Orders of the Day — Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing (Windscale)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 14th December 1976.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Ashton.]

6.27 a.m.

Photo of Mr David Penhaligon Mr David Penhaligon , Truro

I am virtually on the point of admiring my own dedication in taking part in this debate at 6.27 a.m.

I wish to raise the important issue—important to me and to an increasing number of people—of the application by British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. for the expansion, or, rather, for the commercial activation, of fuel reprocessing at Windscale. As I understand the present state of play in this saga, basically the county council has approved it and asked the Minister to have a look at it. The fact that the county council approved it and then absolved itself of any consequences that might follow is in my view legally doubtful. If such a decision is not legally doubtful, it should be.

It is incredible that someone can apparently give planning permission and then absolve himself of any responsibility for that planning permission. At least one district council has asked the Minister to call it in, and I have not been able to do a census of the others to find out whether they have done so. It is clear from my mail that a substantial body of opinion in the area is disturbed about the situation.

I want to use this debate to ask the Minister to call the whole matter in. He is soon to make a decision of enormous consequences—a decision heralding a new technology that will be used for commercial purposes in this country and could be with us for many years. I wish to outline these enormous consequences.

It will mean that Britain may become a world centre for processing nuclear industry rubbish. We are facing an irreversible commitment to a new technology, but we seem to know more about the problems that it will create than the answers to those problems.

I spent some time and effort in trying to find out in what circumstances a plant application is called in. The Dobry Report seems to give the best outline of the reasons available. It sets out a number of headings. One relates to cases that raise issues of national, regional or more than local importance. I believe that this is an issue not just of national but of international importance. Since we have no higher body to go to for a decision than the United Kingdom Parliament and the Minister, we seek our remedy in this House.

Another heading in the Dobry Report refers to cases arousing more than local opposition. It is difficult to find a Member of this House who represents a constituency farther from Windscale than my constituency, and that must mean that there is more than local opposition.

A further heading refers to circumstances in which it would be unreasonable to ask the local planning authority to decide a case. The basic reason is fairly obvious. The sheer understanding of the technical aspects of the problem is beyond most county planning authorities. Indeed, the county planning authority has refused to face the point by saying that it wishes to absolve itself from the consequences of any decision.

I seek a public inquiry. Sir Brian Flowers recently outlined the possibility that the Town and Country. Planning Act 1971 could be used to call for what is known as a planning inquiry commission. I understand that the provision has never been used before, but powers are already available and could well suit this application. I do not want to discover that the Minister has called for the matter to be discussed by officials behind closed doors. It is essential that these matters should be discussed in public.

What is all the fuss about? Basically, the application is in three parts. What is being asked for is a new Magnox station, and for permission to change the treated waste into glassified blocks. I wish to mention the reprocessing of the oxide fuel. The relatively innocuous-sounding "reprocessing of oxide fuel" will produce plutonium, and it is plutonium that causes the interest in this matter.

At the present level of technology, plutonium is indestructible. It has a total toxicity, if such a concept is possible. It produces what is probably the greatest fear man has today, which is that it is cancer producing. We have no known antidote. Indeed, the situation is worse than that. We are not claiming that such an antidote exists. It is a material that must be handled correctly.

It is claimed that the accident record of the British nuclear fuel industry is superb, and I do not wish to argue against that claim. To date, the record has been good. But what worries me about the plutonium aspect is the ability to hit the accident jackpot and for there to occur an accident of horrifying proportions, which would make the Aberfan disaster look like a pinprick. Indeed, it has unknown potential proportions.

Accidents could happen in a number of ways. There could be an accident in the processing plant. Some of the loonies who seem to be on the increase in the world could be the cause of some great accident. Thy might well get hold of quantities of plutonium—indeed, the consideration might be not whether they would obtain such quantities but when. They could make a bomb with it. Would it be possible to make a bomb that went off? Even if it did not go off, the contamination might be such that it would affect an area substantially bigger than the Palace of Westminster for a considerable time. In my view the material will be illicitly obtained for its value, if for no other reason.

I ask the Minister why plutonium is required on its own. I understand that it is possible to mix plutonium with other elements for transporting around the world. If that were done this part of my argument would not exist, unless a person had sophisticated processing equipment. I should like an assurance that we shall not allow plutonium to wander around this country, no matter how carefully guarded.

A second possibility is that the plant may not work. It will cost a lot of money. Attempts have been made in Illinois and New York to set up similar plants, but both have been written off as economic dead losses. President Ford, who is not the greatest world conservationist, said that the United States will not even try again for three years. Some processing took place at Windscale on more than a minor basis over a short period in 1973. The whole thing came to an end bcause of an accident, and the plant was shut down and has never been used since.

The point has often been made, especially in newspaper articles, that we must go ahead with this plant because if we do not jump in quickly someone else will. I have spent some time trying to find out who that somebody else is. It is not the United States, because they will not try again for another three years. France is the alternative that is most often suggested, but the best information that I can obtain suggests that French equipment is already fully utilised and that there is no intention in the near future of building further equipment. Therefore, the French cannot handle more fuel that they are processing now. Who else could it be? I have not been able to find out.

