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Nuclear Power Plants (Working Practices)

Volume 124: debated on Monday 14 December 1987

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To ask the Secretary of State for Energy what plans he has to introduce legislation relating to working practices in nuclear power plants; and if he will make a statement.

Existing legislation provides the basis for effective control of working practices in nuclear power plants. These practices are regulated by the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate.

I am disappointed that the Minister has not seen fit to answer my question. As there is increasing evidence, especially from investigations into the results of the explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that levels of radioactivity formerly considered safe are no longer acceptable, will the Department thoroughly review its attitude and introduce far more stringent safety standards at British nuclear plants?

I did answer the hon. Gentleman's question directly. The implication was that there were no plans for further legislation because existing legislation is adequate at present. In direct response to his question about risk levels, the industry complies with and works entirely within the limits implied in the National Radiological Protection Board's new risk assessments.

Does my hon. Friend agree that drawing the legislation more tightly might be counterproductive, in that tightly drawn legislation provides loopholes, whereas the present broad legislation indicates more widely what the Government intend?

That is a fair point. Under the present legislation a great deal is left to the wisdom and discretion of the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate. The inspectorate, with the operator, ensures that the plant is safe. That is the important point. My hon. Friend is quite right. Very detailed legislation and rules might actually lead to a decline in safety standards.

The Minister will be aware that in December last year the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate expressed great concern about safety standards at Sellafield and, indeed, suggested that if standards were not improved within 12 months it would have to consider closing the plant down. Now that that period has expired, has the Minister received any information from the inspectorate as to whether its recommendations have been carried out and whether it is satisfied with safety standards at Sellafield?

That is not exactly how it was. The Nil laid down certain conditions for Sellafield and a time scale within which they must be carried out. They have, indeed, been carried out—and within the time scale laid down.

As it takes three years to train an inspector, and as the nuclear industry is being considerably expanded and may be affected by privatisation, does the Minister recognise the need to increase the inspectorate beyond the level currently proposed? Does he agree that he should be putting plans into action to ensure that more inspectors can be trained than is currently possible?

The hon. Gentleman is right. There is a time lag between advertising for new inspectors and recruiting them. He will be aware, I am sure, that we have engaged in a substantial recruitment programme for the NII. I understand that the programme is going extremely well and it is planned to have 120 inspectors by the early part of next year. We are therefore well on target, including the provision of the training required.