HC Deb 13 May 1998 vol 312 cc313-34

11 am

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

I am grateful for the opportunity to open this debate on plutonium disposition and the growing problem of Britain's, and the world's, plutonium stockpiles.

The timing of the debate is particularly interesting in view of recent events at Dounreay and the treatment of uranium from Georgia and events in India during the past few days. The Indian Government have conducted surprising nuclear tests that raise questions about the future of the comprehensive test ban treaty and the possibility of completing the nuclear proliferation treaty.

The question of plutonium disposition is critical for the British economy, the environment and for the health and safety of everyone in the UK, not just those who live close to nuclear power stations. It is also critical for the Government's ability to work across Departments. I am pleased to see that my hon. Friend the Minister for Science, Energy and Industry is here to respond to the debate, but responsibility for this matter does not lie solely with the Department of Trade and Industry—it is a matter for several Government Departments, and I look to the Government to act corporately on it.

The issue also concerns the credibility of the Government's standing in the international community in terms of our ability to show leadership on difficult issues and to negotiate with Governments with different perspectives on matters that can ultimately be resolved only at an international level.

During the past nine months, there has been unprecedented interest in the future of nuclear policy in Britain. At the end of last year, two major reports were published on mixed oxide fuel: the first by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the second by the alternative group of scientists who published the international MOX assessment report. Earlier this year, we had an annual report on sustainable development from the Government's panel, which drew attention to the pressing need for the Government to take a lead on the growing problem of radioactive waste. A report on the management of separated plutonium was then published by the Royal Society, which makes an important recommendation to which I shall return later.

Several Government Departments have decisions pending. In the DTI there is a review of energy policy generally; the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions is considering Sellafield discharge authorisations and the application to start commercial production at the Sellafield MOX plant; in the Foreign Office, negotiations are continuing on nuclear proliferation. The significance of those negotiations has been heightened by the events in India earlier this week.

This debate is not primarily about Dounreay and Georgian uranium, although I am sure hon. Members will wish to comment on that and on reprocessing at Dounreay in view of yesterday's decision on safety matters there. Nor is it primarily about what we should do as a result of the Indian nuclear tests, although yesterday's decision now opens the possibility of a further increase in the nuclear arms race in that part of the world. That relates directly to the global problem of stockpiles of plutonium.

Nor do I regard this debate as simply an opportunity to bash the nuclear industry, although there are grounds for criticising it over many years, not only because it has given misleading information about the cost of nuclear energy—ironically, that information was finally corrected by the accountants charged with preparing the electricity industry for privatisation—but because it has given misleading information about its links with the military. Indeed, it denied that there was any connection between civil production and military use of plutonium. Many attempts have been made to conceal serious safety incidents, ranging from the Windscale fire of 1956 to the problem with the Dounreay shaft, which was exposed recently.

The British nuclear industry has a phenomenal record of technological innovation. It has a high level of technical skill and is a world leader in nuclear technology. Moreover, it has the capacity to solve for this country and others the legacy of 40 years of mistakes in the nuclear industry and to provide the dream of safe nuclear power at some stage in the future—possibly.

This debate is really about how the Government should respond to the legacy of mistakes and learn the lessons of misguided policies, not only by the previous Government but by Governments before them. It is about taking an objective look at the options for dealing with the growing stockpiles. I was much encouraged, at a recent meeting organised by the GLOBE parliamentary group in the House, when the spokesman for the British Nuclear Industry Forum said that the reprocessing route, which has been the favoured route to date, was questionable. He said: The jury is still out on reprocessing. It was refreshing to hear such honesty from the industry and to see that it is now questioning and criticising the reprocessing route.

I shall give the facts about the scale of the problem of plutonium stockpiles. The global stockpile now amounts to some 1,240 tonnes—of one of the most dangerous substances on earth. It is predicted almost to double by 2010. The stockpile of global spent reactor fuel is now about 800 tonnes. That, too, is predicted almost to double by 2010. The United Kingdom stockpile of separated plutonium as a result of reprocessing is now 50 tonnes and is predicted almost to double by 2010, by which time Britain's share of the global stockpile of separated plutonium will be about two thirds. This is clearly an international problem of growing significance, but the stockpiles of separated plutonium are a particularly British problem.

Radiotoxicity is one aspect of the problem. Although it is now generally accepted that safety standards and modern techniques in nuclear installations provide far better safeguards for people working in them than was the case some years ago, that must be qualified by the continuing reports of incidents and the record, over a number of years, of accidents of some kind. However, discharges into the environment give continuing cause for concern. The radioactive content of liquid discharges is up to 1,000 times stronger than the content of discharges into the air; hence many people's strong opposition to the policy of discharges into the Irish sea and the recent call by environmental groups for a complete ban on such discharging. Everybody knows about the Sellafield radioactive pigeons, but radioactive shellfish probably give more serious cause for concern.

The second aspect of the problem is proliferation. Our minds have been focused by the events in India and, dare I say, the possible response by the Pakistan Government in the next few days. After many years of denials in this country that reactor grade plutonium could be used to manufacture nuclear weapons, several leading scientists have recently confirmed that it is possible to construct a crude nuclear device from separated plutonium. The current stockpile in the United Kingdom could be used to create several hundred such devices. It takes little imagination to understand the attractiveness of that option to terrorists, mercenaries and rogue regimes, especially in view of the political instability that prevails in many parts of the world.

The current solution to the problem is to accept the nuclear industry's argument that stockpiles will be dealt with by reprocessing. For more than 30 years, successive Governments have committed the British taxpayer to ever-increasing subsidy—explicit and concealed—to finance the great reprocessing experiment in the search for the virtuous circle of infinitely recyclable fuel.

The project was based on several assumptions: first, that the cold war would create endless demand for plutonium for nuclear weapons; secondly, that the availability of uranium would be severely restricted and its price therefore huge; thirdly, that fast-breeder reactors would be developed, endlessly to consume plutonium stockpiles; fourthly, that nuclear energy would eventually become dominant, if not supreme, in the national energy programme on the grounds of its cost and the availability of fuel supply; and, fifthly, that a solution would be found to the problem of storage of intermediate and high-level wastes. The preferred solution was a deep nuclear waste depository.

During the past 30 years, each assumption has been discredited and made obsolete by events. The cold war has ended and the United States of America and the former Soviet Union are reducing their stockpiles of nuclear weapons. Yesterday, President Clinton was one of the first to condemn India for reversing the move to disarmament internationally. New sources of uranium have been discovered and there are plentiful supplies at comparatively low cost. The United Kingdom withdrew support for our fast-breeder reactor programme some years ago and shortly after its general election last year, France announced the end of the Superphénix fast-breeder reactor.

