HL Deb 24 November 1959 vol 219 cc902-16

4.10 p.m.

Debate resumed.


My Lords, returning to the Radioactive Substances Bill, I find it an appalling thought that we are to-day creating dangers which will go on a great deal longer than those at present in Africa; and that we are seeking, in a wise and, we hope, permanent way, to dispose of materials which could do enormous damage to all life on earth. We have had a very fair, valuable account from the noble Viscount the Lord Privy Seal. In his new capacity as Minister for Science, we shall hope frequently to hear him discoursing learnedly on isotopes. Even though he brings very high qualities to bear in this field, I expect that he would not attempt to emulate my noble friend Lord Taylor in the expert knowledge he has brought to this subject. I should like to congratulate both the Minister and my noble friend, particularly the latter.

I have comparatively little to say on this subject—we shall have opportunities for speaking during the Committee stage—but there are two or three matters which I think ought to be mentioned. First of all, I am struck, as I am sure are noble Lords who have read the Committee's Report, by the extraordinary multiplicity and range of risks involved and by the fact that we cannot just dispose of them once and for all. The Report gives the rather gruesome example of the carcases of animals. Storage, it says, is unsatisfactory, and unless refrigerated the carcases soon become offensive, and disposal by burial suffers from the disadvantages that lower organisms will feed on them and may spread the contamination. It is an awful thought that these micro-organisms may carry radioactivity into the most unexpected places.

It is clear that this is a subject that will have to be kept under continuing review. This Bill is an admirable beginning, and I should like to congratulate the Government on the rapidity with which they have moved. But this rapidity is not too quick when we regard it against the background of the Report of the Committee. It is a depressing thought that there are people who, in this highly dangerous field, can be described as careless and dangerous and indifferent to their fellow-men. It is satisfactory that the various major users, whether they be Government establishments or those sections of private industry who have been involved in this matter on a big scale, have observed the most scrupulous standards. It is interesting to think that, as my noble friend said, the discharge of waste sometimes has a radioactivity which is lower than that of the surrounding material, and it is an achievement that they should have removed some radioactivity from us. But it is clear that the Factory Acts and regulations, particularly the luminising regulations, have been inadequate I must say that it is a rather frightening thought that, as a result of this, we have to set up a new body of inspectors. There is no alternative. It is absolutely right that there should be these inspectors.

It is also clear that there may even be a serious risk of radioactivity, not only in small business establishments but even in private homes. The thought that an inspector with a geiger counter will come round to our houses is one which we cannot look on with much enjoyment, and I am sure that the noble Viscount the Lord Privy Seal is equally unenthusiastic about this thought. But, clearly, this is one of the consequences of progress and we have no option but to accept it.

I should like to ask the Minister how this inspectorate is going to be organised and, in particular, how it is going to operate alongside the Factory Inspectorate. It seems to me that, since the Factory Inspectorate will already be discharging many responsibilities which will be allied to this new inspection, and in some cases will be touching materials which may be toxic for reasons other than radioactivity, there might be something to be said for linking this inspectorate with the Factory Inspectorate. But I have no doubt that, in view of the broad responsibilities of the inspectors in this field, the Government have good reasons for placing the responsibility where they have, with the particular Ministers who are mentioned in the Bill.

There are only two further points to which I should like to refer. First of all, we are going to be committed to the indefinite storage of poisonous sub- stances for a very long time. I should like to suggest that for a start those materials which have a measurable halflife—some of the products from the hospitals—will be disposed of so that ultimately their point of disposal can be regarded as safe. But we shall have on our land, and possibly in our seas, materials which can never be disposed of effectively, which can never be safe. There is always the comfortable feeling with an ammunition dump that in the last resort we can remove the contents and blow it up, or send a bomb disposal squad to deal with it, but with radioactive materials this is beyond human capacity at the moment.

So I must ask the Minister whether he has considered some of the reports that have appeared in the Press (I do not know how accurate they are) with regard to the Monaco scientific conference, where serious suggestions have been made that it is dangerous to continue this increasing disposal of radioactive wastes into the sea. It may well be that certain sections of the sea, may be some of the great deeps, will be found to be safe. I am wondering how far the marine biologists and oceanographers have been brought into this. I am sure that there is a distinguished representative of the Ministry concerned with this on the Committee, and no doubt his opinions were taken. But all the time we are making new and occasionally horrifying discoveries, and I would ask the Government to reiterate the position, to which I believe they are already committed, that international conversations should continue. I would also ask that the opinions of the well-established marine biologists in this country should be sought in this matter.

