HC Deb 21 May 1986 vol 98 cc353-4
10. Mr. Simon Hughes

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what steps have been taken to improve the arrangements for co-ordinating Government monitoring of radiation levels following the leak from the Chernobyl nuclear power station.

Mr. Waldegrave

Arrangements for co-ordinating monitoring of radiation levels have been in operation for a number of years and worked effectively after the accident at Chernobyl. My Department will be examining its procedures in the light of recent events to determine whether any changes are desirable.

Mr. Hughes

Does the Minister accept that it does no good to the Government's reputation for co-ordinating any environmental policy if they change their Secretary of State for the Environment three times in three years? On the question of radiation levels, does the Minister accept that we need more progress than we have seen to date on the co-ordination of seven Government Departments and six other agencies, and that so far we have received only a babble of unrelated technical information, rather than plain information for the ordinary person? Does he also accept the figures produced in Nature magazine on 15 May by three employees of the NRPB, which showed that although the increase in radiation in the south of England was only 1 per cent., in the north it was 15 per cent. above average? Should that not be a salutory warning?

Mr. Waldegrave

The joke was feeble, the second part of the question was wrong, and the last part in relation to the figures in Nature was roughly right. The hon. Gentleman should read the rest of the article, which says that these background levels are still of trivial proportions.

Mr. Neil Thorne

Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to thank the local authority emergency planning officers for all the work that they do in assisting the Government to monitor these levels, particularly their role in the civil emergency sphere?

Mr. Waldegrave

Let me widen my hon. Friend's question. I should like to pay tribute to those local authority officers, but I should also like to pay tribute to all the people who manned the monitoring stations. According to Murphy's law, such an accident was bound to happen on a bank holiday weekend, but these people did their jobs very well throughout that weekend and subsequently.

Mr. Dalyell

In the light of the Minister's courteous phone call to me last Friday, has he been able to check whether on Saturday 26 April or on Sunday 27 April there was any inquiry about graphite fires in reactors to the International Atomic Energy Authority, the CEGB or the AEA emanating from Russian sources?

Mr. Waldegrave

As behoves any Minister questioned by the hon. Gentleman, I have checked and rechecked the answer that I have given him. I have been unable to find any contact other than the one that I described by Mr. Emerson of the International Atomic Energy Agency on 29 April. After careful checking, I have been unable to find any other contact.

Mr. Roger King

Is my hon. Friend aware that Southwark and many other areas throughout the country are designated nuclear-free zones and that the people of those areas have been subjected to Russian fallout? What is he doing to acquaint the Russians with the fact that we have nuclear-free zones? Furthermore, is he aware of what level of protest, if any, has gone from those zones to the Russians?

Mr. Waldegrave

Behind my hon. Friend's question lies a serious point, because a number of local authorities under Left-wing Labour control have taken a negative view about civil defence. Contingency plans were not involved in this incident, but they might have to be in a more serious one, if there ever was one; pray God, there will not. Many of those attitudes are extremely irresponsible.

Dr. Cunningham

Will the Minister be a little more explicit about the telephone call to which he referred in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell)? If it is the case that a British official in the International Atomic Energy Agency received an inquiry from Russia on 29 April about how to deal with a graphite fire, why was that information not communicated immediately to the British Government? Would it not have made a major difference to the preparedness of the country and of the emergency services if that potential warning and been acted upon? [Interruption.] If I were a Conservative Member I would not underestimate the genuine concern of the British people about the nature of this incident and the way it has been handled. Is it not extraordinary that the information was not communicated to the Government immediately?

Mr. Waldegrave

Though no one doubts the heroism and the technical competence that have now been brought to bear by the Russians on this tragedy, if any Government have to answer questions about cover-ups, it is not the British Government.