Orders of the Day — Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing (Windscale)

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

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Photo of Mr David Penhaligon Mr David Penhaligon , Truro 12:00 am, 14th December 1976

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.