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Nuclear Waste (Transport)

Volume 981: debated on Monday 24 March 1980

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

1.8 am

I am glad to have the opportunity of raising the subject of the transportation of nuclear waste, because this matter causes great concern, in particular to my constituents. There is also general concern about the matter in London as a whole. Indeed, I know that the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Pavitt) sought an Adjournment debate on the same subject. I am sure that my hon. Friends in the London area are equally concerned.

Concern about the transportation of this waste is felt not only by what I call the minority of anti-nuclear cranks but by a large number of ordinary citizens who reside near the railways in my constituency. My purpose in this debate is to bring the subject into the open, because I believe that fear arises largely from ignorance. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to reassure those who are anxious.

First, I query whether the development of nuclear energy is necessary, and whether the consequences of not proceeding with such a policy would cause even greater misery than the transportation of waste. For example, what would be the effect of not having such a policy on our standard of living, our ability to trade in the world, and our defences? All these factors must be considered.

It is interesting that only today it was announced that Sweden, which is usually a cautious country, has decided to proceed with a fairly substantial nuclear energy programme.

If, as I happen to believe, it is necessary to proceed with the development of nuclear energy, we must ask—I hope that the Minister will reply—why this nuclear waste material has to be transported by rail as opposed to road or, indeed, by sea, as some have suggested. Can my hon. Friend tell us for how long this material has been transported in flasks by rail and what accidents or near misses have occurred during this period?

I hope that it is not considered to be a selfish Harrow or London point, but what consideration has been given to the possibility of this waste being transported through less densely populated areas? What tests have been conducted in anticipation of accidents on the railways? What tests have taken place to determine what happens to these flasks in a high-speed impact? This is very important to my constituents. The Minister will understand why they are anxious, because in 1952 perhaps the most appalling accident occurred at Harrow and Wealdstone station, with enormous loss of life, and that accident is indelibly imprinted upon the memories of many of my constituents. Recently, on the same line, only a few miles away at Watford and Bushey, there was a further accident, though happily not as serious as the previous one, and there have been derailments in the North Wembley area.

If such an accident occurs and flasks containing nuclear waste are involved, will the Minister state whether they explode? I understand that there is no danger of their exploding, but to listen to some one would think that a great mushroom cloud was going to appear over the whole of Greater London. What happens if fire ensues? Are these flasks vulnerable to prolonged fire before the fire services can come to the rescue?

Are the drivers of trains carrying nuclear waste in radio contact so that they can communicate with the emergency services immediately something untoward occurs? Can my hon. Friend assure the House and my constituents that after an accident, a derailment or a fault with a train the wagons are not merely put into a siding to be left for several days where they can be at the mercy of vandals, children, or anyone else?

What would be the consequences of the escape of this material from the flask? How does nuclear waste compare with other radioactive material which is all about us? Would it not be a sensible idea to hold some sort of practical exercise, involving British Rail, the Central Electricity Generating Board and the emergency services, to test the procedures to be followed in the event of the escape of hazardous materials from a major rail collision or accident?

On these procedures, how do we compare with those of other countries? I understand that regulations are of an international nature, but I would be interested to know whether in Great Britain we are observing these as scrupulously and as accurately—indeed, perhaps more so; I hope that the Minister will tell us —as other nations that have similar situations.

Have the Government, or British Rail or the CEGB, considered the possible risks of a terrorist attack, or other criminal attack? It is within the memory of nearly all of us that in 1962 the Great Train Robbery took place. That was an occasion on which British Railways were certainly caught napping. In that case only money was involved, but here much more dangerous substances and consequences could be involved, particularly if it were a terrorist attack.

Obviously, I do not expect for a moment, of course, that the Minister would explain the details of what precautions are being taken. However, I should like his reassurance that the Government and the railway authorities are alert to the possibility of a terrorist attack and are taking the necessary precautions.

The nub of the debate is the expression of the hope that the Minister can allay the fears of the people of Harrow and, indeed, of the whole of Greater London and no doubt of other parts of the country, through which these materials are routed. The last thing that we want is to get into such a situation and a state of panic that we have to have a man with a red flag walking in front of these trains. Some of the arguments that I have heard seem to suppose that that is the only way that we should handle this matter.

We need this matter brought out into the open. We need a great deal of information and reassurance in order to prevent the epidemic of hysteria, which can be so damaging, from developing in some ill-informed quarters.

