HL Deb 21 May 1998 vol 589 cc1761-4

11.25 a.m.

Lord Selkirk of Douglas

asked Her Majesty's Government:

When work will start on (a) the enriched uranium and (b) the irradiated material sent from Georgia to Dounreay.

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

My Lords, the 4.1 kg of unirradiated highly enriched uranium will be processed into targets for production of medical isotopes once the Health and Safety Executive and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency have completed a review of the management of safety at Dounreay and are satisfied that processing activities in the fuel cycle area can be carried out safely. The 600 grams of irradiated uranium is now in safe storage at Dounreay. It will not be reprocessed before the HSE is satisfied with the safety of the reprocessing line. The quantities of highly enriched uranium are slightly smaller than announced immediately after the arrival of the material because those figures were for the total Uranium 235 in the consignment.

Lord Selkirk of Douglas

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that helpful Answer. Can he reassure the House that when it comes to future reprocessing proposals, an environmental impact assessment will be made first in the best interests of health, safety and the environment?

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, safety is absolutely key in these matters. There are requirements in relation to the environment and adherence to the regulatory process. I do not think that a specific environmental impact assessment is required in the circumstances, but I shall look further into the matter and write to the noble Lord.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, perhaps I may précis the Minister's Answer by saying that the Government do not have a clue about when the material might be reprocessed. Is it not a fact that the irradiated material cannot be reprocessed because Dounreay does not have a certificate allowing it to reprocess, and that the non-irradiated material cannot now be reprocessed because Dounreay's certificates have been withdrawn and the whole fuel cycle area has been shut down? Is it not a fact that without some years passing and many millions of pounds being spent, neither of the materials can be reprocessed? Does not that call into doubt the Prime Minister's assurance that Dounreay was the safest place to take Georgian nuclear material?

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, the noble Lord is uncharacteristically going overboard a little. He knows that I have quite a high regard for his abilities, including now his ability to go overboard. Although I appreciate the noble Lord offering to help by précising my Answer, I thought that I had done that when I approved it.

It will not necessarily take years. As the noble Lord is well aware, this matter is under careful investigation by independent and responsible authorities. I cannot say when the work will be able to go ahead; it will be only when safe to do so and only when the necessary compliance has been given by the organisations concerned. That is the responsible approach. I do not know why the noble Lord draws the conclusion that it will take years. He does not have a vestige of evidence to support that proposition. It will be done as soon as possible, but the most important element is safety. As to the noble Lord's assertion about the Prime Minister, there was no reason to suppose at the material time that there was a problem about safety.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, I lived in Caithness when the nuclear station was built. Can the Minister inform the House whether there is a cluster of leukaemia cases in that area? Given that this more powerful uranium has been sent there, what is the risk of seepage into the sea and contamination of water and fish?

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, the point that the noble Baroness raises goes very much wider than the Question tabled. I am not aware that there is any danger of leukaemia. However, because this falls outside the scope of the Question I shall look into the matter and write to the noble Baroness.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, can the Minister assist as to the length of time that the environmental audit may take? The Minister will be aware that similar problems have arisen at Sellafield which is very professionally run and where safety is paramount. Will this environmental audit or checking of both highly irradiated and normally irradiated material be out of the ordinary? Will it take years or can one expect some good news before the millennium?

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, it is not just an environmental audit but an investigation that is being reliably and authoritatively undertaken. The essential requirement is not speed but thoroughness. To return to the conclusion drawn by the noble Lord who spoke from the Front Bench, there is no reason to suppose that this matter will take years. The noble Lord will understand that what is important here is that it should be done thoroughly. I am sure that no one in this House expects anything else.

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, referring to the Minister's earlier response to my noble friend Lord Selkirk, will the normal rules concerning return to sender of irradiated material be enforced in this instance?

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, not in this instance because the amount involved was very small indeed. It would not be appropriate to return it to its source because it has no means of dealing with the matter. It would have been completely irrelevant had we insisted on it in this case.

The Earl of Strafford

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that it is much safer for this material to be kept in this country where it is under control than to leave it in Georgia where it can easily fall into the wrong hands?

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, there is substance in that point. At the heart of the matter is the question of taking action in the context of non-proliferation. I believe that by undertaking this particular contract this country also did the right thing in that respect. I believe that that is a very important point to underline, and I am grateful to the noble Earl.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the importance to the local economy of Dounreay? Can he assure the House that while this investigation is going on there will be no dismissals or suspension of workers at Dounreay?

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, that is not a matter for the Government. No doubt the authority will note from its diligent reading of Hansard the point made by the noble Lord. As far as I am aware, the local community has not expressed deep concern about the matter. In the past Dounreay has been very diligent in ensuring that the local community is aware of what goes on.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, I begin by declaring an interest in that the cousin of my wife is dying of cancer having been a nuclear engineer at Dounreay. Can my noble friend inform the House who will pay for the storage and reprocessing of the material from Georgia?

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, that is a matter for the contracting parties. I am sure that all noble Lords are sorry to hear the information that my noble friend has disclosed. I am sure that he does not wish to imply that there is any necessary connection between what goes on at Dounreay and the unfortunate condition that afflicts his relative.

Lord Selkirk of Douglas

My Lords, the Minister has said that he will write to me on the specific point that I raised. Will the Minister bear in mind that other countries carry out environmental impact assessments to the highest standards before they make key decisions of great importance?

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, in one of my earlier answers I referred to the need for compliance with three essential criteria: safety, environmental requirements and regulatory requirements in another respect. I am grateful to the noble Lord.

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