Examination of Witnesses

Nuclear Safeguards Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 31st October 2017.

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Sue Ferns and Kevin Coyne gave evidence.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire 2:22 pm, 31st October 2017

I welcome Sue Ferns, Deputy General Secretary of Prospect Union, and Kevin Coyne, National Officer for the Energy and Utilities Sector at Unite the Union. Having introduced you, I will none the less ask you to introduce yourselves for the record and, if you wish, say a word or two in general about the BillQ .

Sue Ferns:

I am Sue Ferns. I work for Prospect, a politically independent trade union representing thousands of members across the nuclear industry, from research to generation and decommissioning. We also represent members who work at the Joint European Torus facility in Culham.

We have set out our key concerns about the Bill, one of which is to ensure that the powers of the inspectors are included in the Bill, consistent with the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Energy Act 2013. We would also like to see in the Bill a consultation on what associate membership of Euratom would look like, because we feel that that would be better than exiting Euratom. From the discussion that has just taken place I understand, and agree, that there is no off-the-peg answer to that, and that we would have to write something specifically for the UK’s circumstances. Those are a couple of our key concerns.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

Q Before I ask Mr Coyne, I will just pick up on that particular point. We are restricted by parliamentary procedure to discussing what is in the Bill. Associate membership of Euratom is not, and therefore we are not permitted to discuss it even should we wish to do so. We must discuss only what is in the Bill and not what, presumably, we would have liked to be in it.

Kevin Coyne:

What a pity. I am Kevin Coyne, national officer for Unite. Unite represents skilled workers in the nuclear industry, from decommissioning and generation to huge swathes of the electricity industry. Our position on the Bill, and I understand that you will be asking supplementary questions about whether we support it, is that we have concerns, principally about the impact on workers in the industry, as you would expect from us. We also have concerns about the timescale, and whether that will be in place and have ramifications for jobs in the future. We have concerns about JET in particular, the jobs based at JET, and the freedom of movement of those jobs throughout Europe and the attention to detail in the Bill about that. Those are our three main concerns.

Photo of Richard Harrington Richard Harrington Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

Welcome this afternoon. I accept your point, Kevin, and the Chair has quite rightly ruled about our discussing what is in the Bill, but my door is always open to both you and Sue to discuss other matters on another occasion.

Kevin Coyne:

That is very kind of you.

Photo of Richard Harrington Richard Harrington Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

Q I know you know that, but I wanted to confirm it, although it is not relevant to this afternoon’s session.

I would like to ask you a leading question—something which of course we do. I understand your views on Euratom and what Sue said about associate membership. She is quite right that there is no actual definition of associate membership. However, given that the Government decided to serve the article 50 notice on Euratom and we are leaving subject to negotiations, which is a statement of fact, would you accept that we are doing the right thing in having nuclear safeguards built? I accept that you do not think that the Bill covers everything, but would you still support it?

Kevin Coyne:

The important point is that there is a safeguarding mechanism in place by 2019. You have seen my paper, in which we indicate as a union that we wished that Euratom had been left in place for a series of reasons, including the continuity of various bits at a high level. We do not believe that we can hope to progress to that level by 2019, so we believe that the safeguarding mechanisms outlined in the Bill are important to safeguard the industry as it goes into a phase which we do not yet know about.

Sue Ferns:

Just to add to that, having read the Second Reading debate, there was a lot of talk about this being a contingency measure. I would agree; it is an essential contingency measure. It is not our first preference, but it needs to be there as a contingency.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

Q I think it was made clear verbally on Second Reading that the Bill is certainly intended to be a contingency measure—a Bill that would come into operation only if having any other arrangement following Euratom proved not to be possible. I imagine that is what is meant by contingency.

I wonder if you might briefly share with us what you think might be possible so that the Bill is not a contingency, and whether you think the timescale that we have in front of us over the next period is sufficient to bring in either associate membership, perhaps, or similar arrangements with Euratom. Alternatively, if the Bill is to be used as a contingency, do you think that the timescale in front of us—bearing in mind all the detail of the secondary legislation that we need to get through as far as the Bill is concerned—will be sufficient to make that happen?