Although nuclear power generates about a third of British electricity, it faces an uncertain future. At the beginning of their regime, the Thatcher Government promised a new nuclear power station every year. That programme was quickly abandoned. It is difficult to envisage a private investor proposing to build a nuclear power station, largely because of greater awareness of the effects and costs of decommissioning.

The final nail in the coffin was the refusal shortly before the general election last year by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), the former Secretary of State for the Environment, of Nirex's application for a deep depository at Sellafield. The implications are interesting, because it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for British Nuclear Fuels to pursue the practice of substitution, whereby it returns a radiologically equivalent amount of high-level waste to the foreign generator, thus reducing the cost of reprocessing by saving the transport cost of returning the much bulkier intermediate or low-level waste. The fact that the cost of transporting intermediate-level waste is about 80 per cent. of the cost of sending the spent fuel to the United Kingdom has major implications for the cost of reprocessing.

The tragedy is that all that was widely understood before the previous Government approved the construction of the thermal oxide reprocessing plant at Sellafield, which firmly committed the United Kingdom to at least a decade of reprocessing, and continued the great British tradition of pursuing grand projects long after the original purpose has been left behind by events. Hon. Members may have favourite examples of such projects.

It is important to mention the role of mixed oxide fuel in the reprocessing industry and, in particular, BNFL's intention to establish a commercial production facility for MOX at Sellafield and develop what would essentially be an international trade in plutonium. Hon. Members should consider the impact of an international free market in plutonium following the events in India earlier this week. Do we really think that the way forward to global security is to allow India, Pakistan, North Korea, Iran, Iraq and Israel to benefit from a free market in plutonium? I think not.

For the nuclear reprocessing industry, MOX is the final link in the chain, because it creates a new fuel from separated plutonium and uranium that can be used in certain reactors. Significantly, MOX will not be used in British nuclear reactors. A spokesman for British Energy said recently: It would be thoroughly uneconomic for us to convert our AGR"— advanced gas-cooled reactor— to use the new MOX fuel. It is not just a case of cost either. It would require a lot of extra shielding and protection for our workers. It would be difficult, if not impossible, for us to use MOX fuel. Consequently, BNFL considers the future of MOX to be in international contracts. If the MOX plant is approved, there will be a dramatic escalation of the quantity of spent nuclear fuel being flown and transported by train from all parts of the globe for reprocessing and remanufacture into MOX at Sellafield. We need only consider the intense opposition in recent years, especially in Germany, to appreciate how public opinion might be affected by an escalation in Britain's role in taking in the world's radioactive waste.

Apart from the dubious economics of such an international trade in plutonium, the increased potential for nuclear accidents caused by spent fuel making more journeys over greater distances and the threat of nuclear terrorism, there is the question of the impact of MOX on the plutonium stockpile and the stockpile of other intermediate and high-level nuclear wastes. Although the manufacture of MOX consumes some of the stockpile, it creates more plutonium for recycling and even more waste, which we do not have the faintest idea how to deal with. Significantly, the December 1997 OECD report on MOX did not refer to the problem of intermediate and high-level waste created by MOX production.

There is an alternative. For a number of years, the consensus among those who are primarily concerned about protecting the environment against radioactive discharges and nuclear accidents and about reducing the risk of nuclear terrorism and proliferation has been to abandon reprocessing and to adopt a policy of dry storage. Dry storage of spent fuel can be either by vitrification in glass blocks or by ceramic immobilisation. Either way, the material can be stored indefinitely, in a geological depository, or temporarily, until technology develops to perfect other safe and environmentally harmless ways of disposing of spent fuel.

It is conceivable that the fast breeder dream will one day be realised. Only Japan is continuing research on a fast breeder, but we must accept that its attempts may be successful. Reactors may be developed that do not use plutonium. The dry storage option would buy time for future research to prove itself. No one pretends that that option is cheap or simple, but it is generally accepted that it is cheaper and safer than reprocessing and avoids the risks of transporting material over long distances and of proliferation and theft.

We are left with a legacy to manage for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The Royal Society report on the management of separated plutonium states: The surest anti-proliferation measure is to stop reprocessing spent fuel and to reduce the quantity of separated plutonium in store. Current Government policy is to delegate responsibility for the decision about plutonium stockpiles to the commercial judgment of the owners of the spent fuel. In view of the changing circumstances in recent years, that is no longer a sensible policy. I do not believe that the enormous implications for everyone of the growing plutonium stockpiles can be left solely in the hands of the operators. Plutonium is no respecter of international borders. The size and scale of the problem, its international dimension, the potential impact on the environment and on people's health and safety and the impact across the globe if we get it wrong combine to argue powerfully that the matter is for the Government as a whole, and that all Governments must take responsibility.

I therefore propose five steps towards a new approach to the problem of plutonium stockpiles. I accept that few of these fall within the remit of my hon. Friend the Minister for Science, Energy and Industry, which highlights the fact that the issue crosses the whole of the Government, but I should be grateful if he could comment generally on them in his response.

First, it is important that the Environment Agency completes the review, for which the previous Government asked, into the operation of Sellafield and THORP before continuing work on making recommendations on the application for commercial production of MOX at Sellafield. Secondly, although the Environment Agency has responsibility for considering the MOX application and making a recommendation, that must ultimately be a political decision, so I hope that the matter will be called in by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

Thirdly, I endorse the Royal Society's call for a national inquiry into plutonium disposition. Its report of January this year states: The society urges the Government to commission a comprehensive review by independent experts of the options outlined above, covering technical, economic, environmental and security aspects, energy policy issues and taking account of public acceptability and of the opportunity costs of each option. I hope that the Government will respond positively to that recommendation.

Fourthly, to illustrate that this is not a matter only for the United Kingdom or any individual state, the Government have an opportunity to take an international lead, as we did in the negotiations on climate change in Kyoto, by convening an international conference to agree an international strategy for dealing with plutonium stockpiles. That conference should include such issues as establishing an international register of fissile material, the potential for placing all nuclear establishments under an agreed international safeguard regime and a review of the potential conflict of interest between some of the functions of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Finally, the Government must do everything possible to press ahead with international negotiations on the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and to push for an international fissile cut-off treaty, which has already been agreed in principle by Governments.

