HC Deb 22 July 1998 vol 316 cc1054-77

11 am

Ms Roseanna Cunningham (Perth)

I hope that hon. Members will bear with me this morning. I have a lot to get through and others will want to contribute to the debate.

Today's debate is opportune, because today and tomorrow Ospar—the Oslo and Paris convention on the protection of the North sea and the north-east Atlantic—is meeting in Sintra, Portugal. Ministers from 16 member countries will be meeting to hammer out solutions on oil rig disposal, chemical pollution in the sea and radioactive discharges into the marine environment.

The Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for the Environment are representing the UK in Portugal. They have an awkward task. All the Nordic countries oppose the UK's stance on radioactive discharges into the marine environment. The Irish Government consider such discharges to be objectionable and unacceptable. During a visit to Downing street a few weeks ago, the Norwegian Prime Minister registered his protest. Nobody disputes the fact that there is international concern.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

The Norwegians are also concerned about carbon in the atmosphere. The other side of the coin is more coal burning and fossil-fuel-related power stations.

Ms Cunningham

I understand the hon. Gentleman's long-term interest in the issue, but he cannot argue that the alternative to discharging radioactive waste into the marine environment is necessarily coal burning. Those two do not go together.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine)

When she replies, perhaps the Minister will clarify what processes require radioactive discharge into the marine environment. It may not be necessary to discharge into the marine environment to achieve the goals of the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell).

Ms Cunningham

There are two issues. The hon. Member for Linlithgow is talking about the alternatives to nuclear energy, but I am talking about the separate—although in my view related—issue of discharges that result from reprocessing waste.

We are polluting the seas of other countries and our seas with substances whose radioactivity will last for hundreds of thousands of years. Technetium-99 is one such substance. I am not a physics expert, so my comments on the issue have been taken from more technical documents. Technetium-99 is a radio-isotope with a half-life of 213,000 years. That means that it will take 213,000 years for the radioactivity to reduce to half its current level, and another 213,000 years for a further reduction to half that level. That carries on ad infinitum. We have to be sure of ourselves before we start pumping something seemingly indestructible into the environment, but we are not sure about technetium-99. The Government are allowing Sellafield to pump it daily into the sea.

A Norwegian radiation protection authority report published in February this year says that there are many uncertainties about technetium-99 and that further investigation is needed before a full dose assessment can be implemented, yet the Government see fit to allow its dumping into the sea because no one has yet proved it to be harmful.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

How does the hon. Lady measure the significance of such discharges against the natural background radiation in the environment?

Ms Cunningham

There is a debate about the existing level of background radiation and it has been argued that some of what is pumped into the marine environment does not exceed the levels of background radiation. I shall explain my argument against that point later.

We know that technetium bioaccumulates in shellfish, particularly lobsters, and in seaweed. It has been found in lobsters around Sellafield in concentrations 42 times the European intervention level. Intervention levels are set out for use after a nuclear emergency such as that at Chernobyl.

Samples taken by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency in Dumfries and Galloway show that the currents wash the liquid waste on to the shores of south-west Scotland, putting levels of technetium in seaweed at five times the European intervention level. The levels have trebled in the past 12 months. The technetium washes west towards Ireland and northwards along the west coast of Scotland. It reaches the North sea within nine months and continues towards Scandinavia, where levels of the radio-isotope have been found to have increased fifteenfold since 1993.

Having looked at the figures from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, from SEPA and from Greenpeace, I am deeply concerned not just about the current levels of radioactivity in shellfish and seaweed, but about monitoring. The data appear to be inadequate and inconsistent, showing lobsters here and seaweed there, making comparisons between different years and different places difficult to calculate. I do not know whether that inconsistency in monitoring is deliberate to ensure that nobody is certain what is happening. Perhaps SEPA is not being given enough financial resources to do its part of the job properly and to carry out the thorough programmes of monitoring that should take place consistently from year to year.

Although Greenpeace has done a marvellous job of sampling and bringing the issue to the fore, its efforts have focused almost entirely on Sellafield. Dounreay also discharges waste into the sea. The results of that pollution are not documented to anything like the same extent, even though they are clearly felt in Scandinavia.

I have not yet mentioned the central issue of authorisation. Radioactive liquid would not pollute our seas without the authorisations of the environment agencies, sanctioned by central Government. The authorisations have been very generous, allowing reprocessing plants to pump out the by-products of their processes without fear of exceeding official limits. At Sellafield, the limit for technetium-99 used to be 10 terabecquerels per year. In 1994, the enhanced actinide removal plant—EARP—was opened at Sellafield. EARP separates quantities of certain radioactive substances, including plutonium, from the material that arises from the thermal oxide reprocessing plant—THORP—but it does not separate technetium-99. Despite that, the arrival of EARP was hailed as the answer to the problem of dangerous waste and anything that had been through it was deemed to be safe to dump in the sea.

In 1994, the Environment Agency revised the authorisation level from the original level of 10 terabecquerels to a massive 200 terabecquerels. I return to the issue raised by the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin). The massive rise has opened the floodgates—the pun is not intended—allowing the dumping of years of accumulated technetium. Only 6 terabecquerels of technetium were discharged from Sellafield in 1993, but an astonishing 506 terabecquerels were discharged between 1993 and 1997.

It is therefore not surprising that radioactivity found in the marine environment soared in 1994, and has been rising progressively ever since. The Environment Agency is supposedly considering a reduction of the authorisation level to 90 terabecquerels, but I ask hon. Members not to be fooled by that and to remember that, only five years ago, the level was 10 terabecquerels. Since the Ospar convention originally set its objectives in 1992, the level has increased massively.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Angela Eagle)

The hon. Lady should also take into account the fact that the Environment Agency has told British Nuclear Fuels plc that it must investigate the matter and come up with abatement technology to take technetium-99 out of the system by 2000.

Ms Cunningham

I thank the Minister for that; I was going to raise it later.

Another concern, which we should not ignore and which has also been voiced by the Nordic Council of Ministers, among others, is that gaseous emissions will be allowed to increase because liquid ones have decreased. We should put talk of reductions into context and remind ourselves yet again of the time that technetium takes to decay. The speed with which we pipe it into the sea is almost immaterial.

At Dounreay, there is little technetium discharge, but a vast number of different radioactive materials are poured out, each with its own limit. Those authorisation levels have long been extremely high, allowing the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority to discharge as much as it likes without any possibility of transgressing them. It is even in a position to claim, after leaks and accidents, that it has not exceeded authorised levels, which is very useful to it. Authorisation levels never seem to be exceeded; they just seem to be consistently increased.

