Russian Nuclear Accident (Monitoring)

– in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 6th May 1986.

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Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley 3:31 pm, 6th May 1986

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the arrangements for monitoring the effects in the United Kingdom of the accident at Chernobyl, and the results obtained.

As soon as news of the accident was received, the standing arrangements for monitoring air, water and foodstuffs, especially milk, were stepped up. The Departments mainly concerned are the Department of the Environment, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Scottish and Welsh Offices, which have been working closely with the National Radiological Protection Board. Samples have been taken daily and since last Friday 2 May, daily bulletins have been issued by the NRPB after consultation with Government Departments. In addition, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has set up an incident room, from which advice on foodstuffs is available for members of the public.

The remnants of the cloud from Chernobyl arrived over the United Kingdom on 2 May. As a result, an increase in the normal background level of radiation was found in air samples taken at various parts of the country over the weekend. The levels found were nowhere near the levels at which there is any hazard to health, and more recent samples show that the levels in air are now falling rapidly as the cloud has moved away.

As a result of heavy rain in the northern part of England and Wales and in parts of Scotland, the levels of radiation in samples of rain water were found to be at a level where it was appropriate to warn people against drinking fresh rain water over long periods. That might apply to a few farmers in remote parts and, possibly, to some campers. There would be no hazard if the recently fallen rain were diluted with rain water already collected in water butts, or by streams, wells or reservoirs. The levels of radiation in piped water are less than one hundredth of the level at which any special action would be needed.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is responsible for the monitoring and control of foodstuffs. I understand that samples of milk and fresh produce have shown amounts of radioactivity which are below the level at which action ought to be considered. Levels of radiation are now likely to decline over the next few days. I should stress that in judging whether the levels of radiation found require any special action, we act in accordance with international recommendations published by the International Commission on Radiological Protection.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services is also keeping a close watch on imports of food into the United Kingdom from Russia and Poland, which was dispatched after 26 April this year.

The House will appreciate from what I have said that the effects of the cloud have already been assessed and that none presents a risk to health in the United Kingdom. Extensive monitoring will continue and its results will be made available to the public and to the House.

Photo of Dr Jack Cunningham Dr Jack Cunningham Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment

The House will be grateful to the Secretary of State for making this statement and I hope it will deal with some of the natural concern that is being expressed around the country. I wish to ask the Secretary of State a number of questions based on what he has said.

Will the Secretary of State tell the House whether anyone in the Government has overall responsibility for the co-ordination of the monitoring, the analysis and, most important, the dissemination of information to the public? There is considerable confusion among members of the public and the media about the nature of the advice from the National Radiological Protection Board, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and other people who are making statements. Is it not absolutely essential that explicit, frank and open information is given to the public as regularly as possible?

Why is it that again, in this statement today, the Secretary of State has not been specific about the nature and the level of the radioactivity involved? The public are surely entitled to know these facts. Can the Secretary of State confirm that the majority of the contamination is iodine-131—an isotope with a half-life of eight days—but that, in addition, isotopes of tellurium, caesium-137, ruthenium, lanthanum and technetium have been detected? If that is true, what advice will be given about the longer-term nature of some of those isotopes and the consequences of their deposition?

Is the Secretary of State satisfied not only with the coordination of the monitoring but with its range and provision? Are sufficient localities being monitored in sufficient detail? Will the Secretary of State examine this and reconsider the situation?

Why has it not been possible so far for information to be given to the public on the basis of comparisons with the normal background levels of radiation? Why should the public not be told how much more radiation they are now being exposed to when compared with the normal background radiation? Is the Secretary of State satisfied that there is no need for the health authorities, for example, or the water authorities to give more detailed local information in areas where especially high levels of contamination have apparently occurred?

