Jim Wallace – 1986 Speech on the Reprocessing Plant at Dounreay

Below is the text of the speech made by Jim Wallace, the then Liberal MP for Orkney and Shetland, in the House of Commons on 14 January 1986.

I welcome the opportunity to raise on the Floor of the House the terms of reference of the public inquiry into the proposed fast reactor reprocessing plant at Dounreay in Caithness.

In the latter part of May last year, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy announced that Britain would seek to play its part in a collaborative European programme on fast reactors by seeking to have a reprocessing plant sited at Dounreay. On 3 June, the then Secretary of State for Scotland called in the joint planning application of British Nuclear Fuels and the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority because he believed that the proposed development had implications of greater than regional importance which he wished to see examined at a public inquiry.

The Secretary of State subsequently appointed Mr. Bell as the reporter, and the date for the inquiry was originally set for 17 February. At a pre-inquiry meeting held on 12 December to discuss procedure and general preparations for the inquiry, the reporter allowed a postponement for seven weeks because of the uncertainty of the applicants about what would be the port of entry for spent nuclear fuel that would have to be transported to Dounreay.

I do not think that anyone who has followed the issue would disagree that there has been general discontent in Scotland and further afield about the remit of the reporter. That discontent led a number of bodies and individuals to seek meetings with the former Secretary of State for Scotland, the right hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger).

In July a petition signed by more than 30 organisations and individuals was sent to the right hon. Gentleman. It sought a meeting, but that was refused. A request for a meeting from two Members of the European Assembly was rejected by the Under-Secretary in a letter in September. I twice formally sought a meeting, along with other hon. Members, not only from my party, to try to demonstrate the broad agreement, particularly on the Opposition Benches, over the terms of reference of the inquiry.

In a letter dated 11 November, the Under-Secretary said:

“As the responsibility for the final decision on the application will rest with the Secretary of State, following the inquiry, I do not believe it would be appropriate for George Younger or myself to meet you to discuss issues concerning the case in advance of the eventual decision.”

The Secretary of State will act in a quasi-judicial role and to the extent that he might have been addressed on the merits of the proposal, so it would have been proper for him or the junior Minister to refuse to meet delegations to discuss the merits of the case.

There is an important distinction to be drawn between representations on the merits of the proposal and representations relating to the form and the nature of the inquiry. It is on the form and nature of the inquiry that these representations for a meeting were made. The previous Secretary of State for Scotland failed to draw that distinction, as will be evident from the letter I have just quoted, and it is because of that that I have sought to raise the matter in the House.

We have a new incumbent in the Scottish Office who has perhaps the added advantage over the previous Secretary of State in that he is not only a right hon. Member but a right hon. and learned Member. He will note this legal distinction and perhaps be more willing to listen to the representations that have been made about the terms and nature of the inquiry. What is principally proposed by those seeking a wider remit is a joint planning inquiry commission. The basis of statutory authority for referral to a planning inquiry commission, is found in section 45(2) of the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act, 1972 which states,

“Any of the matters mentioned in subsection (1) of this section”—
that indisputably applies to this application—

“may be referred to any such commission under this section if it appears expedient to the responsible Minister or Ministers that the question whether the proposed development should be permitted to be carried out should be the subject of a special inquiry on either or both of the following grounds—

(a) there are considerations of national or regional importance which are relevant to the determination of that question and require evaluation, but a proper evaluation thereof cannot be made unless there is a special inquiry for the purpose;

(b) the technical or scientific aspects of the proposed development are of so unfamiliar a character as to jeopardise a proper determination of that question unless there is a special inquiry for the purpose.”

These provisions in the section are fulfilled in this case. The joint planning inquiry commission is provided for under section 47 of the same Act in circumstances where interests in both Scotland and England are affected. Because of the national policy implications, these are United Kingdom considerations and therefore a joint planning inquiry commission is appropriate.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

The particular importance is that a decision taken in a planning inquiry about Dounreay will clearly have an effect as a precedent on the prospective applications for developments of similar sites elsewhere on the coasts not only in Scotland but in England. It is not just in relation to this particular inquiry that there is great concern throughout the United Kingdom, but also because it will clearly be used as a marker and a remit for future public inquiries even under technically English as opposed to Scottish legislation.

Mr. Wallace

My hon. Friend has added yet another argument why the joint planning inquiry planning commission is appropriate. In correspondence to me in response to parliamentary questions the Minister has taken the view that the considerations spelt out in the sections to which I have referred, do not apply in this case. This is an application of national and, indeed, international importance. The proposals form part of a joint European collaboration project, the terms and implications of which have never been debated by this House. Unlike the inquiries over the thermal oxide reprocessing plant at Windscale or the Sizewell inquiry, because of the narrow terms of reference imposed on the proposed local public inquiry, there will be no opportunity for objectors or interested parties to assess or question the policy issues underpinning this development.

It has international importance, because, as I discovered on a visit to Norway last year and from other representations which we received from Denmark, there is fear that any liquid emissions or discharges from a ​ proposed reprocessing plant could, because of tidal currents affect the west coast of Norway and Denmark. It raises issues of proliferation. The Government maintain that there are sufficient safeguards in various international treaties and that there would be no breach of our obligations under the non proliferation treaty.

Writing in the house magazine of the French utilities industry, M. Lammers said that the Superphenix fast reactor in France

“will produce in the mantle of its core enough plutonium of ad-hoc quality to make about 60 bombs each year. Under these conditions, Superphenix becomes of course the technical basis of the French nuclear military force.”