SEPA recently conducted a consultation process as part of a review into authorisation levels for Dounreay. The situation has obviously changed since the Secretary of State for Scotland's announcement in June that the plant would be decommissioned. I would appreciate the Minister's advice on whether SEPA's consultation will be reopened in the light of the plant's new circumstances. I hope that it will, because the methods used to calculate discharge limits for Dounreay are absurd. SEPA recently accepted that the limits should more closely reflect the so-called need to discharge, but the criteria for setting them remains astonishingly unprescriptive.

SEPA's proposals appear to be based on the maximum design throughput of all the plants on site and on the fact that all plants would operate simultaneously. It further allowed an additional operating margin over the sum of the plants' design capacity, which ensured that whatever Dounreay could conceivably discharge would be within the set limits. That does not demonstrate, according to the Minister of the Environment, the Government's desire to make progress on the question of reducing discharge to the marine environment", or the need for much tougher rules for sharply reducing discharges to sea of radioactive and hazardous waste". We are allowing an environmental problem to pile up in our seas with no way of removing it. With every discharge, we are increasing the problem not only for future generations but for many people now. We are endangering the livelihoods of those in the marine economy and we are becoming a target for international protest. The United Kingdom, even under the new Government, is still proving to be the dirty man of Europe.

I was interested to note reports in The Scotsman on Friday that UKAEA has commissioned the Scottish universities research and reactor centre to conduct an aerial survey of the area around Dounreay with the specific purpose of identifying radiation hot spots. SEPA was apparently unimpressed with the UKAEA's earlier reports on off-site contamination and pressed it to do more. I am not surprised; there is already a fishing exclusion zone in the area around Dounreay as a combined result of radioactive discharges and the on-going leakage of solid fragments of waste on to the shore and into the sea. I shall resist the temptation to rehearse the list of Dounreay's failings, which some hon. Members will have heard me list before. I have made my point in previous debates.

Somebody else who has made a point on the issue is the Deputy Prime Minister. I understand that there are some very interesting pictures of him from some years ago wearing a frogsuit outside Downing street in protest against the dumping of nuclear waste from ships at sea.

At last summer's Labour party conference, the party's national executive endorsed a resolution, which was adopted by the conference, calling for an independent review of nuclear waste and reprocessing policy. The Department of Trade and Industry has since denied that any such inquiry will take place—according to last month's Environmental Data Services report. At the same time, the Minister for Science, Energy and Industry has told us: the Deputy Prime Minister…is considering the future of reprocessing."—[Official Report, 8 June 1998; Vol. 313, c. 714.] I hope that the position on any review or future consideration will be clarified. Apparently the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions has also denied to Environmental Data Services that the Deputy Prime Minister is considering any such thing. Will the Minister enlighten us on that issue today? Many of us would like to know whether there will be an independent review of reprocessing and waste disposal.

The Government have displayed great confusion over nuclear issues in recent months. Sometimes, one gets the feeling that they are kept in the dark by nuclear operators just as much as the rest of us. The nuclear installations inspectorate report was suppressed—or kept from Ministers—and, more recently, the Prime Minister scoffed at the idea of uranium going missing on site at Dounreay.

Although I do not want to cast doubt on the Prime Minister's veracity when standing at the Dispatch Box, a UKAEA scientist later claimed that the material was missing. Reports over the weekend add credence to the story. People at Dounreay claim that they have managed to find the missing uranium, which, according to other reports, was not missing. Whether it was missing depends on who tells the story. The mystery deepens; perhaps it is extending to the UK's approach to this week's meeting in Sintra.

Angela Eagle

To reinforce the message given by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at the Dispatch Box, the material unaccounted for is thought to have come about because of technical measurement errors in reprocessing. We have absolutely no evidence of material going missing. The matter is simply one of technical measurement concerning 30-year-old data.

Ms Cunningham

I appreciate the Minister's stance, which has been stated before. Unfortunately, subsequent reports have said that there were no accounting errors and that, in fact, there were losses—just as one knows when one loses one's keys in the living room that they are there somewhere, but one just does not know where. There is a mystery surrounding the issue.

Ministers have been cautious about making any commitments; even the ministerial briefing is ambiguous. It says: We want to agree a strategy for radioactive substances that is demanding but achievable. I am encouraged by the sentiment of that comment, but concerned that Ministers have not seen fit to make an explicitly positive statement in advance of the Ospar meeting. I heard an interview with the Deputy Prime this morning on Radio 4, after which, I must confess, I was none the wiser about the exact UK Government approach to the discussions.

There is a backlog of liquid waste at Sellafield. I do not deny that that is a problem, but let us be clear: reprocessing creates solid, liquid and gaseous waste. The longer we continue to reprocess, the bigger the problem we will have. It is as simple as that.

Mr. Cynog Dafis (Ceredigion)

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mr. Dalyell

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Cunningham

I shall give way to the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Dafis).

Mr. Dafis

My specific concern is, of course, with the possible effects of the discharge of radioactive material from Sellafield into the Irish sea, along the western coast of Wales. Dr. Chris Busby, who has done a great deal of work on low-level radiation, has recently suggested that the incidence of leukaemia among children along the western coast of Wales is about five times higher than that in inland Wales, along the border with England. Surely that is prima facie evidence of a link between radioactive contamination and health.

Ms Cunningham

There has long been discussion about what, for want of a better phrase, I shall call cancer hot spots, near areas of contamination.

Mr. Dalyell


Ms Cunningham

I can see that the hon. Gentleman wants to intervene, but this will be the last intervention. I must press on.

Mr. Dalyell

When the hon. Lady was talking about the Deputy Prime Minister, she said that she was "none the wiser". May I gently ask her whether she has been to Dounreay or Sellafield? When I was a new Member of Parliament, I would not have dreamed of opening my mouth unless I had been to such places and heard what the people there had to say. In those days, we were frequently invited by Sir William Penney to go to such places. Has the hon. Lady been to them?

Ms Cunningham

No, I have not. It is an interesting concept to suggest that one is never expected to say anything in this place without having physical hands-on experience of the issue. If that were the case, very little would be debated in the House. Two or three members of the Scottish National party parliamentary group have been to Dounreay, as have SNP Members of the European Parliament. I am perfectly capable of reading the same information that every other Member of the House reads.

I find the hon. Gentleman's suggestion intriguing, and will watch with great interest the next debate in the House on foreign affairs or defence; no doubt it will be confined to those who have been to the countries in question, flown the aeroplanes, or been in the ships. I am afraid that I do not take what the hon. Gentleman said as a valid criticism.

If we stopped reprocessing, there would be a smaller quantity of waste to deal with in the longer term. That includes the liquid waste currently being discharged into the sea. With Dounreay we are already halfway there; commercial reprocessing contracts will no longer be taken on, although we have not been told how many still exist.

Decommissioning is under way, but the Government have been led to believe that reprocessing is a necessary part of the decommissioning process". In my view, and in that of many environmentalists, that is not true. The existing stockpiles of spent fuel at Dounreay should be stored above ground where they can be monitored, and retrieved if necessary. If we cease the reprocessing cycle straight away, the production of further unnecessary waste and discharges will be avoided.

