HC Deb 06 February 1986 vol 91 cc433-6 3.31 pm
Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland)

(by private notice) asked the Under-Secretary of State for Energy whether he would make a statement about the release of plutonium nitrate at the Sellafield site of British Nuclear Fuels plc in the Copeland constituency yesterday.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Alastair Goodlad)

British Nuclear Fuels plc has reported that during maintenance operations yesterday there was a small release of plutonium radioactivity within the main reprocessing building at Sellafield. The incident arose during maintenance operations on a pump, during which air was accidentally blown across a flow of liquid with plutonium in it. This caused a mist with a small amount of plutonium in suspense. Monitoring equipment in the building, which is extremely sensitive, gave an alarm. The staff quickly traced the sources of the escape, shut off the flow of air and instituted procedures for evacuating all non-essential staff.

Tests on staff contamination have so far shown no cause for concern. BNFL will carry out further tests on staff over the next few days. On present evidence, there was no risk to the public.

A member of the nuclear installations inspectorate was on site and was notified at the time. My Department and other interested Government Departments were notified shortly afterwards. The company has estimated that a very small radiation release from the building of 50 micro-curies may have occurred, but no release was, in fact, discernible from its monitoring equipment outside the building.

The nuclear installations inspectorate has already initiated an investigation in co-operation with the radio-chemicals inspectorate, and will make a statement about the incident within the next few days. The company is also conducting its own inquiries into the incident.

Dr. Cunningham

I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. When, if ever, will it be possible to quantify the total of material that was lost in that release? Is it true that, contrary to statements given to me yesterday by BNFL, some material did in fact escape into the atmosphere and was effectively released from the site?

How many of my constituents and others employed at the plant are still under medical supervision, and what is the nature of the tests that they are likely to have to undergo?

Will the Minister discount the inevitable, predictable and unjustified opportunist calls that are likely to be made for the Government to close the plant, which would immediately throw 11,000 of my constituents out of work?

Will the Government institute the most rigorous inquiry and ensure that reports are available to the House and public as soon as possible?

Will the Government convey to the management of BNFL the fact that the industry can have a future only if there is public acceptance of its activities? Is it not clear that a regular series of such incidents, whether they are serious or not in terms of the nuclear material involved, will simply undermine public confidence in the industry and the political credibility of those who seek to support it?

Mr. Goodlad

The precise amount of the discharge will be known when the inquiry has been completed, and I do not wish to anticipate its finding. About 50 people were evacuated, and as I said, they are undergoing medical tests. I heartily endorse what the hon. Gentleman said about resisting any suggestion that the plant should be closed. The report will be published. I endorse what he said about the necessity for public confidence and public acceptance. I trust that there will be no regular series of incidents.

Mr. Michael Morris (Northampton, South)

Many hon. Members are well aware of the dangers of reprocessing this difficult material. Is it not encouraging that the management of the establishment had proper early warning system which ensured that there was an amber alert? Should there not be confidence on the Goverment Benches, and I hope on all other Benches, that at least the management have proper procedures to deal with such difficult situations?

Mr. Goodlad

I wholly agree with my hon. Friend.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

Is the Minister aware that the EEC has described Windscale as the source of the worst radioactive pollution in western Europe? In view of this plant's deplorable record and of the fact that assurances from BNFL are about as reliable as assurances from the Government, will the Minister, in the interests of the people of Cumbria, Northern Ireland and the west of Scotland see that this dirty and dangerous plant is closed?

Mr. Goodlad

The answer to the right hon. Gentleman's question is no. On the whole, the company has a very good record.

Sir Hector Munro (Dumfries)

Should not these events be kept in proportion? Does my hon. Friend agree that those who live near nuclear plants in the Solway and Irish sea areas have the highest confidence in the management of those plants and hope that they will continue in the future?

Mr. Goodlad

I heartily endorse my hon. Friend's remarks.

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

Is the Minister aware that the repeated incidents at Windscale make it increasingly difficult for those of us who support nuclear power to defend the industry? Our position, both in the House and in our constituencies, is becoming quite untenable. Is the Minister aware that, between my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) and myself, 11,000 of our constituents work in this industry in west Cumbria? When Members call for the closure of Windscale they do not understand the catastrophic effects that it would have on an area of high unemployment. Is not the answer to this question to demand of the Windscale authorities higher and higher standards so as to secure the objective of zero or near-zero effluents in aerial atmospheric discharges and marine discharges, as is proposed, by 1991?

Mr. Goodlad

I do not wish to anticipate the evidence of the inquiry, but the hon. Gentleman should keep the significance of this incident in proportion, as we all should. In this respect at least, I should not wish to make the hon. Gentleman's position in his constituency untenable.

Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South)

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is no risk-free way of harnessing energy and that, in comparison with the nuclear industry, the coal industry is far worse in this respect? Is he aware that two of my constituents have been killed in coal mines recently, and that the effect of a pit on its environment, in terms of spoil, building and the amount of land taken is far worse than that of any nuclear installation? By contrast, does not nuclear power have a first-class record?

Mr. Goodlad

My hon. Friend is entirely right. I endorse everything that she has said.

Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)

Has the reprocessing operation been restarted? If not, when does he anticipate that it will be restarted? Can he give the House any guarantee that when it restarts, discharges, both accidental and regular, will decrease rather than increase?

Mr. Goodlad

The operation of the plant restarted today. I have every hope that there will be no further discharges.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

Are there any statistics available about the number of deaths per 100,000 people and the number of injuries per 100,000 people who are working in the nuclear power industry that can be compared with statistics for the coal industry? If they are available, could we have them? If they are not available, could they be provided?

Mr. Goodlad

They are available and they are favourable. I shall give them to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

Does the Minister recall that this incident occurred in a portion of the plant that is reserved for the de-canning of isotopes that are used for stripping metal from radioactive elements? Will he take note of the fact that, if the Select Committee on the Environment's study of radioactive waste disposal has done its job, it ought to tell him when he receives its report that the recycling of radioactive materials is quite unnecessary for the survival of the industry and that it ought to be stopped? If that is the result of the Committee's report, will he support it?

Mr. Goodlad

I note what the hon. Gentleman says. I shall of course read with care the report of the Select Committee.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

Can the Minister tell us how near to public property the particular part of the plant was in which the incident happened? Can he confirm that there have been over 300 incidents with safety factor risks at this site in the last 30 years, of which yesterday's was the third serious incident? Can he also tell us whether he and his Department are satisfied with the safety and modernity of the plant and buildings, given that the reported view of hon. Members who recently visited the site on official duties is that in many respects the site is primitive, even in 1986?

Mr. Goodlad

The site is subject to inspection by the nuclear installations inspectorate, upon whose advice the Government rely. As I have already said, I do not wish to anticipate the report of the inquiry into this incident.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

I will take it after the statements.

Mr. Skinner

In view of the fact that I have raised it before—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall take it after the statements.—[Interruption]. Order. I shall take points of order after the statements. Business statement.

Mr. Skinner

It arises out of that statement. I am being gagged.