HC Deb 28 October 1988 vol 139 cc578-640

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Neubert.]

9.36 am
Sir Hugh Rossi (Hornsey and Wood Green)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State on her first appearance on the Front Bench in a major debate on the environment. I wish her a longer tenure with that portfolio than that which I enjoyed some 14½; years ago, which was interrupted by a general election and was brought to an abrupt end after nine weeks. It was an interesting experience because I was given what was then known as the Protection of the Environment Bill to present to the House, but the general election frustrated that and I found myself, within a matter of days, opposing that same Bill—then called the Control of Pollution Bill—from the Opposition Front Bench. That experience gave me an abiding interest in environmental matters which I am sure my hon. Friend will soon share.

Since that time, I have had the good fortune to chair a Committee that has chosen to inquire into and produce a series of reports on matters relating to pollution and the environment, which have suddenly assumed a high political profile.

I was taken somewhat by surprise by the suddenness with which this debate was announced. I was with my Committee in Chicago last Friday when we were told that the report was to be debated today. The news was especially suprising because some three years had elapsed since the then Leader of the House—my right hon. Friend the Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen)—had promised that the report would be debated. That just shows how long it sometimes takes for those who manage the business of the House to reach agreement on such questions.

Had I had the opportunity to discuss this matter with the Leader of the House, I would have told him that other reports from my Committee merited even closer attention, such as that on historic buildings and that on water pollution, which I am delighted to note will be debated next Friday. The fact that three years have elapsed since the report was published has forced me to re-read it. I found myself agreeing with the remarks of a scientist who specialises in that field. He told me that he was struck by the vigour, clarity of expression of the report and the soundness of its recommendations. I hope that the House will agree with those unsolicited sentiments. At the time of publication, the report also attracted great national and international interest. A leading article in a newspaper described it as a benchmark in the history of this subject.

I do not intend to take the House through all the report's 170 pages and 43 excellent recommendations, but I shall concentrate on three or four broad issues that were raised by it. A convenient starting point is paragraph 3. It pinpoints the main difficulty besetting the disposal of radioactive waste in the United Kingdom today. In the report's introduction, paragraph 3 states: It had become apparent to us that far from there being well-defined, publicly debated policy on the creation, management and disposal of radioactive waste, there was confusion". A little later it states: On the one hand, bold announcements about prospective new disposal sites are issued. They are then withdrawn, left hanging in the air, or modified ad hoc. Again it states:

a sequence of different studies show that the UK is still only feeling its way towards a coherent policy. For an issue which is of such great public concern, this is regrettably inadequate. It is interesting to note what happened subsequent to the publication of that paragraph, particularly in the context of the statement that I have just read regarding bold announcements about prospective new disposal sites being issued,

withdrawn, left hanging in the air, or modified ad hoc. Just a month after the publication of the report, on 25 February 1986, NIREX announced four sites to be explored to determine whether they were suitable for the disposal of low level and intermediate level waste. That was followed on 7 July by a special development order giving the necessary planning permission. My Committee's first reaction was one of satisfaction in the sense that, at last, steps were being taken to explore the geology of the United Kingdom to ascertain where the best and safest sites for the disposal of radioactive waste could be found, because found they must be. Even if we were to stop the production of electricity by nuclear power tomorrow, we would still have enormous problems in disposing of spent fuel and the low-level, intermediate-level and high-level waste that is created. We would also have the problem of decommissioning about 17 power stations. Exploration must take place and sites must be found, and the location of such sites must depend upon geology ensuring safe disposal.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the views of the local population should also be taken into account? It is not just a geological issue.

Sir Hugh Rossi

I shall refer to that matter in a moment, if the hon. Lady will be patient. Of course public feeling has a great deal to do with the problem.

The nation must recognise that we have these substances and that they must be found a home that will remain safe for centuries, and only geology can dictate where that home will be.

Ms. Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is a matter not only of geology but of the technology that can deal with the waste?

Sir Hugh Rossi

I agree entirely with the hon. Lady. Again, I shall discuss that matter in a moment or two.

Unfortunately, although it gave the Committee some satisfaction, Nirex's announcement went too far, because it included intermediate-level waste with low-level waste. That immediately caused alarm bells to ring loudly among the communities that were likely to be affected if the geology was found suitable for the kind of disposal being proposed. The Committee strongly recommended that intermediate level waste should be disposed of only in deep geological strata and not on the surface, however technologically good surface disposal places might be.

A consortium of four county councils was formed. Interestingly enough, it set up a research team which actually followed the route of my Select Committee in its inquiry—through France, West Germany and Sweden. I am not sure whether it went as far as Canada and the United States, but it certainly checked the evidence that we had collated on the continent of Europe.

Of course, the great public pressure that was built up as a result of that activity caused considerable alarm in the Government. They were forced hastily to announce that surface disposal places were to be used not for intermediate-level waste but only for low-level waste. It was too late. It is a pity that they had not studied the recommendations of the report a little more closely. If they had, that mistake would not have occurred. But the mistake had been made. The bandwagon was rolling, and it was far too late for the Government to do anything but eventually to abandon their proposals, which they did on 1 May 1987. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) is laughing. It would not have mattered whether the decision had been taken before or after the general election. That is the point that the hon. Gentleman wishes to make. The decision had to be taken. Obviously, from the Government's point of view, if it had to be taken, it might as well be taken before the general election as afterwards.

Mr. Allan Roberts (Bootle)

The hon. Gentleman is not naive. He recognises the political reality. The Government's mistake was not to mix low-level nuclear waste with intermediate-level nuclear waste, but to allow Nirex to choose four sites represented by four Conservative Members who were worried about their seats, especially the Leader of the House.

Sir Hugh Rossi

That goes to prove how well served constituents are when they have powerful and respected Members of Parliament. What defeated the Government was NIMBY. NIMBY forced Nirex off the course on which it had embarked. NIMBY is an acronym for "not in my back yard", which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment is now fond of quoting. He has used that acronym so often that I have noticed that the national press regards him as the author of it. I do not wish to diminish the Minister's status with the press, but, in fact, NIMBY was given to us by the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, and we brought it back and published it in our report. As I have taken that acronym from the Secretary of State, I would like to offer him another one—NIMTOO. I see that hon. Members are puzzled. We picked that phrase up on our recent visit to the United States from the Environmental Protection Agency and others, and it is used with regard to the disposal of hazardous and toxic wastes. NIMTOO is the natural political consequence of NIMBY, and it means "not in my term of office". The combination of NIMBY and NIMTOO has certainly led to a paralysis of action and decision in dealing with dangerous wastes in the United States. That holds great lessons for us.

Let me deal with the intervention of the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing). In dealing with radioactive, hazardous or toxic waste, the operators concerned—the Government—must carry the public with them, or they will get nowhere in a democracy such as ours.

How is that done? What is the answer?

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

Is it not unwise to state that any solution is the most economic? We should always go for the safest solution.

Sir Hugh Rossi

I agree with my hon. Friend. She has anticipated a word or two that I shall be addressing to the House in a moment. That was problem that concerned the Committee, and a number of paragraphs deal with it.

The first matter that was clear to us was that the very secrecy with which the nuclear industry seemed to operate was a factor in enhancing the fear of the public when they heard about the disposal of radioactive waste; because in the eyes of the general public, they are dealing with something that is unknown, invisible, intangible but deadly. I am sorry to say that there is also a public distrust of "clever" scientists. We discussed that matter fully in chapter 3 and we argued for greater openness. We urged, at least as a start, that there should be more visits to sites. To give Nirex credit, it has opened up Sellafield, and I understand that in 1987 more than 100,000 visitors went to see the way in which it was operated. In 1988, already, some 140,000 people have visited Sellafield. Indeed, it has become a major tourist attraction, advertised by tour operators in Cumbria and the Lake District. However, even at the rate of 150,000 a year, it will take a long time for the 55 million people of this country to be convinced that the system is as safe as in fact it is.

I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) that the public need reassuring, and they can be reassured only by being made to feel that no expense is spared in ensuring the safety of themselves, of their children and of future generations, because nuclear waste can remain active for hundreds, if not millions of years, in some instances.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that to convince the public on safety there must be built into any disposal mechanism the opportunity for consistent checking on how the nuclear waste is being handled? That would be much easier if it was above ground on site, rather than disposed of under ground or under the sea.

Sir Hugh Rossi

The Committee considered the discussion among those in favour of storage and those in favour of disposal. We accept that, certainly with high-level waste, there should be a period of storage and constant monitoring, but when the waste material has reached the point where it is not generating a great deal of heat and some of the life has gone out of it, it is suitable for and should be disposed of geologically deep, preferably under the seabed. I shall return to that matter later.

The arguments are spelt out clearly and carefully in the report. I ask the hon. Member for Moray carefully to study the report and also the evidence upon which it is based, which is contained in the two rather heavy volumes that have been produced by the Committee.

We described the need for satisfying the public that everything possible was being done to render disposal facilities safe as the "Rolls-Royce treatment", and that is something that we recommend most strongly.

The third aspect of helping people in some areas to accept the inevitability of having to live with a disposal site near to them was that of compensation. We were impressed by what we saw in France and by the way in which the French public accepted nuclear power, which was partly because of the Rolls-Royce treatment that was being used, but also because the industry and the Government recognise that the individuals who suffer by having disposal units in their backyards should be compensated for any inconvenience, any anxiety and any loss of value to their properties.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Does the hon. Gentleman consider that the attitude of the general public towards nuclear power in France is due, partly at least, to the disgraceful management of the news on this issue by successive French Governments, which included a partial news blackout on the Chernobyl disaster?

Sir Hugh Rossi

I do not think that it is correct, because the consensus of the French public was obtained long before Chernobyl. Long before Chernobyl 60 per cent. of the energy supplied in France came from nuclear power, which was partly because France does not have the advantages of having its own coal, natural gas and oil and has to find other ways of meeting its energy needs. The French public recognise that.

There is also the advantage that if one lives, for example, within 50 km of a power station, one receives electricity at half price. In addition, the operator or the industry pays considerable sums of money to the local community, which is not clawed back by means of a rate support grant formula, but is outside that, and the community really derives benefit from it. That has influenced French opinion to such an extent that we found that local mayors were inviting their atomic energy people to build power stations in their localities because of the advantages. We found recently in the United States of America that the public became more inclined to accept operations for the disposal of hazardous waste—for example, by means of incineration—when the industry was paying 1 per cent. of the turnover of the operation to the local community, and the community was able, without Government interference or set-off, to keep that money.

Mr. Flynn

I hope that the hon. Gentleman included a visit to the town of Plogoff in Finistère, where there were demonstrations by the population, including the throwing of petrol bombs, and the community of Brittany said that there would be no more nuclear power stations. There is a strong objection in France to and a growing distrust of nuclear power by those who understand it. To say that people who visit Sellafield will be more trustful of nuclear power is the same as saying that people who visit the Chamber of Horrors in Madame Tussauds will find murder more acceptable. The deepening of the knowledge of the danger of nuclear waste means a deepening of the distrust of nuclear waste.

Sir Hugh Rossi

Naturally, since Chernobyl, the public throughout the world have a greatly heightened anxiety of anything to do with nuclear power and its products. Therefore, the task of carrying the public with the industry has become infinitely more difficult than it was previously. That is why giving the public confidence both in British technology and the ability of our scientists and the fact that no money will be spared in ensuring safety is a sine qua non of any acceptance of the continuance or the finding of disposal sites, which must be found because the stuff already exists.

Ms. Walley

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that no amount of additional compensation for people's homes and lower land values will compensate for the ill health and long-term effects on the health of those people and their families?

Sir Hugh Rossi

One must be extremely careful here because, obviously, if the operation is not carried out with the latest technology, the greatest possible care and the necessary expenditure to render it safe, there will be ill health. But there is abundant evidence to show that where disposal is done properly and safely there is little danger to health. One must not exaggerate or become hysterical about these matters. We must provide the safest possible system that we can for dealing with substances that we already have and must handle. There is no escaping that. One can be terribly emotive about this, but we have a practical problem. The waste exists, it must be dealt with: how do we deal with it? That is what the report is about and on what I am addressing the House.

The industry defines three general types of waste: low-level, intermediate-level and high-level waste. The Committee disagreed with those definitions and suggested others which were more closely related to the disposal routes for the safe riddance of waste. The Government have not accepted our recommendation on that for the rather naive reason that low-level, intermediate-level and high-level waste are terms readily understood by the public. But it is not the public who are concerned with the actual disposal. Operators are, and they need a definition of waste which will dictate how they should dispose of it.

One of our concerns when we considered low-level waste disposal was the operation of Drigg in Cumbria. The operators knew only the source from which the waste was coming. They had no idea what was in the waste. It was all thrown higgledy-piggledy together. bulldozed into a huge trench and covered with earth. It is difficult to imagine a more Fred Karno operation.

The Committee had to comment on that, and at paragraph 70 stated: Nevertheless, the haphazard approach to what goes into Drigg does not inspire confidence. Monitoring required at Drigg is of the water flow of the stream draining the site and of the surface of the filled-in trenches. We are surprised that there is no systematic on-site check of what goes into the trenches. Once a nuclear facility decides that a package of its waste is suitable for Drigg, then the disposal operator accepts it as such, without check. We found that wholly unacceptable and were critical of the Drigg operation. When the Minister then responsible, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West, (Mr. Waldegrave), came before the Committee, he apologetically said that the technology was 20 years old and that if we were to do it again we would not follow the example of Drigg but would operate differently. One was relieved to hear that.

To do the company credit, BNFL has improved considerably its operation at Drigg. It is now capping existing and future trenches to limit the ingress of rain and ground water. It is refurbishing and improving the trench drainage system. What is more, it is compacting the waste—we insisted on that—to reduce the volume, so enabling a greater capacity at Drigg. It is containerising and labelling different wastes so that if there is any unforeseen incident the waste responsible can be readily identified and found. But it does not yet monitor and check what goes into Drigg.

In their response to recommendation 4e, the Government said: Methods of checking … are kept under constant review. But as far as we know, no checking is yet carried out on what goes into Drigg. What has this constant monitoring and review of what goes into Drigg produced? How far have we got? When will a system be implemented which checks the waste for radioactivity before it goes into Drigg to ensure that it is low-level, not intermediate-level, waste?

The Committee feels that intermediate-level and high-level waste should be disposed of in deep geological sites. Our preference is to tunnel under the seabed and to follow the example of Sweden at its Forsmark site. Everybody who goes there cannot but be impressed by its engineering, the inbuilt safety and remoteness from centres of population—which is important to deal with the problem of NIMBY. A great deal of thought and attention has been given. The Swedes' experience may direct us to Sellafield as a place for exploration because the public there have now accepted nuclear power as a fact of life and are reconciled to it. The fact that the waste generated by Sellafield is to be disposed of by tunnelling away from the shore, provided the geology is right—that is the important qualification—will probably mean that the NIMBY syndrome will not operate against the industry to the extent that it would elsewhere, except perhaps in Caithness where similar considerations may well apply.

I understand from the latest information that Nirex is now looking at Sellafield and Caithness to see whether the geology is right for the proper and safe disposal of radioactive waste. It is important that those explorations take place. The research must be done because, although it is possible say in abstract terms, as the Department of the Environment has been saying for many years, "We know that a particular kind of geology is safe for disposal and that geology can be found in certain broad areas", the experience derived in Sweden, Germany and Canada shows that, until we put down holes, we cannot be sure that the geology holds up to the general theory.

The great danger in the disposal of radioactive waste is the percolation of water. When water is present, one cannot know where the stuff that one puts down will end up in centuries' time. Therefore, it is right that anhydride mines, salt mines and granite without fissures is the geology preferable for dealing with deep disposal of such waste.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

I am interested to hear the hon. Gentleman's commendation of the Swedish model, but is he aware that Nirex's considerations concerning Sellafield and Caithness are not, so far as I understand it, in any respect comparable with the Swedish model? Nirex is considering on-land sites and, furthermore, sites which are close to centres of population.

Sir Hugh Rossi

My understanding is that Nirex is at present considering both boring deep on land and tunnelling out to sea. No doubt the Minister, who has more up-to-date information, will confirm the position.

Mr. Allan Roberts

The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) is wrong. Although Nirex is considering a range of options, British Nuclear Fuels both has made planning applications for bore holes and is proposing an underground, undersea option. That is not disposal. We should be clear about the difference between disposal and storage. If it is underground, it does not have to be disposal. One can store underground as well as on the surface.

Sir Hugh Rossi

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his confirmation.

I wish to draw the attention of the House to paragraph 83 of the report. In January 1986 we said: There is no proper research programme in the UK for deep geological disposal. We were told that over 15 per cent. of the geology appears to be suitable for the most dangerous radioactive waste … but no potential sites are currently being investigated". As I explained, that was a matter for great criticism. It is essential that exploration takes place to find the right geology for the disposal of the waste. A home must be found for it, and the sooner, the better.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that one of his Committee's major criticisms was of the Government's piecemeal and non-strategic approach? Does he accept that the fears and problems of the past few years in this country were brought about because there had been no long-term planning in this respect? The Government should have started by saying, "Let us survey the geology. Let us look at the options that other countries have explored. Let us have a proper consultative debate with open access to information so that we can make an informed conclusion on an issue that cannot be put to one side and will not go away." The waste must be dealt with. The Government have been at great fault in not strategically working out with the public and interested parties how to deal with the waste that we now have and are likely to have in the future.

Sir Hugh Rossi

I do not recall whether the hon. Gentleman was in his place when the debate opened.

Mr. Hughes

I was.

Sir Hugh Rossi

Then he will recall my reference to paragraph 3 of the report, which I read out in extenso and which makes exactly the point that he has just made. However, I can go further, if it was not clear from my remarks, by saying that the fault lies not with just one Administration, but with a series of Administrations dating back to when nuclear power was first used in this country. I see that I have provoked the hon. Member for Bootle.

Mr. Allan Roberts

I cannot allow that to go unchecked. In 1979, when the Government came to power, they cancelled, as an economy measure, specific research into the disposal of nuclear waste. That was one of the many measures that they have taken to cut research.

Sir Hugh Rossi

I am glad that the Committee has stimulated such research once again. Little progress was made by the hon. Gentleman's party when it was in power. It initiated a programme which did not go very far and great reliance was placed—and, in the Department of the Environment, is still placed—on research done in other countries, reading up pamphlets and not carrying out the kind of exploration that we requested in the report.

Mr. Flynn

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Hugh Rossi

I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman again; I have been most generous in doing so. I must be allowed to come to a conclusion or I shall carry on until 1 o'clock if the House does not stop me.

The National Radiological Protection Board recently stated that there must be significantly more stringent standards for authorisations concerning permits for disposal of short-lived and low-level waste. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that the current requirements were being reviewed. I should like to know how far that review had gone and the extent to which it affects Drigg.

