Orders of the Day — Nuclear Waste Store (Torness and Hunterston)

– in the House of Commons at 5:36 am on 9th July 1992.

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Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson , East Lothian 5:36 am, 9th July 1992

I seem to recall, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you and I were elected to the House at by-elections on the same day in October 1978. I wish that I could congratulate you at a time other than 5.36 on a Friday morning on your elevation to the Chair, but I do so anyway.

I am grateful for this opportunity to debate the proposal by Scottish Nuclear Ltd. to store 1,200 tonnes of highly radioactive waste nuclear fuel for at least 80 years in a building at Torness in East Lothian and a slightly smaller quantity at Hunterston in Ayrshire. My hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson), whose constituency includes Hunterston, cannot be present for the debate, although he has an obvious interest in the subject and had an article on it published in the Glasgow Herald earlier this week.

There has been remarkably little public debate on the proposal. Therefore, I am anxious to ensure that all aspects of the idea should be fully understood. That is why I have asked the Secretary of State for Scotland to order a public inquiry in the Dunbar area to consider the whole subject before any decision is taken on the construction of a dry store for nuclear fuel.

I stress that my comments about the lack of public debate are no criticism of Scottish Nuclear, which from the start has been commendably open about its ideas and plans. That is a welcome contrast to the regime of secrecy which has tended to surround all aspects of nuclear energy policy in the past. Scottish Nuclear originally gave me a full briefing at Torness power station on 12 April 1991, and last month it went to the length of taking me and my hon. Friends the Members for Cunninghame, North and for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram) all the way to Denver in Colorado to see a dry store for nuclear fuel which is almost identical to the facilities that it plans for Scotland.

I put a parliamentary question to the Secretary of State for Scotland on 18 April 1991 asking for a statement on Government policy. I raised the subject in a debate on 25 April last and I wrote to the Secretary of State for Scotland on 27 May 1991 expressing various concerns. On 17 February this year, I tabled a further question calling for an inquiry, and most recently. on 6 May, I wrote again to the Secretary of State for Scotland underlining my view that an inquiry should be held before any decision is made about the construction of a dry store at Torness.

However, the Scottish Office seems to keep hedging. A reply from the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) on 3 June merely confirmed: a Public Local Inquiry may indeed be the best way of considering unresolved representations. Incidentally, I am sorry that the hon. Member for Eastwood, who is responsible for these affairs, is not here to face the music, and I am especially sorry that it is my old friend, the other Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), who has had to spend part of the night waiting to reply to this debate.

To return to the issue of unresolved representations, I understand that there have been very few representations, although East Lothian district council and the East Lammermuir community council, which covers Torness, have joined me in expressing reservations and in calling for a public inquiry.

It is amazing that a proposal to erect repositories for high-level waste nuclear fuel, close to populated areas in central Scotland, has not generated more attention. I say that particularly in view of the fuss some years ago about the proposal for a repository for low-level waste in Essex and the outcry against plans for underground repositories for intermediate-level waste at various sites at present. I cannot understand why a permanently shielded and absolutely secure underground store should be so controversial if the storage of high-level waste fuel in a simple concrete building at Torness can progress without any opposition from the organisations which usually have so much to say about the possible hazard of nuclear physics.

It seems that debate has been somewhat restricted because of a very unusual coincidence between the financial interests of Scottish Nuclear and one of the campaigning objectives of organisations such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace: Scottish Nuclear properly wants to save money by avoiding the costs of having fuel reprocessed and stored at Sellafield, and the anti-nuclear lobby wants to undermine the future of Sellafield by depriving it of its work.

That is all very well, but the lack of the usual chorus of objections might lead to a decision being taken before my constituents in East Lothian have a proper opportunity to consider the possible consequences for their neighbour-hood and their descendants in the next century and beyond. That is why I am taking this opportunity to make a further plea for a public inquiry, and I hope that the Minister will be able to say something positive about that.

I stress again that I have no complaints about Scottish Nuclear. It has a duty to make decisions on a commercial basis, and that is what it is doing. I also fully accept the important role of nuclear power generation at present and in the foreseeable future. Most of Scotland's electricity is generated at Torness and Hunterston, and the nuclear industry is an important element of the economy not only in my constituency but in North Ayrshire, Caithness and, indeed, in the Minister's constituency of Dumfries. The nuclear industry in Scotland has a good record and I welcome the fact that it is still in public ownership. That should impose a duty on the Government to face long-term decisions about the storage of waste fuel and other radioactive residues. The industry requires decisions for the permanent storage of its radioactive residues, and my main concern about the current proposals is that they are another stop-gap effort to postpone costly decisions which the Government should face.

