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Sellafield: Abnormal Discharges

Volume 448: debated on Tuesday 14 February 1984

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3.57 p.m.

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement on the Sellafield discharges which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. The Statement reads as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a further Statement about the abnormal discharges to the sea last autumn from the British Nuclear Fuels plant at Sellafield in Cumbria, and about the Government's plans for the future of the discharges from the plant.

"I have today published the report of the investigation made by the radio chemical inspectorate of my department, and copies are in the Vote Office. The Health and Safety Executive, who are responsible for ensuring safe operation, have also published the report of the investigation by the nuclear installations inspectorate, and copies of this are also in the Vote Office. I should like to express my appreciation of the care with which the inspectors have carried out their tasks, and the cooperation they received from the company.

"The conclusions of the reports confirm the interim account I gave to the House on 21st December. I am advised that it would be inappropriate for me to comment further at this stage on the events which led to the incident itself, because the Director of Public Prosecutions is pursuing inquiries into the circumstances with the assistance of the Cumbrian police and the two inspectorates.

"I must, however, describe the present situation with regard to the environmental contamination resulting from the incident. As I have made clear to the House, there is no evidence to suggest that this contamination, although very unsatisfactory, could cause significant damage to anyone's health. The sort of risk we are talking about is that someone might suffer from localised irritation of the skin from prolonged contact with one of a number of pieces of material which have been found with much higher than usual levels of radioactivity. Continued monitoring of the beaches shows that this small risk remains. The advice not to use the beaches unnecessarily therefore must still stand for the time being. However, at the request of my department and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, a more intensive examination of the nature, distribution and origins of the material is now being made, in order to put us in the best possible position to take a safe and early decision about withdrawal of the advice.

"As to the future of discharges from the plant, BNFL have already begun to implement a number of short-term measures put to them by the inspectorates. These include the installation of online monitors and automatic cut-offs for the pumps, and will lead to safer and more reliable control of present discharges through the pipeline. The inspectorates consider, on the basis of the work done to date, that a discharge like that of last autumn could not now be repeated. The inspectorates have therefore agreed that the normal operation of the plant may be resumed. Other recommendations in the reports, which require action by Government departments, are being urgently considered.

"The main aim of the Government, and of the company's programme, will continue to be the reduction of discharges to the environment. BNFL already have in hand a major programme of investment costing over £100 million which will reduce substantially radioactive emissions from Sellafield. As from next year, discharges of caesium to the sea will be reduced to one-tenth of the maximum released in recent years. The revised authorisation sent to the company in draft will, when implemented, reduce discharges of plutonium and other alpha emitters to 200 curies a year, which is also a very sharp reduction from previous levels.

"We now need to consider what further steps should be taken. BNFL are proceeding with design and construction for a second-generation reprocessing plant for oxide fuel. This will incorporate a much cleaner technology from the start. The new standards for this plant are part of a comprehensive long-term plan for Sellafield, to ensure that its environmental impact meets the highest standards which are reasonably achievable. In setting firm objectives and ensuring progress, my department will work closely with the other departments concerned, including the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, with which it has joint responsibility under the Radioactive Substances Act 1960.

"The reduction in discharges to the environment will lead to an increase in wastes retained on the Sellafield site, and these wastes must also be dealt with. Schemes will therefore be formulated and carried out, within the framework of the national waste management strategy, for the effective management of stored wastes until disposal routes are available, and for the decommissioning of redundant installations.

"The authorising departments will continue to examine the adequacy of their own programmes for environmental monitoring and associated research. Full account will need to be taken of the report of Sir Douglas Black's inquiry, which is expected in May. If improvements are shown to be needed, they will be made.

"Mr. Speaker, the generation of electricity by means of nuclear power is and will remain an important component of this country's energy supplies, and the Sellafield reprocessing plant is an integral part of that civil nuclear programme. The Government reaffirm their confidence in the future of the plant. The public has a legitimate right to demand that the environmental standards within which it operates are of the utmost rigour. It is the Government's intention to see that they are."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.6 p.m.

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, for repeating the Statement in this House. However, will he confirm that both the reports of the Department of the Environment and the nuclear installations inspectorate were severely critical of operation and management systems and noted the absence of suitable alarms and safety mechanisms to monitor radioactive materials going to the discharge tanks? Is the noble Lord aware that, although we welcome the short-term measures, including on-line monitors and automatic cut-offs for the pumps, we are deeply concerned that the need for these precautions was not foreseen before the incidents actually occurred? Therefore, can the noble Lord say whether the nuclear installations inspectorate has sufficient staff and resources to monitor Sellafield and other nuclear plants throughout the country?

