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Nuclear Waste Disposal (Loch Doon)

Volume 976: debated on Friday 21 December 1979

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Le Marchant.]

4 pm

Speaking at this hour of the day, on this day of the week, in this week of the year, and especially on this subject, it occurs to me that this could well be called the Adjournment debate to end them all.

The need to find a safe method for the disposal of nuclear waste is obviously now an even more urgent preoccupation of the Government following the announcement on Tuesday of the development of a major nuclear programme.

Incidentally, on that matter I ask the Minister to explain why the Government have broken their promise, given to me, among others, in the Minister's letter of 30 October, that a full public debate would precede any commitment to a major nuclear programme. No such debate has been announced. It is this kind of duplicity which results in the understandable scepticism amongst my constituents, and others in Scotland, about the likelihood of getting a fair hearing on the question of nuclear waste.

This question would not arise if, instead of a headlong rush into nuclear power generation, substantial resources were now put into research and development of alternative means of energy production from the unlimited sources such as solar, wind and wave power, which are no longer fanciful but show great practical potential.

It would not arise if we put substantial resources into the conservation of energy and accepted that, with Scotland's current energy overcapacity of about 70 per cent. predictions about energy gaps are wild and speculative. It would not arise if greater investment were put into developing the vast reserves of coal which lie beneath the United Kingdom, especially Scotland, from which we can now produce petroleum and other products.

Instead, the commercial pressures from profit seekers have pushed the Government down a very dangerous path, while the lessons of the Three Mile Island accident have resulted in caution elsewhere, where the cost and dangers of decommissioning reactors within only a few decades have not been taken account of and, above all, where there is no guarantee of being able to dispose of the highly radioactive and dangerous waste.

If we have nuclear power generation, I accept that there will be nuclear waste, but it must be either destroyed or isolated from man's environment, for it is highly radioactive. The most direct hazard is from gamma radiation which can both cause cancer and induce genetic defects in future generations. Bernard L. Cohen, in Scientific American of June 1977, says of the effects of the waste that, if the United States energy programme were totally produced by nuclear generation and the source of radiation were to be distributed over the entire land surface of the USA,
"The number of fatal cancers per year induced could be as high as many millions".
Of course, this is an unlikely scenario, but it gives us some idea of the danger of the substance that we are dealing with.

So far, there is no prospect of being able either to neutralise or to destroy the waste, so the major effort is being put into looking for some way of removing it from man's environment. In the United Kingdom, as the Secretary of State for the Environment announced, work is being undertaken by the UKAEA as part of an EEC funded programme, and the United Kingdom effort is into the possibility of depositing nuclear waste in deep geological strata, principally of the granitic type.

We have been asked by the Government to accept that these are purely "scientific research studies" dealing with the type of rock, and not the specific area in question, and that it will be at least 10 years before the second stage of a "demonstration facility" is envisaged, and a further decade before an actual disposal facility is planned. I can say categorically that many of my constituents consider that this is a deliberately mis- leading impression. I share that view and will give the reasons why.

First, on Monday in Ayr, the reporter did not talk of scientific research, but said that no one was making any pretence of the purpose of the application by the Atomic Energy Authority to bore in the hills near Loch Doon. It was, he said, to determine the suitability of putting atomic waste there. The Government are still making a pretence, as the Minister's letter to me of 14 December confirms.

Secondly, if the Minister refers to the letter from the EEC Commission to the Council of Ministers dated 5 March 1979, proposing the next five-year programme, he will see that it proposes a major increase in expenditure on the radioactive waste management programme. It says that that increase can be accounted for by the rise in costs on moving from the research stage to the pilot installation phase in the next five years and moving from the use of equipment under non-active conditions to its use in the presence of radioactivity. It says also that the results obtained so far under the first programme are giving more and more evidence that geological formations are suitable for the disposal concept.

It appears that the EEC expects to move on to the next stage within the next five years, and that the favoured site is in the United Kingdom. Since the planning procedure on the other sites in the United Kingdom has not been pushed by the Atomic Energy Authority, there is a widespread belief that it is determined that the Loch Doon site will be exploited at all costs. Can we really be asked to believe that, if Loch Doon is successful in the research phase, there will be a swift move on to a demonstration facility, and subsequently to a final disposal site at Loch Doon?

This country is not a dictatorship, and I had thought that our procedures provided that the will of the people should prevail. In the saga of Loch Doon, so far, that has not been the case. The Atomic Energy Authority made application to bore at Loch Doon to the local planning authority—Kyle and Carrick district council. The AEA said that it would accept the decision of the district council.