These trains are marshalled in Newham, which I represent. On the question of routes, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Does he agree that we should be prudent even if the flasks are very safe? In addition, prudence might suggest the use not of the high-speed railways but perhaps other routes throughout the country, which might be more appropriate. Does he agree that answers to these questions might reassure the public?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I shall be interested to hear what the Minister has to say on that matter. I should like to feel that the authorities have considered all possible routes. I shall not be selfish and merely say that Harrow should be bypassed. I simply want to hear that the matter has been fully looked into. If the Minister tells me that the trains must go through Harrow, or the hon. Gentleman's constituency, I shall accept it, provided that we are satisfied that all safety precautions are taken.

1.18 am

The hon. Member for Harrow, Central (Mr. Grant) has done the House a service in emphasising the importance of openness in the consideration of the transportation of nuclear waste. His debate is timely in a respect of which, perhaps, when he initiated it, he was not aware. That was the publication of the Health and Safety Executive's Nuclear Installations Inspectorate's report on the transfer of plutonium nitrate from Dounreay, in my constituency, to Windscale. I greatly welcome the report and the thoroughness with which the whole question has been examined.

I also congratulate the Government on the way in which they have handled the report and on the efforts that the Government and the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority have made to disseminate the report so that local authorities in the vicinity can understand its findings and more fully grasp the issues at stake.

As the hon. Member for Harrow, Central said, it is right that if the public's legitimate questions are to he answered there must be complete openness on such issues. Openness does not mean that all the questions that are raised will necessarily be answered to the satisfaction of a layman. It means that those who have genuine questions can put them to the test of the opinion and study of those most qualified to answer. If the Government continue their programme as they began it—particularly the Department of the Environment, which is responsible for nuclear safety—we can take satisfaction from that.

Perhaps the Minister will ensure that that policy of openness, frankness and the most thorough and full investigation of safety, will continue. The nuclear programme should not go ahead in advance of public acceptance of its absolute safety.

1.20 am

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, Central (Mr. Grant) for raising this subject. It has taken up much of my time since I took up this post. Once I discovered that one of my responsibilities was the transport of spent nuclear fuel by rail and road, I realised that a great deal of legitimate public concern existed.

I agree that part of that concern is generated by the anti-nuclear lobby. Some of that lobby deserve my hon. Friend's description of "anti-nuclear nuts". They put forward unfounded fears, allegations and rumours about how such substances are carried. The general lay public is happy to see the development of nuclear power, provided that is it is essential for our energy policies, but may wish to be reassured that proper priority is given to safety and that undue risks are not taken.

As a layman with no technical expertise in this subject, I had to discuss the issue with experts both inside and outside my Department. I had to satisfy myself that I could legitimately reassure the public that, to the best of my knowledge, these materials were being carried safely. So far, I have been able to do so. I am glad to have this opportunity of putting across what I have discovered about this subject. I am happy to answer some of the extremely silly rumours that have flown about. I go along with the policy advocated by the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan). The path of openness is the only path for a Government to take. We should use the best of lay language to describe this highly technical subject and we should state exactly what is happening. An informed and intelligent public can then decide for themselves. I hope that they will be reassured.

It is a vital part of the energy programme to make the best use of nuclear power if that can be done in a safe and satisfactory fashion. Indeed, it is an important part of our energy programme to lessen our eventual dependence on fossil fuels and imported fuels. The Government must therefore look to the proper and safe development of nuclear power in order to maintain our living standards as an advanced Western industrial country.

It is well known that last December the Government announced a further 15 gigawatts of new capacity over 10 years from 1982—being our judgment of a safe and proper progress towards the greater use of nuclear power in Britain. There is a recycling plant at Windscale. It provides a valuable means of recycling spent nuclear fuel and of getting further energy out of that fuel. It is also a thriving industry. It has been subject to extremely close scrutiny in a full Windscale planning inquiry, which reported in 1977.

Turning to the question how to transport spent nuclear fuel materials round the country, from power stations to Windscale, or the plutonium nitrate that leaves Dounreay and travels by land and sea to Windscale, we should remind ourselves what was said by that inquiry as a result of its exhaustive investigations into the prospects of recycling spent nuclear fuel at Windscale.

