HL Deb 21 April 1969 vol 301 cc329-42

4.18 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the Nuclear installations Bill be read a second time. The purpose of this Bill is to make three minor alterations to the Nuclear Installations Act 1965. That Act deals, among other things, with the question of liability for third party damage in the highly unlikely event of a nuclear accident. The liability rules which it lays down are based on International Conventions, and the purpose of this Bill is to bring the Act completely into line with the provisions of those Conventions. The Bill, though a short one, is not in my view readily comprehensible—to put it at its most favourable—because it makes highly technical amendments to an Act which is in itself complex, as I well remember when dealing with it nearly four years ago. To make the Bill comprehensible, I must outline the system of third party liability which is involved, and this necessitates a rather more detailed exposition than is customary in a Second Reading.

Three International Conventions lie behind this legislation. One of them, the Vienna Convention, was negotiated within the International Atomic Energy Agency and was signed at Vienna in May 1963. The two others were negotiated within the Organisation for European Co-operation and Development. One, known as the Paris Convention, was signed at Paris in July, 1960 The other was signed at Brussels in January, 1964, and is known—as you might suppose—as the Brussels (Supplementary) Convention. These two Conventions were amended in 1964 to make them compatible with the 'Vienna Convention. Together, the three, Conventions provide a uniform international code for dealing with third party damage which might arise from the peaceful use of atomic energy. This was an important achievement. Unlikely though nuclear accidents are, concern about the meeting of claims could well have hindered both the export of nuclear technology and the international movement of nuclear material. The United Kingdom, which is concerned with both these matters, took a leading part in the negotiation of the Conventions. We have signed and ratified the Paris and Brussels Conventions, though not as yet the Vienna one. The Paris Convention is in force between, so far, the United Kingdom, Belgium, France, Spain, Sweden and Turkey. The other two Conventions are not yet in force.

Our law must clearly, therefore, he consistent with the Conventions, and the Nuclear Installations Act 1965 was designed to set up the Convention system of liability. The principles of this system are fairly straightforward. Liability for nuclear injury and damage caused by a nuclear installation is to fall on the operator of the installation in which the accident occurred (or on whose behalf the nuclear material concerned was in course of shipment). Subject to minor exceptions, liability is to fall on no one else. The liability of the operator is absolute and is not to depend on proof of negligence; he is not, however, to be liable for certain types of damage specified in the Convention. His liability to meet claims is limited to an amount set by his State, but which must not be less than the equivalent of 5 million dollars per accident. He must insure, or make other financial provision, in order that funds up to this limit are always available to meet claims. These funds must be used exclusively for meeting Convention claims. The Brussels Convention made supplementary provision for meeting claims arising from large accidents. Under these provisions, if claims exceed the insured provision the excess is met from public funds (partly by international contributions) up to the equivalent of 120 million dollars.

I now turn to the Bill itself. The first amendment which this Bill makes to the principal Act arises from the 1967 devaluation of the pound sterling. The Conventions, in specifying various compensation figures, use dollars or international money units, but in the Act the 1965 sterling equivalents of these sums were used. Devaluation has taken some of these sterling sums below the Convention requirements, and equivalence must be restored. Let me explain what is involved. The main limit set by the principal Act is that for the operator's liability, and this is £5 million sterling. This sum does not need to be changed, for despite devaluation it is still well above the equivalent of the Convention minimum of 5 million dollars. The Act also provides, however, the basis for operating the Brussels system for meeting claims which outrun the operator's liability. For this purpose it provides that claims above £5 million and up to £43 million shall be met from public funds. This figure of £43 million was the equivalent of 120 million dollars, but following devaluation it now needs to be increased to £50 million.

