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House of Lords

Tuesday, 31st October 1995.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Lichfield.

Viscount Thurso—Sat first in Parliament after the death of his father.

Wylfa Power Station: Safety Arrangements

Lord Stanley of Alderley asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What action they have taken as the sole owner of Nuclear Electric plc to ensure that the individual directors and managers are disciplined following the company's recent conviction for safety offences at Wylfa power station, and that the company's safety arrangements are rectified.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Viscount Goschen): My Lords, the Government are satisfied that the key people in Nuclear Electric were, and remain, committed to maintaining a high level of safety, as was acknowledged by Mr. Justice Morland in his judgment on the Wylfa case. The Health and Safety Executive's Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII) is satisfied with the steps Nuclear Electric has taken to ensure a similar incident cannot happen in the future.

Lord Stanley of Alderley: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Do the Government realise the importance of restoring local confidence in Wylfa's safety arrangements so that it can continue to be a major employer in an area of great unemployment? In order to do so, will the Government exercise their rights as the only shareholders to make sure that those responsible for the mistake are disciplined, both financially and criminally, in the same way as I should be as a single trader if I contravened the Health and Safety Executive rules or, indeed, any other rules laid down by Parliament?

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that it is very important indeed that full confidence is maintained in the nuclear industry and in particular among those people who live near nuclear installations.

In this case, the Government believe that those who manage the plant were and are committed to the safety culture and that the right steps have been taken to ensure that such an incident does not happen again. That must be the key issue.

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, does the noble Viscount agree that a Question and Answer in another place seem to suggest that, first, Wylfa was built on the insistence of the government of the day; and secondly, that its primary purpose may have been the production of military plutonium rather than the generation of

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commercial electricity? Will the Minister say whether the accident was related in any way to that dual purpose?

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, the answer that I must give to the noble Lord is: not as far as I am aware. If I am not correct about that, I shall make it public and write to the noble Lord. But the priority must be to reassure the public that this type of incident will not occur again, and that corrective measures have been taken to ensure that.

Lord Marsh: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the outrageous sensationalism to which the reporting of this incident was subject is extremely damaging to the industry? There has been talk of meltdown, danger and allowing commercial considerations to take precedence over safety, all of which were turned down totally by Mr. Justice Morland. Would it not be better if people took into account the considerable value to this country of Nuclear Electric in terms of its overseas export potential?

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, that one must put the incident in perspective. There was a great deal of fanciful reporting around the extremely serious issues which were raised. The fact is that this was essentially a minor incident. Of course, all incidents which have safety implications are extremely important and we fully accept that. However, the incident has demonstrated the way in which the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate works. The fact that it took a prosecution to court shows how seriously it takes its duties. The judgment given by Mr. Justice Morland provides an extremely good summary of what happened. We must put that in perspective.

Viscount Mersey: My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that in this unfortunate incident no one was hurt, no one was put in danger, and there was no release of radioactive material?

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, those facts are correct. There was a flaw in a component. It fell into the fuel channel. But there was no actual danger as a result. The reactor did not overheat and it showed no signs of stress. If it had, the back-up systems which have been built in would have come into play. That position was not reached. The fact that the incident occurred was serious. However, the key consideration here must be the moves that have been made to remedy the physical faults in the part and indeed in the operating procedures to ensure that there is no repetition of that incident.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, where will the money come from to pay the fine? Will the Minister give the House an assurance that his noble friend Lord Stanley will not have to bear even the tiniest fraction of that fine?

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, I fear that my noble friend may be a taxpayer. As the taxpayers own Nuclear Electric, which was the body that was fined, I am afraid that the company will bear the brunt of the fine; and in effect we are talking about the taxpayer.

Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, should we not take notice of the fact that Mr. Justice Morland said he was

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convinced that the current safety programme is thorough, comprehensive and continuous? Nuclear Electric was extremely worried, first, that the incident happened and, further, that it went to court and a judgment was given. Nuclear Electric has taken every precaution since that time. It has also sent a staff newspaper to each of its over 9,000 employees, giving the facts as they were—there was no cover-up—and explaining that the company was sorry the incident had occurred and was determined to learn from it.

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. A safety culture of the very highest standard exists in the nuclear industry; and it is appropriate and essential that it should exist. The incident has shown what can go wrong if there is a physical malfunction of equipment. The incident has been fully examined by an independent body. A prosecution has taken place, and the judge has given his verdict and his summary of the case. However, he reinforced the message that there is a safety culture of a high standard within the nuclear industry.

Lord Peston: My Lords, we all agree that what this country needs is low cost power generation. If nuclear power can achieve that, that is excellent. However, the Question concerns the conviction. Does the Minister agree that the conviction was a serious matter? It is not a trivial matter if a company is found guilty of any offence of this kind. I assumed that the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Stanley, was intended—apart from asking what the Government were doing—to elicit a response which would reassure the local people. As I understand it, they are extremely worried about the position. Have the Government done anything to reassure the local people bearing in mind that most of them will not read the judge's statement and will not read Lords Hansard? They would like the Government to issue some kind of statement to indicate that they are taking such a matter seriously.

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, I believe that constructive messages are put forward by the industry itself to emphasise the safety culture and safety record of the nuclear industry in this country which is of an extremely high standard. I agree with the noble Lord that a prosecution is a serious and not a trivial matter. But I believe that the way in which the board of Nuclear Electric has handled the investigation before the prosecution, and its affairs since the prosecution, show its commitment to a safe industry.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords—

Noble Lords: Next Question!

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, while I accept that the safety regime in the present publicly owned industry is of the best, will the noble Viscount be able to

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reassure the people of Wylfa and those who live near other nuclear sites that the safety regime will be at least as stringent under private ownership as it is now?

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, that will absolutely be the case.

Lord Wright of Richmond: My Lords—

Noble Lords: Next Question!

Lord Wright of Richmond: My Lords, I noted that the Minister's reply, like other ministerial replies recently, expressed satisfaction with the situation with which the Question dealt. Does the Minister agree that the word "confidence" is more likely to give reassurance than "satisfaction"?

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, I do not totally follow the line of inquiry pursued by the noble Lord. I have made it quite clear that the Government have confidence in the way that the nuclear industry is regulated and that it has independent regulators. We see this as the best way to run a nuclear industry. I have assured the noble Lord opposite that with privatisation of the nuclear industry—although that will not affect Magnox reactors—a strong regime will also be in place.

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