The same should apply to THORP, which is apparently shut at the moment, as the result of a leak. As I understand it, no United Kingdom reprocessing plant is in working order at this stage. I am happy in the knowledge that no reprocessing is taking place in Britain today, but I am concerned that the plants that are unfit today will be open again to carry on polluting and leaking tomorrow.

I have said many times, and I say again, that reprocessing should stop. It is a short-sighted practice which has become its own self-perpetuating problem. In exchanges over Dounreay I have argued that the false prospect of financial gain has led to an excessively casual attitude towards nuclear materials, and in a separate debate on plutonium earlier this year I argued that reprocessing leads unavoidably to global proliferation of weapons-grade material.

Today, I am arguing that reprocessing causes unnecessary and irreparable environmental pollution. All that points to a moratorium on reprocessing in the United Kingdom. The other options are, if not ideal, infinitely more sensible and easier for future generations to put right. On-site, above-ground storage, as close as possible to the point of origin, is by far the most environmentally friendly way to deal with the unwanted side products of nuclear power generation.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)


Ms Cunningham

I see the hon. Gentleman leaping to his feet, but I said that I would not take any more interventions. Perhaps I can guess what he wants to say. The SNP has long opposed the idea of Scottish exports of nuclear waste to other countries. [Interruption.] If hon. Members care to look at the record, they will discover, to use just one example, that, when the suggestion to store on site at Torness was made, the SNP supported the proposal, although it was refused in the end.

I concede that the decommissioning process necessarily involves by-products, and it is a matter for the experts whether such quantities should be discharged; that would be a subject for serious further discussion. Tough guidelines should be employed, even then, to ensure that no easy option is provided, whatever the context.

The development of abatement technology is another option, which the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), has already raised. That would involve further developing methods for separating out dangerous substances from liquid waste. The technology to remove technetium-99 does not currently exist, and, to give the Department of Trade and Industry its due, it has asked BNFL to get to work immediately on developing such a process.

However, the United Kingdom relies on the maxim of BATNEEC—a rather clumsy acronym for "best available technology not entailing excessive cost"—so my concern is whether BNFL will develop abatement technology, or claim that it is too expensive.

Mr. Alasdair Morgan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Ms Cunningham

indicated assent.

Hon. Members


Mr. Morgan

I thank my hon. Friend for her courtesy. Would she be interested to know that the Environment Agency, in its draft authorisation for Sellafield, says: Should the work to develop abatement technology show that it is not possible at a reasonable cost…then the discharge limit for Tc-99 will be reviewed and if necessary increased"? Does that not increase my hon. Friend's worries?

Ms Cunningham

That goes back to the issues already raised in the debate about the fluctuating authorisation levels, which do not appear to relate to the real environmental concerns.

Ospar begins today, and various options are under consideration, each proposing a different degree of commitment. There is talk of gradually reducing discharges, with the ultimate aim of reaching background exposures. Alternative 2, drafted by the Governments of Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Ireland, requires Governments to continuously reduce discharges, emissions and losses of radioactive substances, with the ultimate aim of concentrations in the environment near background values for naturally occurring radioactive substances and close to zero for artificial radioactive substances". Norway has also proposed text for the Sintra ministerial statement to make that even more explicit. It wants Ospar to say: we recognise that reprocessing is the major source of radionuclide discharges to the maritime area…we will make every endeavour to reach the target of cessation of such discharges as quickly as possible". The key phrase to bear in mind is: close to zero for artificial radioactive substances". The Minister for the Environment has hinted that he is prepared to consider that option, and I hope that he does. I understand that France, the other nation in Ospar with reprocessing facilities, has decided to support it, albeit with a caveat of its own. However, our Minister has been quoted as saying: I don't accept that there is a distinction or contradiction between what we are trying to achieve at Ospar and the current discharge application being made in regard to Sellafield. That goes against everything that I have said. Sellafield authorisations, even if they are decreased to the level proposed by the Environment Agency—if, indeed, at the end of the day the agency proposes a decrease—will still be nine times higher than they were six years ago when Ospar originally formed its objectives.

Does the Minister really want us to be seen yet again as the dinosaur at Ospar, the dirty man of Europe? I hope not. It is the United Kingdom's responsibility to behave like a good neighbour, and to recognise when irresponsible actions taken on its own shores have an impact on shores overseas.

I remind hon. Members of some of the serious words of protest that the Government have received from overseas. In February, the Nordic Council of Ministers wrote that its members were concerned about further releases of radioactive substances to the marine environment and urge the Government of the United Kingdom to stop discharges of Technetium-99". The Irish Government wrote of the health and environmental threat associated with the UK nuclear installations", and said that they were vehemently opposed to the continuation of nuclear operations at Sellafield and to any expansion of the nuclear industry in Britain", and found discharges into the Irish sea objectionable and unacceptable". Reprocessing entails the discharge of what many people and Governments regard as repugnant radioactive substances into our seas and on to our shores and those of our neighbours. It is a growing environmental problem which should be stopped now. It is creating increasing international friction. Radioactive discharges into the marine environment need to be tackled with immediate action and an immediate reduction to a figure as close to zero as the decommissioning process will allow.

The Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for the Environment, who have a history of sympathy for that cause, now have the ideal opportunity to solve the problem. Ospar provides an international forum at which a binding commitment can be made which will ease domestic concern and reduce international pressure. The future can be made safer and we can employ our workers not in polluting the environment but in cleaning it up. I look forward to hearing the Minister's views.

11.30 am
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

I have had a very courteous letter from the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan), which he has also sent to the Minister, saying that he cannot be here because of his long-standing commitment to speak at an award ceremony of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. The right hon. Gentleman said: If I had been present, I would have wished to raise the delay in completing the NRPB survey at Dounreay commissioned by SEPA. I hope you might find it possible to give an indication as to when the findings of the NRPB assessment will be available. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will answer that question.

May I ask two direct factual questions of the Minister, who is strongly supported by officials? The hon. Member for Perth (Ms Cunningham) said that, in lobsters, the level of technetium-99 was 42 times the European intervention level and that, in seaweed, it was five times the European intervention level. Do my hon. Friend's expert advisers concur with those figures?

In recent years, the discharges to the marine environment from Dounreay have been reduced progressively. The effect of those discharges to the group in Caithness that is most exposed to discharges from Dounreay—I am referring to the so-called critical group—is now less than 1 per cent. of the dose that the group receives from the natural background. Do the Government agree with that statement? Do they agree that the levels of discharges to the sea are a small fraction—currently less than 10 per cent.—of the discharge authorisation and that Dounreay has not exceeded its authorisation in the past 20 years? In truth, there have been "unplanned" discharges as recently as September 1996, due to the dissolver leak, but those have not led to discharge levels above authorisation. Will the Minister confirm in her reply that there have not been discharges above authorisation?

