HL Deb 08 June 1998 vol 590 cc720-9

4.47 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Clinton-Davis)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer to a Private Notice Question which is being asked in another place on the Dounreay nuclear processing plant.

"Dounreay has played a significant role in the development of the nuclear industry in the United Kingdom. The experimental fast reactor at Dounreay, built in the 1950s, was followed by the prototype fast reactor. Both aimed to show that fast reactor technology could be harnessed to generate electricity on a commercial scale. Last Friday, I informed the House, in response to a Question from my honourable friend the Member for Kirkcaldy, that the Government had accepted advice from the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority Board that Dounreay should accept no new contracts for commercial reprocessing work. This decision will allow the UKAEA to refocus on the management of existing liabilities, by far the majority of which have arisen from the UKAEA' s own government-funded nuclear reactor development programme on the Dounreay site. I must stress that these liabilities already exist and so must be dealt with. No amount of wishful thinking will make them simply go away. Subject to obtaining the necessary consents from the independent regulators—the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency—I expect the UKAEA to continue to reprocess the existing spent fuel liabilities, the majority of which have come from the reactors which actually operated at Dounreay. It will also reprocess material from existing committed legally binding commercial contracts and the small amount of material from Georgia. I have been advised by UKAEA that it expects to have completed all of this reprocessing work by 2006. After that the work of decommissioning the reprocessor will take place.

"Perhaps I can remind the House that the Dounreay site was set up to undertake work on the development of fast breeder reactor technology. Although its work on this programme was a technical success, it was decided to stop funding in 1988 when it became clear that there was no prospect of the technology fully living up to its economic potential. The development programme finally stopped in 1994 when the last reactor was switched off. Dounreay produces no electricity. Consequently, the focus of activity at the site has shifted inevitably to decommissioning those reactors and Dounreay's main mission has been to complete decommissioning of the facilities on the site. The concern now is to ensure that we pass on to future generations a safe environment.

"We are deeply committed to caring for the environment and to taking action to deal safely with the difficult legacy from past operations at Dounreay. We want the focus now to be on decommissioning the plant and securing the site at Dounreay. Subject to satisfying the strict safety and environmental requirements of the independent industry regulators, commercial reprocessing was accepted as a way of offsetting some of the costs of decommissioning and waste management at Dounreay. As the UKAE has itself recently concluded, as a result of surveying the international market, further commercial reprocessing would not be economic. Giving up this sort of work is the next step in achieving its main goal, which is refocusing the site to ensure safe and cost-effective clean-up.

"I know that the right honourable Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross shares my concern about the impact this decision will have on jobs at Dounreay. I have been assured by Dounreay's operators, the UKAE, that it does not expect to see any significant short-term loss of jobs, as the staff currently working on reprocessing will be redeployed on other nuclear decommissioning and radioactive waste management work.

"In March I announced the Government's decision to retrieve the waste from the Dounreay shaft, which will provide work for several decades. Completing the clean-up of the site will take over 100 years. The process of decommissioning will become the business of Dounreay."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.51 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, for repeating an important Statement on an issue which has been before this House and the other place and which has featured in the media for a number of weeks.

I wholeheartedly agree with the introductory sentence that Dounreay has played a significant role in the development of the nuclear industry in the United Kingdom. Undoubtedly it has and undoubtedly, if the fast breeder reactor system had proved to be economically viable, the work done at Dounreay would have given this country a leading world role in relation to fast breeder reactors; but it was not to be.

Does the noble Lord agree that the nuclear industry in general has proved to be a very important part of the Scottish economy? In terms of jobs, there are some 4,000 in Scotland in the nuclear industry, and a very large amount of electricity is produced for Scottish consumers. The noble Lord can perhaps remind me; I cannot remember whether it is 40 per cent. or 60 per cent. It is, however, significant. That electricity is produced safely and efficiently at Hunterston and Torness, with a little produced still at Chapelcross.

Those of us who supported the nuclear industry have occasionally had our problems in giving that support. One problem has been a distinct muddle and occasional lack of openness in the industry itself. That has not helped those of us who have been prepared to defend the industry, and perhaps particularly so at Dounreay. A second problem has often been the campaigning, at the taxpayers' expense, of nuclear-free committees in almost every Labour local authority. If the Minister wants me to believe that he is a supporter of nuclear energy I hope he will do something about his own party's ambivalent attitude in that regard.

Is the noble Lord aware that I welcome the assurances in the Statement about the jobs on the site? I fully appreciate that the decommissioning will take some time and that a lot of jobs will be involved over that time. Can he give any assurance that the skills obtained in this decommissioning will be used world-wide, putting us in a position where we can help other countries, commercially, of course, to decommission their plants?