I shall quote the conclusion expressed by the inspector, who said:
"I am satisfied on the evidence that the transport of spent fuel creates no significant risk and that such risks as may exist are less than those involved in the transport of other substances which cause no alarm to any substantial section of the public. The position appeared to me to be so clear that I say no more about it."
When I read some of the sillier allegations in the newspapers I wonder how the inspector reached that conclusion. There is a substantial basis for it. More effort has been devoted to the safe transport of nuclear material than to any other traffic. As a purely personal parenthesis, there are other forms of traffic which are taken by rail where it is necessary to carry out more work on their proper and safe transport.

The standards that we follow when transporting nuclear material are international standards, adhered to by all advanced countries that transport radioactive material on any scale. The stand- ards are laid down by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is an agency of the United Nations. Our experts in Britain and in the Department are closely involved in drawing up the necessary regulations to meet those standards. They are among the most respected in the world, and they make a significant contribution to the constant revision of regulations.

The first IAEA regulations were devised in 1961, and since that time they have been revised regularly in the light of scientific advance's ever constant attempts to improve precautions. When considering the history of the transport of these materials it is worth noting that we have been transporting nuclear fuel in Britain for 18 years without any incident that has caused alarm. During that time about 9,000 tonnes of spent fuel have been carried on the railway, over 3 million rail miles. It is only recently that considerable public excitement has been aroused—not because there has been any serious incident but because more publicity has been given to the possibility of a further advance of the nuclear programme. Some anti-nuclear campaigners are turning to the transport of spent fuel by rail.

These irradiated nuclear fuels are carried under higher safety standards than any other material carried in Britain. It is worth making clear exactly what is the material that we are discussing. It is colloquially referred to as nuclear waste. It is mainly uranium fuel that has irradiated in a nuclear reactor to produce the energy to generate electricity.

The spent fuel contains a valuable mixture of uranium and plutonium. The uranium is extracted at Windscale for re-use in power stations. About 1 per cent of the material remains as actual waste after reprocessing. We move these irradiated fuel elements from the power stations to Windscale in massively constructed steel flasks. They weigh about 50 tonnes and incorporate massive shielding to reduce the radiation from the fuel to the levels laid down in the international regulations. They cost about £250,000 each, and are designed to meet the IAEA safety standards. They are transported only in accordance with detailed requirements.

I have seen the flasks, which are now appearing in photographs. I clambered over them when I visited Windscale to see how they were handled when they arrived there. To any layman they are a massive construction. Among the many myths that I hope I can dispel is the idea that if they are temporarily left in sidings they can be interfered with by passers-by. They weigh around 50 tonnes. The weight of the lead alone is substantial. The idea that some casually passing children might be able to clamber on to the equipment, unscrew the lid and play with the contents is one of the sillier myths that have been propagated by the newspapers.

The flasks are perfectly safe to go near, and require heavy, specially constructed lifting equipment to get inside by any legitimate means. The aim of their design is to make sure that they can not only withstand interference from passers-by but withstand impact in the middle of the most severe rail accident—far more severe than those they are likely to encounter on any ordinary railway used in this country. The whole design of these flasks is to ensure that they can withstand the most severe circumstances that one would reasonably contemplate.

My hon. Friend asked what would happen if one of these flasks failed to withstand pressure, or if we were wrong about them and one was smashed open or broken in the course of an impact or some other untoward event. Many people imagine a massive explosion taking place. There are bogus experts, some of whom I have met, who give the impression that a great explosion would take place. They ask me how I would evacuate many thousands of people in a short time.

I am glad that nothing so dramatic would occur. Making a hole might lead to some radiation within the immediate vicinity of the flask, as a result of radiation emitted through the hole and from possible leakage of contaminated water. This could lead to oxidation of the fuel elements, with substantial slow release over a period of hours of a small proportion of the flask contents. But appropriate measures could be taken to counter this. There would be no question of the immediate release of immense amounts of radioactivity on the scale that has been claimed. Far from there being a massive nuclear explosion, involving the evacuation of thousands of people in Newham, Harrow or Paddington, the effect would be a serious seepage of contaminated water on the ground, which would certainly involve sealing off part of the siding for some time thereafter. But that is a danger against which we take considerable precautions.

I deal now with the precautions, because they, too, have been attacked by people who claim expertise in this area. The regulations are very well tried internationally and are adhered to by the advanced countries, which, so far, have not had difficulties. It has been said that the regulations are not sufficiently severe. One common remark that has been repeated very often is that flask designs are tested for impact only up to 30 mph. That figure sounds rather low for rail transport, but it is not the right figure and it is deliberately misleading.

