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Plutonium Disposition

Volume 611: debated on Tuesday 14 June 2016

I beg to move,

That this House has considered plutonium disposition.

Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Amess—sorry, Sir David; I apologise for forgetting to use your richly deserved and overdue title.

Plutonium disposition is a subject that is vital to the country. It is important to me personally, to my constituency and to every single one of my constituents. Plutonium is one of the most powerful and potentially dangerous materials on the planet, and the largest stockpile of plutonium oxide anywhere in the world is stored at the Sellafield nuclear facility in my constituency. It is a sobering and inescapable reality.

Sellafield represents one of the UK’s most strategically important pieces of national infrastructure. It was created by the Attlee Government after the second world war and the United States’ McMahon Act, which forbade US co-operation with any other nation state on nuclear research. The initial purpose of Windscale, as Sellafield was then known, was to produce the materials this country required to create, provide and maintain our independent nuclear deterrent. The decision to do that remains one of the most important made by the post-war Labour Government, or any other British Government since that point. It also remains one of the many towering achievements of that post-war Labour Government.

It is beyond doubt that our nuclear deterrent has protected us and our allies, and maintained peace on our continent. The evidence is before us. In an ever more uncertain world—a world that, right now, appears to be on fire—it would be an extraordinary act of stupidity for any Government to consider removing our deterrent. In the face of a belligerent and expansionist Russia, the evidence is that circumstances will remain stable at best in the future. I digress. The point is that my community has performed a unique role in the service of this nation for more than 60 years. As a result, the nation, its centre of Government and Governments of all colours owe a specific obligation to my community.

Issues of national interest do not wear party colours and, as with nuclear new build—the Minister knows that I walk the walk on this—they are above petty partisan squabbling. The nuclear industry is of unique importance to my constituency. West Cumbria is a world leader in nuclear excellence, and we are working tirelessly as a community to realise the energy coast vision that I have been working to deliver for more than a decade. The vision came into being when Sellafield was projected to lose 8,000 of the 11,000 jobs on the site by 2014. That was one of the original forecasts for the end of reprocessing at Sellafield, and I am glad to say that we turned that around.

I am a former Sellafield employee and a third-generation nuclear worker. Copeland is the most remote constituency from Westminster in England. The Sellafield site alone sustains about 16,000 jobs—probably more—in west Cumbria, directly and indirectly. I doubt that any community in the country is so reliant on a single employer, which brings its own problems.

Future investments in the constituency as a result of NuGen’s proposed three new nuclear reactors at Moorside will create many more jobs and opportunities in my community. Thousands of jobs will be created as a result of the £20 billion investment, and Copeland will become one of the fastest growing economies not just in the UK, but in Europe. It has taken us 10 years to reach this point, working with successive Governments. The developments have taken place not by accident but, as the Minister knows, by design.

In stressing the national Government’s obligations to my community, I make the case for plutonium as a national asset. West Cumbria and Britain have the potential to lead the world with an effective plutonium disposition strategy. The management of the UK’s plutonium stockpile is an important and pressing issue facing the nuclear industry in my constituency and the whole country. Although movement on the issue has been going forward incrementally for a decade, it has been substantively delayed for too long.

The decision to be made by the Government is this: do we view the 140 tonnes of plutonium oxide sitting in my constituency as waste or as an asset? The three prevailing options that have been considered by the Government in recent years for the management of plutonium include: treating it as waste and looking to dispose of it deep underground; converting it into mixed oxide fuel, otherwise known as MOX; or using it as a nuclear fuel in a new type of reactor, such as the PRISM fast-breeder reactor.

If we choose to view the stockpile as waste, it will cost billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money in treatment, storage and eventual disposal. That would be to reject taking a long-term effective and strategic approach to the management of the material. In essence, the Government would be opting out of adopting an integrated approach to Britain’s commitment to new nuclear technology.

