HC Deb 19 July 1989 vol 157 cc492-500

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

1.16 am
Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

The Ministry of Defence has decided to make the port of Swansea a Z-base for berthing and servicing nuclear submarines—or has it? It has never officially admitted this. It has never officially told any of the local councils—the county council or Swansea city council—although we understand that a committee of experts has given the green light to the scheme. The members of the committee are faceless people with no interest in or commitment to the port of Swansea. Local people have no confidence in the decision of the committee of experts.

I suspect that the Ministry of Defence is saying that this is a tiresome debate raised by local Members on the basis of "not in my back yard". There is an element of that approach. My right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) and I represent the strongly held views of the people of Swansea in this respect, but I believe that there are strong objective factors for rejecting the Ministry's proposal, if it be a proposal. I shall try to smoke out the truth from the Minister with a series of questions and set out why the designation should not take place.

In my judgment. there is a real danger of blighting Swansea at a time when it is seeking to shed the vestiges of pollution and industrialisation. With vision and imagination, it is seeking to upgrade the city. It is appropriate that the debate takes place in a week when yet again there has been an accident in a submarine, albeit a Soviet one. It has happened several times in the past couple of years.

I shall invite the Minister to visit the port of Swansea to see the position for himself. My constituency is to the east of the docks entrance and my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West, who represents the constituency on the other side of the river, has an equal interest in the possibility of a nuclear base being established. St. Thomas is a highly populated and self-contained community, and the port is on the doorstep of the proposed development. I was there on Friday and I heard the anger and frustration of local people. My family has close links with the docks and with St. Thomas. My great-grandfather worked in the docks, my grandfather worked on the railways in the docks and my father worked as a fitter on the Graigola wharf—the very wharf where the berth is likely to be established.

If the Minister came to Swansea he would see on the west hank of the Tawe, in my right hon. Friend's constituency, the imaginative development of the marina, where derelict port and railway areas have been transformed into a leisure, recreation and residential complex. A similar scheme was proposed by Associated British Ports for the east bank, which is on my side of the river, but the proposed Ministry of Defence designation can have only a negative effect on that proposal.

There are great fears about safety if the designation goes ahead. The relevant Navy personnel in Wales have given bland assurances, but they would, wouldn't they? If there was an accident there would be a substantial risk to local people. Whatever may be in such a designation for the Ministry, there is nothing in it for the port of Swansea. It is negative—there is no new employment or investment. All that faces the port of Swansea is a possible blight. There has been no consultation with the local authority. It is all very undemocratic. Did the experts who made this informed decision—I understand that they are mostly people linked with the Ministry—visit the port of Swansea? Were they there with the group on 11 July? Are there any Welsh people on that committee? Have any members of the committee ever been elected to anything? To my knowledge, there has been no contact with the county council since November last year. Can the Minister confirm that? The local Associated British Ports management has not been party to any decision.

Is it right that the Ministry of Defence has decided to relocate from Cardiff on the basis that the Cardiff bay development makes the designation there inappropriate? Has it considered the fact that there are similar, imaginative developments in Swansea? Swansea will not be a soft touch for the defence bureaucrats. What is the proposed timetable for the development and the safety plan that will be linked with it? Has the Ministry considered as relevant the fact that because of shallow water the submarines cannot submerge until they are several miles out in the channel?

The Ministry's only argument in favour of designating the port of Swansea as a Z-berth is that it wants more civilian ports for the nuclear submarines to visit. We understand that they might visit Swansea only once or twice a year—and at what cost? Potentially the cost is great, with no compensating factors for the citizens of Swansea. Public opinion is mightily against the proposal, as I witnessed when I visited St. Thomas.

An editorial in the local paper said: Only an unusual sort of person would welcome nuclear submarines to Swansea … But history shows that accidents do happen and it is difficult to feel any happier about this development than we would if it was decided to build a small nuclear power station here. Why Swansea has been nominated to replace Cardiff as a Z-Berth is not entirely clear. Perhaps it is simply that Swansea is also in South Wales. If that is so, there would he more sense in selecting Milford Haven, which is a far less densely populated area and which, unlike tidal Swansea, has a deep water harbour. It also has the merit of being closer to the open sea. There is total opposition within the port of Swansea.

Swansea has always given a traditional, warm welcome to visiting naval ships and personnel—but there will he no welcome for those nuclear submarines. if the Ministry of Defence has any regard for its own public relations, it will go elsewhere, away from the centres of population, where the risk, and the blight, will he less.