I have referred to the Committee's views on the disposal of low-level, intermediate-level and high-level waste and now wish to turn to the question of reprocessing. That subject occupied a great deal of time in Committee and is reflected in three chapters of the report. The Committee came to no real conclusion because it felt that it did not have the evidence available to it to make a firm recommendation.

We therefore asked for a cost-benefit analysis of THORP—thermal oxide reprocessing plant—to be carried out to decide whether it was really necessary. We had evidence, for example, that raw uranium is much cheaper than reprocessed fuels. Why, therefore, reprocess, and inevitably increase, the high volume of low-level and intermediate-level waste when high-level waste could be disposed of integrally in a much more convenient fashion when disposal sites had been found?

We were aware that a sudden closure of THORP, started by the last Labour Government with some £600 million already spent and 4,000 people employed in construction, could cause considerable local and economic problems. Nevertheless, in view of the environmental hazards that were then attached, and which may still he attached, to reprocessing—some have been obviated by improved methods at Sellafield—we felt that the economic disadvantages of closing THORP ought to be weighed against the environmental benefits of ceasing reprocessing.

The Government reconsidered the matter and concluded, as is carefully spelt out in their reply, that THORP must continue. I quite understand that Ministers have inherited a decision which was made a decade ago and that much expenditure and employment depends on THORP—to the extent that they feel that the programme should carry on. I wonder, however, whether as a result of more recent developments there is now another question mark over THORP. I understand that research for fast breeder reaction at Dounreay has been abandoned.

Mr. Maclennan

The hon. Gentleman is misrepresenting the Government's decision which was announced in July. Work at Dounreay will continue for many years, although there is considerably reduced funding. Moreover, the Government have reiterated their support for fast breeder reactor collaboration in the European Community.

Sir Hugh Rossi

I stand corrected. My information is that no future was seen for fast breeder reaction in the foreseeable future and it was therefore decided not to proceed with it.

We have also to consider the fact that the Central Electricity Generating Board has decided to build, at considerable expense, a dry storage facility for spent fuel at Heysham.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

It has not decided. It wants to investigate the site.

Sir Hugh Rossi

We are playing with words now, but that is the thrust of thinking in the CEGB.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

It is going to change—we will change its mind.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)

Order. I hope that the hon. Lady will seek to intervene to make these points.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker. This is a subject on which I feel very strongly. I am awfully sorry.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Perhaps the hon. Lady will catch my eye later in the debate.

Sir Hugh Rossi

My hon. Friend and I have reached agreement on a form of words, which is that the thrust of the thinking of the CEGB is to build a dry storage facility at Heysham. No doubt my influential and powerful colleague will do everything in her power to stop that happening.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman


Sir Hugh Rossi

We shall watch with interest. The point I was seeking to make is that if the CEGB has seriously considered this option, does that mean that it is no longer interested in having its fuel reprocessed by THORP? Reprocessing by THORP is extremely expensive and the CEGB could buy its fuel far more cheaply on the world market. It is distinctly possible that, after privatisation, the operators will decide that sending spent fuel to THORP for reprocessing is not the most economic option. That possibility puts another question mark over the facility.

Perhaps the fundamental reason for Nirex's continuance with THORP is the fact that there is no deep disposal facility for the safe disposal of high-level waste. Until such a facility is found, reprocessing must continue. Interventions that have been made by hon. Members on both sides of the House demonstrate the NIMBY syndrome operating overtime, and Nirex may take a rather jaundiced view about the time scale on which it will obtain a deep storage facility—if it ever does. Reprocessing is therefore perhaps inevitable. That may be the real reason for the continuance of THORP.

I would like to conclude where I began, at the introduction to the report. At paragraph 5, the Select Committee says: it has to be recognised that, if no satisfactory and publicly acceptable means for the safe disposal of radioactive waste can be found, the continuing production of such waste and, consequently, the nuclear power policy will be put into question. That is the bottom line. If we cannot satisfy the public and we cannot obtain facilities for the disposal of radioactive waste, the future of the nuclear industry will be called into question, as will the further production of nuclear energy. The matter must be resolved satisfactorily if the Government wish to continue their nuclear power generation policy. For sound reasons, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has felt that it is necessary to continue with nuclear power. The Department of the Environment must therefore consider how it will deal with the byproducts of nuclear power in a way which is acceptable to the country.

I am sorry if I have detained the House, but I was rather generous in giving way. I hope that, by putting the report in context, I have been helpful to the House.

10.27 am
Mr. Alan W. Williams (Carmarthen)

I listened intently to the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) and found his speech informative and helpful. Despite the moderation of his speech, I feel that the management of nuclear waste disposal is a problem that is too difficult to solve. The public have recognised that, and critics of the nuclear industry recognised it a long time ago. There are some problems that are simply too difficult to solve. For example, we will never be able to travel to the nearest star, and we are discovering that certain cancers will never be cured. The disposal of nuclear waste is another such problem.

Nuclear waste is quite different from toxic waste, as industrial waste is chemical, and its disposal involves entrapping chemicals. With nuclear waste, alpha, beta and gamma particles are emitted. They are much more corrosive and cause much more biological damage because they are so penetrating. In its public relations literature the nuclear industry tries to give the impression that nuclear waste is small in volume, but whenever a uranium atom is split the fragments have virtually the same mass as the original material. For every tonne of uranium that undergoes fission, 1 per cent. gives energy, while the other 99 per cent. is dangerously radioactive waste. Uranium itself is radioactive, and the products of fission are millions of times as radioactive as the original uranium.

There is no way that we can allow such products to leach into the environment. As for the amount produced, every nuclear reactor, every year produces a thousand times as much long-lived radioactive waste as was released at Hiroshima. That is the size of the problem. At the moment Nirex has no responsibility for high-level waste. Generally, as it was even in the excellent speech of the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green, the problem of high-level waste is deferred to the indefinite future.

The high-level waste produced in Britain at the moment is stored in Sellafield. The amount is hundreds of thousands of times as much as was released at Hiroshima. It frightens me that if there was ever the confrontation that we all seek to avoid one direct hit by a nuclear weapon on Sellafield would render wasteland northern Europe, as there is so much radioactive waste there already. If the nuclear industry and the policies of the Government bear fruit, and if we go into the next century with an energy policy whereby nuclear power becomes the leading source of energy, by the middle of the next century we will have 10 times, or even a hundred times, as much radioactive waste in Sellafield as there is today. On no account should we leave future generations such a legacy.

I have been interested in the subject for more than 15 years. During those years, as a scientist, I have examined the various options that have been thrown up for the management and long-term disposal of waste. We have had some idiot solutions over the years, such as rocketing to the sun or metal canisters boring through the Antarctic ice caps. Even disposal on the seabed was considered seriously. Now we have the deep bore holes and engineered repositories just offshore. As a scientist, rather than as a politician, I have looked in detail at each of those, and it is my sincere conclusion that not one of them is remotely a Rolls-Royce solution. The general public realise that.

Back in 1981 the Government proposed to drill boreholes in various parts of Britain, in mid-Wales and in north Wales, in Gwynedd and in Powys. I became involved in work at Pandora in Powys and in Madryn in north Wales to prevent those borehole proposals. It was obvious that that was the thin end of the wedge. First they would drill boreholes and then, within five or 10 years, they would dump high-level waste.

Mr. Norman Miscampbell (Blackpool, North)

The Committee and the House accept that there is a problem. If the hon. Gentleman has looked at all the solutions and says that none of them is any good, what are we to do about it?

Mr. Williams

I shall go into that in detail in a few minutes. First, I shall knock down the present options being considered by the Government. In 1981 I spent three years examining the proposals for deep boreholes. I was working under my predecessor, the then hon. Member for Carmarthen, Dr. Roger Thomas. We tabled a whole series of parliamentary questions and I was in touch with the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell about its methods of long-term disposal.

We were examining the problem of high-level waste. The solution then being proposed was vitrification. Vitrified waste was put into solid metal canisters which were drilled 5,000 ft or 10,000 ft into hard rock and then buried underground. As a former research chemist, I shall explain what would happen. With intensely radioactive materials, the glass would very soon shatter and the metal canisters would corrode, in exactly the same way as metal rusts, but much worse in the case of radioactive materials when radiolysis occurs. There is groundwater flow even through the very hardest, oldest and toughest rocks. Frankly, drilling the borehole into the rock creates the very path by which groundwater gets to radioactive waste. I am glad that the Government have thrown that idiot option into the indefinite future. There is no way that we can dispose of radioactive waste in deep boreholes.

As for the present option that Nirex is considering, we have heard talk of Sellafield and Caithness as the only two sites in Britain where public acceptability would allow it. It is not a matter of geology or technology. Public acceptability rules it out in 648 out of 650 constituencies in Britain. It is an act of desperation that Nirex has to go to Sellafield and Caithness, where the populations are trapped. Sellafield has a long history of nuclear waste processing—not a very good history, given all its leaks and so on—but the waste is there and it is convenient to store it there. No other population in Britain would be willing to accept the waste. The same applies to Caithness, especially now that the fast breeder reactor programme is being run down and there will be several thousand workers with nowhere else to turn for comparable employment.

The present proposal is for engineered repositories, tunnels under the seabed and ultimate disposal there. I and other hon. Members have been sent a beautifully glossy leaflet—it spares no expense in its public relations—showing diagrammatic representation of the repositories. They look very pretty, with beautiful sandy colours, but that is about it. If we dispose of intermediate-level wastes in those repositories, the very same objections apply as to deep boreholes. Eventually, groundwater will get to those repositories. Indeed, I visited a coal mine a few weeks ago, and one of the problems in all mining technology is that water has to be continualy pumped out from underground.

I understand that that idea is simply for retrievable storage. My hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) pointed out a few minutes ago that one of the key features is that it is retrievable. It is vital that all nuclear wastes are retrievable for the next hundreds of thousands of years, because they cannot he allowed to leach into the environment. If they are to be retrievable, why bother to put them underground? Why not keep them above ground? If the idea is to put them underground just to take them out again, why put them underground in the first place? Frankly, that solution is simply to hide the problem out of sight and out of mind. It is pulling wool over people's eyes. It is no answer to the problem of waste disposal.

I understand that in some public pronouncement on this subject the chairman of Nirex has given the game away and said that in 50 years' time the tunnels would be filled in any way and that retrievability is just for 50 years. Frankly, if that is done and groundwater gets to them, they will leach back into Sellafield and into the Irish sea.

What should we do with our problem, which we have created over the past 40 years? During the past 40 years we have managed our waste at nuclear sites at nuclear power stations and at Sellafield. I am afraid that the answer is indefinite above ground storage at Sellafield and other nuclear power stations. They are under continual monitoring. If there are leaks, as regrettably there are, at least we can do something about them. It is a sad answer, but that is the state of the game. There is no Rolls-Royce answer.

I listened carefully to ray predecessor's remarks on reprocessing. I have always thought that reprocessing is unnecessary. It was invented and developed in the 1940s to isolate plutonium for nuclear weapons and the military programme. We now have an embarrassing stockpile of plutonium. We have 45 tonnes at Sellafield which we do not know what to do with. We have so many nuclear weapons worldwide that we do not need that extra plutonium. As a result of the announcements about Dounreay, we know that plutonium will not be needed in fast breeder reactors. The Government have at last seen that the fast breeder reactor is a non-starter. The world will not choose the nuclear option. Hard-headed realism has hit a few people in the Department of Energy and they realise that we will not move from U 235 to plutonium.

Why reprocess waste at Sellafield? My predecessor and the Central Electricity Generating Board have been thinking about the dry storage option. That may happen post-privatisation. By taking waste to Sellafield, dissolving it in nitric acid and carrying out the other reprocessing methods we are increasing the volume by 10. We are creating enormous volumes of low-level waste which we will have to discharge into the Irish sea. We are creating radioactive pollution by reprocessing. Therefore, reprocessing simply multiplies the problem. It is uneconomic and is one of the main reasons for last year's disappointing results from the CEGB. Reprocessing is an extra cost which a privatised electricity industry will not be paying. We do not need the products from reprocessing. The products of reprocessing are unchanged uranium—that is cheap enough anyway on the world market—plutonium—we have embarrassing stockpiles of that—and high-level wastes which we do not know what to do with. Sellafield should be closed down.

Mr. Hugo Summerson (Walthamstow)

The hon. Gentleman talked about the effects of a nuclear missile attack on the waste stored above ground at Sellafield. Later in his remarks he came to the conclusion that above ground storage was the only option. Therefore, presumably he is happy about that. Surely it would be better, to obviate the risk about which he is worried, to create a proper facility under the seabed so that if a nuclear missile arrives it will not scatter the material all over the place.

Mr. Williams

I am not happy about above ground storage. The only long-term answer to nuclear waste is not to create it in the first place. If it is put underground 1 mile or 3 miles off shore, it will be no safer than in Sellafield itself. It will be an embarrassment to civilisation for the rest of time.

Mr. Summerson

The hon. Gentleman said that he would close down Sellafield.

Mr. Williams

I would close down the reprocessing plant. Unfortunately, we cannot close the site because it will never become a green field site. The nature of the industry prevents that. The waste at Sellafield will have to be looked after for hundreds of thousands of years.

Mr. Allan Roberts

Does my hon. Friend mean that he would close down THORP and the reprocessing at Sellafield? Surely he does not mean that he would close the entire site, because the Labour party is committed to using the skills there for decommissioning as we phase out nuclear power.

Mr. Williams

Despite representing the Labour party, on the management of the nuclear industry I have serious differences with the policies of the party. I claim that the views I am putting forward today are the views of the majority of British people.

Berkeley will have the first example of decommissioning. It will take over 100 years to take out the fuel, the non-radioactive parts and then to try to dismantle the core. That will not work. It is incredible that we built those reactors 20, 30 or 40 years ago and have no idea how to take them apart. There are vast quantities of intermediate-level waste—about 25,000 tonnes per reactor. Where do we put that? that is what Caithness, Sellafield and other areas will be designed for.

As I have said, to take a nuclear power station apart is a 100-year job, at a cost of about £300 million. That is probably an underestimate and we do not even have the technology to do it.

What do we do with our redundant nuclear power stations? The Magnox power stations will all become redundant by the turn of the century. My belief is that we should leave them where they are. They were designed to contain high-level waste and have a biological shield around the reactor core. When Berkeley comes to the end of its life, the safest option is to drop in all the control rods and leave it there for the rest of time. Why take the fuel out if it means shipping it to Sellafield, multiplying the cost and the volume and not knowing what to do with the products? We might as well leave it where it is. The answer to the nuclear waste problem is to stop producing nuclear waste. It is the end of the nuclear dream.

I am certain that the comments that I have made represent public opinion. People do not want nuclear power stations. They want us to stop generating waste. They want us to stop reprocessing nuclear waste at Sellafield or wherever. Certainly there is 100 per cent. belief in the fact that we should not dispose of nuclear waste in the out-of-sight, out-of-mind ways that the Government are considering.

10.48 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mrs. Virginia Bottomley)

I appreciate the opportunity of being able to take part in the debate—one of the first debates in my new position. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) for his kind words of welcome and pay tribute to his distinguished work as Chairman of the Select Committee and on a great number of subjects. He referred to his report on historic buildings. That is also one of my responsibilities and I hope that we may have an opportunity to debate that in the future. He also said that he held ministerial office for nine weeks. I am pleased to have exceeded that, but I am not sure whether in the fullness of time I shall be able to succeed to his present distinguished position.

This is an extremely important subject. Already it is clear from what hon. Members have said that strong feelings are held in terms of the principles and constituency interests involved. The Select Committee report made an extremely important contribution in clarifying the issues involved and moving the debate forward. I recognise the quality of the work that went into the Committee's first report on this important subject. It is two years since the Government published their response in a White Paper and it is time to review progress and report on developments. Much work has been done to solve the waste management issue. The remaining doubts result largely from different underlying conceptions rather than from primarily technical considerations. They can lead to strong passions and feelings, as we have already seen this morning.

Radiation is all around us, and it always has been. It is in our homes, our food and our bodies. Many hon. Members, like me, will be wearing watches which contain radioactive material, will have smoke detectors protecting their property, which rely on radioactivity for their sensitivity and will put fertilisers on their gardens containing naturally radioactive materials.

Radioactivity comes from space, the ground we walk on and from the air that we breathe. On average, well over four fifths of the radiation received by the population of the United Kingdom is from such natural sources. Most of the rest comes from medical and industrial applications of radioactivity. About one thousandth of the total comes from the nuclear industry.

To be prudent, we assume that even the smallest amount of additional radiation potentially could be harmful, and the Government recognise that. Radiation is controlled more rigorously than any other form of pollution, which is why all users of radioactive substances have to be registered or otherwise controlled by licences from Government regulatory bodies.

There are over 6,000 registered premises in England and Wales, of which 1,000 are authorised by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution to discharge small quantities of radioactive waste. The nearest registered premises to the House are to be found in St. Thomas's hospital just across the river. The House was measured for radioactivity two years ago. Low levels were found as a result of natural processes.

We strive to ensure that the total contribution to radiation exposure from radioactive wastes remains insignificant. Radiation doses received by individuals are, and will continue to be, kept well within the limits recommended by the International Commission on Radiological Protection, the United Nations Scientific Committee for the Evaluation of Atomic Radiation and our own National Radiological Protection Board.

The Government have established two independent committees—the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee and the Committee on Medical Aspects of Radioactivity in the Environment, which advise us on such matters.

Processes that give rise to the release or disposal of radioactive waste will continue to be examined thoroughly by Government inspectors. Operators have to observe the numerical limits laid down in authorisations. They also have to use best practicable means to limit further any radioactivity discharged. All such authorisations are reviewed regularly to ensure that the necessary high standards are maintained.

A common misconception is that there are vast amounts of radioactive waste awaiting disposal. By the year 2030, all the radioactive waste produced will be the equivalent of only two to three weeks' domestic refuse production—an amount small enough to make it possible to concentrate on the development of a single national disposal facility. Most of this waste has a low level of radioactivity. It presents such a small risk that it can be handled by workers wearing normal industrial clothes—gloves and laboratory coats. Nothing more is needed. Much of the waste remains radioactive only for a short time, and it can be disposed of quite safely in the same way as other industrial and household wastes.

Wastes with an intermediate level of radioactivity can be handled safely using remote tools, cranes or simple shielding. Nevertheless, they may retain their radioactivity for many centuries and need to be disposed of well away from people, deep underground or under the seabed.

The rest of the waste is heat generating. It contains well over 99 per cent. of the radioactivity with which we have to deal. It is concentrated to a very small volume. The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Waldegrave), reported in his evidence to the Committee that the amount of heat-generating waste arising to the year 2000 would fill two large rooms. This waste will soon be vitrified, and because of its radioactive content the glass has to be treated with great care. It will be stored at Sellafield for at least 50 years to allow much of the radioactivity to decay. A decision can then be taken whether to store it still longer or dispose of it deep underground.