If, however, the stockpile is classed as an asset, its value will be enormous—perhaps unquantifiable—and it will be of significant worth to the British economy now and in the future. To facilitate the realisation of that potential, I hope that the Minister will commit to avoiding further delays by implementing a structured plan with a fixed timeline, so that the plutonium that is stored in my constituency, which is the largest stockpile of its kind in the world, can be utilised as nuclear fuel. Britain would then benefit, and not simply economically; such a decision would help us to meet our non-proliferation objectives, secure our energy supplies and fight climate change.

I fully expect the Minister to state that we have already made the decision to classify the plutonium stockpile as an asset and not waste, and that we are now evaluating which technical process and commercial platform we wish to utilise—MOX, CANMOX or PRISM. Without a structured, timetabled plan, there is the same practical policy outcome, whether the plutonium is theoretically an asset or waste: indefinite storage. The inadequacies of the approach are obvious, not least because of the changing nature of some of the stockpile owing to the presence of americium and other actinides, all of which make future disposition more difficult and expensive. A delay will have consequences, and a deferred decision will have real effects and a real price tag.

I will focus a little on what plutonium disposition means for my community. West Cumbria is a global centre for nuclear excellence. Skills and expertise in decommissioning at Sellafield, research and development at the National Nuclear Laboratory, and future investments at Moorside and the National Nuclear College all require a joined-up, holistic, forward-thinking, integrated approach to plutonium management and technology development. To continue to lead in the field, west Cumbria and the country must be provided with the necessary investment and tools needed to transform a complex and, for some, intractable policy problem into what should be a powerful asset for the benefit of everybody in the country.

West Cumbria has proven, time and again, to be an invaluable partner for Governments of all colours. Our skills, and our ability and willingness to host nuclear facilities, are unique and invaluable. As I have outlined repeatedly over a number of years, if the Minister provides the urgent clarity required on this significant issue of public policy, my community can and will provide the partnership to find the solutions that Britain needs to manage our nuclear stockpile. That is clearly an excellent, unprecedented opportunity for the Government and for my community.

In addition to contributing to the British, west Cumbrian and Cumbrian economies more generally, the use of our significant plutonium stockpile as an asset will help us to produce the fuel we need, through carbon dioxide-free electricity generation from new nuclear, and thus secure our energy supplies. My community and the country need that, and my constituents deserve nothing less.

There is a need for speed. The case for using our plutonium stockpile as an asset is substantial. We know from the coalition Government’s response to the consultation on the proposed justification process for the reuse of plutonium that the Government’s preferred option for managing the stockpile is to create MOX fuel for sale on the international markets. Lord Marland set that out during his time as Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Energy and Climate Change. In January 2011, he stated:

“If we have the biggest plutonium stock in the world, we must turn that liability into an asset...It is madness to have it sitting there if we can make it a non-cost exercise.”

In the same speech, he set out the importance of sending

“a clear message to the people of Cumbria, because that is where the Mox plant would be located.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 13 January 2011; Vol. 723, c. GC177.]

However, disappointingly, the overall illustrative timeline for plutonium management in the UK, as set out in the coalition Government’s consultation response on the long-term management of UK-owned separated civil plutonium, has not come to fruition. In fact, little movement has been made on the issue. Given the existence of the technology and the ability of the industry to provide such a facility, further delays should not be allowed. Time is of the essence. The longer we wait to make a decision on the issue, the more difficult it will become to implement.

Industry, investors, the supply chain, the workforce and the community in my constituency now require overdue clarity and certainty from the Government; I would be asking for the same clarity and certainty if my party were in government. Understanding the Sellafield workforce and their role in our national story over the past 60 years is essential, and it has not been broadly understood by successive Governments, or in Whitehall.

Sellafield is unquestionably home to some of the most highly skilled, uniquely talented workers in the United Kingdom—and, in a nuclear industry context, the world. They are a knowledgeable, practical and pragmatic workforce who routinely work in some of the most challenging, high-risk environments anywhere on the planet. Make no mistake: our country’s ability to decommission Sellafield safely and to budget rests on the shoulders of that workforce, and, as such, they should be valued. Of course, improvements can and should be made to better utilise the workforce’s abilities—they would be the first to suggest that—but they are not the workforce that is described by the Department; they are not a feather-bedded, entitled, unproductive workforce. On the contrary, they mend the problems that politicians often create.

