HL Deb 24 November 1994 vol 559 cc362-4

3.20 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they are taking in the light of reports from the International Atomic Agency and from Gosatomnadzor which suggest that the state of Russian civil and military nuclear establishments makes probable a nuclear accident in Europe on a much larger scale than Chernobyl.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am not aware that the International Atomic Agency has published any reports about the possibility of accidents which might be worse than Chernobyl. Responsibility for the safety of nuclear installations in Russia lies with the operators of the installations and with the Russian Government. It is for them to take appropriate action on any reports which are made by the Russian safety authority.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that, if necessary, I shall acquaint him with exactly what the International Atomic Agency said? From that he will see that the agency shares the anxiety which has been expressed in Russia that the situation there is getting out of hand.

Is the Minister aware that Mr. Eggar, the Minister responsible for energy in another place, has been quoted as saying that he understands the seriousness of the situation and he does not want another Chernobyl? It is all very well to understand the situation and not to want something to happen. But the real question is: what is he doing about it? The situation is urgent. Will the noble Earl tell us that the Government are not content to allow the situation to develop until it is too late but that they are taking an interest in a matter which is of concern to anyone in Europe, and possibly outside it?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, for saying that he will acquaint me with what the International Atomic Agency has said. I believe that he would do that by reading a newspaper and divulging to me what the newspaper said. I have been able to do that for myself.

Of course we are concerned. The noble Lord asks whether the Government will take an interest. I assure him that they do take an interest. However, this matter is the responsibility of Russia. A Western/Russian study into the safety of Chernobyl-type reactors in which 11 countries took part reported in June 1994. The study indicated that, while risks remain, safety improvements that have been carried out make it unlikely that there could be a repeat of Chernobyl. We are making substantial contributions via Europe and elsewhere to Russia to help it to overcome its difficulties.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, will my noble friend enlighten me as to what, who or where is Gosatomnadzor?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the word is a Russian word and I believe that it refers to the agency which looks after safety matters in Russia.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, will the noble Earl inform the House what funds have been made available by the West to do something about addressing the problems evident in the former Soviet Union's nuclear industry? Will he give us an estimate as to what percentage of that figure has actually been received?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the main effort to help Russia is being channelled through the European Union's technical assistance programme. The United Kingdom paid about 16 per cent. of the budget. Four hundred million ecu were committed for all Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, of which 173 million ecu were committed to Russia. The United Kingdom contributed 11.5 million ecu to the nuclear safety account and 700 million ecu were committed to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union through the international community, of which 227 million goes to Russia.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that there is nothing more exasperating than having to pay the bills caused by the negligence of somebody else? But, in some cases, one has to consider not who was responsible but who will suffer. We shall all suffer a catastrophe if that disaster does occur in the Soviet Union. Help is required from this Government and other governments of other countries in Europe.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I can quite understand the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, being concerned about that. But you cannot just walk into another country and put everything right. That is the responsibility of that other country. We are seeing a legacy of vast civil and military nuclear programmes, poor safety standards and a lack of concern for the environment. The only way in which improvements can be made is through international co-operation, in which, as I have tried to explain, the United Kingdom has played a significant part.

Lord Callaghan of Cardiff

My Lords, while no one will differ from the noble Earl's view that the responsibility is that of Russia, are not the consequences felt here? Are not some of the farmers in the Welsh hills still feeling the consequences of Chernobyl? Will the noble Earl please push the Government and all governments into ensuring that that disaster does not happen and that we assume as much responsibility as we properly can in order to ensure our own safety in the future?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, that a disaster has consequences outside Russia. He is perfectly right to refer to the consequences suffered by some people after the Chernobyl disaster. However, that Western/Russian study, which was made only a short while ago, indicated that, while risks remain, the safety improvements that have already been carried out make it unlikely that there will be a repeat performance. One can never say that it will not happen, but I assure the noble Lord that we are doing our best, both internationally and through the European Union, to ensure that it does not happen again.

The Lord Privy Seal (Viscount Cranborne)

My Lords, of course, as always, I am in your Lordships' hands but I am aware that there is a fourth Question and only five minutes in which to take it. It may be that your Lordships will feel that we should move on.