Can the Minister confirm that the highest levels of contamination were recorded on 3 May and that on 4 and 5 May those levels had declined and they are still continuing to decline? Will that information also be freely available to the public and the press?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

I confirm what the hon. Member has said on the last point. My Department is co-ordinating the monitoring of this information. Our first indications that the radioactive cloud was over the country were on Friday; and over the weekend emergency operations were in progress. I was in touch with colleagues at that time. I agree with the hon. Gentleman when he asks the Government to be explicit, frank and open with information.

I have asked the NRPB, which has issued statements each day, to make available this afternoon a complete list of the data available to it in press offices in my Department, the Department of Health and Social Security and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. It is bulky statistical information, but it represents all of the information that we have on monitoring. Initially, I think that only about 50 copies per press office will be available because it is bulky, but we will try to make more available during the day. Those who wish to know about that information can approach the public inquiry points in the press offices of those three Departments. I agree that the information should be made available.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has opened a telephone line for public inquiries—it is 930 1196—and the Scottish Office will make a number available this afternoon, as will the Welsh Office. I strongly agree that the information should be available.

Photo of Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton

Is my right hon. Friend aware that quite a number of schools and other groups have entered into contracts to travel to Soviet Russia and paid deposits on those contracts, but that the cancellation insurance excludes radiation from the events that can lead to repayment of the deposit? Does the Government's advice that has been given to date and any advice that my right hon. Friend should give constitute a statement of public policy which would void such contracts so that deposits can be recovered? What advice do the Government have for the organisers of such trips, who must either pay the remainder of the money for the Whitsun holiday or lose their deposits, unless the contracts can be voided on grounds of public policy?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

My hon. Friend is quite right to raise this matter. No doubt he has a case in mind.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

Local education authorities are responsible for the health and safety of children in their schools, and I expect them to act responsibly when carrying out that duty. The Foreign Office has already advised that visitors should avoid the western Ukraine, Byelorussia, Kiev and Minsk, Lithuania and north-east Poland. If my hon. Friend could let me have details of the case that he has in mind, I shall certainly raise it with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science and with my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary. I take his point about contracts.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Does the Secretary of State accept that the Government never expected such high levels of radioactivity from an incident so far away? Will he admit that, stripped of the gobbledegook, he has said today that the effect of the radiation on food, milk and water has come near to emergency reference levels? Will he also accept that there is grave discontent that, added to the continuing secrecy about some elements of nuclear activity — as was manifest last week at Dungeness—there is now unclear information for the public? Does he agree that the only solution is a daily county-by-county bulletin on the level of radioactive pollution? Does the right hon. Gentleman draw the conclusion that we on these Benches have long drawn and which the people of Britain clearly draw—they are concerned that the British industry is not safe enough and they do not want the nuclear programme to be expanded by a large majority?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

I do not know whether that is alliance policy, or Liberal policy, but the hon. Gentleman cannot chide the Government about being frank. There are no party points to be made on this. The information which has been made available by the NRPB is the fullest information and the only information that the Government have on the monitoring. That information will be made available. It should be contrasted with what will be made available in Russia. None of this sort of information will ever be made available in Russia. I take the point that many people, being aware of the dangers of this type of incident, are rather bemused about the complexity of the matter. There is so much talk of becquerels, milliSieverts, curies and rems. I think that in simple terms people are asking: is it safe to drink milk?—the answer is yes; is it safe to drink water from the tap?—the answer is yes; is it necessary for children to take iodine tablets?—the answer is no.

Photo of Mr Albert McQuarrie Mr Albert McQuarrie , Banff and Buchan

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the informative comments that he made in his statement. In rural Scotland, however, many farms and houses prefer to use rain water for their water supplies, and this applies not only to individuals but to dairy herds. Will he confirm that he will be advising his right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland to use the facilities of monitoring services such as exist in the Macaulay Institute for Soil Research and in the Rowatt Institute in Aberdeen in order to ensure that the safeguarding of these water supplies and dairy herds is assisted in any investigations that he may make in Scotland?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has asked water authorities to assist such people, who may depend rather more on rain water than other people in the rest of the United Kingdom, by telling them where they can collect water from public mains supplies. Water authorities and environmental health authorities have worked together to ensure that anybody who depends on rain water gets the right advice and obtains access to the mains supply. The NRPB has said with regard to rain water that people who depend on it should not drink it for a period of a week.

