Nuclear Power Plants: Year 2000 Compliance

– in the House of Lords at 2:46 pm on 22nd November 1999.

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Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Liberal Democrat 2:46 pm, 22nd November 1999

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether nuclear power plants in the United Kingdom are fully year 2000 compliant and whether adequate emergency measures are in place in the event of power failures affecting cooling systems.

Photo of Lord McIntosh of Haringey Lord McIntosh of Haringey Deputy Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords)

My Lords, the Health and Safety Executive's Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, as the independent safety regulator, has been working with UK nuclear operators on the issue of year 2000 compliance since 1997. The inspectorate is satisfied that UK nuclear power plants will continue to operate safely over the millennium period and that appropriate contingency arrangements are in place to deal with power failures affecting cooling systems.

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply but given that disasters in the nuclear industry happen so quickly can the Minister tell us whether the emergency generator systems have been tested regularly over the past two years and how many times they have failed during that period? Further, as we have learnt from the Chernobyl disaster that nuclear disasters know no national boundaries, does the compliance apply to our neighbours in Europe, eastern Europe and Russia? Is the Minister satisfied that all nuclear power plants throughout Europe are year 2000 compliant?

Photo of Lord McIntosh of Haringey Lord McIntosh of Haringey Deputy Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords)

My Lords, the noble Baroness asked me two questions. First, as regards emergency testing, I can assure her that it is virtually continuous and has resulted in Ofgem, the regulator, classifying the nuclear industry, like the rest of the electricity industry, as 100 per cent. "blue" in the jargon; in other words, clear of danger. As to the number of occasions where faults have been found in testing, I do not have that information but I shall write to the noble Baroness on that point. As regards Chernobyl and other power stations in eastern Europe, my understanding is that the expert view is that if there is any risk it is a risk of power failure causing blackouts in the area concerned rather than a risk of nuclear accidents, the effects of which may cross national boundaries.

Photo of Lord Jenkins of Putney Lord Jenkins of Putney Labour

My Lords, does not my noble friend agree that experience suggests that power failure and nuclear accidents are not separate things and the one can cause the other? Is he confident that other countries are sufficiently advanced in their arrangements to ensure that this country may not become subject to an accident occurring in another country?

Photo of Lord McIntosh of Haringey Lord McIntosh of Haringey Deputy Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords)

My Lords, power generation failure happens from time to time in any nuclear industry. On average, it happens twice a year in our 39-40 nuclear sites. The inspectorate has ensured that there are adequate back-up generators. It has given an assurance that the back-up is sufficient to enable the nuclear power stations to operate for a week following any failure. The average down-time for power failure is a matter of hours; therefore, a week seems a very sensible precaution.

As to similar safeguards in other countries, I cannot give comparable figures, particularly in general terms. I am assured that there is more danger of a localised power failure than of a nuclear accident of the kind to which my noble friend referred.

Photo of Lord Dormand of Easington Lord Dormand of Easington Labour

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that this kind of problem never arises with coal-fired power stations? Can he say whether the Government intend to approve any further coal-fired power stations, particularly when there is a good supply of reasonably-priced coal available in this country?

Photo of Lord McIntosh of Haringey Lord McIntosh of Haringey Deputy Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords)

My Lords, I remember being in an airport in Chicago when a representative of the Nuclear Workers Union said that more people died in Chappaquiddick river than at Three Mile Island. I accept that the same kinds of accidents do not occur in coal-fired power stations, but horrible accidents have occurred in coal mines. The nuclear power industry in this country has an enviable safety record.

Photo of Lord Razzall Lord Razzall Liberal Democrat

My Lords, will the Minister take the opportunity to widen slightly his Answer to this Question? With approximately 40 days and 40 nights to go to the millennium, can he indicate whether there are any areas where the Government remain concerned about the operation of the millennium bug?

Photo of Lord McIntosh of Haringey Lord McIntosh of Haringey Deputy Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords)

My Lords, without acknowledging at this Dispatch Box now that there are any such areas, I can assure the noble Lord that the Millennium Date Change Committee of the Cabinet, of which I am a member, has been trawling over all of the essential infrastructure of this country, including its energy infrastructure. It is satisfied that very good progress is being made. That is not to say--no one could--that nothing will go wrong at the time of the millennium date change. The noble Lord is asking for a very unqualified assurance, which I am not able to give.

Photo of Lord Skelmersdale Lord Skelmersdale Conservative

My Lords, in his Answer to the Question, the Minister spoke of contingency arrangements to deal with failures of cooling systems. Surely there are other failures which may occur. Why did the Minister pick on cooling systems?

Photo of The Countess of Mar The Countess of Mar Crossbench

My Lords, does the Minister recall that radioactive rain precipitated from the clouds which arose from the Chernobyl disaster? This caused serious problems for livestock farmers in the north of England and in North Wales. In the event of a similar disaster, can he say whether any procedures are now available to farmers to let them know when a radioactive cloud is about to precipitate on their land? This will enable them to take in their livestock, prevent it from grazing, and to sell it within 10 years, which, in some cases, was the limitation imposed in the Lake District and Wales.

Photo of Lord McIntosh of Haringey Lord McIntosh of Haringey Deputy Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords)

My Lords, it was exactly because of the problem to which the noble Countess refers that I assured myself, before answering her question, that expert opinion was that any risk in Eastern Europe, the Ukraine or Russia was of local power failure rather than of a nuclear power accident of the kind that took place in Chernobyl. The matter of adequate notice to farmers is very wide of the Question. I cannot give the noble Countess an absolute assurance that there would be adequate notice. That would clearly depend on the speed and direction of the wind, which is not under the control even of Her Majesty's Government. The issue is a serious one. I am sure that those who suffered from the fall-out from Chernobyl have made their case clearly to the Ministry of Agriculture.