The noble Lord will need no reminding of the exchange that took place between us on 21st May this year. I wonder if he regrets accusing me of going overboard on some of the assertions I made? When the noble Lord answered me that day, did he know that the Atomic Energy Authority had already decided to end commercial reprocessing at Dounreay? If he did not know, why did he not know? Even more recently, when the Prime Minister answered a Question last Wednesday in the other place with a robust defence of Dounreay and a vigorous attack on Mr. Alex Salmond—not normally my favourite person—did the Prime Minister know that the Atomic Energy Authority had decided that Dounreay was not a safe place for any more commercial reprocessing? If he did not know, why did he not know?

May I now have an answer to the questions I asked on 21st May? I see in the Statement that it is hoped that the reprocessing of the material on site will be completed by 2006. I therefore presume people will know the answers to my questions. When does the noble Lord think Dounreay will regain its reprocessing permissions for both irradiated and non-irradiated materials? How much will it cost? Will it be months or will it be years? Will it be more or less than £200 million, for example? There must be some idea of the timescale and the costs, if an assurance can be given in the Statement that the job will be completed in 2006. I really do wonder if the noble Lord and his right honourable friend the Prime Minister might like to reconsider the ringing statement they made that Dounreay was the safest place on earth to take the Georgian nuclear material?

4.55 p.m.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, for repeating the Statement on this important issue. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, paid tribute to all those who worked at Dounreay on the development of the fast-breeder reactor. I had the opportunity of visiting the site some years ago and was most impressed with the technology.

Although we have given up any further development in that area, can the noble Lord advise us what other countries are doing'? I believe that the French and the Japanese are continuing with their fast-breeder programmes. Or is this whole process being given up world-wide? If it is to be continued elsewhere, no doubt the skills that we have obtained could be put to good use.

On the question of reprocessing on the limited basis now anticipated, I pose a similar question to that asked by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, on the cost of improving the reprocessing plant in order to obtain the necessary approvals. The impression given is that commercial reprocessing has been given up because of the uncertainty of the market and also the cost of bringing the reprocessing plant up to a satisfactory standard. However, would this not have to be done anyway in order to reprocess the remaining material that has to be handled there? If so, would the Government he reconsidering commercial reprocessing?

It is clear from the Government's Statement that there will be a large number involved in continuing employment on the site. The reprocessing will take until the year 2006 and many decades beyond that for decommissioning. Would it not be desirable, however, for the Government also to be contemplating some other high technology operations in the area in order to offer alternative jobs to those who might have to leave or wish to leave so that the great skill accumulated at Dounreay shall not be lost?

4.58 p.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for the questions they have posed. I want particularly to thank the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, for supporting the first sentence of the Statement, which is most generous of him. Of course he is right in saying that the nuclear industry has played an important part in the Scottish economy. I cannot give him the exact breakdown in terms of percentages for which he asked. On the question of criticism of the industry, he will know more about that than I because the last government were dealing with that industry for 18 years. He says that there was muddle and lack of openness in the industry. I think there was a lack of openness in the last government's activities vis-à-vis that industry. One of our criticisms, and, I think, a justifiable criticism, is that the idea of transparency was not upheld. That, as he rightly says, has blighted the industry. I believe that the last government were complicit in that.

As to using the skills which may be accumulated in terms of decommissioning on a more general and world-wide scale, a point taken up also by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, I agree entirely that that seems a proposition which needs to be investigated carefully. If those skills can be utilised in that way, so much the better. Certainly, decommissioning is not a matter that simply affects this country.

The noble Lord asks whether I regret saying that he had gone overboard. Not a bit of it. It is such an uncharacteristic function of the noble Lord that it has remained embedded in my mind. There is no call for an apology on my part because we were talking about something rather different from that which we are discussing today.

The noble Lord was significantly more emollient in his questions today. He asked when Dounreay will regain the necessary permissions. I dealt with that on the last occasion and I have nothing to add. I cannot put a term on it. The noble Lord was then suggesting that it was years and years away. We have had an opportunity to look more closely into the situation. It may be as long as two years but I do not wish to provide a categoric answer because one does not know what will be the outcome of those investigations.

The noble Lord asks how much it will cost. At this stage, I cannot indicate that. I shall look further into the matter. It is not an issue with which I am as familiar as I should like to be, or as I am with all the other matters which fall within my immediate remit.

The noble Lord asks whether we were aware of the economic decision leading to the action we have taken. That was announced at the end of last week. It was not a matter of which the Prime Minister, my honourable friend John Battle or I were aware. It is an economic decision and not a matter of safety. That was made very clear during the questioning which arose on the last occasion.

