Examination of Witness

Nuclear Safeguards Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:12 pm on 31st October 2017.

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Professor Juan Matthews gave evidence.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

I welcome Professor Juan Matthews, a visiting professor at the Dalton Nuclear Institute. I am told that another Division is due within half an hour, so I would like to conclude our discussions by that time and keep remarks brief. Will you start, Professor, by introducing yourself and giving some brief comments on the Bill?

Professor Matthews:

My name is Juan Matthews. I currently work with the Dalton Nuclear Institute of the University of Manchester as a postgraduate teacher of nuclear technology, and I also advise on government and international relations. My previous role was with UK Trade and Investment, which is now the Department for International Trade, where I was a nuclear specialist for a number of years. Prior to that I had a very long career in the nuclear industry, starting as a laboratory assistant in 1962 at the age of 16, working in a fuel development lab, so I have practical experience of coming up against nuclear safeguards.

As far as I am concerned, the Bill is very clear and uncontroversial. The things associated with the Bill are more problematic, as several people who are much better qualified than me have already commented. I would like to point out a couple of things that came up in the recent discussion.

The term “inspector” as it is being used is not clear, in the respect that nuclear inspectors are normally people who look at the safety of facilities; nuclear safeguards are quite different because they require a different set of skills and a different stance. The personnel cannot be interchanged; one cannot just take staff from the Office for Nuclear Regulation and say, “Next week you start doing nuclear safeguards.” It is not as easy as that. There was also a brief mention of isotopes. Of course, that is not at all relevant to the Nuclear Safeguards Bill, but I point out that chapter 9 of the Euratom treaty guarantees the unimpeded transport and tariff-free trade not only of nuclear materials but also of radioactive isotopes used in medicine and industry.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

As you correctly say, that is beyond the scope of the Bill. I did not interrupt earlier but if it comes up again, I will.

Professor Matthews:

I thought I would clarify.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

It is most kind of you. The Minister may want to clarify the difference between inspectors and safeguarders.

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

I do not feel able fully to clarify the point at this juncture, Mr Gray. Usually the mistake is made—not that Professor Matthews would—between safety and safeguarders, but we are looking at the safeguards regime here, which includes physical inspection, mentioned today by quite a few of the people giving evidence, and, though I do not quite know how to use the expression, remote inspection by cameras and other sets of kit, which at the moment belong to Euratom but I am sure will be part of the new safeguards regime.

Professor Matthews:

There are three components in nuclear safeguards. One is nuclear materials accountancy— that is, keeping track of nuclear materials. Then there are two skills that go along with that. One is assaying, determining the amount of nuclear materials—

Professor Matthews:

And observing and recording movements of nuclear materials, without both of which you cannot do the accountancy.

Professor Matthews:

That is quite different from proving a safety case for the operation of a nuclear installation.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

Exceeding my role as Chairman, it might be something you would ask your officials to look into for later consideration during the Bill?

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

They already are. That has answered the point; good.

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Conservative, Copeland

Q May I ask for clarification? You say they already are: will there be some kind of appraisal of the staff skills, knowledge and qualifications required to carry out the function of Euratom in the UK, to determine what skills are required?

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

Why not? It is slightly unusual, but why not?

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

Why not? I am quite happy to. That function, currently done by Euratom, will be done by the new safeguards regime. It will be responsible for examination and testing and making sure there are suitably qualified inspectors, in the same way that Euratom does now.

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)

I think you were in the session when we heard evidence from our previous witnesses this afternoon concerning what is in the Energy Act 2013 and in other Acts concerning the responsibilities and powers of and prohibitions on nuclear inspectors in general. You have made the very precise point that the role of an inspector relating to nuclear safeguarding is certainly not the same as the role of an inspector relating to nuclear safety: they will have different skills and responsibilities. Is it your understanding, however, that what is in the legislation at the moment concerning the overall powers and responsibilities of inspectors is sufficient for the purpose of bringing under the regulation of ONR a number of inspectors who previously would not have been covered by that area of responsibility but would have been reporting to Euratom and covered by whatever Euratom decided was necessary as far as that inspection and safeguarding is concernedQ ?

Professor Matthews:

Clearly, the operation of the Office for Nuclear Regulation requires a range of different roles. I would see no problem with adding an additional role to the range of roles that are already in the organisation. It is just the physical people are different people who do these different things. Indeed, nuclear inspectors themselves have different backgrounds and specialisations, and diverse education as well. I suppose it is extending the range of what the Office for Nuclear Regulation does.