1 have already said that I have seen the modular vault dry store—MVDS for short—which has been constructed, and loaded, to the design of GEC Alsthom at Fort St. Vrain in Colorado. It is an admirably simple design. The fuel elements are contained in steel tubes, which are retained vertically in a concrete structure. There is a natural air flow from an inlet at the base of the store, past all the tubes and out through a chimney at the top, which keeps the stored fuel cool. It is a bit like an old-fashioned farmyard corn stack.

The principle is admirably simple and it is difficult to believe that much could go wrong. In theory, nothing should go wrong although there was serious trouble at the only similar facility in the United Kingdom at Wylfa in Anglesey in 1991 when water got through a flat roof—surprise, surprise! it has been known to happen in other buildings—and corroded the magnesium containers. A report in the New Scientist of 2 March 1981 states: Rotting fuel rods in the world's largest dry store for spent radioactive fuel in North Wales could cause a catastrophic fire. The magnesium 'can' which surrounds the rods has corroded so badly that the radioactive metal is exposed.If water penetrates the cladding of the element it can react with the metallic uranium fuel. One of the corrosion products is uranium hydride, which can ignite spontaniously in air. If enough uranium hydride burns, it can ignite the metallic uranium and release the highly radioactive fission products "held" in the uranium bar. This would constitute a major nuclear accident. Happily, none of those things came to pass. I understand that the problem has been dealt with at Wylfa. I am glad to say that the buildings that are proposed for Torness and Hunterston have pitched roofs. Nevertheless, the incident shows that things can go wrong.

Other possible snags include corrosion from inside the tubes caused by water picked up by the fuel elements while they are being cooled in ponds before storage, or physical damage to fuel if a tube is accidentally dropped during handling.

The fundamental issues that must be addressed are, first, whether it is right to be proliferating stores containing highly radioactive fuel elements at power stations around the country and, secondly, how long will the fuel remain in these temporary stores? Thirdly, where will it be taken for permanent storage and/or reprocessing? Given our habit of fudging difficult questions about radioactive waste, there must be genuine concern that the fuel might remain for literally centuries in stores that are supposed to have a design life of about 80 years.

I mention in passing that we have at least five nuclear submarine hulks gathering barnacles in the water at Rosyth and Devonport docks because nobody wants to decide what to do with them. I fear that temporary dry stores might have to linger on indefinitely if we continue to avoid long-term decisions.

As for proliferation, I know that Windscale and Sellafield have had problems over the years, and I am familiar with the public anxiety about the transportation of nuclear waste to Sellafield. I have to say that the transport flasks that are now in use are virtually, bomb-proof. Certainly they are spectacular when compared with the light vehicles that I saw being used during my visit to the United States. As for Sellafield, there appears to be evidence that British Nuclear Fuels plc has developed a high level of efficiency and safety at its thermal oxide reprocessing plant. Its expertise in storing radioactive material must be second to none after all the experience that it has gathered.

The nation has invested heavily at Sellafield and it seems rather perverse not to use the facility to the full now that we have it. Given the complex and hazardous nature of radioactive material, it would seem more prudent to operate the single centre of excellence, where there is all the necessary expertise and equipment to manage such material, rather than distribute the material throughout the country to on-site stores at power stations at different locations.

That point is connected with my next concern, which is the day-to-day supervision, security and management of a dry store. I accept that it is straightforward for the normal staff at a power station such as Torness to look after a dry store, but it must be said that the 1,200 tonnes of waste fuel would remain in store for at least 50 years after the power station had been closed and the reactors had been deCommissioned.

The life of the Torness power station will come to an end in about the year 2030, but the fuel would remain in the temporary dry store until it stopped generating heat, which would be about the year 2080. By that time, I shall be dead. If my children are lucky, they might be centenarians, and their grandchildren will have to worry about the nuclear legacy that we may be leaving at Torness power station. I think that it is worth putting that chronology on the record.

It is one thing for a dry store to be supervised by nuclear technicians at a working power station, but 50 years later it would probably be left to occasional visits by a contract security man and his dog. Vegetation might choke the air inlet. If I know seagulls, they would probably invade the air outlet. Concrete and other parts of the structure might begin to decay. Goodness knows what mischief might be wrought by 21st century vandalism, accidents or neglect of a building whose significance may be largely forgotten with the passing of time.

That is not the end of the story. In theory, the contents are supposed to be shifted for reprocessing or permanent storage after those 50 years. That means handling the material in cylinders that might not all be in perfect condition 80 years on, shifting them to Sellafield or a similar facility for reprocessing and storing what is left in an underground repository for spent fuel, about which Nirex has not yet even started thinking.