New plant for treating liquid effluent is being installed. That will further reduce the levels of radioactivity discharged from Dounreay. Do the Government think that that is proceeding as quickly as it should?

There are radioactive particles in the marine environment as a result of historic activities in the 1960s at Dounreay. It has been confirmed that those particles have not been released as a result of present activities on the site. The likelihood of a member of the public coming into contact with one of those particles is judged by the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority to be extremely remote, but we have to await the outcome of an independent assessment commissioned by the National Radiological Protection Board. That is the assessment about which the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, who represents Dounreay, is concerned.

On Sellafield, are the Government satisfied with the level of activity undertaken by BNFL to reduce discharges? I have been to Sellafield on several occasions, sometimes in the company of the Member of Parliament who represents Sellafield, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my squash partner and friend of many years, and I know it well.

Through an investment programme of £750 million at Sellafield, BNFL has reduced the discharges of principal radionuclides to the Irish sea to about 1 per cent. of peak levels in the 1970s. Do the Minister's advisers accept that statement? The Environment Agency is currently completing its response, after public consultation, to an application by BNFL to vary its discharge authorisations to achieve a further net reduction in the permitted level of discharges to the Irish sea. Are the Government satisfied with BNFL's efforts in that respect?

Is it not a fact that discharges cannot be completely stopped for the foreseeable future because, as my previous remarks demonstrate, most of them relate to historic clean-up or Magnox reprocessing? Ceasing Magnox reprocessing would force the early closure of the Magnox stations, which, assuming the electricity was replaced by gas-fired power, would lead to an extra 16 million tonnes of CO2 being emitted in the UK each year. The Government must reduce discharges of CO2 by 35 million tonnes by 2010 to meet their commitment to a 20 per cent. reduction. How, without taking advantage of Sellafield and Dounreay, can we even attempt to fulfil the commitment that the Government have rightly made to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere?

I have another question concerning a letter that I wrote to the Secretary of State on 4 June, asking whether the Scottish universities' research was correct in suggesting that Sellafield has increased concentrations of carbon-14 in the north-east Irish sea to up to 35 times the normal background level. My question was prompted by a statement in the New Scientist of 6 June, which aroused my curiosity. On 15 July, the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle) courteously replied: I understand that neither the Environment Agency nor MAFF can confirm the figures quoted in New Scientist, that carbon-14 in sea water near Sellafield is 35 times the background level. However, MAFF routinely check the carbon-14 concentration in seafood at the end of the Sellafield discharge pipe, where levels are likely to be highest and have measured levels up to eight times the background level. The radiation exposure of the most exposed members of the public (the critical group) from carbon-14 is only four microSieverts per annum, which is 0.4 per cent. of the international dose limit of 1,000 microSieverts per annum. Surely one can conclude from that letter that there is no cause for alarm.

The Minister's letter continued: Both aerial and liquid discharges of radioactivity from Sellafield are limited by certificates of authorisation under the Radioactive Substances Act 1993, granted by the Environment Agency. The discharges of carbon-14 to sea via the marine pipeline increased from 1994 due to a planned plant modification that ensures the carbon-14 is discharged to sea and not to the atmosphere so as to reduce the overall impact of this radionuclide. The impact on the critical group is less for sea discharges than for an equivalent aerial discharge. The Environment Agency keeps the discharge authorisations under review. Would I be right in thinking that the Government have total confidence in the Environment Agency and in its keeping that under review, and that, again, there is no cause for alarm?

The Minister finally says: Recent events at Dounreay and THORP demonstrate the Government's commitment to strong regulation of the nuclear industry to ensure the safety of the workforce and the public at large. One of the most wonderful days that I have ever had in my public life was on an official visit to THORP, a marvellous technical performance by British engineering, which is one of the wonders of the modern world. I am an unapologetic champion of THORP as a great achievement of British engineering, and something that is able to do a great deal of good. I say "a great deal of good" for the reason that I interrupted the hon. Member for Perth (Ms Cunningham)—that, without nuclear power, heaven knows how we shall achieve any ability to control the nasty things of all sorts that are being put into the atmosphere.

Sir Robert Smith

Pursuing that argument, does the Member really believe that THORP is crucial to having a nuclear industry?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I gently remind the hon. Gentleman that all Members are honourable Members.

Sir Robert Smith

Does the hon. Gentleman believe that, without THORP, there could not be a nuclear industry?

Mr. Dalyell

There could be a nuclear industry, but it would not be anything like as effective a nuclear industry.

The Minister says: At THORP the plant was shut down following leakage from pipework within a contained cell. But she adds: In neither incident was there an adverse radiological impact to the workforce or the general public. HSE will not permit either plant to reopen until it is satisfied that they can be restarted safely. I use this opportunity to ask the Minister about the latest advice from the Health and Safety Executive on the matter because, the sooner THORP reopens, the better for a lot of us.

Finally, on a personal note, as a Scottish Member of Parliament, I am greatly alarmed by the effect of what is happening on the morale of the work force at Dounreay. Neville Chamberlain and others really brought it home to me that, unless we keep up the morale of the work force and the challenge and seriousness of the tasks that they are asked to perform, there could be real risks, which there have not been in the past. In all this, do the Government have a clear strategy for many years to keep up the morale of those at Dounreay who have served society, the community and the world very well?

11.43 am
Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine)

The last point made by the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) is valid. The current openness about incidents that happened, sometimes very much in the past and at a different stage of technical understanding and knowledge, makes them newsworthy. Those incidents of the past—it is a matter of debate whether they are the sins of the past—are then visited on the current work force. It is important to recognise that the work force is composed of professional people doing a professional job.

There is a debate within society about whether it wants that job to continue, along with the question of what society wants to take place at that plant, but we should recognise the professionalism of the work force. There is the danger of it being labelled with the name of the place at which it works. There was much excitement last week, and it seems that, if one can link two famous things such as Brent Spar and Dounreay, it is even more exciting. The environmental debate can suffer if we try too hard to link everything that sounds dangerous or has a history of being dangerous.

As the hon. Member for Perth (Ms Cunningham) made clear, the debate is timely, and I congratulate her on obtaining it. It is disappointing that the Government are negotiating today and tomorrow at the international conference on the Ospar convention despite our not having debated in the House what we would like to see come out of that convention. Unless the Minister goes immediately from the debate to the telephone, this debate may not have much influence.

We had some idea from the radio this morning of the Deputy Prime Minister's stance, and some idea of the Government's stance on Friday from Hansard when, in a written answer on radioactive substances, we were told that they wanted to work with industry. It said: To ensure that we are able to see and avoid problems related to radioactive discharges in future, we shall be asking nuclear operators to prepare forward looking strategies for the next twenty years."—[Official Report, 17 July 1998; Vol. 316, c. 326.]

