HL Deb 22 December 1976 vol 378 cc1387-92

3.38 p.m.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, with the leave of the House, T will now repeat a Statement which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. I am sure that noble Lords will be pleased that I am able to repeat the Statement during our debate this afternoon and that through the usual channels it was arranged that it should be made today in the other place in order to enable noble Lords to hear it before the Recess. The Statement is as follows: On 3rd November I undertook to report further to the House on the planning application from British Nuclear Fuels Limited for further development at Windscale, which the Planning Committee of the Cumbrian County Council had referred to me. The application falls effectively into 3 parts: first, improved arrangements for handling and reprocessing irradiated Magnox fuel; second, development of a pilot demonstration plant for vitrifying long-lived radioactive waste, and, third, new facilities for reprocessing oxide fuel from the current generation of United Kingdom Advanced Gas Cooled Reactors and from overseas. I have received many representations that the proposals in the application should be allowed to go ahead at once and I have received many other representations that the matters involved are of such national importance that the application ought not to be decided without full public scrutiny. I have now made a thorough examination of all the issues involved. If proposals relating to the handling of Magnox fuel and the development of the vitrification plant on the lines I have already seen were all that were before me, I would be unlikely to see any justification for calling these in for my own decision. That part relating to the reprocessing of Magnox fuel is designed to improve the treatment of the fuel already at Windscale with a consequent improvement of the discharges. The vitrification plant is part of the research programme into the disposal of a long-lived highly radioactive waste on which the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution in their 6th Report urged the Government to press ahead. Any discharges of radioactive material arising as a result of these proposals will be closely controlled under the Radioactive Substances Act 1960, and I intend to be personally assured that high standards of control are maintained at all times. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Energy has also indicated similar intentions in respect of his responsibilities under the Nuclear Installations Act 1965. The third proposal on the other hand which is concerned with the reprocessing of oxide fuel raises different issues of major importance. Since I have no power to call in this one part of a single application, and since I wish to avoid delay to the other proposals I have decided, to invite BNFL to bring their proposals for-ward in separate parts. If and when a separate application is submitted for the oxide fuel reprocessing plant I would propose to call it in to deal with myself and order a public inquiry under Section 282 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971. This will enable all the relevant safety environmental and planning considerations fully to be examined. It is my hope that the inquiry should proceed as speedily as it can. The wide-ranging environmental implications relating to the development of nuclear power generally, which were the subject of the 6th Report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, are under urgent examination and the Government will be making their views on these matters known in due course".

3.41 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Baroness most particularly for having made it possible for this House to have this Statement at this juncture. I am not getting at her personally, but of course it would have been better if we could have had it yesterday before we wasted a certain amount of time—if I may put it that way—on noble Lords such as Lord Avebury raising the issue here today. However, I know that she personally has had a hand in seeing that we have now had the statement. The Statement may well say that these matters are under urgent review: they are under review to a certain extent here, now, and I hope the Government will take note of what is being said here.

It seems to be a sensible approach to have separated the various aspects of the Windscale expansion because it is indeed true that there is only the one contentious issue; that is, the proposal to process fuel virtually as an export operation, which clearly this country does not have to do, whether it wishes to do it or not. Most of the other issues are an improvement over what we are doing already, if I understand it correctly. I am bound to say that I cannot really see how the Government could have avoided calling in that particular part of the planning application. In passing, may I say that it seems a pity that we could not have separated out these proposals long since. I think a good deal of the controversy which has arisen out of all of this would have been lessened if these things had been packaged in this way right from the outset, but maybe that is being wise after the event. Secondly, I should like to ask a question which I am sure is very much in the minds of some of those who wish to protest against this. Would it be in order at that inquiry to raise the question of the need for these processes at all?—because this is an issue which continually arises both in regard to highway planning and this type of planning application. So I ask this quite specific question without asking the noble Baroness to give us a major policy statement. Otherwise I am sure this is an approach which is worthy of our support.


My Lords, is the Minister aware that we too very much welcome the statement that has been made. We agree that it is a good idea to separate out the application on the reprocessing of magnox fuels and the vitrification process from that relating to the reprocessing of oxide fuels: Can the noble Baroness give us an assurance that as a result of the approval of the first two parts of the application there will be no increase in the authorised limit in regard to discharges, both into the atmosphere and into the sea? Can she also say whether, in considering the application, the Secretary of State will take into account the recent developments in the United States of America regarding the interpretation of the non-proliferation treaty which I mentioned earlier? Will the noble Baroness also consider whether Sections 47 to 50 of the Town and Country Planning Act would not have been a more appropriate procedure than Section 282? I will not go into that in detail, because I have already dealt with it in my speech.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal, for his comments. This was a very difficult problem which needed a great deal of consideration since, in the first place, it was all part of the Development Plan of the Cumbria County Council. It was not really possible to separate it in the way the noble Lord suggested before. I think he is quite right when he says it is easy to be wise after the event over these particular things.

Both noble Lords, Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal, and Lord Avebury, raised the question of what it would be in order to raise at the inquiry. As noble Lords will appreciate, it will be an inquiry into a specific planning application. Obviously, the inquiry would take account of all matters relevant to that but, as in other similar inquiries such as highway inquiries, as the noble Lord pointed out, it would be up to the inspector as to what is and is not relevant. I cannot anticipate what issues will come before him, but I imagine the inquiry will range as widely as the inspector will allow. I should also point out that, in order to expedite matters, both myself and my right honourable friend think it would be a good idea for objectors to start preparing their case now, in the event of BFNL putting in an application.

On the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, from my understanding there would be no increase in discharges so far as the two parts of the application are concerned, if they come in separately. That is as far as I understand the matter. If I am wrong, I will let the noble Lord know. This does take us into a rather scientific area. So taking into account what is published in the United States, again this would depend on what was put in, and the way it was put in to the inspector by the objectors or by the applicants. It would have to come to the inquiry. There would not be an inquiry whose terms of reference set out that the inquiry should take into account any particular thing happening in the United States.


My Lords, surely the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, would agree that the non-proliferation treaty and the interpretation of it are beyond the competence of any inspector?

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, I think the noble Lord has answered his own question. I have explained that this is a planning inquiry, and that what will come out of it will probably range rather beyond that. I am certainly not going to undertake that this inquiry will be dealing with non-proliferation. It would be quite wrong if I gave any undertaking to that effect. That is not what the inquiry is about.

On the other point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, as to why the inquiry was not held under Sections 47 to 50, the Planning Inquiry Commission, the main reason is that the Government are concerned that the inquiry should proceed as quickly as possible. The other form of Commission is an untried procedure. It really does not seem likely that it would secure an early report, because it has to be done in two stages, which would prolong the whole inquiry. The Government are trying to find a way of dealing with the grave problem that has arisen and the representations made, and at the same time the Government are trying not to force too much delay in the interests of all sides.