Those who visit Sellafield, as I believe the Minister has—I am grateful to her for taking such a close interest in these issues over a serious length of time—see that a political decision usually stands behind every decommissioning challenge that can be seen on the site, from the original Windscale pile chimneys and the legacy fuel issues created in part by the chaos brought about by the miners strikes of the 1970s to the closure of the Sellafield MOX plant in August 2011. I am tempted to write the political history of Sellafield, which is arguably more important than the technical or engineering history of the site, at least in so far as it can explain why the site is as it is today. At every turn, the Sellafield workforce have been at the forefront of those political decisions, bearing the brunt of the consequences, for good or for ill, always acting in the national interests and always in the national service.

The closure of the Sellafield MOX plant in August 2011 was accepted by the Sellafield workforce because they had been promised—I use that word precisely—that it would be replaced by a new plant, and that neither the workforce nor the community would be left to accept job losses as well as a lack of solution on the plutonium stockpile, of which we are essentially the custodians. The workforce are waiting for that trust to be repaid, and they are waiting for the solutions they were promised.

The Government recently introduced a programme of workforce reform at Sellafield, and I tabled a series of questions about that to the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. Those questions have been replied to, but in time-honoured fashion, they have not been answered, which is why I have sought a meeting between workforce representatives and No. 10. As things stand, it is not clear who designed the workforce reform plan, what its objectives are, what the effect will be on the local community and on the workforce, what the estimated effect will be on the public purse or how it will ensure safer, quicker and more efficient delivery of decommissioning. I hope the Minister will undertake to give me a written response to all those questions and concerns prior to the workforce delegation meeting at No. 10. Fundamentally, there is a compact here—particularly in the light of the Trade Union Act 2016, which changed the rights of the Sellafield workforce—that risks being broken. The compact is between the state and the men and women of the biggest workforce in my community. The Government can help to restore the compact by introducing a clear, coherent, timetabled plan for plutonium disposition.

The need for the Government to take a long-term view on plutonium stockpiles is of the utmost urgency. Given Britain’s commitment to new nuclear and the process in train to identify a site for the long-term geological disposal of radioactive wastes, these essential, long-term decisions can no longer be put off. They are, in fact, part of a holistic national solution. By investing in and adhering to a strategic plan to utilise Britain’s plutonium stockpile as an asset, we will not only create an economically beneficial solution to a no doubt complex issue, but further integrate nuclear research, knowledge and development in west Cumbria, thus continuing to establish the west coast of Cumbria, and indeed our country, as a centre of global nuclear excellence.

I am in no doubt that the Minister, the Department, my community, the Sellafield workforce and I all want the same thing, but it is essential that we agree on the how as well as the what. The Minister knows that I am filled with appreciation for her work, and I look forward to her reply.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) on securing this debate. We share a great enthusiasm, as he said, for the enormous potential of the UK’s nuclear expertise in decommissioning, reuse and new nuclear. He is a keen advocate for his area, which includes both Sellafield and the potential new nuclear plant at Moorside. I pay tribute to all the amazingly talented engineers who work so hard at Sellafield and on the new project. He is exactly right that one of the first things I did on taking up my post was go to Sellafield to see for myself the incredible engineering feats, the imagination, the innovation and the hard work. It is absolutely superb. I hope I can reassure him that the workforce reform is indeed designed for hazard reduction and greater efficiency and is in no way designed to undermine the efforts of those at Sellafield who are working so hard. I will certainly write to him again, as he asked, to set that out in greater detail.

I am pleased to have this opportunity to discuss and debate the important issue of the UK’s plutonium inventory. The material is largely the result of the ongoing reprocessing at Sellafield since the 1950s. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago, I went up to the National Nuclear Laboratory and was impressed to see what they are doing there and to hear that they are 25 years ahead of the rest of the world in sorting, identifying, reusing and dealing with the legacy of nuclear that dates back decades. That is so impressive and is a real UK strength.