Photo of Mr Jack Ashley Mr Jack Ashley , Stoke-on-Trent South

Does the Secretary of State agree that we want to avoid unjustified panic, but we want also to avoid unnecessary risks, so that people must be as fully informed as possible about this and other accidents? Can he assure the House that every accident in Britain involving nuclear waste of any kind or nuclear energy has been fully reported? Can he ensure that any future accidents in Britain will also be fully reported?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

The arrangements for reporting accidents—nuclear accidents—were set out in a reply on 26 July 1982 by my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Moore) to a question asked by the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham). Those recommendations were made not by Government specifically but by the nuclear installations inspectorate, and it is those guidelines that we have followed since then.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Carlisle Mr Kenneth Carlisle , Lincoln

Will my right hon. Friend advise the House whether the NRPB is adequately equipped to monitor effectively the radiation levels in all parts of the country?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

The NRPB, I think, has been doing a very good job. I think that Mr. Dunster has been very frank in the appearances that he has made on television over the weekend. The NRPB has a staff of some 300. It has monitoring bases at three of its laboratories—Chilton, Glasgow and Leeds. All nuclear installations in the United Kingdom, of course, have equipment that is capable of monitoring radioactivity.

Photo of Mr Gordon Wilson Mr Gordon Wilson , Dundee East

Is the Minister not aware that one expert has said that some tens of deaths will occur from cancer at some future stage because of this? While one appreciates that this could be a small number, relatively speaking, is he right to hold the opinion that there is no danger to public safety? Secondly, when was the incident room established. Will he confirm that the hot line has been set up just today and does he not think that this alarming lack of concern about informing the public of what may be occurring is symptomatic of the attitude of the Government in relation to these matters and puts a question mark over the way in which they have tackled this whole business?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

No. The incident room was set up on Friday as soon as we knew that the radioactive cloud was over the United Kingdom. Up until then it had not been over the United Kingdom. Milk had been monitored since last Monday, when we first had news of the catastrophe in Russia.

Until the incident is over and it is possible to estimate the number of people exposed and the doses they have received, it will not be possible to produce the estimate for which the hon. Gentleman has asked. However, the likely total exposure will result in a very small additional risk to any one person. That has been emphasised by Mr. Dunster, who told me that the risk to individuals in Britain from the Russian reactor accident was very small.

Photo of Mr Hector Monro Mr Hector Monro , Dumfries

As one who supports the nuclear industry and acknowledges the high standards of those who work within it, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether he agrees that it has been difficult for those who have tried to allay the fears of constituents over the weekend to find a common line from the many organisations involved? Would it not be helpful if the Government had a central point to which all information was fed, from which it could be disseminated to the media? This would ensure that they did not exaggerate the position and cause unnecessary alarm.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

We have been operating the usual arrangements which exist within Whitehall for coordinating the Government's response to emergencies, and certain unusual circumstances. I am satisfied that these contingency arrangements have been working satisfactorily. Ministers have been kept fully up to date with the facts. I had talks with several Ministers yesterday and their response to the unfolding picture has been fully coordinated from the centre. It is inevitable that in a matter of this sort several Departments will be involved. The Department of Health and Social Security has responsibility for health, and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is concerned with food in the United Kingdom and the testing of it. My Department is involved in environmental monitoring. The division of responsibilities is inevitable and one cannot get over it. I take note of what my hon. Friend has said, but it is the first time that the world has had to go through the experience of such a nuclear accident. I am certain that lessons will be learnt from it, and the lessons will be infinitely more valuable to the world if Russia is prepared to make more available to the world the effects within its own country.