The point is that 30 mph is the terminal velocity in the IAEA nine-metre free fall drop test. But the tests are not intended directly to simulate accidents. By introducing other particular factors into the test it is possible to reproduce the sort of maximum damage effects that might be expected to occur in a more serious foreseeable accident. In the drop test the target must be assumed to be unyielding, which means that all the impact energy is absorbed into the flask itself. Additionally the flask is assumed to impact in what is considered likely to be its most vulnerable attitude. This would by no means be the case in a real accident. The combination of those features is such that one is simulating a far more serious accident than a nearly 30 mph collision and far more energy is being absorbed by the flask being tested than it would absorb in such a collision. Indeed the flasks have been tested at much greater speeds.

A great deal of fuss has been made about the fact that for much of the impact testing quarter-scale models are used rather than full-scale flasks. As the flasks cost £250,000 each, the idea of smashing them up regularly is one that would be adopted with reluctance and only if it were necessary. Anyone engaged in engineering design will know that scale model testing is recognised throughout the world as a valid design technique. Using models means that a repeated series of drops can be undertaken, from which a great deal of valuable information is obtained. Those model drops are then reproduced in occasional full-scale reproductions.

I have seen evidence of test crashes carried out in the United States with full-size flasks at speeds of over 80 mph, in which the flasks suffered only superficial damage. The evidence is easily intelligible to a layman such as myself, and I readily make it available to any hon. Member who wishes to see it. Films have been made of the tests, which were staged at considerable expense in the United States. They are spectacular films of full-scale locomotives driven by rockets crashing into the side of flasks. The scale of destruction seen by the layman is immense, but the flasks rise out of it and roll along, when all around is destroyed.

The flasks in the tests were designed to the same international standards as apply in this country. Those full-scale exercises were intended to show the correlation with previous scale model tests and calculative conclusions, and they bore out the results of the scale model tests.

The result is that what we are contemplating is a situation in which combined impact speeds might be in excess of 80 mph. I have explained the significance of the unyielding target and the other parameters in the international tests. We are talking about very high-speed accidents and other circumstances that the flasks can sustain.

I can assure the House that the tests adequately cater for the circumstances that my hon. Friend postulates. He talks about the terrible, once-in-a-lifetime accidents, such as that which took place in the lifetimes of us all, at Harrow and Wealdstone. I am told that the kinetic energy that would be absorbed by the flask in such accidents would be no greater than that which it would have to absorb in striking an unyielding target in the tests that we now carry out.

As an engineer, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that a combined impact of 80 m.p.h. is not very great. If two vehicles are each travelling at 60 mph, the combined impact velocity is 120 mph, and that is not the least unlikely on British Rail.

We are dealing with traffic designed normally to be carried at speeds of up to 60 mph, being handled in those circumstances on freight trains. But in practice it rarely, if ever, travels at more than 45 mph.

I realise that there could be head-on collisions between trains travelling at those speeds, where the combined speed is 80 mph or more. But that does not involve a flask in the middle of one of the trains in a head-on impact with a solid target. A great deal of kinetic energy is absorbed in such a collision, and I am advised that any flask would be likely to survive.

I take the best advice available to me, which is corroborated by international experts. It is confimed to me not only by cross-questioning of those who give me the advice and comparisons with competing advice from other people's experts who have been brought along to challenge ours, but finally, in a simple layman's way, by the evidence seen with my own eyes of the spectacular crashes staged in the United States. The United States was reproducing the sort of crashes that do not occur even once in a lifetime in real-life railway activity.

The possibility of fire is also often raised, and the flasks must be tested for their resistance to this hazard, The fire risk is one of the principal aspects considered in design testing. The full fire test environment specified in the international regulations is designed to impose conditions more severe, in heat input terms, than those appropriate to a railway fire. In assessing the flask design against the fire test criteria one issumes that the flask has already been subject to the impact test. That constitutes a very severe combination of conditions. In the American studies that I mentioned earlier, a flask and wagon that had been involved in an 80 m.p.h. crash was subjected to the fire test environment for at least three times the duration of the IAEA test. The flask that has gone through the crash is then put through intense and prolonged heat, for three times the present required level, and still the flask design survives—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Monday evening, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-two minutes to Two o'clock.