Project ISOLUS

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:46 pm on 6th January 2004.

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Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence 3:46 pm, 6th January 2004

I congratulate Mr. Reid on securing this debate on Project ISOLUS. I hope that you have not had a surfeit of Scottish accents in this debate and the preceding debate, Sir Nicholas. The earlier debate was illuminating, and it shows the strength of the UK Parliament when Scottish Members debate matters that are important for the UK.

Project ISOLUS embraces a commitment to consult widely and to follow best practice. As the hon. Gentleman said, an independent institution, Lancaster university, was appointed to formulate and run the consultation process. As a result, we have asked the public to review the outline ideas put forward by Lancaster university. The process is up-front and transparent, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman recognises and welcomes that.

Of course, the hon. Gentleman raises understandable and legitimate concerns, which I shall address later. However, I would first like to set out the background to the project. Britain's nuclear submarines have patrolled the world for more than 40 years, and they are a potent and effective force that is central to our country's defence. As well as the ability to strike against ships and submarines and to support land operations, the Vanguard class ensures that our policy of nuclear deterrence is met. However, as those submarines come to the end of their life, we owe it to future generations to ensure that we can safely store them until a national radioactive waste management policy is finalised.

As the hon. Gentleman said, 11 redundant nuclear submarines are stored afloat—seven at Rosyth and four at Devonport. For some 20 years, that has been proved to be safe and it continues to be so. All those submarines have been de-fuelled, with all the highly radioactive material removed to secure storage by British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. at Sellafield in Cumbria.

I stress this important point: Project ISOLUS is not concerned with reactor fuel or high-level radioactive waste. There has been too much misreporting and misunderstanding on that point, and I hope that this debate helps to set the record straight. The submarines, minus their fuel, are regularly inspected and maintained. The residual irradiated steel in the submarine's reactor plant compartment is classified as intermediate level waste and must be managed accordingly. It is contained within the hull, and the robust shielding ensures that radioactivity on the outside of the submarine is so small that it is not measurable against normal background radiation levels. Indeed, standing outside the hull of one of those de-fuelled submarines continuously for 20 days has a similar effect to flying to California once. Leaving the irradiated steel within submarines stored afloat is therefore very safe. It presents no direct hazard to the work force, general public or surrounding environment.

Under current plans, however, a further 16 nuclear submarines will be withdrawn from service and de-fuelled over the coming years and the availability of suitable space is heavily constrained. We are committed to not adding to the seven submarines stored at Rosyth, and the basin space at Devonport will be used up by 2012. The hon. Gentleman referred to the additional basin at Devonport as though his solution were to impose the matter somewhere else in the country away from his area. However, the additional basin is tidal and is therefore not suitable.

With sea dumping not being an option, alternative long-term interim storage must be found. That is why we have instituted Project ISOLUS. I emphasise that we are seeking a suitable interim arrangement, which does not prejudge the options for a national radioactive waste management policy being considered by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the devolved Administrations. That will no doubt be debated in the course of the progress through the House of the Energy Bill.

It will be some years before that policy is set. Because we face physical storage pressures, we have to act in advance of it. What we are doing is necessary, sensible and transparent. There is no hidden agenda, as some would have us believe. In 1998, the Government approved phase 1 of ISOLUS to look at alternatives to storage afloat. We concluded that intermediate level waste—either within a complete reactor plant compartment or reduced to packaged waste—provided the best overall interim solution. Storing whole submarines on land is not viable; they are far too big and difficult to move any distance when out of the water.

Following expressions of interest from industry during 2000, five outline commercial and technical proposals were received in May of last year, one of which was subsequently withdrawn. The proposals are not exhaustive and other options could arise. In addition, the industry continues to develop and refine ideas. Storing the reactor compartments complete, with the irradiated steel contained within them, has its merits, but the compartments are large, as the hon. Gentleman said.

Cutting up the reactor compartments and packaging the irradiated steel within them makes transportation easier and reduces the storage space required, but requires additional measures to ensure that the work is undertaken safely. Either route must, of course, be underwritten by appropriate safety cases and secure the approval of the Health and Safety Executive's nuclear installations inspectorate. The agreement of the Environment Agency or the Scottish Environment Protection Agency must also be obtained if radioactive discharges are involved.

We retain an open mind on a way forward. No decision has been taken, nor will one be taken for some three years, during which there will be another period of public consultation. We have made it clear throughout that public consultation is an important aspect of the ISOLUS project and I will describe how we are going about it. The first of the three planned consultation rounds took place in 2001. The front-end consultation, as it was known, was conducted by Lancaster university, and 65 recommendations were put forward to the Ministry of Defence, covering a variety of issues that the public believed should be considered further.

One of the recommendations supported the decision to discontinue afloat storage; we have embraced that and all the others except one. We have clearly set out why we are unable to accept that particular recommendation. Key among the recommendations accepted were the continuation of a policy of openness and trust with the public and that nuclear and environmental safety is paramount.