HL Deb 22 July 1993 vol 548 cc789-91

3.10 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress is being made in the making of an accurate inventory of the civil and military nuclear establishments and stockpiles in the former Soviet Union, and whether they will postpone commissioning the thermal oxide reprocessing plant at Sellafield until the extent and condition of the existing world surplus of plutonium and uranium is known.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Baroness Denton of Wakefield)

My Lords, the making of inventories of nuclear material in the former Soviet Union is a matter for the competent authorities in that region.

On the question of the thermal oxide reprocessing plant at Sellafield, it is a policy of Her Majesty's Government, supported by a resolution in another place, to support the commissioning of the plant at the earliest practicable date, subject to receipt by British Nuclear Fuels plc of such consents as are required by law.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that, unusually, the Economist recently devoted a leading article to the problem. It pointed out that an atomic bomb can be built with a few kilograms of plutonium and that there are believed to be some hundreds of tonnes of plutonium in existence, half of which is thought to be in the Soviet Union. It is also believed that there are people within the Soviet Union who seek to commercialise the plutonium. They are ready to sell it to anyone who will buy. In the opinion of the Economist, as the noble Baroness may be aware, that constitutes peril beyond the peril which we suffered under the two superpowers. In those circumstances, is it not true that the world needs further plutonium like it needs a hole in the head?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, the noble Lord usually takes his sources from the media. As a nuclear weapon state, the former Soviet Union has a voluntary offer arrangement with the International Atomic Energy Agency. That is progressively being replaced by agreements specific to each republic. Western countries are working closely with them. Wherever possible we investigate reports that we receive on illegal trade in nuclear materials and get in contact with the relevant authorities.

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, is it not a fact that the problem at Sellafield has been examined exhaustively over a long period of time, with an inquiry of great length considering all the pros and cons of that development? Postponement of commissioning the plant is leading steadily to the loss of 1,700 jobs in an area of high unemployment and, equally, of large orders for this country. Since everything has been inquired into, the sooner that the Secretary of State can give his permission for the commissioning of THORP, the better for this country, and for employment. We shall gain from money spent and from the orders which will be received. I hope that that will be borne in mind.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for putting so well the situation in regard to the achievements reached by an industry of which other countries would be proud.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I fully agree with what the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, stated? However, he understates the effect on unemployment. The figures that I have been given in a responsible brief indicate that 2,300 jobs have been lost and that there will be a delay over another 1,000 jobs. Those jobs could be absorbed quickly if the project receives the full go-ahead.

Is it not the case that the second part of the noble Lord's Question does not deal with the reality? Orders worth £9 billion already exist to reprocess existing stocks of uranium. When referring to unemployment, would it not be better to add encouragement to an expanding industry instead of seeking to put a moratorium on it and stopping that industry from providing new employment?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. He rightly points out that we should be considering the new shape of British industry. In the North West that is particularly appropriate. THORP will support some 3,000 jobs.

Viscount Mersey

My Lords, is it not the case that we have some 18,000 tonnes of degraded nuclear material stored at Sellafield under water which we cannot now dry store? What on earth can we do with that material if we do not reprocess it at THORP?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, indeed there is a need to have reprocessing. Perhaps I may point out to noble Lords that reprocessing does not create plutonium. Plutonium has to be managed whether or not the spent fuel is reprocessed.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, the Minister has told the House that Western nations are working closely with the former republics of the Soviet Union in that area. Will she indicate what progress has been made by the republics in their efforts to concentrate and decommission the nuclear arsenal of the former Soviet Union? Will she also confirm that the UK Government have delivered the transporters that they promised last year to help in that process?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, much of what the noble Baroness requests by way of information is a matter for the authorities in Russia and the other countries of the former Soviet Union. Britain is providing assistance to Russia and other republics in the field of nuclear material. I do not know the position on transporters and I shall write to the noble Baroness.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the Baroness aware that we are on the verge of plutonium getting into the hands of terrorists? The noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, states that in 50 years the world will come to an end. Is the noble Baroness aware that if plutonium gets into the hands of terrorists it will be much sooner? In those circumstances, ought the noble Baroness to take very seriously the problem that we face in producing tonnes of plutonium in this country? We could produce tonnes of dangerous drugs if we wished; that could create a great deal of employment. However, there are some items which ought not to be manufactured. On further reflection, does she not agree that plutonium is among them?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I draw the attention of the noble Lord to his original Question. I again point out that reprocessing does not create plutonium. What matters is that we have stringent and secure storage of those materials.