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House of Commons Hansard
06 September 2016
Volume 614

  • (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State if he will make a statement on safety at Sellafield.

  • Ensuring high standards of nuclear safety and security will always be a top priority for the Government. On Sellafield, I can assure the House that there is no safety risk to site staff or the public, and it is wrong to suggest otherwise.

    As the hon. Gentleman knows more than anyone, Sellafield is a uniquely challenging site that contains the legacy of the UK’s earliest nuclear programmes, when nuclear waste was dumped with no plan for how it would be disposed of safely. The Government have been turning that around in order to clean up Sellafield as safely, cost-effectively and quickly as possible, which is an enormously complex task.

    We have a strong regulatory system and all operators are answerable to an independent regulator. The Office for Nuclear Regulation is satisfied—it has confirmed that again this morning—that Sellafield is safe. The regulation of facilities is the ONR’s top priority with a team of around 50 inspectors deployed. The ONR requires the site to improve continuously. The ONR has confirmed that none of the issues raised in the “Panorama” programme is new. The ONR operates transparently. The issues facing Sellafield have been reported to Parliament in the ONR’s annual report and accounts, in which the ONR concluded that important progress has been made.

  • I thank the Minister for his response. The safety and security of Sellafield are the most important considerations for everyone working at the site. Safety is non-negotiable. As a former third-generation Sellafield worker, I know that the Sellafield workforce are acutely aware of its responsibilities towards the entire community and the country as a whole. As such, I welcome the interest of journalists and politicians—anyone and everyone—in the work undertaken at Sellafield. Visibility and accountability for that work should be welcomed. I would like to see more of it and I would like to see that done in a robust and responsible way. That is why the work of the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee is so important.

    As the Minister pointed out, the truth is that Sellafield is a unique site, hosting a unique and complex set of engineering challenges that have arisen over decades—arguably the most difficult engineering challenges anywhere in the world. Sellafield is a publicly owned site. The work of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, Sellafield Ltd and the rest of the supply chain is undertaken in the national interest using public money. Will the Minister commit today to long-term, predictable budgeting for Sellafield so that greater benefits can be gained and economies of scale achieved at the site? Public accountability for the work should not only be welcomed, but insisted upon, so it is vital that the NDA is allocated the resources necessary to discharge its responsibilities to our nation and my community.

    In addition, it is essential that the industry regulator has the resources it requires to regulate effectively and efficiently. Will the Minister commit to providing the regulator with the resources it says it needs? I note that the regulator told “Panorama” that it was happy with progress being made at Sellafield. Will he ask the regulator to respond to the allegations made by the programme on a point-by-point basis? Does he agree, as I do, that the NDA was right to change the operating model at Sellafield and to replace Nuclear Management Partners? Does he also agree that the workforce should be commended for the work done in progressing the clean-up mission to date?

    Crucially, in welcoming the renewed focus that “Panorama” has given to the work under way at Sellafield, will the Minister commit his Department to working with me, my community and the Sellafield workforce to acknowledge Sellafield as a national asset? The globally unique engineering challenges at Sellafield, accompanied with a truly world-class, highly skilled workforce, provide enormous opportunities for my community and the UK to become the global centre of excellence for the nuclear industry. Meeting the challenges of Sellafield places us in a unique position to meet the challenges facing the nuclear industry around the world, and we must utilise these skills. This should be worth billions to the UK economy. Alongside the development of the Moorside power station, my community should become one of the fastest growing economies anywhere in the UK. Will the Minister and his Department work with me, the local workforce and the local supply chain to make this a reality?

  • I thank the hon. Gentleman for his response, and I agree with him 100% about the non-negotiability of nuclear safety. There can be no disagreement on that, and I am glad that he recognises the progress being made all the time at Sellafield. I wish to place on record the Government’s appreciation for the difficult work done by the many people who work there. We have the most regulated and safest nuclear industry in the world. I do not want to encourage any sense of complacency about that, but it is a fact. Any nuclear power station in the UK must comply with our stringent nuclear safety laws, which are overseen by a robust industry regulator. We lead the world with our skills and expertise in this area.