With regard to the effects of the incident itself, first, can the noble Lord say for how long the beaches will remain closed? Will it be for two years, three years, or a few months? Secondly, is a high radioactive content still being found in flotsam on the beaches? Can the noble Lord also say what has been the impact on the environment of the radioactive slick itself? For example, what effect has it had on fishing boats and fishing nets using the area? Finally, is the noble Lord aware that the Opposition believe that the permitted level of radioactive discharge to the environment is too high and that the only satisfactory level is a zero discharge limit? That is a level, incidentally, towards which many other countries are working, although they already have lower permitted discharge levels than the United Kingdom.

My Lords, we, too, should like to thank the Minister for repeating this Statement. There are just a couple of questions that I want to ask. The first question is the same as the one I asked when the intermediate Statement was made, to which I did not receive a very satisfactory answer. What steps have been taken to alert the local population, and people entering the area, to the danger and to inform them what steps they should take if their children should stray onto the beaches or play on the beaches and so come into contact with these radioactive objects? Last time I received the impression that either nothing much had been done about alerting these people or the Government did not know what had been done, or both. I think that steps should definitely have been taken, and we should be told what they are.

Secondly, the whole tenor of this Statement is of course about stopping any further events such as this in the future—and a very good thing too. But there is nothing whatever in the Statement about the necessity for telling the public if unavoidably such events happen. It is very largely by chance and thanks to the activities of some public-spirited people that this whole story ever came out into the open at all. In future what do the Government intend to do to make absolutely certain that the public know something which they are entitled to know?

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for responding to the Statement that I have just made on behalf of my right honourable friend. I would take up one point which the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, has just made about informing the public. At the first available opportunity after this incident occurred my right honourable friend reported to another place in the form of a Statement, and that Statement was repeated here by my noble friend Lord Bellwin. Since then we have had the interim Statement of 21st December and today's Statement. At all times the Government have been prompt and honest in their reporting to Parliament.

As regards informing the public, this has been picked up by the media, as it quite rightly should be. The noble Lord raised the matter of the local public being informed. The company itself contacted the local authority. I and my right honourable friend advised those people who thought that they might have been endangered from using the buildings to contact their doctor. BNFL itself is undertaking an on-demand monitoring service for those people who are worried that they might have suffered effects.

The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, spoke about high radioactive content. It is not high radioactive content; it is higher than normal radioactive content. However, I am still informed that, for example, it is comparable with hospital wastes which are currently disposed of as low-level radioactive waste. The noble Lord asked whether the NII has sufficient resources and manpower to undertake proper surveillance of the site. It is the Government's belief that it has.

He referred to the report of the DoE (by which I think he means the radiological protection board) and the NII being critical of the management systems. Yes, certainly they are critical. That is exactly what one expects that sort of report to bring out, and I am glad that it has. It is always easy to be wise after the event. The noble Lord said—I think I noted his words correctly—that the need had not been foreseen before the incident occurred, and that it jolly well should have been. Honestly, with the best will in the world, I do not know whether it was possible to forecast that need, but the important point is that changes are being made to both the management and the engineering of the plant to make absolutely certain that this does not happen again.

My Lords, might I just return to the question of the nuclear installations inspectorate? I hope the Minister will accept that the point I was trying to make was that the public are assured of nuclear safety, or they have been assured that there is no danger from nuclear installations, because we have a nuclear installations inspectorate which is monitoring nuclear installations. Therefore one would have expected that the nuclear installations inspectorate would have seen the deficiencies in the plant which allowed the discharges to be made to the sea—higher discharges than should have been permitted. That is the point I was trying to make, and I hope the noble Lord will agree that it is a very serious point indeed and that the public will need further reassurance about it. That is why I wanted to know whether the NII are properly resourced and properly staffed, because when they came before the Select Committee on Energy during one of its examinations, we found that they were under-staffed and under-resourced.

My Lords, as I said, my information, as I stand here this afternoon, is that they are not under-staffed or under-resourced. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, about the seriousness of this matter. However, what we have to ask ourselves is: would it have happened had the NII possessed more resources both of staff and of cash? My understanding is that it still would have happened. Therefore, I do not blame the monitoring of the NII in this case.