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson , East Lothian

Is the Minister aware that these events are assuming a particular significance in my constituency, where the first deliveries of nuclear fuel were made at Torness power station only 10 days ago? Is he aware also that the Soviet nuclear power agency is not the only one to have a reputation for excessive secrecy and misleading propaganda? Will he confirm that these events are likely to increase the background levels of radiation in the environment and in food for the long term? What, specifically, will the Government do about imports of food products from heavily contaminated areas of eastern Europe?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

Imports from Russia and Poland are now being stopped at the port of entry at the request of the DHSS. Samples will be taken to the MAFF laboratory at Lowestoft. The European Commission is considering this afternoon appropriate measures for intra-Community trade and trade with certain eastern bloc countries. This is an important matter and imported foodstuffs will not be released from port until we are satisfied that radioactivity is not present in them.

Photo of Miss Janet Fookes Miss Janet Fookes , Plymouth Drake

As my right hon. Friend is responsible for co-ordinating Government activities in this instance, I ask him to repair the omission of any reference to those who are most at risk—those who are, or will be, returning from the Soviet Union or neighouring countries. Is he satisfied with the actions that are being taken to give such individuals thorough monitoring at the time of their arrival in the United Kingdom and at later stages, as we know that radiation can have long-term effects?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

I appreciate my hon. Friend's concern. The National Radiological Protection Board monitored the students who returned from Kiev and Minsk at the end of last week and the radiation levels detected gave no cause for concern. Travellers returning from north Russia and eastern Europe to the United Kingdom who wish to undergo reassurance monitoring should go to their main police station, where they will be put in touch with the relevant place under the national arrangements for the radioactivity scheme.

Photo of Mr Tony Benn Mr Tony Benn , Chesterfield

I thank the Minister for making a statement, and I recognise the difficulty in providing full information, but will the right hon. Gentleman recognise that there is widespread public anxiety about the implications of the accident and the possibility that such an accident might occur elsewhere in the world? As he has told the House, there are many Ministers with different responsibilities. Will he be so kind as to ask his colleagues to make possible a day in the House when we can discuss these matters, so that Members can put forward their anxieties and opinions and be given a measured Government answer? I think that the right hon. Gentleman will accept that there is a desire that goes across party lines to obtain some clarification of the full implications of what occurred in the Soviet Union, and of its long-term effect on our energy plans.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

It will take some time to measure the effect, because exposures will vary in different countries, depending on the concentration of radioactivity in the cloud and the rainfall in a particular country. But I accept what the right hon. Gentleman says about fears that ordinary people have about this incident. I very much understand those fears. They arise from the unknown and from apparent secrecy. I have tried to allay those fears this afternoon by putting such information as we have before the country.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor , Southend East

Why has the ban which, according to the tapes, the Commission has just imposed on east European produce specifically excluded East Germany, although most of eastern Europe's produce goes through East Germany under an abuse of the inner German trade agreement? Will my right hon. Friend inquire whether we have the power to impose a ban on East German produce, despite the terms of the inner German trade agreement?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

I was not aware of that point, but I shall look into what my hon. Friend has said about East Germany this afternoon.

Photo of Dr John Marek Dr John Marek , Wrexham

I thank the Secretary of State for making such information available, but perhaps I can press him a little further. Will he undertake to ensure that the information collected in the next week or so in made available? Will he confirm that the raw information will be made available, and that any analyses done by his or any other Department that leads to identification of the materials causing the radiation will also be made available? Moreover will he ensure that the Departments concerned are helpful about answering the questions of any members of the public who have a reasonable interest in this matter?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

The answer to the hon. Gentleman's latter question is yes. I have announced that the information will be available through the public inquiry points in the various Government Departments. As the hon. Gentleman has said, the raw information or data will be of interest to scientists in the academic world and to analysts who can work on it. There is no reason why information should not be made available on a continuing basis, either daily or in batches of two days.