    The hon. Gentleman mentioned the regulator, which is clearly a massively important part of this landscape of protecting the public. As I said in my opening statement, the regulator has said very clearly that it is satisfied that Sellafield is safe, and it has repeated that again to our officials today. As he knows, the NDA has put out a detailed rebuttal of all the points made in the “Panorama” documentary, which I have watched; I think they were all rebutted robustly in the programme. As he knows, none of those points is new. Funding is incredibly important and it is done on a very significant scale; as he knows, it costs £2 billion a year to clean up Sellafield safely.

    The hon. Gentleman asked me whether we agreed with the change in the operating model and, yes, of course, we do; it is generally recognised that that is a much better way of working. As I have said, I am assured that the regulator is doing its job, that progress is being made and that Sellafield is safe, and I wholly accept his offer to work closely with him to make sure that that is more widely understood and appreciated.

  • Only last week, I was at Hinkley Point B seeing the very high safety standards the nuclear industry practises. Does the Minister agree that being able to have an open and sensible discussion about nuclear safety issues is a key part of keeping our industry safe? Does he also agree that we have one of the most effective regulation systems in the world, which has meant that we have had many decades of safe, clean power generated? Sellafield plays a key part in that in this country.

  • I thank my hon. Friend for that positive and constructive intervention. This is a massively important issue on which no Government can show any complacency, but I believe that we have set up a proper framework and a robust system of transparency and accountability. Considerable progress continues to be made, but the safety record continues to be an impressive one, which is why countries all around the world come to see how we do it.

  • Yesterday evening’s television report on Sellafield was profoundly disturbing, and my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) was absolutely right to request this urgent question—I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting it. My hon. Friend expressed his concerns at the revelations and referred to the importance of the storage and reprocessing facility for his constituency. Of course, the House must raise such concerns on behalf of the country.

    I want to focus on a number of questions on which I believe the Minister should give the House either further information or reassurance, and preferably both. On minimum staffing levels, will he confirm that as recently as five days ago a formal notice was sent to the management, raising the unions’ concern about critical manning levels and the ability to comply with the appropriate procedures and practices when minimum staffing levels are not met?

    Will the Minister also say whether he agrees with Dr Rex Strong, the head of nuclear safety, who said in last night’s programme that not meeting the minimum safety standards or staffing levels did not mean that there was a safety risk?

    In 2013, the manager of the site, Nuclear Management Partners, produced its somewhat ironically entitled excellence plan, cataloguing the safety problems and the critical nature of the infrastructure with respect to both electricity and water supply on the site. Why did the Government not insist that further resources—staffing and, of course, financial resources—be invested in the site to clean it up at that point? The Minister will know that expenditure in 2012-13 was £7,348 million, with £3,157 million from the Department of Energy and Climate Change itself. The year following that report, the figure had fallen to £5,345 million. Will he explain why, after such a damning report, the resources going into the site decreased? Will he also confirm that the cost estimates for the clean-up of the site have increased at an annual estimate from £25.2 million to £47.9 million?

    The programme also cited problems with alarms, and it was said that these were turned off repeatedly, without checking. Will the Minister confirm that that practice is no longer in force? Finally, will he confirm that he has absolute confidence in Dr Rex Strong as head of nuclear safety at Sellafield and John Clarke, the chief executive of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority?

  • Again, I thank the hon. Gentleman for a constructive response, which reflects the cross-party concern to get this absolutely right with no equivocation. Issues were raised in the programme about minimum safety levels. I think they were responded to adequately in the programme. We were reassured that the NDA always has enough people on duty to maintain the site safely, and if the work cannot be done safely it will not get it done. I think the programme and the response to it have reassured us on that front.

    As I said in my opening statement, cleaning up Sellafield safely costs £2 billion a year, and maintaining the NDA’s overall annual spend on cleaning up the UK’s nuclear sites at some £3 billion reflects the continuing importance that the Government place on cleaning up the civil nuclear legacy and Sellafield.

    The hon. Gentleman asked about the reaction to the number of alarms raised—another issue raised in the programme. Those alarms, as he knows, are not unusual, given the types of material that people are working with and do not necessarily mean that there is a safety issue. However, we are reassured that staff are briefed never to be complacent and always react to alarms if they are serious, which is a point that was made in rebuttals in the programme.

    On levels of confidence, yes, we do have confidence in the NDA. We also have a great deal of confidence in the independent regulator, which has made it quite clear that, as far as it is concerned, the programme does not raise any new issues and that Sellafield is safe.