Sue Ferns:

I think the answer is that we do not feel confident that the timescale is sufficient. From speaking to members in the ONR who essentially have to deliver the key provisions of the Bill, it is clear that they need to build an IT system to log the data properly. They need to have resources to deliver what is required, bearing in mind that we are a heavy utiliser of Euratom resources in the UK. As the previous witness said, we need to make sure that there are inspectors in place to be able to police the regime.

It is easy to say that; it is much more difficult to deliver it. Nuclear inspectors are thin on the ground at the best of times. Absolutely, ONR is doing its very best to try to ensure that it can expand its inspector resources, but I think even ONR feels that it is a challenge. The question is where will these people come from? The only obvious source is from elsewhere in the industry, because there are not qualified nuclear inspectors who are currently out of the labour market. That is absolutely a major challenge. The honest answer to the question is that I do not know whether the timescale is sufficient, but at this stage we certainly do not feel confident about it.

Kevin Coyne:

I would answer that question with two responses. First, as I said, we as a union hoped that we would have remained in Euratom. We do that because we believe there is not a necessity to leave Euratom in effecting Brexit under article 50 and through article 160a. It was possible, I understand, to remain. That is important, because of the uncertainty that we now believe is cast over that.

As I said before, our concern is mainly with our members’ interests and with jobs. Sizewell B, for instance, will be in operation until 2034, and it relies extensively on components from the United States. It is very important that the co-operation agreements that the previous witness talked about are in place by 2019, and there must be serious doubt with the inspectorate in its current state. I believe that the numbers are 160 inspectors, and the ONR has fewer than 10 in place currently. So, there is the training and the programme and—importantly—all of that must cast doubt upon our ability, and if that is the case it will affect the smooth operation of nuclear plants in future, until there is a regime in place that equally matches the plants.

Secondly, I would argue that there is an impact on new nuclear development for the regime. For instance, there is the whole fuel cycle in Britain, which is gearing up to be a serious and important new operator of new nuclear build. We want within that the whole fuel cycle—the whole of the nuclear operation. As you know, in Preston we have a factory—Springfields—that produces fuel, which is wholly dependent on mixed fuels from other nations, co-operation agreements and the operation of Euratom in ensuring that that fuel supply is there and available.

There is a real threat, because of the problems with Westinghouse, that that plant in Preston would suffer as a result of the safeguards not being in place in time. That would result not only in the loss of jobs but in issues for the fuel cycle itself, for Britain’s ability to recreate the whole of the nuclear cycle for the export orders for the industry, and for the jobs that that entails.

Photo of Eleanor Smith Eleanor Smith Labour, Wolverhampton South West

IQ noted that you talked about training and wanting personnel to do work. How long would these individuals need for training?

Kevin Coyne:

I will defer to my colleague, who is from the union that represents these people.

Sue Ferns:

How long to train a nuclear inspector?

Photo of Eleanor Smith Eleanor Smith Labour, Wolverhampton South West

Q Yes, and other people you require, because you said there are numbers that you need. I just wondered how long training would take.

Sue Ferns:

It takes quite a number of years to train a nuclear inspector. Obviously, if you get people from the industry, they have a level of experience, but not in that context. I believe that ONR is considering whether it can provide additional training to some of its other staff, to enable them to take this role. They are people who inspect, but don’t inspect for safeguarding. However, none of that happens overnight. This is a highly skilled, very specialist area, which is why there is such a premium on this source of labour, so it will take a period of time to be able to do that.

Kevin Coyne:

The reputation of the UK nuclear industry and its attendant skills and safety record are things that we, including the trade unions, are very proud of. I would argue that it is important that Euratom inspectors are highly regarded and renowned throughout the world, but that takes time. It is very important to have that reputation, so that people in the rest of the world believe the reports and the regulations that emanate from that.