I want my Government to demonstrate that they can respond, across Departments and reconciling their different perspectives, to the changed circumstances of the post cold war period and to the new environmental agenda. Our commitment to putting the environment at the heart of government is central to our future policy on reprocessing and plutonium stockpiles. It would be an enormous disappointment to many millions of people if the new Labour Government simply continued with the old nuclear policies.

11.22 am
Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) on securing the debate and on his excellent outline of the issues that should be addressed both in our debate and by the Minister in his reply. I recognise that the Minister will have to speak with many tongues for the many Departments involved in the debate.

We heard news this week of the Foreign Office view on this country's role in damping down a resurgence of interest in nuclear weaponry. Regrettably, we have reached a point in history where, although the cold war as a driving force behind proliferation is ending and states are reaching a point where they can negotiate on weapons reduction and non-proliferation, the nuclear problem is bubbling up in another area and as a result of other motivations. It would be sad if, while our Foreign Office is trying to play that damping role, in another guise we were providing the materials—raw materials that can be processed, or at least the precursors—and the wherewithal to enable countries to expand their weaponry. A reassurance from the Minister that the Foreign Office is in the picture and part of the loop would be welcome.

In debates such as this, it is difficult to avoid topicality, but the public will be concerned that a JCB can bring a nuclear reprocessing plant to a halt. That is clearly not the modern level of operating safety that people want. Explanations will come in the fulness of time, but such stories do not help to instil confidence that we have adopted the right long-term strategy or to reassure us that the matter is under control.

The role of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions is important. I listened to the five steps outlined by the hon. Member for Bury, North, who spoke of the need to bring a political decision to bear on the MOX issue. With my knowledge of planning and environmental law, I do not know whether the fact of the decision being called in by the Secretary of State makes it a purely political decision, because Ministers are constrained by judicial review in the courts. It may be that, if there is to be a political element, Parliament will have to be involved and review the legal framework surrounding the decision and the way in which it can be taken.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

The hon. Gentleman stated that Dounreay was brought to a halt, but that is not quite the situation, is it?

Sir Robert Smith

I think I said that the reprocessing part of Dounreay was halted, and that was the situation. The hon. Gentleman is right: when we analyse the details and the science we may find that the incident was not as dramatic as the headlines suggested, but the reality is that such events generate public concern. When dealing with complex nuclear material in an environment where there is at least the potential for something to go seriously wrong, one would expect higher levels of safety management to ensure that we do not get that close to having to shut down parts of the operation.

There is major environmental concern about where we go in the long term. The dry storage and continued research option has the greatest potential to produce, in the long term, a solution that protects the next generation, so it is worrying that further reprocessing contracts might be issued. We do not seem to understand that, although in its time there may have been a logic to reprocessing—some say that even in its time it was not logical—movements in the price of materials and developments in the nuclear industry tend to suggest that the time for that process has passed. It is time for a review, and time for the Government to make clear what role they envisage for the reprocessing industry.

Taking an international lead is important. If we show that we can take a decision on this matter, we as a country can play a major role in international negotiations on the future uses of plutonium. It is not clear that having a new Government has brought about any great change in strategy, so it might be interesting were the Government to step back and ask whether they should review the whole subject, bring together all the Departments and consider carefully whether we are trapped in inertia. Are we still in charge? Are we taking a lead? Are we driving the agenda in the direction we want to go? What future role do we envisage for plutonium?

It would be interesting if the Minister could outline his understanding of the current disposition of plutonium. How much is in military hardware? How much is sitting awaiting reprocessing? How much has been set aside for medical uses, such as pacemaker batteries? What percentage of plutonium use do other uses represent? It seems that the biggest use is for fuel and recycling. We do not want to be sidetracked into how we could power pacemakers on the back of the nuclear industry; that is a useful by-product, but it should not be the driving force.

We want to feel that the Government want to take charge of the situation, will not allow it to drift, and will not allow policy momentum to mean that we miss an opportunity. Above all, we do not want this country to play a part, by default, in encouraging nuclear proliferation and undermining the hard work that has gone into driving away the threat posed by nuclear weapons.

11.29 am
Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) on his perception and foresight in raising an important issue. I also thank him for his information-packed speech: I, for one, have learnt a great deal.

When my hon. Friend applied for the debate, he could not have known how relevant it would be, following events in India earlier this week. I have received a telephone message saying that India has, unfortunately, exploded two further nuclear devices, presumably overnight. The testing of nuclear devices in India is a perfect example, were one needed, of the honors that can ensue when there are inadequate controls on nuclear materials—such as plutonium—and their associated technologies. The House should note that the principal supplier of the material and technology that underpin the Indian nuclear programme was another Commonwealth country—Canada. There was also ample help from other countries, such as the United States, which supplied the uranium.

These are extremely good arguments in favour of an international, universally applied and agreed fissile material control and disposition policy. They demonstrate the need to move away from the current fragmented approach, involving three separate Government Departments, towards a single, over-arching British fissile material control and disposition policy. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will agree, will take seriously the views that hon. Members express today, and will work towards implementing such a policy.

I shall write to Pakistan's ambassador to urge restraint. If Pakistan follows its neighbour's extremely unfortunate example, the entire population of the sub-continent will be the losers. The question of Kashmir will remain unresolved, along with various other disagreements between India and Pakistan. These two countries are among the poorest in the world. Their people need basic education and health care, adequate shelter, pure water supplies and a decent diet; they do not need the means to kill each other on a massive scale. I trust that these sentiments will be supported by my Pakistani-Kashmiri constituents, and that those constituents will press their Government to stay out of the nonsensical arms race.

It would be helpful if our Government adopted a do-as-we-do approach to the international nuclear weapons non-proliferation treaty, instead of their present do-as-we-say policy. Perhaps our representations to India would then carry much more weight.

11.32 am
Ms Roseanna Cunningham (Perth)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) on obtaining an extremely important debate, even if he did beat me in the great Adjournment debate lottery.

As may be expected, I shall refer to events at Dounreay over the past few weeks. First, however, let me quote from the Government's policy on nuclear reprocessing, which, as far as I can see, may have been cobbled together without debate late last year. Hidden away on the Department of Trade and Industry internet site, under the heading "UK Civil Nuclear Policy including Plutonium", it states: The UK Government believes that the question of whether to reprocess (and if so when), or to seek alternative spent fuel management options should be a matter for the commercial judgement of the owners of the spent fuel, subject to meeting the necessary regulatory requirements.

The Minister for Science, Energy and Industry (Mr. John Battle)

The hon. Lady will, I think, accept that that information was placed in the Library, and not, as she said, hidden away on the internet—which is in the public domain in any case. I hardly think that she can claim secrecy.

