HL Deb 21 December 1983 vol 446 cc796-802

3.51 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement on Sellafield being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. The Statement reads as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a further Interim Statement about the recent discharges at the Sellafield plant in Cumbria.

"During the six days from November 11th to November 16th a series of abnormal discharges were made from the Sellafield plant of British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. through the pipeline to the sea. The discharges followed the washing out of the reprocessing plant in the course of annual maintenance. Following a management error in the operation of that plant, radioactive liquids including solvent, and particulate matter of higher than normal activity were transferred to a sea tank. Attempts were made to transfer the more active material to another storage tank. This was only partially successful and a significant quantity of the radioactivity was discharged to the sea.

"The radiochemical inspectorate of my department and the nuclear installations inspectorate of the Health and Safety Executive have been carrying out detailed investigations into the causes of the incident. Neither I nor my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Energy have yet received the final reports. While it seems clear that there has been no breach of the authorised quarterly numerical limits on the discharge or radioactivity, there may well have been breaches of other conditions; namely, those requiring exposures from discharges to be kept as low as reasonably achievable and those requiring proper records to be kept. It is also possible that there were some breaches of other conditions of the NII site licence. For these reasons the matter has been brought to the attention of the Director of Public Prosecutions with whom my department and the Health and Safety Executive are co-operating.

"The most important thing is to prevent any repetition of such an incident. Both the NII and my department have notified British Nuclear Fuels Limited of the further measures they wish the company to take. The measures so far taken by British Nuclear Fuels Limited include a ban on the discharge of free solvent and an automatic cut-off system governing the discharge of liquid from the sea tanks. Other measures are in hand.

"Extensive and continuing monitoring of the environment has confirmed that the risk of harm to the public was, and remains, extremely small. My right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is today answering a Written Question announcing the publication of a report on the marine environmental and agricultural consequences of the discharge. Copies are in the Library of the House. This shows that there has not been any significant effect on fish, shellfish or other foods. There is therefore no reason why people should not eat local catches or local farm produce.

"Also published today and placed in the Library is a report by the National Radiological Protection Board, prepared for my department, on the distribution and analysis of samples of seaweed and other flotsam collected from the beach 10 miles either side of the pipeline. One conclusion of the report, confirmed by separate analysis carried out by MAFF, is that the radioactivity in the samples was well below the level that would constitute any hazard to the general population in the area. The NRPB's main concern however is that anyone handling the more active samples taken from the beach could exceed the annual dose limit for the skin after only comparatively brief direct contact.

"It was for that reason that, on 30th November, my department advised the public to avoid unnecessary use of the beaches on this stretch of coast for the time being. I have to tell the House that radioactive flotsam is still occasionally being found, so that it is not yet possible to withdraw that advice. It remains true that any risk of contamination to the public is extremely small. People should nonetheless continue to avoid unnecessary use of the beaches between St. Bees and Eskmeals and should not handle objects washed up by the sea. Monitoring will continue and my department will keep the public fully informed.

"Mr. Speaker, this is an interim report which I have thought it right to make to the House before we adjourn for the Christmas recess. The Government intend that the reports both from DOE's Radiochemical Inspectorate and from the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate should be published as soon as possible after they are received by Ministers, provided there is no risk of prejudicing any legal proceedings. When we have the final reports I will make a further statement to the House."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord for repeating this interim Statement to the House this afternoon. Is the noble Lord aware that the Statement adds little which is new to what we already know from the press and, indeed, from the company's own statement? Secondly, does he realise that there is real public anger following this incident and that the incident itself calls into question the competence of the management at Sellafield and has seriously damaged the image and the credibility of the whole nuclear industry?

Would the noble Lord assist in resolving the conflict which seems to exist in the Statement between the concern of the National Radiological Protection Board for people handling the more radioactive samples taken from the beaches, and the Government's advice that any risk of contamination is extremely small? Would he also say what is meant by "unnecessary use of beaches"? Does this mean the general public, local authority people, or who? Will the noble Lord say a little more about the possible prosecutions, and will the Government be reviewing—as we believe they ought to have done a long while ago—the upper limits of radioactivity discharged to the sea?

Finally, we welcome the noble Lord's commitment to making a further Statement on this matter and to publish the nuclear inspectorate's report—and I hope that he will give me the assurance that it will be in full—as soon as possible after the Recess.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, we too should like to welcome the Statement and to thank the Minister for making an Interim Statement even though, at this particular time, it does not add very much to what we already know. Nevertheless, it was a very important incident. We shall want to comment more fully on it when the time comes. In the meantime, it is right that the House should be kept informed.

At this particular moment there are only two specific questions that I want to ask. The Statement says that the most important thing is, to prevent any repetition of such an incident", and there I am sure the whole House would agree with the Statement. It goes on to say that BNFL, have been notified of the further measures that the department wish the company to take, and that, the measures so far include a ban on the discharge of free solvent and an automatic cut-off system governing the discharge of liquid from the sea tanks. Other measures are in hand. What other measures are in hand? This is an important question because it is quite clearly the key point of the Statement.

The second question that I want to ask concerns the hazard to the general population: anyone handling the more active samples taken from the beach could exceed the annual dose limit of the skin only after comparatively brief direct contact. I entirely welcome the steps that have been taken to make certain that such happenings are as few as possible, but what advice has the Department, or anyone else, given to the general public if they should feel that they have run the risk of handling such material? Have they issued instructions so that the general public in the area really know what to do if, by any chance, some of them, who have not heeded the warnings for one reason or another, should stray on to those beaches?

4.1 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for recognising both the serious informative purpose of this Statement and also for recognising that it is an interim one, and that I, or my noble friend, will be reporting to the House at a later date. The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, asked when that later date would be. Obviously it cannot be until after the report to which I referred has been received by Ministers, but as the Statement makes clear the intention is to publish it.

