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Plutonium: Reprocessing Incident

Volume 476: debated on Tuesday 17 June 1986

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2.56 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what were the circumstances under which eight kilogrammes of plutonium were sent from Sellafield nuclear plant in Cumbria to the Dounreay plant in Scotland.

My Lords, residues containing plutonium from the fabrication at Sellafield of fuel for the prototype fast reactor at Dounreay are sent from Sellafield to Dounreay for recovery of the plutonium. A discrepancy was identified between the estimated plutonium content of materials sent and the plutonium recovered. Some eight kilogrammes of plutonium were subsequently found to be still undissolved within the reprocessing plant. This was recovered. There was no possibility of an explosion and there was no danger to staff or to the public.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord the Minister for that reply. Does he agree that we should not have known the facts of this case had it not been for the "World in Action" television programme and the detailed investigation by the Observer newspaper? Will he confirm the extraordinary and disturbing fact that 8,000 grammes of plutonium—enough to make two atom bombs—were officially listed as missing in 1984 and that it was not found until 11 months later at the bottom of the dissolver vat at Dounreay? Will he confirm that it was wrongly labelled when it was sent from Sellafield and that it should not have been sent at all because it had not been sintered and it would not dissolve in nitric acid? Will the Government take action to prevent a recurrence of that extraordinary event?

My Lords, I fully appreciate the noble Lord's concern about this matter, but I cannot accept that we would not have heard about it had it not been for the "World in Action" programme or the Observer newpaper. In fact, mention was made of it to the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate. The local liaison committee was told of the incident in general terms, and the director of Dounreay has given a general account of what happened to the current inquiry into a European demonstration processing plant at Thurso.

With regard to the suggestion that the noble Lord made about the manufacture of plutonium bombs, I cannot confirm that the quantity involved would have been sufficient to manufacture two bombs. What I can tell him is that there was no risk at any time of this material being so used.

My Lords, will the noble Lord say what was the basis of the error? Should he not respond to the last part of my noble friend's question and give the assurance that, whatever happened then, enough examination will take place to make sure that so far as is humanly possible such a thing never happens again?

My Lords, what I can say to the noble Lord is that there was clearly some misunderstanding between British Nuclear Fuels Limited and the Atomic Energy Authority about the quantity of potentially insoluble material sent from Sellafield. Both BNFL and the AEA are taking steps to ensure that there is no recurrence.

My Lords, as we are talking about the movement of plutonium, will the Minister say to what extent the American missile system is dependent on plutonium exported to that country from this country?

My Lords, I am afraid that without notice I cannot answer that question. I shall take advice and communicate with the noble Lord.

My Lords, is it a fact that there have been found to be more cases than usual of leukemia in the Dounreay area in the county of Caithness?

My Lords, there is a Question on the Order Paper for, I think, 30th June relating directly to this matter. At that time, following the taking of advice, a full Answer will be given.

My Lords, when the Minister says that steps will be taken to see that this does not happen again, does he mean that the Government will initiate a review of the accounting procedures for dealing with quantities of plutonium at Sellafield and at Dounreay? Can he say whether the accounting procedures have to be approved by the International Atomic Energy Agency? If so, will a copy be placed in the Library of your Lordships' House so that any changes made as a result of the Government's review can be noted by your Lordships?

My Lords, in answer to the noble Lord's first question, indeed, it was as a result of the present accounting procedures that the initial discrepancy was discovered. The safeguards office of the Department of Energy and EURATOM were aware of the discrepancy and were kept informed of the investigation into the reasons for it and of the eventual discovery of the undissolved residues containing the eight kilogrammes of plutonium. I cannot elaborate on what I said in answer to a previous question—that the Government are taking steps to ensure that all the procedures are being carried out correctly in order to avoid any repetition of this.

My Lords, would the noble Lord not agree that we really cannot be complacent about this and that eight kilogrammes of plutonium was an enormous amount of plutonium to lose bearing in mind that it is measured and accounted for in grammes? Has not the impression been given that there is slackness and bad management at Sellafield that really must be put right and furthermore a lack of confidence between Dounreay and Sellafield? I hope that the noble Lord and the Government will take steps to ensure that nothing of this sort happens again and that all operations other than military operations at Sellafield and indeed other nuclear establishments are open to scrutiny by the public, and that the public are given all possible information about leaks and what goes on at these establishments?

My Lords, while recognising the noble Lord's concern and while I agree that the nuclear industry must always adopt the highest possible standards so far as safety in concerned, I would not accept the rest of what he says. I believe that a great deal of care has been taken throughout by the industry in order to ensure that there is no danger in the transportation of materials between Sellafield and Dounreay. Indeed, I have given an assurance that these procedures are being checked. A high standard has already been attained. The nuclear industry has a safety standard of which it can be justly proud. Indeed, it is more open about its dealings and about its mishaps, however minor they may be—not that I suggest that this was a minor one—than probably is any other industry in this country. I know that all that has been said in your Lordships' House today will be be carefully studied by the Government. I can give the assurance that all measures will be taken to maintain safety.

My Lords, does the Minister not appreciate that such failures could lead to a disastrous catastrophe? Does he remember that in the television programme, this was described as,

"one of the most potentially serious incidents in the history of the British nuclear programme".
Will the Government exert a tight discipline to prevent this danger?

My Lords, the Government will certainly do everything they can, as will the industry, to ensure that there is no recurrence. I would not necessarily take as gospel everything that is said in a television programme.