HC Deb 21 May 1986 vol 98 cc343-5
3. Sir David Price

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what are his latest estimates of the highest and lowest levels of natural background radiation within the United Kingdom; how the former compares with acceptable international standards of safety from radiation; and if he will make a statement.

The Minister for Environment, Countryside and Local Government (Mr. William Waldegrave)

Excluding the contribution from the daughter products of radon in dwellings, which varies very widely, the radiation doses from natural background range from about 0.9 mSv per year to 1.5 mSv per year. Including the contribution from radon, a typical range is from 1 to 10 mSv per year. For artificial sources of radiation, the internationally recommended dose limit for exposure of members of the public over many years is 1 mSv per year.

Sir David Price

Does my on Friend agree that those figures show that there is a wide variation in levels of natural radiation? Can we then conclude that there is much still to be identified and measured when it comes to judging radiation levels, and that we should not add to man-made levels of radiation if we can possibly avoid it?

Mr. Waldegrave

I do not disagree with my hon. Friend. On average, exposure to people from industrial sources is a good deal less than 1 per cent. of annual exposure. That puts the thing into perspective. The great majority of radiation comes from natural cosmic radiation, rocks and so on.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Is not the belching filth that comes out of Britain's coal-fired power stations for more damaging to the environment, and particularly to the Lake District, than any radiation? Is it not time that we took our gloves off in the argument over the impact on the environment of nuclear or coal-fired power?

Mr. Waldegrave

I am not sure that I would agree with the hon. Gentleman about "any radiation", but he is right to remind us that there are problems of pollution with any major form of power generation. It is probably true that the most intractable of all long-term environmental problems will be carbon dioxide and the heating of the atmosphere.

Mr. Kenneth Carlisle

Does my hon. Friend agree that his original answer was extremely erudite but totally incomprehensible to all hon. Members with the exception of the few who have had a very good education in that sphere? Is it not therefore important to evolve a meaningful form of language that brings home to people exactly what we are talking about?

Mr. Waldegrave

I agree with my hon. Friend, but it is also vital to have the data available so that those who have had the education to which my hon. Friend referred can interpret it properly. It is difficult to simplify things a lot without confusing the issue further. However, in order to help my hon. Friend, other hon. Members and, indeed, myself, we have prepared a comparative table of sources of radiation which has been made available in the Library of the House and, I think, in the Vote Office.

Mr. Frank Cook

The Minister has told the House that, according to international bodies, the acceptable level is 1mSv a year. If so, why has the legally enforceable level in this country been set by the most recent ionising regulations at 5mSv a year? Why do America and West Germany have levels that are 20 times more stringent than those in Britain?

Mr. Waldegrave

The hon. Gentleman has made the mistake of believing everything in that "Panorama" programme. I have to say that in almost every critical respect that programme was wrong. The methods by which we calculate safe dose limits in this country are different from those in the United States and Germany. Ours are tighter than those in Germany, and equivalent to those in the United States. The issue is so important that I am providing every hon. Member with a briefing note on that programme, which contained many mistakes.

Mr. Ward

My hon. Friend will be aware that this morning there was a leak from the Cap de la Hague waste treatment plant near Cherbourg. That is a matter of concern to my constituents and to others on the south coast because there have been other incidents in the past. As a result of that leak was there any emission into the atmosphere, and what precautions are the Government taking to keep everybody informed?

Mr. Waldegrave

I can reassure my hon. Friend and his constituents. My officials and officials of the Radiochemical Inspectorate have been in touch with their opposite numbers in France. There was no leakage of radiation from the building concerned and, therefore, no impact on the outside environment in France, let alone in the United Kingdom.

Dr. David Clark

When the Minister responded to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North, (Mr. Cook) about the "Panorama" programme, was he saying—this is important—that the standards of radiation measurement in the United Kingdom are higher than they are in Germany or in the United States of America?

Mr. Waldegrave

The measurements are the same. We are talking about safety levels. I am advised that although they are differently calibrated or put together, the effective protection levels for the population in Britain are tighter than they are in Germany and equivalent to those in the United States.