  • Does the Minister agree that it is essential that the BBC give the same prominence to the regulator’s response as it has to the original claims made?

  • “Panorama” has historically served an extremely useful function in this country by shining a spotlight on some extremely important issues and throwing up some extremely challenging questions, and this programme was no exception to that rule. As we have discussed before, it is important that we have proper transparency and proper accountability on such a fundamental matter. Having watched the programme, I thought there was adequate balance in it, in the sense that the issues were raised and space was given for what I thought was adequate rebuttal of them in the rebuttals published by the NDA and the regulator, and the confirmation made to us about their view that nothing has changed in their perception of Sellafield. That is a matter of record and it is up to the BBC whether it continues to extend the balance shown in the programme and reflect that reality.

  • I welcome the opportunity to address the matter, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) on successfully tabling his question. The issue is an important one and our prime concern on the Scottish National party Benches, as it is across the House, is the safety of staff and of the communities around Sellafield. The harsh lesson of incidents at nuclear power plants is that where safety is concerned, there can be no shortcuts in any circumstances. The Minister said that there would be no complacency on the Government’s part. What assurances has he sought that the issues identified in the BBC “Panorama” programme, particularly those related to staffing levels, will not be repeated at the Sellafield site?

    The issue of a permanent storage facility for the high level toxic legacy that we have has caused some consternation over the years. What progress has been made in identifying a safe and secure deep geological storage facility? We know that the economic costs in the nuclear industry are high, but the cost of allaying security and safety concerns is astronomical. If the price is too high to pay, will we scrap the nuclear obsession with Hinkley? What assurances can the Minister give us that there will no repercussions or attempted retribution for the whistleblower?

  • On the last point, I can reassure the hon. Gentleman. Whistleblowers always have a role to play. They are part of the landscape of accountability and transparency, and anyone watching that programme will have reached their own view on the motivations of those individuals. It is not an issue for Government. The hon. Gentleman sought assurances that issues would not be repeated. The critical thing, as we have discussed, is this House’s confidence that the architecture of transparency and accountability in the process, the role of the regulator and the way in which the regulator reports to this House is sufficiently robust. I have not heard any comments suggesting that the House does not have confidence in that process.

    The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we are dealing with an unsatisfactory legacy of the past, when things were not thought through properly and were poorly designed. Now, when we look at new nuclear, we see that the process has changed. The decommissioning process is negotiated up front. The hon. Gentleman is right that permanent long-term solutions must be found. When we are clearer about that, we will make announcements at the appropriate time.

  • I welcome my hon. Friend to his new post. Given his new role in the Department, when does he expect to visit Sellafield to see it for himself?

  • I am delighted that my hon. Friend makes that point. It is a measure of the importance that the Government—effectively, a new Administration—attach to the issue that last week Sellafield was visited by not one Minister but two: Baroness Neville-Rolfe, who leads on energy in the Department, and, I am delighted to say, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. That is significant in itself.

  • I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) for bringing this important matter before the House. I have many constituents who work at Sellafield and they have been in touch with me, as has the local Prospect union, because they are concerned about what the “Panorama” programme said about safe staffing levels. Those staff are committed to the highest standards of safety. They are a huge asset to our nuclear industry and they feel undermined by what was said in the programme. Can the Minister reassure my constituents and others working at Sellafield that there will be continued investment to fund the programmes and skills training there and show that the staff there are truly valued for the work that they do?

  • I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving me the opportunity to reaffirm again the Government’s appreciation for the extremely challenging and incredibly important work that is done by people on the site. It is deeply impressive that, given the complexity of the site and the legacy—this is really difficult stuff—Sellafield’s safety record over the past three years is the best that it has ever been. I quite understand why residents and people working at the site may have been upset and disturbed by the programme last night, but I hope that my statement and corroborating statements from other Members have reassured them that as far as the Government are concerned—not least because the independent regulator attaches enormous importance to Sellafield, as reflected in the resources committed to monitoring the site on a very proactive basis—Sellafield is safe.

  • I appreciate that the Minister has a duty to offer reassurance, but I have to warn him that the content and tone of what we have heard today come dangerously close to complacency. The people who have been responsible for the historical errors of judgment and underinvestment are still involved in the industry today. These words will be heard with concern in the north of Scotland, where we are seeing nuclear waste shipped out from the former Dounreay plant. Will the Minister have the risk assessment for that operation scrutinised independently of the people who were responsible for making the plans?

