HC Deb 05 March 1997 vol 291 cc903-10 3.31 pm
Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton)

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will make a statement on the incident at Hunterston power station.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Michael Forsyth)

As the House will know, recently there was an incident at Hunterston B power station in Ayrshire.

I understand that Scottish Nuclear first identified contamination in Hunterston's carbon dioxide supply network on 20 February. The staff then investigated the problem and attributed it to a faulty non-return valve in the carbon dioxide supply. As a result of their investigations, it became apparent to Scottish Nuclear staff on 27 February that a possible route existed for contaminated carbon dioxide to move out of the site. That route involved transfer of carbon dioxide from the on-site tanks to road tankers delivering further supplies of the gas. Some similar transfer could occur from the road tankers to the main tank at the supply depot. That main tank also serves a number of food processing companies.

When Scottish Nuclear identified that possibility, it reported the problem to the transport company. It then calculated the maximum possible release of radiation and concluded that, although it was of no radiological significance, it should be reported to the regulatory bodies.

On 3 March, Scottish Nuclear informed the nuclear installations inspectorate and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, which in turn told the Scottish Office that day. I myself was told at about 6 pm that day.

I was, naturally, extremely concerned, and immediately took the advice of the chief medical officer for Scotland. He advised that the information and calculations provided on the incident indicated that the risk to public health—adults and children—was negligible.

Scottish Nuclear, under the supervision of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and the nuclear installations inspectorate, has checked the carbon dioxide plant at Hunterston, the road tankers and the bulk storage depot. Those tests have revealed no radioactive contamination. Furthermore, and in order to provide final reassurance to the consumer, I have instructed that a number of products using carbon dioxide provided by the same company should be checked. Those checks are currently under way. I am delighted to be able to tell the House that the results of the first test, on products manufactured by Campsie Spring, show absolutely no evidence whatsoever of contamination. The Scottish Environment Protection Agency and the nuclear installations inspectorate have been checking the plant at Hunterston and various points in the supply chain. So far no radioactive contamination has been identified, and all the indications are that, if there has been any contamination, it has been very slight indeed.

I am—and, I am sure, the whole House will be—relieved that there appears to be no risk to public health as a result of this incident. There are, however, a number of aspects which give rise to concern—notably the delays that took place in drawing this problem to the attention of the authorities and the fact that it is possible for carbon dioxide tankers supplying the food industry also to make deliveries to a nuclear power station. I have asked the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and nuclear installations inspectorate for a full report on the incident, which I expect to receive within a week and which I will publish. In the light of this I will consider what further action should be taken.

Meanwhile I have asked Dr. Jeffrey, the chairman and chief executive of Scottish Nuclear, for an urgent meeting to explain his company's performance; and I have asked my officials to pursue with the nuclear operators in Scotland my view that no one should be using the same vehicles and equipment to make deliveries of carbon dioxide or indeed any other supplies to nuclear installations or to other locations where there may in consequence be a risk to human health. I understand that the nuclear installations inspectorate has already set in train its own review of arrangements for provision of carbon dioxide gas to all UK nuclear power stations.

As I have said, there are a number of points that I am following up, and I will keep hon. Members informed. I am extremely grateful to the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) and to the leaders of the other Opposition parties for their constructive response to the briefing they were given. We are all concerned to put the information in the public domain without causing any panic. It is a tribute to the media, particularly north of the border, that they handled this information in a very responsible manner.

Mr. Robertson

I begin by thanking the Secretary of State for his statement and for courteously briefing the leaders of the other two parties and me last night. These are not party matters, and giving the Opposition parties advance information was both useful and constructive in this sensitive situation.

Although serious questions need to be answered about the incident, especially about the time it took for Scottish Nuclear to notify the outside world, and about the procedures for delivering carbon dioxide to a nuclear power station, I believe that the Secretary of State was absolutely right to publish a list of the companies that had been supplied with carbon dioxide and to institute immediate sample checks of their products. Ultra-caution must be the rule when it comes to the safety of food and drink—the public deserve nothing less.

