§ Lord Triesman
rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 1 July be approved [24th Report from the Joint Committee].
The noble Lord said:
My Lords, we face a very real threat from weapons of mass destruction. Nobody in this House could avoid this unhappy fact.
The draft regulations we are discussing this evening concern one key technology used in the civil nuclear industry—uranium enrichment. This technology can also be used in the production of nuclear weapons. We have a responsibility to ensure that it does not fall into the wrong hands, and so increase the risk of the proliferation of nuclear weapons. These draft regulations will strengthen the protection provided by our law in this area.
I would like to spend a few moments explaining the background to this technology. As many of your Lordships will be aware, the production of fissile material is necessary both for the generation of nuclear power and for the construction of nuclear weapons. One of the ways that this can be achieved is by separating uranium isotopes, a process usually known as enrichment. It was first achieved on an industrial scale during the Manhattan project in the Second World War.
Enrichment of uranium can be achieved in a number of ways. In the UK uranium is enriched by means of a cascade of centrifuges to produce nuclear fuel for power generation. Elsewhere in the world other technologies to enrich uranium are used, such as the gaseous diffusion method employed in France and the USA.
Uranium enrichment technology is used in the civil nuclear industry to produce low-enriched uranium. It is part of the process of manufacturing nuclear fuel for 1195 power stations. However, it can also be employed to enrich uranium to a far higher level, which can then be used in nuclear weapons programmes.
Because it can be used to develop nuclear weapons as well in civil nuclear power programmes, uranium enrichment technology is attractive to certain states and to terrorists. In recent decades there have been a number of reported instances of disclosure of this technology. In the 1970s Abdul Qadeer Khan, a Pakistani nuclear scientist, illegally acquired this technology from the Netherlands and very recently admitted providing this technology to Libya, North Korea and Iran. In the 1980s Karl-Heinz Schaab, a German national, supplied this technology to Iraq.
Uranium enrichment technology is so proliferation-sensitive that we must not allow it to circulate freely even within the UK, because to do so would increase the risk of the technology finding its way into the wrong hands.
Transfers of this technology are already regulated under UK law including by patents and export control legislation. But the coverage of the law is not total. There are gaps that have to be addressed.
Because of this, these draft regulations will create a new offence of unauthorised disclosure of this technology. The draft regulations are being made under powers in Section 80 of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001.
The draft regulations will penalise disclosures made with intent to assist a uranium enrichment programme or disclosures that are made recklessly—by which I mean that the person knows or is indifferent to the risk that an unauthorised disclosure would assist a uranium enrichment programme, or gives no thought to an obvious risk that disclosure would assist such a programme.
The uranium enrichment industry in the UK needs to make disclosures of this technology in the normal course of its business. The draft regulations will address this and other legitimate circumstances by making those persons who make certain limited disclosures of this technology exempt from prosecution. Such exemptions include disclosures authorised by the Government, those made in connection with a patent application for this technology, or where the technology is already legally in the public domain.
We have also taken full account of the special position of Internet service providers. They will not face prosecution if, for example, they are unaware that information about uranium enrichment technology has been placed on a website they are hosting. To do otherwise would plainly be unjust.
I am very much aware that work on this form of enrichment and related areas may be carried out by the academic and scientific community. I certainly do not want to put barriers in the way of scientists carrying out their research. However, the academic and scientific community need not worry about these draft regulations. 1196 This is because the draft regulations focus on the key proliferation threat. They prohibit only the disclosure of technology which can be used to enrich uraniumx2014;in other words technology which will be of direct assistance to a proliferator. The House will be assured that the regulations do not prohibit disclosure of the research into the generally applicable fundamental science and engineering which enrichment makes use of, nor of items such as centrifuges which have been designed to do things other than to enrich uranium. If a scientist has this technology in his or her possession and wishes to disclose it, he can apply to the security regulator for the nuclear industry—the Office for Civil Nuclear Security—for an authorisation to do so.
In drawing up the draft regulations, the department has consulted a wide range of interested academic and scientific representative bodies. They include the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering and Universities UK. I am pleased to report that none has opposed the draft regulations. The House may recall that Professor Eyre of the Royal Society recently pointed out that the scientific community must be aware of its responsibility to stop technologies which can be used in weapons of mass destruction from getting into the wrong hands.
Your Lordships will also be aware that the draft regulations were withdrawn and then relaid. We did this so that we could incorporate the suggestion of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments that there should be a delay before the regulations came into force. That was because the penalties for falling foul of the regulations are severe and it is important that everyone should know where we are going before they are introduced. The delay of 28 days will allow us to bring the regulations to people's attention before they come into force. I am most grateful to the Joint Committee for its valuable scrutiny.
I probably do not need to remind the House in any way of the threat the world faces from the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. These draft regulations address one important aspect of that threat and in that light, I commend them to the House. I beg to move.
Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 1 July be approved. [24th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Triesman.)
§ Baroness Miller of Hendon
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his explanation of these regulations and for the excellent explanatory notes published by his department. Of course, we on these Benches support the regulations as we support all measures designed to inhibit the availability of any weapons of mass destruction which may find their way into the hands of bloodthirsty terrorists, to whom human life means little.
