HC Deb 27 July 1998 vol 317 cc46-7W
Mr. McWilliam

To ask the President of the Board of Trade what assessment she has made of whether transfers of nuclear material from the UKAEA establishment at Dounreay can explain the historic material unaccounted for; and if she will make a statement. [51807]

Mrs. Beckett

In this context, the term "material unaccounted for" (MUF) refers to the difference between a theoretical book inventory and an inventory based on actual physical measurement. Experience shows that one of the main causes of any such difference is the error inherent in measurement, which is unavoidable. The existence of such a difference, whether negative or positive, is not evidence of an actual loss or gain of nuclear material. It is therefore wrong to suggest that the figure for MUF quoted in the UKAEA's document "The Dounreay Shaft Inventory" must correspond to an amount of material that is actually physically missing.

As previously announced, I have asked the DTI's Safeguards Office (which is responsible for ensuring that the UK complies with its international safeguards obligations) to study the nuclear material accountancy issues raised by the UKAEA document. We shall of course make public the conclusions of that study. It is already clear however what some of the physical causes of 170kg of MUF referred to in the UKAEA report were likely to have been. Some of the material was in fact burnt up in the Fast Reactor. Some was discharged from the site within the discharge authorisations that applied during that period. Exact figures have yet to be determined. They will form part of the published conclusions of the Safeguards Office study.

The existence of MUF at any nuclear site, or the detailed evaluation of the level of MUF, has properly never been regarded by the nuclear industry as the primary indicator of whether or not material is securely held at such a site. The safety and secure custody of nuclear materials are ensured by a range of separate measures, including physical barriers such as fences and robust buildings, systems to detect intruders, and controlled access.

Security is a top priority at Dounreay, and as was made clear on 3 June 1998, Official Report, columns 364–65, there is absolutely no evidence that any material has been stolen or fallen into the hands of terrorists or foreign governments.

I can also confirm that the MUF at Dounreay cannot be attributed to diversion of material to other sites for weapons purposes. Any transfers of material between Dounreay and other sites for whatever purpose are fully documented and accounted for. As a result of an audit of the records requested by this Government, however, it is clear that there were in the past documented transfers from Dounreay which related to UK military programmes. Prior to 1973 when AWRE at Aldermaston and Dounreay were both part of the UKAEA, it is probable that some material transferred from Dounreay to Aldermaston will have been used in the UK weapons programme. This is not the case for any transfers which occurred between 1973 and 1987—when all such transfers ceased—since these involved fuel for use in reactors only.

Mr. Llew Smith

To ask the President of the Board of Trade on what date she received the proposals prepared by the Atomic Energy Authority on the future of Dounreay. [45871]

Mr. Battle

On 17 March 1998, the UKAEA Board considered the future of reprocessing at Dounreay and recommended that no new commercial work be accepted as part of a phased rundown to a complete cessation of reprocessing. The Chief Executive of UKAEA advised officials in the Department of Trade and Industry of the Board's proposed course of action by letter on 19 March 1998. DTI officials then had a number of discussions with UKAEA to check points in the analysis, and they submitted advice to DTI Ministers on 1 May. The President of the Board of Trade consulted her colleagues by letter on 29 May. The Government made the announcement on 5 June that UKAEA would accept no new contracts for commercial reprocessing at Dounreay.