The noble Lord said that the Statement adds little new from what he has read in the press and what has been issued by BNFL themselves. But this is the first occasion when Parliament as a whole has been informed by the Government, and it is of course right that this should be done. I hope that the noble Lord will accept that. The noble Lord is worried about the difference between the concern of the National Radiological Protection Board and the Government advice. The job of the National Radiological Protection Board is to point out to the Government, whom of course it advises, and to the general public that dangers are possible—I would not put it any higher than that—as a result of this particular incident. But the Government advice, as was mentioned in the Statement again, was that the risk to the general public is small. The reason for that is that the radioactive isotope involved is ruthenium 106, which gives off beta radiation and has a comparatively short half life of only six months. This means that the only danger is where a contaminated piece of flotsam, or seaweed, is held in the hand for a considerably long time, or gets lodged under the fingernails, or perhaps might be put in a child's pocket where he, or she, regularly rests their hand. These are comparatively unlikely happenings, but it is only right that the public should be made aware of them.

The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, asked me what other measures British Nuclear Fuels have in hand. It would weary the House unduly if I went through them all, but I asked my advisers exactly the same question. The answer I received was that these measures include the review of operating instructions, records and procedures; the installation of additional instrumentation within the plant and on discharge pipe work; and increased sea tank capacity to hold effluent before discharge. I have no doubt that in subsequent talks and negotiations with the management of the plant, my department and the various boards involved, there will be other measures to add to that list.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, could the noble Lord say whether the problems that have been revealed are all unique to Sellafield? If not, could he say what other action elsewhere is being taken?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, does the noble Lord mean unique in this country or unique worldwide?

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, unique to Sellafield.

Lord Skelmersdale

; My Lords, I am not quite sure of the drift of the noble Lord's question. Is he asking whether there are any other incidents from other plants situated in this country, or situated anywhere in the world?

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, I invite the noble Lord to say whether there is any question of the same disastrous mistakes being made elsewhere in this country otherwise than at Sellafield.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. No, it is totally unique to Sellafield.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, in thanking the noble Lord for the answers he has given, may I press him on two or three points? First, I asked whether the NII report would be published in full. That is an important question which needs an answer. Is it to be abridged or will the report be published wholly and in full? Secondly, will he say more about the possible prosecutions? If he could give some more information about that subject I should be most obliged.

I should like to express my further concern about the danger which the Minister has admitted exists, particularly to small children who may stray on to these contaminated beaches and pick up contaminated material. This is extremely serious because small children will be most at risk. I should like to know whether the Government have in view any additional precautions particularly for the sake of children.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I must apologise to the noble Lord. He must chalk it up to my inexperience in these matters. So far as possible prosecutions are involved, while they are in the domain, however loosely, of the Director of Public Prosecutions, he will understand that I am unable to give him very full details. The plant is allowed to discharge low-level radioactive discharges to the sea under authorisation from the Department of the Environment. As the statement says, these should be as low as is reasonably achievable, which seems to be unlikely—I would not put it higher than that—as a result of this particular incident.

I recognise the noble Lord's great concern on the remarks that I made about small children, but he will equally recognise on his part that it is injudicious, wherever one is in the country, to allow small children to roam unaccompanied and at will on beaches, whether in the neighbourhood of Sellafield or Brighton.

The noble Lord asked about Government advice. As I believe I said earlier, the Government have published two press notices. I shall quote from the end of one of them: It might be wiser nonetheless for members of the public to avoid unnecessary use of the beaches (or swimming in the sea) on this stretch of coast for the time being.". I cannot emphasise too strongly that this was not only correct advice but wise advice to give at that time.

The noble Lord also asked whether a review of upper limits would not be appropriate—presumably upper limits for radioactive discharges to the sea. Obviously that is one of the things which are concerning Ministers in my department at the moment and they will consider this matter very carefully.

I think the noble Lord had another supplementary question.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

It related to the publication of the NNI report in full, my Lords.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, unless a particular part of it pertains to possible prosecutions, yes, the report will appear in full when it is published.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, I do not think that the noble Lord answered the second of my questions, which was about advice to the public—and this is brought up by the point about children on the sea shore.

If children have been there, has any advice been given about what action they should take? Are there particular centres to which they should report for advice? Has advice been given to the local health authorities as to what advice to give to people who feel that they may have been damaged? What steps have been taken in the whole of that direction? I do not think the Minister has touched on that.

Lord Skelmersdale

No, my Lords, I am sorry. My understanding is that the Department of Health and Social Security are proposing to issue special advice to doctors in Cumbria. If people are in any doubt that they might have been in contact with any of the flotsam or seaweed, their local doctor would be the first person to contact.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, I hesitate to inflict myself on the House yet again but I feel that I must press the Minister further on the question of children; because children seldom read press notices and, secondly, if children are allowed to roam anywhere it is probably on the beaches. Generally speaking, except for the water—and there is a risk of drowning, of course—children tend to wander far and wide on the beaches. I hope the Minister will give further consideration to that point in the light of what we have said this afternoon.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I shall certainly give further consideration to that point. I referred earlier to parental responsibility—and parents can read press notices. The advice is widely circulated in the area. Fortunately, at this time of the year the particular beaches to which I referred are not used to any great extent. Nevertheless, I could not agree more strongly with the noble Lord that the advice must be got through to children and their parents, neighbours or guardians or whoever could be tempted to use the beaches for example, for recreation, at this time of year. Further, I am advised that British Nuclear Fuels Limited are in touch with local communities. They are playing their part responsibly in circulating the information that I have given to the House this afternoon.