HC Deb 31 October 1991 vol 198 cc110-6

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

10 pm

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

As I rise to speak to the House on this important matter, I am conscious that it is a complex and difficult subject. It is a farce—indeed, it is tragic—that a matter of such grave concern to the people of Scotland should be raised in an Adjournment debate when time is limited. The matter needs a great deal of exploration. It seems ludicrous that Scottish Back-Benchers do not even have the facility of a Select Committee on Scottish Affairs to which we could summon Ministers and ask them in detail about the problems that we face.

I wish to place on record my party's stance and my personal stance on the reprocessing of nuclear material at Dounreay. It is our long-held view that foreign spent nuclear fuel should not be sent to Dounreay for storage, let alone for reprocessing, because it breaches what is for us a fundamental principle: that the responsibility for the disposal of spent nuclear fuel should lie with the reactor operators. If the appropriate storage facilities do not exist, that is a problem which should and can be addressed by the reactor operators themselves. The Scottish National party has made its view perfectly clear on many occasions and I reiterate that view this evening: radioactive material, whether it be spent nuclear fuel or waste, should be stored above ground, on site, where it can be subject to close inspection.

There is grave public concern in Scotland about the possibility of our country being used as the world's nuclear dustbin. The Minister may think that that is a strong expression, but I use it carefully. The matter was first drawn to our attention as far back as 1974 when the nuclear industry inspectorate's chief inspector said this about the consequences of developing reprocessing in the United Kingdom: The price for Britain of building lucrative business world-wide in nuclear fuel services could be that it becomes the dumping place for the world's nuclear waste. So as far back as 1974 it was spelt out by the industry itself. At that stage the inspector did not mention spent nuclear fuel. Events prove that, in the context of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, his prediction is being realised.

In Scotland during the past year we have witnessed the distasteful spectacle of Dounreay scouring the planet and touting for business as the nuclear prostitute of the world, seeking to sign as many contracts as possible to dispose of other countries' spent nuclear fuel while the clock ticks away towards the 1994 deadline set by the Government when funding for the 250 MW prototype fast reactor will cease.

Dounreay has been attempting to fill a gap in the international market which has appeared since the United States energy department decided in 1989 to ban the import of research reactor fuel pending an environmental assessment. It has been Dounreay's proud boast that it is the only civilian site in the western world which cart reprocess the highly enriched uranium fuel used by 50 reactors in 22 countries. According to press reports, Dounreay is attempting to build up its foreign business to £25 million. In that context, what has been particularly difficult for all of us in Scotland to deal with has been the Government's secrecy. What have the Government done and said? As usual, they have been willing to sub-contract these important decisions to the nuclear industry and to stand back, like Pontius Pilate, and say, "This has nothing to do with us." Recently, from a series of parliamentary questions that I tabled to the Secretary of State for Scotland, it became clear that since his appointment he had not even bothered to contact the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority to discuss the storage and reprocessing of spent fuel at Dounreay. That is a gross dereliction of duty. Perhaps he has been too busy writing letters to his colleagues in the Cabinet—a matter to which I shall return later.

There has been a conspiracy of silence between the nuclear industry and the Government on providing information about the contracts that Dounreay has signed and about the discussions and negotiations that have taken place or are taking place with foreign reactors. Not only radioactive plutonium has a half-life; so does the information on these contracts, which leaks so slowly from Scottish Office canisters. Elected Members of Parliament, councillors and others interested have been dependent, like the general public, on press reports and the monitoring activities of groups such as the Scottish Campaign to Resist the Atomic Menace, Greenpeace and the Northern European Information Group. I pay tribute to them tonight for the work that they have undertaken in an attempt to keep us aware of what is happening out there.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

I realise that this is a short debate and that I cannot possibly ask the hon. Lady all the questions that I should like to ask. Has she asked the Atomic Energy Authority about these contracts? When I have done so, I have had no difficulty whatever in obtaining full and frank information at all times. The allegation that there has been undue secrecy seems untrue.

Mrs. Ewing

The hon. Gentleman, who has a special interest in this matter, must be aware that the first information on the Iraqi contract came through a leaked letter and not directly from UKAEA. Although Members of Parliament are constantly in contact with that organisation, we do not have the opportunity to explore the matter in detail or to discuss openly what is taking place. We are learning now about contracts because information has been leaked.