The Act also sets a limit for the liability of operators from other Convention countries. This is relevant, for example, in the case where nuclear matter is being transported inside the United Kingdom on behalf of such an operator. In accordance with the Conventions, this was set at the greater of the limit ruling in that other country, or £1¾ million. This £1¾ million was at the time the equivalent of the Convention figure of 5 million dollars, but it now needs to be corrected to £2,100,000. Again, in accordance with the Conventions, the Act contains a provision which requires a minimum sum to be set aside from the available compensation funds to meet the general run of claims if an accident involving nuclear matter in transit causes damage to the ship or other means of transport used to convey the material. This provision is meant to prevent the compensation funds from being swamped by large claims for damage to the means of transport. This minimum was set at £1¾ million. This again was the equivalent of the Convention figure of 5 million dollars, and it, too, needs to be corrected to £2,100,000.

In addition to the effects of devaluation, we have found that in two respects the liability imposed by the Act does not quite match the Conventions. As I have mentioned, the Conventions intend that liability for injury and damage to property caused by a nuclear incident shall arise only within the terms of the Conventions and shall fall exclusively on the responsible operator. It appears, however, that the 1965 Act would permit a liability to be imposed in certain circumstances on a person other than that operator. For example, the operator might be able to make the supplier of a faulty component liable for damage to the reactor itself if negligence on the part of that supplier could be proved. Again property on the site of a nuclear installation, which is used in connection with the operation or the construction of the installation, is excluded by the Conventions from the liability of the operator. In its present form, however, the principal Act would allow the owner of such property to claim against the operator, or the supplier of a component, if negligence could be established. The amendments which the Government propose to make by this Bill would exclude these possibilities.

Secondly, the Conventions intend that so far as possible an operator shall not be liable for damage suffered in a country which is not a party to the Convention. They recognise, however, that in some circumstances a person other than the operator may find himself obliged to pay damages in such a country. For example, the owner of a ship carrying the nuclear material concerned in an accident might find himself obliged to do this. To cover such cases, the Conventions allow such a person to make a corresponding claim against the operator concerned. The right which the 1965 Act confers in this respect is not quite wide enough in the types of accident which it covers, and the Bill would extend it to make it consistent with the Conventions.

Although I have spoken about the arrangements that exist for compensating damage caused by nuclear accidents, and have mentioned the formidable sum of £50 million, I would not like your Lordships to see in this any cause for alarm over safety. The chances of an accident on such a scale are exceedingly remote, as indeed are the chances of any nuclear accident of significance. It is highly unlikely that an accident would occur causing damage exceeding even the compulsory £5 million cover of the operator. During what now amounts to a very substantial total experience of the operation of nuclear power stations, no accident whatever has occurred that has had any effect outside the site of any commercial station. The only accident of consequence which has involved compensation claims was that which occurred at the Atomic Energy Authority's plant at Windscale in 1957, some 12 years ago, and which, incidentally, was of a kind which could not occur in a nuclear power station. This resulted in claims totalling less than £100,000.

I hope that in giving what I regard as necessary detail I have not over-wearied your Lordships, but I thought it was necessary in order to introduce the Bill adequately. Stripped of this detail, however, the proposition which I am putting forward is that our ratification of the Conventions relating to nuclear damage means that our domestic law must be consistent with their provisions. At present this is not quite so, and this Bill will remedy the defects. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a. —(Lord Stonhanz.)

4.30 p.m.


My Lords, we are most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, for having described the purposes of this Bill so clearly. He is one of the most hard-worked Ministers in the Government. It is another small Bill but it is, as the noble Lord says, rather complicated. The heart of it seems to me to be the" correcting "—I think that was the word used in another place—of the sums which the Nuclear Installations Act requires should be set aside to meet the general run of claims for accidents involving nuclear material. As I understand from what the noble Lord has said, it involves the raising of the amount from £1¾ million to £2,100,000 in the case of damage caused while materials are in transit, and from £43 million to £50 million to cover claims which outrun the operator's liability under the Conventions which the noble Lord mentioned.