However, I am by no means certain how effective these regulations will be in achieving that objective, because the actual information about the technology is widely available in text books and over numerous websites on the totally uncontrollable and uncensorable Internet. I am equally uncertain how 1197 effective they may be when, as we have seen recently, what I can describe only as rogue scientists have been prepared to give or sell their country's atomic secrets to others. That has happened in the case of a Pakistani scientist and the Minister gave a few other examples.
There are valid fears that scientists of the former Soviet Union may have been peddling know-how, and indeed nuclear material itself, as well as essential equipment. There is little doubt about the source of North Korean and Iranian nuclear capability and the threats they pose to the world.
I was a little concerned that the regulations may impinge on normal academic freedom which enables our universities to teach and our scientists—especially research scientists—to exchange information with colleagues. Academic freedom is a subject which we have debated at length previously and the Government have given assurances that they entirely respect the concept.
I would have liked to have an assurance from the Minister that the exemptions contained in paragraph 2(2) take academic freedom into account. However, I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, in introducing these amendments, has given me that assurance. He said that the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering and Universities UK have been consulted and that they agree and that gives much assurance to the House.
Even though, as I said earlier, these regulations may be circumvented by the actions of irresponsible governments and by non-UK persons out of the jurisdiction of our government, they are necessarily to be welcomed as giving our courts some additional powers to deal with those who do assist in undesirable nuclear proliferation. I know that BNFL was consulted by Her Majesty's Government in the early formulation of the legislation and it, too, is content with it. We are therefore pleased to support the regulations.
§ Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer
My Lords, first, I must apologise to the Minister for missing the opening part of his statement. I was under the impression that the business would be taken in the dinner hour and did not know of the change. However, I assure him that I heard the brief delivered by his right honourable friend in the Commons committee yesterday. It was substantially the same, so I am aware of what was said.
We welcome measures to prevent terrorism and there can hardly be a more serious combination than nuclear technology and terrorism. However, I must ask whether the regulations are proportionate and appropriate because it would be easy to pass regulations that were disproportionate. For example, although we may feel a terrorist threat here, we do not want to stop all people visiting the Houses of Parliament so we have tried to have a proportionate reaction. Does the Minister believe that these regulations are proportionate? 1198 I want to explain why, given various factors, I am not sure that they are. First, they cast a further veil of secrecy over the whole of the nuclear industry, which has already had a secretive history and in which the public have a legitimate interest. In fact, one of the points in the Energy Bill, made so ably by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, was that the opening up of the nuclear industry was to be welcomed. Secrecy serves no public interest. I presume that the regulations have been produced in reaction to an Intelligence Service assessment. Can the Minister reassure me of that? As the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Hendon, said, the knowledge is already out there.
The reality is that throughout the world, where there are nuclear reactors there is a more present threat, as was highlighted in December 2003 when 37 bars of highly enriched uranium were recovered by an international specialist armed unit from a shattered Bulgarian power station. A further eight bars of material went missing, one of which was recovered by the secret services and seven are still missing. If in passing these regulations we therefore believe that we have secured the UK, we are ignoring reality. I believe that we would be better off to put the effort into the kind of programmes in which the United States and Russia are engaged; those of blending down uranium so that it cannot be used in nuclear weapons.
There other current issues such as nitrate fertilisers, commonly available and quite unregulated. When blended with other commonly available substances, they become lethal. Have the Government given any thought to the chemical compounds which could still be useful to farmers but would make fertilisers far less useful to terrorists? That is the kind of practical regulation that would be helpful.
At a time when the Government have said they are keeping the nuclear option open—it would be fair to say that several leading Conservatives have been calling for new nuclear-build programmes— public debate on the nuclear issue is liable to be stifled if we see a large number of regulations, of which this is the start, closing down information on the nuclear industry. With these regulations, it will be much harder to ask questions about the safety of processes. How will public meetings be held, especially public inquiries where detailed information should be disclosed with regard to new planning permissions, for example? I notice that the regulations cover building, so presumably those planning permissions will take place on buildings which no one should know about and no one can discuss.
Then there is the matter of the resulting waste. Something will still have to be done with that waste—it will still have to be counted in a waste inventory and finally disposed of, but no one will have the right to know how much is likely to be produced by the technologies which will now be so regulated.
Do regulations denying the public such information comply with their rights under the new Aarhus Convention? The regulations talk of compliance with EU obligations but not with EU conventions. And 1199 how do they relate to the international situation? We are asking other countries to be open about their nuclear processes and ensure that civil programmes do not have military potential, but we will no longer be able to have that assurance in the UK as we shall not know what the Government are sanctioning under the guise of these regulations.
Finally, there is the question of the democratic process. I believe that these are important and highly significant regulations because uranium enrichment should concern us all. In the Commons yesterday, there was the statement that the Minister has repeated here today, followed by one minute of scrutiny. That is not very good. But in this House, we have been allocated a slot in the dinner hour, which is perhaps a little better; it may receive about 20 minutes of scrutiny.