I have one final suggestion to make as to the disposal of this waste. It is one which I am quite sure will ultimately be adopted—that is, that the proper place for it is somewhere in outer space. It may well be that when interplanetary travel, which I am sure the noble Viscount the Lord Privy Seal will do his best to forward, takes place, one of the first uses of those vehicles that go into space will be to dispose of some of our own planetary poisons—and I hope that thereby a problem will not be created a thousand, or a million, years hence.

4.19 p.m.


My Lords, I had not intended to say anything on this question, which is highly complicated and technical, but as the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, has raised the question of disposal of radioactive waste into the sea, I should like to take this opportunity to ask my noble friend the Minister a question with regard to the possible effects on the human body of the absorption of contaminated or, shall I say, radioactivated food. I know that there are a number of safeguards, which have been enumerated by the noble Lord, such as the control of users by registration, and the control of disposal and accumulation by registration. I know also that Clause 10 empowers the Minister to take action for the disposal of radioactive waste and so forth. The Report rightly stresses that the principles involved are on a national scale, and not on a local scale; but the Minister did say that there was a small risk, though the damage could be large.

Here, my Lords, I should like to refer to an article which appeared last Sunday in the Sunday Times. I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, referred to the same article, but in this article the representative of this paper states: With surprise the Russians have found that the blue crab of Kamchatka, in Siberia, whence millions of tins are sent to British homes and elsewhere all over the world, has become violently radioactive. I should go on to say that the science correspondent of this paper states that the Russians did not wish to suggest that Her Majesty's Government were in any way responsible for this, but were just drawing attention to the fact that a number of Governments were in favour of a different form of waste disposal. A member of the panel, Mr. F. Morgan, in reply to the Russian allegation, said that tests were carried out on this question for three years. Thirty-six thousand plaice were released in an area of the Irish Sea within which radioactive waste had been deposited. Out of those, 18,000 were caught, and out of that number 1,800 were found to have a radioactive content—in other words, their radioactivity was measurable.

As the noble Viscount has said that there are over 1,000 users which could be responsible for disposing of radioactive material into the sea I am wondering whether the noble Viscount could say what effect this could have on human beings. Only a small area of the Irish Sea was investigated, and in that area only 18,000 fish were caught; but, in view of the vast sea areas where radioactive waste could be deposited, the number of fish involved could be considerable.


My Lords, I believe that my noble friend in his first speech promised that he would tell us the dangers, or the lack of dangers, of this contamination. Whether I missed his giving that information or not I do not know, but if he did omit it by error, I should be grateful if, in his second speech, he would say something about it.

4.24 p.m.


My Lords, as the noble Viscount the Lord Privy Seal appositely said in introducing this Bill, it is somewhat complicated and it deals with a highly technical matter. I am sure that the House is much indebted to him for the very lucid way in which he explained the main provisions of the Bill. I should also like to add my felicitations to those of my noble friend Lord Shackleton on the admirable speech delivered by my noble friend Lord Taylor. It was interesting and it illuminated many of the ranges of this vast field of radioactivity.

This Bill is, of course, non-Party, as the noble Viscount has said. It will no doubt receive the support of all Members of your Lordships' House. That does not mean that there may not be certain of its provisions—indeed, my noble friend Lord Taylor indicated a number—which will need some reconsideration and, it may well be, some modification. This Bill, in fact, implements the Government's promise of legislation following the enactment of the Nuclear Installation Licensing and Insurance Act of this year: and it is pleasant to note that there were discussions between the local authorities, the water undertakers and the Government as to the provisions of the Bill.

The Bill provides for the registration and the disposal of radioactive substances. Both registration and disposal is to be transferred to the Government. It is to be done as a national undertaking, and not as a number of local undertakings. I think it is difficult—and I am a local government man—not to assent to this procedure. I think it would have been almost impossible effectively to have discharged what is intended on a local basis. But I think that transference from the local public authorities to the central Government, through the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, carries with it the obligation on the part of the Government to see to it that there is proper and adequate consultation with local authorities and with water undertakers. It is perhaps apposite to comment that I think that for the first time in legislation of this kind water undertakers are recognised in this Bill. The noble Viscount will recall that some of us sought to get water undertakers recognised in the previous Act. However, that disability has now been removed.