Angela Eagle

Some of the increased discharges that have been experienced in this decade have been caused by decisions made in previous decades. The idea of the forward plans is that such matters should be taken into account, rather than there being a lag between a decision about how to deal with particular waste and the realisation that it requires greater dispersal a year later.

Sir Robert Smith

I think that I understand the Minister's point about the need to plan for the future. The Government recognise that it would be preferable not to discharge radioactive substances. Therefore, it is important for the Government to say why we should be doing so now, and why they want to carry on doing it at the moment.

An important part of the Minister's reply should be the setting out of the Government's attitude towards reprocessing—whether they still see the necessity for it and whether they are reviewing it, as the Labour party seems to want them to do. The economics of the industry and the driving forces behind reprocessing when it first started have now changed. The availability of fuel has changed and the need for plutonium has changed. We have debated plutonium and the worry about creating a plutonium culture when we do not need plutonium. There is also the worry that we allow such discharges because we want to continue reprocessing. We are importing waste from other countries, but are we certain that we can return it? It would be pointless to pollute our seas and end up as a nuclear dustbin for the rest of the world. Clearly, as in the Italian case, there is a danger that such waste will not be returned.

With the process in abeyance, if there are economic uncertainties and occasional technical uncertainties, which reduce capacity, the danger is that we shall not be able to carry out the contracts in the way that was originally intended by returning the high-level waste. In addition, because we cannot dispose of the low-level and medium waste, the argument behind the original reprocessing set-up seems to be falling apart. It would be reassuring to hear that the Government intend to review that. We have reached the point where the uncertainties are becoming greater and the foundations are looking rocky. The Government should ensure that their strategy fits the needs of the industry and the country at the present time.

On the radio, the Deputy Prime Minister mentioned background levels, but background levels of man-made substances are, obviously, zero—plutonium, for example, does not naturally occur, so its background level is zero. Will the Minister clarify what the Government mean by background levels and what kind of radiation emissions they are talking about?

I note that not too many hon. Members want to speak, so the Minister should have enough time to respond, which is crucial. In the debate on plutonium, we did not leave the Minister enough time to give a reply on which hon. Members could intervene. I hope that she will be able to deal with a wide range of issues, questions and facts.

I urge the Minister to say what the Government's attitude is to reprocessing and to a review of reprocessing. Why do the Government believe that it is necessary to continue discharging radioactive waste into the marine environment? I hope that we shall hear that, ultimately, they are committed to protecting the environment from man's activities, so that this generation, which benefits from cheap electricity, does not leave to future generations a problem from which they receive no benefit but with which they have to deal.

11.50 am
Mr. Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd)

I have campaigned about pollution in the Irish sea for the past 10 years. The two main towns in my constituency—Rhyl and Prestatyn—are traditional seaside resort towns that depend on tourism for their prosperity. They expanded as tourist towns because of the clean seas and beaches, so any marine pollution threatens their viability and that of dozens of others on the Irish sea.

Radioactive pollution must be viewed in the context of the many other forms of pollution that affect the Irish sea, which is relatively enclosed. Industries that pollute the sea either deny that the problem exists in their industry or minimise the effects. Sewage sludge—human waste mixed with heavy metals—has been dumped in Liverpool bay for 10 years at a rate of 90,000 tonnes per year. Indeed, dumping came to an end only this month—under a Labour Government, I am proud to announce. The Irish sea has for decades also been used as a huge chemical toilet by the water companies. They believed that long outfall pipes in the sea were the answer to sewage pollution, but—as has been the case in Blackpool—all that happened was that the sewage took longer to reach the beaches.

The main rivers that run into the Irish sea—especially those with industrial hinterlands, such as the Mersey and the Dee—have caused much pollution. In 1992, there were nearly 900 industrial spillages into the Irish sea from the Mersey. The dumping of munitions and chemical weapons since the end of the first world war has led to further pollution—flatfish caught in the Irish sea have 10 times the permitted level of arsenic. The rivers running into the Irish sea that have a rural hinterland have deposited hundreds of thousands of tonnes of fertilisers, leading to the worst cases of algae blooms in Europe.

Oil exploration and extraction have also contributed to the pollution of the Irish sea. Indeed, only four weeks ago, there was a major spillage of 47 tonnes from the Douglas field, for which Broken Hill Proprietary claimed responsibility. The spillage affected both my constituency and its neighbour, Clwyd, West—5 tonnes of it ended up on the shores of Rhyl, Prestatyn, Pensarn and Abergele.

The Irish sea is a busy shipping area. Many of the ships that visit the ports illegally flush out their tanks into the sea, and other ships, such as the Sea Empress, run aground—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but the debate is about radioactive discharges into the marine environment from Sellafield—he must make his remarks fit in with that subject.

Mr. Ruane

I come finally to the pollutant that is being discussed—radiation, specifically radiation leaks from Sellafield. In 1991, my constituency experienced some of the worst storms of the century. Parts of it, and of the neighbouring constituency of Clwyd, West, were under five feet of water. The crashing waves disturbed the sandy sediment on the beaches. HTV commissioned research that found radiation levels way above the average.

The Irish sea has been described as one of the most radioactive seas in the world. The Government made excellent headway in the reduction of radioactive pollution by announcing last September a complete ban on the dumping of radioactive waste, which was in stark contrast to the dilute-and-disperse policy of the previous Government.

I realise that reducing to zero radioactive discharges into the marine environment will not be easy. There has been a £7 billion investment in Sellafield, the plant has £12 billion of orders and tens of thousands of jobs are at stake. However, I urge the Minister to consider seriously the reduction to zero of radioactive pollution at Sellafield. I urge her to consider radioactive pollution in the wider context of the overall pollution of the Irish sea from the many sources that I have mentioned, and to take account of the negative effects of radioactive discharge on the economy, especially on tourism and fishing. The effects of radioactive discharges on the marine environment could be profound, and could last for hundreds of thousands of years.

11.56 am
Mr. Alasdair Morgan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Perth (Ms Cunningham) on obtaining this debate, to which I want to make a brief contribution. I am concerned about the discharges from the Sellafield plant in Cumbria. The longest coastline adjacent to Sellafield—apart from that of Cumbria itself—is on the Solway firth in my constituency. For some years, there has been great concern about the increase in radionuclides in the firth and on the beaches. As my hon. Friend said, particular concern has been expressed about the levels of technetium-99 in the environment, which are largely a result of the processing that began not so long ago of the waste from the Magnox programme. Although discharges are now falling from their historically high levels, we need to ask whether current or future levels are, or will be, satisfactory—indeed, we need to ask whether there is such a thing as a satisfactory level.

Various claims have been made about the level of radioactive concentrations in seafood and various kinds of seaweed. Concentrations are high not only near the end of the Sellafield discharge pipe—where British Nuclear Fuels says one would expect them to be high—but all along the Solway coast and as far round as Cape Wrath in the north of Scotland, where pollution in seafood and seaweed is increasing.