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Conservative, Copeland

Q I absolutely share your pride in our nuclear industry, and I am certainly looking forward to the future. In terms of the expertise that we already have in this country, my constituency alone has 14,500 Nuclear Industry Association members and 10,000 staff working at Sellafield, many with the skills to lend themselves to being nuclear inspectors. Indeed, the 17 Nuclear Decommissioning Authority sites across Britain are already compliant, which means that they must have staff in place to ensure that compliance, regardless of inspection. Sue, you mentioned not being confident, but what specific steps should we take to provide that confidence?

Sue Ferns:

I think that there are a couple of things. First, as the previous witness said, there should be a clearer timetable for various steps. At the moment there is a deadline and then there are two years. How will we get there? The path is unclear.

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Conservative, Copeland

Q So that critical path when there is project management talk about what steps need to be taken on what date and by whom.

Sue Ferns:

Indeed, and what the risks are at each stage, so that they can be known and are transparent. I am sure that various stakeholders are working on them at the moment, but I do not think that the critical path with the risks at each stage is a transparent timeline at the moment.

Another thing that would build confidence is making it clear that everyone will work to achieve this, but if we do not achieve it, we must have a longer transition period. For the sake of the industry, we absolutely cannot afford to step out of the regime that we have now until it is absolutely clear that there are equivalent standards in place and that they are operating. It is quite difficult to impose an arbitrary timescale on that because, as I said, there are a number of risk factors: specifying, procuring and getting new IT systems up and running—there is not always a great track record on that—and making sure that we have appropriately qualified and skilled inspectors.

Reflecting on the previous question, Kevin is absolutely right: the UK has a first-class reputation. We all know how easily reputations can be lost. They take years to win, but they do not take years to lose. There should be a combination of having the critical path, which is transparent about the risks at each stage, and being clear that if we need a longer transition in this sphere, we should have a longer transition because that is in the interests of the industry.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Shadow Minister (Exiting the European Union)

Q I want to pursue the issue of the time that it will take to get the necessary staff in place. Sue, you said that you were uncertain about the training period. Prior to this Committee, it had been suggested that it could take up to five years to train safeguards inspectors. Is that a reasonable period?

Sue Ferns:

I think that that is a reasonable assumption. The reason I said I was a bit uncertain is that it depends on where you get these people from and what their previous experience is. A reasonable approximation is several years—it is not a matter of months but years for people to be able to do that job. Yes, it is about knowledge and skills—and there are a lot of knowledge and skills in the industry—but there are specific aspects of an inspector’s role. This is a warranted role; this is not just working in the industry. It is not just about knowledge, but experience and commanding the confidence of the companies and the organisations that you deal with, so there are very specific aspects to that role. I think that it is a period of years. Of all the things that worry ONR, this is probably one of the key ones, if not the key one. As I say, I think it is doing the absolute best it can, but this is one of the things that keeps them awake at night.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Shadow Minister (Exiting the European Union)

Q That comment probably reflects the very helpful conversation we had with Dr Golshan this morning. I think we all formed the impression that it is doing its very best, but that there is a real worry about the size of the talent pool from which it could draw. Do you want to reflect on that?

Sue Ferns:

Absolutely. It is a small talent pool, and it is a challenging talent pool even in the best of times. To use what may or may not be an appropriate analogy, it is fishing in a defined and restricted pool, and we are now saying it has to increase its catch from that pool. That is a hard and really difficult thing to do. Also bear in mind that ONR is subject to public sector constraints in its recruitment and payment practices. If it has to compete with the commercial sector, something will have to give in that regard. How can the catch from that limited pool be increased under the constraints it is operating in? The job is getting tougher and bigger, and there are multiple challenges.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Shadow Minister (Exiting the European Union)

Q You said in your evidence, Sue, that you were concerned that the powers of the inspectors were not set out in the Bill. Can you elaborate on exactly what your concerns are?

