HC Deb 19 January 1984 vol 52 cc447-50
Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry if he will make a statement on the radioactive contamination at the National Physical Laboratory at Teddington.

The Minister for Information Technology (Mr. Kenneth Baker)

I fully understand that anything involving radioactivity is a matter of very real concern to the people directly involved and those living and working nearby and the local Member of Parliament. I was very glad that my hon. Friend was able to visit this morning the National Physical Laboratory. I hope that I will be able to reassure him that the dangers in this instance are quite insignificant.

In a check made in mid-December, before demolition of part of a building at the National Physical Laboratory, it was discovered that there were some very small amounts of radioactive material, largely confined to one room, in the building. This building was used 20 to 30 years ago for the analysis of uranium ore. As a precautionary measure, the building was closed. The Environmental and Medical Sciences Division of the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell which carried out the check has since advised us, prior to its full report becoming available, that overall there is no cause for concern. It is anticipated that the building will soon be in use again.

The radiation involved travels only a very small distance in the air—I am advised that it is less than 2 cm—and presents no hazards to people in the vicinity. Indeed, the exterior of the building is completely free of this radiation and there is no danger whatsoever to those living nearby.

Mr. Jessel

My right hon. Friend has said that the radioactivity is of a quite insignificant amount. Is he aware that any radioactive contamination close to where people live or work causes alarm and that, although the staff of the National Physical Laboratory are highly responsible people, who care as much about health and safety as anyone else, this episode requires a rather more detailed explanation than that which has so far been given?

Will my right hon. Friend set up a most searching inquiry to double check whether, at any stage, there could have been any risk to people inside or outside the building? What form might such an inquiry take? Have any uranium particles been found anywhere at any stage and what level of radioactivity was found? What level of radiation, over a long period, is completely safe to people working at close quarters to it? How and why did the contamination occur? I accept that my right hon. Friend said that it had begun 20 or 30 years ago—long before he was in any way responsible for these matters. What steps have been taken to ensure that such events will never occur again?

Mr. Baker

I appreciate my hon. Friend's anxiety. I also appreciate the fact that anxiety is evident among many people whenever radioactive materials are involved. I have received an interim report from Harwell. One paragraph says: The areas of radioactive contamination found in Room 35 appear to be fixed and hence present no inhalation or ingestion problems, during normal use"— that is to say that the contamination is in the surface of the floor— and the radiation dose rates from these areas present no significant hazard to those who work there. I assure my hon. Friend's constituents and others who work in the laboratory that I have checked this morning with the Government Chemist, who has 30 years' experience of working with radioactive materials, and he has confirmed that the health hazard is quite insignificant.

My hon. Friend asked why the problem was not discovered before. I am asking for records to be checked to discover what decontamination was carried out in the early 1960s when the room was last used for the analysis of uranium ore. I am also asking the Harwell Environmental and Medical Sciences Division to check all other buildings and all of the research establishments in my Department where uranium ore has been used.

My hon. Friend asked about the acceptable level of radiation. The scientifically acceptable level is 7.5 roentgens a year. I shall put that in a way which most people can understand. The advice that I have received from Harwell this morning is that the highest level of contamination in the area is a spot of about 2 sq in on which someone would have had to have stood for seven hours without moving for the radiation to reach the internationally agreed safe level of dose.

My hon. Friend asked whether there would be an inquiry. I am awaiting the final report from Harwell. At this stage I do not believe that a public inquiry would be helpful, but I shall make the Harwell report available to the House as a public document. If my hon. Friend would like to have a meeting of his constituents or of other residents near the National Physical Laboratory, I shall be only too happy to facilitate one.

Mr. Roger Stott (Wigan)

If the Daily Express possessed the information about the levels of radioactivity three weeks ago, why was the Health and Safety Inspectorate not called in immediately? When was the department first informed about the radiation leaks? As I understand it, there are standing instructions to report any leak of radiation to the Department and for the Minister to make a public statement about it.

Are people who work in the vicinity of the building being medically checked to ensure that they are in no danger? Can the Minister confirm that the geiger counter readings revealed that radiation levels were 100 times greater than normal background levels? That is the claim made in today's Daily Express. Can the Minister assure the House and the people who live in the area that stringent tests will continue to be carried out regularly—not just over a short period—to ensure that this problem does not arise again?

Mr. Baker

I most strongly refute the allegation that there was a cover-up. On 16 December all staff and all of the contractors who were working on the demolition were notified that the building would be closed as a precautionary measure until further notice. They were given the reasons and a notice was put up on the staff notice board and circulated to everyone. The Health and Safety Executive and the National Radiological Protection Board were also informed. Articles on the matter appeared in the local press in Twickenham on 6 and 12 January and questions were answered by the National Physical Laboratory spokesman.

As to health checks for employees, I emphasis once again that the health hazard is insignificant. None the less, I have asked that all staff working in the building be offered medical examinations by the Civil Service medical adviser. I stress that I am fully aware of the anxiety and apprehension that everybody naturally feels when radiation is involved. I am happy to say that in this case very little danger is involved. It is virtually insignificant.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind the House that the question refers only to a specific incident in Teddington.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

In the light of the Minister's answer, will he acknowledge that the local authority concerned was not informed formally about the incident, nor about the evacuation? Will he undertake to ensure that in future all Government establishments keep in closer contact with the local authority, especially as it is responsible for civil defence and emergency planning in such instances?

Mr. Baker

I take on board what the hon. Gentleman said, and I shall pass his comments to the director of the National Physical Laboratory.

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

Will a watching brief for cancer be kept on all former employees of the institution?

Mr. Baker

If former employees who worked in that area wish to have a free medical check, I shall make that provision available to them.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

Will the Minister bear in mind the fact that the most eminent commentators on such affairs have expressed the view that there is no such thing as a safe level of radiation? Will he also bear in mind that the level of anxiety in my and surrounding constituencies—

Mr. Speaker

Order. That was just what I had hoped to avoid.

Mr. Cook

—which probably reflects national opinion, is about 95 per cent? Therefore, we are discussing, not a party political issue, but a national community issue. Will the Minister bear in mind that the national community is fed up with the bland assurances that are given by the agencies responsible? Will he also bear in mind that that anxiety will not be appeased or subdued until the agencies responsible for monitoring radiation are themselves monitored—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman has had his say.

Mr. Baker

In answer to the hon. Gentleman's first point, it is not true to say that there can be no standard of acceptable dosage. There are internationally agreed standards and it is important that that should be the case to ensure that safety checks are carried out. In this case it was not possible to measure the radioactivity in the atmosphere because there was none. There was a surface contamination of a narrow and small area.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

The Minister said that it might not be helpful to have a public inquiry into the Teddington case. Will he tell the House to whom a public inquiry would not be helpful?

Mr. Baker

I am only too happy to make the final report available publicly as soon as I receive it. If, following that report, there is still anxiety, I shall see what can be done. It is an exceptionally narrow case, and I should have to be persuaded that a full public inquiry was justified.