Photo of Mrs Elizabeth Peacock Mrs Elizabeth Peacock , Batley and Spen

Is my right hon. Friend aware that most comment on the radioactive contamination refers to a short-term problem, presumably attributed to iodine-131? Will he confirm the level of long-term radioactive contamination due to strontium-90 and caesium-137?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

As the hon. Member for Copeland has said, the radioactivity of iodine-131 declines by half over a period of about eight or nine days. The radioactivity will remain for much longer in the other nuclides. That will, indeed, conic out in the monitoring. We are fortunate in the United Kingdom because at this moment of time—I say, at this moment of time—the amount of precipitation of radioactivity is relatively low compared with other countries. The advice that I have received from scientists this morning and this afternoon is that the increase in radioactivity in the general background is very low, but there has been a small increase.

Photo of Mr Robert Maclennan Mr Robert Maclennan , Caithness and Sutherland

Does the Secretary of State agree that openness is also important internationally? Does the European Commission propose to enter into discussion with COMECON about the monitoring of foodstuffs? What is the Government's attitude towards the proposal to ban imports from other east European countries than just Poland and the Soviet Union? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that many people in the British nuclear industry have long held grave reservations about the particular reactor that caused this international catastrophe, and have said as much for many years?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

The European Commission has been meeting this afternoon and we will certainly take heed of what it says. If we were satisfied that imports had to be stopped from any country in the interest of the health of our people, we would stop them. There is no question about that.

Regarding the safety of the Russian reactor, hon. Members will have read enough in the weekend press to know that our scientists thought that the design of the reactor was inherently unstable. The Russians have been aware of that fact for some time. I hope that one outcome of the disaster will be that countries will be much more aware that, in the design of nuclear installations, they have an international obligation to take into account the views of others.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the most reprehensible aspects of the whole affair has been the way in which the opponents of nuclear power have deliberately sought to exaggerate the dangers and to exploit public fears? As I have a private water supply in Scotland, an expectant wife and young children, does he agree that I was right to advise them that there was more danger from luminous watches and alarm clocks around the house than from any fallout arising from the Chernobyl disaster?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

There are, of course, many sources of radiation in the atmosphere. The level of background radioactivity varies in different parts of the country. I appreciate that such a disaster does cause public anxiety and concern. I have tried, this afternoon, to put the cards on the table to allay some of that. As I have said, the levels so far in the United Kingdom do not provoke great concern. That does not mean to say that we should not be vigilant in maintaining our monitoring and letting the public know of the consequences as soon as possible.

Photo of Mr George Foulkes Mr George Foulkes , Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley

Can the Secretary of State confirm that the Scottish Office issued a statement today saying that the statistics which it published yesterday were totally inaccurate? In view of that, will he review the accuracy, speed of collection and comprehensive nature of the gathering of such statistics? Since the effects of radiation are cumulative, will the right hon. Gentleman institute some kind of monitoring, especially of children, of the cumulative effects of the Chernobyl disaster, including rain, milk and entry into the food chain, coupled with discharges from Sellafield and other sources in the United Kingdom, and see what effect that total accumulation of radiation is having on children, particularly those in the west of Scotland?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

I understand from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland that one figure was corrected yesterday. As I understand it, it was corrected downwards.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

I am advised that inhalation of the cloud and skin exposures to radiation on the ground contribute very small doses to the body—about one ten-thousandth of the annual dose limit. Therefore, there need be no cause for concern.

Photo of Mr Bill Walker Mr Bill Walker , North Tayside

Is my right hon. Friend aware that over the weekend and yesterday, Scotland had some very heavy rain storms? Some of the Scottish media reported that the rain storms were from the cloud with the radiactive material. Can he confirm that there is no danger to people in Scotland, and that next week's visit by the Prime Minister and other senior members of the Government to the Conservative party conference in Perth will show that there is no danger?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

I do not believe that the current level of radioactive precipitation in Scotland will divert my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister from visiting Scotland.

