Mr Speaker can I join the Defence Secretary in paying tribute to the soldier from the 32 Engineer Regiment. His death is a reminder of the service and sacrifice given to our country by the Armed Forces. Our thoughts are with his loved ones.
Can I start by thanking the Secretary of State for briefing me on this last night? These are complicated and sensitive matters and it is in all our interests that they are debated in a calm and reasonable manner that befits the seriousness of the issues we are discussing.
Mr Speaker, I will come to the specific issues raised in the statement about the reactor in Dounreay and the nuclear submarines. But I have to ask the Defence Secretary: why now? Why is this House only being told today on an issue of such importance?
The Defence Secretary says this was discovered in January 2012, over two years ago. Doesn’t he think it would have been right to brief the Official Opposition’s spokesperson on Defence then? Why did this not happen, and why hasn’t it happened at any time since then until now? And shouldn’t this Parliament have known?
There must be public confidence in the government to be open and transparent on these matters. A fault, however small, that develops in a nuclear reactor is something that the British people – and this Parliament – should have been told about.
This is an issue of national security and national importance. It will cause particular concern in Scotland. When did the Scottish Secretary know? Did the Defence Secretary or his Rt Hon Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland discuss this with the First Minister of Scotland and the Scottish government? It would seem to me that it was incumbent upon the UK government to inform and work with the Scottish government.
I accept the Rt Hon Gentleman briefing me and other colleagues last night and this morning, and I appreciate his candour. But doesn’t he agree that it has come rather late?
Let me turn to the specific issues with the PWR2 nuclear reactor at Dounreay and the implications for the Royal Navy’s fleet submarines and ballistic missile submarines. There will inevitably be concern when the words ‘nuclear’, ‘reactor’ and ‘fault’ are used in the same sentence. So can I ask the Secretary of State to provide further assurance that there has been and is absolutely no risk to workers on site, personnel in service or the public?
Having discovered there was a problem at the Vulcan Naval Reactor Test Establishment, on what basis was the decision made to continue running the reactor? We know that it is now in maintenance. Can he tell us when will the decision made about whether to continue running the reactor?
I understand that, if the decision is made to stop running the reactor, it takes three years from the point at which it shuts down to the point at which it has cooled enough to be examined. That is a long time. Can the Defence Secretary tell us if he has examined the potential to look at the PWR2 currently being constructed for the later Astute Class boats, and if it gives the opportunity to effectively x-ray every aspect of the cladding to see if there are any faults we can detect? There will be concerns about the impact this might have on the Astute Class Submarines. Can he outline what those are?
The decision taken to maintain a test reactor so that faults could be identified has proven a good one. A fault has been found in PWR2. What plans are to ensure that we have the same security with PWR3, which will be used on the Successor Class submarines? Has there been discussions with US counterparts to see what lessons or expertise can be borrowed?
In the current international defence and security climate, there is an important question that many people will be asking. Will this affect the UK’s ability to be able to maintain continuous at sea deterrence? Will it adjust the operations timetable of the continuous at sea deterrent?
Finally, can the Defence Secretary confirm the total cost envisaged? And can he confirm that this will have no impact on the rest of the defence programme? If the cost is met by the Submarine Contingency Fund, will it have any impact on the submarine programme?
Mr Speaker, given that there will be concern at the length of time it has taken to inform the House and the public about this, can the Secretary of State tell us what plans he has to keep Parliament and the country involved and updated throughout this process? Does he agree with me that public confidence and trust on these issues is crucial, and people should have been told earlier? There will rightly be anxiety about these matters and the British public need to be assured that everything is being done to resolve them, and be confident that Britain’s defence and security is paramount and will be maintained. That is best done through openness and transparency.