HC Deb 21 July 1998 vol 316 cc896-8
4. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

What representations he has received regarding the proposed decommissioning of the Dounreay reprocessing plant. [49917]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Donald Dewar)

Operational matters, including the decommissioning of facilities at Dounreay, are the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade. None the less, I receive a wide range of correspondence relating to Dounreay. This has included suggestions that there should be a moratorium on new reprocessing contracts.

Mr. Swayne

What assessment has the Secretary of State made with the President of the Board of Trade of the possibility of reducing or halting operations at Sellafield? What radioactive material might be transferred to Dounreay and what measures would the Secretary of State put in place to deal with it?

Mr. Dewar

I thank the hon. Gentleman for extending my remit and area of responsibility—it begins to sound almost like an empire. I am not responsible for Sellafield and I would not want to trespass on my right hon. Friend's responsibilities. Dounreay is interesting enough in itself.

Mr. Martin O'Neill (Ochil)

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his work putting the Walker report on health and safety at Dounreay into the public domain so that much of the scaremongering and nonsense being spoken about the place could be put into proper context? My colleagues on the Trade and Industry Committee visited Dounreay last month. I thank the Secretary of State on their behalf, but remind him that a great deal of work remains to be done at Dounreay. That work is necessary for Britain's nuclear safety, and I hope that he will continue to give it every encouragement.

Mr. Dewar

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. I congratulate him and his Committee on the tenacious way in which they have investigated the difficulties that have occurred at Dounreay. As he said, the Health and Safety Executive-nuclear installations inspectorate report is a document of some importance and the focus of considerable speculation. I first became aware of it on 11 June and it was published on 15 June. Even when talking about the past and things that happened many years ago, it is important that the Government are open about such matters and put all available information in the public domain.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

Can the Secretary of State explain why he became aware of that report so late in the day? Why was it not made known to Ministers before the debate, as considerable controversy surrounded the issue? If the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, as reported in the press, wishes to apply for a so-called super pit at Dounreay for low-level nuclear waste, will that proposal have to go to a full planning inquiry, given that the present planning permission was based on a pit that is subject to erosion? In view of concerns about waste disposal at Dounreay—which has involved explosions and contamination—does the Secretary of State agree that a full-scale planning inquiry is needed for such an application?

Mr. Dewar

These are important and sensitive matters. I understand that the NII report went straight to the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, and I regret that it was not available earlier. The Department of Trade and Industry is very much involved in the process and is taking up the matter with the UKAEA.

I have seen some press reports about an expansion of storage pits at Dounreay. I know that the nationalist party is very keen to inhibit and stop reprocessing of even the waste material on the site, so long-term storage becomes a particular problem for it. I shall have to take some advice about what exactly is intended as that will affect the appropriateness of any planning inquiry in which the hon. Gentleman is interested. I am certainly prepared to make some inquiries. If there is a firm plan—I am not aware of one—I shall address the hon. Gentleman's point by correspondence.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)

In common with many hon. Members on both sides of the House, I am a long-term admirer of the Secretary of State's ethereal wit, but will he descend for a moment to the mundane and answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne)? If, by the action of the President of the Board of Trade, Sellafield's operations are curtailed or cease altogether, will he guarantee that material from Sellafield will not be classed as non-commercial and transferred to Dounreay?

Mr. Dewar

I genuinely welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Scottish family; we talk about a multicultural society in Scotland so, although this is really straining tolerance, I am prepared to do it. The foundation on which he bases his question is too hypothetical for me to attempt to answer it. I am not aware of any plans to close Sellafield: that would indeed be a major undertaking and significant in terms of strategic approach, so, self-evidently, the knock-on effects would have to be carefully considered. The hon. Gentleman is building on insubstantial grounds when he makes such suggestions.