Ms Cunningham

I am glad to hear that. We obtained it from the internet; perhaps we are more wised up than others on new information technology.

Mr. Chaytor

Let me support the Minister by saying that the statement that has been quoted was contained in an answer to a parliamentary question towards the end of January. There was no concealment.

Ms Cunningham


Perhaps we can move on to focus on the words of my quotation. As I was about to say before people began to leap to their feet, the policy has been reiterated in a number of recent written answers. We appear to have a laissez-faire policy for what is possibly the most dangerous of global industries. That is a frightening thought, particularly when we think of the extraordinary catalogue of incompetence and cover-up at Dounreay, which is one of the owners of spent fuel referred to in the Government's policy statements.

Spent fuel management is left to companies' commercial judgment, not their environmental judgment, or a judgment based on thoughts of international security. The economic viability of the nuclear industry would fill an entire debate, but after the Government's high rhetoric over the past few weeks about doing our bit for the world's problems, their policy shows little interest in doing anything to diminish the problem of nuclear proliferation.

The United States Government, who conducted a thorough and open debate into plutonium disposition for several years before they took substantial steps to address the issue, regard Dounreay as a proliferation threat. They refuse to allow their spent fuel to be processed there, saying that it would not be possible to ensure compliance with the United States' nuclear weapons non-proliferation policy objectives. My source for that is the United States Department of Energy's Safe Energy Journal No. 108, January to March 1996. Meanwhile, an unidentified spokesman from Dounreay was quoted, in The Scotsman on 23 April, as saying: If our customers want bomb-grade material, they can have it. That is not terribly reassuring. Nor is it terribly surprising, when the Government are asking only for the nuclear industry to apply its commercial judgment.

It is slightly comforting to know that no plants at Dounreay are currently operational. It was announced yesterday that, in the light of events last Thursday, which led to both a loss of power and the failure of the back-up electricity supply, the nuclear installation inspectorate has directed the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority to ensure that all processing activities in the fuel cycle area remain shut down until a safety case can be made that gains the consent of the Health and Safety Executive.

The whole issue is generating enormous debate in Scotland. Today, there is an entire page of analysis in The Scotsman, which is, in part, indicative of the tone of the response that is emerging. Let me quote two sections from Christopher Cairns's commentary. The first states: A nuclear power plant's failsafe systems are the last line of defence against cataclysmic disaster on the Chernobyl scale for use in only the most extreme of emergencies. Is it at all comforting that, as far as Dounreay is concerned, that includes the laying of a telephone line? He says, secondly: This, remember, is the safe haven for the uranium which came out of Georgia last month. Of course, a war-torn corner of the former Soviet Union is not the place to keep bomb grade material. But a reprocessing and storage facility which is incapable of even guaranteeing its own power supply must surely run a pretty close second. That is the tenor of coverage in Scotland of what is happening at Dounreay, and the Government ignore it at their peril.

I want assurances from the Minister that the safety case will involve more than just electronics. The whole condition of the fuel cycle area must be looked at to avoid any more unforeseen accidents.

In its latest quarterly report, the nuclear installations inspectorate referred to an unpublished report of its own identifying the deficiencies in the fuel cycle area. The NII is willing to release the document, but until now UKAEA has blocked its release. In the light of recent events, I would ask the Minister to have that report placed in the House Library, as it is clearly a matter for public concern. I believe that the NII has never served such a wholesale direction on any installation since its inception, which serves to highlight the seriousness of the situation at Dounreay.

It is also worth noting that the D1203 plant, destined to process parts of the Georgia waste into targets for medical isotopes, and the only plant still operational at this time last week, is now closed until further notice. The remaining plants are old and falling to bits. UKAEA has put in an application for funding from the DTI to upgrade plant D1206, a reprocessing plant that would churn out even more plutonium. When can we expect a statement from the DTI about that? What criteria will be used to arrive at a decision on D1206?

To assist the Minister with his decision, I should like to give him a resumé of some of Dounreay's recent achievements. In 1977, a waste shaft filled with an explosive mixture of waste and chemicals exploded, spraying radioactive material into the surrounding environment. In January this year, UKAEA's chief constable, Tony Pointer, resigned, apparently over security inadequacies at the plant. In March, a mock evacuation was so unsatisfactory that the Nil demanded a re-run. Last week, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency served a notice on UKAEA for grossly underestimating its radioactive discharges. A worker was found last week to have been subjected to more than the annual allowable dosage of plutonium radiation. Then there was last Thursday night's complete failure, which could have had disastrous consequences had any of the reprocessing plants still been in an operational state.

There should be a full inquiry into all aspects of management and operations at Dounreay, not more funding for plant D1206. I believe that the findings would show that all its plants should be retired before there is any more opportunity for error. Our continued opposition to the operations at Dounreay is founded not only on the evidence of its incompetence and state of disrepair but on the fact that it exists to reprocess spent fuel—

Mr. Dalyell

If all this represents the whole story, why has Dounreay been awarded its fifth ROSPA gold medal for safety?

Ms Cunningham

That is an extremely good question to which I do not know the answer. On the face of it, Dounreay should not have been given any commendation; the vast majority of the public in Scotland would be astonished to discover that it had been commended.

The Scottish National party does not believe that nuclear waste should be reprocessed. Reprocessing increases stockpiles of plutonium and highly enriched uranium, and spreads them around the world, where they are increasingly vulnerable to theft and misuse. The hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir R. Smith) spoke of the dangers of Departments promoting policies at variance with each other. He might be interested to know that Dounreay has in the past exported highly enriched uranium to India—no doubt one of the UK's contributions to non-proliferation.

Contrary to what the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) may like to imply in the press, the SNP believes that each country is responsible for storing its own waste—and that includes Scotland. In 1992, Scottish Nuclear planned its own dry storage facility at Torness. The Government stalled the decision on the facility, but Scottish Nuclear did not hang about—with the result that the waste was and is transported to Sellafield. The SNP made no objection in 1992 to the proposal for the facility at Torness, because it was in keeping with our policy. We do not promote NIMBYism; we simply believe that what countries make in their own back yards they should keep in their own back yards—hardly an unreasonable line to take.

We should like above-ground dry storage facilities at each of the Scottish sites where we can responsibly store spent fuel and put an end to the cycle of reprocessing and proliferation.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Cunningham

I need to press on; sorry.

With on-site dry storage, nuclear material will not have to be transported around the United Kingdom or the world, thereby reducing the risks of accident, theft and terrorist attack. The material would be retrievable and easily monitored—an aspect too often overlooked in discussions about non-proliferation.