It was confirmed in September 1990 that Dounreay had secured its first new contract for reprocessing with the Physikalisch Technische Bundesanstalt research reactor in Braunschweig to reprocess 39 spent fuel rods. So far 20 of them have been sent to Dounreay, with a further consignment due.

We are told that Dounreay has held preliminary discussions with the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation about reprocessing spent fuel from the High Flux Australian reactor. However, any commercial negotiations would require Australian Government approval. In February 1991, ANSTO confirmed that talks had not progressed beyond the preliminary stage. With the United States removed, at least temporarily, from the reprocessing marketplace, the possibility of the 450 spent fuel elements coming to Scotland should not and cannot be dismissed. It was announced in 1985 that the 450 were destined for the United States, but they have fallen victim to the moratorium operating in the USA.

The past record shows that a consignment of 40 spent fuel elements from a research reactor in Bombay arrived at Dounreay in February 1991. The flask arrived at Felixstowe and then travelled by road to Dounreay. Traces of radioactive contamination were found on the flask when it was being washed after arrival. The UKAEA insisted that that contamination was not caused by a leak. That has aroused a great deal of fear and was referred to in a recent Health and Safety Executive report.

Unlike most of the other research reactors from which Dounreay is hoping to attract business, the Indian reactor bought its fuel from Dounreay initially. The contract was signed in 1964. Neither the enriched uranium extracted during reprocessing nor the waste will be returned to India.

It has also been suggested that Dounreay is on the brink of signing contracts with reactors in Canada. Dounreay has been involved in discussions with Atomic Energy Canada Ltd. about the possibility of reprocessing spent fuel rods from AECL's NRX, NRU and Slowpoke-2 research reactors, five more Slowpoke-2s from universities and colleges—from Toronto, Montreal, Halifax, Edmonton and Kingston—and yet another Slowpoke-2 at the Saskatchewan research council in Saskatoon. All of these reactors use highly enriched uranium, unlike Canada's production reactors. Greenpeace estimates that fresh fuel can be turned into a nuclear weapon in only seven days, and that spent fuel can be converted for use in as little as one month. Dounreay has apparently given AECL a quotation and AECL is now considering it.

"Return to sender" clauses are constantly cited by the Government to try to allay fears. The clauses, which were introduced under the 1974–79 Labour Government, were no doubt designed to reassure people that the dangers would be minimised, as the spent nuclear fuel would be returned to the country of origin. But what certainty is there?

The contract which was signed between NUKEM in Alzenau in Germany and the UKAEA concerning the storage of this question. One hundred and fifty storage places have been reserved for NUKEM at Dounreay, and article 3.5 of the agreement states: If NUKEM decide not to reprocess, all the fuel in storage at Dounreay shall be removed from the UK by the 30 September 1996". However, if NUKEM decides that it wants the fuel to be reprocessed, article 18.4 provides that: This waste, conditioned for transport and subsequent storage will be removed from the UK not later than 25 years after reprocessing and be returned to the FRG". In other words, Dounreay has agreed to store the spent fuel from research reactors for four years. If the client decides that it does not want the fuel reprocessed it must be removed from Dounreay within six years. If the reprocessing goes ahead, waste, conditioned for transport and subsequent storage, will be removed from the United Kingdom not later than 25 years after reprocessing. This is not a question of, "Here today, reprocessed tonight and gone tomorrow".

Research institutes seem to have found at least a temporary solution to their problems. The main motivation in signing reprocessing contracts will simply be to offload spent nuclear fuel on to someone else. No wonder that the whole process has been referred to as short or medium-term dumping.

There is also the question of what will happen to the nuclear waste if the client country does not have the facilities to accept it when Dounreay is ready to return it.

Dounreay has claimed, and no doubt the Minister will concur, that there is to be no increase in the level of reprocessing. Dounreay has in the past reprocessed just over 250 spent fuel rods annually, and a maximum of 758 in any one year. If Dounreay intends to use the MTR plant up to its maximum capacity of 900 spent fuel rods per year, discharges will inevitably increase.

As there is such a high incidence of leukaemia clusters around Dounreay and Sellafield, we should be trying to reduce, not increase, the level of reprocessing. No satisfactory response has been made to that research.

I now turn to the question of transport, one of the aspects which most worry the people of Scotland. Experience suggests that spent fuel will arrive on non purpose-built ships at ports in the south of England and then travel by road to Dounreay.