The district council carried out an extensive exercise in local democracy with a well-publicised and well-attended meeting to consider all aspects of the application with the AEA on the one side and the objectors on the other, both being extensively heard. After careful consideration, the local, democratically elected authority overwhelmingly rejected the application.

In spite of its previous promise to accept the local decision, the AEA appealed against it. In May of this year, the Secretary of State set up a public inquiry. Such an inquiry, however, is already being shown to be entirely inappropriate for a matter of national importance—for that is what it is—with such technical and scientific aspects as it is having to consider.

Despite my pleas, and those of many others, the Secretary of State has steadfastly refused to widen the terms of the inquiry or to provide financial help to objectors, who now face the prospect of three separate inquiries—first, on the present application, then on any subsequent application for the demonstration facility, and finally for the disposal site, if that were to go ahead. All of that is entirely beyond the means of the relatively poor mining community in the Doon Valley, while the AEA has seemingly unlimited resources and has already engaged not one but two advocates for the coming inquiry.

To add difficulty upon difficulty for objectors, due apparently to bungling in the Scottish Office, some of the objectors were not even informed of the pre-inquiry meeting that the reporter held in Ayr on Monday. As a result, he had to arrange a second meeting in the new year.

In the light of that, and of the major debates on nuclear energy that are going to take place now, in spite of the Government, and of the likelihood of severe weather in Ayrshire and Galloway in February, my first question to the Minister is to ask him whether it would now be wise to postpone the inquiry. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to answer that question today.

I have two further questions that I hope the Minister will be able to answer. First, in the light of the evidence that I have given to him today, especially that from the EEC, in the light of the reporter's admission that the application is the first part of a continual programme which could result in the eventual deposit of waste at Loch Doon, and in the light of the fact that we were told on Monday that at the enquiry a Government representative will be giving evidence of the waste management policy of the Government, will the Minister accept, as the reporter accepted on Monday, that objectors may give evidence on the wider aspects of the application, and that the evidence will be considered to be material by not merely the reporter but the Secretary of State when he considers the reporter's findings?

Secondly, will the hon. Gentleman give an assurance that, if the reporter finds against the Atomic Energy Authority and supports the view of the elected district council and the people of Ayrshire, the Secretary of State will not bow to pressures from above and overturn the recommendation? I shall be grateful to have that assurance in advance. It will give some encouragement to those who are facing the prospect of the inquiry.

The Minister and the Government should not be deceived by the moderate tone of my presentation today. I assure them that I shall be fighting alongside the people of South Ayrshire to stop the plan for Loch Doon to become the nuclear waste dump for Europe. We shall do everything within our means to ensure that the will of the people prevails.

That is all that I have to say on the subject. As the last Labour Member to speak in the Chamber in 1979, it would be remiss of me if I did not extend to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the compliments of the season. I thank you for your courtesy during my few months in this Chamber. On this occasion I extend the compliments of the season to the Minister, who on this occasion I can describeas "my hon. and learned Friend".

4.12 pm

I begin by echoing the sentiments of the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Foulkes). I extend to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the compliments of the season. I reciprocate those that the hon. Gentleman directed to me. Any hon. Member who chooses to raise a debate on the Adjournment of the House, and on the final Adjournment debate before the House rises for Christmas, cannot be criticised for neglect by his constituents. I am happy to pay that tribute to the hon. Gentleman.

I recognise the concern of the hon. Gentleman and that of his constituents about the planning inquiry in the Loch Doon area. It is legitimate and appropriate that he should ventilate the issue in the House. I hope that what I have to say will reassure the hon. Gentleman and his constituents that many of the concerns that he has expressed are not substantial in practice and need not lead to the problems that he has indicated.

There has been considerable misunderstanding about the whole inquiry. I regret to say that the title of the debate adds to the misrepresentation, although I am sure that that was not done deliberately by the hon. Gentleman. Contrary to the title of the debate, no public inquiry into nuclear waste disposal is to be held. That applies to the one that has been determined on Loch Doon and to others in the foreseeable future. The public inquiry to which the hon. Gentleman referred is of a limited nature. It will be bound by the terms of reference that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has determined. As my right hon. Friend indicated in his recent speech to the Ayr Conservative Association, the terms of reference of the inquiry are specifically limited to test boring and the siting of several portable caravans. It is important to emphasise that on every available opportunity.