1.25 am
Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) in everything that he said. We are perturbed by the difficulty that we have encountered in obtaining information—particularly about the committee that apparently made the decision. I tabled a question to the Minister on whether the local council has been officially informed of the decision—and if so, when. I thought that it would be the simplest of questions to answer, but I received from the Minister only a holding reply.

The argument goes beyond nuclear submarines, to questions of accountability, answerability and whether local democracy is to be recognised. The Ministry's decision can only be described as arbitrary. It was taken by an anonymous quango. The Minister himself refuses even to name the committee's members. The committee is unaccountable, faceless and, I suggest, rigged—as I hope to prove.

The district and county councils and the two local Members of Parliament are all bitterly opposed to the proposal. Theirs is not just a quirkish attitude, because they are all equally opposed to the development of the Hinkley point nuclear power station further along the Bristol channel. In the midst of fighting that campaign, we discover that the Ministry of Defence is, without any consultation, imposing a mobile nuclear reactor at the centre of our community.

Despite the existence of the nuclear warships safety committee, there is no debate, discussion or explanation. The committee owes no one an argument. No attempt is made to explain in detail the factors that led to the committee's decision to pick on Swansea for the berth. Nor has there been any voting on the matter. I repeat that the decision was made arbitrarily—yet the Minister states that the committee is independent.

The committee enjoys a very strange form of independence. The Ministry of Defence pays its costs which, at the very least, places in some doubt the degree of its independence. We know also that of the committee's 23 permanent members, five are serving Ministry of Defence officials and another five are former Ministry officials. Almost half the committee's membership is accounted for by former or serving members of the Ministry's own staff, who can hardly he expected to be open-minded about such an issue.

In addition, the Ministry has the power to appoint an additional seven members when issues relevant to the Ministry are discussed. Therefore, the Minister can pack the committee with officials to ensure the result that he wants.

I trust that the Minister accepts that I mean in no way to impugn his honour, because he is a fair-minded man. Nevertheless, we have not been given the explanations that we want locally. In a parliamentary answer, the Minister states that the Ministry of Defence has always followed its"— the committee's— advice."—[Official Report, 3 July 1989; Vol. 156, c. 29] That is not surprising: it is the Ministry of Defence advising the Ministry of Defence. It would he astonishing if it did not accept the findings and recommendations.

Are there any representatives of environmental interests? Is the Welsh Office the Department involved, or the Scottish Office, or the Northern Ireland Office? What we know is that of the 23 permanent members who are not ex-officials, eight—as the Minister has said in another answer—are full-time employees of public bodies. I assume that they are organisations such as the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority. They are hardly free-minded individuals. The Minister may tell me that completely different organisations are involved; tip to now, we have been given no information.

We would also like to know whether the council has any power to refuse, on behalf of residents, the establishment of this berth. None of us wants to scaremonger, but this is an unnecessary risk. As my hon. Friend said, in the space of about six weeks three Soviet submarines have been involved in fires. I am glad to learn of the good record that the Minister claims for British submarines in the detailed reply that he provided—I am grateful for that detail. But we must bear it in mind that Chernobyl and Three Mile Island "could never happen", and that the soldiers exposed to radiation in Australia were so exposed on the best scientific advice of that time, because it was believed that they would be safe. The assessment of safety is mobile and flexible.

The Minister says that submarines want to visit civil ports, and that such ports are very important to good relations between the Royal Navy and the community. In fact, they are counterproductive in that respect: far from creating good relations, they are creating animosity.

We would like some clarification on the 550-metre safety area, which seems ludicrously inadequate. When Welsh sheep have been irradiated by the Chernobyl incident, it is very difficult for us to convince our constituents that the military radiation risk is limited to 550 metres. If anything went wrong, who would meet the cost? Would it be the Ministry of Defence? Would our constituents have any rights? Would they be entitled to any compensation and, if so, from whom? What are the procedures? None of that is clear to us at present, and we want the answers for our constituents.

1.32 am
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Archie Hamilton)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) on his success in securing the Adjournment debate. I must confess that I cannot congratulate him on much else. I do not think that I have heard two more whingeing, scaremongering speeches in all my life, and I think it very unfortunate that the constituents of Swansea must have such representatives. The reality is that the safety record of the Royal Navy is second to none.

Mr. Alan Williams

I think that the Minister should accept that Adjournment debates arc normally not times for indulging in personal attacks of the sort in which he has just indulged, because time is so limited. If that is the way in which he wants to conduct the campaign, however, I promise him that we can conduct it in the same manner. We tried to avoid personal acrimony; we went out of our way to pay personal tribute to him, whatever our real feelings may have been, and I bitterly resent his comments.