I shall not go into the merits of that case—although plutonium from the Superphenix will undoubtedly be reprocessed at any such plant. However, an important issue is involved. The Government say that there are sufficient safeguards, but a man involved in the French energy industry says that the Superphenix is implicated in French military nuclear planning.

What about our commitment to fast reactor technology, of which reprocessing is an important and essential part? There has been general understanding that we would not go down the road towards commercial fast reactors without a full-scale public inquiry. It appears that we are now going a long way down that road with only an inquiry with the narrowest of remits.

In view of the low cost of uranium and the great stockpiles of plutonium in Europe, are we making a worthwhile use of our resources in this plant? Before going down the road towards the fast reactor economy, we should bear in mind the comments of the sixth report of the Royal Commission on environmental pollution, which warned against becoming overdependent on an economy based on plutonium before we properly consider the alternatives. We need a forum to consider the role that could be played by alternative energy sources.

I do not expect the Minister to go into the merits of the arguments on national energy policy, but important issues for this generation and future generations must be discussed and taken into account. A local planning inquiry is not a suitable forum to consider those issues fully.

Environmental considerations are causing considerable concern in my constituency, not least because of what happened at the Windscale plant. The criminal operation of that plant by British Nuclear Fuels lead not only to its successful prosecution but contamination of the Irish sea. Until now, the Dounreay establishment has been operated solely by the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, but the present planning application is a joint one by BNFL and UKAEA.

In a letter sent out before the 12 December meeting, the reporter, Mr. Bell, said:

“I regard my remit as extending to the consideration of all land use, environmental and safety questions which can be regarded as the foreseeable consequence of approving this development, provided these consequences are not too remote.”

How far can these environmental considerations be looked at in a public local inquiry? I do not believe that it will go far enough. Is an accident a “foreseeable consequence”? It is important to have a proper risk assessment of all the possible consequences of an accident or, in these days of sabotage and terrorism, deliberate interference with the plant. Do the environmental considerations extend as far as the level of discharges? It has been suggested that that ​ is a matter for the Scottish Office, which already determines the level of discharges having regard to internationally agreed acceptable levels.

This would exclude any consideration of whether these international levels are acceptable. There can be no safe dose of radiation. It is a matter of subjective opinion—no doubt based on the highest quality scientific evidence—what constitutes acceptable levels. These matters should be open to public debate and scrutiny. Again, a joint planning inquiry commission would refer to circumstances where the

“technical or scientific aspects of a proposed development are of so unfamiliar a character as to jeopardise a proper determination of that question unless there is special inquiry for that purpose.”

I do not think that it can be reasonably or honestly said that the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel as part of the fast reactor fuel cycle is a matter which the Scottish Office or indeed Britain is exactly familiar with. I do not think that this type of application is of a familiar character. It is of a unique character and one which can only properly be scrutinised and challenged if one has a special inquiry for the purpose.

Admittedly, there is a plant already in existence at Dounreay, which reprocesses some spent nuclear fuel, but the volume of fuel which would go through the proposed plant is 10 times as much as that going through the existing plant. Although the authorities at Dounreay maintain that they can keep discharge levels down to the present rate, that again is a matter for consideration; and I very much doubt whether proper and effective scrutiny of that claim can be made by a public local inquiry.

Then there is the whole question of transport. The inquiry was postponed because of doubts as to what the port would eventually be. In a comment in the Glasgow Herald of 8 January of this year, Mr. Peter Davies, head of the European demonstration fuel reprocessing plant inquiry team for the Atomic Energy Authority, said:

“If British Rail decided to abandon the North Highland line, our plans would fail. There is no way that this inquiry can impose a transport inquiry on us.”

So there is this whole question of transport and of the port of entry, particularly from the point of view of my constituents who are worried about the transportation of radioactive material through what I am sure the Minister knows can be a rather stormy Pentland Firth to Scrabster or Wick. It is a matter of considerable importance. In the light of that claim by a senior employee of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, can the Minister indicate the extent to which transport is a relevant consideration? Is it correct to say that a transport inquiry cannot really be part and parcel of the local public inquiry which is currently to go ahead?

The further advantage of a joint planning inquiry commission is that the commissioner can commission his own evidence, which can to some extent overcome some of the secrecy which unfortunately has been part of the nuclear authority’s approach to the present inquiry, and can also help to overcome some of the funding problems.

As I indicated when I quoted from the Act, it is a matter of whether the Secretary of State considers it expedient. He, one fears, wishes to get a quick answer to this because perhaps of other matters—for example, the French desire to site the reprocessing plant in France. Nevertheless, the whole planning procedure which is meant to be there, particularly for local inquiries, to air the fears and the objections of people, not only local people ​ but those further afield who have an interest, comes into disrepute if it is felt that the procedure does not match up to the scale and importance of the issue before it.

If our planning procedures do not have the confidence of the people generally, we could be building up for ourselves a considerable amount of trouble in the future.

It may be said that the Windscale and Sizewell inquiries went on for too long. They were not joint planning commission inquiry commissions, and I would invite the Minister to reconsider the matter and to take what would be a unique step in setting up a joint planning inquiry commission. The issues involved are of sufficient national and international importance, and relate to matters of scientific and technical interest which are unique. They could certainly not be described as familiar. They warrant the major step of having a planning inquiry commission.