HC Deb 15 February 1993 vol 219 cc21-6 3.30 pm
Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland)

(by private notice): To ask the Minister for the Environment and Countryside if he will make a statement about excessive discharges of radioactive material which occurred at Sellafield on Thursday 11 and Friday 12 February 1993.

The Minister for the Environment and Countryside (Mr. David Maclean)

Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution and Her Majesty's nuclear installations inspectorate were informed of an incident at Sellafield at 1600 hours on Friday 12 February. The information indicated that the release occurred from the B204 stack as a result of work prior to decommissioning in building B203 which shares a ventilation stack with B204. This preparatory work in B203 was stopped as a result of the release and will not recommence until HMIP has reported.

HMIP and NII arranged for inspectors to visit the Sellafield site on Saturday 13 February to investigate the background to the release. B203 is a redundant building which has been shut down for 10 years. It is important that this and other buildings no longer in use are properly and safely decommissioned. We understand that as part of the preparatory work on decommissioning a small amount of alpha-emitting radioactive material was disturbed and emitted into the atmosphere. It is estimated that from the start of the incident to date, about 1,000 mega-becquerels of activity has been released. British Nuclear Fuels monitoring shows that emissions have dropped substantially. The most recent results show that emissions are down to about 20 mega-becquerels over a 24-hour period.

The House will be interested to know that the current authorised discharge limit is 4,300 mega-becquerels per annum, although BNFL. has been operating well within that limit in recent years, at about 100 to 200 mega-becquerels per annum. We therefore regard the incident as serious, although it is well within safety limits.

The House will also wish to know that on the basis of pessimistic estimates, the increase in dose to the public close to the plant is approximately 10 micro-Sieverts. The annual average dose in the United Kingdom is 2,500 micro-Sieverts.

Starting with HMIP and NII's preliminary visit to the site on Saturday, 13 February, a full investigation is in hand. There will be a further visit by HMIP and NII tomorrow. Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food inspectors have also arranged for samples to be taken around the site perimeter. The results of this investigation will he reported to the chief inspectors of HMIP and the NII. I have asked the chief inspector of HMIP to report to me on all the circumstances of the incident, the lessons to be learnt and the actions to be taken for the future. I shall, of course, publish that report.

I emphasise that the incident occurred in redundant plant and is not associated with normal or planned operations on the Sellafield site.

Dr. Cunningham

I am grateful to the Minister. Although we can all agree that the incident was serious, does the Minister agree that it is also unacceptable that one quarter of the annual authorisation of certain radio nucleides should be discharged in just 24 hours? Is it not also unacceptable that it took the management of British Nuclear Fuels longer than one would expect to make the incident public, especially bearing in mind that my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie) and I visited the site on Thursday and Friday last week and were not informed that those excessive discharges had taken place?

Does the Minister accept, and will the management of British Nuclear Fuels note, that such behaviour does nothing to inspire confidence in them and the way in which they discharge their responsibilities? Can the Minister tell me and my constituents more about the qualitative nature of the radio nucleides which escaped? It clearly was not a contemplated and managed discharge, but an accident which should not have happened. What radio nucleides were involved? Is it true, for example, that one was americium? Can the Minister identify any others?

Will the Minister ensure that there will be the most rigorous and searching inquiry? I welcome his assurance that a report will be published. Is there any indication yet that British Nuclear Fuels might have exceeded the terms of its operating licence or failed to sustain best management practice in the conduct of the decommissioning? Can the Minister tell us whether any legal proceedings against the company will follow this totally unacceptable series of events?

Mr. Maclean

Of course it is always unacceptable when such unplanned incidents take place. The fact that hon. Members visiting Sellafield at the time were not informed, although that is not a legal requirement, would seem to be a rather extraordinary discourtesy. I suggest that the hon. Members for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) and for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie) take up that matter with the management of the plant.

I am, of course, concerned about the reporting time to Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution and to the NII. HMIP and NII will look at that matter, and 1 expect them to report back to me. I can tell the House at this stage that the radio nucleides which were emitted were all those that one would associate with the plutonium atom. Of course, in due course I shall publish full details of whatever the radio nucleides were when we have that information.