Photo of Mr Allan Rogers Mr Allan Rogers , Rhondda

I thank the Secretary of State for the information he has given today and for his assurances that the fullest possible information will continue to be given. Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the information will be given in its proper context? Old and young people are genuinely frightened by the statements that have appeared in the newspapers this weekend. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the childishly trivial remarks of the hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) and the ridiculously alarming remarks of the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), who are looking for cheap political points, do not help the situation?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

I agree with the latter part of the hon. Gentleman's last question, but not the first part. It is very difficult to explain some of these technical matters in a simple way. It is not impossible, and we shall seek to do so. A frank explanation is the best way of doing that.

Photo of Viscount  Cranborne Viscount Cranborne , South Dorset

In view of my right hon. Friend's strictures about the need for complete Soviet frankness in such matters, should we not be considering a little more than an expression of hope and trying to co-ordinate something which will induce the Soviets to come clean on their nuclear safety record? Should we not be trying to bring into this not only western European countries but COMECON countries which are most directly affected?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

The COMECON countries seem to have been adversely affected in some cases. The initial reaction of the Soviet Government was to close in upon themselves and put down the shutters. That is perhaps the old tradition in which Russia has conducted itself over the centuries. It was only towards the end of last week that Russia began to open up and realised that there were advantages in doing so. A fairly full statement was made by the Soviet Government on Friday and Saturday. I hope that they will be frank and open, because radioactivity knows no national boundaries. The disaster has affected some of Russia's small neighbours. It is the duty of a powerful country such as Russia, which is capable of producing electricity from nuclear power, to be frank and open. Even at this stage, I feel that there was some shame in Russia that this disaster had occurred and the Government did not want to open up the matter. The tragedies in America, such as that involving the Challenger mission, have been dealt with openly.

Several Hon. Members:


Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. I appreciate that this matter is of grave concern to hon. Members and their constituents, but I must bear in mind the fact that we have a heavy day in front of us. The Adjournment debate must end at 7 pm. I will allow questions to continue for a further 10 minutes; that is to say, until a quarter past four. After that, we must move on.

Photo of Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Mr Dale Campbell-Savours , Workington

If the scientists are so unanimous in their condemnation of the technology in the RMBK plant in the Soviet Union, why was it that successive Governments did not protest at the development of that plant? They must have foreseen the inevitable disaster that has taken place. Why has there been a cover-up over the gas radiation leak from Dungeness A? Do the Government intend to make representations through the International Atomic Energy Agency to ensure access in France to the six PWR reactors, all of which are within 90 miles of London?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

My right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Energy, intends to make a statement fairly soon about access to the International Atomic Energy Agency. It is a bit thick to say that somehow we are to blame for the design which was adopted by the Russian nuclear industry. I do not know what the reaction would have been if we had protested. We have made it clear that the design was unsuitable and inherently unstable so far as the United Kingdom was concerned. The responsibility in this area must lie in the Kremlin.

Photo of Sir Sydney Chapman Sir Sydney Chapman , Chipping Barnet

Most of my constituents will be reassured by my right hon. Friend's statement this afternoon which, if I understood it correctly, said that the increase in radiation in parts of Britain was at a level of only one hundredth of that which would have caused a potential danger. Will my right hon. Friend accept that many more people would be reassured if they could measure the amount of increased radiation caused by the accident against, for example, the radiation they get from television sets in their homes? Can my right hon. Friend provide those figures?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

I will consider that. Many people would be surprised at the amount of radon radioactivity which is naturally in the atmosphere. Someone having a picnic in Cornwall and sitting close to a granite rock may be subjected to a high level of radiation.

Photo of Tom Clarke Tom Clarke , Monklands West

Does the Minister accept that there are genuine anxieties in Scotland, and that those anxieties are not helped by the contradictory statements which are made from one day to another? Is the Minister satisfied with the co-ordination between the Scottish Office, the Milk Marketing Board and the consumer? Why is there such a delay between one test and the other?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

As I understand it, there is good cooperation. The Scottish Office follows the matter closely and is part of the team doing so.