Water undertakers, of course, are very much concerned about the disposal of these substances. They are concerned that there should not be a deleterious discharge into watercourses and rivers from which, ultimately, drinking water may be drawn; and, as the noble Viscount will know, special reference is made to this danger in the White Paper at paragraph 121. There it refers to: The contamination of sewage effluents, which may affect their discharge to rivers used as drinking water supplies and for other purposes and which will be discussed more fully later". Later on, in paragraph 124, it refers to the use of rivers from which drinking water may be drawn; and it also refers, quite understandably, to fishing. Therefore, the interest of the water undertakers is very important and exigent.

I should like now to refer to the situation which will arise when, as I understand may well be the case, an effluent not only consists of radioactive material but also of non-radioactive material. The liability to deal with the non-radioactivity will remain an obligation of the local authorities, whereas dealing with radioactive substances will pass to the Government under the national scheme. Perhaps the noble Viscount the Lord Privy Seal could indicate what the situation is likely to be in that event, and upon whom the responsibility for dealing with nonradioactive material rests.

On the Committee stage there will be a number of points upon which elucidation will be sought, and it may be of help to the Minister if I indicate one or two of these. The list, as it were, is not exclusive. The noble Viscount the Lord Privy Seal will recall that there appear words such as: as appear proper to be consulted. I think that the water undertakers, at all events, would wish some more understandable precision to be given to those words. Then I should like to refer to Clause 9, under which, as my noble friend Lord Taylor said, the local authorities, including water undertakers, are "warned off", as it were. It says in the Explanatory Menwrandum to the Bill, paragraph 6 Clause 9 (1) and (2) provides that no account shall be taken by local and public authorities of radioactivity in the exercise of powers in relation to nuisances, pollution and the discharge of wastes. Such authorities are however to be consulted when appropriate … That is a little indefinite, and it may well be that the water undertakers and the local authorities will require, I think quite properly, that there should be some clarification of those words.

The Explanatory Memorandum goes on to say: … before the issue of authorisations relating to premises of the Atomic Energy Authority and licensed nuclear sites (Clause 8 (2)) and must be consulted before the issue of authorisations involving special precautions. … With respect, I think that Clause 9 could well be re-cast, with profit to understanding, and recommendations to that end may be made. There will be also points upon Clauses 10 and 11. In conclusion, may I say, in reference to paragraph 134 (b) of the White Paper, which the noble Viscount the Lord Privy Seal read out, that a number of the larger water undertakers have efficient and in many respects adequate monitoring services and, as my noble friend Lord Taylor said, they have within their respective staffs persons experienced and knowledgeable in this particular section of radioactivity operation. As I said at the outset, this Bill is non-Party and I do not doubt for one moment that the whole House will willingly give it a Second Reading.

4.26 p.m.


My Lords, first of all I should like to thank noble Lords who have given this Bill so friendly a reception. Indeed, had I not been asked a number of questions, I think it would have been unnecessary for me to reply to what has been in substance a chorus of approval. In particular, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, for his well-informed and responsible speech from the Front Bench opposite, and I am grateful to other noble Lords for the parts they have played. I do not complain that the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, sees in this Bill what he described as a good example of "gas and water socialism." I am not quite sure where that stands in the present controversy inside the Labour Party, but I gather it is all right.


It is not a waste.


It may be "going critical" though. Personally, I had seen in this Bill nothing but the best tradition of Tory empiricism, stretching back in the long and legitimate tradition of legislation to the Public Health Act of 1875 in Disraeli's first Government; which means, I think, that we both support the Bill, though for somewhat different reasons.

The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, quite rightly summarised the criticisms of some luminising rooms contained in paragraph 113 of the Report. In a sense, I find it rather reassuring that the worst individual criticism which this panel of experts found in looking over the field was about something so relatively old-fashioned as the fixing of luminous paint to watches and clocks. Again, it would seem that the actual dangers have not been allowed to develop as they might well have done without control. I think it is right that I. should tell your Lordships that since the Panel reported in March, 1948, inspectors of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, in collaboration with the factory inspectorate of the Ministry of Labour, have visited all premises in England and Wales which are registered under the Factories (Luminising) Special Regulations, 1947, and action has been taken with the occupiers of the premises to reduce, so far as possible, such hazards as led to the paragraph in the Report to which the noble Lord rightly called attention.

I should also like to thank the noble Lord for his kindly reassurance about the effluent from Harwell into the Thames, which is, as he said, practically non-radioactive. He raised a question on page 15 of the White Paper and on the footnote. The Minister of Labour becomes responsible, originally under an administrative action. He can exert his authority under regulations which he can promulgate under Section 5 of the Radioactive Substances Act, 1948, which is concerned with the safety of workers, but first he would require an Order in Council to designate him the appropriate Minister for the purpose of that section.