Whatever we do now, radioactive waste exists. It will continue to be produced from a wide range of conventional industrial activities as well as from our hospitals and universities, irrespective of its production from electricity generation.

Mr. Allan Roberts

It is a typical line taken by the nuclear industry and Ministers that the nuclear industry is the same as a hospital. Only the nuclear industry produces high-level waste; low and intermediate-level waste are produced by other industries and by hospitals. The Minister cannot get away with that.

Mrs. Bottomley

Hospitals certainly produce radioactive waste, and I accept that the energy industry is responsible for much waste. It is important that people see it in its proper perspective and understand the full range of ways in which waste is generated.

Mr. Simon Hughes


Mrs. Bottomley

I should like to proceed.

I shall give a few examples from the wide range of important applications of radioactive substances. In industry, they measure the quantities of hazardous liquids in sealed tanks, avoid the build-up of static electricity, which could otherwise cause gas or dust explosions, and provide emergency signs on exit and evacuation routes. In hospitals, to which the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) referred, they are important tools in research, have a wide range of clinical applications—for example, to detect and treat thyroid disorders—and are essential for cancer therapy. In universities and research, they play a part in developing new drugs, help us to understand rare species and their preservation in their natural habitat, and ensure effective grouting of oil rigs to the floor of the North sea.

All those life-enhancing applications inevitably create some waste. They must be considered alongside the waste produce from the generation of electricity by nuclear means, which is crucial to maintain an essential diversity in the supply of electrical energy.

The main focus of debate is often related to wastes arising from the creation of nuclear power, as the hon. Member for Bootle said. Britain has enjoyed the benefits of nuclear power for over 25 years. Our nuclear power stations have had an enviable safety record for many years. There is no question of abandoning this source of energy, which has provided an important and safe element of diversity and security to the country's energy supplies.

Unlike some of our European neighbours, nuclear power in Britain supplies only about 20 per cent.of the electricity that we use. By the end of the decade, this should rise to about 23 per cent. Belgium and Sweden, by contrast generate over 50 per cent. of their electricity by nuclear means. France generates over 70 per cent. and this will rise to over 80 per cent. within a decade. Japan is making a major commitment to nuclear power, as are almost all other advanced countries.

Renewable forms of electricity generation—the wind, sun, tides and others—can provide useful contributions and are well worth developing. The Government will be spending over £150 million on such research and development to the end of the century. However, it would be wrong to conclude that these sources of energy will have no effect on our environment. All sources of energy have some environmental cost. To substitute for even part of the enormous and constant amounts of energy that nuclear power can provide, large tracts of land or water would have to be changed, and there would be noise and visual pollution. Other amenity and ecological effects would be inevitable. Such renewable forms of energy cannot, in the short term, substitute for all the electricity currently generated by nuclear stations.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green said, in recent weeks there has been a serious debate about the importance of safeguarding the global environment, which was initiated by the major speech of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at the Royal Society. Our debate must take place against that backcloth. There is an overwhelming environmental case to be made for nuclear power. Many profess to be concerned about acid rain and the greenhouse effect, but as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier this month, nuclear power provides the best environmental method of generating electricity on a scale that does not involve the emission of carbon dioxide or sulphur dioxide. Those are two of the biggest pollutants responsible for the greenhouse effect and acid rain. To oppose nuclear power can only be to advocate conventional pollution.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing

Is the hon. Lady aware that if the Government were prepared to develop some of the remaining coal seams in Scotland, we could produce non-sulphuric coal, which would solve the problem that she raises? The Government's direction is wrong in assuming that nuclear power is the best way to protect the environment.

Mrs. Bottomley

There is no fossil fuel that does not have the disadvantages of causing acid rain and producing the greenhouse effect, especially through the production of carbon dioxide.

Mr. Simon Hughes

Does the Minister accept that the argument that she has repeated, which was put forward by the Secretary of State and others—that the only safe energy process is nuclear power and that that process is the one most compatible with protecting our environment—is flawed for one fundamental reason: that the by-product of nuclear power is the production of waste with which we cannot safely deal? There is no technology to deal with that waste in Britain, and the problem is compounded by the importation of waste which we reprocess, resulting in other by-products. It is hardly environmentally good stewardship to create a problem that we have no means of solving.

Mrs. Bottomley

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman should try to convince some of his colleagues of those arguments before trying to convince me. The purpose of the debate is to discuss radioactive waste, the seriousness with which the Government regard the issue, the need for public information and the way forward.

Ms. Walley

Does the hon. Lady agree that the Government are advocating further investment in nuclear power at a time when we cannot even deal with the present waste? All we are doing is creating a greater problem for future generations.

Mrs. Bottomley

I hope that, at the end of the debate, the hon. Lady will feel that the Government have clear plans to deal with waste. That is the purpose of our policies. I have made it clear that our nuclear energy is very modest compared with that of many other countries. It is time to stop looking to the past and thinking that there will be some easy solution. Nuclear power has been with us for 25 years. We have a good record in the industry. We are proposing long-term plans for the disposal of waste. That is the purpose of this debate.

The steps being taken by the nuclear industry to reduce the environmental impact of its operations are welcome. BNFL has reduced the levels of radioactivity in the liquid wastes discharged into the sea from its Sellafield plant to well under one tenth the 1979 level. I hope that that reassures the hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams). Committed improvements mean that those levels will be reduced even further by 1992. I repeat that the amount of radiation exposure from nuclear wastes, in the United Kingdom as a whole, is less than one thousandth of that from the natural background radioactivity to which we are all exposed.

I turn to some specific issues raised in the Environment Committee's report. The Government welcomed the Committee's work, which played an important part in helping to clarify many of the issues involved. The report contained a wide range of recommendations, which we have considered most carefully. In their response, the Government took full account of the Committee's recommendations and updated their overall strategy on waste disposal. The strategy remains valid today.

A number of the Committee's recommendations were directly relevant to the development of a disposal facility for radioactive waste. We strongly support the Committee's endorsement of Government policy that safe disposal routes can be developed in the United Kingdom and that early disposal is the right answer for low and intermediate-level wastes. We note that the House of Lords Select Committee on the European Communities has recently endorsed that view.

Since the publication of the Environment Committee's report, the Government have accepted the advice of the chairman of UK Nirex Ltd. to dispose of both low and intermediate-level radioactive wastes in a single deep facility. This will be similar in many respects to the Forsmark facility adopted by the Swedes as their solution, an approach advocated by the Select Committee. Investigations are currently being undertaken by UK Nirex Ltd. and we look forward to receiving detailed proposals so that we can make rapid progress. Both the Environment Committee and the House of Lords Select Committee have emphasised that there is a solution and that we should proceed to disposal as soon as practicable. The task before us is clear.

The principal disposal facility now available to the nuclear industry is at Brigg—

Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Cleethorpes)

Not Brigg.

Mrs. Bottomley

I mean Drigg in Cumbria. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown) has caught my eye.

Since the publication of the Committee's report, we have required considerable improvements, and the Department and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food have revised the authorisation for the disposal of radioactive wastes. Stringent limits are now placed on the activity of wastes and compaction is required as a good waste management procedure which also prolongs the operational life of the site.

Mr. Flynn


Mrs. Bottomley

I have given way a lot already.

This authorisation will be reviewed again in three years as further improvemens are made. For instance, British Nuclear Fuels plc, the owner of the site, will use a system of concrete-lined vaults to contain the waste. These will be similar to those which the Committee saw and admired in France. These improvements reflect a need to ensure that risks to the public are as low as are reasonably achievable and to bring operation of the site in line with the best waste management practice. I hope that that reassures my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes.

The Select Committee foresaw major practical difficulties in disposing of drummed waste in the deep ocean, as was undertaken annually until 1983. In May this year, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy announced that such waste, including that prepared for sea disposal in 1983, would be consigned to the facility to be built by Nirex. Nevertheless, continuing research still shows that sea disposal is a safe disposal option. The Government remain of that view and will keep the option open for large items arising from decommissioning operations.

As part of its response to the Committee's reports, the Department asked the Central Electricity Generating Board and the South of Scotland Electricity Board to respond to recommendations relating to the storage and disposal of spent nuclear fuel without reprocessing. We have now reviewed their assessments. We are satisfied that it remains prudent policy to continue the present arrangements whereby spent fuel is reprocessed at the Sellafield plant of British Nuclear Fuels plc. There is a clear commitment to that policy in the White Paper and the Government remain committed to it. However, the Central Electricity Generating Board has recently announced plans for a dry store for fuel from advanced gas-cooled reactors, which it proposes to build at Heysham in Lancashire. This would permit storage before reprocessing or direct disposal. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman) hopes to catch your eye later in the debate, Madam Deputy Speaker, to make further remarks about those proposals.

The Select Committee and the House of Lords Committee concluded that safe disposal routes can be developed, and the Government agree. The main difficulties, to which the Committees have drawn attention, are public understanding, confidence and trust. The remaining problems which we face with radioactive waste are not technical in nature. The policy of successive Governments has always been to require a wide margin of safety in response to public concern. The results of extensive research programmes and sound, impartial, technical advice from a broad range of independent bodies are available. The Government will continue their policy of full consultation on all significant waste management proposals. The current approach by Nirex to site selection for a disposal facility, including its recent consultation exercise, together with the Government's decision to hold a public inquiry, reflect that commitment. I hope that many hon. Members will be reassured by that. Whatever solution is adopted, it will be developed as quickly as possible and will satisfy the most stringent safety requirements.

11.9 am

Mr. Allan Roberts (Bootle)

I welcome the Minister to her new post. She has been given a very difficult job—to defend from now on the Government's record on the environment. If today's speech is anything to go on, she will deal with it with a delicate complacency. That was the hallmark of her speech on the disposal of nuclear waste. As well as delicate complacency, her speech showed an outrageous disregard for Government policy over the past nine years—nine years of neglect of the environment and of contributing to the destruction of the environment. Yet, one speech by the Prime Minister and the blues have supposedly turned green. What nonsense! The Minister will not be able to escape from the Government's record over the past nine years.

The most outrageous of the twists and turns in the Government's policy is their new-found commitment to the expansion of nuclear power because fossil-fuelled power stations cause pollution. I wish that the Government had admitted that two or three years ago. For nine years we have been telling them that fossil-fuelled power stations that have not been retrofitted or properly treated because there was not the necessary expenditure cause pollution. The first report of the Select Committee on the Environment under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) dealt with that issue.

Three years ago the Prime Minister became worried about acid rain. Chancellor Kohl of West Germany complained that forests in Germany were being destroyed, and the Scandinavians said that their lakes were being destroyed and that fish were being killed in southern Norway, so the Prime Minister thought that she should look into the matter. A meeting was held at Chequers, but the mistake that was made was to invite Lord Marshall to attend. It was a long weekend. It must have been one of the longest and dirtiest weekends in history. [HON. MEMBERS: "Contemptible."] Yes, it was contemptible that the Prime Minister came out of that meeting believing the CEGB line that there was not a problem, that nothing needed to be done and that Britain could continue to pollute the European environment. That has been the Government's policy.

Sir Hugh Rossi

When the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) spoke of having given constant warnings, I hope that he was referring to the work of the Select Committee on the Environment, and that he was not saying that as spokesman for the Labour party. Not a word about acid rain was heard from the Labour party until the Select Committee report came out. Moreover, when the Labour party was in power, I consistently asked questions about the dangers of sulphur dioxide, and time after time Labour Ministers said that they saw no significance in that.

Labour and Conservative Governments have been in the same position of waiting for evidence with which they could be satisfied. It is true that the chairman of the CEGB gave information to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister which suggested to her that there was no connection between emissions from power stations and the damage caused overseas. However, as a result of the Select Commitee's report, monitoring and research took place, and it was two years after that that the Department of the Environment accepted that a nexus existed.

Mr. Roberts

The hon. Gentleman knows that I am a great admirer of his chairmanship of the Select Commitee on the Environment, and I admire the way in which he has managed to produce all-party reports 99 per cent. of the time. He chose issues which, at the time, did not have a high political profile. Until eight or nine years ago there was neither the knowledge nor the realisation of the causes of acid rain. As soon as there was, the Labour party outlined one of the best and toughest policies on the environment, which took account of the recommendations of the Select Committee on the Environment. The Government have refused to accept those recommendations. Why is that?

What the Labour party said five or six years ago has proved to be true. The Government were planning a long-term strategy. They were happy to ignore the problems of acid rain and pollution from fossil-fuelled power stations, and they did not spend the money necessary to retrofit them. They were happy to pretend that there was no problem until other people stigmatised fossil-fuelled power stations. They used that as justification for their policy of spending money on nuclear power and running down the coal industry. That was their tactic.

Mr. Alan W. Williams

In 1979, was not the Labour Government about to order a prototype fluidised bed combustion power station for Carmarthen bay? That technology allows coal to be burnt without any acid rain pollution and involves using limestone to absorb the sulphur, but this Government have abandoned work on that technology at Grimethorpe.

Mr. Roberts

That is true. There are two methods for cleaning up fossil-fuelled power stations. If new power stations are built, we should include fluidised bed combustion, and we should retrofit existing power stations with scrubbers to take out the sulphur. The Government plan to retrofit at most five or six out of 40 power stations, depending on whether one listens to the advice of the Department of the Environment or of the CEGB.

Britain is the only country in Europe that is still increasing emissions of sulphur—200,000 tonnes last year. The Government called it a hiccup, but that was more than the whole of Norway's emissions in 12 months. The Government refuse to join the 30 per cent. club to do something to prevent acid rain—along with Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Greece, which are hardly the European countries most famous for cleaning up the environment. Britain has a scandalous record. The Government refuse to act on fossil fuel pollution, but then use that as justification for the expansion of nuclear power.

The Government's policies on nuclear power and waste disposal are a mess. The Minister referred to the radioactive waste management advisory committee, which the Government established. Its report in July 1988 said: policy remains disappointingly confused and deficient". The truth is that in the words attributed to the Secretary of State for the Environment, we have a "not in my back yard" Government. The right hon. Gentleman wants development everywhere and for concrete to be sprayed all over our green and pleasant land, but not in his back yard. Nirex proposed four locations for disposal in shallow burial sites of low-level waste, but that was abandoned before the general election because the Leader of the House and three other Conservative Members did not want the sites in their back yards.

Mr. Tony Speller (Devon, North)

I remind the hon. Gentleman that this is an un-Whipped debate, in which we can discuss the disposal of nuclear waste honestly, without engaging in party polemics I should be deeply grateful if we could return to the subject of the debate.

Mr. Roberts

The Minister's speech was outrageously party-political and complacent. I intend to answer in kind and to deal with the issues, which I, at least, understand.

There are different levels of nuclear waste. First, there are discharges into the environment, and the Minister was complacent about them. It used to be believed that anything could be put into the sea and that the sea was so vast that the waste would disappear and disperse. We know now that that is not true and that the waste will become concentrated in the silt, that worms will eat the silt, that fish will eat the worms and that we shall then eat the fish. Pollution has occurred in the Irish sea as a result of discharges from Sellafield, and that is only one example of a major problem. Discharges are still coming from Sellafield at an unsatisfactory level. If we had a Labour Government—as we shall after the next general election—they would end all nuclear discharges into the environment.

After nine and a half years in power the Government still have no policy on low-level waste, having cancelled the sites in Conservative constituencies. It is all being dumped at Drigg near Sellafield in a way which, despite the acceptance of the nuclear industry in that area, is becoming unacceptable to the community there in view of the nature of the dumping, the amounts involved and the fact that there is no end to it in sight. [Interruption.] That is exactly what the Shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) would have said because he asked me to say it on his behalf. The people of Drigg and the surrounding area are sick of being the dumping ground for the whole nation's low-level waste, and some satisfactory alternative disposal route must be found.

As for intermediate waste, the Government cancelled site specific research in 1979. Intermediate waste was then mixed with concrete, put in a kind of container and dumped in the sea, but that is no longer possible, although the Government would have broken international agreements against sea dumping of intermediate waste had not the National Union of Seamen prevented that by refusing to go out and dump the waste. So where is all that intermediate-level waste now? The Government talk about public confidence in the nuclear industry, but that waste is stored in great hangars and sheds awaiting disposal. Neither the Government nor Nirex have any idea of where to dispose of it, so it remains there in the form that was used in the past for sea dumping. No alternative disposal route has been found and the Government have sat around complacently for five or six years doing nothing about the problem.

As for high-level waste, there are basically two forms. First, there are the spent fuel rods. Uranium is put into fuel rods and burnt in the power stations. The spent rods constitute hot, high-level waste with probably a million years of radioactive life and are stored under water in ponds at the Magnox power stations. They are then transported, stored in ponds, for reprocessing. If the rods are not reprocessed, the high-level waste remains to be dealt with. Reprocessing gets rid of the fuel rods but produces plutonium—the most dangerous substance known to man. In other words, reprocessing produces another type of high-level waste, which is then stored in tanks at Sellafield in liquid form and stirred to stop it settling. Now and then, the tanks leak.

The Government say that that waste must be vitrified, and a vitrification plant is being built at Sellafield. The resulting high-level radioactive glass with a million years of radioactive life will then be stored on the surface at Sellafield for 50 to 100 years—the Minister says perhaps about 50 years—not as a solution, but until a solution can be found, if, indeed, a solution can be found. If no solution can be found, the waste remains retrievable and monitorable. That must be taken into account in the wonderful maã;ana theory of cheap nuclear power, because storage and monitoring for all those years will cost a great deal of money.

With the exception of the greenhouse effect, which may affect future generations—the Labour party is the first to accept that and to demand action—there is a difference between nuclear pollution and toxic waste such as acid rain. Nuclear pollution affects the unborn in a way that toxic waste does not. That is why the subject is so sensitive and why the British people are so concerned. And that is why it is criminal neglect for the Government, having been fervently committed to the expansion of nuclear power, to have no real policy for the control, disposal and monitoring of nuclear waste. That is their situation after nine years in power, and it is a very difficult record for the Minister to inherit and to seek to defend.

In the past the Labour party has often criticised the way in which Nirex is constituted and the manner in which it operates. We still believe that the present consultation process would have been more appropriately carried out by a body not seen to be solely representative of the nuclear industry. The Royal Commission on environmental pollution described Nirex as entirely a creature of the nuclear industry. Although Nirex may consult about methods of disposal of intermediate and low-level waste, it has no remit to question the policies of the bodies which produce the waste and those which support reprocessing. In our view, that is a mistake. Nirex also has no remit for the disposal of high level waste. As a minimum, those with environmental concerns and the trade unions in the industry should be part of Nirex, and the commitment to consultation should not seek to limit the scope of the debate.

The document produced by Nirex suggests that consideration can be given only to a choice of three relatively similar deep disposal sites and that only the locality is a matter for debate. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams) in objecting to that, although I am not so opposed as he is to the idea of retrievable, monitorable underground storage. If I were, I should not have signed the Select Committee recommendations suggesting it as one of the alternatives.