Photo of Mr James Couchman Mr James Couchman , Gillingham

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, this morning, there was a most responsible programme on the radio during which two experts—one from the NRPB and one from Newcastle university—sought to still the perfectly justifiable fears of a number of the people who rang in? Because of the unique ability of the Public Information Office to disseminate information, will my right hon. Friend ensure that that office makes sure that the BBC is positively briefed in the next few days on this subject so that it can disseminate informaton to the people at large?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

I take entirely my hon. Friend's point about the media's importance in the past few days. In my judgment, they have been handling the matter very responsibly. Today, I saw a further broadcast on the midday news and the 1 o'clock news in which the interviewer put the difficult points straight to a leading United Kingdom physicist. Those points were answered frankly. The interviewer did not let the physicist wriggle away from them. Over the weekend, I saw several interviews, as, I am sure, did hon. Members on both sides of the House, and was impressed by their frankness and openness.

Photo of Mr Reginald Freeson Mr Reginald Freeson , Brent East

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the concern among hon. Members about the Government not making representations about the accident in Russia does not imply that the British Government or Britain were to blame for what happened? Why were representations not made? Will representations about such models be made from now on? It has been reported—none of us can yet be sure that it has any validity—that the first generation of Magnox stations in Britain have similar weaknesses. Are the Government checking that? Will a statement be made on that aspect?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

I am sure that, as a result of this incident, there will be quite justified international concern about safety at nuclear power stations which will be made evident by Governments and international agencies. The right hon. Gentleman must appreciate that the Soviet Communist party at its 27th congress approved a massive expansion of its nuclear generating programme, doubling its size in the next few years. I do not know whether the Soviet Government will listen too much to representations by other countries when they probably do not take too many of their own people into their confidence.

Photo of Mr Tony Marlow Mr Tony Marlow , Northampton North

In an attempt to put the matter into context, assuming the worst case and on the best information available, how does the total radiation from Chernobyl compare with the total radiation from the Hiroshima bomb? Given that Chernobyl is basically part of the Ministry of Defence in Russia rather than an electricity generator, why have not traces of plutonium been registered? What help are we giving the Russians?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

I am not in a position to answer any of those questions. I shall try to find the answers. I do not have off the cuff the comparison between radiation fallout at Hiroshima and radiation fallout at Chernobyl.

Photo of Mr Robert Kilroy-Silk Mr Robert Kilroy-Silk , Knowsley North

Send a message to the Box.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

I suspect that, even if I sent a message to the Box now, the information would not be readily available in the next few minutes.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , Linlithgow

At what time was, first the Secretary of State and, secondly, the Prime Minister first informed that British scientists were talking to their Russian counterparts about the problems at Chernobyl?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

I should have to have notice of that question.

Photo of Mr David Sumberg Mr David Sumberg , Bury South

This is a matter of concern to my constituents who live in the affected area. As my right hon. Friend was kind enough last Friday to visit my constituents, will he put the matter into perspective by emphasising that it is perfectly safe to drink the tap water in Bury? Does my right hon. Friend accept that the announcement and the questions which followed are in stark contrast to the way in which the matter was handled in the Soviet Union?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

My hon. Friend can certainly assure his constituents that it is perfectly safe to drink and to use tap water anywhere in Britain, including Bury'. It is perfectly safe also to drink milk.

Photo of Mr Greville Janner Mr Greville Janner , Leicester West

How long does the right hon. Gentleman expect the emergency operation to be maintained? What is happening to the radioactive cloud? Is it expected to move again in this direction? I ask that question specifically because, last week when I raised it, I received a reassuring reply which was overtaken by events that have worried the entire country.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

From time to time, Ministers are prone to make optimistic assessments. I shall certainly not get into the business of weather forecasting and of trying to judge what will happen to the cloud. Monitoring will be maintained until we feel that the emergency has ended.