Sooner or later, we will have to face the need for long-term decisions to deal with the long-term problem of nuclear waste. We cannot continue stacking the stuff in temporary stores for ever, whether it is submarine propulsion reactors in the water at Rosyth and Devonport or all the stuff at Sellafield or Drigg or, indeed, the proposed short-term, on-site stores such as Torness and Hunterston. Temporary storage is no substitute for permanent storage. There must be doubts about the economics of investing in such short-term measures. It is a little like investing in a temporary shed for one's house to store the rubbish, instead of getting a contractor to take it away in a skip.

The radioactive residues of the nuclear industry will not disappear if we bury our heads in the sand. As this generation is getting the economic advantage of today's nuclear industry, surely this generation should face up to the difficult and costly decisions about safe storage of nuclear waste, instead of leaving a load of trouble for our great grandchildren to worry about at the end of the 21st century. That probably means a permanent underground store in a geologically suitable location, which will have to be monitored and managed for all time.

I do not underestimate the political problems of finding such a site, but it will have to be done sooner or later, and it is perhaps time that we stopped running away from that decision. That brings me back to the proposal to spend £40 million on a temporary store at Torness, which might have to outlast its design life if we keep avoiding decisions about permanent storage.

From what I saw at Fort St. Vrain in Colorado, and from what I have heard and read about the design of the MVDS, I would not necessarily object to the principle of such a temporary store at Torness, provided that it genuinely will be emptied at the end of its planned life—in other words, a maximum of 50 years after the closure of the power station.

I raised that very point during my visit to the dry store at Fort St. Vrain last week. The radioactive waste programme's director, who manages the facility on behalf of the Public Service Company of Colorado—Mr. Steven Sherrow—specifically told me: The dry store is a short-term solution to a long-term problem. The trouble is that it will be difficult to believe any undertaking that the store at Torness will be cleared within that 50-year time scale, in the absence of any progress towards planning and constructing a permanent storage facility in the United Kingdom for nuclear fuel and high-level waste.

The Secretary of State for Scotland has certain statutory duties, and one is to establish that any new process involving radioactive material uses the "best available technique" under section 7 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. In other words, he must positively establish to have temporary local stores such as that proposed by Scottish Nuclear for Torness and Hunterston, or to continue with the current plans to transfer the material to Sellafield and processing and storing it there.

The Secretary of State also has a duty to recognise that the proposals are a major departure from the planning consent originally granted after public inquiries into the proposals to build the reactors and generating stations at Torness and Hunterston. Those plans and the relevant consents clearly stipulated that high-level waste fuel was to be removed from the site for reprocessing and storage on another site. We are talking about major changes from current plans and consents and that underlines the case for a further proper public planning inquiry before the matter is concluded.

I have sought to approach the question fairly and constructively, and I do not want to indulge in any nuclear scaremongering, not least because I have the highest respect for the skill and diligence of Scottish Nuclear's staff and management at Hunterston and Torness. But I am concerned that there has not been a proper public debate about the proliferation of stores containing nuclear fuel and the implications of further temporary decisions about material which requires permanent solutions.

I am grateful for this opportunity to put those points on record in the House of Commons and I hope—I say this once again—that the Minister will now be able to agree that there should be an inquiry into all aspects of the proposals before the Secretary of State makes his decision.

Photo of Mr Hector Monro Mr Hector Monro , Dumfries 5:55 am, 9th July 1992

I am grateful to the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) for initiating this important debate. He has great expertise in nuclear matters and has been assiduous in representing his constituents with regard to Torness. As he mentioned, we have an affinity in that I probably live as near as any Member of Parliament to a nuclear power station, Chapelcross. His comment that there has been little high-profile debate about the nuclear dry store was interesting because when the Central Electricity Generating Board considered Chapelcross as a possibility for a similar type of store a few years ago there was a good local debate but, because at the end of the day the board did not put in a formal application, the possibility of an inquiry did not arise.

So often in nuclear debates the word "waste" is used when it is spent fuel that is being discussed, which is a somewhat different matter because if it is taken hack to Sellafield it can be reprocessed, as the hon. Gentleman well understands. However, I accept the hon. Gentleman's point, as I do the high standards that Scottish Nuclear has achieved and the way in which it has been open and frank on all issues. Obviously, it keeps its Member of Parliament well informed about what is going on. Scottish Nuclear is one of the most important Scottish companies and Torness is one of the two advanced gas reactors operated by SNL, which is a major employer in the hon. Gentleman's constituency and elsewhere.

