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 Guy Barnett Mr Guy Barnett , Greenwich 12:00 am, 14th December 1976

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.