Mr. Hamilton

We have heard very misleading information tonight, and it is a pity that such misleading information has been put about. The Labour defence policy review, which has just been produced, has changed attitudes on nuclear weapons slightly, but in practice we have, I think, seen one unilateral policy replaced by another.

The Labour party claims that it is committed to conventional defence. It is extraordinary that it should adopt such an attitude towards nuclear-powered submarines. They are an essential part of our conventional capability. The capacity of the Royal Navy to fight wars would be seriously damaged if it did not have nuclear-powered submarines.

The hon. Member for Swansea, East said that he had never been told officially about the decision. A regional naval officer will be approaching the chief executive of the local county council. He would not be doing so if a decision had not been taken by the nuclear powered warships safety committee.

Mr. Anderson

When is that to be?

Mr. Hamilton

It will happen shortly.

Swansea is not replacing Cardiff. Visits to Cardiff will continue to take place. As the hon. Member for Swansea, East said, there have been a number of visits by Royal Navy ships to Swansea. They have been extremely popular. I see absolutely no reason why visits by a nuclear-powered submarine should not be extremely popular, too.

I welcome the opportunity to put the record straight on the safety of Royal Navy nuclear-powered submarines and to dispel some of the understandable but unfounded fears that have been expressed about the proposal that they should visit Swansea for rest and recreation. As I said earlier, the Royal Navy's safety record in operating nuclear submarines is second to none and is the result of meticulous care and planning in every aspect of the design and operation of nuclear reactors. For comparisons to he made with Soviet submarines is deeply insulting to the Royal Navy.

I should like to explain the vital role that nuclear submarines play in the defence of this country and the West and why visits to civil ports are so essential. In wartime, the Royal Navy would have a number of tasks, including the defence of shipping, the interception and containment of Soviet forces in the North sea and the provision of anti-submarine protection for NATO's Atlantic fleet.

The particular capability of the Royal Navy's nuclear-powered submarines would be critical to the United Kingdom's and NATO's ability to carry out those tasks. Nuclear-powered submarines are especially potent weapons in anti-submarine warfare. They have played an increasingly important role in the Royal Navy since the early 1960s. They will continue to be an essential part of any future fleet. The continued high morale of crews is a vital factor in the effective operation of all naval vessels, but that is particularly true of submarines whose crews have to spend long periods in a confined environment. Visits to civil ports for rest and recreation have an important part to play in maintaining morale. They also help to foster good relations between the Royal Navy and the community that it serves, which is of benefit to both.

Mr. Anderson

Does the Minister claim that there is any advantage at all to the citizens of Swansea from visits on perhaps two occasions a year?

Mr. Hamilton

In the past, Royal Navy visits to Swansea have been extremely popular. That is why I do not think that what we have heard from the hon. Member for Swansea, East and the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) is representative of the views of the people of Swansea at large. They enjoy having Royal Navy personnel ashore. Their visits have gone down extremely well. I do not believe that their attitude will change just because we are talking about a nuclear-powered submarine rather than a surface ship.

It is important not to forget the economic benefits that such visits bring. Crew members who are not on duty will stay in local hotels and will, of course, make use of local entertainment facilities. There have been many successful visits in the past by Royal Navy nuclear submarines to commercial ports such as Liverpool, Cardiff, Barry and Southampton. In the past 12 months there have been '13 such visits.

At present, there are only a small number of civil ports with berths that have been cleared to receive nuclear-powered submarines, and there are obvious advantages in having a wider variety. Moreover, as the number of submarines in service has increased, so has the need for port visits. Added to this has been our reluctant decision to discontinue vists to Hull because of navigational problems and, for the time being, to Barry, because we anticipated difficulties in maintaining the water level there at low tide. Swansea has been visited for many years by conventionally powered vessels and has always been very popular with the Royal Navy. For all these reasons, we decided to examine the possibility of nuclear-powered submarine visits to Swansea.

After preliminary discussions with port and local authorities, the Royal Navy carried out a feasibility study, which was approved by the nuclear-powered warships safety committee. The results of that study showed that the berth would be suitable for visits of nuclear-powered warships, and my officials will soon approach the chief executive of West Glamorgan county council to begin further discussion which will concentrate on safety matters.

I must stress that the visits will be only for the purposes of rest and recreation for the crews. There is no question of nuclear-powered submarines undergoing any kind of servicing or refuelling during their visits to Swansea. The submarines will be prohibited from discharging any radioactive material into the environment during the visits, and the fears tht submarines will pollute the environment around Swansea are entirely groundless.