The International Atomic Energy Agency requires flasks used for transporting spent fuel to be designed to survive the impact of a 9-m fall—equivalent to an impact of 30 mph—and to survive being engulfed by fire for 30 minutes at a temperature of 800 deg. C and immersion at a depth of 200 m for one hour. Freight trains often exceed 30 mph and trains pass over viaducts and bridges considerably more than 9 m high—sometimes as high as 42 m.

Where will the waste come from? I want to deal in particular with the Iraqi waste controversy. On 6 October the Scottish Sunday Mail revealed in an excellent piece of investigative journalism that, in a draft letter to the Secretary of State for Energy, the Secretary of State for Scotland had made it clear that he would not object to fuel from an Iraqi nuclear reactor, damaged during the Gulf war, being sent to Dounreay for reprocessing. In his letter he stated: Such a development will cause me no little difficulty—especially from the SNP! … if you and Douglas Hurd judge that the UK's overall interests will be best served … then I would not want to stand in the way of UKAEA's involvement. I believe that the Government would have kept the matter secret for much longer if the draft letter had not been leaked.

Against that background, what assurances can the Minister give that contracts are not being pursued with other east European countries such as Bulgaria and the Ukraine to take in spent fuel and nuclear waste—given that the Iraqi contract was shrouded in secrecy for four months? Can he state categorically that no such contracts are being considered, particularly in the light of the decision by the Ukrainian Parliament to shut down Chernobyl as soon as possible?

I do not believe that Scotland can or should avoid its international obligations, but I object to the fact that we are apparently being singled out as the one country that will be the nuclear laundry for everyone else.

I believe that the genuine fears that exist in my part of Scotland and throughout Scotland are justified. I hope that the Government will clarify their stance and reassure the people of Scotland that we are not to be the nuclear dustbin of the world.

10.15 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory)

I am grateful for the opportunity to put the record straight on this matter. The first thing I want to make clear is that the description of the debate on the Order Paper—"Reprocessing of Nuclear Waste at Dounreay"—contains an inaccuracy. The United Kingdom does not reprocess nuclear waste; we do not even import nuclear waste. British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. at Sellafield and the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority at Dounreay reprocess nuclear fuel, not nuclear waste. The hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) should have learnt that by now.

Reprocessing is a necessary first step towards recycling nuclear fuel. It also ensures that the waste that is ultimately disposed of is in a good form for long-term storage.

Secondly, the hon. Lady made great play of the possible contract between Dounreay and Iraq. She alleged that the preparations for that contract took place in an atmosphere of secrecy. Nothing could be further from the truth. In a telling intervention, the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan), in whose constituency Dounreay lies, pointed out that he has never had any difficulty in obtaining relevant and accurate information from the operator.

I should also point out that, as far back as July, the IAEA—the International Atomic Energy Agency—in Vienna made public the potential involvement of United Kingdom facilities. That was reported in British newspapers on 11 July. If that is a cover up, it is a pretty inefficient one. I invite the hon. Lady to read the newspapers even if she has not asked the operator about plans for the use of its facilities.

I should like to take this opportunity to emphasise that the work on the Iraqi material is being done for the United Nations and the IAEA. The material that may come to the country from Iraq is highly enriched uranium. If suitably processed in Iraq, that material could have been used to make nuclear warheads. It is therefore essential that, in accordance with Security Council resolution 687, it is removed from Iraq and made safe. That is why the IAEA approached France and the United Kingdom asking for assistance in removing the material and making it safe in specialised facilities.

This will involve reprocessing of the material to separate out the impurities and then diluting the uranium to a suitable specification for civil use. The reason why facilities at Dounreay were offered is that the fuel is of a specialist type which the Dounreay plant can process. So we have not offered to solve an Iraqi waste problem. We have offered to play a part in an international effort to neutralise Iraq's potential nuclear weapons capability.

I have some difficulty understanding the hon. Lady"s objections to this policy. What does she think should be done with the material in Iraq? Does she believe that it should be left in that country? We believe it right that, as a member of the coalition that defeated Iraq in the Gulf war, the United Kingdom should stand ready to do what is necessary to guarantee the peace.

