and concern about the rising incidence of leukaemia cases? Will this establishment continue processing waste from countries outside the United Kingdom?

Mr. Jenkin

The question of other health risks outside the Sellafield area would, technically, be outside Sir Douglas Black's inquiry. If any hon. Member has evidence which suggests that there might be a link with the Sellafield plant, that is a matter in the first instance for the health authorities of the country concerned. If it appears relevant, no doubt Sir Douglas Black's inquiry will take account of that.

The answer to the right hon. Gentleman's second question is that the decision to proceed with the thermal oxide reprocessing plant, which was approved by this House in 1978 and for which planning permission has recently been given by Copeland district council, is intended to enable Sellafield to reprocess fuel not only from this country but from other nuclear power countries. But the right hon. Gentleman will also know that the obligation to return, to take back, the waste from that reprocessing is an integral part of the contracts which have been made with the firms concerned.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. To allay fears and frustrations, may I say that I shall call all hon. Members who have been standing. We have important business to follow, and I hope that it will be possible to complete questions on this statement by about 4.15 pm.

Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the concern that is felt in the Solway area not only for the local residents but for fishing and the future of tourism? Will he say a little more about the failure of the procedures in relation to his assurance that it cannot happen again? May we be assured that sufficient resources will be available, along with sufficient contractual experience, to finish the SIXEP plant in time this year so that the level of treatment will be improved by next year?

Mr. Jenkin

I am well aware of the concern that has been expressed in other coastal areas. My hon. Friend will be glad to know that there is no evidence of any flotsam having been washed up on the northern beaches of the Solway firth of higher than 10 millirads, the limit which the NRPB has regarded as safe.

The answer to his question about the SIXEP plant is that it is intended, and hoped, that it will be finished and commissioned this year, and I have no doubt that BNFL is doing its best to achieve that.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—which is responsible for monitoring the marine environment — has, in the report which was published last December, given a completely clean bill of health to the fish and shellfish, in that there is no hazard as a result of this incident to anyone who eats them.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Will the Secretary of State make it clear that any person with an interest in this subject has the right to communicate his or her views to Sir Douglas Black and his inquiry? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that many people in Cumbria, including myself, although highly critical of BNFL's management systems—in particular, the shabby way in which it treated Greenpeace — firmly and positively support the nuclear industry, a safe nuclear industry?

Is he also aware that the only way in which the people of Cumbria will be fully satisfied in the coming years is if the Government ditch the principle of ALARA—as low as reasonably achievable—to which he referred in his statement, and switch to ALATA — as low as technically achievable—irrespective of the costs?

Is the right hon. Gentleman further aware that every scrap of information, every statement in this House, every written answer and any statement made by any politician or whatever in relation to contamination within the county of Cumbria damages our industrial base, damages our tourist industry, damages our public services and does immense damage to the population at large by causing further and greater tension?

Will the right hon. Gentleman, in whatever allocations he makes available to the county in future, take those matters into account because our development is now being prejudiced by the poor publicity that our county is getting, publicity which is often totally out of proportion to the nature of the danger, which is far less than many people have been advocating nationally?

Mr. Jenkin

I have the utmost sympathy with the difficulties which the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) have faced in recent months, and in earlier years, as a result of incidents at the Sellafield plant. In everything that I and the Government have done, we have had the impact on the local population greatly in mind. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have been to see some of the development and reclamation projects which are going on in his constituency, when that point was made to me clearly by his constituents and by the constituents of the hon. Member for Copeland.

I should like to feel that we shall soon be able to put this behind us and have a much more satisfactory plant operating there in future. In the meantime, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not in any way advocate that I should not be as frank as possible with the House and the public when dealing with matters of this seriousness.

Mr. Kenneth Warren (Hastings and Rye)

While welcoming the Secretary of State's announcement and applauding the technical prowess of the British nuclear industry, may I ask him to give an assurance that he will not be dazzled into believing that accidents can never happen again? Will he say that he appreciates that quality and safety are as much attitudes of mind in management as the provision of wonderful tools to control the processes?

Mr. Jenkin

My hon. Friend, who speaks with great experience of these matters, has spoken wise words. I am now satisfied that the management philosophy which he enunciates is treated with great seriousness by the management of BNFL.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

Will the Secretary of State confirm that discharges of full tanks such as that which took place last autumn have occurred on four occasions in the past few years? What, therefore, gives him confidence to say that it will never happen again? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that he would have greater confidence if he were to insist that BNFL installed the best available technology to deal with processing at that plant?