The hon. Gentleman, like all of us, is interested in the safe operation of reactors, which provide up to 50 per cent. of Scotland's electricity needs. It is a matter of pride for the company that it has set and achieved such an excellent safety record. But the debate is really about the proposed building of a dry store. I do not need to tell the hon. Gentleman what is proposed because he has obviously had detailed discussions with SNL. He most interestingly told us about his visits to Fort St. Vrain in Colorado, where he saw a dry store which had been completed and was in operation. He is probably as well informed about the issue as any Member of Parliament.

In essence, SNL has been looking at the whole range of its fuel handling and other services. As part of the process, it has been considering options, very much with safety in mind, for controlling costs. As a result, it has concluded, as other nuclear operators in other countries have, that dry storage of spent fuel for a number of years would he an appropriate immediate method of handling such material.

The proposal would involve keeping irradiated fuel in vertical storage tubes within a concrete structure. The vault storage would provide the necessary radiation shielding for the stored fuel, with integrated air flow ducts for the removal of heat from the vaults. I liked the hon. Gentleman's observation that it was similar to a haystack. I hope that it keeps cooler than most of mine, which sometimes look rather lopsided after a day's heating.

The drawing in of cold air would provide a continuous self-regulating cooling system. There would be safety features to contain any escape of radioactive material. The whole plan would be subject to approval by the nuclear installations inspectorate of the Health and Safety Executive.

I cannot say more about the proposals. As the hon. Gentleman knows. Scottish Nuclear has applied to the Secretary of State for Scotland for consent under the Electricity Act 1989 to construct such a spent fuel storage facility, or dry store. The company's present application is for a dry store at Torness only. I understand that Scottish Nuclear has it in mind to proceed down the same route at Hunterston, but it has not yet developed its proposals in that regard.

The company's proposals raise a number of issues. The application has been accompanied by public advertise-ment, and the preparation of an environmental assessment which addresses the issues. As a result of that wide consultation exercise, a number of representations have been received by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. As the hon. Gentleman said, local councils and individuals have written letters, and I know that he has done so as well. The representations will be considered as required by the procedures laid down in the Electricity Act.

I fully understand the hon. Gentleman's anxiety that relevant issues should be thoroughly examined, and a public local inquiry may well be the best way of doing that. Indeed, everything that the hon. Gentleman has said suggests that it would be the right course. My right hon. Friend is now examining the matter very closely. It is only a matter of weeks since the formal application was presented to him, but I hope that he will be able to reach a conclusion very soon. As the hon. Gentleman said, wide debate is necessary on such an important issue. It would set a precedent in Scotland, and I think that the more discussion that takes place, the better.

Meanwhile, as the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, it would not be appropriate for me to comment in any way on Scottish Nuclear's proposals. This is a quasi-judicial decision for the Secretary of State for Scotland, and I must not prejudice the consideration that he must give to the proposals—and to representations from the hon. Gentleman's constituents.

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson , East Lothian

The Minister referred to his right hon. Friend's duty to make a decision in terms of the Electricity Act. Will he confirm that his right hon. Friend also has a duty to consider the matter in terms of the Environmental Protection Act 1990?

Photo of Mr Hector Monro Mr Hector Monro , Dumfries

I can give that assurance and I hope that there will he the widest possible opportunity for consideration and discussion of all the issues. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman appreciates my difficulty in going further. but it is very likely that we shall proceed by means of the public inquiry system.

I emphasise the high regard that I share with the hon. Gentleman for the safety factors in the nuclear industry in Scotland—and, indeed, throughout the United Kingdom. We can move forward with confidence, but always in the certain knowledge that safety is the prime consideration.

I was interested to hear the hon. Gentleman talk in terms of the future, because we know that with Chapelcross, for example, the design life has long since passed. Yet it can still satisfy the most stringent safety requirements, because of the high standards of mainte-nance and the continued development throughout the life of the plant. I am sure that will be SNL's view and that that is what it will put into practice.

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson , East Lothian

I do not want to be difficult; I take the Minister's point about the quality of the work at Chapelcross, Torness and all the other locations, but does he accept that there is a distinction between an operating reactor at a power station or at the Chapelcross facility, where a full range of specialist nuclear staff are on the spot to keep an eye on it, and a "ghost" situation—a building with fuel simply in store, being supervised by security men from time to time? As the decades pass, it is quite possible that there could be difficulties.

Photo of Mr Hector Monro Mr Hector Monro , Dumfries

That question will be discussed in depth if there is a public inquiry, which seems a likely conclusion following my remarks. If I said any more than that, however, I should be doing what I said that I must not do and prejudicing the Secretary of State's decision on the inquiry and what may come out of it.

Nevertheless, I am glad that we have had the chance to discuss the matter. It has now been highlighted, and I hope that there will be a decision from my right hon. Friend on the inquiry in the not-too-distant future.