I should also not have been so impressed with the Forsmark facility in Sweden, which is not disposal, but storage under the sea. People think that it is sea dumping, or that it will travel through the sea, but it is monitorable and retrievable, and the rock in the sea acts as a barrier to stop the radioactivity getting out. Nevertheless, that is not the only option on which Nirex should be consulting. We should also be considering on-site storage, surface storage, and so on. Every alternative should be part of the debate.

I should make it clear that the Labour party is against any disposal of any radioactive waste, of intermediate or of high level, especially because in the light of current knowledge the final disposal of such waste is not an option. It must be retrievable, and it must be stored, monitored and controlled, because we do not yet have the technology or the evidence to show that waste other than low-level waste can be disposed of safety in a way that does not result in the radioactivity getting back into man's environment. What we wanted from the Select Committee was research into the whole question of reprocessing and its costs. The argument is that fuel rods from Magnox stations, once they have been wet stored, have to be reprocessed, otherwise they cause even more environmental problems.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (Norfolk, North-West)

Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House his party's policy on low-level nuclear waste?

Mr. Roberts

We are in favour of the storage of low-level waste, with intermediate waste in the respository being researched by Nirex. In the Select Committee on the Environment we were in favour—I put my name to it—of proper engineered burial sites for low-level waste, but the Government have ruled that out, saying that it can be deep stored with intermediate-level waste rather than disposed of. That seems a safer, more sensible option than putting it is shallow trenches and covering it with soil, as has been going on for 20-odd years at Drigg.

We do not shy away from the problems of the treatment and disposal or storage of nuclear waste. If a Labour Government were elected next week and we stopped the development of nuclear power and started to phase it out, in the short term we should create more nuclear waste than would be created by continuing the present programme because of all the decommissioning activities. Therefore, we must find a way to deal with nuclear waste. No one in the Labour party is sticking his head in the sand like an ostrich in relation to the need to decommission the Polaris submarines and to dispose of their nuclear components. We are certainly seriously considering the issues and how best to deal with existing waste. The long-term answer may be to stop producing it, but that does not deal with what is already being produced.

The Select Committee ruled out any argument on whether to continue with nuclear power, and instead considered the practical issue of disposing of what had already been produced. The Labour party has also considered that matter and has ideas about what to do. On day two after we have been elected to Government we will end all secrecy surrounding the nuclear industry and take it out of the scope of the Official Secrets Act. We will stop the production of all military grade plutonium, which is the most dangerous substance known to man. There will be a comprehensive review of the transportation of nuchear waste, and we accept the recommendation of the Select Committee that rail would be the safest way to deal with it.

A Labour Government would end all nuclear discharges into the environment. We would reconstitute Nirex so that it is representative of trade unions and environmental organisations. We would maintain research into a deep underground repository, but we would also research other sorts of storage facilities. No nuclear waste should be disposed of under the seabed if that requires the waste to pass through the sea, which we think to be an unsound practice. No nuclear waste should be dumped or discharged into the sea.

A Labour Government would start the decommissioning of Magnox power stations. I challenge the Government to accept that those stations must be phased out and decommissioned and that the necessary expenditure must be committed. We must prove that it can be done or there will be no credibility for the future of the nuclear industry.

I repeat my allegations that the Government's record on nuclear waste and their policies for dealing with it are abysmal. Their record gives the lie to any belief that they are concerned about the environment. They are dealing with one of the most poignant, important and significant issues—that of nuclear waste and discharges into the environment. It affects not only the present generation, but will affect future generations of unborn children. If the Government cannot get that or any other environmental problem right, they must accept criticism in good faith. If they truly want to solve the problem of nuclear waste they will have to change their policies dramatically.

11.33 pm
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

I am most grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me so early in a debate on a matter of the greatest possible interest to both my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Mr. Lennox-Boyd), who, for obvious reasons, cannot take part in the debate.

I wish to direct my remarks to one aspect of radioactive waste disposal—the storage of spent fuel from AGRs prior to reprocessing. To store it on one site outside Sellafield is unnecessary. There are two AGRs at Heysham, on the outskirts of my constituency and that of my hon. Friend. The spent fuel from the first reactor and a small amount from the second is currently stored on the site prior to reprocessing at Sellafield. Indeed, some of it has already been sent to Sellafield.

There is currently a suggestion, as the Minister phrased it, from the CEGB, although not from the Government, that all the spent fuel from AGRs throughout the United Kingdom should be stored at Heysham prior to reprocessing at Sellafield. As I pointed out to my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi), who presented his report so brilliantly, neither I and my colleague nor our constituents are interested in finding a cheap solution to the problem for the CEGB or its successor; we are interested only in finding the safest solution.

My overwhelming duty to my constituents coincides exactly with my own feelings as my home is but a mile from the proposed site, and on the prevailing wind side. I am not in the business of imperilling my constituents' children and grandchildren or my own, and nor is my hon. Friend, who lives nearby. It is the duty of the CEGB to find the safest solution for the storing of spent fuel rods and it is the duty of the Minister and the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate to ensure that it does so. If it is thought for one moment that safety is not at the top of the CEGB's list, we shall not hesitate to oppose it tooth and nail. Neither I nor my constituents are satisfied with the current position. We have our own solution, which is that each AGR should store its own spent fuel on its own site.

The storage of spent fuel rods must also include transportation to and from the site of the material, and it is that aspect that causes the deepest concern. I am very well aware that trains run into the power stations, but I am also aware that, in its initial proposals, the CEGB said that, although rail transport would be mainly used, road and sea transport might also be used. That is one reason why it suggested Heysham. I can imagine absolutely no area whose road system is more inadequate even for normal transport, let alone nuclear transport, than Heysham. My hon. Friend and I have been saying that to the Minister for Roads and Traffic—and this is not unknown to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State—for very many years.

Quite apart from the inadequacy of our roads, I cannot understand why each site cannot store its own spent fuel rods and send them direct to Sellafield for reprocessing. There would then be no transhipment. It would be one bite at one cherry rather than two bites at one cherry. The CEGB has been sending spent fuel rods to Sellafield from Heysham for years for storage prior to reprocessing. Why cannot other AGRs do the same? The future privatised electricity supply industry will have precious little incentive to build such a monstrosity when it can send its spent rods direct to Sellafield and later to THORP for reprocessing. Admittedly, all the CEGB's statutory responsibility, procedures and organisational arrangements for nuclear safety will be vested in its privatised successor, but I cannot envisage anyone obliging it to choose such an enormously expensive store when on-site storage at each power station is so much more sensible.

The proposed store is said to be temporary. In my experience, and, I am sure, in yours, Madam Deputy Speaker, few things in this life are as permanent as those described as temporary. I should like a definition of "temporary". What will be temporary? Will it be the store itself? That is most unlikely as it will be very expensive. Will it be the contents? As it is anticipated that there will be a steady supply to THORP, it could be said that any batch will be only temporary. However, if it is immediately to be replaced by another similar batch, it would not really be my idea of temporary. I understand that the CEGB is prepared to give an undertaking that it will take only fuel rods from AGRs. That means that it cannot take waste from abroad as there are no AGRs abroad. I further understand that it is prepared to promise not to take other sorts of waste, but of late some statements on that appear to be rather less than firm.

One of my constituents is anxious to know what will happen to material contained within the structure when it reaches the end of its active life. I should also like an answer to that. What time scale is envisaged? My hon. Friend and I have repeatedly said that it is not for us to make a case for the CEGB, and nor is it for the Minister to do so. The CEGB, in the widest possible public consultation, must make its case and convince the public. Unless and until it does, it cannot expect the support or even the acquiescence of local people. It certainly will not have my support. I shall continue to press for on-site storage of spent fuel at each AGR and its direct shipment to Sellafield for processing. If BNFL wants fuel to keep its THORP plant going when it is decommissioned, it will have to make arrangements with each power station for direct shipment. It is as simple as that.

11.40 am
Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down)

Thank you for calling me so early in the debate, Madam Deputy Speaker. I promise that my remarks will be brief.

I come from a part of the country that has no nuclear installation. Therefore, I do not represent people who have the advantages of an allegedly cheaper electricity supply, employment and the other economic factors involved. However, we suffer from all the disadvantages of the nuclear industry in that, for the past 50 years, since Windscale was established, enormous amounts of radioactive waste have been dumped into the Irish sea, which washes the shores of my constituency. It would not be presumptive of me to say that I represent the views of all the people of Northern Ireland on a completely cross-party basis. There is total opposition to the discharge of nuclear waste into the Irish sea and the continued expansion of the nuclear industry.

We are particularly worried because of the alleged concerns that the Government have expressed from time to time. For example, they have contravened the London dumping convention which prohibited the discharge of nuclear waste into the Irish sea. But then we are used to the duplicity of the nuclear industry, and particularly that of British Nuclear Fuels. It was with a sense of wonderment that I came to the debate this morning. I have in my hand the "British Nuclear Forum Bulletin", a publication of British Nuclear Fuels. The headline states: Now that we have found safe ways of coping with waste, let us use them". We should read the article and implement its recommendations. That demonstrates the sort of con game that is causing us to distrust all matters pertaining to the nuclear industry.

There is a long history of disenchantment about Sellafield. Long before it was popular to question the edicts and diktat of the nuclear industry, we in our country questioned the veracity of the nuclear industry's statements. I refer to the misrepresentations and misinformation given to Dr. Black regarding Sellafield. We suffer from the consequence of an ongoing 40-year leak of radioactive material—not storage—into the sea, which an all-party Committee of the House described as the most radioactive sea in the world.

It is in that context that I protest at the continuing discharge, at any level, of radioactive waste into the Irish sea. Waste is not only going through the food chain, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) said, but it has the ability, from silt deposits on the shoreline, to be windborne inland. In my opinion, it has caused many cases of child leukaemia on the coast of Down, Antrim, and Louth in the Irish Republic. I am not an expert in these matters, but I understand that the only known cause of child leukaemia is exposure to radiation.

I said that my remarks would be brief. I plead with the Government to stop dumping waste now. We know that the technology for it exists; it is only a matter of finance. We must stop causing pollution, in contravention of the Government's own admission, which is that "dilute and disperse" should not be a general principle of waste management. But that has been the general approach of successive Governments for the past 40 years.

I view with considerable cynicism the proposals for solid waste disposal on land. I attended the conference, under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi). Nirex published a book entitled "The Way Forward". Initially, we were waiting to consult the public, but I was convinced that the decision to store solid waste at Sellafield was already made. The booklet strongly suggested that that was the case. Chapter 6, paragraph 3, referring to Sellafield, states:

despite the uncertainty of geology because of the proximity to major sources of waste. The intent is quite clear. It is not a question of what is good or proper; it is simply what is convenient. Bearing in mind the uncertain geological factors in and around Sellafield and the known seismic problems that have occurred during minor earth tremors between Wales and Ireland, we cannot take seriously the so-called search for sites. The decision has been made, and waste will be stored in and around Sellafield.

That conclusion having been made, I make one plea—that we do not bury waste under the Irish sea where it will not be able to be monitored or retrieved in years to come. We must keep it where it can be monitored, recovered and re-treated if necessary. I plead that waste be stored on land.

Why oh why do we import from the rest of the world so much nuclear dirt? There is no logical answer except the yen for the yen. I was one of the first visitors to Sellafield before it became popular to visit sunny Sellafield, as one tourist guide described it. One of the most horrific scenes there was the line after line of high-level radioactive waste that would be there for centuries to come. I was distressed to realise that I was part of the generation that is handing that waste on to the future. Let us stop handing on problems and stop importing toxic radioactive wastes from all over the world—the dirty washing that has ended up in the Irish sea and is polluting the environment of our isles. Let us stop importing other people's problems. 'We have enough of our own.

11.47 am
Sir Michael Shaw (Scarborough)

Like other hon. Members, the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) demonstrated the seriousness with which he regards this subject. In truth, it is a serious matter not only for us and our constituents but for many generations ahead. After hearing my hon. Friend the Minister's fine speech, I was surprised to hear the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) describe it as delicately complacent. I was even more surprised when he said that he would respond in kind. I am bound to say that the similarity of approach escaped me, save to say that the hon. Gentleman regarded the subject of the debate with the utmost seriousness.

I wish to intervene briefly because of the great concern of my constituents—mainly in the Whitby area—about the findings of Nirex. I congratulate the Select Committee on its report and the significant way in which it has changed our approach to this subject. Nirex, too, should be congratulated on the way that it is approaching the difficult problem with which it is faced. It now has the responsibility for developing a repository for the disposal of low-level and intermediate-level radioactive waste. Merely to say that is to create considerable concern in the minds of the general public. Indeed, the report says clearly that public anxiety is significant and deep rooted. I am bound to say that my constituents are no exception to that view.

We should put on record what the Select Committee has said about this matter in Volume 1, paragraph 225, of its report:

Thus fundamental decisions involving the expenditure of large sums of money and substantial risk to the public are not taken publicly but by the industry and its sponsors behind closed doors. So far as radioactive waste is concerned, the extent of public anxiety about it is so great, and the problems of its management and disposal so dependent upon public opinion, that this situation cannot be satisfactory. The matter cannot be left to managerial decisions within the industry, but must involve wider considerations of Government and public accountability. The conclusion that the Select Committee comes to in that short paragraph is overwhelming. I believe that this report, because of that paragraph alone, is one of the most important reports that we have had for a long time.

Over the years there has been far too much secrecy and, because of that, a deep-rooted suspicion has developed. It is the fear of the unknown and of the unseen, which have always been present in mankind's make-up. When people are not told everything—or when they are not told anything—and when serious mistakes are found to have been made, fear and suspicion are only too well justified. The problem is that there is a backlog of suspicion and, if we are to move forward, we must show that we are genuinely explaining the problems, exploring the alternatives and the needs and coming to well-judged conclusions.

I believe that the Select Committee report is clear in its demand for consultation over the widest possible area before any decisions are made. That is exactly what Nirex is doing. Nirex has been at pains to get as wide a view as possible from the public. It started by producing a report, which was published and sent to many people—Members of Parliament, and councils and organisations of all descriptions who might be interested. I thought that "The Way Forward" was well structured and informative. Nirex has made real efforts to meet people all round the country. I met Nirex not only with Ministers, but also at meetings in my constituency with the county council, the national park authority, the borough council and the town council of Whitby, who all expressed their views. All those bodies sent written evidence to Nirex to support their case. That written evidence, which includes some 2,500 responses, is now being assessed by the university of East Anglia.

I am repeating all these matters because I believe that they show a tremendous contrast between how we do things now and how we did things in the past, and that must be the way forward. It is interesting to note that not all the responses were negative. Admittedly, there were very few that were positive in their response, and those will clearly have planning and other problems. I understand that in the new year Nirex will be able to put proposals to the Government.

Having put that side of the case, and having shown the new approach to this matter, we should look a little at the other side of the equation—the way in which people such as those in my constituency, the customers, should respond. Thanks to the report and the consultations, they know what Nirex is seeking to do. They know that the geology, the different types of disposal and all the alternatives are being considered. Having been given that information, we have a responsibility to put our case. I need hardly say that our case—hon. Members may say that it is the NIMBY syndrome—is solidly against having low-level and intermediate-level deposits anywhere near our constituency. I believe that our case is a good one. However, having put our case forward, we must accept that there has to be a waiting period when the responses are considered and assessed and proposals made. During that period it is not a lot of good trying to persuade Nirex to come to a decision prior to its investigations. If the Government, and Nirex on their behalf, are acting responsibly in taking the public into their confidence—I admit that we must build up this confidence—the public must make the responsible decision to allow the process to follow its natural course.

My message this morning is that we should understand that the public is now being consulted, that the Government are seeking to make disposals that have been shown by this debate to be inevitable—hospitals and industrial processes must continue—and that the Government are spending £5 million a year on research into the safe disposals of radioactive waste. Action is being taken to make the disposal of nuclear waste as safe as possible.

I stress that, in the short period between May and early next year, we should not try to persuade Nirex to come forward with over-hasty decisions. As I am afraid is occasionally done, we should not exaggerate the concern that is felt beyond the natural concern that must exist because of the facts presented. The Select Committee showed disturbing examples of this sort of exaggeration which occurs with little evidence to support it.

We must wait. If we over-exaggerate the dangers, we shall harm tourist and business developments in our areas. Clearly, developers will not be anxious to commit themselves to fresh endeavours and capital expenditure with this threat and worry hanging over them. Nevertheless, this period of waiting is essential to give a real chance for a proper solution to be found. I hope that it will not be long in the new year before Nirex can produce proposals which have been well thought out and widely discussed, and that then the public and this House can consider them realistically, bearing in mind that a solution must be found now rather than postponed to the next generation.

12.1 pm

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

I agree with the hon. Member for Scarborough (Sir M. Shaw) that the Nirex consultations are to be welcomed. I have read "The Way Forward" and, with colleagues, submitted a response to it on behalf of my party. It excludes certain options on the basis of presumption and is not therefore the proper, open consultation about a range of options that it might be. I hope that I am proved wrong about that, and I shall return to the subject.

The debate is timely because the consultation document has been published, responses have been collected and they are being assessed. But it is untimely in the sense that we should have had it a long time ago. That is not the Minister's fault. As the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) made clear, for years we have suffered both from having ad hoc occasional responses to the growing and inevitable problems of what to do with nuclear waste and from not having a coherent strategy. I need not repeat the point that he made as Chairman of the Select Committee and that I made in an intervention.

I wish to put on record my gratitude for the report, which gives us a good and proper basis for this debate. It asks the key question: what should we do with nuclear waste? It did not go into the issue of whether we should have nuclear power. That is a separate issue, because nuclear waste is a present concern and does not arise only from our activities in generating nuclear power. The Select Committee did a good job.

My only sadness is that we had to press so long for this debate, and the Government's alleged greenness and concern for environmental issues ring hollow on that count. The Government made their written response to the report within a few months, but it was a couple of years before we could have the debate. I welcome the fact that we shall debate environmental reports on two Fridays in a row, but we should note, first, that the debates are on Fridays and, secondly, that they are belated responses to these matters.

At the heart of the Government's responce and policy is our investment in making the right sort of decisions. The Select Committee report states: The poor state of research in the UK means that it is impossible at this stage to recommend any disposal option with total confidence. The UK is well behind other nations in the research and development programmes. That was 10 years after the Flowers commission on environmental pollution made the same point. It stated of nuclear waste: We think that quite inadequate attention has been given to the matter and we find this most surprising in view of the large nuclear programmes that are envisaged in the coming decades. The lack of resources for research and safety that is attributable to present economic policy is worrying.