In order to know whether plutonium is missing we need to know what amounts there were in the first place. There are further opportunities for the UK's nuclear industry to play its part in non-proliferation. Both BNFL and UKAEA have the technology to immobilise separated plutonium—to embed it in glass logs or ceramic pellets in such a way as to make it easy and convenient to store and harder to use for making weapons. Consideration should also be given to adapting existing technologies to the good uses to which they have already been put by the USA—methods described by BNFL as the optimum for converting high-level waste into a solid form that can be stored safely, conveniently and economically. This information comes from BNFL's briefing note "The Vitrification Plant", to be found on its website.

Immobilisation is considered by the United States to fulfil its spent fuel standard, which stipulates that, whatever is done with its stockpiles of separated plutonium, it must be rendered as inaccessible as it is when locked into a spent fuel rod. At the same time, President Clinton has made a commitment to downblending the nuclear material retrieved from former warheads, and placing it in secure storage. It is estimated that there are between 1,600 and 2,000 kg of plutonium in the UK extracted from former warheads. Where is that plutonium; is the Minister prepared to commit himself to retiring it?

It would appear that the SNP currently has a clearer policy on the disposition of plutonium than do the Government. We want a halt to reprocessing, on-site dry storage, the adoption of the spent fuel standard, and consideration of immobilisation technologies.

The lack of debate on the subject to date has been shameful. The secretive, underhand way in which the Government brought in the Georgia waste was illustrative of the Government's attitude, making a mockery of their manifesto promise of a new commitment on transparency by the nuclear weapons states". If this was transparency I dread to think what is going on in secret—and this is an industry bedevilled by secrecy. We sometimes find out about failures only years after they occur, but we are always reassured that everything is safe and secure—except for what happened last week, last month, or 10 or 20 years ago.

This is not good enough: it leads to a breakdown in public confidence. The SNP is wholly willing for Scotland to play a responsible part in international efforts towards non-proliferation. I want to put paid to some of the spurious accusations of recent weeks. Our belief is that nuclear proliferation gives rise to serious concern that must be met with international determination. The Government must be prepared to conduct a thorough debate and an open consultation, along with their international partners. Through that process I would hope to reach a far more principled stance than the current mix of arm's-length policy and hollow rhetoric allows.

11.47 am
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

The other side of the coin is this: if we do not have nuclear energy, what will we do about global warming and its related problems?

Dounreay is well equipped to recover plutonium and highly-enriched uranium from fuel elements and residues. It provides a safe and secure area for carrying out such work. The security standards have been confirmed as meeting the requirements of the DTI's independent security watchdog, the Department of Civil Nuclear Security. The full complement of police is in place, and a new security fence costing more than £1 million was installed in 1997.

Dounreay's discharges from carrying out reprocessing work are low. The dose to the most exposed group of the public is only 1 per cent. of that received from natural background radiation. As I have pointed out, Dounreay has just been awarded its fifth ROSPA gold medal—and ROSPA is run by pretty competent people.

Reprocessing produces a well-characterised waste form that is stable and suitable for safe long-term storage or disposal. Dounreay has long experience of safe transport of plutonium to Sellafield. The recovery of the highly enriched uranium at Dounreay is beneficial because it can be used either directly or indirectly in the production of medical isotopes. If the Minister thinks that any of those facts are wrong, he will no doubt tell me. I am sure that he has some explanation as to what actually happened after the accidents involving the bulldozer.

There are others who want to speak, so I shall briefly say that, in preparation for this debate, I went to my old friend John Dunster, who authorised me to quote him. He says: I was glad to see your support for the processing by Dounreay of the enriched uranium from Eastern Europe. There are problems with enriched uranium and plutonium. I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) made a constructive speech: the vitrification avenue may be as good, if not better. I welcomed the whole tone of his introduction, because, although I did not agree with him, it was highly constructive and measured. I congratulate him on the style and the way in which he put the argument.

Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

I note that my hon. Friend began his speech by expressing concern that we needed to continue with nuclear power, but does he accept that mixed oxide fuel is not seen as a potential fuel in this country, and that the concern in this debate is about the massive stockpiles of plutonium that are being developed as a result of MOX and other reprocessed fuels, for which this country has absolutely no use?

Mr. Dalyell

The brief answer is that the International Atomic Energy Agency has calculated that, through the use of MOX fuel, plutonium stockpiles can be held steady and then reduced in the first 10 years of the next century.

May I make the points that John Dunster made: As a former Deputy Director general of the Health and Safety Executive and its Director of Nuclear Safety, I am sure that the requirements of Her Majesty's Nuclear Installations Inspectorate and the technical competence of the Dounreay management will together provide an appropriate level of safety for processing this material. I am not convinced by the argument that we should not accept overseas nuclear material for reprocessing, provided that we have the capacity to deal with it safely. Dealing with other people's spent fuel, even without the return to the country of origin of the associated radioactive waste, is no different from the export of manufactured goods. Any such exportation involves us in carrying the risks and the environmental costs of manufacture for the gain of foreign currency. I see nothing wrong in encouraging exports. If we can provide an expert service to other parts of the World at the same time, so much the better. In the case of the enriched uranium, the processing risks are small and the benefits considerable. We have a moral duty to go ahead.

Sir Robert Smith

I think that many people accepted in the Georgian instance that return and the change of Government policy may have been a necessary and sensible move in the international circumstances, but does the hon. Gentleman not feel that, had the Government come to the House and had a debate, not on the specifics, but on the principle that, in cases where there was an unstable regime, this country would be willing to change its policy, public acceptance and the debate would have been totally different? Instead, the whole issue came out through a leak, and the Government claimed that they could not have a debate even on the principle of the issue because of security reasons. However, there would have been no security implications in debating the principle, if not the details.

Mr. Dalyell

I am an old-fashioned person who thinks that it is the job of Members of Parliament to lead the public debate and to try to inform the public. Personally, I am proud of what Scotland, Britain and the British nuclear industry are able to do in offering expertise to the world to overcome a real problem. It would be selfish of me to speak at any greater length. I simply ask the Minister: is he not also proud of the British nuclear industry?

11.54 am
Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

I had come to the Chamber with the intention, not of speaking, but of listening and possibly intervening. However, I should like to make a couple of points to add to the analysis of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), who, in an interesting and analytical explanation of where we are in relation to plutonium disposition, made many points that I share, if not wholly agree with.