  • The right hon. Gentleman is an experienced Member of Parliament so I take seriously his warning about tripping over a boundary into complacency. I said at the start that I was determined not to do that. What I am trying to do is reflect genuine empathy with people who live close to the site and who work on the site, who will have been unsettled by the programme last night, which raised nothing new and which, I am keen to stress, in the eyes of the regulator does not change its position in relation to the safety of Sellafield.

    The right hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I give some priority to that. He knows the reality of the situation at Sellafield, which is that as a legacy of the cold war, vast amounts of nuclear waste, dumped with no plan for how it would be disposed of safely, languished for decades without anyone properly tackling the problem. The priority for us is to do what we are doing now, which is to continue working to turn that round and clean up Sellafield as safely, cost-effectively and quickly as possible.

  • Given what the Minister says about transparency, accountability and the paramount importance of safety in the nuclear industry, and given the Prime Minister’s clear concerns about security and the more widespread concerns about the economics, can the hon. Gentleman give us an assurance that the Government will come back to this House before making a final decision on Hinkley C?

  • I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s point. I have nothing to add to the public statements about the process of reviewing the Hinkley decision, which will look at all aspects of that deal, and we will make suitable announcements when we are ready.

  • My constituency is directly across the Irish sea from Sellafield. I have visited Sellafield twice. My constituents contacted me last night. Like me, they watched that programme and were deeply unsettled by it. Given the catalogue of safety hazards that were highlighted last night, and also those that have been documented since Sellafield, and prior to that Windscale, were opened, and the history of both recorded and unrecorded discharges of radioactive waste into the Irish sea, will the Minister commit to working directly with the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority to ensure that an accelerated programme of decommissioning is put in place which will protect communities on both sides of the Irish sea and also ensure the safety of the staff there?

  • I understand the point that the hon. Lady makes on behalf of her constituents. That reinforces the point that I was trying to make earlier about the importance of this statement to try to give some reassurance to all communities that may be affected. I hope that I have done so. As I said, we have confidence in the NDA. We monitor its work closely in terms of both value for money and pace.

  • The Minister has talked a number of times about cleaning up Sellafield as “cost-effectively” as possible, yet it was only when the Public Accounts Committee in the last Parliament looked closely at the issue that the Government moved to remove Nuclear Management Partners, the American consortium that was running Sellafield. Will he now undertake, as the new Minister, not only to visit, but to make sure that, in all the complex engineering work on this very complex site—I think three of the top 10 engineering challenges internationally are at Sellafield—the difficulty does not overblow the challenge of benchmarking engineering projects in similar fields, so that we get good value for money for the taxpayer while carrying out the important clean-up?

  • I take this opportunity to congratulate the hon. Lady on the extremely effective way she has chaired that Committee. The point she makes about the role of the PAC in this is really important in terms of reinforcing the framework of transparency and accountability around this incredibly complex process. This process carries a huge bill for the taxpayer, so it is absolutely imperative for a Government of any colour to drive it forward in as responsible and cost-effective a way as possible, with value for money being a prime consideration, but I take on board her suggestion very seriously.

  • The UK Government’s entire nuclear policy, from Trident to Hinkley, is nothing short of appalling. If any of these allegations by the BBC are found to be true, it will surely be another in a long list of reasons to move away from this nuclear obsession. Does the Minister not concede that he should consider taking a leaf out of the Scottish Government’s book and ban the creation of new nuclear power stations to minimise the amount of waste going to Sellafield?

  • The nuclear industry is normally a highly regulated sector. Has the Minister considered how his Department can work with Sellafield to ensure that there is faster implementation of safety measures and that the issue of storage—a very clear problem—is addressed as quickly and as safely as possible to ensure the smooth running of this vital plant?

  • Order. I am grateful to the Minister and to colleagues.

    Bill Presented

    Savings (Government Contributions) Bill

    Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

    Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr David Gauke, Jane Ellison, Gavin Barwell, Simon Kirby, Richard Harrington and Mr Rob Wilson, presented a Bill to make provision for, and in connection with, government bonuses in respect of additions to savings accounts and other investment plans.

    Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 59) with explanatory notes (Bill 59-EN).