A side issue that affects Cumbria is that the plutonium will be passed into the sea. I understand that at the moment the reprocessing equipment fails to achieve 100 per cent. recovery. That is not exactly surprising—and what the equipment fails to recover will be passed into the sea. Local people are disturbed about the levels being disposed of in that way. I understand that the Cumbrian Council has called in the National Radiological Protection Board to look into the question and to suggest levels that are acceptable.

A further point worries me a great deal. Naturally, being a Cornishman I know what the Cornish reaction has been to the final solution for nuclear waste. That final solution, we are told, is to dig a hole about 3,000 feet deep. The stuff will be thrown down that hole and an enormous cap will be put on top of it. I should like to sec a Member of Parliament survive an election on the premise that he was advancing such a solution in his constituency.

Cornish people have been disturbed to learn that Cornwall may be chosen as the area in which to put the nuclear waste. Some Cornish people are slightly hypocritical, because they take the view that it should be put in Devon or Somerset. However, the view is unanimous that it should not be put in Cornwall.

In the final analysis, the problem is that we do not know what to do with this waste. The idea of digging great holes in the surface of the earth, even if an area is geologically suitable, is hardly one that can be recommended for the setting up of an enormous commercial industry.

The only solution that I have heard so far is to put the waste on a rocket and send it to the sun. It may be that in 100 years we shall try it, but, at the moment, the secondary problems of sending such material by rocket are enough to make anyone dismiss it from his mind.

In the last few days a great deal has been said about the country's nuclear future. I am not altogether convinced that we have to have one. I still think that in 50 years from now our main source of energy will be the sun and not nuclear material. I would have more confidence in the decision if the amount of money spent on research between these two possible alternatives were other than a ratio of 100 to 1 in favour of nuclear energy, but if we are to have a future in nuclear technology it is essential that public confidence be maintained and that justice is not only done but seen to be done. This is a classic case where the Minister can let it be seen to be done.

The recent leak at Windscale has raised a number of questions in our minds, even if the danger may have been exaggerated. But there was another leak—another accident on top of a list of accidents in nuclear stations: Windscale in 1957, Detroit in 1966, the Swiss heavy water reactor in 1969, Chicago in 1970, Germany in 1972, Pickering in Canada in 1974, and Alabama in the United States in 1975. The simple fact is that with this science there are so many problems to which we do not know all the solutions.

This will be the first time that this country will have committed itself to the commercial exploitation of nuclear technology, about which we do not know all the answers. Therefore, I ask the Minister not to hide behind three-week extensions of thinking about it any longer but to let the House know that, at the earliest opportunity, we shall have a full and wide-ranging public inquiry into the realities and possible consequences of the Windscale reprocessing application.

I am an engineer by training. Looking at what engineers have done in the past, one sees that it is remarkable how often they have been wrong. I am not suggesting that our nuclear technologists are necessarily wrong, but we are being extremely optimistic if we think that they are totally right.

6.42 a.m.

Photo of Mr Guy Barnett Mr Guy Barnett , Greenwich

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) for raising the subject of this debate tonight. He has spoken of matters very much in the public eye at the moment. A great deal has been said and a great deal written about them recently. Some of this has been well-informed and some perhaps not so well-informed. What I should like to do is to describe briefly but as clearly as I can the present position about the planning application by British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. for further development at Windscale. I should also like to say something about the Government's responsibilities for the control of safety precautions at the plant. These are possibly not fully understood in some quarters.

The hon. Member for Truro also raised a number of technical issues which. frankly, I cannot deal with. Indeed, I do not think that I am responsible for dealing with them, because they are properly dealt with by another Department. But I should like to assure the hon. Gentleman that, so far as I can, I or my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy will be in touch with him on other matters that he raised.

I know that the hon. Gentleman will understand that what I cannot do is to comment on the merits of the planning application, since the matter is at present before my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Let me start from the time that BNFL submitted its planning application to the planning authority, the Copeland Borough Council. This was on 25th June. The borough council then referred the application to the Cumbria County Council as being a matter for the county council to deal with.

The development proposed in the application effectively falls into three parts. First are the improved arrangements needed to cater for present demands for handling and processing irradiated Magnox fuel; secondly, a pilot demonstration plant for vitrifying long-lived radioactive waste; and thirdly, new facilities for reprocessing uranium oxide fuel both from the United Kingdom advanced gas-cooled reactors currently coming into operation and from overseas.

These proposals were advertised in July by BNFL and were the subject of a public meeting at Whitehaven on 29th September, organised by the county council, at which they were explained and discussed. The application was then considered by the county council's planning committee on 2nd November. The committee resolved, acting on behalf of the council, that it was minded to approve the application but because, in its view, it was a major departure from the development plan, it decided to refer the matter to my right hon. Friend, and did so on 3rd November. I note that the hon. Member was slightly critical of this procedure, but frankly I do not see anything wrong with it.

In these circumstances the planning authority may proceed to deal with the application unless it hears from my right hon. Friend within 21 days that he does or does not propose to intervene.