Although the record has been very good to date, certainly the question of nuclear safety cannot be stressed too highly. But, my Lords, let us mike no bones about it: the reason for this Bill, for having to increase these sums, is due directly to devaluation because the limits are now too low in terms of dollars to enable us to fulfil our obligations under the Convention. I do not propose to tease the noble Lord too much about that this afternoon. His honourable friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Power, certainly had his fill of it during the Second Reading Committee debate in another place. Indeed, my honourable friends had something of a field day and had a kind of pre-Budget economic debate. They asked the Minister one pertinent question in particular; that is, whether every time the Government devalued a new Bill would have to be brought in. It was suggested that if instead of referring to the sums in terms of sterling they were specified in dollars—that is to say, if instead of £50 million sterling the sum of 120 million dollars was used—this would avoid having to amend the Bill again in the event of further devaluation. After all, France devalued nine times before stabilising the franc. I have always wondered how France managed to do this, but France's economy has always been something of a mystery to some of us. But although Labour Governments have devalued only twice, one has the unhappy feeling that if—


My Lords, if I may correct the noble Lord, he said that in the plural and not the singular. This Government have devalued only once.


My Lord, Labour Governments, yes. Although they have devalued only twice, I have a slightly unhappy feeling that if they continue in office they may follow in the steps of our French friends. I only hope not. I will not puraie the noble Lord further on this point, but I think it is a valid comment to make.

Another suggestion which has been made is that in order to amend the sums made available as a result of devaluation, perhaps we should use European Monetary Agreement units of account. One of my honourable friends, moving a new clause on this point, maintained that it might save a lot of trouble in the future if these international units had been used instead of sterling to define the financial limits of the original Act. The Minister admitted that there was a point of a general kind at issue here, and I wondered whether the noble Lord would be so good as to comment further on this.

There are one or two other questions I should like to ask the noble Lord on which I do not think very complete replies were given elsewhere, and I gave the noble Lord warning of them. One concerns the reorganisation of the nuclear power industry. As the noble Lord knows, parts of the Atomic Energy Authority are being moved away from the Authority and into the control of industrial companies. This means that there will be new types of organisation in existence, some publicly and some largely privately owned. Clearly the Bill will have to apply to them. May we have a specific assurance—I think the noble Lord came very near to giving it to me at the beginning, but not per-haps precisely, in connection with the re-organisation of the industry—that this Bill will cover not only the A.E.A. but also the more or less independent industrial companies?

Also, I wonder whether the noble Lord could say something about the damage being caused to marine life by nuclear waste. In another place, the Minister said that he had no evidence of this, but he admitted that certain nuclear tests in the Pacific Ocean had had unfortunate results. I realise that these were not caused by the peaceful uses of atomic energy, but none the less damage was done. It occurred to me that there is effluent from nuclear reactors near the coast, and I should think they must have some effect. Perhaps the noble Lord could say something about that. I was glad to read the Minister's assurances regarding recruitment to the Nuclear Inspectorate and that the Government are fully satisfied about this and about the competence of the Inspectors. I think we should all congratulate them on the efficient way in which they go about their work.

The Second Reading Committee in another place was followed by a further debate in Standing Committee D. In parenthesis, and for the benefit of our own Printed Paper Office—and I think probably some noble Lords—I should like to ask the Government whether they could say something about the way the Reports of Committees in another place are now published. Sometimes they seem to appear in Hansard proper, and sometimes they are published separately; and I have just heard of a case where they have not been published at all in regard to a Bill which is on the Order Paper to-morrow. I will say a word about that later on.

I believe a new procedure has been adopted in another place regarding Second Reading Committees, and I am told by our own Printed Paper Office that it has complicated their work. Indeed, when I was looking into this Bill it took some time to get all the papers together, and I might have asked that the Second Reading be postponed, for it is taking place at exceptionally short notice. I think similar difficulties may arise over other Bills. The Bill I have just mentioned—which my noble friend Lord Sandford has drawn to my attention—is the Redundant Churches and other Religious Buildings Bill. Although that is due to be debated to-morrow, the Report of the Committee stage in another place has not yet been printed. This seems to me to be the most amazing muddle, and I wonder whether that Bill can very well be taken to-morrow. It is another example of a somewhat confused conduct of Parliamentary business by the present Government.

