John Cunningham, the opposition environment spokesman in the British Parliament, says that when the Labour Party next forms Britain's government it will do all it can to maintain ``a safe and environmentally sound'' civil nuclear industry. ``We recognize our international obligations to do so,'' Dr. Cunningham said in a Monitor interview in his West Cumbrian constituency of Copeland, which includes the big state-owned British Nuclear Fuels (BNF) plant at Sellafield with its large nuclear reprocessing capacity.
Cunningham - who holds a doctorate in chemistry - has been a member of Parliament for this constituency on the Irish Sea coast for nearly 17 years.
But despite his strong academic and political credentials, Cunningham is under fire from some critics within the Labour movement. Critics question his right to speak for them on environmental protection issues when he advocates the continued existence of the BNF plant.
But Cunningham does not see a conflict between his role as spokesman and his support for the BNF plant.
``In fact,'' Cunningham argues, ``my involvement in the nuclear industry puts me in a better position to understand the industry and to push for improvements and progress in it. That is partly why the Labour Party is calling on [BNF] to eliminate discharges of radioactive waste from Sellafield and why the Party is pressing for a policy on the storage of nuclear waste.''
The British Health and Safety Executive gave notice to BNF in December that it must clean up Sellafield within 12 months or the plant will be shut down.
Cunningham says his knowledge of the nuclear industry has convinced him that the way forward is not to close it down but to make better, safer use of it. ``We must harness civil nuclear power, not run away from it.''
Although Cunningham says Labour would stop the production of weapons-grade plutonium at Sellafield and would seek ways to make the electricity industry less dependent on civil nuclear power, he also says that those who call for Sellafield's immediate closure are ``talking nonsense.''
``At present, 17-18 percent of British electricity is produced by ... nuclear power, and that will be 24 percent when two more power stations come on stream,'' he said. Civil nuclear power can't be written off in a short space of time, and nuclear power stations will be needed well into the next century. I can't see our or the world's energy supplies being met, or people's quality of life being improved in the third world, without a major contribution from a civil nuclear program....''
What, then, of the problems of health and safety at the Sellafield plant and its environs and the allegations that people are being harmed by its operations and its discharges?
``There has been no evidence to show that there is any risk,'' Cunningham says. ``We take any evidence of health risk and cancers very seriously in this community. But there has just been the most exhaustive examination of mortality and morbidity figures in this industry in the last 20 years, and it concluded that perhaps four or five deaths had occurred in the work force at Sellafield that might not otherwise have happened. But compared with other industries - such as mining, fishing, transportation, and construction - the health and safety record of the nuclear industry is immeasurably better.
``At the same time there have only been 10 cases of leukemia in the surrounding area in over 30 years; and a committee that was set up ... to investigate a possible link between those cases and the operation of the BNF plant concluded that no link could be proved.''
He says there is ``overwhelming support'' in the local community for the BNF plant, which employs 12,000 out of a local working population of 30,000 and sustains other industries, jobs, and services in West Cumbria. ``It makes a colossal contribution to the area, putting 2 million a day into the local economy....''
Even if there were a cessation of reprocessing in 40-50 years, there would still be a need for management of the waste and decommissioning, he noted.
``There are 1,200 tons of Magnox fuel on site now waiting to be reprocessed. In addition, the new 1.6 billion Thorp [Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant] project is due to come into operation in the 1990s and there are alrady 30 contracts from nine countries for its first 10 years. No government of any party would abrogate those contracts. So there is no question of its closure in the foreseeable future.''