HC Deb 29 April 1986 vol 96 cc783-7 3.31 pm
Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland)

(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the dangers to the British Isles of fallout from the accident at the Soviet nuclear plant at Chernobyl, near Kiev.

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Kenneth Baker)

The whole House will want to join me in expressing sympathy to the people of the Soviet Union. We do not know with any certainty the precise nature of the incident, but it is clear that there may have been significant casualties.

A disturbing feature of this incident is the way in which knowledge of it has come not from the Soviet Government, but from monitoring in other countries. I would urge the Soviet Government to give a full account of what has happened and the steps that have been taken to bring the incident under control.

We for our part are monitoring, through the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, the National Radiological Protection Board and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, levels of radioactivity in the United Kingdom. Present evidence suggests that there is no danger to the United Kingdom, but the situation will continue to be monitored carefully.

Dr. Cunningham

I thank the Minister for that statement. Will Her Majesty's Government make strong and immediate representations to the Government of the Soviet Union on the need for the most full and urgent disclosure of all information about the nature and the scale of this accident? Can he confirm that a graphite moderated reactor in the station, comprising four light water reactors without, apparently, any secondary containment, has been on fire for several days?

Do Her Majesty's Government have any information about the nature of the radioactive emissions that are taking place? Will Her Majesty's Government respond positively to any requests from the Soviet Union for assistance? Can the Minister confirm that there are no nuclear stations of this type and design in the United Kingdom? Will any additional monitoring in the United Kingdom be required and what liaison is taking place with other European Governments on the nature of the contamination?

Will Her Majesty's Government join other European Governments to request international inspection of the site and the consequences of the accident? Does the Secretary of State know whether there are any British citizens in the vicinity of the plant? Finally—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am astonished that Conservative Members apparently do not regard this as a serious matter. Will the Secretary of State convey the sympathy of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, my hon. Friends, myself and the House to the Government and people of the Soviet Union?

Mr. Baker

On the hon. Gentleman's last point, I am sure that the beginning of my statement will cover that. I speak on behalf of the whole house. There have been casualties and clearly we are concerned. On the matter of strong representations to the Soviet Government, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy this morning asked that full details of the accident and what is happening be made available. I cannot confirm details about a continuing fire at the moment.

We have not received any request for assistance through our embassy, but I can assure the House that if we receive a request for assistance of a scientific nature and we can be helpful assistance will be made available.

I can confirm that we have no power stations of the type involved in this incident in the United Kingdom. There has been extensive monitoring in the United Kingdom by the National Radiological Protection Board in Oxford and Glasgow with gamma monitors. There is no evidence of increased radioactivity at present. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is checking deposit in the United Kingdom. It has collecting posts on the east coast and also on high rainfall areas in north Wales. Milk samples will continue to be taken this week.

All the Central Electricity Generating Board power stations have monitoring equipment and there is no indication of an increase in radioactivity. On the issue of international inspection, the Soviet Union is a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and, as such, I hope that it will make information about the accident available through that body—because that is part of the principle of it. It is valuable for the world nuclear industry to know as much about it as possible.

The hon. Gentleman asked about British citizens. At this stage we do not know whether any British citizens were affected, but the embassy in Moscow is making inquiries.

Mr. Patrick Jenkin (Wanstead and Woodford)

Is it not clear that many of the questions asked by the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) would have been better addressed to the Soviet Government? Is there not a remarkable contrast between the reticence of the Soviet authorities about what is obviously an extremely serious accident and the openness of the system in western Governments, most recently exemplified by the statement of the new chairman of BNFL, Mr. Harding, which has been so warmly welcomed by environmental interests in this country?

Mr. Baker

Unfortunately, there is a striking contrast. We have to be concerned about public opinion and it is only right and proper that we should put our cards on the table and be open—as we are—on these matters. I have been speaking this morning and this afternoon to representatives of our large team of nuclear inspectors and confirming that in our nuclear policy safety is absolutely paramount. In fact, if nuclear energy is to be generated, as we believe that it should be, it must carry the conviction of the people. That can be done only by very rigorous safety standards.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

Is the Minister aware that the British Council has said that there are some 100 British students and several teachers in the Kiev region? What have the authorities in Moscow and Leningrad done to try to make contact with them to ascertain their safey? Will he also agree that it is somewhat wry for the Government to criticise the lack of information coming from the Soviet Union, regrettable though that is, when the Government have a very tight rein over the information made available from our own nuclear industry? Far too much secrecy shrouds our nuclear industry.

Mr. Baker

The hon. Gentleman does his cause no good by exaggerating. There is openness and frankness in this country in dealing with the nuclear industry. It is one of the most regulated industries we have, with a vast number of checks and balances on environmental grounds and safety in the plants. The embassy in Moscow is checking on the students. We know that there are some students in Minsk which is just 100 km to the north of the incident.

Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

Will my right hon. Friend, in conjunction with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy, stress to the Government of the Soviet Union the importance of the complete release of all the information concerning this tragedy so that we may share the information regarding such a disaster and learn from it?

Mr. Baker

Yes, I will certainly do that. The information will be of interest to us and to the Scandinavian countries which have been more directly affected. It is important that the information is available, as we all make strong representations to the Soviet Government.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Before the right hon. Gentleman is too ready with his criticism of concealment of information, which I too regret, would he accept that a major nuclear explosion at Kyshtym in the Soviet Union in 1958 was monitored by the Central Intelligence Agency which notified the Atomic Energy Authority in Britain but told the British agency not to make the information public for fear that it might cause anxiety about the use of nuclear power? There are many other examples of such concealment.