I have already sparred with the Minister once and pointed out that she was concerned about the lack of resources for a research institution in her constituency before she was promoted in July. I hope that these issues will remain among her campaigns. It is important that we realise how much investment is needed. The Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee report of July 1988 pointed out that we have only five inspectors to deal with our 5,000 waste sites. The chair of that committee said that nuclear waste disposal suffered "inadequacies" on a number of issues and that there were enormous uncertainties whether a deep disposal site will be found, assessed and in place by the year 2005… On top of all these deficiencies in strategic planning, we are continually being met with pleas about the severe limitations upon resources for the radiochemical inspectorate of HM Inspectorate of Pollution, which is required to administer the present system of administrative and technical controls. We were concerned to learn that there is no structured monitoring. The committee accepts that there is some strategic monitoring of ground water, but continues: The lack of available resources and the consequent gaps in monitoring activity require further attention. Some sites where radioactive material is dumped are not monitored. That is not a disputable fact.

These are the findings of a statutory committee, doing its job and reporting back to the Government and the House. Given those conclusions, will the Government ensure that resources are provided for the proper inspection, monitoring and control of the present sites, so that we know exactly what is going on now and the public can be assured that it is safe and that the prospective and potential danger is contained until we work out the best solution?

I challenge the Government fundamentally on their complete avoidance of a response to the Select Committee on the matter of reprocessing, particularly the importation of materials for reprocessing. We are the major importer of other countries' spent fuel which we use to generate profit for ourselves. It is entirely irresponsible to import spent fuel simply to obtain profits for our domestic economy. I know that there are by-products, and the Government in their response make it clear what they are. They do not accept the Committee's basic premise that there is no overall strategic technical and economic case for reprocessing AGR fuel and that financial considerations are the sole reasons for continuing with the THORP contract. The Government point out that we must preserve the opportunity to utilise uranium and plutonium.

An important report published recently, written by a member of Friends of The Earth, shows unequivocally—I invite anyone who can to dispute its findings, because I think that they are indisputable—that the enormous secrecy of the CEGB for 20 years is partly attributable to the fact that it wanted to conceal that the nuclear industry did not principally and only supply fuel, but existed also for nuclear weapons and nuclear military by-products. That remains the case.

Mr. Allan Roberts

Considering the hon. Gentleman's party's apparent commitment to a replacement for Polaris and an independent nuclear deterrent, would a Liberal or Democratic Government maintain Sellafield, and is the production of military-grade plutonium supported by his party?

Mr. Hughes

I am able to give a straightforward answer. One advantage of a new party is that one does not inherit pages of policy. Liberals suffered in an old party from having too many masses of policy. We have had one conference and have formulated some policies, but we have not yet formulated either our defence policy on Polaris or our policy on these issues. We shall have answered these questions by the next election, but the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) should not criticise us for not having done so yet, only six months after forming our party, when his old party is currently undergoing a two-year policy review. He will have to wait for the answers.

The most important questions now are about the Government's policy. The money that we make processing spent fuel, accumulating spent waste and handling spent fuel at THORP is entirely unacceptable. The hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams), who has now left the Chamber, made a good speech, because he speaks on this subject with expertise and knowledge of the industry. He spoke about some of the technical problems of the Government's policy. He said that the procedure of reprocessing and what is done in THORP only intensities the production of waste. The figures show that 100 cu ft of spent fuel removed from the reactor and processed at Sellafield produces 62 cu ft of high-level waste, 1,000 cu ft of intermediate-level waste and 15,000 cu ft of low-level waste.

We cannot afford to continue to import waste, which we then massively increase, when we do not have a satisfactory way of dealing with it. The only thing that it will be used for, if, according to Government policy, we phase out fast-breeder nuclear reactors, is nuclear weapons. That must be the result of the process and we must not pretend otherwise. The main customer for THORP will be Japan. We are already receiving much of its waste. It is then transported around the country, and one of the greatest problems, not addressed by the Government, is transportation. Every hon. Member has concern expressed to him by his constituents when they hear that nuclear waste is being transported by road, rail or air, for example, across the Irish sea to Prestwick.

One of the best arguments for on-site storage, as the hon. Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) said, is that we avoid the danger of waste being transported around the country, with all the risks that ensue. The Association of County Councils responded to Nirex's report, "The Way Forward", and said that it was concerned that the document did not address transportation issues sufficiently clearly. Three or four nuclear waste trains come through London every week. Ten tonnes of radioactive waste are sent along the fairly remote north London line on their way to Sellafield. They go through major centres of population in the north of England. We must do something to reduce the transportation risks, particularly as it is probable that there may be lower safety standards as a result of the privatisation of the electricity industry.

Nirex is investigating all the options. It took a preliminary view that there should be deep disposal storage, either onshore or offshore, as opposed to on-site storage. In some respects deep disposal storage may be safe, but it is less safe from the view of geological movement. That is a risk whether one buries deep down under sea or under land. There are fewer risks associated with on-site storage. The waste is more easily monitored.

Given that much of the waste has to be stored above ground anyway, there is a growing consensus that storage should be on site because it is more easily monitored. That is my view and that of my colleagues. That is the view that we put in the response to "The Way Forward". We should store on-site until we find an alternative method that is safe beyond reasonable doubt. If we cannot, we should take an alternative such as, for example, the off-site Swedish precedent. We may have to do that, but we should not do so until we have reached a scientific decision.

Mr. Allan Roberts

I have my doubts whether it is a good idea to proliferate storage all over the country wherever there are nuclear power stations. Some of those nuclear power stations will be phased out in the not too distant future and the general public will not support that idea.

The Labour party believes that we should not dispose of intermediate and high-level waste. We believe that it should be stored and monitored, but I do not see why that cannot be done in the safest possible way, barriered to the greatest extent possible from people and the environment. Provided that it is not disposed of underground, it is far bettered barriered in that way than in any facility that man builds on the surface.

Mr. Hughes

Storage, whether above or below ground, is clearly more acceptable than disposal. We have to be able to see what is going on to monitor the waste and to retrieve it if necessary. There is a consensus about that. Even two or three years ago people talked about disposal as an option, but that is now receding as an acceptable option.

The people who live near nuclear power stations may not find it acceptable to store there. The case I know best is that of Trawsfynydd in north Wales, where the community has come to accept the power station although it is not something they would choose to have in their community. None the less, even if a nuclear power station is to be decommissioned and takes 100 years to dismantle, it is better for storage to be on site until the problems of transportation and storage elsewhere have been solved.

The policy for radioactive waste must be agreed across party political lines. I hope that the Government will not seek to steamroller through a view to which there is substantial scientific or political objection. The crucial issue is whether we are agreed on the strategy for all the waste that we currently hold and will produce in the future. I hope that the Government will listen to the increasing number of people who say that they want a safe answer to the present dilemma as well as a reduction in the amount of nuclear waste that we shall have in the future. There is no entirely safe way of disposing of or storing the waste. It cannot be safe, because of the nature of the product. We must therefore reduce the amount we produce, the amount we transport around the country. Our communities are at risk.

This debate is welcome. When Nirex has given its conclusion, we must have another debate so that we can respond to the document and ensure that we make the right decision.

12.18 pm
Mr. Norman Miscampbell (Blackpool, North)

I intend to be very brief after the excellent introduction to the debate by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi), who is the Chairman of the Committee on which I have the privilege to serve.

We have had opportunities since the publication of the report to discuss these matters, especially when we placed the orders to consider the four sites. I congratulate the Government on their change of attitude since we last debated the matter. It is one of the most remarkable changes that we have noticed for some time. The thrust of our report was simply that we must get a Rolls-Royce result. The Government were pretty chary about accepting the expense and drive of it, and some people talk of the impossibility of getting one, but I do not think that anybody disputes the fact that we must keep high-level waste above ground for many years.

We need a Rolls-Royce result, not just for high-level waste, but for intermediate and low-level waste. We shall get public acceptance of nuclear power only if we deal with all levels of waste in a way that is probably more expensive and nearer the Rolls-Royce solution than is necessary. The Germans are fortunate to have salt domes that go down 3,000 ft and in which they know there has been no water for 180 million years. We have salt too, but I do not think that we have the domes. Solutions are open to us in Canada and the United States.

I went round each of the four sites which the Government proposed for low-level waste disposal until shortly before the general election. Any one of them would have done as long as it was confined strictly to low-level waste. I dare say that if I had been the Member of Parliament for any one of them, however, I would have been opposed to waste being dumped there. It is clear that Drigg is not acceptable, but there is not the slightest evidence of leaching, despite the low level of technology there. That shows that getting rid of low-level waste is not a serious problem.

We heard interesting speeches from the hon. Members for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams) and for Bootle (Mr. Roberts), who say that they will phase out atomic production of electricity.

Mr. Allan Roberts

I never said that. There is a policy review. I am in exactly the same position as the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). We fought the general election on a policy of phasing out nuclear power. A commitee of the Trades Union Congress and the Labour party is considering the issue. I said that if we phased out nuclear power we would create more nuclear waste in the short term than we would if we kept nuclear power.

Mr. Miscampbell

I accept that. Nevertheless, there is a view, which is expressed eloquently by Opposition Members, that the way to solve the problem is to turn our back on nuclear energy. One of the problems with politics in Britain is that for the most part we have 10-year problems and five-year Governments—at least that was true until 1979. We have here a 50 or 100-year problem, and we are approaching it as though we can produce political solutions that are acceptable to our constituents now.

I do not believe that Western society will for long tolerate the absence of personal transport. There are 18 million cars in Britain alone and there are children being born today who will not be able to get the petrol necessary to run a car. There will not be sufficient petrol for individual motor cars, to say nothing of the needs of industry. From a political point of view, it is impossible to take away from Western man his capacity for individual transport. That being so, the only solution to the absence of petrol is some form of electrical transport. Replacing cars in 50 years' time will require an electricity generating industry that is three or four times the size of the present one. In cannot conceive of the possibility of turning our backs on nuclear power.

When the Select Committee was in Sweden, we were told that they had had a referendum and that they would close down nuclear generation. We spoke to a distinguished and, I thought, practical scientist and asked what he thought would happen. He replied that when they face reality, people will change their minds. I believe that that is the truth.

12.24 pm
Ms. Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

I also welcome this debate, but it would be much better held in prime Government time. It would also be better if we were able to deal with other important factors such as energy and environmental and economic issues. I should have liked the relevant Secretaries of State and the Chancellor of the Exchequer and their shadow Cabinet equivalents to be present so that each component of the debate could be explored.

The Prime Minister has signalled her intention to continue with nuclear power for what she regards as sound reasons. I believe that they are not sound environmental reasons. The council in Stoke-on-Trent is worried about the environmental aspects of the matter. I believe that the Prime Minister's concern is misguided and economic, and that her new-found commitment to environmental issues has more to do with nuclear defence than with environmental issues.

The Minister told us much about the benefits of nuclear power. Women are not convinced of the new-found benefits of nuclear power. Anybody who takes the trouble to read the appendices to the Environment Select Committee's first report on radioactive waste will find that even the National Federation of Women's Institutes says: about one-third of our members feel the risks arising from radioactive wastes are so great that the nuclear power programme should be halted. We must take the important issue of health into account. A very important meeting organised by the nuclear-free zone authorities is to take place in London soon. It will consider leukaemia clusters and radiation. None of us should ignore the important health considerations involved in this debate.

We must note what the Chairman of the Select Committee said about the problem of existing nuclear waste. We cannot ignore it, and we must find a means of doing something about it. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) I deplore the fact that in 1979, or shortly afterwards, the Government cancelled research into possible sites for dealing with the problem. Had the money not been cut, and had the research gone ahead, we might now be in a better position to deal with the problems. Far more research should be done into meeting our energy needs. We have to take on board the fact that in three generations we shall have squandered energy resources that have taken millions of years to be produced. We have to consider those issues.

How do we deal with the problems that we have at the moment? I should like to bring to the attention of the House the comments made by my local council, the city of Stoke-on-Trent council, following the discussions of its environmental committee on the Nirex document, "The Way Forward". I believe that the comments of the city of Stoke-on-Trent council are extremely important. I know the concern of the chair and vice-chair of that committee, Councillors Marion Beckett and Norman Rides. We have to take their comments into account. They said:

The disposal of radio-active waste is an environmental problem which should have been foreseen when the commercial exploitation of nuclear power commenced … It is strongly recommended that the waste be stored in a secure site, which will remain accessible to cater for the possibility of finding a long-term solution whereby radio-active waste could be neutralised. I add my support to the view expressed today that we should be talking, not about permanent disposal for all time, but about storage, so that at some stage in the very near future proper technology can be found to deal with our existing problems.

Stoke-on-Trent also considers it essential that accurate records of the storage of radio-active waste be kept for future generations and that

the consideration of safety is paramount to that of cost and the choice of best method of disposal should not be subject to budgetary constraints. In these days of market forces, I find it very difficult to understand how the far greater costs to public safety can ever be reconciled with the concern for profit, particularly when we now face the privatisation of the electricity industry. There is real concern that when privatisation goes ahead—I am sure that it will if the Government have their way, but not if we, the Opposition, have our way—the profit motive will continue to prevail. The council states:

It is likely that the waste disposal costs, and therefore the unit charge of electricity generated by nuclear power would be higher than if powered by other means. A private electricity company using nuclear fuel may be tempted to economise on disposal costs in order to undercut its competitors. Should private nuclear electricity generation prove unviable the cost of waste disposal would fall on the exchequer. I remind the House of the comments of Walter Marshall, who said that the consumer will have to pay for the phasing out of Magnox power stations.

We have heard a lot today about "not in my back yard" and "not in my term of office" from the Government. However, I should put it on record that the geological record centre at the City Museum in Hanley reveals that the general geology of Stoke-on-Trent is totally unsuitable for a deep repository, being comprised of mineral reserves, principally coal, and is heavily faulted. That area is also prone to earth tremors.

When the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) introduced his report, he said that geology should determine where we are to put the waste and how we should treat it. I feel strongly that it is not just a matter of geology, but, as I pointed out in an intervention, of technology and public concern. I was not convinced by the comments of Conservative Members who said if only it could be like it is in France, if only we could offer people living in areas where there are nuclear power stations better compensation for the cost of their homes, if only we could bribe them in some way—which is what that amounts to—they would be more likely to accept what I believe are great dangers to health from nuclear power.

Mr. Allan Roberts

Even give them free electricity.

Ms. Walley

Free electricity may come into it.

The transportation of spent nuclear fuel has not been dealt with. I am alarmed about the way in which we are importing nuclear waste when we do not have the technology to deal with our own industry. The Minister is not in the Chamber, but I see that my remarks are being written down and I am grateful for that. I should like the Minister to give me a cast-iron assurance that when the Channel tunnel opens it will not be used for the transportion of spent nuclear fuel. We have heard much about the dangers of sea, air and road transportation. This is an issue which the Nuclear Free Zones Association has taken up on many occasions. We have to know what sort of controls, if any, the Government intend to place on the Channel tunnel when it becomes operational.

All those issues are important. We have to address ourselves to the safe disposal of nuclear waste. If we cannot satisfy public opinion, the terms of paragraph 5 of the report, which were read out earlier, will have to apply. A policy of nuclear power cannot continue if we cannot find a safe way of dealing with the large problem.

12.36 pm
Mr. Tony Speller (Devon, North)

If, on a Friday, we were discussing capital punishment or abortion, the Chamber would be full. We are discussing nuclear waste, which is just as deadly as any other subject we discuss in the House, and there is a level of mutual incomprehension between those who are totally against nuclear energy and therefore against any more nuclear waste and those who see nuclear energy as the only way forward. My points register a cross-bench view.

The hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) may not recall the fact that we made our maiden speeches on the same day. He spoke at length about privies in Bootle, and I well remember the trouble he got into by reading some rather lengthy statistics. Everyone assumes that the generation choice is nuclear energy or dirty, nasty coal, gas, oil or something that produces CO2 and other noxious substances. It is not. If we want simplicity, even the privies of Bootle would produce the methane gas to run my colleagues' motor car in years to come. Similarly, the tide rises and falls 36 ft a day around the coast of north Devon. If we could harness that into a decent Severn barrage, we could produce 20 per cent. of the energy for the whole country. There are other alternatives to think about beside nuclear or coal energy.

If we continue with nuclear power, nuclear waste will increase as will the storage problem and we will have to trust the solution that my hon. Friend the Minister said has been found or allow ourselves more time to find it. However, there is a "but". I have recently been in the United States which is an advanced country, although one would not think so since the Minister mentioned France, Italy and other places but omitted the United States as having nuclear energy. There is virtually no construction industry left for the nuclear industry in the United States. The population want electricity at the flick of a switch and probably do not think too much about how it is produced. However, they get extremely anxious and refuse any planning permission for new nuclear plants.

The same is happening in this country when Nirex does its duty. I have no quarrel with Nirex, the CEGB or British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. They consist of professional people doing a professional job. If we seek to attribute to them wicked habits that is both illogical and nonsensical. They are doing their job legally and with superb safety standards. We tend to replicate much of what happens in the United States, for better or worse and that country is leading in the disposal of waste. I do not know of one hon. Member who would want a nuclear waste storage site in his constituency.

Mr. Michael Brown


Mr. Speller

There are one or two.

Mr. Brown

The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell).

Mr. Speller

We accept that one hon. Member from either side of the House is a fair balance of sanity.

Mr. Allan Roberts

My hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) recently received a letter from someone in Brigg and Cleethorpes saying, "Let us face it, Mr. Cunningham, you would not allow any of this stuff in your constituency, would you."

Mr. Speller

The debate is improving as the hour increases.

The essence of the nuclear dream, which many of us shared and some still do, was plentiful, cheap and clean energy. But is is a fact that in the past year we have put less nuclear energy into the grid than over the previous five or six years. My hon. Friend the Minister said that the figure was rising to 22 per cent., but the coal industry is producing 80 per cent. of our electricity and a ratio of four to one is high when we have had nuclear technology for a quarter of a century or more. It is quite unreasonable to assume that there are only two choices.

As to cheapness, the only fuel that is not decreasing in price is nuclear energy. The price of coal has plummeted, as has the real price of gas and oil. Nuclear energy is not now claimed to be a cheap fuel. With regard to cleanliness there is the everlasting problem of nuclear waste, so if we are to continue with nuclear power we must accept some of the ideas advanced by the hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams). He made a lot of sense about surface storage of nuclear waste. I was delighted to hear that my hon. Friend the Minister believes that we have a policy to look after waste. However, I know of no member of the public who shares her confidence. I know of no one who would want a waste site adjacent to his house, that of his neighbour or even of his mother-in-law. The public just do not believe that there is a safe answer to nuclear waste.

I favour privatisation, not only because of the enterprise that it generates, but because if a nuclear generating plant cannot be insured no private enterprise firm will ever build one. The wishes of the anti-nuclear people may come to pass through the chance of privatisation, unless the Government will bind themselves and their successors, which I do not believe they can do, to being the insurer of a private industry. We may have the surprising but quite hopeful position that shareholders in the private electricity industry will say, "We do not want our electricity generated in this way, we do not wish nuclear waste to increase, and we do not want it to be hidden away on our land." Through the privatisation process, the public will decide whether the nuclear dream has ended and, so I suspect, over a few years will the nuclear energy industry itself.

