HL Deb 06 May 1986 vol 474 cc600-6

3.40 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Elton)

My Lords, with the leave of your Lordships I shall now repeat a Statement that is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a Statement about the arrangements for monitoring the effects in the United Kingdom of the accident at Chernobyl, and the results obtained.

"As soon as news of the accident was received, the standing arrangements for monitoring air, water and foodstuffs, particularly milk, were stepped up. The departments mainly concerned are the Department of the Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and the Scottish and Welsh Offices, which have been working closely with the National Radiological Protection Board. Samples have been taken daily, and since last Friday, 2nd May, daily bulletins have been issued by the NRPB after consultation with government departments. In addition, my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has set up an incident room from which advice on foodstuffs is available for members of the public.

"The remnants of the cloud from Chernobyl arrived over the United Kingdom on 2nd May. As a result, an increase in the normal background level of radiation was found in air samples taken at various parts of the country over the weekend. The levels found were nowhere near the levels at which there is any hazard to health, and more recent samples show that the levels in air are now falling rapidly as the cloud has moved away.

"As a result of heavy rain in the northern part of England and Wales, and in parts of Scotland, the levels of radiation in samples of rain water were found to be at a level where it was appropriate to warn people against drinking neat fresh rain water over long periods; this might apply to a few farmers in remote parts, and possibly to some campers. There would be no hazard if the recently fallen rain were diluted with rain water already collected in water butts, or by streams, wells or reservoirs.

"The levels of radiation in piped water are less than one-hundredth of the level at which any special action would be needed.

"My right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is responsible for monitoring and control of foodstuffs. I understand that samples of milk and fresh produce have shown amounts of radioactivity which are below the level at which action ought to be considered. Levels of radiation are now likely to decline over the next few days.

"I should stress that in judging whether the levels of radiation found require any special action we act in accordance with international recommendations published by the International Commission on Radiological Protection.

"My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Social Services is also keeping a close watch on imports of food into the United Kingdom from Russia and Poland that was despatched after 26th April 1986.

"The House will see from what I have said that the effects of the cloud have already been assessed and that none presents a risk to health in the United Kingdom. Extensive monitoring will continue, and its results will be made available to the public and to the House."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Baroness David

My Lords, I should like to thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made by his right honourable friend in another place. However, I should like to make a slight protest about the time that the Statement arrived. It was delivered to this Front Bench at 3.33 p.m., which is not quite good enough, particularly when on hearing the Statement we find that it does not tell us a great deal that we did not already know from the newspapers.

The public needs to know exactly which department has the main responsibility for informing the public and for monitoring. We understand that MAFF is responsible for monitoring air, water and foodstuffs, particularly milk, but I believe that some department should have overall responsibility for telling the public exactly what they can and cannot do. It is public confidence that needs to be built up.

We are glad to have the reassurance that there is no tremendous danger and that if people are sensible, they will be perfectly all right. However, we have criticised the Russians for not making the disaster known to neighbouring countries, and I believe that we ourselves should be very careful to make sure that the public is informed as fully as possible. Surely it would be better that one department should have overall responsibility.

How is the public to be given continuous advice? Which department will do that? What additional monitoring and analysis have the Government set in motion following contamination in the British environment? The Statement declares that: The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has set up an incident room from which advice on foodstuffs is available for members of the public". That does not seem to me to be quite good enough. Information should be broadcast to the public, so that they will know; they should not have to ring up somewhere to find out what is happening.

We are told in the penultimate paragraph of the Statement that, The Secretary of State for Social Services is also keeping a close watch on imports of food". We need a little more explanation about that aspect. My plea is that the public should be given the hard facts and should know what they ought to do and ought not to do. They should know also where that information is to be found and from which department it is coming.

Baroness Robson of Kiddington

My Lords, I join the noble Baroness, Lady David, in thanking the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place. I join her also in objecting to the timing of the delivery of the Statement. I cannot remember whether I have before responded to a Statement on behalf of these Benches, but I was always under the impression that one had at least 20 minutes to half-an-hour to consider what one's contribution should be.

I take this opportunity, on behalf of these Benches and, I am sure, on behalf of every Member of your Lordships' House, to express sympathy for the citizens of the Ukraine and the people who have suffered as a result of this ghastly catastrophe.