I am not aware of any breaking of the licensing conditions, but of course that is a matter for Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution and NII when they carry out a thorough investigation to determine whether the best management practices were used. I stress to the hon. Gentleman that the authorities were not actually decommissioning at the time; they were undertaking some preparatory work, looking at ventilation shafts and trying to improve systems before actual decommissioning should take place. Obviously, I cannot say anything about whether legal proceedings would follow; that depends on the investigations carried out by the inspectors, and they must determine whether there is a legal case to answer.

Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

Does my hon. Friend the Minister understand that there will be considerable concern at the seriousness of the incident? Will he confirm the figures which I thought I heard—that people living closest to the site will receive a dose estimated at 10 micro-Sieverts, compared with what is held to be the danger point of 2,500 micro-Sieverts? Am I right in understanding that that means that the dose which the people closest to the site may have received will be between a quarter and a half of 1 per cent. of the safety level? If that is so, may we not take comfort from the fact that our safety rules and arrangements are such that the release of such a minute amount of material has led to widespread concern and a statement in the House?

Mr. Maclean

My right hon. Friend is right in principle to draw attention to the small amount of radioactivity emitted locally and normal background radiation. The level of 2,500, which includes radiation emitted through medical processes as well, is not a safety limit or a danger limit; it is the normal dose emitted throughout the country in an average year. The safety level would be many times higher than 2,500, which makes my right hon. Friend's point even better. The fact that we have a full investigation of what has been a small emission shows how rigorous the inspectorate systems are in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

In addition to the figures that the Minister gave as to the level of discharge relating to the current authorisation level, can he confirm. that the discharge recorded is about 300 mega-becquerels higher than the authorisation limit currently being discussed by HMIP and British Nuclear Fuels, which is about a third or a quarter as much again as is now regarded as acceptable? What will be the consequences of the discharge for the current application for thermal oxide reprocessing plant and the Government's consideration of that?

Mr. Maclean

That is highly speculative and has no connection whatever with the draft authorisation currently being considered by HMIP. It is for HMIP to determine what any new level should be.

Mr. Rupert Allason (Torbay)

Bearing in mind the presence on the site of the hon. Members for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) and for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie), and their tendency to meddle in things, can my hon. Friend confirm that there is absolutely no question of their having left any doors open or pressed any buttons while they were on the site?

Mr. Maclean

I do not think that the hon. Members for Copeland and for Kirkcaldy would wish to push any nuclear buttons; I believe that their policy on that has changed now.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Can the Minister confirm that the only reason why we have had an answer to this private notice question today is that, coincidentally, the discharge happened at the time my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) and others were present at the plant? The truth is that many such discharges take place in nuclear power plants up and down the country which we never hear about.

It is high time that we had a full-scale public inquiry into the effectiveness and safety of nuclear power generally, especially when we are examining the question of the energy markets and the coal industry. We are subsidising nuclear power to the tune of £1.2 billion a year, and we are in the process of allowing Sizewell to add to that figure.

Mr. Maclean

As usual, the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) is talking absolute nonsense on the subject. Nuclear installations regularly report incidents and releases, and do so on every occasion. The fact that we have a statement in the House today is not because of any cover-up, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, but simply because the hon. Member for Copeland asked for it.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

Is the Minister aware of the considerable concern along the north Wales coast about the effect on health of radioactivity coming from Sellafield? The incident will have caused additional dismay, especially in view of the level of cancer which has been experienced along that coast recently. Can the Minister give an assurance that every aspect of the leak will be thoroughly investigated by the NII, especially those aspects which may be relevant to the decommissioning of nuclear power stations so that if there are lessons to be learnt they can be learnt before the decommissioning of further stations?

Mr. Maclean

There would be grave cause for anxiety and alarm only if people grossly exaggerated the release which has taken place. I hope that the facts and figures that I have given to the House today will allay any anxieties. I have said that there will be a full investigation by HMIP. It will report to me on any further action which may be necessary before we start a programme of proper decommissioning. I have also said that we shall publish that report fully.

Mr. Jimmy Hood (Clydesdale)

The Minister has said that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will do some testing. Will he assure the House that the results of that testing will be published? Can the south of Scotland and its agriculture industry, which has suffered previously from radiation leaks, be assured that testing will be undertaken properly and that the leak will have no effect on livestock and the food market in the south of Scotland?

