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RAF: Fukushima Accident

Volume 736: debated on Tuesday 13 March 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what role the Royal Air Force Regiment played in the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident.

My Lords, I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the families and friends of Signaller Ian Sartorius-Jones from 20th Armoured Brigade Headquarters and Signal Squadron; Lance Corporal Gajbahadur Gurung, attached to the 1st Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment; Senior Aircraftman Ryan Tomlin, from 2 Squadron Royal Air Force Regiment; Sergeant Nigel Coupe from the 1st Battalion The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment; and Corporal Jake Hartley, Private Anthony Frampton, Private Christopher Kershaw, Private Daniel Wade and Private Daniel Wilford, all from the 3rd Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment, who have recently lost their lives in Afghanistan. The whole country owes them all a debt of gratitude for the sacrifice they have made. My thoughts are also with the wounded, and I pay tribute to the courage and fortitude in which they face their rehabilitation.

A three-man RAF Regiment radiation monitoring team, along with an MoD health physicist, deployed to the British embassy in Tokyo from 21 March to 21 April 2011. They conducted air and soil sampling around the embassy and local area and monitored equipment and vehicles for contamination to advise and reassure embassy staff. The team also devised plans to protect UK personnel working at the embassy in the event of a further release from Fukushima.

My Lords, I should like first to join these Benches in the tributes to all those who died in the IED massacre. Perhaps I may also express on behalf of this House our condolences to the relatives of those Afghans who were brutally killed in the recent horrific shooting.

My understanding is that the team that went to Tokyo was part of the chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear wing of the RAF Regiment. Is this not yet another excellent example of where service personnel are called on to help in a serious civilian situation of a non-military nature?

Turning now to the major role of the RAF Regiment, may I ask my noble friend whether the regiment is training Afghan forces in Afghanistan in their major role of airfield protection so that they are able to take over when we withdraw our main combat forces?

My Lords, I join my noble friend in remembering the Afghan civilians who were murdered the other day. I also agree with him that the RAF Regiment’s ability to deploy rapidly and assist in the way that it did is an excellent example of military aid to the civilian authority. The unique skills of the RAF Regiment go far wider than just on the battlefield. As for mentoring the Afghans, members of the RAF Regiment have mentored Afghan police from Helmand’s provincial response company, put them through basic and advanced training and deployed with them in a mentoring role over the past six months. Detailed planning for the redeployment of personnel from Afghanistan is ongoing, and it is too early to say when the RAF Regiment will return.

We would wish to join the Minister in offering our sincere condolences to the families and friends of the nine members of our Armed Forces who have recently lost their lives in Afghanistan while in the service of our country. Mere words cannot lessen the pain of separation but we want their families and friends to know that our thoughts are very much with them at the present time.

Could I ask the Minister whether the British nuclear industry has been able to learn any lessons from the knowledge gained from the RAF involvement in the aftermath of the Japanese nuclear power plant accident?

My Lords, safety is always our number one concern for the British nuclear power industry. Fukushima changed the energy debate around the world. Questions were rightly raised about the extent and safety of nuclear power—people wanted to know what happened and whether it could happen again. Our chief nuclear inspector, Dr Mike Weightman, undertook a full lessons-learnt analysis on behalf of the Department of Energy and Climate Change, and my noble friend Lord Marland reported the findings through a Written Ministerial Statement on 11 October last year. Copies of the Weightman report were placed in the House Library.

My Lords, the Royal Air Force Regiment is an example of good practice that is admired and to some extent envied by our US colleagues. In that regard, it contributes to the relationship that was so lauded in today’s edition of the Washington Post by President Obama and the Prime Minister. However, that same edition of the Post warned that the relationship could come under strain because of the defence expenditure reductions that have been made in this country. In his announcement of the SDSR outcome, the Prime Minister personally committed himself to an increase in defence expenditure in the years beyond 2015. Can the Minister say if that personal commitment remains today?

My Lords, the noble and gallant Lord is trying to put words into my mouth that I would rather not say with the Budget coming up next week.

My Lords, I am sure the Minister is aware that NATO has annual exercises in doing exactly what the Royal Air Force Regiment has done in this case. In the past those NATO exercises have had minimal involvement from the United Kingdom. Will the Minister be good enough to have a look at all of this again and see if we could play a more positive part in these annual exercises in future?

My Lords, my noble friend makes a very good point. I give him my word that I will take it back to the department and see what I can do.

My Lords, the RAF Regiment is the acknowledged military expert force for CBRN capability. Will my noble friend assure me that there are no plans to reduce its numbers either now, when its work for this country is absolutely critical, or in the foreseeable future?

My Lords, my noble friend makes a very good point. I also pay tribute to her for her very strong support for the RAF Regiment over many years. We have announced changes to the number of RAF Regiment field squadrons from 2015 onwards, at the end of operations in Afghanistan, and wider reductions in the overall size of the Royal Air Force that enable a rebalancing of its structure. Two force protection wing headquarters and two field squadrons will draw down over the coming years. However, even with this drawdown, we will continue to have a robust and effective force able to support all future operational requirements, including CBRN protection.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that some years ago, the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, and I spent some hours during the night with the Royal Air Force Regiment in Afghanistan observing its infantry and patrol tactics? It showed the very highest level of operational expertise, and the Government should in no way weaken the Royal Air Force Regiment.

My Lords, I very much take the noble Viscount’s point and quite agree that the RAF Regiment is playing a very important role. I was in Afghanistan the week before last and saw for myself the important role that it is carrying out.