HL Deb 09 April 1998 vol 588 cc852-4

11.23 a.m.

Lord Hardy of Wath asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action is being taken to deal with the continuing problems and risks associated with the Chernobyl nuclear site; and whether they consider that these matters are being given sufficiently urgent attention.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, the safety of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, including the sarcophagus covering the destroyed Reactor Unit 4, is the responsibility of the Government of Ukraine. Nevertheless, there is broad international consensus that urgent action is needed to deal with the deterioration of the current structure of the sarcophagus. To this end, a shelter implementation plan was finalised in May last year between Ukraine and the G7 countries. The aim of the plan is to stabilise the current shelter, remove the danger of any further explosion and, finally, construct a temporary confinement to facilitate the removal of the destroyed reactor's most unstable parts. Implementation of the plan has already started, and efforts to ensure sufficient funding for its completion are under way.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for that reply. I visited Chernobyl after that agreement had been made and saw very little evidence of progress. Therefore, will Her Majesty's Government ensure that adequate and urgent attention is paid to the site, to the disintegrating sarcophagus which shrouds so much horror, to the quality of the rivers in the region and to the operation of the neighbouring reactor? These things certainly require attention on behalf of the whole of Europe, if not much more widely.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government agree that it is an extremely important and urgent issue. So far, the UK contribution to the SIP bilaterally, and through the EU, amounts to some £30 million US dollars. In addition, we have allocated over £6 million from the Know-how Fund towards the energy sector reform measures which are needed in the Ukraine. We have also contributed over £18 million to the international nuclear safety account, of which £10 million has been earmarked for the Chernobyl-related projects. Her Majesty's Government are taking this most seriously. Officials from the nuclear industry's directorate of the DTI currently hold the chair of the G7 nuclear safety working group and will do so to the end of this year. So the United Kingdom is in the lead on the issue.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, Chernobyl was one of many similar systems. Therefore, can the Minister say whether these have been made safe, whether they are still working or whether they are being phased out?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, it is true that there are still plants which fail to meet the recognised international safety standards. Much work has been done through the nuclear safety account to improve the safety of most of these dangerous reactors. However, we are also looking at the feasibility of closing them down and phasing them out.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, is the Minister aware that 475 nuclear devices were tested over a 40-year period at Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan, leaving acute radiation after-effects together with a real development problem? Therefore, will the noble Baroness kindly undertake to seek advice from those most affected, through, possibly, our ambassador in Almaty, to determine how this country can assist beyond just being a signatory to the UN resolution? I have little doubt that bilaterals would be enhanced.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am very happy to take what advice I can on the issue. However, it is worth pointing out to the noble Viscount that we are not just signing agreements. The UK Government have backed that up in a very real sense with the financial contribution made not only over Chernobyl—namely, the £30 million to which I referred earlier—but also the £6 million which I mentioned in relation to the Know-how Fund and the £18 million to the international nuclear safety account. I believe that we are backing up our words on paper with actions.