HL Deb 30 October 2001 vol 627 cc1294-6

2.52 p.m.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester asked Her Majesty's Government:

What representations they have received from the Government of Norway about the discharge of nuclear waste from the Sellafield plant, and the decision to start the commercial manufacturing of Mox.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, letters have been received from Norway's former Prime Minister and former Environment Minister. These refer to discharges of the radionuclide technetium-99 and to the recent decision that the manufacture of Mox fuel is justified. Margaret Beckett met the new Norwegian Environment Minister yesterday in Luxembourg.

So far as concerns technetium-99, my right honourable friends the Secretaries of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and for Health are currently considering the proposed decision of the Environment Agency. They will decide shortly whether to intervene or to let the proposed decision stand. As to Mox fuel, the two Secretaries of State recently published their reasons for concluding that it was justified.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Is he aware that traces of technetium-99 have been found along the whole of the Norwegian coast and, indeed, up as far as the Arctic Sea? According to yesterday's Aftenposten newspaper in Oslo, the level of radioactivity in Norwegian lobsters, had risen dramatically after emissions began spewing out of the Sellafield plant". Does the Minister appreciate that there is genuine concern in all the Nordic countries about emissions from Sellafield, and indeed in the Irish Republic about the decision to manufacture Mox? Will he take seriously, please, the threat by Mr Brende, the new environment Minister in Norway, to take the United Kingdom to court unless the emissions are reduced very dramatically and quickly?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, Norwegian Ministers have made it absolutely clear that they are concerned about this issue. The level of technetium-99 is relatively small and is well within the international prescribed levels under the Ospar Convention. Those levels have been reduced dramatically in recent years. The Environment Agency's proposal, to which I have referred, will reduce them dramatically again by, at the latest, 2006, well ahead of the timetable under the Ospar Convention, which will reduce them virtually to nil by 2020. So we are following our international obligations and any legal challenge would have to take that into account.

Lord Jenkin of Roding

My Lords, will Mrs Beckett point out to her Norwegian opposite number that discharges from Sellafield are now below one-hundredth of what they were at the time when the Norwegians had a legitimate ground for criticism of the radionuclides apparent on their coasts? Will she also point out to him that the very sensible decision to authorise the operation of the Mox plant will make absolutely no difference to the discharges from Sellafield? While obviously she will want to listen to their concerns, it is very important that she should point out the strength of the United Kingdom's case on this issue.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the noble Lord is right, the operation of the Mox plant will add less than 1 per cent to the total emissions of both technetium-99 and other radionuclides, which are at a very low level. I understand that my right honourable friend made these points to the Norwegian Minister. She also pointed out—as I have to point out to the House—that her decision in relation to the Environment Agency's report is a quasi-judicial one and therefore she cannot comment in great detail on her view of the Environment Agency's proposals to reduce those levels yet further.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that representations have been received over many years from the Government of Ireland? Can he say when the most recent one was received and what the Government are doing about it?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, we have received representations from the Government of the Republic of Ireland over a number of years in relation to the current operations of Sellafield, some of which concerned past levels of emissions that we regret. However, they have now been substantially reduced. The latest communication from the Irish Government relates to the decision on Mox. A proposed legal challenge to that decision was issued in detail during the past couple of weeks.

Lord Hoyle

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that the Environment Agency has stated that the operation of Mox will have a very negligible effect in this country and, therefore, it will be almost, if not totally, non-existent in Norway? Given that Cumbria has suffered from foot and mouth, which has affected both farming and tourism, does my noble friend agree that the creation of 350 new jobs at Mox and 1,500 indirect jobs, coupled with the 10,000 jobs already at Sellafield and the thousands of indirect jobs, will give a real boost to the economy in Cumbria?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I accept the importance of BNFL to the economy and employment in Cumbria. It is a vital part of that economy, particularly in the current circumstances. Now that BNFL appears to have its own internal monitoring and control in order and has greatly reduced the level of emissions, we should support its efforts and the decision to build the Mox plant.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, what representations have Her Majesty's Government received from the Government of Japan in relation to the recommencing of exports of Mox fuel? Where does that leave the legal challenge being mounted by Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace alleging that the Government have distorted the financial figures relating to Mox?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the claims of Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace—and, indeed, those of overseas governments—are the subject of legal proceedings. I cannot therefore comment with safety on the way in which the Government will receive them. As to the situation with Japan, we wish to resume the processing of Japanese fuel. This has been the subject of continuous correspondence with the Japanese authorities and we now appear to be reaching a successful conclusion. So any allegation, wherever it is made, that the Japanese are no longer interested has to be treated with some circumspection.