We must understand that there is the factor of the basic integrity of the nuclear industry. This is an interesting industry because it is split so many different ways. It transcends the public and private sectors and military and civilian purposes and it is commercially driven. At the same time, it has international obligations and has to meet basic needs in terms of the general purpose of the world's population.

Whether we like it or not, there is a proliferation of plutonium, and we have to do something with that, whether it is through the civilian route or the nuclear industry. There is also the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Various people have spoken about the problems in India, Pakistan and elsewhere. We must hope and pray for non-proliferation treaties, but realpolitik tells us that, at the moment, we have to remove that plutonium in whatever ways we can.

The nuclear industry has a purpose, a role in the future of the world. We cannot disinvent it. It is there. It is functioning. Many Members here today believe that we will have an energy shortfall in 40 or 50 years' time. Even if the most ambitious ideas of those who support—as I do—the alternative, the reusable sources, are put into practice, we still almost certainly have an enormous shortfall in energy, particularly as securing more energy is the only way in which the third world can develop. Many countries are energy deficient and must look for ways in which to reach developed status. They will need to be able to share in that.

I have a problem with all the allegations and emotive attacks on the nuclear industry. I share some of the concerns about the secrecy and lack of transparency in the way in which the nuclear industry has tended to operate both in this country and the wider world. What concerns me is that, unless we face up to the reality of the situation, we will lose the technological know-how. We will face a world where there are no people to solve the problems that we have to solve because they will not go away.

This country was particularly well known as the leading advocate of nuclear industry. Many of our brightest brains and the people who slaved hard to come up with answers are either working in other parts of the world or leaving the industry and not being replaced. My only plea is that we do not lose the advantages that we have. We have to face up to our responsibilities and to look at what is possible at the moment. I strongly believe that, whether we like it or not, reprocessing is the best way in which to remove plutonium for the time being. We have examined how to store it, but that is neither safe nor necessarily the better alternative.

There may be ways in which, by keeping our integrity in this industry, we can find better solutions. Science in different parts of world is trying to come up with ways to find the better alternative in dealing with the problems of plutonium. As a non-scientist, in upholding faith in science, I ask hon. Members and the Minister to have a little faith in the nuclear industry and to recognise that it is about not only commercial obligation but the basic requirement of mankind to find both energy and a safe way of disposing of plutonium.

11.59 am
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

The hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) performed a considerable service to the House by raising these important issues, and by the general tone in which he did so—a tone which has been followed, with perhaps one exception, by subsequent speakers—given the great public concern and emotion about these matters.

Plutonium is a highly toxic material in certain applications, although its nature, which emphasises radiation through the emission of alpha particles, means that it is less penetrative than some nuclear fissile materials. In certain cases, it can be rendered relatively innocuous in use. However, on the applications side, apart from its potential use in nuclear weapons, it is a nasty substance that needs proper respect, as do many other substances that are used variously in industrial processes, from chlorine to arsenic. Plutonium is not unique in being toxic; it is perhaps unique in potentially being of very high value. It has been said that, per kilogram, it is perhaps the most valuable material in the world. The stockpile is a considerable asset in terms of its capacity for use, and not simply for nuclear fissile or nuclear warfare activities.

The concern that is rightly expressed in public debate about nuclear issues, as opposed to other industrial processes, perhaps goes further than it should. I think that that has much to do with the fact that nuclear radiation cannot be perceived, visually or by means of any of our senses. Inevitably, public debate is mediated by experts who may or may not have vested interests. Radiation has to be measured by instruments and we must be reassured by scientists. That is not always a happy situation.

Although the nuclear industry generally has a good safety record worldwide, and certainly in the United Kingdom, there have been exceptions, of which the clearest example is Chernobyl. I had some experience of that when I worked in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Twelve years ago almost to the day, we had to put the sheep population of parts of the United Kingdom under control. It is a sobering thought that some of those sheep are still under control because of the very high safeguards that we needed to impose, rightly, to reassure the public. Things can go wrong but mercifully they do not generally go wrong, and they certainly have not gone wrong systematically in relation to the United Kingdom's stockpile of plutonium.

This is a timely debate because, as the hon. Member for Bury, North said, the Royal Society has rightly expressed its concerns and its wish that the Government should consider the long-term disposition of the United Kingdom's growing stockpile. That stockpile is owned by a number of operators, and reflects both the retirement of nuclear weapons and, more particularly, the growing output of commercial reactors. I agree with the Government-I am sure that they will confirm that this is their position—that there is no immediate need for a decision. It would be wrong to rush into one. It needs proper consideration. While the material is being held as it is, I am broadly satisfied about its safety, but I would like the Minister to confirm the position.

The hon. Member for Perth (Ms Cunningham) and other hon. Members mentioned that concern has been heightened by recent events. The acceptance of the Georgian high-grade uranium material for reprocessing at Dounreay on a one-way ticket has inevitably reignited concerns about the security of nuclear installations generally. They were highlighted in recent days by the apparent failure of power supplies at the plant. I shall return to that later, because the interpretation of safety data and precautionary action is important.

There have also been disturbing revelations about apparent leakages and high levels of ambient radiation from French trains carrying material for reprocessing. That has not been mentioned today. It is right that the House should be vigilant on behalf of the public, and of the world environment, about unplanned discharges. Our job is to ask Ministers the questions that Ministers should be regularly asking their officials. I hope that they are. In particular, we must ask whether they continue to be satisfied that security at our nuclear installations is adequate, that messages are passed to other nuclear operators outwith the United Kingdom about their security and, in particular, that Sellafield is now doing what it should, given its stockpile.

Dr. Lynne Jones

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there should be accountability regarding the location of material such as plutonium in a form that it is possible to convert into weaponry? Even the smallest amount of material should be accounted for. Is he not concerned that that will be difficult if there is reprocessing and dispersal of plutonium across the world?

Mr. Boswell

I am grateful for that question. The effect of reprocessing on the whole complex of high-level waste is to reduce and concentrate it. That creates plutonium, which has to be secured. The alternative may be to allow proliferation, or expansion, of the total amount of high-level waste kept in dry storage unprocessed. That is a difficult judgment. I had no part in it, but the previous Government had to consider it in respect of THORP, the thermal oxide reprocessing plant. Of course what is done with plutonium, and the extent to which there is accountability, are important. It is for the Minister to say how precisely he can account for it and whether there are any unaccountable losses that concern him. He can assure us that it will not happen in future. It is for the operators, who carry out the process primarily on a commercial basis, to decide whether something is economic and appropriate, and for those who license and control their activities to ensure that the matter is properly accounted for; it is right to separate the capacities.