No amount of technical assessment or expert guesswork will satisfy a public increasingly concerned about food safety scares. I hope that publication of the full test results will be done as a matter of urgency, to allay public concern and satisfy public curiosity. The companies involved are very large, with a host of consumers in Scotland and beyond. They employ many Scottish people in one of Scotland's biggest industries. We owe it to everyone in those industries to find out whether there is any danger in what happened at Hunterston.

There is a most persuasive argument to the effect that the risks involved are negligible, bordering on the non-existent, but for as long as there is any doubt at all, that doubt must be dispelled.

Although the Secretary of State may already have given an assurance on the matter, I urge on him the need for a full and open inquiry into what has happened and into its implications, to enable us better to comprehend how the situation came about and how it might be prevented from happening again.

To an outsider, it seems bizarre and incomprehensible that carbon dioxide for a nuclear power station can be delivered in the same road tankers as are used to supply food and fizzy drink manufacturers in the rest of Scotland. Will the Secretary of State seek, as he implied, to persuade those involved in the trade to examine the procedures urgently and thoroughly, and to change them at the earliest opportunity?

Will the Secretary of State also ensure that British Energy and Scottish Nuclear are told that it is unacceptable to delay informing the outside world and the public that such an incident has occurred? Although Hunterston nuclear power station and Scottish Nuclear have a first-class safety record, such delay in going public must never be allowed to happen again.

I conclude by commending the swift and open action that was taken by the chief medical officer for Scotland and the Scottish Office when the incident came to their notice. I hope that that will be the model for the future.

Mr. Forsyth

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, especially for his support on the publication of the names of the companies. I know that that causes concern, and some of the companies were anxious that disclosure of the names might result in panic on the part of consumers. However, the responsible coverage of the matter and the consumers' right to that information vindicated the decision that was taken.

I am happy for the NII report to be published and I will arrange for it to be circulated to hon. Members. If any further follow-up action is required, I shall be happy to respond to representations from hon. Members.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman in respect of the procedures for the delivery of CO2, and other products.

The matter of the delay will have to be examined by the NII. I should say by way of defence that Scottish Nuclear was of the view that there was no appreciable risk to health, even if there had been a transfer of radioactive material, but I rather share the hon. Gentleman's view that it is best to put such matters in the public domain so that the public can judge. One is more likely to get responsible coverage of the situation when those whose job it is to report these matters to the public feel that every piece of information has been disclosed by those who are in a position to do so.

Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the public will be reassured by his statement and by the steps that he proposes to take in the near future? I live near Chapelcross power station, which was commissioned 35 years ago by British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. and which has the highest safety standards. I am sure that the reputation of that nuclear station and others in Scotland should reassure the public that an event such as that which occurred at Hunterston should not happen and is unlikely to happen again.

Mr. Forsyth

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I agree with him about the high standards in the industry. The possibility of the transfer of the material was made known as a result of the monitoring that is carried out in the industry. I am sure that everyone appreciates the importance of maintaining the highest standards. The NII exists to ensure that those standards are maintained. Where an incident occurs, lessons will have to be learnt and will add to the security of an important industry and an important employer in Scotland.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

May I too thank the Secretary of State for his statement today and for the courtesy that he extended yesterday evening by informing me and the hon. Members for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) and for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond)?

Does the Secretary of State agree that the statement from the chief medical officer that the risk to health is negligible for adults and children, and the results of the first tests that the Secretary of State announced today, help to put the matter into proper perspective and show that the risk is minimal, if it exists at all? I am sure that the Secretary of State would agree that when nuclear incidents occur, there is natural public concern. I therefore endorse his decision on open disclosure as the best way to allay public concern. I too share the concern of the hon. Member for Hamilton with regard to the time taken to report it. It may appear to scientists that there is nothing to worry about it, but any delay adds to public concern.

Will the Secretary of State also ask the NII and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency to investigate whether there have been any similar previous incidents involving a malfunctioning return valve at any United Kingdom nuclear installations, not only recently, from which lessons should have been learnt—quite apart, obviously, from ensuring that they are learnt in future?

Mr. Forsyth

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Of course that is one of the questions: could this have happened in the past? It is one of the aspects that I will certainly ensure is covered in the report by the NII. I agree with him about the timing. I should perhaps say, in case anyone is wondering what we were doing between 6 o'clock on Monday night and the issue of the statement last night, that our first priority was to establish who had obtained supplies of carbon dioxide. It took some time to do that. It was my view that it was best to disclose that at the same time as the announcement was made to prevent any panic in respect of other products that may not have been affected.

Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North)

As the Secretary of State is aware, I approached him last night on this matter, having become aware of it from my constituency, and I support the action that was subsequently taken. Does he agree that the overwhelmingly primary duty of the House today is to reassure the public that there is not a health risk in any of the products that potentially could have been affected? That is an important message. Having said that, the inquiries are axiomatic and essential; we must have inquiries.

The two areas on which the Secretary of State has focused are absolutely right: first, the use of a tanker that is not dedicated to the nuclear industry and, secondly, the whole question of timing. On that latter question, to be fair to the management at Hunterston and Scottish Nuclear, my understanding is that, as soon as they became aware, through logging the incident and consulting the nuclear installations inspectorate, that there was a reportable level of contamination, they reported it. The inquiry will doubtless examine that.

Before privatisation, Scottish Nuclear had established an excellent record for openness and for communicating with the public on all matters of potential concern. The crucial general principle that must be drawn out of this incident is that, in the private sector, that same tradition and practice of openness must be continued and there must at all points be a rigid, regulatory regime so that incidents, no matter how tiny and, as in this case, how unthreatening to public health, are investigated independently and promptly, with the maximum amount of information being made public as soon as possible.

Mr. Forsyth

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and this may be the first and last recorded occasion on which I can congratulate him on using his considerable communication skills to put across an important message, as he did on BBC Radio Scotland this morning, when he emphasised the very minor nature of the incident. I agree with him about the timing. I do not want to prejudge the inquiry by the NII, but the papers that I have seen indicate that, when the incident was first discovered, it was logged, as it was required to be, as an event—an event being something of very little significance. It was only on Friday, I believe, after the Health and Safety Executive had been consulted, that it was raised to the status of an incident, which requires reporting to the regulatory authorities; the hon. Gentleman is right to mention that.

I do not wish to anticipate the NII report, but I have every confidence that the management of Scottish Nuclear acted in the best interests of safety, and at no time was there any suggestion that this incident involved any threat to public health. None the less, we are right to take it seriously, to follow it right through the supply chain and, as the hon. Gentleman has said, perhaps to alter practices in the light of this experience, which has certainly given us something of a fright.

Mr. Phil Gallie (Ayr)

May I commend my right hon. Friend for the speed with which he has acted on this? It is breathtaking that, since last night, so much appears to have been done. Again, the emphasis on the fact that this incident does not threaten health is very important, but in any such incident there are lessons to be learnt. I wonder—being wise after the event, and thinking about the supply of CO2 from central containers—whether not only the nuclear industry but other industries, such as the food industry, should consider separate tankers?

Mr. Forsyth

My hon. Friend has much more knowledge and experience of power stations than I have. [HON. MEMBERS: "What?"] I meant power in the sense of generation of electricity. My hon. Friend has made an important point, and I will ensure that it is considered by the regulatory authorities.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

What are the two most important questions that the Secretary of State and the Scottish Office will ask Dr. Jeffrey?

Mr. Forsyth

I am not sure whether they are in order of importance, but the order in which they come into my brain—having been challenged by the hon. Gentleman—is, first, to ask about the experience leading up to the possible leakage, and whether a leakage could have happened in the past. Secondly, I will want to pursue the point made by the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) on timing and the importance of quick disclosure in matters of concern, and to ensure that those practices—which are required by regulations—are maintained.

Ms Roseanna Cunningham (Perth and Kinross)

I add my congratulations to the Secretary of State on how the matter has been dealt with. The way in which it has been treated in the press justifies the speed with which it has been handled.

Hon. Members have already asked about delays in notification, and undoubtedly the Secretary of State will wish assiduously to pursue that matter himself. I am sure, however, that all hon. Members are concerned to know the precise timing of events, and why, at minimum, there appears to have been a four-day gap between ascertaining that there was a leak and passing on that information.

