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Nuclear Industries Security (Amendment) Regulations 2016

Volume 774: debated on Tuesday 12 July 2016

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

My Lords, I will give some background and explain why we are seeking to make these amendments, which will be an important addition to the nuclear security framework, both while we remain a member of the EU and as our relationship with Europe changes and evolves.

The United Kingdom is highly regarded by the International Atomic Energy Agency and other key international partners in civil nuclear security, and we take our international role in this field very seriously, including with regard to regulation. The draft regulations before the Committee would update the Nuclear Industries Security Regulations 2003. Specifically, they would remove sub-paragraph (i) from the definition of transport in Regulation 2(1), and add references to air transport to Regulation 3(5)(b).

The effect of these amendments is to bring the transport of civil nuclear material by air within the same stringent regulatory framework for security that applies to the transport of such material by land or sea. This means that the independent Office for Nuclear Regulation will have the same oversight and approval function in relation to the security of civil nuclear material transported by air as it has in relation to the transport of such material by land or sea.

There are two main reasons to make this amendment to the regulations. The first is that the United Kingdom is a party to an international treaty, the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, which was signed in 1980, came into force in 1991 and was subsequently amended in 2005. The convention requires signatories to have in place a legislative and regulatory regime to ensure the security of civil nuclear materials stored or transported in that state. The Nuclear Industries Security Regulations 2003 are the primary means by which the United Kingdom has implemented this obligation under the convention.

When these regulations were first written, the transportation of nuclear material by air was not considered to be an option and so air transport was excluded from the scope of the regulations. As our work on decommissioning has gathered pace, we have revisited our legislative and regulatory regime for ensuring the security of civil nuclear materials and determined that the regime should apply to all potential forms of transport. Making these amendments to the regulations to extend the regulatory regime which exists in the 2003 regulations to cover the transport of nuclear materials by air will help to ensure that the United Kingdom gives full effect to the convention.

This brings me to the second reason for making these changes: our domestic considerations. Amending these regulations will allow us to consider all credible options when planning moves of nuclear material to ensure that we make the right operational decision with regard to both safety and security. Nuclear material can be safely and securely transported by air, and it is right that our regulatory framework facilitates this. Air transport of nuclear material is already an established method of transport internationally; these amendments simply mean that civil nuclear material transported by air from or within the United Kingdom will now be subject to the same regulatory regime with regard to security as transports of such material by land or sea within the United Kingdom.

These regulations will ensure that the independent Office for Nuclear Regulation will be involved with and would oversee the security arrangements for any air movements that take place. As such, they will make the transportation of civil nuclear materials more secure. In practice, this means that the Office for Nuclear Regulation will be responsible for approving transport security statements and transport security plans for all carriers of civil nuclear material by air, as they do for carriers involved in the movement of civil nuclear material by road, rail or sea, which currently take place. In drafting these regulations we have consulted the Office for Nuclear Regulation, which is content with these changes.

On a practical level, these regulations will allow us to better address the challenges we currently face. In late 2015, we began a programme of moves to remove nuclear material from the Dounreay nuclear site in northern Scotland. This programme is of great importance and will help to ensure the long-term safe and secure management and treatment of this nuclear material by storing it in the most appropriate place.

As part of this programme, the Prime Minister announced earlier this year that the United Kingdom Government had reached a landmark agreement with the United States and the European Union on a multilateral swap of nuclear material. Under the terms of this agreement, the United Kingdom will transfer almost 700 kilograms of excess highly enriched uranium from Dounreay to the United States, and in return the United States will send nuclear material to the European Atomic Energy Community, which will be used in the production of essential medical isotopes for use in Britain and European countries. This agreement is ground-breaking and will see nuclear material that we no longer need being exchanged for material that could potentially save many lives.

While we will have to work through the potential implications of Brexit in due course, the importance of nuclear security, as embodied by these amendments, will not be affected. In order to complete this operation in the safest and most secure way, we need to be able to consider all transport options seriously. Without an appropriate regulatory regime, air transport would not be a legitimate option. While we cannot disclose timings or methods of transport that will be used in any future moves of civil nuclear material, the amendments made by these regulations will allow us to consider all potential options.

I sincerely hope that these regulations will be approved, as they will help to ensure that any movement of nuclear material by air is regulated appropriately and carried out securely, and will facilitate the delivery to us of medical isotopes. I therefore commend the regulations to the Committee and beg to move.

I thank the Minister for his explanation of the order before the Committee. As he has said, the 2003 regulations are to be amended under the powers of the Energy Act 2013 in relation to the security of transporting nuclear material being subject to the oversight and approval of the Office for Nuclear Regulation. This amends the regulations to include transport by air.

Although I am content to approve the order, I have a few questions for the Minister. First, the security of civil nuclear material in transit is a UK obligation under the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material. However, as I understand it, the amendments which now apply to nuclear material transportation came into effect on 8 May. If this is the case, it appears that we have been in breach of the regulations for the last two months. Will the Minister clarify whether this is the case?