The Royal Navy has placed the greatest emphasis on ensuring that we have never had an accident involving the reactor of a nuclear-powered submarine. Our safety standards for the design, construction, operation and maintenance of nuclear reactors and their associated systems are extremely rigorous, and we are continually seeking to improve them still further. All processes arc carefully monitored and recorded, and there is a thorough system of checks at every stage, from initial design through to operation.

In addition to the several Ministry of Defence organisations that oversee nuclear safety matters, an independent committee—I emphasise that it is independent—known as the nuclear-powered warships safety committee advises my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and other Ministers on all public safety measures concerned with the construction, operation and maintenance of nuclear-powered warships.

Mr. Alan Williams

Who appoints them?

Mr. Hamilton

Although the committee has no executive powers, in practice this Ministry has always followed its advice on matters which fall within its terms of reference. Eighteen of the 23 permanent members of the nuclear-powered warships safety committee are from outside the Ministry of Defence. They include experts from the National Radiological Protection Board, the Department of Health, Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution, the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, the nuclear installations inspectorate and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, as well as academic experts in the nuclear field.

It is not right to describe these people as faceless. I do not name them, for security reasons. They have expertise in nuclear matters. It is not good casting aspersions on their integrity. They act independently. We take heed of their advice.

Mr. Alan Williams

Will the hon. Gentleman answer a simple question: who has decided the composition of the committee? The hon. Gentleman has said in an answer that his Department meets the committee's costs. Who has decided whence the membership should be drawn and who are the appropriate people to be represented on that committee?

Mr. Hamilton

I suspect that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State makes that decision. These people know about nuclear matters. It is important that people with that skill and understanding of nuclear matters are put on the committee. It makes no sense to go miles outside the nuclear world. These are complicated and difficult matters and it is important that people who understand nuclear matters are on the committee. The committee has carefully examined the public safety aspects of the proposed Z-berth at Swansea, and has decided that the berth is suitable for use by nuclear-powered submarines.

The best testament to the Royal Navy's safety precautions is its excellent record. During the period of almost 30 years for which we have been operating nuclear-powered submarines, there has not been a single incident which has endangered a reactor, or caused a radiological hazard to service men, base personnel or members of the public. It would be useful if the right hon. Member for Swansea, West and the hon. Member for Swansea, East made these points to their constituents. The Royal Navy's concentration on safety measures has been responsible for this record, which is second to none.

Clearly, though, we must not be complacent. The probability of accidents and their possible consequences have been examined in great detail and the accuracy of the calculations checked by independent assessors. We maintain comprehensive plans to react to any accident involving the reactor of a Royal Navy submarine, and test them regularly in exercises. Every civil port where Royal Navy nuclear-powered submarines are allowed to berth is covered by a special safety scheme, prepared in full consultation with all the relevant county, city and local councils and local emergency services.

Those are constantly reviewed and revised when necessary. The purpose of the schemes is to co-ordinate the various agencies involved in protecting public safety in the unlikely event of a nuclear accident.

Mr. Anderson

Is the Minister saying that the decision has in effect been taken without asking local safety experts about it?

Mr. Hamilton

We are saying that the recommendation from the nuclear safety committee is that we should use Swansea. We will now consult with the county council, and a decision will probably be made after that.

Mr. Alan Williams

What will the consultation cover?

Mr. Hamilton

The consultation will cover the tying in of the whole business of safety precautions and exercises that will be done with the local authorities. They are, of course complimentary to the Royal Navy plans that deal with the reactor itself. A special safety scheme will be prepared for the berth at Swansea and copies will be available in public libraries. My officials intend to raise the subject with the local authorities as soon as possible.

Special safety schemes contain predictions of the probability and consequences of accidents which are based on our best and most up-to-date technical advice and are carried out in line with the recommendations laid down by the International Commission for Radiological Protection. Those predictions, which are scrutinised by external consultants, show not only that the possibility of an accident involving the reactor of a Royal Navy nuclear-powered submarine is remote, but that, even if such an accident did occur while a submarine was in port, the chances of any significant radiological hazard to the local population are still slim. That is partly because of the strong containment provided by the hull of a submarine, and partly because we choose the location of berths carefully to ensure that they are as far away as possible from homes and schools.

Local authorities are informed three weeks in advance of all nuclear-powered warship visits, and for the duration of each visit a naval emergency monitoring team, a MOD health physicist and a naval incident commander are located at the port concerned as a precautionary measure.

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to Standing Order.

Adjourned at fourteen minutes to Two o'clock.