I should also express my amazement, and the amazement of the vast majority of people in Scotland, that the practice of using the same tanker to deliver CO, both to a nuclear reactor and to the domestic drinks industry appears to have been regarded as perfectly normal. Is the Secretary of State aware whether that is also the practice at Torness, which is a similar reactor? Even if there had been no incident, I suspect that the practice, if it had become well known, would have been regarded as unacceptable. We will be expecting an early assurance that the practice will cease.

Does the Secretary of State have—

Madam Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady must put her points much more briskly.

Ms Cunningham

Does the Secretary of State have a time scale in mind for the inquiries?

Mr. Forsyth

I know that people will want to have a speedy response and, as I said, I hope to have that response within a week. The hon. Lady has made some points which other hon. Members have touched on and with which I agree. I share her amazement that vehicles can be used for that purpose. All that I can say to the hon. Member for Hamilton is that—in the weeks that lie ahead, as we enter a general election campaign—he might like to reflect on the fact that one thing about being the Secretary of State for Scotland is that no day is the same, and every day brings its new challenges. I was told about the matter on the telephone on the way down from Inverness. It is quite extraordinary how many things can go wrong—things which people could not have anticipated. What is important is that those matters are dealt with. On the specific point on Torness, I will ensure that it is addressed in the report that the House will receive in due course.

Mr. Sam Galbraith (Strathkelvin and Bearsden)

I thank the Secretary of State for his swift action in testing products, and particularly for his reassurance on Campsie Spring water which, as he knows, is bottled in Lennoxtown in my constituency. I am sure that his reassurance will be a great relief to the company and to all those involved. Will he try to ensure that the information that Campsie Spring water is safe is made readily available to as many outlets as possible and as soon as possible?

Mr. Forsyth

By announcing something in the House, one announces it to the world, but we shall certainly make sure that the information is circulated. I am extremely grateful to Campsie Spring and the other companies for the responsible way in which they have co-operated with Scottish Office officials in the public interest. The situation must have been terrifying for them, because their products were put in doubt.

Mr. Adam Ingram (East Kilbride)

Does the Secretary of State agree that the nuclear industry is an important part of the Scottish economy, with the highest safety standards? It is accepted that there may be a need to change operating procedures at nuclear stations. Will the Secretary of State continue to ensure that the incident is not used to undermine the future of the nuclear industry in Scotland?

Mr. Forsyth

I cannot control what people say and how they use issues to advance particular causes, however misguided. I agree that the nuclear industry is important in Scotland and that it has the highest standards. I also believe that, by the nature of the industry, it is not possible for us to be anything other than always on our guard for the possibilities of leakage or other incidents. The management of British Energy is committed to maintaining the highest standards. I share the hon. Gentleman's concern that some people, for their own interests, will no doubt wish to exploit such incidents. In this case, there is no cause for concern about public safety.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

The hon. Member for Perth and Kinross (Ms Cunningham) implied that there might be something wrong at Torness. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to make it abundantly clear that there is no suggestion of anything wrong at Torness?

Mr. Forsyth

As far as I am aware, there is no cause for concern about Torness. I think that the hon. Lady said that we should check the procedures for the delivery of carbon dioxide and other materials at Torness, in line with other nuclear power stations. As I said earlier, that is being done.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

There have not been many statements or private notice questions on almost any subject in recent months. Does not the Secretary of State's presence at the Dispatch Box show that we are dealing with a serious matter? We should always remember that we are dealing with an industry that could be very unsafe. Will he also bear it in mind that his words today show clearly that, in the nuclear power industry, there is only a hair's breadth between getting away with it and having an incident of a major character?

Mr. Ingram

Like in the pits.

Mr. Skinner

It is not quite the same as the pits. My hon. Friend is not concerned about all those miners who were thrown out of work by the Government.

There is another point of view. All hon. Members seem to have accepted the Secretary of State's words as a reassurance. I had better tell him—somebody has to be clear about this—that so dangerous is the industry that I would not take his words at face value on this subject or any other. He would not recognise the truth if it was sprayed on his eyeballs.

Mr. Forsyth

The hon. Gentleman is exactly the kind of individual whom the hon. Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram) was concerned about. I am sorry that he has chosen to put forward that point of view. I am not asking him to accept assurances from me. I have told the House that the independent nuclear installations inspectorate will produce a report, which I shall circulate. If the hon. Gentleman still has concerns, I shall be happy to follow them up.