According to Scottish Environment Protection Agency surveys, radioactivity in lobsters caught on the north Solway coast increased from 390 bq/kg in 1994 to 1,700 bq/kg two years later. In winkles from Southerness—a village in my constituency—levels increased from 200 bq/kg to 730 bq/kg over the same period. At Port William in the Machars in my constituency, the level in seaweed has increased from 350 bq/kg to 2600 bq/kg over that period. At Cape Wrath in the north of Scotland, the level in seaweed has increased from 22 bq/kg to 290 bq/kg. We have a major problem of increasing cumulative levels.

BNFL says that eating seven or eight lobsters of the sort found in my constituency gives radioactivity equivalent to eating one Brazil nut. I must admit that I have never eaten a Brazil nut, despite the world cup, but the real point is the cumulative and long-lasting effect of the build-up of such concentrations of radioactivity and the effect that that will have on future generations. As my hon. Friend the Member for Perth pointed out, technetium-99 has a half-life of 213,000 years, so it builds up. The result is that we can expect the increase in pollution in sea foods and seaweeds to continue until an unacceptable level is reached.

Reference has also been made to leukaemia clusters. Although the number of cases is too small to permit any definite conclusion as to whether there is a noticeable effect on the coast of Wales, as the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Dafis) pointed out, there is genuine concern among people in those areas that their environment and health are being affected. The Environment Agency plans to allow BNFL to increase its discharges of various radioactive gases, including iodine-129, carbon-14 and ruthenium-106. The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) referred to discharges of carbon-14, but the significant feature of carbon-14 is that it has a half-life of 16 million years, so although discharges might not yet have built up to a significant level, the problem is cumulative and it will prove to be long lasting. The problem will certainly be around long after most of us have left the Chamber.

We have to take into account the international perspective. Some hon. Members regard people involved in the anti-nuclear movement as a bunch of cranks, but I do not think that we can put the Irish Government, the Norwegian Government or the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations into that category. They are all responsible bodies with which we have cordial relations, and we have to take seriously their views on the need to eliminate such discharges.

Ideally, we should not discharge radionuclides into the atmosphere or the environment. However there is a danger that even the low-level discharges that BNFL, SEPA and the Environment Agency seek will not be achieved because of cost considerations. There is a danger inherent in the "best available technology not entailing excessive cost" principle that, because of the cost, we shall not even achieve the far from ideal levels that are being talked about.

Many of my constituents have a long and honourable record of opposition to nuclear pollution, going back to the campaign against nuclear dumping in Mullwharcher in the 1970s, which was led by one of my predecessors, Mr. George Thompson. They are still concerned about health and the environment, and about the potential effect on tourism, to which the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Mr. Ruane) referred. They have no desire to be the victims of nuclear dumping by stealth from Sellafield.

12.3 pm

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

I shall endeavour to be brief, first, so that the Minister can reply adequately to the debate and, secondly, because I do not count myself one of the House's experts on this subject.

It was interesting to note how the hon. Member for Perth (Ms Cunningham) was stung by the intervention from the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) about whether she had ever visited Dounreay. I have visited neither Dounreay nor Sellafield, but I have visited the Magnox power station at Bradwell in Essex, which is adjacent to my constituency and in which I take a close interest.

I must admit that I have been hugely impressed by the attention paid to safety there and to ensuring that nuclear emissions are tightly controlled. The only incident that alarmed local residents occurred when one of the boilers overheated and the station had to let off a lot of steam, but no nuclear discharge was involved. The most common sort of nuclear alert is one caused by visitors wearing old-fashioned luminous watches. The staff advise visitors to remove them and to stop wearing them, because they pose a far higher risk to personal health than any nuclear power station.

I know the west coast of Scotland well. There are far worse environmental hazards there than the low levels of nuclear discharge that we are discussing today. For example, the release of mink has had a devastating effect on local bird life, which raises questions about biodiversity. Acid rain caused by coal-fired power stations has also had a significant effect on Scotland's west coast.

Mr. Alasdair Morgan

Surely the hon. Gentleman is not arguing that the existence of other problems means that we should not tackle this problem?

Mr. Jenkin

No, I am not saying that; it is entirely in character that the hon. Gentleman should try to imply that I am. I am saying merely that the issues should be kept in proportion. The hon. Member for Linlithgow made a good fist of explaining how the emissions are hugely reduced, which is hardly the impression given by the hon. Member for Perth. We should be interested in reducing overall pollution, not only one sort of pollution. To do so, we must make uncomfortable and difficult choices, because the problem does not lend itself to the sort of single-issue fanaticism that the nuclear industry has always attracted.

I was most interested in the assertion by the hon. Member for Perth that we could reduce nuclear waste by stopping nuclear reprocessing. That flies in the face of the advice from BNFL, which argues that, on the contrary, reprocessing reduces overall waste and especially high-level waste. The hon. Lady neatly claimed to support alternative means of disposal, but all the advice so far assessed by Governments of whatever party shows that alternative forms of storage are not as efficient a way of dealing with nuclear waste as reprocessing.

The important considerations in this debate are responsibility and openness. Our prime concern should be the environment, and not only one kind of pollution, radioactive discharges; for example, we should also be concerned about CO2 emissions. On the question of coping with radioactive materials that originate in different parts of the world, it is interesting to note how internationalist many environmentalists are when it suits them but, when BNFL provides a service to help the world to deal with the problem of nuclear waste, they suddenly complain that this country is being turned into a nuclear dustbin. That is not a consistent view.

Ms Roseanna Cunningham

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman wishes to dismiss my views and fears; I understand that and I accept it, even though I do not agree with him. However, I should be obliged if he would tell us whether he believes that we should summarily dismiss the real concerns of the Norwegians, the Danes, the Irish, the Icelandic people and all the Scandinavian peoples, who share my concerns and make precisely the same demands as I do. The hon. Gentleman wants to dismiss my demands, but would he also dismiss theirs?

Mr. Jenkin

I certainly do not dismiss the hon. Lady's comments, nor do I dismiss the views of other Governments, however, it is important to recognise that, in countries that have proportional representation and where the Greens can hold disproportionate influence over Government policy, Governments can end up running before the vagaries of public opinion, instead of making a hard-headed assessment of what is in the interests of the country concerned and of the world as a whole. Closing reprocessing plants will not make the problem of nuclear waste go away.

Sir Robert Smith

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Jenkin

I shall not give way again, because I want the Minister to give a proper reply to the debate. Halting reprocessing will not make the problem of nuclear waste disappear, but it is one way of fulfilling our international role.