As the hon. Member for Bury, North said, plutonium waste could possibly be converted into fissile material. Although it is not the material of choice, it is important that we view it on its merits as a potentially fissile material, and account for it appropriately. That needs to be got right. However, as the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) did in relation to Dounreay, it is important to put on record the safety achievements of Sellafield.

That is an important point in the argument about industrial activities involving various scientific applications, whether in the nuclear industry or in other industries such as genetic engineering. We must consider the alternative. We must also consider the built-in propensity, when we measure and impose safeguards and insist on the highest possible standard, to expose more items which in a sense—I speak not as Sir Humphrey but as a concerned member of the public—reveal the robustness of the safety system. The inspectorate's decision to shut Dounreay shows that it was not satisfied with standards, not that something was inherently wrong with the plant when it was in full operation. That is relevant to Sellafield.

British Nuclear Fuels plc can declare a secular decline in the accident rate, which affects the overall housekeeping of the plant. More precisely, there has been a systematic and dramatic lowering of the discharge consent levels, whether involving ambient discharge or discharge into the sea, reflecting the fact that society rightly wants higher standards and will, I hope, enforce them. If they are occasionally departed from, that shows that the system is broadly working, not that it is failing.

It is also important to record that BNFL is the major employer in Cumbria. Some 8,000 are employed at THORP alone. It has set a new standard in being open with the public. It has created a visitor centre, not to tell people just what they need to hear, but to give them a chance to see what is going on. I have not visited it yet, but I hope to do so in due course. That readiness to open up suggests not an attempt to cover up, as some people suggest, but a readiness to take the public into the confidence of both the Government in relation to regulation and the operators in relation to their activities on the important overall issues.

We cannot expect the Government to say things that bear directly on security, but the more sunlight that can be let in, the better. Then the argument for confidence and concern about matters that we cannot measure ourselves—we do not know what is going on without the aid of instruments and interpretation—can be turned round. As the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) rightly said, the Kyoto requirements may well in due course lead to some reappraisal of the balance of energy sources. That will undoubtedly be one of the Government's review of wider energy issues.

In his response to this important and timely debate, I should like the Minister to comment on several aspects relating more directly to its specific subject—the disposition of plutonium. As other hon. Members have said, the debate goes wider than the remit of the Minister's Department. It involves environmental concerns and Foreign and Commonwealth Office diplomatic matters. What is the latest position of the United States and Russia in respect of their ex-weapons plutonium? Where are we with that? What is likely to happen in terms of the preferred options of either incorporation through vitrification and deep disposal or otherwise, or the use of mixed oxide fuel? The United States and Russia are obviously major sources of ex-weapons plutonium, and that is not stuff that should be readily available to anyone. It needs to be turned into something else and made safer.

I have said that I do not want to press the Minister for an immediate decision on a change in policy—it is right that the matter should be considered over time—but how long does he feel, in the light of the Royal Society's comments, that we can continue to accumulate the United Kingdom stockpile of plutonium before a decision is forced on us? Is there a physical constraint? Clearly there is a security consideration. Will he give us a flavour of his feeling about that? Has he appraised mixed oxide fuel for United Kingdom conditions? There is a strong technical indication against its use here, and any that has been produced at Sellafield has been exported, but it would be helpful if he would say something about that.

Almost the last decision of my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) as Secretary of State for the Environment was his valedictory and correct decision to discontinue the possibility of deep storage at Sellafield. Is there still an interest in the country in deep disposal elsewhere? How is the Minister considering the various alternative disposal options for the United Kingdom's waste, which is strictly the subject of our discussion today?

In reaching his decisions in due course, what balance will the Minister strike between financial cost, environmental considerations and security considerations—nailing this stuff down for the future? Can he confirm to the House that public safety remains the principal concern of Her Majesty's Government? That is bound to be of interest to all of us as legislators.

12.13 pm
The Minister for Science, Energy and Industry (Mr. John Battle)

It is traditional when Ministers reply to an Adjournment debate to congratulate the hon. Member concerned on winning the ballot. On this occasion, I sincerely congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) on the tone of his speech. I say that because it is rare that an hon. Member manages to raise the level of an Adjournment debate above a constituency concern to a national and international concern and puts the arguments so forcefully on the agenda both of the House and of the public.

My hon. Friend accepted the difficulty and complexity of topics ranging across the economy, the environment and national and international safety. He and others emphasised the international aspect of the debate—one that we cannot neglect. I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for doing that. Let me start by responding on that matter.

It was with dismay that we heard of the Indian decision, to which my hon. Friends have referred. Our Government have expressed their dismay at the news of the nuclear tests. I understand that further tests have taken place this morning, although I am not sure whether they have been officially confirmed at this moment. As holder of the presidency of the European Union, the Government have expressed our dismay to India. Foreign and Commonwealth Office Ministers are summoning the Indian acting high commissioner to express our deep concern about these worrying developments.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North explained, the problem of disposal of nuclear waste is a legacy. I acknowledge the work of the Socialist Environment and Resources Association. In a recent report on reprocessing, it said: Although the organisation is against the generation of energy through nuclear methods in general, we accept that waste exists and that we have to deal with the nuclear legacy of the last 30 years. I want to make that the starting point, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North and other hon. Members did.

When the Labour Government came to office just a year ago, we inherited a legacy and the concomitant liabilities, just as we inherited an energy generation market in which two thirds of the major generating capacity of the nuclear industry was privatised. We resisted that move by the previous Administration, as they failed to resolve the problem of nuclear waste disposal, despite spending some £450 million on the Nirex inquiry without solving the problem of long-term dry storage. Today, in the new open energy markets, following privatisation and the opening up of the whole market to great changes, nuclear energy contributes about a third to the United Kingdom's electricity generation. That is a different climate from that which existed even a few short years ago.

As for the future of nuclear generation, it is obvious that there is no longer an economic case for building nuclear reactors in the present energy market structures. The Government certainly do not intend to subsidise the construction of any new power plants. That ought to be made absolutely plain. For those who accuse us of simply following the previous policy and doing nothing, I should add that we introduced the fossil fuel levy early in this Parliament to remove the subsidy of nuclear energy generation and switch it to support for renewable energy sources. That move was welcomed.

The House will know that the Government's policy on radioactive waste management policy is currently being considered by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, following the decision of the previous Secretary of State to refuse planning permission for the United Kingdom Nirex proposed rock characterisation facility at Sellafield, which was being investigated for a proposed deep disposal facility for intermediate-level radioactive waste. My right hon. Friend's consideration continues.