As my right hon. Friend indicated, irrespective of the result of the inquiry, there is no question of nuclear waste disposal in the Loch Doon area or in any other part of Scotland or of the United Kingdom. That applies to projects that are now going ahead and to future projects for many years to come. In the Government's view, it will be at least 10 years before any question of a repository for nuclear waste of a purely demonstration type can be considered, even on the assumption that the Government want to establish one. It will be beyond the turn of the century before any question of the permanent establishment of nuclear waste is considered, even if the Government are to come to that conclusion.

How does the hon. Gentleman reconcile that statement with the evidence that I have produced from the European Commission?

I shall be coming to that in the course of my remarks.

Irrespective of the results of the inquiry, the question of nuclear waste disposal is completely open. It is an issue on which the Government have no view at present. The Government are completely neutral about the inquiry and the wider subject to which the hon. Gentleman has referred.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the procedure meeting that was held at Ayr on 17 December. He suggested that the meeting was unsatisfactory. That I cannot accept. It was carried out normally.

The decision of the reporter to hold a second meeting on 4 January was not unprecedented. There have been other occasions on which two meetings of this kind have been considered to be appropriate. I should indicate that the meeting on 4 January will be advertised, and therefore there will be no difficulty for those who wish to attend it to do so. It is important to emphasise that the procedures which are being applied to the inquiry are the same as those which have been applied to many other inquiries. That is right and proper.

The hon. Member for South Ayrshire made a strong plea for the public inquiry, which has been fixed for 19 February, to be delayed. I cannot support that suggestion. The Secretary of State had originally hoped that the inquiry could be held in November this year. He was anxious that a decision should be made in order to dispel the uncertainty which will inevitably continue until the matter has been resolved.

In the light of representations made by the parties, particularly the district council, it was decided to delay that inquiry. The date of 19 February was agreed by the Kyle and Carrick district council and the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority. Nothing that has happened since then has indicated either to the Government or to the reporter that the date is inappropriate.

The hon. Member for South Ayrshire suggested that the reporter took a different view. That is not the case. I emphasise that the reporter has not indicated on any occasion that be believes that the date is inappropriate. The hon. Member indicated that weather conditions in February might make it difficult for persons to attend the inquiry. The reporter has the discretion to adjourn the inquiry if, on the day in question, it is clear, because of weather conditions, that important personalities have not been able to attend the inquiry. It is matter which is entirely within the discretion of the reporter.

The hon. Member also—unintentionally, I am sure—misrepresented the reporter in suggesting that he considered the inquiry to go beyond the question of test boring as part of the process to deal with nuclear waste. As the hon. Member will appreciate, and as the reporter is well aware, the reporter's remit is determined by the terms of reference laid down by the Secretary of State. The terms of reference are well known and I shall not repeat them.

The documents before the inquiry will be fourfold. There will be the application for planning permission from the Atomic Energy Authority, the certificate of refusal of planning permission, stating the grounds of refusal, the appeal against that refusal, stating grounds of appeal, and the observations by the planning authority on the grounds of appeal.

The question of atomic dumping will not be relevant, because it is not within the terms of reference laid down by the Secretary of State. Irrespective of the results of the inquiry, the question of atomic dumping will not be resolved for many years. There will be many other opportunities for inquiries and consideration of that matter.

The hon. Member rightly expressed concern about the costs for potential objectors. For that reason, the Secretary of State is anxious to emphasise to all those interested in the matter that they should not seek to incur substantial costs. The matter to be determined by the inquiry is a minor matter compared with the overall issue. The issue that will be determined as a result of the inquiry is test boring for geological research and the siting of several caravans. It would be unwise for members of the public or anyone else to incur substantial costs. I hope that the hon. Member for South Ayrshire will make that clear to his constituents.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the fact that there will be a representative from the Scottish Office at the inquiry. I emphasise that the purpose of that representative will not be, as he indicated, to give evidence on the Government's policy on nuclear waste. A document will have been circulated before the inquiry stating Government policy on the geological research programme, of which the Loch Doon planning application forms part. The document will cover such matters as geological research activities elsewhere in Britain, including England and Wales, as well as in Scotland. The document will not cover nuclear dumping. At present there is no proposal involving the use of radioactive waste, nor is there likely to be for at least 10 years.

The senior official from the Scottish Office who will be present at the inquiry will be there to give evidence on any factual matters which relate to the document that has been circulated, and it is hoped that this will be to the assistance of the reporter and other parties. He will not be there to enter into a debate either about Government policy as a whole or about any matter that is not directly relevant to the planning inquiry.