My Lords, should I be right in thinking that in fact he has not yet taken power to deal with laboratories in this respect?


I think the position is that he is responsible administratively for laboratories, but he has not taken power to issue regulations for them under this section. I think that that is the position. He can do so as and when it is thought suitable to do so. It would, of course, be under that Act, and not under this Bill, that the regulations would be issued, because this Bill is not concerned with the safety of workers but with the disposal of waste in general.

The noble Lord also asked me the position of laboratories more generally under the Bill. Generally speaking, they are under the Bill. They are "undertakings", and they will be covered by the provisions of the Bill. As he rightly said, a great number of the thousand users would turn out to be laboratories, some of them being those for which I am responsible in Parliament, and the others privately owned. Those which are privately owned—the noble Lord mentioned two, the Warren Spring Laboratory and the Water Pollution Research Laboratory, both at Stevenage—will be covered by administrative action. Apparently it is considered constitutionally objectionable for one Minister to be responsible for authorising another to perform his functions, but I gather that the result will be the same.

As regards the research associations under the D.S.I.R., they will be covered by the Bill in the ordinary way, because the research associations are private associations of industrialists, although they receive a subsidy from the D.S.I.R. Therefore, their premises will be registered under the Act and they will be caught by both halves of the two-stage control. The question of the adsorption on to mud is already the subject of a special study by the Water Pollution Laboratory, which is being undertaken on behalf of my right honourable friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government.

The monitoring to which the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, and the noble Lord, Lord Latham, referred is amply covered by the provisions of Clause 9 (4) of the Bill. They are entitled to do it, and as the noble Lord, Lord Latham, says, in fact they do. Many of the rather more esotetric skills required, as prescribed in paragraph 134 of the Report, are outside the normal scope of their functions and, indeed, outside the abilities of the staff they happen to employ.

As regards the discharge into the sea, like my noble friend Lord Merrivale, I read the Sunday Times over the weekend, and I provided myself with a certain amount of material because I thought I could hardly get through without referring to it. The Atomic Energy Authority have been discharging liquid radioactive effluent into the Irish Sea from Windscale since 1952. Before the discharges were made, careful theoretical and practical studies were carried out and, of course, special attention had to be given to the possibility of harm through edible fish and edible seaweed, and the radioactivity of sands. As my noble friend Lord Merrivale pointed out, the practical studies included the marking of more than 35,000 plaice, of which more than half were actually recovered, as the phrase is. These are considered to be the species most likely to be affected by the discharge. Experiments were also carried out on a large scale with dyestuffs, and it was largely as a result of these experiments that a safe level of discharge was established, based on an adherence to maximum doses of one-tenth of those recommended by the International Commission on Radiological Protection.

Ever since discharges started an elaborate assay programme has been carried out. I am told that it is confirmed that the original calculations—and I am sure the noble Lord will be glad to hear the phrase—were safely conservative and that the present discharges are well within the zone of complete safety. There are two types of sea dumping carried out from Harwell, one into the English Channel and one into the Atlantic Ocean. Materials which are known to be of a very low level of activity are disposed of into the English Channel at a place called the Hurd Deep. That is not in the Atlantic Ocean. The maximum amount disposed of in this area, in which the depth is 100 fathoms, and in which there is no fishing, is 200 curies of alpha radioactivity and 4,000 curies of beta-gamma radioactivity each year. Calculations based on the tide run show that these limits are very safe.

The second type from Harwell is more highly active material, but still not highly active material in the strict sense of the word. This is disposed of in the ocean depths beyond the continental shelf, in the Atlantic. The depth of water must always be greater than 1,500 fathoms, and the amount disposed of in this way is very small. The material for sea dumping is enclosed in a robust container, so designed and packed that it will reach the sea bed without loss of contents. Steel drums are used, and in some cases an inner seal of reinforced concrete is provided to limit the radioactive dose rate at the surface of the container to a figure which permits safe handling. Of course, in practice it does not escape at once, even at that very great depth.

Dr. Glueckauf of the Harwell Research Establishment told the Monaco Conference that by 1966 Britain's nuclear programme would give rise to 12 megacuries a year of Strontium 90. On present practice only .001 megacurie of this would find its way into the ocean deeps. I might mention that the natural radioactivity of the Atlantic Ocean, apart from fall-out from other people's bombs, amounts to 100,000 megacuries, so those figures really speak for themselves. It is the view of Her Majesty's Government, in the present state of knowledge, that controlled sea dumping of radioactive waste is the most appropriate way to dispose of certain categories, and as carried out cannot create any hazard.

