What is the basis of the current consultation period, why has it been extended, and what does the Secretary of State hope to find out? Does he agree that, because the Government are not prepared to underwrite the contracts and because the electricity companies are not prepared to sign them, the Government are in a cleft stick, which will result in non-viability for THORP or in a blank cheque that will cost us all dear? Are there not real doubts about the economic viability and environmental safety of THORP? Should not the matter be cleared up sooner rather than later? Why should all those people have their agony and uncertainty prolonged?
The hon. Gentleman must accept that Parliament has put me and my right hon. Friend in the very clear position of having to assure ourselves before granting, or refusing to grant, the necessary powers to start up THORP. I shall treat my responsibilities as the House would want me to treat them. I shall take as little time as is necessary to do the job properly. I shall do it as quickly as possible, but not in a slap-dash way. That is what the hon. Gentleman must expect. He does not help the case by making extreme allegations in either direction. Special interests are pleading on both sides. My job is to uphold the public interest, together with my right hon. Friend.
What representations about the environmental implications of not starting up the THORP process has my right hon. Friend received? Does he accept that, even if we do away with THORP, the accumulated waste will not disappear and that, whatever we do in the future, it is far better to treat radioactive waste scientifically? THORP is a well-engineered, modern process intended to do just that, and it should be kept.
My hon. Friend expresses a particular point of view. Clearly, the Government and others put their particular points of view in the debate on THORP, and I know how strongly people hold their views. My job in these circumstances is clear: before I and my right hon. Friend allow THORP to go ahead, I must satisfy myself that it is in the public interest. That is what I intend to do and I shall do so in such a way that, whatever the result, people can see that it is done properly. It would be wrong for a parliamentarian to seek to hurry one beyond a point where one can take seriously the opposing arguments or to delay one, which would also be unacceptable. What I am trying to do is not easy; obviously it is not easy because both sides have strong views, and a great deal hangs on the decision. The one thing on which the public can depend is that the House has demanded that the Secretary of State for the Environment and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food are put in a quasi judicial position and that that position demands that we do not take a view until we have considered all the facts.
On a constructive note, would the Secretary of State be prepared to consider supporting an authorisation to British Nuclear Fuels plc to undertake the commissioning of the uranium lines at THORP, particularly as it would mean that many jobs could be saved and also because BNFL has said that it is prepared to pay the £250,000 costs to decommission those lines in the event that, at the end of the day, THORP was not fully commissioned?
I confess that I have a difficulty because the hon. Gentleman has, rather less constructively, already said that the Government are the reason for the problems. He said that he did not blame the company but that he blamed the Government whereas his hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith), who is not a shadow agriculture spokesman—my right hon. Friend is a co-judge in the matter—said something quite different. He said:
I think the management of BNFL are using the workforce at Sellafield as a bit of a gun to hold to the Government's head.
I therefore find it very difficult to decide what members of Labour's Front Bench are saying about this matter. I had better tell the hon. Gentleman that I shall do everything I can to carry out what I need to do with my right hon. Friend as rapidly as is consonant with doing the job properly. At the same time, if BNFL wishes a variation in its present authorisation, it must make the proposal to HM inspectorate as the law requires.
I remind the House that the problem is that we have always known that this type of decision is not easy. We therefore have a very clear procedure to follow. Although I know that it is disappointing for members of all parties, I am determined to adhere to the rules and regulations; otherwise, what the House has sought as a protection of the public interest would not exist. My job is to protect the public interest against what are necessarily sectional interests, either those of Greenpeace or of BNFL.