Openness is key. The nuclear industry has learnt from past incidents that there is no substitute for openness and ensuring that as many people as possible understand the issues involved. There is nothing to be gained from rationing information in the hope of keeping fearful data out of the public domain. That has proved in the past to be a mistake, and the industry has clearly learnt its lesson. The Government and the nuclear industry must deal with the problem by continuing that policy of openness.

I hope that the Minister will reply to all the questions raised in the debate. I also have one or two of my own. Do the Government agree with the decision taken by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) at the end of the last Parliament that nuclear reprocessing remains the best option? Has the Minister received any advice to suggest that the decision to continue reprocessing is wrong? What advice have the Government sought regarding overall stocks of plutonium? That issue was raised in an Adjournment debate earlier this year, but the Minister did not have time to reply on that occasion.

Are there physical or political constraints on the amount of plutonium that we can accept into this country? Can the Minister confirm that we will continue to re-export much of the reprocessed materials? I am interested in the Minister's views regarding the implications of radioactive levels in shellfish—which was perhaps the main issue raised in the debate. It is suggested that levels of radiation in shellfish, such as lobsters, are dangerous.

Nuclear energy is a vital part of this country's energy industry. Privatisation may have raised questions about its economic efficiency, but it remains one of the cleanest forms of electricity generation. It would be impossible for the Government to meet their targets on greenhouse gas emissions without a continued role for nuclear energy. In addition to those considerations, sites such as the plant at Sellafield are major employers and major contributors to the United Kingdom's balance of payments. BNFL is Britain's biggest yen earner.

Regrettably, the production of nuclear energy generates a limited amount of radioactive waste. It is right and proper that the Government should take all steps in their power to minimise the discharge of such matter and to ensure that as little as possible enters the ecosystem, causing risk to this and future generations. However, it is not possible to prevent those emissions completely, and it would be unrealistic to set a target of reducing future emissions to zero.

The Environment Agency monitors closely the levels of radioactive discharges, and it is ludicrous to suggest that it is somehow implicated in a pro-nuclear conspiracy. The agency is an objective body whose job is to ensure that the general public suffer no appreciable risk. Less than 0.1 per cent. of the total radiation to which the general public in the United Kingdom are exposed comes from waste matter discharged by the nuclear industry.

We therefore give our broad support to the Government's negotiating position at the Ospar meeting. We believe that the Deputy Prime Minister has come some way since his stunts in a wetsuit outside No. 10. However, I must ask how such issues would be dealt with by a Scottish Parliament that was perhaps dominated by alarmists and those seeking to hijack these extremely sensitive issues for their own party political advantage. What would happen if the Scottish Parliament diametrically opposed the Government's negotiating position in Ospar? The Government failed to answer that question during debates on the devolution legislation, and I doubt that they will have an answer today.

12.13 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Angela Eagle)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Perth (Ms Cunningham), who is well known for taking a close interest in such issues, on securing this timely Adjournment debate—although we might have been more enlightened about the subject if the debate had occurred after Ospar's conclusion next week. No doubt we shall return to the issue later.

I was astonished to hear the hon. Lady confirm that Scottish National party policy dictates that nuclear waste should be stored where it is generated. That would mean that the 170 tonnes of nuclear waste generated by Scottish power stations, Chapelcross and Torness, and transported to Sellafield every year would have to be stored in Scotland. I am interested to know where the SNP proposes to store that waste material. I think that Dounreay has the capacity to store about 10 tonnes of waste, so where would the SNP store the large amount of waste that travels from Scotland to England every year if it had the chance to put its policy into effect?

As many contributors to the debate have pointed out, my right hon. Friends the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for the Environment are today in Sintra, Portugal representing the United Kingdom at a meeting of the Oslo and Paris convention, which is concerned with the protection of the Atlantic ocean. An important feature of that meeting will be considering ways of reducing radioactive discharges to the marine environment. The Government are fully committed to that objective, and I assure the House that they are working positively to secure an agreement to which all contracting parties to the convention—including the Scandinavian countries—can subscribe and which will ensure improvements in the protection of the marine environment.

The Government share the concerns of those who call for improvements in the protection of our seas. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister appeared in his frogsuit—as various hon. Members have described it—a year ago, and there have been significant reductions in discharge levels since then. One might conclude that there was a causal effect—perhaps that should be investigated by scientists.

Mr. Jenkin

My faith in the hon. Lady's scientific analysis has been suddenly reduced.

Angela Eagle

The relationship between cause and effect is sometimes not easy to discern. I suspect that most would agree that the reasons for my right hon. Friend's appearance in his frogsuit have diminished—although we are not complacent about the dangers that continuing discharges of radionuclides present to the environment.

The Government share the concerns of those who call for improvements in the protection of our seas. All discharges of radioactive materials, whether to the marine environment or to the atmosphere—those are often the disposal alternatives—are subject to strict regulation in accordance with national and international standards. Those standards ensure that the discharges do not put public health at risk.

At the September 1997 meeting of Ospar, we committed ourselves to making progress on reducing radioactive discharges into the sea. Our aim at the current meeting is to agree a strategy for radioactive substances that is demanding but achievable and will guide the work of the Ospar convention over the next 20 years or more. The exact wording of the strategy will be agreed at the meeting in Portugal by the end of this week. As hon. Members have pointed out, several alternative proposals have been proposed, including one that calls for concentrations in the marine environment that are close to zero for man-made radioactive substances.

In deciding our response, we shall need to have regard to what is deliverable, and we shall also need to take into account the legacy of past actions. We cannot wish away the stockpiles of nuclear materials that have been created by past nuclear activity. We must find a way of either reprocessing or storing those materials. We cannot secure international agreements that do not take account of that legacy with which we clearly must deal.

To ensure that we are able to foresee and avoid problems related to radioactive discharges in future, we shall ask nuclear operators to prepare forward-looking strategies for the next 20 years. I tried to make that point when I intervened on the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir R. Smith).

Technetium-99 became an issue because of decisions taken in the 1980s to deal with radioactive storage materials from Magnox power stations. Those decisions concentrated on the higher toxic radionuclides rather than technetium-99, which, although it is a cause for concern, is not one of the most toxic radionuclides that could find its way into the sea. As a result of decisions taken in the 1980s, it has become obvious that discharges of technetium-99 have increased, and the Environment Agency is examining the matter. That is why I mentioned, during the speech by the hon. Member for Perth, that the Environment Agency has warned BNFL that it must look at abatement technology for removing technetium-99 so that it does not have to be discharged.

However, there is a time lag between deciding how to deal with a particular form of waste and realising that there may be some radionuclides that were not at the top of one's priority list when the original waste reprocessing was decided.

Sir Robert Smith

Is there a fairly close link between those decisions? If waste is reprocessed, we have the problem of marine discharge; if it is not reprocessed, storage and other solutions do not result in marine discharge.