Mrs. Ewing

Does the Minister understand that France, one of the countries that originally supplied the nuclear material to Iraq, has recognised its moral responsibility for dealing with this problem, but that the Soviet Union, which was also responsible for it, has refused to accept its responsibility? Will he exercise influence on the Soviet Union to accept its moral responsibility?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

It is likely that the Soviet Union will process some of the Iraqi material, but it does not have the technical competence to deal with the irradiated, enriched uranium; so it is entirely appropriate that France and this country should provide our technical facilities, which are internationally regarded, to do the necessary work.

As for the more general question of overseas reprocessing at Dounreay, I emphasise again that spent nuclear fuel has been reprocessed there for more than 30 years—safely and without any adverse effects on the environment. Dounreay has built up an enviable international reputation as a centre of excellence for this work. It is a great disservice to the dedicated Scottish work force at Dounreay to try to tarnish their reputation by spreading alarmist claims with misinformation.

I am determined that the highest and most stringent safety requirements should be adhered to, and the regulatory bodies must be satisfied that any work done at Dounreay is carried out to the highest standards.

About 1,700 people work at Dounreay. Their livelihoods are important and it is entirely right that their expertise, built up over many years, should be made available to reprocess nuclear fuel when appropriate.

Of course we hope that Dounreay will diversify and look for work outside nuclear tasks, especially in the area of alternative and renewable energies; but we all know that the fast reactor programme will cease in 1994 and I do not think it right that, as a matter of policy, the hon. Lady should seek to shut off the work going on there to reprocess nuclear fuel.

The hon. Lady represents a nationalist party, which seems to preclude the idea of taking on an international responsibility for nuclear matters. Moreover, if she were to enforce a purely nationalist policy in respect of nuclear matters in Scotland, that could have consequences that she would regret—because the quantity of Scottish fuel reprocessed at Sellafield is vastly greater than the amount of overseas fuel brought to Dounreay.

The hon. Lady also knows that the search for a long-term repository for the storage of nuclear waste is continuing but the work has been suspended in Caithness. It is, therefore, highly likely that waste arising from Scottish reactors will eventually be disposed of in England. According to the hon. Lady's argument, Scotland would not benefit from a nationalist solution to the problems of nuclear waste disposal. Indeed, the Scottish nuclear industry would be left with a considerably greater radioactive waste management task if all cross-border movement of spent nuclear waste were halted, as she appears to want. Plants in England provide substantial net spent fuel reprocessing and radioactive waste management for Scotland.

There is no question of Scotland becoming a dump for overseas nuclear waste. The Atomic Energy Authority's current reprocessing contracts for overseas spent fuel contain return-of-waste options and we fully intend that those will be exercised and wastes returned. Reprocessing of overseas spent fuel is a proper and appropriate business for Dounreay. The most stringent standards are applied to safety, transport and environmental protection.

Mr. Maclennan

Will the Minister confirm that, notwithstanding what the hon. Lady has said about the cluster of leukaemia in the vicinity of Thurso, all the scientific studies that have been done fail to prove any connection with work being done at Dounreay? Whatever the explanation for that—clusters of leukaemia occur in many places far removed from nuclear sites—no scientific connection has been demonstrated and scaremongering about Dounreay is deeply damaging and much to be deplored.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

I respect that intervention from the hon. Gentleman, who is the local Member of Parliament for Dounreay. He is entirely right because there is no proven link between leukaemia clusters and nuclear installations. Indeed, leukaemia clusters occur in areas that are far removed from nuclear installations. They also occur in New Zealand, which has no nuclear installations. The subject deserves further study but it is wrong to draw premature conclusions and to scare people unnecessarily before a proven link has been established.

We are committed to the highest safety and environmental standards and put great store by the contractual arrangements in place for the return of wastes.

Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North)

Does the Minister accept that the vast majority of people in Scotland recognise and understand international obligations, and that the whole problem of the Iraqi contract arose from a feeling that something was being put through behind the scenes? Does he agree that, rather than arguing about what should be done at Dounreay, where a great deal of expertise is available, we should argue for open government; and that, in that respect, a lesson can be learnt for the future?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

I am happy to repeat the Government's view that openness is a friend of the nuclear industry and everyone has everything to gain by open discussion and understanding of the complex issues involved. There was no intention to be secretive about the Iraqi contract and there is no cover up. The information was available in the summer and, as the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland said, it is his experience as a local Member of Parliament that the nuclear industry is much more open than has been alleged by the hon. Member for Moray.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'clock.