I believe that the regulations merit a full debate with arguments from all sides. The Minister is looking puzzled. But if all that technology is shielded from public scrutiny, how shall we have the right to know what developments are taking place in the UK? I shall give him an example. New laser isotope enrichments can convert the acid-grade fuel to weapons-grade fuel. That is of great concern. As the non-proliferation treaties proceed, how will the electorate here know what the Government are sanctioning in its name?
Some time ago, the US Department of Energy declassified information on highly enriched uranium inventories. Among its reasons for doing so was that the data may permit more environmentally relevant information to be provided to stakeholders and the public. Crucially, it may permit more knowledgeable public discussion on uranium storage and disposal. That is part of the process.
I appreciate that that goes slightly wider than the regulations, but I suspect that they are the first of a tranche of regulations to be issued about the industry. At the very time that the industry is expected to expand, we must scrutinise very carefully the veil of secrecy that we are being asked to draw.
Finally, the regulations beg the question of why the UK is planning to enrich yet more uranium when we are committed to nuclear non-proliferation. Why is that?
§ Lord Triesman
My Lords, I am grateful to both the noble Baronesses, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer and Lady Miller of Hendon, for the points that they made. I shall try to deal with them briefly. First, the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Hendon, was right to draw attention to the possibility that, given the current state of knowledge in some of these technologies, it will be possible for people to circumvent the requirements of these—or any—regulations. She made the point, with which I wholly agree, that it remains a plain obligation on our part to try to ensure that there is no proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. I am also happy to repeat my confirmation that the academic community was in the loop during the discussions. The nuclear industry and the scientific community generally were in the loop of the 1200 discussions and it is of some comfort that they had no objection to the principle of the proposals. They were content that viable academic research and the normal exchange of academic information can proceed.
The noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, made some important points, but it may well be that we will disagree to some extent about the processes involved. Are the regulations proportionate? Certainly. The proportionate quality that I shall describe is not because I want to answer the question about any recent intelligence; it is not the Government's policy to respond to intelligence assessments in either House of Parliament and I have no intention to do so. Indeed, I think that it would raise some eyebrows were I to do so.
However, I hope that it would be a common concern that various uranium enrichment technologies have become particularly sensitive, precisely because they are commonly used in the production of nuclear fuels in the civil nuclear industry but are so easily adapted for nuclear weapons programmes. The intention is to ensure, as far as possible, that the coverage of existing law is as strong as it can be to try to ensure that the information involved does not escape recklessly. Do many people already have that kind of information? They do. But it is also true that it is an area in which people are continually trying to improve techniques, as well as considering further methods of uranium enrichment. Those techniques and new methods may well be of value to people who have hostile and terrorist intent.
We would be negligent if we were to say simply that there is a lot of information out there already and that we are content to allow for the possibility that it could spread still further. The regulations are proportionate. They do not deal explicitly with stolen nuclear materials overseas. I do not think that we could make regulations in this House that could conceivably do so. That does not mean that that is not worrying. I share the worries that have been expressed. But they are not part of the regulations. Nor is it a part of the regulations that we consider other commonly available chemicals, that can, with relative ease, be turned into explosives. Quite aside from whether there are good alternatives to nitrate fertilisers, there are probably a number of chemicals which, put together with other chemicals and reactive agents, would produce devastating effects.
The regulations do not cover such matters, although they are of course extremely important and we should try our best to ensure that we are dealing with them appropriately. Nor, with the greatest respect, do I think that this is an issue of planning permission. It may be about the specialist design of specialist buildings that deal with specialist equipment in the process of uranium enrichment. But, generally speaking, most of the issues about the planning arrangements for all kinds of power generation sites are covered in other legislation, including much that we have discussed recently.
§ Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer
My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, because I realise that time is pressing, but, if a building is to be erected for the process of uranium enrichment, will the information about the use of the buildings be available to the public, so that they can make their views known?
§ Lord Triesman
My Lords, when commercial planning permissions are sought—the nuclear energy industry is a commercial proposition—the planning permissions must meet the full range of the planning requirements for information before planning consents can be given. I candidly do not think that that is an area of huge secrecy. It is hard to build a nuclear reactor, if new nuclear reactors are to be built, without people generally being aware of its likely use and the likely content of the nuclear fuel.
I am now paraphrasing a little, and I apologise for that. Will we deal with declassification of information at the same time as we are encouraging other countries to reveal their nuclear weapons development capability? We are all parties to the non-proliferation treaties. The obligations that we urge on others are obligations under the non-proliferation treaties. They should not be doing the things that they are doing. On our part, the information will not be declassified if that would present a threat to our national security.
In all conscience, I do not believe that it could be said that the democratic processes or possibilities of debate are limited in the United Kingdom. But, such as they are, the limits certainly concern where it is of grave danger to the peoples of the United Kingdom that weapons of mass destruction or the technologies to build them could be spread. That seems to me a sensible precaution and that is all that the regulations deal with.
I assure the House that we introduce measures such as these only where we believe that they are entirely justified by the threat that we face and after careful thought about the consequences. There is no crying wolf about this. The draft regulations are necessary and I commend them to the House in that light.
On Question, Motion agreed to.