Sue Ferns:

The concerns are set out in our evidence. If you look at sections 20 to 22 of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and schedule 8 to the Energy Act 2013, they set out in some detail what the powers of the inspectors will be. I know there is reference to that in the schedule to the Bill. These concerns come directly from people who will have to do this job. As warranted inspectors, they feel that it is important to have those powers in the Bill. It is important for purposes of parity, to ensure continuity—these things should not be left to the discretion of future Ministers—and also, as we have discussed, for external confidence in the way the job will be done. That is why we believe very strongly that those powers should be specified. I have not heard an argument to say why, if it is good enough for the 1974 Act and the 2013 Act, we should contemplate a change in practice for this piece of legislation.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

Q May I briefly follow up on that thought? As you say, schedule 8 to the Energy Act 2013 looks like a comprehensive range of powers and definitions for what inspectors can and cannot do, except it excludes nuclear safeguarding from that definition. If nuclear safeguarding were included among those powers for inspectors, would it be the case in your view that what is in the 2013 Act—provided you switched off those prohibitions—would be sufficient to give the inspectors the powers and the arrangements they felt would be necessary for the transfer of inspection from Euratom to ONR? Or are there other matters that you think should perhaps be included in the schedule to the Bill that would comprehensively do the job, as far as those inspectors were concerned?

Sue Ferns:

I think achieving that would be an important step forward. However, as we have set out in our evidence, we have identified three other matters, because you would then have to be clear about what safeguarding means in law. The three bullet points in paragraph 5 of our evidence are points where we think that specific clarity is required in relation to what that would mean in a safeguarding regime. Is that clear?

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

Q One of the problems with schedule 8 to the 2013 Act is that it refers to a number of other bits of legislation. I am not sure whether inspectors’ current powers that are switched off in relation to nuclear safeguarding could simply be transposed into being switched on, bearing in mind what the 2013 Act says about other constraints on inspectors relating to other Acts. I do not know whether that coincides with your concerns about what might or might not be in the legislation, or whether it needs to be achieved by physically placing all of what is in the 2013 Act plus anything else necessary in the Bill or whether that could be achieved by other means. I still have some doubt in my mind. Do you share that doubt, or do you have a better idea about how to do it?

Sue Ferns:

I am not an expert on how to draft legislation, but I understand you are asking whether we should take the schedule from the Energy Act 2013 and put it in the Bill, along with any other points that may need to be included. That is certainly our preference, and it is certainly the preference of the members we represent in these roles.

Kevin Coyne:

In addition, we would indicate that your knowledge is greater than ours at the moment on the 2013 Act. The importance of the inspectorate is its neutrality and independence. If you are saying that there is an element in there that is currently switched off that can be switched on, that would be an important contribution, but you must ensure that it has that neutrality and independence, because that is what gives status and quality to the current inspectorate through Euratom. I do not go to bed at night reading the 2013 Act, but I cannot remember it addressing the independence issue, which I think would be an important element.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

Q I want to get a better understanding of the duties and responsibilities—and, indeed, appointment and placement—of inspectors when we exit the EU. What view might the IAEA take about the readiness or otherwise of the regime when it considers the voluntary agreement that we will have to make with the IAEA when we exit Euratom? Is it your understanding that one of the things that the IAEA will consider is whether we are genuinely ready to undertake the additional work and reporting back to the IAEA rather than Euratom that the voluntary agreement would entail? The IAEA will either come to an agreement based on the fact that we look ready or, alternatively, say that more work is needed before we can come to an agreement. Presumably, however, an agreement will have to be reached by the time we exit the EU.

Sue Ferns:

My understanding is that the IAEA will require certain standards to have been met before anything else can happen. What I understand, though, is that during the Second Reading debate on the Bill, there was a lot of talk about replicating the Euratom powers. My understanding is that that is not necessarily the IAEA hurdle, because I think the IAEA hurdle is slightly lower than replicating the Euratom powers. Certainly, there will be a requirement to meet IAEA standards.

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Conservative, Copeland

Q Just changing tone slightly, I notice, Kevin, that you have a reference to concern around radioactive isotopes. I do not share that concern. I do not understand why you think this is relevant to Euratom, because they are not fissile material. I have not heard of anyone using plutonium or uranium in medical practice. I wonder, if they have not been risk-assessed by the IAEA, why you would feel there is a concern about their falling under the realms of Euratom.