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Why does the nuclear industry operate in reportable incidents only by guidelines and not by law? If the right hon. Gentleman wants to be frank and open, why does he not treat nuclear incidents like the reportable incidents in the coal mines where anything more than a broken arm is reportable under the mines and quarries legislation? If that were done, the right hon. Gentleman could answer the charge which has properly been laid against him, that he is attacking the Soviet Union for failing to respond properly to the disaster but is doing the same himself? Is the right hon. Gentleman doing that because he agrees with the Secretary' of State for Energy that nuclear power is the safest form of energy known to man? Would it not be a good idea for the right hon. Gentleman and the Secretary of State for Energy to put a paper before the Cabinet to recommend halting the pit closure programme in the light of the recent disaster and the others that have preceded it worldwide?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

The hon. Gentleman goes a little wide of the matter, but I do not criticise him for that because for some time he has taken that line about the nuclear industry. I have referred to the procedures which we have followed since 1982. They were recommended to us by the nuclear installations inspectorate, which is answerable to the Secretary of State for Employment and is concerned with safety. Those procedures have been followed in dealing with incidents in the United Kingdom.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn , Islington North

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that much of the disquiet and opposition voiced in the past few days about the nuclear power industry and its safety record is of legitimate concern? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, so long as Britain or any other country in the northern hemisphere has a nuclear power industry, there is a dangerous and implicit possibility of pollution following an explosion or emission from a nuclear power station? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, so long as we have a nuclear power industry, problems will be associated with the disposal of radioactive waste? Does he agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) that we need a debate in Parliament so that opposition to the whole nuclear programme and its dangers can be voiced here, as they have been voiced outside?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

I shall certainly draw the hon. Gentleman's point about a debate—if it has not already been heard—to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. The hon. Gentleman has moved into the matter of safety of nuclear power generation. I remind him that the United Kingdom has a very good safety record. There has been no full-scale major incident during 25 years of operation of civil power stations in the United Kingdom. Very high standards of safety were involved in the design, and construction of British nuclear power plants. Safety is very important and is the predominate element in the generation of electricity from nuclear power.

Photo of Mr Alfred Dubs Mr Alfred Dubs , Battersea

Implicit throughout the right hon. Gentleman's statement has been the belief that there is a threshold below which levels of radiation are safe. What is the right hon. Gentleman's evidence for such a threshold? Is it not equally tenable that radiation, like other poisonous substances, becomes more dangerous with each increment? Is not the idea of a threshold really a myth?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

I do not agree. There are safety levels, and they are not levels that we, or British scientists in particular, have conjured up. For example, the NRPB is working to recommendations published by the International Commission on Radiological Protection.

Photo of Dr Jack Cunningham Dr Jack Cunningham Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment

As the purpose of today's statement is to clarify the position for the public and to allay their genuine fears and concerns, I should like to re-emphasise the point I put earlier to the Secretary of State. It is important to give the public information in such a way as to enable them to understand it and make valid comparisons. Although we know that the general public do not every day bump into milliSieverts or becquerels, they can make simple numerical comparisons. There is no good reason why people should not be given information. Nevertheless, we want all the information to be published—and statements which make simple numerical comparisons with existing background levels of radiation.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

The hon. Gentleman did make that point at the beginning and it was also made by my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) and others during questions. I think that the point is valid and I will see whether some comparisons can be put out relatively quickly.

Photo of Mr Jack Ashley Mr Jack Ashley , Stoke-on-Trent South

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Would it not be possible for the Foreign Secretary to make a statement tomorrow, because there is a great deal of anxiety among people from Britain who want to visit Europe and do not know which parts of Europe will be safe because of the Russian secrecy? Possibly that statement could be the first of a series by the Foreign Secretary to give as much information as possible to people hoping to travel abroad.

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

That is not a matter for me. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman's comments will have been heard by those on the Government Front Bench.