HC Deb 23 June 1998 vol 314 cc828-31
5. Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

How many times he has met the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority in 1998 to discuss energy policy. [45574]

The Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office (Mr. Brian Wilson)

Earlier this year, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State met the chief executive of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority to discuss nuclear issues.

Dr. Lewis

We have learnt that in March the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority had already recommended closing Dounreay. That was at about the time the Prime Minister agreed to accept a further nuclear shipment from Georgia. Was the Prime Minister informed of that UKAEA recommendation and, if so, why did he not tell the full story to the House? If he was not informed, who at the Scottish Office was responsible for the failure to inform him? If that failure was the fault of the Scottish Office, is that not another reason why the Secretary of State's reputation is fast approaching critical nuclear meltdown?

Mr. Wilson

If I knew who the hon. Gentleman was, I would be able to reassure him personally that the Secretary of State's reputation across the political spectrum in Scotland is extremely good, and it is based on integrity over many years in public life. The decision to accept the Georgian shipment was based entirely on our international commitments and it would have been a dereliction of duty not to accept that small cargo when we had the capacity to do so. I am proud of the fact that we in this country are willing to accept our international obligations—and we shall continue to do so.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South)

My hon. Friend will remember the BBC programme "Frontline Scotland" that exposed last year the existence of the waste shaft at Dounreay and nuclear hot spots on the beach there. What action are the Government taking to ensure that the Dounreay site is safer?

Mr. Wilson

We are doing a great deal. My hon. Friend mentioned the waste shaft. The problems associated with it did not arise after 1 May last year; they developed over many years —and Conservative Members have the brass neck even to raise this issue. The previous Administration completely ignored the problems, presumably in the hope that they would go away or not be noticed. This Government came to power, recognised the problems at Dounreay and acted on the waste shaft, just as we acted on other issues that arose at Dounreay over a long period.

If ever a Government inherited problems that they did not create, and showed that they had the courage to face up to them, it is the present Government, in our response to the problems that had built up over the years at Dounreay.

Ms Roseanna Cunningham (Perth)

The Minister will be newly aware of the fact that 75 kg of weapons grade plutonium will shortly be on its way to Dounreay. Will he now advise us how many other commercial reprocessing contracts are outstanding for Dounreay?

Mr. Wilson

It is the usual stuff from the SNP. To throw in—

Ms Cunningham

It is a straight question.

Mr. Wilson

If it were a straight question, it would not be the usual stuff from the SNP; the hon. Member for Perth (Ms Cunningham) should listen to the answer. She threw in the words "weapons grade". Is the implication that Dounreay is being used in connection with nuclear weapons? Is that the scaremongering impression that she tries to convey to people watching our proceedings?

What is being done is entirely in line with the commitment that existing contracts would be dealt with. That is the commitment; it is a binding contract, and it will be dealt with. The hon. Lady does no favours with her scaremongering—not to me, not to Members of the House, and above all not to constituents of the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) who have worked in that industry for many years and have made a major contribution to the science, technology and economy of Scotland and the United Kingdom.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

On the Minister's recent visit to Dounreay, what did the shop stewards and professional associations say to him, and what did he say to them, about their future?

Mr. Wilson

I had many conversations during my recent visit. It was a very positive occasion, because it was the occasion of the announcement of a major inward investment in Thurso, as a spin-off from the presence of Dounreay in Caithness. As a result, some 500 jobs will be created by AEA Technologies and its Japanese partners in the manufacture of renewable batteries; that was extremely positive. As always, when I speak to people who have given their life to Dounreay and have contributed so much to the Dounreay economy, they say that they despair of the ignorance, the scaremongering, the hysteria and the utter disregard for the feelings of families in Caithness who have lived with the plant for a long time and have a very much fuller awareness of what goes on there, and has gone on there, than the hon. Member for Perth will have if she lives to be 100.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring)

Perhaps I can help the Minister by asking a question to which there is a very simple answer. How far into the decommissioning process will we be able to fulfil our international treaty obligations at Dounreay?

Mr. Wilson

I am not quite clear about the question, but I am sure that, if the hon. Gentleman addresses it to the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, it will give him a far more technically reliable answer than he would expect from me at the Dispatch Box. The hon. Gentleman shakes his head. I wish that anyone who was a member of the previous Government would make the slightest effort to defend the fact that, for 18 years, the Tories allowed the problems of Dounreay to accumulate and did absolutely nothing to address them. The Government are addressing the problems, but we are also determined to maintain employment for people in Caithness, because we are aware of social and economic factors as well as of the legitimate safety concerns that have been expressed.