12.42 pm
Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

Like other hon. Members, I congratulate the Minister on her promotion. She may be interested to know that as a result of today's debate I had to cancel a long-standing engagement to speak to the Soroptimist International group in Glasgow, which will be attended by 2,000 members. The debate relates to the need for more women in senior places in business and commerce and in. politics. It is hoped that that would lead to an impact on the environment to the benefit of the community. I hope that the Minister will note the significance of that debate, take away our words of wisdom and, in a future debate, say that the Government are changing their mind slightly on their policies.

The debate is of particular importance to Wales and Scotland, not just to the other regions to which reference has been made in the debate. That stems from the fact that in the document "The Way Forward" Nirex mentions the areas that it considers suitable for disposal of low and intermediate-level waste. The red areas, which have been defined as being the most likely acceptable places were all around the coast of Scotland and the Isle of Anglesey.

My hon. Friends—who cannot be here today because they are in Wales at the Plaid Cymru conference—and I initiated a debate on 8 December last year, which is recorded in Hansard. Some of our questions have not yet been answered. I believe that this debate today is the only debate of any length on this subject. Referring to the planning procedures in respect of the application by Nirex for the disposal of waste, the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment—the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Mr. Moynihan)—said that it might be necessary to bring forward

a special development order approved by Parliament."—[Official Report, 8 December 1987; Vol. 124, c. 296.] The position is still not clear. What will be Parliament's role in granting permission to Nirex to proceed with orders for the disposal of waste on or beneath land? A confidential legal agreement has been drawn up in principle between Lord Thurso and Nirex which would enable Nirex to buy land from Lord Thurso if Nirex wanted further to develop the Altnabreac site in Caithness. What will be the Government's role in an agreement between a private landowner and Nirex? Will such a matter come before Parliament?

What cognisance will be taken of the strong opinion expressed by elected Members, by the Grampian and Highlands regional councils, by district councils and in referendums by people who do not want this development to proceed? The view of the public must be given full weight if we are to believe that we still operate in a democratic society. I should like clear guidance from the Minister. Perhaps she will look at the matter in detail and respond to me by letter at a future date. We need much more information on the procedures.

I draw the Minister's attention to a referendum organised by Banff and Buchan district council. The turnout was 41,198, or 65 per cent. of the electorate. Of those who were asked whether they regarded the possibility of such a site as acceptable, 98 per cent. said no and 2 per cent. said yes. That is a clear statement in a referendum conducted by an elected body that the development is unacceptable.

Highlands regional council in its letter of 10 May to me, and presumably to other Scottish Members, said: a single repository for the United Kingdom set in the Highlands carries the potential to change public perception of the Highlands as an area having a clean environment and upon which so much of the economic activity of the Region depends; the potential for this change of attitude towards the Highlands represents a risk which the Regional Council would not wish to see taken. That is a clear statement by elected members.

The regional council for Grampian, where my constituency is situated, has responded to Nirex in a detailed document, and I should be happy to send a copy to the Minister if she wishes to discuss it. In the context of strategic planning, Grampian regional council said: The general policy of the Regional Council to nuclear waste disposal is provided in the Aberdeen Area Structure Plan Review … which states: 'There will be no disposal of nuclear waste other than low level within the Region. Proposals for the disposal of low level nuclear waste will be required to satisfy the Regional Council that there will be no detriment to the health and welfare of the population or to the environment.' A similar policy … is included in the Rural Area Structure Plan. The Secretary of State for Scotland reserved his approval of both these policies when he approved the plans in January 1988 and June 1985 respectively. Why has the Secretary of State for Scotland reserved his approval for those comments by Grampian regional council?

Mr. Malcolm Moss (Cambridgeshire, North-East)

Does the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) agree that one district council in the Dounreay area of Caithness has said that it would look favourably at the disposal or storage at depth of nuclear waste in the locality?

Mrs. Ewing

That is true and that point was made earlier. However, the population overall has shown that it dissents from that attitude. Surely our democracy is based on the belief that the majority view should prevail.

The Dounreay area faces major problems of unemployment about which the local people are concerned. Nirex and the Government have held out hopes—they are perhaps false—about the employment prospects attached to the disposal of nuclear waste. I shall deal with that later.

I know that the Minister has no responsibility for the Scottish Office, but I ask that she liaise with the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales on planning procedures.

Much of the debate has centred on the "not in my back yard" attitude. Some people may consider that that is an emotional attitude, but we have to consider what the back yard represents to people in the area. The words "back yard" are rather derogatory and many people find them offensive. Nirex referred to NIM BY in its document about the area. One aspect that Nirex argued was important was that there would be a low population density in the areas that were chosen for the disposal of medium-level waste. In the Nirex presentation, which I, and other hon. Members, attended, a slide was shown that was supposed to represent population density in the United Kingdom. However, for Scotland the slide showed that only the Lothians and Edinburgh have high levels of population density. Glasgow, the central belt, Aberdeen and the Grampian region were missed out. If that is the background against which Nirex is operating, it is no surprise that people in my area are deeply worried about the effectiveness and efficiency of Nirex's approach. They have genuine fears about what will happen to their community. They think of health, for example.

A report was issued by the National Radiological Protection Board entitled "The Risk of Childhood Leukaemia near Nuclear Establishments". The report's findings were not conclusive, but it raised major issues. For example, researchers reported:

An approximately ten-fold excess … of leukaemia registrations in the 0–24 age group, in the period 1979–1984, at distances less than 12.5 km from the Dounreay Nuclear Power Development Establishment, … Caithness, which includes Thurso. Many heartbroken families in that area are watching their youngsters dying from leukaemia, and that causes major anxiety about health and the way in which we control nuclear waste and the nuclear industry.

The disposal of nuclear waste also has an impact on industry. We have assessed that if the negative effect of the disposal of nuclear waste at sea were limited to reducing employment in the fishing industry by a mere 1 per cent., 250 permanent jobs would be lost in the north-east and the north of Scotland. That is a conservative estimate of the possible job losses in one industry. My area is dependent on tourism, agriculture, whisky, and fish and food processing. All of those industries rely on the concept and reality of a clean environment. People in those industries in my area have little doubt that if the area is chosen as a likely site for a deep depository, those industries will suffer because people throughout the world will have doubts about the cleanliness of our products, which is something on which we have prided ourselves over the years and which has brought considerable revenue to the Exchequer. That is why there is considerable antagonism.

Nirex has said that 100 long-term jobs are a likely result of the establishment of an underground depository, but I am not prepared to see many hundreds of other jobs disappear for the sake of 100 jobs. We want a long-term future for our area. We have seen Highland clearances before and we are not prepared to have our rural communities used in this way, with complete disregard for their long-term benefit.

In Scotland, we recognise our responsibilities in the disposal of nuclear waste. After all, 60 per cent. of United Kingdom nuclear energy is produced in Scotland. The Minister's statistics suggested that the dependency was smaller, but Scotland is responsible for 60 per cent. of the production and therefore faces all the risks that that entails. Many incidents in recent years have caused great concern. For example, the leakages at Hunterston had a knock-on effect into the Irish sea, as the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) pointed out. Scotland lives with that reality, and we recognise our responsibility in the disposal of existing waste.

The Scottish National party is non-nuclear. We wish to see decommissioning, but we have to face the existing situation. We have come to the conclusion that on-site, above-ground, storage is the best way to handle nuclear waste. Beyond that, however, there is a clear need for the Government to involve international decision-making on this matter, which is a major problem not just for the United Kingdom but for the world. I hope that a great deal more emphasis will be placed on sharing research, debate and discussion so as to resolve the problem.

When I say that we must have international discussions, I do not mean that the United Kingdom should become the repository for everyone else's nuclear waste. We are not prepared to become a nuclear dustbin. We recognise our responsibilities in relation to existing waste in this country, but for far too long the United Kingdom seems to have been prepared to take in everyone else's problems and process their waste with consequent danger to our own community.

The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi), who opened the debate on behalf of the Government in his capacity as Chairman of the Select Committee on the Environment mentioned "NIMTOO", or "not in my term of office," as a new aspect of the phraseology of these debates. How long I remain as Member of Parliament for Moray will depend on the decision of the people there, but I make a clear comitment to the House, to my constituents and to the people of Scotland in general that if the Highlands and the north-east of Scotland are designated as the area which is to take in everyone else's nuclear waste problems, I will lie down in front of the bulldozers and do everything possible to stop that happening.

12.57 pm
Mr. Henry Bellingham (Norfolk, North-West)

It is a pleasure to speak after the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) and I hope very much that the final picture that she painted in her speech will not become a reality.

Before dealing with my concern in this debate, I must make one or two comments about the gratuitous and wholly uncalled for attack on my hon. Friend the Minister by the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts). Anyone would have thought that Labour party policy on this was clear and united, but nothing could be further from the truth.

It is interesting to note that the recent Labour party document Social Justice and Economic Efficiency", makes no mention whatever of nuclear power. In a recent radio interview, however the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith) said that nuclear power would be needed as part of a balanced energy programme, but later the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) was quoted as saying: Labour's policy does not accept that we need to maintain an element of nuclear power in order to balance our resources and the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) has said that Labour should not abandon altogether the option of developing Civil Nuclear Power". And so it goes on.

I also dug up The Guardian of 21 October 1987, in which the hon. Member for Bootle, unveiling Labour's first policy commitment on radioactive waste disposal, was quoted as endorsing the commitment to back British Nuclear Fuels' plans to store nuclear waste under the sea off Sellafield.

Mr. Allan Roberts

I reiterated my commitment to research into an underground waste repository, where nuclear waste could be retrieved and monitored. I was a signatory to the all-party Select Committee report which we are debating and which recommended exactly that.

Mr. Bellingham

I read The Guardian carefully, and it may be that it was wrong—

Mr. Allan Roberts

No, it was right.

Mr. Bellingham

So it was right. However, it was only on 4 November last year that the hon. Gentleman said: Does the Minister not accept that there are no proposals by BNFL or anyone else to dump any nuclear waste under the sea and that the Labour party does not support any proposals to dump waste in the North sea?"—[Official Report, 4 November 1987; Vol. 121, c. 924.]

Mr. Allan Roberts

I cannot understand what on earth the hon. Gentleman is talking about. The BNFL proposals are not to dump anything anywhere; they are to store waste in a retrievable, monitorable form in a deep underground repository. That was my point. No one is in favour of dumping in the sea or anywhere else.

Mr. Bellingham

That is fair enough. However, the Labour party is hopelessly divided on this issue. It is in a muddle. The hon. Gentleman's attack on my hon. Friend the Minister was uncalled for.

I start from the premise of someone who supports nuclear power. It has a crucial role to play and is the only alternative to fossil fuels. I accept my hon. Friend the Minister's point about renewable energy sources. We must spend money researching them, especially tide and wind. Indeed, a great deal is already being spent. However, to pretend that environmental consequences will not flow from such energy sources is pie in the sky. It has already been clearly shown that there will be major environmental consequences from adopting those sources. We must spend the money researching them, but it is unrealistic to assume that they are a solution to our problem.

The environmental case for nuclear fuels is very strong. We have heard a great deal about SO2, sulphur dioxide, and acid rain, and I accept that it is a serious matter. However, the technology exists greatly to reduce emissions of SO2. We have not heard much about CO2, which is the main contributor to the so-called greenhouse effect. My hon. Friend the Minister is aware that every year CEGB power stations emit 200 million tonnes of CO2

Mr. Allan Roberts


Mr. Bellingham

It is scandalous, but the technology does not exist to reduce those emissions. The Labour party says that we must spend more and more money on coal-fired power stations. Emissions of SO2 can be reduced, but what about CO2? I have spent much of this year serving on the Environment Select Committee, so ably chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi), considering the effects of environmental pollution, acid rain and the greenhouse effect, and I have no doubt that nuclear fuel is one form of energy for which there is a strong environmental case.

If we accept that argument and pursue the stance that I am taking, we must accept the need to dispose of or store low-level and intermediate nuclear waste. My hon. Friend the Minister made the important point, which is worth repeating, that the volume of waste is small. I read the other day that all the low-level and intermediate-level waste produced in the next 42 years will in volume represent no more than three weeks of domestic waste. When compared with the coal mining industry, it is equivalent to 10 days spoil. That puts the matter into perspective.

We are not talking about a huge amount of waste. Although the hon. Member for Moray made an excellent speech, listening to her one would have thought that she was talking about huge amounts of waste, when in fact it is a relatively small amount.

Mr. Allan Roberts

No one has ever argued that the problem is the volume of nuclear waste. The problem is its radioactivity and its toxicity and the fact that, by nature, it must be barriered in a way that other wastes are not. That is the issue.

As for clean coal, when it was studying acid rain, not the disposal of nuclear waste, the Environment Select Committee visited a town called Södertälje in Sweden. We saw a coal-fired power station that put out through its chimneys air that was cleaner than the air that it took in. That was because of coal-burning technology. The waste heat from that power station provided economic heating for the whole town of Södertälje. The amazing thing was that the people of the town use British coal because they have none of their own.

Mr. Bellingham

I read that part of the Select Committee's report. The hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that that power station was able to reduce emissions of sulphur dioxide, but there are still large emissions of it. We cannot avoid that. We will not get away from the greenhouse effect.

Even if we were to stop the nuclear programme tomorrow, we would still have to deal with a large amount of nuclear waste. Furthermore, if we want modern medicine, modern technology, and a modern industrialised society, we shall have a great deal of low-level waste. The problem must be gripped and examined positively, and we must take constructive, determined steps to deal with it.

I am not 100 per cent. clear about the Government's policy on reprocessing. The Nirex document "The Way Forward" makes it quite clear that the vast bulk of intermediate and low-level nuclear waste comes from the manufacturing or reprocessing of nuclear fuel. A chart shows that, up to the year 2030, at least half of both types of waste will be caused by manufacturing or reprocessing nuclear fuel. At least 80 per cent. of AGR fuels come from uranium recovered from the reprocessing of Magnox fuels. The implications are fairly obvious. If production were to stop tomorrow, alternative supplies would have to be found. Although there is a great deal of expertise in reprocessing, there is little experience in the disposal of spent fuels. That matter must be considered.

We are in more difficulty with the reprocessing of irradiated oxide fuel from AGRs and PWRs. I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Minister will wind up the debate or reply in correspondence, but perhaps she can clarify the Government's policy on the funding of fast breeder research. We have already had some discussion about that matter. Is it the Government's policy slowly to phase out such funding? If that is their policy, surely they are going some way towards acknowledging that there is no future for plutonium as a fuel material. Obviously, that would cast a doubt on the rationale of reprocessing at Sellafield.

I draw my hon. Friend's attention to remarks made by Lord Marshall the other day. He is reported to have told the Engineers and Managers Association that the Government would have to pay the extra costs of reprocessing after privatisation of the industry. I should like my hon. Friend to consider that matter, even if she cannot find an answer now.

The THORP plant must also be considered carefully. It took the Government a long time to clarify exactly what will become of the plutonium that is recovered from Japanese spent fuel. I understand that it is the Government's intention to transport it by road to Prestwick airport, and then, by 747 aircraft to Japan. By the year 2000, 23 tonnes of plutonium will be transported at the rate of more than one flight per month. Each flight will carry enough plutonium to make at least 50 atomic bombs.

The Japanese electrical utilities are on record as saying that they do not expect fast breeders to become economic before the year 2030. If that is so, why are we proposing to shift so much plutonium so far, so soon? We must consider the safety and security implications. I hope that the Minister will deal with these concerns, which are genuine, and have been put to me by the people of west Norfolk and the the surrounding constituencies, who are worried about the Nirex proposals.

I have read carefully the Nirex document, "The Way Forward". I believe that it is a well-balanced document. It sets things out extremely well, in a great deal of detail and in a way that is sensitive to and understanding of the concern that will be generated in the different communities. I feel that it makes the case strongly for the technology and technique of deep storage disposal. If one looks at recent reports dealing with this matter—such as the Environment Committee's report, the House of Lords Sub-committee F report, the TUC nuclear energy review body report and the Association of District Councils report—one sees that they all come down in favour of the technology behind deep disposal. They all say that it is technology that can work, and one of the big advantages of it is that there is one storage /disposal site. By concentrating everything on that one site the problems can be dealt with and coped with for many years to come. There are a good many advantages in adopting that stance. As I am not an expert on this subject, I have looked carefully at these reports and I support the conclusion that the technology behind it is sound, reliable and safe.

West Norfolk is one of the areas included in, shall we say, a long list of sites. A few of the potential sites in those bands have been drawn on the map in "The Way Forward". During the past few months Members of Parliament for Norfolk, for Cambridgeshire, and for Lincolnshire have been bombarded by representations from constituents. There is a great deal of concern based on what the Select Committee itself has described as the fear of the unknown. In paragraph 221 of volume I of the report the Select Committee sums it up well. It says: Public anxiety is significant and deep-rooted. A part of it originates from the nature of radiation. It is associated with dreaded nuclear weapons and the scenes at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Not only is radiation difficult to understand but it 'cannot be seen, felt or smelt, it is known to be associated with cancer and other genetic diseases, and it is regarded as uncontrollable, insidious and potentially lethal to large numbers of entirely innocent and trusting people.' These emotions are very powerful. We cannot believe that the industry thinks they can be dealt with simply by increasing public relations budgets. That is also my experience.

Some of the representations that I have received are from people who are completely opposed to nuclear power and are obviously taking the opportunity to use this as a legitimate campaign, not just against the plans of Nirex, but against the wider policy of nuclear fuel. However, many of those who signed those petitions and are deeply concerned about the proposals as they relate to west Norfolk, support the Government's nuclear programme and the arguments in favour of a deep storage disposal site.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Moss), I have met many of the signatories to the petitions. On Wednesday we shall meet a delegation of "No to Nirex" campaigners who will hand us a petition signed by 46,000 people in our constituencies. That is a vast number of people, and they have signed these petitions because they are concerned that, because Norfolk is on that long list, it will be studied more carefully, may be subjected to further investigation and then may be put on a short list and eventually chosen as the site.

Several themes emerge. The first and most significant is that this area is one of outstanding natural beauty. Much of it contains a heritage coastline, and many areas are sites of special scientific interest. I am pleased that "The Way Forward" states that there is an argument for excluding in the first instance SSSIs, environmentally sensitive and important sites and sites with particular heritage value as well as areas with a high level of population.

The whole business of transportation has been rammed home to me time and again. Nirex pointed out, probably somewhat conservatively, that we are talking about 15 train loads a week to the railhead. That means at least 500 lorry movements a week from the railhead through to the Nirex installation. Alternatively, a railway may be built to the installation. I do not know which option Nirex would adopt if it came to East Anglia, but I expect that the cost of extending the railway to the installation would be such, given that it will be some distance from the nearest railway station, that it will probably rely on heavy lorries to transport the waste.

