HC Deb 08 November 1999 vol 337 cc677-8
4. Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West)

If he will make a statement on his policy in respect of representations concerning the holding of a public inquiry into the health, safety and environmental aspects of the work of the atomic weapons establishment at Aldermaston. [96125]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

Aldermaston is a nuclear licensed site and is subject to independent and strict regulation by the nuclear installations inspectorate and by the Environment Agency. The regulators cover every aspect of the site's operations and procedures as they affect health, safety and the environment. They have power to enforce compliance and to close down operations if they believe such action is justified. They are publicly accountable and publish all information they believe to be significant.

Mr. Salter

Does my right hon. Friend accept that public fears and concerns have been exacerbated by the recent spate of incidents at AWE Aldermaston, including the unauthorised discharge of radioactive substances into watercourses; the impending prosecution by the Environment Agency; the descaling of the Pangbourne pipeline, resulting in the uncontrolled release of uranium and plutonium particles; and the recent well-publicised breaches of safety procedure? Does he accept that those understandable concerns and fears will be allayed only by a full, open and independent public inquiry, which is the policy of both West Berkshire council and Reading borough council, and was once, in 1994, the policy of the then Opposition?

Mr. Hoon

I recognise that there is public concern. However, safe operation is of prime importance to the atomic weapons establishment. It is also at the forefront of the minds of the operating company, the Ministry of Defence and the nuclear installations inspectorate. Claims that, in the past year, the AWE has been at risk of major nuclear accident are simply untrue. It is also false to say that the AWE has been seeking to hide anything. The incidents in the articles to which my hon. Friend refers were taken from the AWE's own safety-related incident reports, which are released into the public domain as a matter of routine—in contrast to the somewhat hysterical attitude that has been displayed by certain newspapers.

I know that my hon. Friend has taken the trouble to visit the site, and that he was impressed with how it was managed and with AWE's policy of openness. In those circumstances, I hope he will accept that, without further specific evidence of real risk to the public, employees or the environment, there is currently simply no basis on which to hold a public inquiry.

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury)

My constituents are split between those who are worried about what is or may be going on at Aldermaston and those who are exasperated, as the Secretary of State said, by the way in which various scare stories are being hyped up by newspapers and others who should know better. Does the Secretary of State agree that both those groups of people would be helped by a full public and open inquiry so we know exactly what is going on and that, if the scare stories are untrue, they shall be seen as such at the earliest possible moment?

Mr. Hoon

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concern, which is based on real public concern about the way in which those particular stories have been, as he says, hyped up in the newspapers. Nevertheless, I make it clear that the illustrations relied on, particularly by one Sunday newspaper, were ones that were routinely reported and allowed into the public domain. There is therefore nothing to hide, or to discover, which a public inquiry could reveal. It should be emphasised to local people, whether they work at the plant or not, that no present danger to the environment, the work force or the local population was found.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

In the light of that, what assessment has the right hon. Gentleman personally made of the allegations about environmental contamination? On the strength of his inquiries, does he agree with the organisation that the claims thus far levelled against it are nothing more than irresponsible scaremongering?

Mr. Hoon

I have examined each of the incidents that the newspaper alleged amounted to a real threat to the environment and local people. The accounts were based on reports that were to be released to the local liaison committee for discussion by people in the immediate area. Having read them carefully, I have not found any credible evidence of damage to the environment, to people who work in the plant or to the local community.

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