I should like to reassure my noble friend Lord Merrivale that very little of the radioactive waste we are talking about does go to the sea at all. Most of it, of course, is disposed of by various other ways. The short half-life waste is allowed to decay, and there are various types of disposal which depend upon the length of half-life and the degree of radioactivity, and the methods of disposal available. The worst is buried and, I hope, will never re-emerge. There is no suggestion that the blue crab of Kamchatka was rendered radioactive by anything that we have done. The Russians have since complained of the translation in the Sunday Times. They said that the word should have been "significantly" radioactive, and not "violently" radioactive. At any rate, so much for them.


My Lords, I am sorry to pursue the noble and learned Viscount on this matter. Do I gather from him that only wastes with a measure-able half-life or significant half-life—of fifty years or something like that—are being disposed of in the ocean deeps? I take it that those which are dumped are being adsorbed on to some form of material, but are there any permanently—I mean for many many years—dangerously radioactive materials being dumped in the ocean depths?


I think I should be a little cautious about answering that precise question without notice, but I think I can say this: we do not discharge any high-activity radioactive wastes into the sea. I have described the three types of discharge we make. With regard to the half-life, the containers are arranged to bear a relation to the half-life; eventually, the container itself will presumably rust or decompose and the sea will get at the contents; the longer the half-life, the more durable the container and the slower the rate at which the material would escape into the sea. There are about four or five stages of protection. In the first place, the worst waste is not sent there at all; in the second place, it is put into the most suitable place with an adequate measure of protection there, and is contained in a container which does not let it out at once, the container being more durable in proportion to the length of the half-life of the material inside. I think that this is broadly the answer, but I should be care- ful, as it has given rise to some questions in an international conference, and I should not like a remark I have made, from my knowledge but none the less without consultation, necessarily to be taken as the last word on the subject.


My Lords, may I ask the noble and learned Viscount this question? He mentioned the Sunday Times. Does he know that in the Observer it was stated that Britain disposes of more radioactive waste into the sea than any other country?


That may be so. Other countries have larger tracts of land in which to bury it. From our point of view, the method we use is both safe and convenient. No doubt if we had very large tracts of country and a comparatively limited sea coast and if our users were further from the sea, it might be possible to dispose of it in other ways, not necessarily safer. I do not think that that qualifies what I had to say in any way.

On the general question of food, I think that in a sense this is only marginally within the terms of reference of this Bill. My noble friend Lord Hawke will find it very fully discussed in the Medical Research Council's Report on radioactive hazards, which I think was referred to in friendly terms by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor. In general, I think that there is nothing to worry about from this point of view. I am not now talking about the more controversial and wider question of fallout; I am talking about the question of radioactive waste disposal, and I think the noble Lord will be completely satisfied. He will also see a detailed account of it at the end of the Appendix to the White Paper published in connection with this Bill. I think it is reassuring, but it is highly technical; I hesitate to summarise it and I would not weary the House by inflicting it at length.


But would the noble Viscount confirm that it is completely safe to eat significantly infected Kamchatka crabs, which no doubt form the contents of many sandwiches on sale in this country to-day?


Since this information was passed to me through the medium of the Press as having been presented by a Russian representative, I do not think I could without notice go further into the question of the crabs of Kamchatka.


My Lords, referring to the 1,800 plaice, could the noble and learned Viscount say whether it would be dangerous to eat those?


Those I have dealt with. There is no danger whatever from the Irish Sea, to which they refer. Those plaice were not so much designed to be eaten as caught for experimental purposes, but I think that they may be consumed, unless they are some peculiar colour, but of that I have not any knowledge.

Several questions were asked about the inspectors. They are, in fact, being linked with the factory inspectorate. There will be no more than about a dozen inspectors envisaged under the Bill. That is not a very large imposition. I think that two or three have already been assembled. They will not ordinarily have any rights over private houses, because private houses are not undertakings within the meaning of Clause 18, which I think is the relevant clause. As regards the national disposal service, it is designed to recover the cost from the users, but I would say, at first reading, that Clause 16 was an all-embracing financial clause, and might cover any difficulties from that point of view. I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Latham, for giving notice of his various Committee points, which will no doubt be noted by those whose business it is to prepare Ministers for the ordeal, and I hope that they will be adequately answered when the time comes.


Or accepted.


I think that that covers the points which I have noted as having been asked me. I would again thank your Lordships very much for the kindly response which this Bill has received, and also for the patient way in which my remarks have been heard.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

House adjourned at two minutes before five o'clock.