Mr. Jenkin

The question of precisely what technology to put into the plant is really one for BNFL, and I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman will wish to satisfy himself with BNFL. My inspectors must be satisfied that the plant and its operation are such as to reduce to as low as reasonably achievable the environmental pollution.

As for the suggestion that there have been earlier discharges, I understand that there is no evidence that there have been discharges of the amount of radioactive material which is involved in this discharge. Modifications have already been made to the plant that will make any repetition of the incidents of last November impossible. The technical equipment that has been put in renders impossible any such repetition.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

The Secretary of State has made four statements in just over three months. Although we welcome the report, it does not deal with the immediate need to have the beaches cleared. Is the right hon. Gentleman able to tell the House today that that can now be authorised? Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman has promised to report to the House on his consideration of the recommendations in the report. I note that there are 25 recommendations, some of which require immediate action, especially the discharge from the solvent stocks. The House will want reassurance that that will be the subject of an early report to the House, if not an extremely quick report.

The Minister's reassurances have been heard and listened to, but they have not been fulfilled. Does he accept that with every expansion of the nuclear industry it will be impossible for him to say that there will not be discharges in future, and that that is the risk that the country is especially concerned about?

Mr. Jenkin

I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern. I do not think that I can add to what I have already said about the beaches. There continue to be some forms of flotsam which do not yet reach the standards demanded by the NRPB's tests in ascertaining whether the beaches are safe for normal public access. In these circumstances, the only responsible course is to undertake, as we have done, a more systematic review of what will be necessary so that we can make an early statement to the effect that the beaches are safe and can be opened. Many of the recommendations have already been acted upon; others are already being acted upon and the necessary changes will be implemented. The remaining recommendations will, likewise, be acted upon. BNFL has accepted in full all the recommendations of both the radio-chemical inspectorate's report and the nuclear installations inspectorate's report. That is the best guarantee that I can give that these matters are being taken extremely seriously.

Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that, unlike the press, some of us have not had the opportunity to read a leaked report in advance, and that I had to listen carefully to his statement? I recall him saying that alternative methods of disposal would need to be sought. If the alternative methods include the anhydrite mine in Billingham, which is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook), there will be great distress in the north-east of England. I hope that he will take this opportunity of saying that, notwithstanding his final decision on the NIREX proposals for Billingham, nothing from Sellafield is in his mind in that area.

Mr. Jenkin

I understand the problems that my hon.. Friend and a number of his neighbouring parliamentary constituencies face. I have made no final decision about Billingham or other disposal sites. The most that has happened is that NIREX has made certain proposals. I have published the principles upon which the disposal sites must be chosen and operated—the principles are still out for consultation—and the matter is subject to future planning inquiries, as I outlined when I made an earlier statement on the subject. To that extent, I can give my hon. Friend the reassurance that he is seeking.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

I commend the Minister for the great concern that he has displayed in a balanced and steady statement. Will he accept that one of the principal reasons for anxiety within the electorate is that so many bland assurances have been given in the past which have been unfounded, as a result of which many accidents have happened? When the Minister replied to my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), he referred to a much slower rate of decay than that which was anticipated. He said that there had been increased detritus on the coastline and a much more systematic monitoring procedure.

Bearing in mind that anxiety has been caused by bland assurances and that we need to remove that cause of anxiety, will the right hon. Gentleman accept that we cannot placate an electorate that is becoming alarmed rather than alert until such time as the chemical and radioactive inspectorates are given some form of representation of qualified, professional observers and commentators who have no vested interest in the industry?

Mr. Jenkin

I think that the hon. Gentleman has lost sight—it would be easy for any of us to do so—of the fact that the nuclear industry is one of the safest industries in which to work and near which to live. The number of deaths that can be said to be attributable to the normal operation of a nuclear plant is infinitesimal. Its record should be compared with that of the coal mines and North sea divers and set against the natural hazards that we heard about earlier today.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that those who undertake monitoring roles in the nuclear installations inspectorate and my own radio-chemical inspectorate are entirely independent of the industry. That is why the Health and Safety Executive and the Department of the Environment, as well as the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, have a monitoring responsibility that is separate from that of the Department of Energy and the nuclear industry itself.

There are representatives of many different sectors on the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee. The Government have plenty of outside, independent and impartial information and advice on the subject.

Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

I thank my right hon. Friend for the frank way in which he and the Under-Secretary of State have made statements to the House over the past two months to explain the extent of the seriousness of the contamination arising from the discharges at Sellafield. We appreciate that my right hon. Friend is the Secretary of State for the Environment, but we are all concerned about what goes on inside the plant under BNFL's management as well as what happens outside. Is my right hon. Friend satisfied about what might happen outside as a result of discharges into the sea? Is he satisfied also that the procedures of management are satisfactory in every way in the existing plant, or will be in future plant, to prevent such discharges in future? It is in my understanding that the discharges that occurred were a failure of management proedures at a fairly low level on the nightshift rather than any fault in the machinery and the operation of the plant itself.

Mr. Jenkin

The precise circumstances are currently the subject of study by the police and the Director of Public Prosecutions. I do not think that it would be right for me to comment in detail, but I understand that a statement has been made today by the chairman and chief executive of BNFL which gives some sign of what may have lain at fault.

It is the prime responsibility of both the inspectorates involved to work with the management of the company to ensure that management systems and the structure of the plant are such as to reduce to the absolute minimum the risk of discharges and other hazards to health. That is their primary role, and I can tell my hon. Friend that the distinguished professionals who undertake the task exercise enormous care and dedication.

Mr. Ron Lewis (Carlisle)

May I assure the Minister that the issues raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) and Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) are not exaggerated and that they are causing great concern to the people of Cumbria? Can he give an assurance, with the approach of the holiday season, that all of the Cumbrian beaches are safe?

Mr. Jenkin

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. I hope very much that we shall be able to move towards giving such an assurance as swiftly as possible. However, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the undertaking which he seeks this afternoon.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Will the Minister tell us, without trying to evade the question, how many people have been contaminated? We need to know the precise number so that his report is precise. Will he bear in mind also that it comes as a bit of a cheek from the Government to talk about trying to find protection for those living in the Sellafield environment when they have cut the Health and Safety Executive from about 4,250 employees to 3,723 since they came into power? The nuclear inspectorate has been affected adversely as a result of cuts. Is this statement just another chapter in events that must lead to stopping the development of the PWR programme?

Mr. Jenkin

Nothing I have said today has any relevance to the PWR programme. Following the incidents, four members of Greenpeace had their hands checked for contamination, and no detectable activity was found. Any contamination would have been less than 10 per cent. of the level permissible under the Factories Act 1961 for exposure on a continuing basis. Measurements of intake of radioactivity being made by BNFL on a confidential basis, at the request of 38 individual members of the public—any of whom can ask for this monitoring to be carried out by BNFL's doctors—show only small percentages of the relevant internationally recommended limits. Yesterday, in answer to a question by the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), it was made clear that eight of those 38 people had intake measurements that showed the presence of ruthenium 106, but the quantities measured were all close to or within the limits of detection.

Mr. Skinner

What about the others?

Mr. Jenkin

That is the best answer I can give to the hon. Gentleman. As I said in answer to an earlier question, the radio-chemical inspectorate staff are dealing urgently with this matter.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

Does the Secretary of State agree that, before the publication of the Black report, it is premature to proceed with the construction of a thermal oxide reprocessing plant at Sellafield? Would it not be better to exercise caution? Does he regret that in 1978 the then Secretary of State for Energy, Mr. Benn, decided to go ahead with the construction of this reprocessing plant? Does he agree that my right hon. Friend the leader of the Liberal party was right when at that time he prayed against the order?

Mr. Jenkin

Liberals have a way of never having to take responsibility for anything and of always being able to trot out their earlier words. The decision of the whole House to go ahead was right. The hon. Gentleman will know that we are talking about greatly improved technology. The plant's design will incorporate the highest standards of environmental protection. A much cleaner process will be used in the new plant. I see no reason why it should not go ahead as planned.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

The Secretary of State rightly refers to the distinction of the staff of both the radio-chemical inspectorate and the NII. Following his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), may we be clear about whether there is under-staffing? My understanding is that part of the trouble has arisen because of a shortage of staff. If that is so, what will be done to fill what is, admittedly, a difficult set of places to fill?

Mr. Jenkin

In the light of the report and its follow-up, I must determine precisely the monitoring requirements. I assure the hon. Gentleman that, if it transpires that extra manpower is required, it will be provided in some way or another—possibly by the use of outside contractors—because the monitoring must be done.

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