Demonstrating that we can address our own and others’ nuclear legacies is key to ensuring that the industry retains the support of the public as we move ahead with our new nuclear programme. It is imperative that we do not make the mistakes of the past but that we learn from our own and others’ nuclear history as we deliver a new generation of low-carbon nuclear power. The UK led the way on developing the world’s civil nuclear industry, and I expect us to continue leading the way on dealing with our nuclear legacy, too. For that reason, I reassure the hon. Gentleman that managing our civil plutonium inventory remains a Government priority.

As the hon. Gentleman is aware, dealing with our nuclear legacy comes with significant and complex challenges. Close collaboration between the Government and industry is essential to achieving a solution. Over the past decade the Government, supported by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, have developed the policy and strategy framework for managing the UK’s inventory of separated civil plutonium. We are working closely with the NDA to ensure the safe and secure storage of the material at Sellafield and to plan, develop and implement a management solution for separated civil plutonium in the UK until the inventory has been reduced to zero and is put beyond reach. A key focus of that strategy is hazard reduction, which means addressing Sellafield’s legacy facilities. Putting the material beyond use will take many decades, so we therefore need to ensure that all nuclear materials are stored in modern facilities that are safe and secure. A huge amount of work is already being done on that.

Since consulting on the issue in 2011, work has been under way to help us better understand the disposition options available. The Government commissioned the NDA to report on the latest round of evidence to enable the UK to move confidently into the programme’s implementation phase. The NDA’s report was delivered quite recently, in December 2015, and gives us a much better understanding of the technical issues relating to all aspects of the lifecycle, including a regulatory review of licensability, along with establishing the likely costs and schedules to implement each option. Those options include immobilisation by using a hot isostatic pressing technique, which involves converting the inventory into a ceramic waste form suitable for disposal in the geological disposal facility—the hon. Gentleman knows that that facility is in our plans. The immobilisation option is important because, regardless of the overall solution for plutonium disposition, a proportion of the plutonium will have to be disposed of as it will be unsuitable for use as a fuel.

The reuse options considered include MOX in light water reactors as proposed by Areva, MOX in a CANMOX reactor as proposed by Candu and use in a PRISM fast reactor as proposed by GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy. The report also highlighted where further work is required to enable an informed decision to be made.

The NDA has been quite clear with the Government that for each of the options, there is insufficient understanding as yet to move confidently into an implementation phase at this stage. Significant further work must be undertaken to understand the technologies being proposed. The different technologies have varying degrees of maturity, and quite a bit more work is required to enable the UK ultimately to select and subsequently implement a preferred option. We must be mindful of the experience of others, looking internationally to help find a solution for the UK.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we want to learn the lessons from the US, which faces significant challenges involving a multi-million-dollar overspend in its MOX programme. Understanding that will be crucial to considering the full range of reuse and immobilisation options. That is why a decision on how to proceed cannot and will not be taken quickly. It is about making the right decision at the right time, underpinned by the right evidence. It is important to note that any decision will take many decades to implement, which is why a decision on plutonium disposition should not be made in isolation. There are interdependencies across the new nuclear build programme, geological disposal and national security outcomes.

The Government take the issue very seriously. Provision has been made in the NDA’s budget to continue making meaningful progress on this important and complex issue. The Government are working with the NDA to scope out the next phase of research and development required to progress the decision by de-risking technology options, giving Government the confidence to move forward to a final solution.

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that although the decision cannot be rushed, all the options being considered will lead to more job creation in his area and significant investment. That will create big opportunities for local communities. As we develop our wider innovation programme, we are also considering ways to support that work through various research facilities. The Government remain open to any credible option for managing the inventory, but of course it must offer the best value for money to the taxpayer. Only when the Government are confident that our preferred option could be implemented safely and securely with an eye to cost—that it is affordable and deliverable and offers value for money—will we be in a position to proceed. The Government remain committed to working collaboratively to find a solution that will benefit us all.

In conclusion, I am grateful to the hon. Member for Copeland for his continuing co-operation and his collegiate reaction to these long-standing issues. I am happy to continue working with him in this area.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.