HL Deb 23 October 1997 vol 582 cc820-1

3.40 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether extremely radioactive material is transported by the RAF by air from Brize Norton to the United States and what steps have been taken to protect the public in the event of a crash occurring over land.

Lord Hoyle

My Lords, the Ministry of Defence does transport special nuclear materials by air to the United States under the provisions of the 1958 UK/US agreement for co-operation on the uses of atomic energy for mutual defence purposes. Special and stringent safety arrangements exist for the transportation of this material, and well-rehearsed contingency plans would be activated in the unlikely event of an accident over land.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Is it true that the material concerned is carried in containers able to withstand a crash of 30 feet at 30 miles per hour, whereas the aeroplanes fly at over 30,000 feet and at over 500 miles per hour? Is the Minister certain that the packaging and arrangements for transporting this material conform to realistic safety standards?

Lord Hoyle

My Lords, the material is carried in specialised containers. The noble Lord is right: the containers are designed and tested against accidental environments; they are tested against specifications laid down by the International Atomic Energy Authority.

The noble Lord asked whether I believe the containers are safe. Such flights have taken place for over 40 years. We have never had a transportation accident that has posed any radiation hazard to the public during the whole of that time. We maintain a nuclear accident response capability and forces who are prepared and well trained to respond to any defence nuclear accident.

They work with the local authorities concerned. In addition, exercises routinely take place. I assure the noble Lord that there is no complacency in relation to this matter.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that this particular flight is a small matter compared with the constant over-flying of highly dangerous radioactive material brought to the United Kingdom from many other countries for reprocessing purposes? I have discovered that there is a feeling that unnecessary over-flying of populated areas takes place. Will my noble friend look into the matter to see whether the fears that I have come across for many years are justified? Does he agree that if over-flying of populated areas by planes carrying dangerous cargoes can be avoided it should be avoided?

Lord Hoyle

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. Both in relation to the special nuclear materials I outlined and in relation to flights carrying nuclear waste for civil purposes, we stipulate the avoidance of population centres wherever possible. The stringent safety arrangements that I outlined for special nuclear materials apply equally to the loads to which my noble friend referred.