There are two very serious discrepancies between what the Minister says today and what the reporter said on Monday. The first is that the reporter said quite clearly that he would be able to take a much wider view because he saw that as the first part of a process which could—not would but could—involve the eventual dumping of nuclear waste in Loch Doon. He also made clear that the representative from the Scottish Office would be talking not just about the geological study that was taking place but also what followed on from that and the reason behind it. That is sensible, because one cannot talk about pure geological studies without discussing what those studies are for. It would be helpful if the Minister were to check these discrepancies. I can assure him—and I think that anyone who was at the meeting on Monday will assure him—that the reporter said something quite different from what he appears to be saying to the Minister.

I have studied the report of the meeting to which the hon. Member refers, and I think that he has misunder- stood what the reporter has said. I am in a position to indicate what the representative of the Scottish Office will be saying and, indeed, what the contents of the document that he will be circulating will refer to. It will be precisely on the issues that I have already indicated.

The evidence that the reporter will be prepared to consider is a matter entirely for him. We have given no instructions to the reporter as to what evidence should be considered admissible or inadmissible. It is for the reporter to decide whether the evidence submitted to him is relevant to the matters on which he has been asked to report. As in every other inquiry—and there is no distinction in this case—the reporter is the master of the situation at the time of the inquiry and will be able to determine whether evidence is irrelevant. I ask the hon. Member to accept that.

The hon. Member also referred to the question of the EEC's policy and asked whether any decisions or reports by the Community affected the matter in issue. The Community's second five-year programme on radioactive waste management is an indirect action programme which takes the form of agreed national research projects in which duplication of effort can be avoided and some EEC financial support provided. I emphasise that the EEC programme does not in any way commit the United Kingdom—or, for that matter, any other national Government—on the timing of either research work or any fur her developments that might arise out of that research work.

Other member States may, if they wish, consider establishing demonstration repositories within a shorter period than the United Kingdom. I have no evidence to suggest that they ask to do so, but if they do it is entirely for them. The time scale for the United Kingdom is the time scale that I have indicated today. It is the time scale that has been indicated on previous occasions by my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department of Energy. I ask the hon. Member to accept that.

The EEC support for research carried absolutely no implications whatever for the disposal of radioactive waste, which remains entirely a matter for national Governments. I hope that the hon. Member will accept this.

The hon. Member referred to the letter that I wrote to him on 30 October 1979 and suggested that it was inconsistent with the decision that has been announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy. It is not inconsistent. The hon. Member may recollect that my letter of 30 October was the latest in a series of letters. If he will look at the earlier letter of 26 September that I sent to him, he will find that it was quite clear that the matter of a public debate referred to any question of the Government beginning a policy of commitment to a fast breeder reactor. That was the particular recommendation of the Flowers Commission—that there should not be any commitment to the fast breeder reactor without a public debate. It was on that matter that he and I were corresponding at the time and, indeed, no decision that the Government have announced at this stage involves any commitment whatever to a fast breeder reactor system. There is, therefore, nothing inconsistent, and I am sure that if the hon. Member will check the correspondence, he will come to the same conclusion.

Geological research, if it takes place, is a matter of great public interest. The Government accept that the results of that research—if and wherever it takes place—should be published so that all who are interested may come to a useful and sensible conclusion on the direction in which we might have to go. We hope that the information, when published, will be expressed not simply in scientific jargon—inexplicable and incomprehensible to 99·9 per cent. of the population, including my- self and, I am sure, the hon. Gentleman—but in such terms that members of the community can make their own intelligent assessment and contribution to the resolution of this issue.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman, who is influential in South Ayrshire, will not say or do anything to cause needless alarm among local residents. Nothing that has been decided at this stage, nor that will be decided as a result of the inquiry, will in any way commit anyone to nuclear waste dumping. It would be unfair, unfortunate and undesirable that people in Ayrshire, or in any other part of the United Kingdom, should be needlessly alarmed on that basis about proposals that have no substance and no justification.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue. He was right to do so. I hope that the points that I have made today will reassure him and, more importantly, his constituents about the consequences of present policy.

Before adjourning the House, I should like to thank both the Minister and the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Foulkes) for their kind remarks. I wish them, the whole House and the staff of the House, who serve us so well, my best wishes for a very happy Christmas.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes past Four o'clock till Monday 14 January pursuant to the Resolution of the House of 18 December.