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 From your point of view, there is nothing that you might think needs to be added, over and above what general powers inspectors have, when we are in a situation where inspectors are reporting to ONR—and, presumably, it would then be sufficient simply to add them to the club of the powers of inspectors as they presently stand in legislation?

Professor Matthews:

I would have to look at the documents and examine them in detail to be able to answer that question fully. It is a different role. I would expect it not to be covered within the current definitions in the documents, but I do not have access to them and cannot check that now. But I would be very surprised if it was covered. It would need something added.

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

Q Professor Matthews, you are responsible for training and teaching the next generation of nuclear engineers—no pressure. How ready and willing are they to take up the roles that they are going to need in order to replicate Euratom in this country, and how soon might we be able to think that they may be able and willing to do that?

Professor Matthews:

The young people that I am encountering in my current activities are ready to take on responsibility and do things. I am very impressed by them. I am sure there are people who are capable of taking on these roles. The only problem is that there is competition. Those same people are valuable and can be used in all sorts of ways. Whether it is possible to assemble the right people quickly to be able to avoid any hiatus in the operation of our industry is another matter. Certainly, at the moment, the people that we train have no problems finding jobs.

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

Q The cohort you teach at the moment in Manchester—where are they from?

Professor Matthews:

There are two main programmes I teach on. One is the new generation centre for doctoral training. That is a collaboration between five universities in the north of England and we have a cohort of about 25 a year. That has been going on for the last five years. Almost all of them are British nationals from diverse backgrounds. We have one or two foreign nationals in there, but they are the exception. The other programme I teach on is the nuclear professional development programme, which is a master’s degree for people working part time who are managers in the nuclear industry in the UK. We have had one or two foreign students on that—I even had a commander in the Brazilian navy—but most of the people are British nationals working in our nuclear industry.

Photo of Mary Robinson Mary Robinson Conservative, Cheadle

Q It is great to know that in Manchester you train up these great future scientists; they are the technical, highly skilled jobs that we need. One of your issues and concerns seems to be about having sufficient staff to man the safeguarding progress at a time of high build, because we are building new power stations—so there is that to factor in, as well. To what extent is this an exciting time in the industry for jobs and high-skilled jobs, as well as a challenging one?

Professor Matthews:

It has been a difficult time for us, because there was such a long delay in the announcement of the final investment decision for Hinkley Point C. That made people relax, so it has proved easier to recruit good engineers to join our nuclear programmes at the university as a result. Certainly, the prospect of building 16 GW of nuclear reactors is stimulating the people moving into the industry. But it is not only that. We have to cope with the problems of legacy, decommissioning and radwaste management. There are nuclear fuel cycle industries, very likely with both fuel manufacture and enrichment. All these things require the nuclear safeguards to be operating, and any interruption in that—we are talking about something like £10 billion a year in UK activity that would be interrupted.

Photo of Mary Robinson Mary Robinson Conservative, Cheadle

When you say £10 billion, what is that related toQ ?

Professor Matthews:

That is related to the operation of nuclear power stations in the fuel cycle industry, which consists of processing and manufacturing nuclear fuels, manufacturing the nuclear fuel elements, and enrichment of uranium. The work still going on at Sellafield on reprocessing will stop shortly, but there is the handling of materials from Sellafield for decommissioning and radwaste management, all of which contain higher actinides and uranium, which are covered by the Nuclear Safeguards Act 2000. We need to know what is going into the waste to ensure that we are not making a plutonium mine or something that someone could tap in the future.

Photo of Mary Robinson Mary Robinson Conservative, Cheadle

Q So the training that you are doing and undertaking with the students in Manchester is crucial to the future.

Professor Matthews:

Yes, but it is not enough, even at the rate that we are going. We have two major doctoral programmes in the UK that we co-operate with—one in the south with Imperial College, Cambridge, and the Open University, and one that we have with five universities in the north. That is only about 50 students a year. We need to bring into the industry hundreds of students a year, which means that we must be able to bring in people from around the world, mainly from Europe, but also from more widely around the world.

There is an opportunity from Germany at the moment—its industry is contracting because it is shutting down plants. It does not seem to be managing the decommissioning problem very well, so people are leaving Germany very rapidly.

Photo of Mary Robinson Mary Robinson Conservative, Cheadle

Q Are they being attracted here?

Professor Matthews:

They were, but they are not any more.

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

Q Professor, could we return to your primary concern, which we have also exercised with previous witnesses? It concerns the ability of the ONR to recruit sufficient inspectors by March 2019—you helpfully clarified the difference between safeguarding inspectors and safety inspectors. How likely is it that the ONR could meet the staffing levels necessary to take over the Euratom function in safeguarding by that date?