Apart from the risks of a radioactive cloud reaching Britain, which I agree is unlikely, will the right hon. Gentleman undertake to ensure that, before any authority is given to proceed with the pressurised water reactor, there is a full report of the cause of the light water reactor accident at Chernobyl? Is it not time that the House had an opportunity for a debate on nuclear power as a growing number of people believe that the time has come to phase it out?

Mr. Baker

The right hon. Gentleman's last point is not a matter for me. However, with regard to his first point, the right hon. Gentleman would be on stronger ground if the Soviet Union had told the world about the accident when it occurred rather than our learning about it from the monitoring equipment in other countries. I strongly contest the right hon. Gentleman's view that there is anything less than frankness in our dealings with the nuclear industry in Britain. I dare say that, over the coming weekend, the protests about nuclear energy will be much stronger in the West than in the Soviet Union.

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson (Newbury)

Does my right hon. Friend not agree that the disaster illustrates the international dimension to nuclear accidents? As a result, does he think that it is now time for some international monitoring, or better still, international safety standards for nuclear reactors?

Mr. Baker

My hon. Friend will know that we are a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency; that involves obligations of openness and a willingness to allow inspection and examination of records and things of that kind. That is very important as it stresses the international nature of the nuclear industry.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the catastrophe has demonstrated again that such accidents cannot be confined to national boundaries, like other less deadly forms of pollution? Will he intercede with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland to postpone the present inquiry into the Dounreay reprocessing plant until the countries which might be affected by any radioactivity from that plant have been consulted?

Mr. Baker

The right hon. Gentleman should appreciate, as I am sure he does, the very good safety record of the British nuclear energy industry. There has been no full-scale major incident in 25 years in the operation of several power stations. The highest standards of safety are used in the design and construction of British nuclear power plants.

Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark)

Will my right hon. Friend consult his right Friend the Home Secretary to discover the best way to deal with the hordes of CND and Greenpeace protestors who are no doubt at this moment massing outside the Soviet embassy?

Mr. Baker

As I said in reply to the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), the protests are likely to be much greater in western capitals this weekend than in Moscow.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

I have taken note of the opinion expressed by the Secretary of State, that the nuclear industry in Britain has been open and frank about its operations; I am reassured by that. However, in view of the difficulty experienced in obtaining information about Sellafield in the past, will he assure us that the information that is made available by the Soviet Union will be freely available in Britain? Furthermore, will he ask his right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary to ensure that his Department makes representations on behalf of people like my constituent Mr. Robin Denham who is currently studying at the university of Kiev and who has been exposed to grave danger as a result of the accident? Will the Secretary of State arrange for the British authorities to make arrangements for the evacuation of British subjects, should it prove to be necessary?

Mr. Baker

On the hon. Gentleman's last point, I shall draw to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs the name of the hon. Gentleman's constituent. I assure him that the British embassy in Moscow is making urgent inquiries about the number of students in both Kiev and Minsk. The information that we get will be made publicly available.

Mr. Robert Banks (Harrogate)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there are many lessons to be learnt from this disaster, not least that it is immensely important for a nation to have the insurance of trained civilian personnel to deal with emergencies and to offer advice and protection from radiation to those who seek it?

Mr. Baker

I agree with my hon. Friend that there are elaborate emergency arrangements in all civil nuclear power plants which are tested fully; and the staff are trained to deal with emergencies. I emphasise again that the design of the Russian reactor—a light-water-cooled graphite moderated reactor—is unique and that there are no other stations like it in the West. I understand from the Central Electricity Generating Board that British experts have evaluated this design and rejected it as unstable.

Mr. D. E. Thomas (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

Will the Secretary of State accept the deep concern and sympathy of those who have nuclear power stations in their constituencies for the community which has been affected by this disaster? Will he take new initiatives at the international level, through the International Atomic Energy Agency, to ensure that new safety standards worldwide are implemented? It is clear that radiological emission is no respecter of nations and state boundaries.

Mr. Baker

Yes, but that also implies that other countries have to conform to this country's standards. If there had been an accident of that kind in this country, there is no question but that we would have been open and frank about it straight away and that it would have been treated in that way. It is regrettable that that did not happen in this case.

Mr. David Madel (Bedfordshire, South-West)

In view of the slow way in which the Russian Government let out this information, will Her Majesty's Government make a formal request to the Russian Government for international inspection of the disaster area?

Mr. Baker

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy passed a message to the Soviet Government this morning asking for the fullest information. I am in no position to say whether or not the Soviet Government will respond to that message. Their response may be delayed, but I very much hope not. All sides of the House have made it clear that it is in everybody's interest that as much information as possible should be made available about this incident as soon as possible.

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

If the present rules of the International Atomic Energy Agency do not provide for the earliest possible disclosure, will the Secretary of State set out to amend those rules, particularly as the Soviet Union is a participator in that agreement?

Mr. Baker

It is no good taking a unilateral position unless the other parties to the agreement are prepared also to be frank and open. The international agreement allows for international inspection of civil power stations. The CEGB was, and is, prepared to conform to that agreement, but I am afraid that that is not the case, as far as we know, in Russia.