On 24th November the Secretary of State issued to the county council a holding direction until he had considered the matter further and had reached a decision on whether to call in the application and hold a public inquiry.

This, then, is the present position. I should also remind the House that the Secretary of State has promised to report to it on the matter, and he says that he intends to do so before Christmas. In these circumstances the hon. Member will not expect me to go further into these matters tonight, but I hope that this explanation of exactly what the present position is and how it has come about has been useful.

I promised to say something about safety controls, to which the hon. Member referred a good deal in his speech. I should like to make it quite clear how responsibility for these controls, which is entirely a Government responsibility, is exercised.

Two statutes are involved. The first is the Radioactive Substances Act 1960. Under this Act, discharges of radioactive effluent from nuclear sites require authorisation jointly by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

Our policy is to ensure not only that discharges of radioactivity to the environment are within the internationally accepted safety standards but that these discharges are as far as is reasonably practicable below these levels.

British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. has publicly stated that the increase in total reprocessing activities envisaged in the planning application would be undertaken without increasing significantly the consequences to the general public of radioactive discharges from the site. My right hon. Friend has said that he will, however, want to be personally satisfied that any revised authorisation continues to meet the criteria that I have described.

The second statute is the Nuclear Installations Act 1965, for which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy is responsible. The Act is enforced by the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, which also enforces the more general duties imposed by the Health and Safety at Work Act, &c., 1974. The Inspectorate is part of the Health and Safety Executive.

The functions of the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate cover three main areas. The first is the assessment of the occupational and public health and safety aspects—safety assessment—of new nuclear systems that may be introduced into Great Britain.

The second is the safety assessment of specific designs of reactors, or other plants, for which a licence is being sought by an operator such as the Central Electricity Generating Board or British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. This assessment work culminates in the issue of a nuclear site licence.

The third area is the inspection of nuclear installations to ensure that the conditions of licence and of any associated subsidiary requirement are being met. This inspection work also involves the assessment of changes of plant or operating procedures during the lifetime of the installation.

All nuclear sites in Great Britain, except those used by Government Departments or the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, must be licensed under the 1965 Act. The UKAEA sites, and Government sites, operate to equivalent standards and are, in any event, bound by the Health and Safety at Work, &c., Act. They are subject to inspection by the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate.

In carrying out these functions the Inspectorate has close links with other Government bodies, including, particularly, my own Department, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the National Radiological Protection Board and, where these are different, with similar bodies in Scotland and Wales. This relationship is particularly important in connection with the discharges of radioactive waste to the environment from nuclear installations which I have mentioned.

In urging the Government to call in the application and hold a public inquiry, the hon. Member said that the delay that would be caused thereby to a decision on the planning application would not matter too much, since the United Kingdom was the only country in the field of nuclear reprocessing. It would not be proper for me tonight to comment on what weight should be given to the effect of such a delay on the prospects for foreign business, but it cannot be dismissed as an unimportant consideration.

The hon. Member discussed where in this country nuclear waste could be dumped, and I listened to him with interest. There are different categories of waste and different arrangements for each category. First, there are the very low-activity wastes. These are discharged to the sea from Windscale, and this activity is controlled through authorisations granted jointly by the Department of the Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food under the Radioactive Substances Act 1960. Low-level solid waste from Windscale is buried at Drigg, not far from Windscale, and such disposal also requires the joint approval of the Department of the Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

The next category is plutonium-contaminated low-and intermediate-level wastes, which are stored in special containers at Windscale and Drigg. It is expected that much of this will eventually be dumped in the deep ocean under the control and surveillance of the Nuclear Energy Agency of the OECD.

Finally, high-level wastes are stored at Windscale in liquid form in highly-engineered stainless steel tanks under constant surveillance. It is intended to solidify this waste and to dispose of it in at least one of three ways: to the deep ocean bed or to deep, stable geological strata on land or under the ocean.

The hon. Member has naturally expressed concern that sites in Cornwall should not be used for nuclear waste disposal. Perhaps I can reassure him. My hon. Friend the Under-Scretary of State for Energy has already given a written reply that in the Atomic Energy Authority's research to identify suitable sites for granite test drillings ther are no plans to undertake borings in Cornwall and that existing boreholes there will be used for research purposes aimed at determining the properties of the types of crystalline rocks which are of interest. Indeed, the Authority has since said that West Country granites do not satisfy most of the criteria laid down by the Institute of Geological Sciences as necessary for the safe disposal of highly radioactive waste.

The AEA's research is part of the EEC's radioactive waste management research programme, and is to assess the suitability of granites and other hard rocks for underground disposal. Similar assessments on clays and salts are being undertaken elswhere in Europe.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the silo leakage. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy dealt with this fully in his reply to a Private Notice Question yesterday.

I am grateful for the opportunity presented by the hon. Member to state the position in respect of matters that are rightly of much public interest and that involve decisions of great importance. As I have said, my right hon. Friend hopes to report to the House before long. Meantime, perhaps the hon. Gentleman will accept my assurance that I shall convey to my right hon. Friend in full what the hon. Gentleman has said during this useful debate, so that he may take that into account in reaching his decision.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes to Seven o'clock a.m.