Secondly, it appears from the Explanatory Memorandum that the transport of civil nuclear material by air is uncommon elsewhere, and the memorandum says that the department is unaware of any private sector or civilian transport providers interested in or capable of securely transporting civil nuclear material by air. It is right that the ONR have proper oversight. I was going to ask if I am right in thinking that such occurrences would continue to be rare, but from what the Minister is saying, that is far from the case. Because of the multilateral agreement which he has outlined, there is potentially going to be quite a considerable amount of air transportation of nuclear material. I understand that he cannot give all the details, but perhaps he could at least give a sense of the scale and proportionality of the potential involvement of air transport.

I ask this question because if there are any concerns, they come about from a risk management perspective. In the quadrant of probability and impact, risks from transport by air would be placed in the low probability, high impact quadrant. As noble Lords will know, any air incident is newsworthy; air disruption and atrocities are the favoured target for terrorist groups and nuclear accidents are a major concern for the public. So, addressing the level of the risk, can the Minister say whether the transport of civil nuclear material by air takes place elsewhere in the world? Can he give the Committee any details? If transport by air is being regulated elsewhere, what regulations are applied and how do they compare with the regime here?

If there was an incident, any nuclear fallout from the air would clearly cover a far wider area than would be the case with other forms of transport. Is the Minister satisfied that any contingencies which would have to be implemented have been practised by the relevant authorities and organisations in advance of these changes? While I am on the subject of risk, the noble Lord will know that the issue of normal pension age has been raised by the Civil Nuclear Police Federation, which has argued that the physical and training demands made of its staff should lead to a normal retirement age of 60. I understand that this matter is subject to discussion at the moment and I would be grateful if the Minister could give some information about progress.

Thirdly, can the Minister say whether the transportation of nuclear material by air will be limited to low-grade material only? Will the planes be specifically marked or identifiable such that attention could be drawn to them? Fourthly, what requirements will be placed on the Office for Nuclear Regulation to report to the department on the risks and mitigations that are being taken? Will these regulations be kept under review?

Finally, the Minister will know that the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, in its 2nd Report of Session 2016-17, asked the department a few questions on the regulations which the committee felt had not been adequately answered. When asked for what purpose air transport would take place, the department merely said that the regulations,

“will allow air transportation to be considered as a credible option”.

This perhaps amounts to the answer, “Because we can”. Can the Minister shed more light on why and for what purpose air transportation is now being considered?

I hope that the department will talk to the ONR about the very limited circumstances in which this form of transport should take place, given the risks involved. I hope also that the Minister shares my concern about the need for a proper risk assessment.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her contribution and for her support, qualified as it was by some quite legitimate questions.

Although the Civil Nuclear Constabulary pensions issue is perhaps a little off-piste in relation to these regulations, I am happy to say a bit about that situation. As the noble Baroness will know, we have sought to set the pensions arrangements for the Civil Nuclear Constabulary in the light of the Public Service Pensions Act 2013, which if I am not mistaken was based on the recommendations in the report of the noble Lord, Lord Hutton, who was formerly a distinguished Labour Cabinet Minister. I am unable to say much more than that because she is probably aware of the fact that the matter is currently sub judice while the unions are challenging the matter in the courts. As I understand it, that is the position.

On the regulations, first I can reassure the noble Baroness that the prime concern for the United Kingdom in these matters is, as always, security and safety. Our reputation for nuclear safety and security both in relation to nuclear plants and in relation to the transport of nuclear materials is, I think, unsurpassed. I can also reassure the noble Baroness—I hope that I did not give a contrary impression, but the trouble in bringing forward such regulations for a specific purpose is that the feeling develops that this must be happening an awful lot, whereas that is not the case at all—this will remain the rarest form of transfer of nuclear materials. Transportation by air will be rare and will certainly be rarer than other forms of transport. However, as she indicated, the regulations probably require us to do this. Therefore, it is anticipated that air transportation does occur. The noble Baroness asked whether other states fly nuclear material. The US certainly does and has appropriate regulations in place.

Whether we have been in breach of the convention is perhaps an open point. The convention is perhaps not totally clear on whether we have to cover air, but certainly as we are envisaging that we might want to transport material by air, obviously we would need to. That is the full consideration behind these regulations: it is to ensure that we have the same very strong security regime for the transportation of civil nuclear material by air as we currently have for transportation by land and by sea. Other states do this, as I have indicated. Are there risks? I suppose the honest answer is yes, but the security and safety regime seeks to minimise those. That is why these regulations are important. Obviously, we study very carefully what the Office for Nuclear Regulation advises us.

The noble Baroness asked for specific examples. I think that I have already given some rather specific examples. She will understand that I do not want to give too many, but I mentioned that we are exchanging nuclear material with the US, which will in return provide us with material for medical isotopes, which are, as the noble Baroness knows, quite vital for life and medical research. I am sure that she welcomed that. I would not want to give too many specific examples, but that is certainly one.

I am not sure whether the planes are readily identifiable. I can only imagine that they are not; I am being reassured that that is the case. She will understand, and indeed she indicated as much, that I cannot go into the operational details of precisely how this is all organised. However, just to reassure her, as under successive Governments, nuclear safety and security both at the plants and in the transfer of materials is very much foremost in our minds. I beg to move the regulations.

Motion agreed.