HL Deb 17 November 1997 vol 583 cc357-60

2.49 p.m.

Lord Sudeley asked Her Majesty's Government:

What diplomatic initiatives they will make and what financial assistance they will give to aid the dismantling of decommissioned Russian nuclear submarines which pose a threat to the environment.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the United Kingdom, other western governments and international bodies such as the International Atomic Energy Agency are working with the Russian Government to identify safe and practical means of decommissioning their nuclear submarines. That involves the managing and disposal of the spent fuel and radioactive waste from them. The UK contributes through European Union co-operation programmes, study contracts and programmes run by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Lord Sudeley

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. However, can he say, first, what endorsement the Government might give to any proposal to purchase floating dry docks from the Ukraine for the dismantling of the decommissioned Russian submarines? Secondly, can he say whether the Government might give any direct financial assistance to any Norwegian proposal to remove spent fuel from the Russian submarines and transport it to land? Thirdly, can the Minister tell the House what endorsement the Government might give to the proposal of Nirex to set up a regional radioactive waste committee to develop a common waste policy in north west Russia, where most of the submarines are situated?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, on the first question, I can tell the noble Lord that there is no immediate proposal to purchase from the Ukraine. On the second question, I can say that we are co-operating, together with various other countries, including the other western countries. Norway is providing technology and funds. The United States is providing ship-breaking equipment and also upgrading the low level radioactive waste facility which the Russians have at Murmansk. Japan, France and the EU are also co-operating. This is international co-operative action to help the Russians with this very difficult situation. So far as concerns Nirex, I am not aware of a direct involvement in that respect. Again, there is international co-operation on both the land-based nuclear waste in north west Russia and the additional naval-originated nuclear waste in the Arctic seas.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, although we are all glad to know that the Government are helping the Russians in their endeavours to get over the problem of nuclear waste in the Baltic, is it not the case that this country is continuously, by the process of reprocessing nuclear weapons, adding daily to the amount of nuclear waste?

Lord Whitty

No, my Lords; the British nuclear fleet has never dumped nuclear waste or dumped a nuclear submarine in the oceans. The problem with the Russian fleet is that that was the normal means of disposing of Russian nuclear waste for many years up until 1993. In addition, to enable the Russians to fulfil their commitments on disarmament, the decommissioning process now needs some additional technical help.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, in reply to a Question tabled by me in May of last year, my noble friend Lady Chalker stated that, although the Russians have not asked for any international co-operation, British experts were already then carrying out a feasibility study. Can the Minister say whether there have been any significant developments on that study? Further, is the deterioration of the rusting hulls increasingly becoming a dangerous factor?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I believe that the study to which the noble Lord referred was that carried out by the National Nuclear Corporation on the radiological consequences of dumping. That is feeding into the way in which the Russians are dealing with the matter, together with international co-operation. We have also contributed to the study by the International Atomic Energy Authority into such problems.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, will the Minister join me in congratulating the Norwegian Bellona Foundation and former Soviet naval captain Aleksandr Nikitin on publishing the report on the Russian north sea fleet which drew attention to the unsafe methods of disposal and storage being used in the Russian north? Will the Government make representations to the Russian authorities that the prosecution against Aleksandr Nikitin be dropped, bearing in mind the great service that he has rendered to the international community in exposing such risks?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the matter has been raised with the Russians. However, I am not in a position to report on any response.

Viscount Long

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House how many submarines are in this state and have to be looked after or dismantled?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, there are about 90 submarines which have already been decommissioned, not all of which have had their fuel dealt with effectively. We anticipate that at least another 30 will require decommissioning over the next few years.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, the noble Lord's Question and, indeed, his supplementary question specifically asked about financial assistance. I must apologise to my noble friend the Minister if I misunderstood his reply. However, I would be glad if that could be clarified. Do we or do we not provide financial assistance?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, we provide technical assistance and we also provide financial assistance via the European Union's TACIS programme, which is directed at clearing nuclear waste. The total TACIS programme involves about £78 million, of which the UK's contribution is about 13 per cent.

Lord Whaddon

My Lords, will my noble friend the Minister bear in mind the reported dumps of highly toxic substances and unused weapons in the Baltic, quite apart from nuclear weapons? Further, will my noble friend ensure that British aid is extended to the neutralising of those dumps?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the Baltic Council and the Baltic states are very much pre-occupied with the matter. If there is British technological assistance which can help the Scandinavian countries, we shall certainly stand by to provide it.

Baroness Rawlings

My Lords, what is the Government's response to the description by the Bellona Foundation—the Norwegian environmental pressure group mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury—of the situation in the Kola Peninsula as, "Chernobyl in slow motion"?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the main problem in the Kola Peninsula is land-based nuclear waste rather than naval nuclear waste. There is a very serious problem involved, for which the European Union and other western countries are providing assistance. However, the full scope of the report requires further study. It is clear that there is a very substantial environmental problem in the area.