Professor Matthews:

I heard the recording this morning of the ONR representative. It looks unlikely that it will be fully functioning by March in two years’ time. The question is: how can we bridge the gap until everything is working properly?

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

Q I guess in lots of other areas, having got close and being not quite but almost fully functioning might be satisfactory. In this specific area, what are the consequences of not having a fully functioning safeguarding regime in place?

Professor Matthews:

Springfields, which produces nuclear fuel, will stop working. The Urenco plant at Capenhurst, which is part of three plants in the Netherlands, Germany and the UK, will stop working because it will not be able to move uranium around. We in the UK no longer do conversion, which is changing uranium into uranium hexafluoride, which then goes to the enrichment plant and is converted back to oxide or metal for application. That requires movement, and all of that would stop.

It would be difficult for Sellafield and other decommissioning sites, such as the old research sites at Dounreay, Harwell or Winfrith; some of the work there would grind to a halt as well. Eventually, when the fuel charges were removed from reactors operating in EDF Energy’s plant, those would all stop, which would take something like 9 GW of power out of our network at a time when we are perilously close to blackouts. It would be a very serious measure indeed if there was a hiatus.

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

Thank you for that, Professor Matthews. You are of course using my argument for why we need the Bill; thank you for supporting it. Dr Mina Golshan, whose organisation is responsible for recruiting the 15 people we are talking about, said that recruitment had already started. Once the Bill proceeded beyond Second Reading—I thank everyone, including Opposition Members, for voting for that—it meant that the financial resources needed for the IT and recruitment are provided. We are very well aware of that.

I thank you for your de facto support for the Bill. I have of course noted the points you have made, and I will be very happy to chat about them on another occasion. The purpose of the Bill is precisely to get over some of the obstacles that you are talking about and prevent what you have explained would happen—as we accept would happen—if we did not have a safeguards regime in place.

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 come back briefly on the question of finance? I think we all know that, as a contingency, we need the safeguarding regime that is set out in the Bill. What I think we do not know is what will happen with the various finances involved in the whole process. I characterise that in two ways. First, what will happen to what we previously paid to Euratom, and presumably would have to pay and then recover —as is mentioned in the Bill—via ONR, for the cost of the inspectors, who would previously have been part of our contribution to Euratom but will now be a UK contribution?

Secondly, I understand that the Torus fusion project at Culham will be a subject of safeguarding inspection. Will that be financed, subsequent to our leaving Euratom, in a way that is commensurate with its present level of assistance, which largely comes, as you are aware, from EU funding? Do you have any comment on that?

Professor Matthews:

There is a difficulty here and I do not know if it is recognised in the Bill; it perhaps needs scrutinising. The only mention in the Bill and in these discussions is of our fissile materials. We are talking about uranium, plutonium and other axinite isotopes, and precursors such as thorium, which can be converted into fissile materials. In the case of Culham and the fusion programme, they use tritium. Tritium is a material that comes under safeguards, which is not a fissile material. It is a material that is a component in hydrogen bombs, and it is controlled. I remember getting into trouble as a young scientist. I was asked to assess the use of lithium-6 as an absorber for a fast reactor project. I phoned up a French supplier of lithium-6, and next thing I had security down on me, because tritium is produced from lithium-6 and is a controlled material. I do not know whether any consideration is being made of the control of tritium with respect to Culham and nuclear safeguards.

Professor Matthews:

We are getting into areas that we cannot really discuss here.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

Yes. Perhaps fissile materials are slightly beyond the scope of the Bill.

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

That is beyond the scope of the Bill, but perhaps we could discuss it, although not necessarily now, in the evidence session. I am happy to discuss it, but I suspect that your interpretation is correct, Mr Gray, and it is beyond the narrower scope of the Bill. I am happy to discuss it with the Shadow Minister.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

It does not matter. The scope of the Bill is the scope of the Bill. Let us not get into a chat among ourselves. The reality is that the Bill is as printed, and it is the Bill as printed that we have to discuss, under the long title and the short title. Of course, within that we can amend it as much as we like. My instinct is that the Committee have done our work for the day. Thank you very much, Professor Matthews, for your very useful evidence, both written and in person. I assure you that it will be taken note of in the discussions that lie ahead, starting on Thursday, when my colleague Mr McCabe will be in the Chair. The Committee will see me again, assuming that we sit—we will no doubt sort that out—next Tuesday.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Rebecca Harris.)

Adjourned till Thursday 2 November at half-past Eleven o’clock.

Written evidence reported to the House

NS 01 Prospect

NS 02 Professor R J Barry Jones

NS 03 Nuclear Industry Association

NS 04 Prospect Law