The USSR has been accused of excessive secrecy, which criticism I wholeheartedly support. However, we must be very careful because I wonder to what extent there has been secrecy within our own nuclear industry in the past. For instance, I happened to see in the newspapers that an accident or a leak, however small, occurred at Dungeness last week. It did not seem to me that that information was published with the utmost urgency.

I should like to ask the Government whether they had expected such high levels of radiation to spread as far as this country when the accident seemed to be such a long way away. In the light of the Government's Statement that, The remnants of the cloud … arrived over the United Kingdom on 2nd May", I ask at what stage did they activate our monitoring system? Was it activated the moment that we heard about the accident, or was there a certain feeling that the radiation was not going to reach us?

I wish to coment also on the impact of the accident on the Sizewell inquiry. One hopes that a report of the Sizewell inquiry will be published as soon as possible, even if it contains not the full result of the inquiry but the major recommendations, so that we may have a full debate in this country, based on the lessons that have been learned from the USSR.

The accident at Chernobyl is the most horrible to have happened in the nuclear power industry. It has highlighted the dangers to our generation, to people in Poland, and to people in Scandinavia. We in this country have been slightly more fortunate. But quite apart from the problems and dangers of Chernobyl, in the light of that accident, we must consider the problems and dangers that we are building up for future generations, until, if ever, we find an acceptable means of disposing of long-life nuclear waste.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Baronesses for their reception of the Statement. I can only apologise personally for the lack of lead time for the Statement. The fact is that the Statement was not available until literally a few moments before it reached the Opposition Front Benches. On reflection it might have been better if I had departed from the normal convention of the House, which is to make the Statement as soon as possible after the Secretary of State has spoken in another place, and had given the noble Baronesses time to digest the information. As it was, I followed what I understood to be the conventions of the House and took the first available opportunity.

I should like to agree at the outset with the extension of sympathy by the noble Baroness, Lady Robson, to the people exposed to these anxieties, not only in the Soviet Union but in other countries in Europe that have been or may be affected.

Perhaps I may now take the other points raised in sequence. I believe that the procedures that we now have are effective in keeping the public informed and reassured as to what is going on. The respective departments are responsible for their own aspects of monitoring and control but my own department, the Department of the Environment, is the co-ordinating department and it will be for us to ensure that information is continuously available. The noble Baroness, Lady David, has already referred to the information room at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, but information is released both by us and by the national board direct to the national press.

I was asked about additional monitoring. There are about 20 radiological installations throughout the country. All of them increased their activity immediately the hazard became known. There was no hesitation about that for either procedural or presentational reasons. The watch at the ports is conducted by the Department of Health and Social Security, which has put a hold order on all imports described in the principal Statement. They are held until samples have been checked and cleared in Ministry of Agriculture laboratories. Until that time they cannot leave the ports.

I take note of what the noble Baroness said about procedures relating to the Sizewell inquiry. I do not doubt that there will be much to digest when this incident is behind us. That will be one consideration, because we shall be using this as a valuable opportunity to review the effectiveness of the procedures we are now going through and any bearing that they should have on policy.

That brings me, I think finally, to the question asked about the possibility of secrecy. I think it was the noble Baroness, Lady David, who said that she had recently read something in the papers. I think the noble Baroness is referring to a report about an alleged incident at Dungeness. The Health and Safety Executive advised that the incident at Dungeness A power station which occurred on 31st March had no significant safety implications for the public or, indeed, for the personnel on the site. Therefore, there was no requirement for the incident to be reported under the arrangements for the early reporting of nuclear incidents to Ministers, as announced by my right honourable friend the Member for Croydon, Central on 26th July 1982. Nevertheless, the Central Electricity Generating Board did inform the Health and Safety Executive and Her Majesty's Radiochemical Inspectorate at the time of the event; so there was no question of secrecy.

Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran

My Lords, the Minister referred to the Sizewell inquiry. Can the Minister indicate whether or not the Sizewell inquiry report will now be postponed so that the chairman can take further evidence in view of this great disaster? If I may say so, I also congratulate the monitoring systems for coming into play so quickly in the United Kingdom.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am not at present aware that the recent events will have a bearing on the Sizewell inquiry but, as I said, that is something we should consider when we have the wisdom of hindsight.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, has the noble Lord any information about the radiological content of the cloud? As he is aware, all products of nuclear fission are lethal—and some are more lethal than others. Can the noble Lord say whether, for example, there is any evidence of plutonium?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I think I am not qualified to be drawn into the detail of the technicalities. I can say that the principal ingredient, and that which is the basis of our monitoring, is radioiodine and that the safety levels regarded as tolerable are reduced if there are other components in the fallout.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, in the light of this accident, which may yet prove to be even more serious than we suspect, does the Minister draw any useful conclusions from the fact that most of the protests against it in this country have taken place against our own Department of Energy rather than against the Soviet Embassy? Will the Minister care to speculate on what would be happening in Grosvenor Square now if this accident and the secrecy surrounding it had taken place in the United States of America?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am always advised not to answer hypothetical questions, but nevertheless I find this one rather tempting.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, should we not regard our end of this tragedy as a pioneering field exercise on how we should arrange matters in a more serious set of circumstances? I do not doubt that much will be learnt from the incident but is not this the position? From our point of view nothing of significance has happened or is going to happen; there is nothing that the public need to know or to do from the standpoint of any immediate action which is at all likely to be taking place except for a few campers and farmers in northern Scotland who are invited not to drink undiluted rainwater and to collect their water from diluted rainwater in ponds and lochs.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Earl for his intervention. I regard this occasion as a very valuable opportunity of forcing Ministers and officials to actually see the necessary muscles being flexed against a day when, it is to be hoped, they will never be required to use them. I do not think I should say what the Scots normally dilute their water with.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, is it not true that the Russians have several more nuclear reactors of the same type? Unless we know more details and have more information we shall be continually frightened by the precedent of actual damage as opposed to the fear of potential damage which has happened on the other side of the Atlantic. It is essential for us to ask the Russians for the maximum amount of information and at the same time tell the Russians that we will do anything we can to help them out of a position dictated by pride. We need to help the Russians as much as we possibly can to stop such a ghastly incident happening again. With publicity and with open government this becomes more possible. That is what happens in America but it does not happen in Russia.

Lord Elton

My Lords, help from this country is, of course, freely available to the Soviet Union if it wants it for this purpose. Beyond that I think I should only say that this incident has brought to all of us, in a very real sense, the fact that we now live in a community of nations on a very small planet on which the conduct of each affects all.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, may I revert to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, about the Sizewell Inquiry? I do so particularly in relation to the unusually complacent attitude taken by the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury. Can the Minister confirm that the Sizewell Inquiry is due to report in September: but would it not be right, and can we not have the assurance, that the inspector will now be asked to take into account what happened at Chernobyl? We must particularly bear in mind that the Sizewell reactor, although not of an identical or even, perhaps, similar type, is nevertheless a lightwater reactor as opposed to a gas-cooled reactor. That is an important point and I hope the noble Lord will take it on board.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am also always careful to take on board anything that is said to me at this Dispatch Box in discussion of a Statement in another place. As to the technology of the proposed plant at Sizewell, I think I can safely assure the noble Lord opposite that the plant will not suffer from the same design weaknesses as those we believe to have affected the plant in Russia—but, of course, I do not know the design of that plant, only that it was unshielded. That is a mistake which I do not think we shall make. The inquiry is due to conclude by the end of the year, and we intend to publish its findings in due course.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister can tell us how the level of radiation in this country following this accident compares with the level of radiation during the time of the air testing of nuclear weapons.

Lord Elton

Not without notice, my Lords, but I shall be very happy to find out and put my answer in the Library in the form of a letter to the noble Lord.

Viscount Massereene and Ferrard

My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister can tell us, following a disaster similar to the one that has occurred in the Ukraine, how long such a nuclear cloud may drift around before dispersing. Does he have any information on how it is affected by temperature or rain? Do we have any information on that? Presumably it will have to disperse some time. Does the Minister know?

Lord Elton

My Lords, the cloud is weakened by dispersal as it travels within the pattern of the air stream, which can be monitored by the meteorological services. It is weakened by fall-out of the particles from it and by the radiological decay of those particles whether or not they have fallen.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, can the noble Lord the Minister give us any indication as to whether there is any continuing emission from the derelict power station, in which case we could have further incidents of this sort?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I have no first-hand evidence of what is going on at present in Russia. I do not doubt that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is pursuing that matter with the Russians at this moment.

Lord Stodart of Leaston

My Lords, with regard to the water in the far north of Scotland that people are supposed not to drink, even when laced with the famous medicament with which they usually lace it, can my noble friend say how quickly monitoring of water is carried out in that area? Does it take some time, or is there a monitoring station fairly near?

Lord Elton

My Lords, the monitoring takes place at least every 24 hours.