Mr. Maclean

It does not help the hon. Gentleman's constituents or the food market in the south of Scotland or anywhere else to compare this incident with the Chernobyl incident. That is the only other major incident which has affected the food chain in Britain. The two incidents are totally different. The hon. Gentleman does a grave disservice to our industry by comparing them. I can assure the House that all the facts and figures that we collect are regularly published. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food publishes copious volumes of all the testing undertaken throughout the United Kingdom.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

In view of the major leak from the same site in the 1950s, which was not revealed to the country for many years, perhaps the Minister would like to review the statement that he has just made to the House. In view of the recent incident, the long history of incidents at the site—under various names and various managements—and the pending prosecutions against BNFL for four breaches of the site conditions, can the Minister seriously tell the House that he is happy and satisfied with the management and safety of the site?

Mr. Maclean

The site is inspected regularly by HMIP and NII. I know of no country in the world which has such rigorous standards for nuclear safety as we have in Britain. If there are lessons to be learnt before decommissioning of old plant takes place, they will be learnt. That is why I look forward to the report from HMIP, which will give us and other countries good guidance on how one may undertake safe decommissioning of very old nuclear plant.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Will the Minister reconsider once again his statement that there have been no previous incidents which have resulted in the contamination of food? In 1957, 11 tonnes of uranium were burning out of control at Windscale—now Sellafield —resulting in large-scale contamination of milk in the area. For a long period before that, Windscale contaminated the area by discharging to the atmosphere when it was a bomb factory. There has been a history of deception by the nuclear industry in Britain. Why do the Government not come clean and turn up on Friday to vote for a genuine freedom of information Act?

Mr. Maclean

I was not referring as far back as 1956 and the Windscale inquiry. The hon. Member for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood) certainly suggested that more recent incidents of nuclear pollution had affected the food chain in Britain. I stand by what I said: it is of no help to constituents, food producers or food consumers in Britain to suggest that an incident of 1,000 mega-becquerels released into the atmosphere is responsible for massive contamination of the food chain. It is nonsense to suggest that or to compare the incident with Chernobyl.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Are there not great dangers in Members of Parliament using exaggerated language about problems which may exist in parts of the nuclear industry? In addressing a question to the Minister, may I tell my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who suggests that incidents at Sellafield are not necessarily reported to the country, that every time an incident takes place at Sellafield the local Members of Parliament are informed? On this occasion there was a day's delay, but we are always informed. It is quite wrong for any Member of the House to compare what happened last week to what happened in 1957. In terms of damage to the environment, the incident last week was infinitesimal compared with that of 1957, which was an incident that we all regret.

Mr. Maclean

It is not often that the hon. Gentleman and I are on the same side in our reaction to an incident. I congratulate him on his wise words and commend them to all Members of the House.

Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)

Can the Minister confirm that, while he said that the discharge was 1,000 mega-becquerels, the total discharge during 1991 was 274 mega-bequerels? Therefore, the incident is four times the total annual discharge, according to the last recorded facts, and should not be dismissed as minor. Can the Minister tell us why the discharge authorisations are so organised that no limits were broken in that instance? It cannot be right that one quarter of the plant's annual discharge limit went up one chimney in one day; surely the time scale of discharges ought to be taken into account, and not merely the total annual limit.

Does not the incident emphasise the importance of HMIP taking the utmost care, and erring on the side of caution if necessary, in their current consideration of discharge limits for Sellafield, including the thermal oxide reprocessing plant? Does not the incident throw into sharp relief the Government's drive for deregulation and self-monitoring of pollution discharges? There must be no cutting of corners in relation to the concern for the protection of public health and of the environment that we all share. Opposition Members demand that the highest and toughest standards, enforced and monitored by the public sector in the public interest, should be maintained to safeguard the public and the environment.

Mr. Maclean

So do the Government—that is why HMIP and NII inspectors were on site on Saturday morning, why their investigation is under way and why I shall publish the report that the chief inspector of HMIP makes to me. Judging from the earlier part of the hon. Gentleman's remarks, it is a pity that he did not listen to the wise words of his hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours). I did not play down the incident or say that it was not serious; I said that we considered it serious, although it was well within the existing authorisation limit of 4,300 mega-becquerels.

The emissions during that three-day period were more than has been emitted by Sellafield as a matter of practice during the past few years. The emissions were within the authorised limit, which is for Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution to set. It is not for me to pronounce on the limit or for the House to pontificate on it. We have independent inspectors and regulators, who are admired for their independence. They set safety limits and regulatory requirements. Although the emission was unacceptable, it was within the authorised limits; that is the important point that the House should bear in mind, plus the fact that the emission was very low indeed.