Kevin Coyne:

I think that is an area which is of serious consequence. I think it is generally not well known—the fact that Euratom covers the transportation of materials—or that isotopes that are used in the NHS, for instance, come from Holland and other countries. We do not have the reactors in this country to produce them. I understand what you say about the registration. We highlighted that as a concern because there is a two-day, three-day shelf-life; this comes from us as a union that operates within the NHS at quite an extensive level. In terms of the delivery and transportation of that, there are sometimes delays. So our point is that the change of regimes and the difference in what might occur may cause that to be delayed even further and therefore impact upon the NHS itself. We make no stronger point than that we ought to look at the impact upon isotopes in hospitals.

Photo of Richard Harrington Richard Harrington Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

Q On that point, if I may clarify, given that that has been brought to my attention—I have agreed to see the Royal College and other people who are interested. Is your point that the movement of the isotopes is perhaps to do with what happens with Brexit—that is, the movement of any foreign goods—or is it a Euratom point? We think on the former you have a point, but on the latter you are mistaken.

Kevin Coyne:

A Euratom point—and you think I am mistaken about that?

Photo of Richard Harrington Richard Harrington Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

Well, because I can quite understand the point that they have got to be overnight, or very quickly, and all that kind of thing—would that be affected by a change of law when we Brexit. My advice, though, is very clear; I have asked a lot of people, as you might imagine. It is very much Trudy’s point, which is that, whatever one thinks about Euratom and so on, the medical isotopes are not covered within the fissile definition of Euratom. Do you feel that we are wrong on that, or was your point, “Yes, we’ve got to get them quickly and without paperwork and all that kind of delay”—which may or may not happen afterwards?

Kevin Coyne:

Our information, as I said, was simply that upon the basis of the delays in transportation, due to the change in regime, we thought we ought to have in place a cast-iron security, as we do now, to make sure that those delays do not unnecessarily happen.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

Finally, Alex Norris, before we break for a vote.

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Labour/Co-operative, Nottingham North

Q Thank you. We have heard the Bill characterised in lots of ways—whether it is a place-holder, a contingency. We have heard from yourself and previous speakers about the fear of a lack of clarity about what is on the face of the Bill. What impact is this uncertainty having on staff?

Kevin Coyne:

Generally, among staff in the nuclear industry?

Kevin Coyne:

If the truth be said, I would imagine that a majority of staff still are not aware of the massive ramifications—certainly among my members. Sue is much closer to the issues in terms of the roles that they take. It is becoming more widely known. That certainly was not an issue, as you recall, within the Brexit discussions, so the general knowledge of it is not that great. What is important is that those organisations that do know—you heard from EDF earlier—are now briefing very widely on the impact that it may have, particularly in terms of the items I listed. For instance, the people at Springfields are acutely aware, because of the impact upon that nuclear new build and on nuclear new build projects for the future. There is concern—it is important to say that—but as for whether it is widespread across all the staff, I do not think I could lead you to that view currently, but clearly it will affect all staff that work within the nuclear industry.

Sue Ferns:

Among our members there is quite an awareness of this now. We recently did a survey of all our members in the industry, and well over 80% wanted either to stay in Euratom or in some form of associate membership of Euratom because of the concerns or the uncertainty they had about leaving. I would say that in the research areas, concerns are very high. JET, for example, is already finding it more difficult to recruit because of the uncertainty about the future of the organisation. Of course, the issue there is very much one of the free movement of people. It has a workforce that is 60% EU nationals, so it is a major priority, but across the rest of the industry there are levels of 80% or more expressing a preference for an alternative future.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

On behalf of the entire Committee, I thank both our witnesses, Kevin Coyne and Sue Ferns, for their extremely interesting and useful evidence, which added to our understanding and will be useful in the debates that lie ahead in the next couple of weeks. The Committee will know that there is to be a vote which has to be by 3 pm. Rather than starting the next session, I think we should stop now and do our best to get back by 3.10 pm.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—