HC Deb 23 October 1985 vol 84 cc293-406 3.30 pm
Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

I beg to move That leave be given to bring in a Bill to enable persons desiring to give evidence or make representations to public inquiries concerning or relating to the nuclear power industry to obtain such information and advice as they reasonably require in order to present their case; and for connected purposes. There have been several inquiries involving the nuclear power industry in recent years, perhaps the most notable among them being the Windscale and Sizewell inquiries, although in Scotland considerable attention was given to the inquiry at Torness and to the proposals to test bore for high level radioactive waste disposal in the Galloway hills.

At all these inquiries the proposals of the nuclear or generating authorities were the subject of considerable scrutiny and challenge by objectors, including environmental groups and, on occasions, local authorities. I share the view expressed by Mr. Justice Parker in his report on the Windscale inquiry that the public interest was served by the fully developed case that the objectors deployed and that it was important that the validity of the applicant's case was thoroughly examined and investigated.

Mr. Justice Parker also drew attention to the clear disparity of resources available between nuclear establishments or generating authorities on the one hand and objectors on the other. The main purpose of the Bill is to try to some extent to redress the imbalance in two major ways. First, it would allow greater access to information which might reasonably be required for the presentation of a case; secondly, it would permit the use of public resources to allow objectors access to legal advice and technical expertise which would enable them to present an effective case.

Secrecy by public bodies is a subject that has often been discussed in the House since I was elected. Experience shows that the nuclear industry is one of the most difficult from which to prise information. If passed, the Bill would be of general application, but it is not unnatural from a constituency viewpoint that I have had in mind the forthcoming public inquiry into the proposed reprocessing plant at Dounreay. Some events since that was announced illustrate the need for the proposal that I am making.

Let us consider, for example, the response of the director of the Dounreay establishment when he was asked recently for details of all radioactive emissions since the plant opened and for details of all accidents, incidents or shutdowns in the existing small reprocessing plant. He replied by letter: As the information you request could possibly be related to the public inquiry, I cannot give you the information, apart from saying that much has already been published. Surely here we have an anomalous and ridiculous position. The Atomic Energy Authority is unwilling to impart information which it must have readily to hand and which has been published. Rather than hand it over, it will force potential objectors with limited resources to spend valuable time and effort in an attempt to trace the information. It is equally clear from the reply that not all the information has been published, so some information which might be relevant in the presentation of the case at an inquiry may not be available.

I do not necessarily blame the director for taking that line, because undoubtedly he has received legal advice on what he should do when faced with such a request. No one is suggesting that the Atomic Energy Authority should embark upon argument and cross-examination by correspondence, but if there were a provision under which information could be made available that would prevent the unnecessary fears and suspicions which arise inevitably when it appears that someone is holding something back. The Bill would also remove any fear that there might subsequently be cross-examination by letter.

Since British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. and the UKAEA submitted the planning application, they have published a glossy brochure, entitled "Supplementary Information", which includes some environmental issues concerning the outline planning application for a European demonstration fast reactor fuel reprocessing plant at Dounreay, Caithness.

The information in the brochure is ostensibly helpful and expands on the bare bones of a planning application, but the consultants engaged by the three islands authorities in the north of Scotland found the information far from adequate. Indeed, one of the consultant teams, which was based at Aberdeen university, when discussing waste management and discharge from the proposed plant, concluded that the information was seriously defective, particularly in relation to the quality and quantity of substances which will be discharged from the site as waste. Much of the description relates to the present situation at Dounreay and does not attempt to predict in precise terms the wastes and effluents from the new process. If such information exists, it would be highly relevant to an inquiry and it should be made available to the public. The public should not be forced to prise information out shortly before or even during an inquiry. One of the reasons for the considerable time taken at the Sizewell inquiry was that as objectors acquired more information, so the Central Electricity Generating Board had to produce yet more evidence in reply. Time could be saved if information was made available earlier.

The consultants that I have mentioned, having produced their report, were invited by the UKAEA to go to Risley to discuss an environmental impact assessment. We have ascertained that such an impact exists, but those who attended on behalf of the consultants and local authorities were shown only a contents page of the assessment, and the contents of the contents page must remain confidential. Even that limited information is therefore not being given greater public currency. It might be made public, but when?

Those who attended the meeting also noted the vast array of scientific, technical and legal expertise available to the UKAEA. One of the planning officials in an islands council which I represent said that he could not help contrasting that vast array of expertise with the fact that he and some of his officials must read up on nuclear physics in their spare time. There is a tremendous imbalance in terms of expertise and financial resources. We must have the resources necessary to engage legal and technical assistance when presenting a case on a matter as important as this. We seek an extension of legal aid provisions to facilitate that.

I accept some of the criticisms about the amount of time taken at inquiries. Regulations could bring objectors under one umbrella so that there is no duplication of evidence. A common database could also be established and the key issues could be established before the inquiry.

Nuclear power developments are the source of considerable public anxiety and it is essential that inquiries are fair, and seen to be fair. Fairness will be established only if it is felt that one side is not fighting blindfold or with one hand tied behind its back.

After the Windscale inquiry, Mr. Justice Parker said that he was unable, within the terms of reference, to make recommendations about assistance that might be given to objectors, but he stated unequivocally that if objectors' resources were drained, a fully developed case could not be presented and that that could prejudice the public interest. My Bill would seek to serve the public interest by ensuring that resources and information were made available so that a fully developed case could be presented at any such inquiry.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)


Mr. Speaker

Does the hon. Gentleman seek to oppose the Bill?

Mr. Skinner

No. It is a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

I shall take it later.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. James Wallace, Mr. David Alton, Mr. A. J. Beith, Dr. Norman A. Godman, Mr. Michael Meadowcroft, Mr. Allan Roberts, Mr. Gordon Wilson and Mr. Chris Smith.

  2. c297
  3. House of Commons (Jurisdiction) 474 words
  4. cc298-347
  5. Southern Africa 28,158 words, 1 division
  6. cc348-88
  7. Urban Disturbances 22,840 words, 1 division
  8. cc389-93
  9. Nursing Homes and Nursing Agencies (Northern Ireland) 2,598 words
  10. cc394-8
  11. Representation of the People 2,591 words
  12. cc399-406
  13. South Africa 4,076 words