Angela Eagle

My understanding is that some nuclear waste has to be reprocessed, particularly from the Magnox power stations. If it is not, existing plant would have to be closed down and electricity would not be generated. I note with interest that 50 per cent. of Scotland's power needs are provided by nuclear power, as opposed to 25 per cent. of England's needs. If one decides to close reactors down, where else would the power come from, and what would be the effects of generating it in other ways? This is an holistic debate; the problem cannot be attacked from one side without realising that there are implications in other areas.

As I was saying, we must deal with the legacy as well as future planning in deciding how to generate the power that we all take for granted every day. To ensure that we can foresee and avoid problems such as the technetium-99 effect, we shall ask nuclear operators to prepare forward-looking strategies for the next 20 years.

Hon. Members have expressed concern about a number of incidents at both Sellafield and Dounreay, and the fact that reprocessing is currently not being carried out at either. The Government are determined that the regulators should bear down heavily on any laxness on the part of nuclear operators. We shall ensure that the nuclear industry is effectively and vigorously regulated.

The Government are committed to openness. I agree with the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) about the need to increase transparency in the way in which the nuclear industry deals with the public debate. However, a more open stance also means more awareness of incidents that, in the past, may have been hushed up. All hon. Members should deal with the matter responsibly, so that we can have a meaningful debate that is not alarmist and based on scaremongering, but based on scientific facts.

Following incidents in recent months, the Government's policy of openness has been seen in operation. Openness is essential if the public are to have confidence that the nuclear industry is well managed and safe. Following a breakdown in the electrical supply at Dounreay, the Health and Safety Executive required the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority to stop processing and reprocessing activities in the fuel cycle area. Following leakage from pipework within a contained cell at Sellafield, the thermal oxide reprocessing plant was closed down. In neither incident was there an adverse radiological impact to the work force or the general public. I want to reassure the House that the Health and Safety Executive will not permit either plant to reopen until it is satisfied that they can be restarted safely.

The Government have available to them a number of expert and independent bodies that conduct research and make recommendations about the various aspects of radioactivity and radiation exposure. We shall ensure that the Government, the regulators, the nuclear industry and the public at large continue to have access to the best scientific advice, so that we can all have confidence that the industry operated within safe limits.

Mr. Dalyell

Is there any news about the likely immediate future of THORP?

Angela Eagle

The HSE and BNFL are investigating the incident. They seek various reassurances about what happened, and will not authorise a re-start until they are satisfied that it is safe to do so. That involves investigating how the escape happened in a contained area.

The Government announced in June this year that there would be no new commercial reprocessing at Dounreay. The decision was taken on a number of grounds, including UKAEA's view that reprocessing there was no longer commercially viable. None of the factors that applied at Dounreay apply at Sellafield. For technical reasons, spent Magnox fuel must be reprocessed. For other spent nuclear fuels, the Government accept that it is for the fuel's owner to determine the best management option, but within a very strict regulatory regime. The reprocessing of foreign spent fuel does not increase the amount of radioactive waste to be disposed of in this country.

In answer to questions asked during the debate, I can confirm that each reprocessing contract provides for the resulting wastes to be returned to the country of origin. Those countries have all signed the non-proliferation treaty, so the mythical market in plutonium does not exist. There are very strict limits.

I am aware of the concerns about the discharge of technetium-99 from Sellafield into the Irish sea, and that deposits of technetium-99 have been found on the Irish side of the sea and as far away as Scandinavia. I hope that what I said about the Environment Agency's view, and the fact that BNFL will have to come up with abatement technology, will deal with that problem.

Much of the radioactive contamination of the seas around our coastline occurred in the 1970s and 1980s. It is important to bear in mind that overall discharges of radioactivity are significantly lower today than they were then. Taking all radioactive discharges from Sellafield—both to the atmosphere and to the sea—current discharges are just 1 per cent. of the peak in the 1970s. We shall ensure that that trend continues, but we must remember that previous discharges can still be found when tests are carried out.

The House will know that British Nuclear Fuels has applied to the Environment Agency for variations to some of the Sellafield discharge limits. The agency carried out a consultation exercise earlier in the year and is now considering its determination of the applications in the light of consultees' views.

The Radioactive Substances Act 1963 gives the Secretary of State for the Environment the power to decide radioactive discharge applications. A number of requests have been made to my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister to exercise that power in respect of the present Sellafield applications. I understand from the Environment Agency that it expects to be in a position to determine the applications by the end of September. I assure the House that the call-in requests are under consideration and that a decision will be reached about whether the applications should be called in before the agency issues any determination.

The House will appreciate that, because of the statutory function that my right hon. Friend has to exercise in this case, I cannot comment about the merits of the applications or say at this stage what decision will be reached on the call-in requests. I can assure the House that all the representations made to the Government on this issue, including those by hon. Members, will be carefully considered in reaching a decision. I can also confirm that the Government have made it clear to the Environment Agency that we expect to see progressive reductions in discharges and discharge limits at the Sellafield, site where practicable.

Let me remind the House of some of the positive steps that we have taken with regard to Dounreay. The Dounreay waste shaft was licensed before I was born, which illustrates my point about legacy. Since the explosion there in 1977, the shaft has been monitored. However, a range of options had been prepared to identify a lasting solution to that difficult problem. In March of this year, the Government announced that we accepted the site operators' recommendation that the waste in the Dounreay shaft and the related wet silo should be retrieved for treatment and storage. Current indicative costs suggest that expenditure may be between £215 million and £355 million, spread over 25 years.

On reprocessing activities at Dounreay, we announced last month that no further commercial reprocessing contracts would be entered into, which will allow Dounreay to concentrate on reprocessing its own fuel, the Georgian material and existing commercial contracts. That limited programme of reprocessing is likely to be completed around 2006.

We also took positive action in response to the detection, off shore from Dounreay, of fragments of irradiated fuel, by imposing a precautionary ban on the taking of sea fish from the waters within a two-mile radius, and work continues to identify the source of that problem.

That standpoint of openness with vigorous regulation is evidenced by our welcome for the prompt and wide-ranging review of safety management being conducted at Dounreay by the HSE and by SEPA. We expect the UKAEA to respond promptly to any recommendations made following the review. We also welcome the robust role generally adopted by the independent regulators. I repeat that we are not complacent on these issues, even though many of the problems we face are legacies.

The Government are committed to protecting the marine environment, and we are working with our partners in Ospar to secure progress on that. We have shown our willingness to act to protect our seas. Soon after we were elected, we announced in Ospar that we would give up the opt-out on dumping radioactive waste at sea, which effectively closed the door on any resumption of that practice.

Recent actions by the regulators at Sellafield and at Dounreay show that the arrangements are open, and that tough action is taken when required. The decision to shut down operations in the fuel cycle area at Dounreay was taken on a number of grounds, but, as we made clear in announcing that decision, environmental considerations were taken into account. We shall continue to ensure that the industry is well regulated.