Mr. Allan Roberts

From the Select Committee and other recommendations, it seems that the best option would be for the waste to be transported by rail, and that whether it can be so transported should be a consideration, as the disposal site for low-level waste or the storage facility should be reachable by rail. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the present policy of British Rail and the Government of keeping secret the transportation of nuclear waste, and not even telling local authorities through which it travels when and how it is coming, would have to end if there was the frequency of transportation suggested by the hon. Gentleman?

Mr. Bellingham

I agree. If we are to proceed with the present policy, far more information should be given to the public. The public should be aware of what happens. The hon. Gentleman is right in saying that the Select Committee's recommendations are along those lines, but "The Way Forward" envisages a railhead connected by road links to the installation. If that happened in west Norfolk, the effect would be disastrous. Time and again my constituents have stressed that ours is an area of outstanding natural beauty, that it is mainly a farming area, where the roads are already inadequate to take the amount of holiday traffic generated during the tourist season, and that if we had to contend with that number of heavy lorry movements a day the effect on the local community would be devastating and truly unacceptable.

I know that the diagrams of the installation are artists' impressions of what it will look like and that it may be possible to landscape it perfectly well, but it would remain a scar on an attractive landscape. Nowhere in west Norfolk, north Norfolk, south-west Norfolk, north-east Cambridgeshire or south Lincolnshire could an installation be located without having damaging effects on the immediate surrounding community and the wider communities. Aesthetically, it would be damaging.

The other point that has been made to me on many occasions is about the effect on tourism. The hon. Member for Moray made a good point about the psychological impact of this sort of installation. The psychological impact on industry, business and tourism would be immense. One must accept the fact that the goods and services from the area would be tarnished and that it would take many years to get over that psychological hurdle. That point has been rammed home to me. It is not made in "The Way Forward", but Nirex must take on board that fact and consider it carefully.

I am a self-confessed NIMBY. I am also a self-confessed NIMTO because, if the installation comes to my constituency, I shall not have an office to which I can return, as the volume of public protest that I have received is enormous. There is no doubt that if west Norfolk were included in the short list that opposition would increase and people would become more and more carried away. I shall not go so far as to say that there would be law-breaking, but there would certainly be civil disobedience and people would resort to tactics to which one would not expect the people of north Norfolk or East Anglia to resort. We are normally quiet people, but the installation would generate so much and opposition that I cannot imagine that Nirex would ever dream of including west Norfolk on its short list, bearing in mind its comment in "The Way Forward" that it will have to carry the local community with it.

I am a NIMBY, but I strongly believe that the debate must be carried on in a constructive and unemotional way and, furthermore, that the sites must be considered. The installation must go somewhere. When a district council says, "There is a case for having it in our district," Nirex must consider that option and bear in mind that, if it takes that option, it will probably carry public support with it.

1.22 pm
Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Cleethorpes)

It is a pleasure to follow in the debate my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham). I know exactly what he and the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) have been speaking about because for two years I experienced everything that my hon. Friend is about to face. He will have to take some difficult decisions and should be congratulated on saying openly and honestly where he stands. He has given his views on nuclear power and on the circumstances that relate to one of the most beautiful parts of the country. My hon. Friend, and any other hon. Members in a similar position, will have my greatest sympathy and I shall take a deep interest in the matter until we reach a final decision.

It would have been easy for me to have washed my hands of the matter on 1 May 1987 when the Secretary of State announced that he would not take on the people of Brigg and Cleethorpes or their Member of Parliament. I cannot do that and have decided that it is incumbent on me to pursue the matter, bearing in mind that I have two years' experience of living through what my hon. Friends will have to go through. Nirex may not yet have learnt its lesson in Brigg and Cleethorpes and may want another go at me. It is important for any hon. Member who has experienced what I have experienced to continue to participate in this important debate. That is why I have decided to add my two pennyworth to the debate.

I wish to concentrate first on a little bit of history, following the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) in his excellent speech. He has also taken a great interest in the subject for many years and his advice, guidance and support during the two years when I had to deal with the matter on a constituency basis were invaluable to me. I read Select Committee reports avidly and prayed them in aid, trying to persuade the Government to change their mind.

I am delighted to see that the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley), is to reply to the debate and I congratulate her on her appointment. I am sure that she will be as effective a Minister on behalf of the electors of Brigg and Cleethorpes as her husband, the Minister for Roads and Traffic, has been. He has always responded to everything that I have asked of him about roads. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be able to respond similarly on behalf of the Department of the Environment. While this is a difficult issue, it is fascinating. This is my first opportunity for 17 months formally to put on record my gratitude to the Government for listening to and recognising the arguments that I and my hon. Friends who were also affected deployed. The charge that the Government do not listen has often been made, but I have to acquit them of it totally. I argued forcefully for two years and saw Ministers, Secretaries of State, Under-Secretaries of State and Ministers of State. We argued from week to week and I virtually lived in the Department of the Environment between 1985 and 1987. If I had not, this debate would not be taking place. If I and my hon. Friends had lain down and allowed Nirex to walk all over us, following the statement that was made in 1987, we would probably have shallow burial facilities for low-level and intermediate nuclear waste. That battle, which I and my hon. Friends fought, and won, has resulted in a change of policy.

The hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) is probably about to ask me what the new policy is. Minds have not yet been made up, but we have got the Government away from a policy which was wrong and which the Select Committee said was wrong. It is wrong for intermediate nuclear waste to be put in a shallow burial facility. The Select Committee said so and the Government dropped the proposal. Once the Government had given way on intermediate waste being put in a shallow burial facility, it became clear that public opinion would not accept such a means of disposal.

I am delighted that the Government have decided that they should ask Nirex to go back to the drawing board.

Mr. Allan Roberts

One of the Government's problems is that that is exactly how they are disposing of low-level waste at the moment. Drigg will be full soon and, having abandoned shallow burial sites in the hon. Gentleman's constituency and those of other Conservative Members, the Government have no policy. They are in a real mess.

Mr. Brown

That is a problem which the Select Committee considered. I believe that it supports shallow burial for low-level waste because it was so horrified by what it saw at Drigg. We must find a publicly acceptable solution as quickly as possible. Circumstances at Drigg cannot be justified, even if they are improving, and, as the hon. Gentleman says, there is a problem with capacity. Clearly we have to address ourselves to that problem.

I believe that it was absolutely right to fight the battle that I fought between 1985 and 1987, although the spotlight is now turning to some of my hon. Friends, and although they would have been spared if it had gone into my backyard. I freely concede that Brigg and Cleethorpes might not be the most beautiful constituency in the country and does not have vast sites of special interest. However, it is important for the people who live in constituencies which are not regarded as the most beautiful in the land but which to them are home. They have the right to feel that, although they live in an area that is not particularly attractive to some people who have never visited the area, they should not have to accept all the rubbish and junk from the rest of the country. Nevertheless, I accept the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North-West that those constituencies which earn their principal income from tourism have a special case. I acknowledge that. I recognise that the battle that I won is causing some problems for some constituencies in the United Kingdom, and that someone, somewhere will get a site unless we follow the road recommended in the Select Committee report.

We have had a very useful debate this morning. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have addressed the question that has often been misunderstood—whether we are talking about disposal or storage. I like the idea recommended by the Select Committee of creating a facility along the lines of Forsmark in Sweden. That has always been my view.

I draw the attention of the House to the speech that I made on 9 February 1987 when I initiated on a private Member's motion a three-hour debate on nuclear waste. I said then, and I repeat today, that I am most impressed with the committed and far-sighted view which the Swedish people take of radioactive waste disposal. The Swedes have spared neither effort nor expense in coming to terms with the problem. Everyone in the delegations that visited Forsmark, from the Select Committee and from the county councils coalition of Humberside, Lincolnshire and Bedfordshire,

… was deeply impressed by the sheer size and vision of the Forsmark undertaking. It is clear that the Swedish authorities have decided to pay the greatest attention to deep-seated public concern, and have come up with a demonstrably acceptable and safe solution."—[Official Report, 9 February 1987; Vol. 110, c. 29.] The advantage of that solution is that final decisions about disposal still do not have to be taken. As the hon. Member for Bootle and other hon. Members have said, such an impressive facility—it impressed hon. Members on both sides of the House when the Environment Select Committee went there; it certainly impressed me and the politicians of all political parties from the county of Humberside—is likely to impress the public. The advantage is that it is not taking a final decision. The waste is still retrievable and it is still possible to carry out monitoring, but it gets over the problem of the backyard, because a facility such as that at Forsmark is away from the centres of population, such as Norfolk, North-West or any other constituency where people are rightly anxious about the proposals that Nirex is considering.

I should like to comment on the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough (Sir M. Shaw), who spoke very warmly and highly of the way in which Nirex has been going about its business in recent months. I am delighted to hear that. If that is the case, it is an advance and the battle that I fought for two years some 18 months ago was worth fighting. In all my dealings between 1985 and 1987, I found the whole business very disagreeable. I was treated with great contempt. Elected representatives of the local authorities were not considered or consulted and were regarded as a nuisance.

I was regarded by Nirex as public enemy No. 1. It never took me into its confidence and I was never given proper or sensible briefings. From what my hon. Friend has said, it seems as if it has learnt its lesson. If that is so, I am delighted and I warmly congratulate Nirex on cleaning up its public relations act because it was abysmal when I had dealings with it. I remember Nirex charging round to the local magistrates court, obtaining injunctions and throwing them at the feet of protesters when they were trying to get on the site or when they were carrying out gentle and mild protests. That was wrong from a public authority. If it has cleaned up its act, is consulting hon. Members and is making itself available to local authorities, the battle I fought on their behalf was worth fighting. My experience was most unpleasant.

I endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellet-Bowman) said about Heysham. As we consider radioactive waste, we have to consider transportation. The solution she proposed was right and I hope that the Government will take her ideas seriously.

Although my hon. Friend the Minister is not present, I want to draw the attention of Government Front Bench spokesmen to a specific question. I have given my hon. Friend notice of it. If she catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, she is likely to be able to respond to it. Do the Government have any view on the three options put by Nirex in its document, "The Way Forward"? Have the Government made any submission to Nirex during the consultation period? I have taken the opportunity of responding to the Nirex consultation document. I recommended the Forsmark solution. I hope that any other hon. Member with an interest in the subject will take the opportunity of sending in a formal submission to Nirex. Those submissions are now being evaluated.

As I have already said, hon. Members who are ultimately faced with the problem will have to make some difficult decisions. Because of that, and because of the concern that they will have for their constituents, I believe that the Forsmark idea is the best. It is the solution which least affects individual constituents in any part of the country. I do not wish to say, "I have solved the problem for the people of Brigg and Cleethorpes and I do not care whether the site goes to a Labour, Tory or Liberal constituency." I will take an interest in the subject on behalf of any individual because I know what it does to people.

When my constituency was one of four sites selected, people could not sell their houses. In one tragic case a house was mortgaged for a business. Two years ago, when the bank saw that house prices were falling, it went to the owner and told him that the value of the house as security against the bank loan on the business no longer matched the overdraft facility and that facility was called in. That is what the Nirex proposals can do to people. That is what my constituents have had to experience and I hope that the constituents of other hon. Members do not have to experience it. Hon. Members will have my full support if they feel that their constituents are not being treated fairly by Nirex or the Government.

Mr. Allan Roberts

They have to threaten to resign.

Mr. Brown

The hon. Gentleman has touched on an important point. We have had some fierce talk today—which I respect—on behalf of the people of the Highlands and Norfolk. Two years nine months ago, I made a speech on nuclear waste, one week before the Secretary of State said that my constituency was to be one of the four sites. There was a tremendous amount of secrecy about it beforehand, but for about six months Nirex and the Government had been denying rumours, so it was pretty obvious that my constituency would be selected.

In my speech, I promised that for as long as I was the Member of Parliament for Brigg and Cleethorpes there would be no nuclear waste disposal in my constituency. I said that in February 1986, and I stand by what I said, save that I am prepared to accept that, providing it is geologically acceptable, any hon. Member should be prepared to consider the Forsmark idea. Indeed, I said that in February 1987 before the general election, when the decision to abandon the original policy had not been made.

I remember that when I was facing the possibility of nuclear waste disposal in my constituency my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford (Dr. Clark) challenged me, saying: If NIREX were to follow the examples that he has listed,"— Forsmark in Sweden— would he withdraw all his objections to a low-level disposal site in this country? I said:

If Her Majesty's Government can say through my hon. Friend the Minister during the course of the debate that the experience at Forsmark had convinced them that that was the best way of disposing not only of intermediate-level waste but also of low and very low-level nuclear waste, I would accept that the problem of public opinion would have been dealt with, that the concern of public opinion would have been substantially allayed and I would be very much more inclined to accept such a proposal."—[Official Report, 9 February 1987; Vol. 110, c. 29–30.] Any hon. Member who is affected by this issue will go though a difficult time. I decided to stake my political career on the issue because it affected my constituents so deeply. Everybody knows what the implications would have been if I had been unable to deliver that commitment to my constituents.

Much good has come out of that battle. The Government listened and rightly asked Nirex to consider more acceptable alternatives for the disposal of waste. Throughout the difficulties, battles and arguments that I have had with the Government, they have listened and taken account of public opinion and individual hon. Members. I hope that that will be an incentive to any colleagues who may face similar problems in future.

We are beginning to advance the debate for the better. We are beginning to arrive at a more publicly acceptable solution, and I hope that when Nirex brings forward its ultimate proposal it will choose the under-sea facility, which enables low-level and intermediate-level waste to be stored and barriered, thereby making it retrievable and monitorable. That solution was contained in the Select Committee report of some years ago and nothing has changed to alter its conclusions.

1.43 pm
Mr. James Cran (Beverley)

Not unnaturally, the debate has been concerned, first, with whether we should have nuclear power. I hold clear views that we should, although I do not intend to rehearse them again. I suspect that by saying that I shall shower myself with the credit of my colleagues.

Secondly, the debate has been concerned with nuclear waste. Again, not unnaturally, it is fashionable when discussing nuclear waste to couple it with waste from nuclear power stations. As I do not have a nuclear power station in my constituency, I shall leave other hon. Members who are affected, or may be affected, by the building of repositories to take such waste, to speak about that.

That does not mean that I do not have a problem. I do. As my hon. Friend the Minister mentioned, under the Radioactive Substances Act 1960 all kinds of organisations are entitled to dispose of nuclear waste. Fifteen organisations on Humberside are so authorised. I pay tribute to the Government, following a disreputable programme last year by Channel 4 on the cancer cluster problem in my constituency, for readily agreeing to the publication and updating of that information for the whole of the United Kingdom. That showed that the Government were seized of the need to be as open as possible about this subject. I shall not dwell on that point because it has been addressed by other hon. Members.

Industrial companies, hospitals, local authority departments, universities and colleges and goodness knows who else may dispose of waste. I am prepared to accept the comment by my hon. Friend the Minister that it is low-level waste, but I repeat that there is a problem in my constituency. Such was the cancer cluster problem that last year the East Yorkshire health authority commissioned a report on the subject, which was conducted by the Leukaemia Research Fund Centre for Clinical Epidemiology at Leeds university—no mean organisation. The report referred to the fact that clusters of leukaemia in children and adults occur elsewhere in the country and are widely distributed throughout those areas under surveillance, including Cumbria, Lancashire, the Trent Region, South Wales and the South West. The hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) rightly referred to cancer clusters in children in relation to nuclear power stations. I merely add that they occur elsewhere, where nuclear power stations do not exist.

The position is slightly more complicated than that. The report revealed that the statistical research methods which have excluded an industrial link with leukaemia have found an unexpected and unexplained number of brain tumours in both adults and children in a pattern on North Humberside that appears to have a 'geographically-based relationship'. The report made it clear that the number of cases is very small. None the less, it recommended that further studies be carried out. There is a cancer cluster problem not only in my constituency but in others, and we do not know the reasons for it.

When this matter was raised in a disreputable manner by the Channel 4 programme, the finger was pointed at one industrial company—Capper Pass, which is part of Rio Tinto Zinc. I pay tribute to the Government, who moved like greased lightning on the suggestion that I and others made of instituting a report by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution on Capper Pass. We all expect to hear the results of that report shortly and want to know when the report is to be published. It would be helpful not only to me but to my constituents, and it has ramifications for other constituencies.

Prior to the certificate of authorisation being granted by Her Majesty's Inspectorate on Pollution to Capper Pass to emit polonium-210 from its chimney, there are points to be considered. It seems strange to some of us that some of the ore used by Capper Pass—in common with many other companies—is found in granite, which emits alpha particles. Many of us wondered why the initiative did not rest with Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution to suggest in the first place that the emissions from that chimney be discovered in a pragmatic way rather than accidentally, as actually happened.

It is also the case that the certificate requires all companies that are registered under the Radioactive Substances Act 1960 to conduct environmental monitoring programmes. I have made it clear to the Department of the Environment that I consider it to be wholly unsatisfactory that the gamekeeper and the poacher are one and the same. Those of us who are worried about the problem believe that that is unsatisfactory. I ask the Department of the Environment to reconsider that and to arrange for some independent body, such as the local authority, to conduct that monitoring programme for the company, if for no other reason than the one eloquently given by many other hon. Members—public confidence.

The report by the Leukaemia Research Fund Centre, to which I have already referred, makes a recommendation about licensed industrial sources of radiation. It recommends that further studies be carried out. Will the Minister tell us whether the Government are prepared to take part in such further studies or to fund them partly? I fear that as resources are scarce—as they always will be—the recommendations will not be carried out.

As a result of the cancer clusters, my constituents are also worried about dose limits. Other hon. Members have referred to the International Commission on Radiological Protection and the fact that it advised in September 1987 that background radiation in the environment was rising. That should be noted, as should a striking statement in the subsequent National Radiological Protection Board interim guidance, which stated: The Board recognises that estimates of the level of risk associated with radiation exposure are rising, and advises those with regulatory responsibility to consider the possible implication for dose limits. As long as the legal dose limits remain at their present levels, the Board emphasises that it is even more important to keep exposures as low as reasonably possible, since continued exposure near the dose limit represents a level of risk which verges on the unacceptable. Even more distressing for my constituents is the fact that the report goes on to say: It may be that risks at younger ages are higher and consideration needs to be given to this in the establishment of dose limits for the public. As I understand it, responsibility rests with the Health and Safety Commission to decide whether dose limits should be changed. I ask the Government again when the Health and Safety Commission's report will be published and, more important, whether it will consider the risks to those of younger ages. I impress on the House that the number of children in my constituency who have died as a result of leukaemia and other associated diseases is very small. None the less, when a family loses a child in that way, it is a 100 per cent. tragedy. The statistics show the occurrence of leukaemia to be well above the national average and the average for Yorkshire and Humberside. That must be a matter of great concern to the House and to all the authorities involved.