I have just one other point to make. During the debate in Standing Committee D there was one point which the Minister did not seem to me to answer, and that was about the accelerator at the Centre for European Nuclear Research at Geneva. Can the noble Lord say whether the sum of £2,100,000 covers the possible contingent liability for a disaster at that nuclear accelerator? The Parliamentary Secretary in another place said he understood that the CERN accelerator was not covered by the Bill because it was not classified as a nuclear installation and yet, as my honourable friend Mr. Price said, Section 26, the Interpretation Section, of the 1965 Act says that:

'nuclear installation' means a nuclear reactor or an installation such as is mentioned in Section 1(b)(ii) of this Act", which refers to: the carrying out of any process which is preparatory or ancillary to the production or use of atomic energy and which involves or is capable of causing the emission of ionising radiations". As my honourable friend pointed out, if a linear accelerator is not capable of causing the emission of ionising radiations—and I am glad the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, is here to-day because he understands this—then he did not really know what it was capable of doing. Those who have had experience of these large and somewhat obscure machines know that there is a substantial radiation hazard, because they produce streams of high-energy ionised particles. While the Parliamentary Secretary said that the CERN accelerator did not come under this Bill, he admitted finally that there was an element of doubt and confessed that in his hurried consultation he did not have a clear answer to the question, but said that he would seek an opportunity to clear it up in the later stages. However, when I read through the Report of the final stages which took place on March 31 I found no further reference to the CERN accelerator. I do not know whether the noble Lord can tell us something about it.

Apart from those points, I assure the noble Lord that I accept the Minister's replies on other matters, and I agree that we must bring our rules up to date and in line with our obligations under previous Conventions. For that reason we support the measure and agree that it should be given a Second Reading, although it seems to us to be a clumsy way of dealing with the issue, particularly in regard to the financial aspects.

4.41 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Bess-borough, for the general welcome that he has given to the Bill and also for the questions that he has asked, of which he kindly gave me notice though in one or two instances the notice was so extremely short that I am not yet certain whether at the time I sit down I shall have obtained authoritative answers. I will not disagree with what the noble Earl said about the main reason for the Bill being devaluation. He said that that was the real reason for it, though there were other points. He asked whether it would be the case that every time the Government devalued a new Bill would have to be brought in. It is true that in a period of some four-and-a-half years we have devalued once, but I am not going to say anything further about that except in regard to the alternative which the noble Earl suggested.

He reminded us that in another place they had what he called a " field day " on this subject, and it was certainly not a noticeably adult debate. But while I would not cast any aspersions in this matter, I remember reading financial articles which indicated, believe is or not, that there might at some stage have been a possibility of some change in the international value of the dollar. Therefore, in such circumstances—indeed, in almost any circumstances—I always have a prejudice, I think a rightful prejudice, in favour of British symbols, financial or otherwise, rather than foreign symbols.

What did Members suggest in another place? During the debate to which the noble Earl referred they actually moved an Amendment which suggested that instead of the £50 million provided for in this Bill we should say " 120 million European Monetary Agreement units of account ". There is sometimes a little doubt to-day about what the pound is worth, but if people were to read in a Bill passed by this Parliament that we were talking about " 120 million European Monetary Agreement units of account " they would rightly be in a position to say, possibly with expletives, that we did not know what we were talking about, because they certainly would not know. So I am quite prepared to run this risk and stick to the British pound as the accepted symbol for stating our monetary problems.

The noble Earl asked me about what I might call semi-private consortia, and whether the compensation provisions applied to them. The answer is: Yes, it is applied to anyone who operates a nuclear installation, and all the activities of the new design and construction companies will be covered. He also asked me whether the CERN accelerator was covered. This apparatus, as I think he indicated, is not a nuclear installation within the meaning of either the Act or the underlying international conventions. I do not want to go through the definition of Section 1 of the 1965 Act to explain why, as a matter of law, this apparatus is not covered. I think your Lordships will be more interested in the practical reasons why this should be so.

Both the Act and the Conventions, with their special rules of absolute liability and their requirement for heavy insurance cover, were intended to deal only with the special hazard arising from the application of nuclear power; that is, the risk that there might be an accident involving the release of radioctivity from a reactor, from one of the supporting installations, such as fuel factories, from fuel in transit or from a fuel storage installation. Such an accident could have widespread consequences, not merely from the irradiation of persons at the site of the accident but as the result of the contamination of the site.