I have not been able to give an assessment of the costs involved but I should add that the Government are committed to providing funds to bring Dounreay up to standard in order to allow the discharge of all existing liabilities. Contrary to what was asserted by the noble Lord, the Government stated that the Georgian material would be stored safely at Dounreay. The press said that Dounreay was the safest place in the world for nuclear material. Nothing was said to that effect by the Prime Minister or any other Minister. It is important to recognise the responsibilities that we have for ensuring that non-proliferation, safety and all the other issues which I mentioned on that occasion are adhered to.

The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, asked what other countries are doing. In other words, he asked whether they are facing similar problems. I am not sure whether it is an entire parallel but my recollection is that the French Government announced that the installation known as Super Phénix, quite close to the border with Switzerland, was being decommissioned. That was about six or seven months ago. However, I cannot provide any further information in response to that question.

I am sure that the point the noble Lord made about employment will be taken into account by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. As the noble Lord rightly said, there does not appear to be a risk of any significant unemployment arising over the course of the next several years until the year 2006. A great deal of work must be done in that regard. I thank the noble Lord for drawing attention to something which may be worrying for the local community. I hope that what I have said will give some reassurance.

5.5 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, listening to the quiet tones of this debate, is it not the case that one would hardly realise that an environmental disaster of enormous magnitude has taken place? Effort has been put into this project over the years and the ultimate result of that effort is that it will take 100 years to get rid of its consequences.

That is not only happening here; it is happening also in other parts of the world. I started with the view that while nuclear weapons were wholly undesirable, nuclear energy had possibilities. Is it not the case that voices more authoritative than mine are now saying that this is a dead end and that it is time it was brought to an end? Finally, will the Government spend even half the time and effort that has been spent on nuclear energy on wind and wave projects? They are more likely to be successful in spending money on that rather than encouraging further disasters of this sort.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, I recognise that my noble friend has deeply committed views on this issue. However, I do not go along with his suggestion that this is an environmental disaster of unprecedented magnitude. It is a state of affairs which must be dealt with. There is no point in wishing away the whole situation. The problem exists and must be dealt with. You cannot just throw the key into the sea and hope that the whole problem will disappear.

As regards other forms of energy, my noble friend will understand that we shall shortly be making a statement on the energy review. I hope that he will wait to hear what we must say about wind and wave in that context.

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, will the Minister accept that this is an occasion when great tribute should be paid to all those who have participated in the engineering feats of Dounreay over the past 40 years? The people of Caithness and the Highlands of Scotland accepted and welcomed Dounreay and put their trust in what it could achieve. It achieved a great deal. Those people have every right to hope that the Government will do all they can to alleviate the sorrow and tragedy of such a wonderful venture having to come to an end.

Will the Minister agree that it is a simple fact, proved over the years, that generation by nuclear power has been an enormous success? It now accounts for a very high percentage of generation in this country, particularly in Scotland. However successful alternative sources of energy may be, it will be a long time before they can come anywhere near producing the amount of electricity which nuclear energy is presently affording us.

Finally, will the Minister do everything possible to try to ensure that, after the year 2006, alternative arrangements are made to keep in the Highlands the high-tech personnel who have made their homes there? That is essential for them, as they are now in the middle of their careers and it may not be too easy for them to move. It is also important that such talents should be kept in an area such as the Highlands of Scotland.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, I shall deal, first, with the noble Lord's last question. Only last Wednesday AEA Technology announced the construction of a lithium battery plant which will involve some 300 employees. That is good news. As I indicated, I do not believe that there is a serious problem of unemployment looming in the near future. Should that forecast be incorrect, I know that my right honourable friend would certainly turn his attention swiftly to it. However, I do not want to get into a position where people become over anxious about a situation which is unlikely to arise.

The noble Lord is right to talk about the engineering feats over the past 40 years and the contribution made. However, that lies somewhat uneasily with what his noble friend Lord Mackay said about the lack of openness with which the previous government were faced. Of course, mistakes have been made, but that does not adversely affect the contribution made by loyal employees operating with great skill and ability. It is right that I should pay that tribute to those concerned from this Dispatch Box.

Lord Howie of Troon

My Lords, did my noble friend the Minister notice the uncharacteristic red herring which the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, introduced to the debate when referring to the material brought from Georgia? Will my noble friend confirm that the amount of material brought from Georgia is not much bigger than the water jug which his noble friend on the Front Bench has just picked up? Indeed, such an insignificant quantity is of no danger to anyone, unless one were to eat it.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, my noble friend is quite right; indeed, it is not even as big as the red herring mentioned by the noble Lord opposite.