In terms of public knowledge and awareness, I am glad to see the Chairman of the Select Committee on the Environment in his place as the Select Committee report has done us an enormous service in this regard. I do not pretend to have read all three parts of the report, but the bits that I have read have been clear, concise and easily understandable by one with very little technical knowledge of the subject. In that respect, the Committee has achieved in practice what it asks all agencies, including the Government, to do. That is a major plus for the Committee.

In relation to the problem in my constituency, there was undoubtedly a tendency among some people considering the matter in positions of authority to try to protect the community from being frightened by the knowledge of what was going on. I simply do not believe that that is justified. I have dealt with many ordinary people who have lost children or feared that they might, as well as people just beginning to study the subject, and it became very clear that people's ability to judge the situation was immeasurably raised simply by having more knowledge and facts. My role in the exercise was therefore to ask all involved to "tell it as it is"—to tell the truth without any embroidery and to put it to people in that way. I therefore agree strongly with recommendation No. 20 of the Select Committee with reference to reviewing the way in which the public are informed and involving them. That is absolutely correct. In this respect, I pay tribute to the work of the Capper Pass company, which preceded the Select Committee report, by involving the surrounding community in a very sophisticated way. I believe that that was subsequently helpful in dealing with the role played in the cancer cluster problem.

If that is true for the nuclear industry, it must be equally true for the other companies and organisations licensed under the 1960 Act to dispose of waste. I put it to my hon. Friend the Minister that not enough is known about those other bodies. I know of 19 on Humberside, but there are many more elsewhere. I do not believe that the community knows what those companies are doing, however innocently it is being done. I believe that a code of practice of some kind is required to encourage those bodies to tell the community exactly what radioactive substances they have, what they are used for, and how they are disposed of when they become waste. As other hon. Members have said, the same must apply to the Government. I therefore repeat what I said at the beginning of my brief remarks. I am sure that the Government take the view that the more open they can be with the community, ultimately the easier it will be to solve such problems as we have.

My constituents would not forgive me if I did not pursue this matter extremely forcefully, and that is exactly what I intend to do. I put it to my hon. Friend the Minister that we need far more research into the causes of child cancers and brain tumours. The longer that the current position pertains, when people simply do not know enough, the more suspicious they will become.

I look to the Government, first, for something for which I have not looked to them before—the necessary funds for research programmes. The House knows that essentially the money involved is peanuts.

Secondly—and this is within the ambit of the Department of the Environment—we need to know why random cancer clusters occur. They may well occur for random reasons. It may well be background radiation, not radiation from a chimney. There could be a whole host of other factors. For as long as the reasons are not known, suspicion will remain.

Thirdly, we need to know a great deal more about what is happening with companies and organisations, other than power stations, that dispose of waste. I envisage action on that through a code of practice.

I have been impressed by the manner in which the debate has been conducted. It has been level-headed, in stark constrast to the various television and radio programmes that have put my constituency under the spotlight. The "Face the Facts" Radio 4 programme last week was the most sensational, nasty little programme that I have heard for some time. I do not want to hear a repeat of such treatment of my constituents' problems. There was also the Channel 4 programme that I mentioned earlier. We need a more responsible attitude from the media, but that is not currently forthcoming.

2.2 pm

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) on his work, which has been appreciated for many years. I certainly appreciated it before I came to the House, and I appreciate it now. We owe him a debt of gratitude for the quality of his work and for introducing a new word into our vocabulary—NIMTOO. The Minister gave us an example of NIMTOO—not in my term of office. The Government are saying that for at least 50 years some of the most fiercely radioactive waste will be stored at Sellafield and some of the radioactivity will be allowed to die away. The consequent problems will not occur in the Government's term of office.

If we understand the signals from the Conservative Benches, the Government appear to have surrendered to the NIMBY syndrome—not in my back yard. Yet every part of Britain is someone's back yard. The only two areas that the Government now favour are Caithness and Sellafield, and there is a special reason for that. In the back yard of Sellafield the majority of the bread winners—the work force—have a vested interest in nuclear power, so public opinion has become distorted. In Caithness, the workers at Dounreay are under threat because there is no long-term future for nuclear power or for the fast-breeder experiment at that plant. The workers face a Hobson's choice of future unemployment or accepting nuclear dumping, which the remainder of the country does not want in its back yard.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing

It is not the simple Hobson's choice that the hon. Gentleman defined. Other sources of energy could be investigated. We have recommended that Dounreay would be an ideal site for an alternative energy research station. About 2,000 jobs have been created in a similar institute in Denmark.

Mr. Flynn

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. She made the point rather more eloquently than I.

If I can remember her words exactly, the Minister said that, in the short term, there is no alternative to the available renewable energy sources. There is no nuclear power in the short term either. We must remember the long-running fiasco of Dungeness B power station. It was 16 years before it produced enough electricity to light a bicycle lamp bulb. It has been a story of continual catastrophe, which, in the words of the chairman of the CEGB, we must never repeat.

The creation of sources of energy is a long-term process. If nuclear power is the purest, most benign form of energy, how does the Minister compare it with tidal power? Tidal power is eternal, it is British, and it can be created by several sources around the country. It can create up to 20 per cent. of our power—a huge amount—and it is non-polluting. That great surge of energy—that cliff of water—that runs around our coast could be tapped in its best form in the Severn, but also elsewhere—in the Solway, the Mersey and the Forth.

The cheapest energy produced anywhere in the world is at Laurens in Brittany. A tidal barrage is producing energy for virtually nothing. A few miles from my constituency, with the great potential tidal power of the Bristol channel, there are eight nuclear reactors—two at Albury, four at Hinkley Point and two at Berkeley. They are all within a 25-mile radius of a population of 2.25 million people. We are shortly to see the nuclear power cycle come to an end. It was only in 1963, the same year that the Llanwern steelworks opened—it is going well and has a long-term future of possibly 100 years—that Berkeley opened. It produced a tiny amount of electricity. Yet is is now to be closed down. There has been a 10-year process of taking some plant away. For a century, it will stand as a monument—a nuclear graveyard. For a minute amount of energy, it will be a headache and a problem for our grandchildren's grandchildren, because the fiercely radoactive material must be put somewhere else if it is not to be left there. I support the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams) of leaving it encased on site. It must be cooled and looked after. All that we have heard in the debate is a story of corporate irresponsibility by many Governments, and that, for 25 years, we have added to the problem without any clear concept of the long-term solution.

Radiation was described as natural. For all time, we have had radiation, and flora, fauna and babies have been born with mutations. Every form of radiation has a damaging effect on all species. It has probably contributed to the evolution of all species. In our time, certainly, nuclear power has not been the main contributor—nuclear weapons in space and many other forces have been involved—but we have added to the stock of radiation in our world without any concept of the long-term effect.

I warm to what was said by the hon. Member for Beverley (Mr. Cran). We must not reach rapid conclusions. We should be humble and approach the matter carefully. There are no causal links that we can be certain about, but the likelihood is that future generations will say that, for a tiny short-term power gain, we as a generation have left them with a nuclear nightmare and eternal nuclear graveyards.

2.10 pm
Mr. Malcolm Moss (Cambridgeshire, North-East)

This has been a good debate, but a long overdue one, on a subject that is of great concern to the citizens of this country as well as to my constituents in Cambridgeshire, North-East surrounding the Wash. I pay tribute to the excellent introduction to this debate by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi), and in welcoming the Minister to the Dispatch Box for perhaps her first debate I congratulate her on a speech that was characterised, not as the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) suggested, by delicate complacency, but, by a robust concern to solve the problems.

Opposition Members have failed to address the critical question in the debate, which is whether significant emissions of radiation are escaping from stored nuclear waste. The evidence is that there is virtually none, even from the storage of high-level waste. That does not rule out the possibility of radiation escaping in the future, but at the moment it is simply alarmist to say that many people are at risk from the waste that is being stored.

The hon. Member for Bootle told us that the Labour party's policy—it is his policy, so it may be that of the Labour party—is to go for underground repositories to store, but not to dispose of, nuclear waste.

Mr. Allan Roberts


Mr. Moss

If the Labour party intends to adopt that policy if and when it achieves power, it cannot say that such storage is unsafe or unproven. If that is its policy, and if it is being put forward on the basis that it believes it to be unproven and unsafe, it is a dishonest policy.

Mr. Allan Roberts

I wish that hon. Members would listen to what is said. I have not said, and I do not think any of my colleagues have either that it is Labour party policy to have deep underground storage. What we have said is that that is one of the options that should be considered, along with retrievable, monitorable storage of low and intermediate-level waste on the surface. We believe that those are options that should be considered. I do not recall myself or any of my hon. Friends saying that we do not believe that it is possible to store low and intermediate-level waste safely. We believe that that is possible. If that were not possible, we would be in a powerless state.

Mr. Moss

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that clarification. However, I have heard him say on many occasions that he is in favour of looking at and going along with deep level retrievable storage.

Mr. Allan Roberts

indicated assent.

Mr. Moss

The hon. Gentleman has confirmed that. The main difficulty in this debate is that we are dealing with perceived reality and not necessarily with the facts. It is true to say that the nuclear industry has an enormous problem in convincing people of the safety, not only of nuclear waste disposal, but of the nuclear industry as a whole, certainly since the Chernobyl disaster.

The disposal of waste needs attention now, because waste is with us. It has been with us for many years. Indeed, when the Labour party was in power it did not face the problem as it should have done. I did not hear the hon. Member for Bootle tell us that up to 1979—during a Labour Government—low and intermediate-waste was in fact put in drums and disposed of in the north-east Atlantic.

The debate is mainly a political one, and it is used by those who oppose nuclear power and energy in principle. The Government have clearly and unambiguously accepted their duty to ensure that nuclear waste is properly dealt with. I shall quote from the Government's response to the Environment Select Committee's report. It says:

It is Government policy that wastes should be disposed of under strict supervision to high standards of safety and that the periods of storage should be the minimum compatible with safe disposal. Our nuclear industry directly supports at least 100,000 jobs. Any threat to those jobs is to be deplored. The Labour party's policy of phasing out nuclear power and replacing it with more coal-fired production will be vastly more expensive if the new generating capacity estimated by the CEGB by the mid-1990s is to be met. Coal-fired energy production is not without its own environmental effects, as many hon. Members have pointed out. For example, it produces carbon dioxide, which adds to the greenhouse effect, and sulphur dioxide, which, with nitrous oxide, produces acid rain. What we are not told is that even coal-fired power stations emit radiation. For example, when a 1,000 MW coal-fired power station creates 1 million tonnes of ash a year, the ash contains about 5 tonnes of uranium, according to the Nuclear Electricity Information Group.

The waste is with us now and needs to be dealt with today. The decision should not be postponed for future generations. Most groups which have involved themselves with this problem agree that indefinite storage above ground presents unacceptable risks. Before Opposition Members leap to their feet, I remind them that the TUC nuclear energy review body report published in April this year firmly states that storage at nuclear sites should be seen only as a short-term option until an agreed strategy is found.

Mr. Allan Roberts

That is right.

Mr. Moss

But the hon. Gentleman said that that was an option that his party would consider. We have evidence over a long period that that could lead to greater risks to workers in nuclear installations.

Mr. Allan Roberts

I wish that the hon. Gentleman had listened to me. I made it clear that storage on site at nuclear power stations where the waste is reproduced was not a solution because that would proliferate storage sites throughout the country and would be unacceptable to the public. When I talk about retrievable and monitorable under-surface storage, I am talking about one facility. We could afford only one facility because of the cost of building it safely and acceptably.

Mr. Moss

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that clarification.

I wish to put the problem in perspective. Hon. Members have described the size of the waste. By the year 2030 we shall be looking at 1.5 million cu m of low-level and intermediate-level waste, which is equivalent to 2 million tonnes of packaged material over 40 years. I ask the House to compare that with the 30 million tonnes of domestic waste each year and the 60 million tonnes of coal-mining waste. I read somewhere that the total waste would fill Westminster Hall 20 times. It would probably equate to the cubic capacity of the Palace of Westminster, but I am not proposing it as a site.

We must get the radiation problem into perspective. The overall effective dose equivalent from radiation of natural and artificial origin is about 2,150 microSieverts a year. Ninety per cent. of that is natural radiation through cosmic and gamma rays, and radon and thoron gas. Only 10 per cent. is artificial, of which less that 1 per cent. comes from the nuclear industry. The annual risks of death from accidents in various industries compared with cancers induced among radiation workers are, one in 800 in the fishing industry, one in 6,000 for coal mining and one in 57,000 in the radiation and nuclear industries. Let us take the matter nearer to the mundane. The annual risk of death in the United Kingdom from a common cause, such as smoking 10 cigarettes a day, is one in 200, compared with that exposed to radiation of a worker in a nuclear power station, which is one in 35,000.

What policy should we adopt for the disposal or storage of low-level and intermediate-level nuclear waste? Dumping at sea is not an option at present and the Secretary of State has issued a policy statement on that recently. There is a tendency in the evidence so far to favour disposal rather than storage, but we need to do a great deal more research on that matter. A single deep disposal or storage site appears to be preferable to a proliferation of small storage sites across the country, either at or near existing nuclear locations.

The safety factor is the most important of all and should override the ability to retrieve or recover, but, if a guarantee of safety cannot be given without retrieval, that option should also be considered. The site should not be within an area of dense population and should have an adequate transport infrastructure. The support of local people and councils is essential if the policy is to be adopted smoothly and without too many problems.

We must also set radiological protection criteria. The standards being adopted by the Department of the Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food are extremely tight. They set a target of an annual risk of no more than one in 100,000, but if a single repository is chosen, that target goes up to one in a milhon.

The Nirex report shows that 30 per cent. of the United Kingdom land area could possibly provide acceptable geological formations. As we have heard today, that includes many sites in East Anglia, the midlands, the north-east, Scotland and Wales. As my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham) said, people from my constituency, which borders the Wash, will visit the House next Wednesday to present their petition.

East Anglia does not meet many of the criteria that I mentioned earlier. It is an area of increasingly dense population and, as my hon. Friend said, of outstanding natural beauty. In the case of Sellafield and Dounreay, the two sites on which Nirex is concentrating, there is some local acceptance. Both local councils—Copeland district council and Dounreay district council—have written to Nirex confirming a positive response to further investigation in their areas. There are already nuclear sites at both locations and the geology appears suitable. They have relatively sparse populations and meet the transport criteria.

Although the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) said that she might lie in front of the bulldozer when it arrives in Dounreay, I ask her not to take such severe measures. However, there will be job losses if the fast-breeder reactor at Dounreay closes down, and opportunities for new jobs in a new form of the nuclear industry would be welcome to people in many areas.

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Does the Minister have the leave of the House to speak again?

Hon. Members


Mrs. Bottomley

I should like to respond briefly to some of what has been said in this important debate.

The day has been distinguished by fulsome tributes to the Chairman of the Environment Select Committee, and I should like to repeat my appreciation of the way in which my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) introduced the subject on the basis of the Committee's report. We have finished by hearing my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Moss) presenting a balanced review of the subject without emotion. He set out clearly the main points.

I fear that I must tell the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) that I am not sure that I can imitate his amicable style, but perhaps I may say quietly and courteously that we believe that indefinite storage below ground is safer than risking keeping radioactive waste on the surface. We believe that we should have barriers to the atmosphere to protect all. As the Environment Select Committee and the House of Lords Select Committee on the European Communities have concluded, safe disposal of radioactive waste can be developed in the United Kingdom. That is why the Government have asked Nirex to make proposals on low-level and intermediate-level waste. In its conclusions, the Environment Select Committee supported the Government's view that early disposal is the right answer. We expect Nirex to make progress as quickly as possible.

For heat-generating waste, the Government's policy is still for disposal deep underground. Research has demonstrated the potential advantages of storing such wastes for at least 50 years to enable a reduction in heat and radioactivity to take place before disposal. Current research is aimed at confirming the applicability to the United Kingdom of findings made in other countries.

Several hon. Members have mentioned Drigg. The Environment Select Committee rightly drew attention to the deficiencies of the waste management arrangements it found there in 1985–86. The Government's response recorded improvements that were already in place two years ago, and since then a new authorisation for the site issued by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution, has helped to secure further progress. The current investment programme by BNFL, amounting to some £20 million, includes capping trenches, improving drainage systems, compaction of Sellafield waste where possible, containerisation of waste and provision of concrete-lined walls. The inspectorate will keep the authorisation under regular review.

The hon. Members for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), for Bootle, for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams), for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms. Walley) and others have mentioned reprocessing, which recovers valuable uranium and plutonium which can be used again in our AGR and PWR installations, even if we have no fast reactors. That reduces the amount of radioactivity in the waste which requires disposal. The long-term risks associated with disposal of spent fuel could be greater than those associated with disposal of vitrified waste. Since 1976, all United Kingdom contracts for reprocessing overseas spent fuel have contained options for the return of waste. The Government have made it clear that BNFL will be expected to exercise those options.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) drew attention forcefully to the views of her constituents about the proposal for the storage of spent fuel from AGRs prior to reprocessing. Any decision to construct an AGR dry fuel store is a matter for the commercial judgment of the CEGB and the South of Scotland Electricity Board, but they would need to seek formal planning and investment approval before construction can begin. As with any planning application, opportunity for formal objections will be given. Construction will be subject to the formal approval of the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, which licenses operations, and any discharges will require authorisation from Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution.

I hope that that reassures my hon. Friend. I know that she will come back to me later.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman


Mrs. Bottomley

My hon. Friend made her point powerfully and I heard it most strongly.

Several hon. Members mentioned the Irish sea. Intensive monitoring around British nuclear sites has shown that levels of radioactivity pose no risk to human health. The latest monitoring results published by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food show that marine radioactivity levels, as a result of liquid discharges from Sellafield, are continuing to fall and that radiation exposure to consumers of fish and shellfish throughout the country remains within internationally recommended levels.

The hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) may like to know that the independent study into the medical effects on the east coast of Northern Ireland have not found any correlation between Sellafield discharges and leukaemia or any other conditions.

Several hon. Members have mentioned the medical aspects. It is an extremely important subject, but it is necessary to see it in the light of the scientific evidence. No analysis so far has shown a clear link between cancer clusters and radiation, but cancer clusters occur in other parts of the country where there are no nuclear installations of any kind. That is a subject for the Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment, and is on which we follow closely.

The hon. Member for Beverley (Mr. Cran) referred to anxiety in his constituency about reports of increased cancer incidence near the Capper Pass smelter. Discharges were sanctioned because levels were calculated to present no health risk. Inspectors have made a full assessment of the discharges from the smelter, and I understand that neither chemical discharges nor the small quantities of natural radioactivity which are emitted—

It being half-past Two o' clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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