But the hazard from an accelerator is not comparable with this in scale; it is much less. Essentially, the apparatus is like an enormous X-ray tube. Atomic particles are speeded up by electric fields and used to bombard a target, and the resultant reactions between the accelerated particles and the atoms of the target are studied. The whole thing is essentially a research operation. The atomic reactions produce ionising radiation which can be of a very penetrating kind, and a certain amount of nuclear energy can be released. This nuclear energy appears, however, in minute quantities from the reactions of relatively few atoms, and the situation in no way compares with the use of energy on the practical scale with which the Act is concerned and which involves continuous nuclear reactions on a large scale.

This does not mean that the accelerators are not subject to control. In so far as such apparatus of this sort is situated in premises subject to the Factories Act, I understand that they are the subject of a code of regulations dealing with a number of kinds of irradiating apparatus and these are the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity. Apparatus of this sort at research and teaching establishments can be dealt with under the provisions of the Radioactive Substances Act 1948, and a code of practice exists which has been drawn up for this purpose. In both cases, claims in respect of damages would be pursued like any other Common Law claim. I hope that that is a fuller explanation than the noble Earl has so far been given, and that it covers the point.

The noble Earl also asked me about the possible effect of an accident on marine life, and I believe that there have been some Russian allegations or suggestions about this. My information is that our methods of waste disposal—the problem arises, of course, from the disposal of waste—are accepted by the majority of countries concerned, and British scientific work published internationally has conclusively demonstrated that no trace of the effluence from Windscale is detectable outside coastal waters. Solid waste is also dumped into the Atlantic deeps in limited quantities and under supervised conditions, including joint disposal operations with several other E.N.E.A. countries, and such waste is dumped under conditions designed to ensure that any activity released will be rendered harmless by dispersal and dilution. The Russian allegations are thus quite unfounded and the proof of this may be derived from measurements reflecting residual fall-out of nuclear weapon testing. I think that is one that will not " run ".

My Lords, athough for some years I have been responsible on behalf of the Government for these subjects in your Lordships' House, I do not pretend to possess any considerable knowledge, and I know the noble Earl is much better informed than I am on them, but my own view is that over this whole field we have taken precautions—wise and incredibly careful precautions—and that they have worked. We must continue to take these major precautions, and they must continue to work. But when we have a discussion of this kind it is fair to acknowledge the success that there has been in this field.

As I had unhappily anticipated when I got up, I have not got the answer to the one important question which the noble Earl put to me about the publication of the Reports of Committees in another place when 13ills are being dealt with by the Second Reading Committee procedure. I am not sure if my recollection is right, but I believe that earlier Second Reading Committee procedure Bills have started in your Lordships' House, and that this may be the first time that one has come to us from the other direction. That, perhaps, is why it has not been raised with us before. I noticed that the noble Earl mentioned the Redundant Churches and other Religious Buildings Bill, which comes up for Second Reading here to-morrow, I believe, is one in question. My first reaction was that this is not a Home Office responsibility; and therefore, if there is any blame to be apportioned, I can escape censure. But the noble Earl has raised an important point which must be resolved and I will make it my business to see that it is resolved. Perhaps, since it is important not just to the noble Earl but to the whole House, means can be found to make sure that the information becomes general. I would apologise for not being able to give him an answer now, but he will appreciate that it is not a matter which affects only my Department; it is matter which affects the working of the House.


My Lords, it affects another place, above all.


Yes. Did the noble Earl wish to say something more?


Before the noble Lord sits down I should like to thank him for giving very much more detailed answers on all the important matters about which I asked than were given in another place. I am extremely grateful to him and I hope I shall get an equally satisfactory reply on this last matter.


My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Earl. I would assure him that it is not the first time that there have been fuller answers given here. But this last matter is one of business which must be resolved, and I will endeavour to find out the answers. Indeed, let us hope that not merely shall I be able to get the answers but that we shall be able to improve the procedure. With that, I hope your Lordships will give this Bill a Second Reading.

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