Lord Selkirk of Douglas

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I met a group from Dounreay in Glasgow at the weekend? Is he also aware that the primary concern of those who work there is that there is an immense amount of expertise within Dounreay? It is very much hoped that the Minister can give an extremely positive assertion to the effect that the best use will be made of that expertise in the interests of the safety of the world's environment in the years to come.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, I have already given my assent to the proposition advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, which said the same thing but in rather different words.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, I am sure my noble friend the Minister will appreciate that the assurance that he has just given and that given to the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, are extremely welcome. Anyone who knows the area will be aware of what an exciting development Dounreay has been. It has transformed the whole social and cultural life in what would otherwise he a very remote and somewhat bleak area. Therefore, the assurances that my noble friend has given about there being no immediate job reductions should be emphasised.

Perhaps I may also point out to my noble friend the Minister that the Highlands and Islands Development Board exists in that part of the country with a specific remit to encourage new industry and diversify. Therefore, can my noble friend confirm that the HIDB will be fully consulted as regards any arrangements which are being made for diversification?

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, I am grateful for the support that my noble friend has given. I can give him an assurance that the HIDB will be fully consulted and involved in the decisions which are being taken.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford

My Lords, bearing in mind that the announcement of the closure of Dounreay was made towards the end of last week, perhaps my noble friend the Minister will give me the opportunity today to complete the historical picture of why Dounreay was there in the first place. Does my noble friend the Minister recall the movement called "Atoms for Peace", which was the forerunner to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament? The former campaign for peace was designed to harness atomic power for peaceful purposes to produce cheaper electricity for the benefit of the people. Is my noble friend aware that the "Atoms for Peace" campaign was particularly strong in Scotland because the Scottish people wanted to play a central role in the development of this new technology? Will my noble friend accept that it is only right and proper that we should place on the record of today's exchanges our tribute to those pioneers who gave the people of Scotland that opportunity, which they grasped with both hands?

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, my noble friend speaks with great authority on the matter and I accept the assertions that he makes. However, I take issue with him on one aspect; namely, the suggestion he made that there has been a decision to close Dounreay. That is not really accurate. We have not made a decision to shut Dounreay. Indeed, that assertion was made in the other place by the right honourable gentleman, the shadow Secretary of State. That would be impossible. Quite simply, there are many nuclear liabilities on the site which are the difficult legacy of its nuclear power development work. They must be managed responsibly. This Government are committed to providing the right amount of money to ensure that that happens. Therefore, I would make a slight variation to the conclusion drawn by my noble friend.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, as a footnote to what he has already said, will the Minister add the following point: the Highlands and Islands Development Board has been mentioned, but it ceased to exist a few years ago? Therefore, the body which ought to be referred to in this context is its successor; namely, Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, I am much obliged to the noble Lord for that information. Indeed, I gratefully receive it and plead total ignorance of the situation to which he alluded. As on many previous occasions, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his assistance. It is difficult to co-operate with and enjoin the support of an organisation which has ceased to exist.

Lord Desai

My Lords, not being a Scotsman. I shall not become involved in tributes concerning Dounreay. However, despite what my noble friend Lord Ewing said, does my noble friend the Minister agree that nuclear power has not proved to be economically viable; in other words, it has not met the market test? We must apply that test, apart from bearing in mind the other factors mentioned by my noble friend Lord Jenkins. Can the Government now publish an estimate of how much it has cost us in the search for cheaper power through nuclear energy, which was itself a novel idea? It would be most helpful if we could know the total cost involved to the nation. Indeed, we could learn from that and, when dealing with such technological miracles in the future—like biotechnology—we would know that going down that path is not always a solution to all problems.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, my noble friend has gone slightly too far. I am aware that he is not in fact Scottish; neither am I. As far as concerns the question regarding how much the whole enterprise of seeking to apply a nuclear power has cost, I suggest to my noble friend that he tables a Question in that respect. In that way, the whole House would benefit from such information rather than my writing to him, which would mean that only he and I would be privy to it. My noble friend is right to say that the market test is appropriate. However, I do not believe that I can add anything useful to what I have already said. I hope that my noble friend takes that piece of advice.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, on a point of clarification, I understood that the noble Lord said clearly that the material from Georgia—I accept that it is a small amount—would be stored at Dounreay. How does that fit with the Answer the Minister gave to a Starred Question on 21st May when he said that the, unirradiated highly enriched uranium will be processed into targets for production of medical isotopes"?—[Official Report, 21/5/98; col. 1761.] Either it goes into storage or it is to be processed, it cannot be both.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, it is going into storage for the immediate future. What happens to it after that will depend on receiving the appropriate sanctions from the various authorities concerned. I thought I had made that perfectly clear.