HL Deb 05 February 1996 vol 569 cc1-3

Lord Jenkins of Putney asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have received reports of breaches of safety rules at the THORP reprocessing plant at Sellafield (Observer 21st January 1996), whether stipendiary magistrate Gillespie has said that "many serious errors …must be attributed to more than mere negligence" and whether they are instituting a public inquiry.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Fraser of Carmyllie)

My Lords, the report in the Observer is misleading. The Health and Safety Executive's Nuclear Installations Inspectorate has confirmed that there were no reportable breaches of the site licence conditions at the THORP reprocessing plant at Sellafield. I have placed a copy of the magistrate's full judgment in the Library of the House. The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate will not allow nuclear plants to operate if it has doubts about their safety. There is no need for a public inquiry.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for that reassuring Answer. Is he aware that there is some concern that those assurances may not be entirely justified? Is it not desirable to have an examination of the situation? I must tell the noble and learned Lord that I have not read the document that has been placed in the Library and perhaps I should reserve any further questions until I have done so.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, in some respects I am not surprised that the noble Lord has expressed some concern. The report in the Observer says that documents released to Greenpeace reveal that there was an incident in which a 120-tonne flask of nuclear fuel from Germany was damaged during unloading and that that was not recorded in the plant's accident log. In addition, it claimed that safety checks on the flask, including radiation and monitoring to ensure that there was no dangerous leakage, were bypassed.

I would have gained a clear impression from that statement that the flask was full; in fact, it was empty at the time. The damage that occurred was to one of the rings on the flask and that flask was one that was not used and not to be used at Sellafield. If the noble Lord reads the judgment of the stipendiary magistrate he will see that he reports specifically that the flask was devoid of nuclear matter at the time. Security checks were carried out. I can only conclude that part of Greenpeace's mission is to mislead.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, is the Minister aware that of course we do not condone any safety breaches at the Sellafield plant, but neither do we condone the dangerous practices of Greenpeace activists who were chaining themselves to a railway track to prevent the movement of materials there? To put matters into proper perspective, will the Minister tell the House for how long the Sellafield plant has been operating and how many people have been killed through accidents there?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I cannot tell the noble Lord exactly how long, but the plant has been operating for a considerable period of time and has a very good safety record. It is completely open about any small incidents that might occur. If anyone has any concerns, the very skilled Nuclear Installations Inspectorate is called in. I wish to emphasise that on this occasion there was no question of a cover-up. The inspectorate concluded and, indeed, confirmed that there was no reportable breach of the site licence conditions on that day.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, can the Minister explain the reason for the very serious remarks attributed to the stipendiary magistrate? He said: Many serious errors…must be attributed to more than mere negligence".

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, the noble Lord indicated that he will read the judgment and I certainly recommend that he does so. It is long and elaborate. The points which the magistrate made, which are used in direct quotations in that article, relate to some written documents—what is called a quality plan. As British Nuclear Fuels has subsequently explained, that plan does not require Health and Safety Executive approval. However, I urge the noble Lord to read the context within which the stipendiary magistrate made his remarks.

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will know that the Government of the Republic of Ireland have expressed their concerns about the adequacy of the safety regulations at this plant. Will the Minister confirm whether the Government of the Republic of Ireland are still pursuing those concerns or whether they are satisfied about them?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I understand that a civil case is being brought in the Irish courts by four residents of Dundalk in relation to the operations at Sellafield. The outcome of an appeal by BNFL is awaited on whether the Irish courts have jurisdiction to hear the case. In view of the fact that the outcome of an appeal is pending, it would be inappropriate for me to offer any further comment.

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