The House will be aware that the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology is conducting an inquiry into radioactive waste management. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has announced that he intends to study the Committee's conclusions carefully before initiating a period of public consultation. I am sure that, when that happens, my right hon. Friend will welcome all comments from Members of Parliament and others, as we try to move the policy forward.

In the 1960s, the Government of the day committed the United Kingdom to a programme of reprocessing spent fuel from nuclear power stations to separate plutonium for use as a fuel in future reactors. The Royal Society report said: This decision was made in the light of prevailing assumptions about global stocks of uranium ore, the prospects of building a series of fast-breeder reactors and the role of nuclear power generally in the energy programme. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North that the premise on which that decision was built no longer obtains, as the situation is radically different.

There has been major investment in reprocessing technology in the United Kingdom. Nuclear technology in Britain is world class, so we have been able to assist in incidents such as the one at Chernobyl. It is important to remember that those skills have been developed in this country.

United Kingdom generators have signed contracts for reprocessing work with several other countries. A stockpile of 54 tonnes of separated civil plutonium oxide from UK nuclear power generation has been built up, and, as the power stations are still in use, it is projected to be more than 100 tonnes by 2010. In the United Kingdom, plutonium has been separated from the other products in spent fuel from nuclear reactors since the 1950s. The Royal Society report acknowledged: Even if the practice of separating plutonium does not continue, the existing stockpile still has to be managed. The legacy of the stockpile will remain, and no matter how hard we try, we cannot wish it away: we must deal with it.

Sellafield and Dounreay provide reprocessing services, which are in demand from customers and users. Long-term contractual obligations have to be fulfilled. The customers are the energy companies. Changes have taken place within the industry. BNFL has been developed, Scottish Nuclear and Nuclear Electric are now owned by British Energy, and Magnox merged with BNFL. Privatisation has resulted in a range of companies in Britain.

The industry continues to be regulated in accordance with the highest safety standards to protect the workers, the public and the environment. The nuclear industry is rightly highly regulated by the independent Health and Safety Executive and the nuclear installation inspectorate. It is not left to market forces: it is a regulated business, and so it should be.

Dr. Lynne Jones

My hon. Friend refers to regulation of the nuclear industry, but is he not concerned about the transport of mixed oxide fuel in type B rather than type C packages, as recommended by the International Atomic Energy Agency? Conformity with the recommendation of type C packaging is not to be introduced until 2001.

Mr. Battle

A range of bodies, such as the Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive, are responsible for setting regulatory parameters. It is important that we press for the highest standards of regulation.

Countries that use THORP are, unlike India, signatories of the non-proliferation treaty, so there is no question of plutonium from THORP being sold on the free market.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North mentioned the Sellafield liquid discharges. That matter is within the ambit of the Environment Agency, and I cannot answer for that body. It is not left to market forces or subject to prior political decision. The agency must monitor the industry and impose standards. I agree with the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) that the Health and Safety Executive's intervention is to be welcomed and not spurned, because it shows that the independent agencies are insisting that companies act responsibly.

On 30 January, a copy of my statement of Government policy on spent fuel management was placed in the Library. Paragraph 4 specifies: it is for the range of owners of the spent fuel to determine whether it is economic to reprocess their spent fuel or not. They have the right to exercise their option, but it also states that it is subject to fully satisfying the regulatory requirements that are set by the Health and Safety Executive. The radioactive substance division of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions recently gave evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology. It said that there is no marked difference in environmental impact between reprocessing and direct disposal of spent nuclear fuel. Dr. Brown said: The analyses that have been made of the comparative environmental merits of both processes in past years have shown that there is not a marked difference in environmental impact between the two, or that any difference is lost in the degree of uncertainty between the two. The shape of the industry has changed. The United Kingdom was the first country in the world to adopt nuclear power on an industrial and commercial scale when Calder Hall was commissioned back in 1956. Since that time, 19 nuclear power stations and 41 reactors have been constructed, of which 16 stations and 35 reactors are currently fully operational and three stations with two reactors each have been closed down and are being fully decommissioned. We are dealing not with only one or two plants, but with an extensive industry most of which is privatised, although some plants are in the public sector.

On 1 March 1954, the Government announced that a large-scale, experimental, fast-breeder reactor was to be constructed at Dounreay, the purpose of which was to demonstrate the feasibility of the process to increase the effective utilisation of uranium fuel by converting the non-fissile uranium into plutonium. The process has a long history. In 1958, the scope of Dounreay was extended to include fuel manufacture and fuel reprocessing, thus incorporating the whole range of operational activities associated with fast-reactor technology. In 1977, the fast-reactor processing plant was shut down partially decommissioned, and reprocessing was moved to a new, refurbished plant.

At Sellafield, the Magnox reprocessing plant has reprocessed used nuclear fuel from the first generation power stations since 1964. The thermal oxide plant at THORP began operations in March 1994 following the granting of an appropriate discharge authorisation from the independent Environment Agency. It was designed and built to reprocess used fuel from advanced gas-cooled and light-water nuclear reactors. Since operations began at the end of March 1994, some 1,450 tonnes of spent fuel have been reprocessed.

The Environment Agency is considering responses to public consultation held between 14 and 16 March on the MOX applications. That matter is still being dealt with by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, so I cannot comment on it further.

On openness and transparency, I should like to say to those who accuse the Government of hiding information that I announced to the House on 2 December an agreement for an informal group of nine countries to publish guidelines so as to provide an internationally accepted framework for the management of plutonium. I hope shortly to announce the publication of the figures for the UK's holding of civil plutonium as at the end of December 1997. We are taking action to add transparency to the process in Britain and internationally.

Mr. Chaytor

In the interests of openness and transparency, in the remaining one and a half minutes, will the Minister make a specific response on the Royal Society's recommendation for a detailed investigation, with public consultation, of all the options available to deal with the plutonium stockpile?

Mr. Battle

I appreciate that, in a debate like this, it is difficult to reply to all the points in the short time left. Such a debate is a time for Back Benchers, not for Ministers to give a full statement. However, let me say that spent fuel and plutonium must be managed, whether or not there is reprocessing. I emphasise that reprocessing does not cause additional radioactivity. The waste that is separated from the used fuel in processing has slightly less radioactivity and less toxicity than the fuel from which it comes. However, the existence of plutonium stocks, in whatever form, is of concern with regard to radiotoxicity and proliferation.

Stocks of plutonium, whether separate or not, civil or military, need to be safely, securely stored and used subject to arrangements designed to ensure that the material would be available only for a proper purpose. I would say—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)