HC Deb 28 March 1946 vol 421 cc681-700

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Mathers.]

8.38 p.m.

Mr. Martin Lindsay (Solihull)

I take this opportunity of raising the question of the industrial development of atomic energy in the hope, which I trust will not prove to be too optimistic, of extracting some information from the Government as to what their plans are in this respect. We know a great deal about the future of the coal industry but we know remarkably little at present as to how the Government propose to develop the alternative of atomic power. We also know that it is becoming increasingly difficult to get young men to enter the coal industry. We understand that in about 50 years' time our stocks of coal will be exhausted. Scientists tell us that coal is so precious that it is a shame to burn it. We know that we have an alternative to coal in the possibilities of atomic power which will enable us to reduce our consumption of coal almost to zero. The highest scientific opinion on both sides of the Atlantic is agreed that it will he feasible to have atomic power at an economic price within about 10 years.

What I want to know tonight is what the Government are doing in order to develop it. I am not here to say that what they are doing is wrong or inadequate, because I do not know. None of us knows, because there has been no comprehensive statement yet on the. Government's plans. All we have had so far is a series of announcements. We have had an announcement that the Government have appointed an advisory committee under the chairmanship of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the Scottish Universities (Sir J. Anderson). We know that the Government have established an experimental station at Harwell, near Didcot, and we are left to deduce—because of the fact that, owing to the dangers of radio-activity, it is impossible to establish a full-scale plant within 5o miles of a town—that the experimental work to be done at Harwell will be on a very small scale.

We also understand that a Bill is to be introduced to regulate the future development of atomic power. Lastly, we have heard that Air Chief Marshal Lord Portal is in charge of this subject at the Ministry of Supply. This is an appointment which everyone will welcome, because not only is the Air Chief Marshal a man of very great drive, but the development of radar in the Royal Air Force during the war has shown that he is accustomed to working with, and to making the best possible use of, scientists.

But there is a great deal which still remains for us to be told, and I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman who is to reply one or two questions. We understand that, in his capacity as Minister of Supply, he is in charge of this matter, and I am sure this is very suitable, because the most important problem at the moment is that of getting supplies of raw materials. But there are other Ministers who are also concerned. The Minister of Works is very much concerned, as is also the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and I want to know who is doing the central planning. Is it a sub-committee of the Cabinet, or the Lord President of the Council in his spare time? We just do not know.

It is clear to us that nuclear energy will result in a great saving of labour and transport, and that it will be of immense advantage for the development of huge tracts in our Dominions, which hitherto has not been economically possible. We also know that the provision in large quantities of radio-active substances will be of great value, for both medical and biological research. It may result in new cures for diseases, and also result in new industries of the size and importance of the synthetic rubber, plastics and the light metal industries. But I believe that it will do very much more for us than even that. I believe that the development of nuclear power will enable us to put the British national economy, which at the present moment is based on coal, on a sound, permanent footing for all time. But I also believe that this conversion can only be done smoothly if the central planning organs of the Government take the appropriate action years in advance. It simply does not make sense to read that the Central Electricity Board is, at the present moment, proposing to spend £300 million in the next 10 years upon power stations, which, I believe, will be out of date before they are completed.

That is why I ask who, or what organisation, is doing this central planning, and I would also ask the Minister what sort of priority is being given to this subject. Is it the sort of priority which the United States gave to it in the war, or the sort of priority which would have been given to it in 1938, or something between the two? I have always held that, as a nation, we cannot ultimately compete economically with the United States or with Soviet Russia, because we have neither the manpower nor the natural resources, and that our future is to be the clever nation. We have the ablest scientists, as the development of penicillin, radar and the early stages of nuclear energy have shown, and our future lies in developing our economy by making the best possible use of our scientific brains.

Therefore, I ask the Minister if he is satisfied that we are giving sufficient priority to this most important subject. I ask him also whether there are any Treasury restrictions upon this development. I would also like to know when, if he is not able to give a full statement tonight, he will be able to do so, and when he expects that the Bill will be introduced into the House. I hope the Minister will be able to answer some of these questions tonight, and give us some statement as to the future development of nuclear power in this country.

8.47 p.m.

Mr. Blackburn (Birmingham, King's Norton)

I think the House is much indebted to the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Lindsay) for having raised this matter tonight. We know that a tremendous amount of interest has been' aroused in the world, as the result of the dropping of two bombs about eight months ago. The world might almost be described as having become "bomb-happy," to use a phrase which became popular in the war just concluded. I think many of us would agree that the best chance for mankind to turn away from the possibility of an atomic war, is to concentrate now—first, domestically and, secondly, by international cooperation—on the peaceful development of atomic energy, and I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Supply has come down here tonight to explain to us what is happening here in Britain.

We have a greater interest in this matter, historically, than any other country. The whole of the fundamental research which led to the discovery of the fission of uranium in 1938 and at the beginning of 1939, emanated directly or indirectly from the laboratories of Cambridge University and the work done by Rutherford, Acton and Savage, and, in the main, the work done by British scientists, which became internationally known in 1939. It is somewhat unfortun- ate that a number of statements have appeared in the Press, emanating from sources which were evidently ignorant on this particular subject. I say that because there are people who declare that there will be atomic cars in a year or two, and when the public are told that [...]mic cars, in the foreseeable future, are utterly impossible, that creates a sceptical reaction. I would like to say, before I go further, that this idea of an atomic car is utterly impossible. In any case, it would require a shielding weighing about 5o tons, to protect the driver and occupants of the car from injury. Assuming that atomic energy could be used for transport at all, it would 'be for very large liners, such as the "Queen Mary," but that again seems to be a matter for the future—in about ten years' time.

May I deal, first, with the subject of power which has been raised by the hon. Gentleman opposite? I agree with him at the outset that this subject of power concerns us in Britain more, perhaps, than any people in any country in the world. In the United States of America the seams are broader and the coal is far more accessible. Here in Britain we are well aware of the fact that coal is a wasting asset and of the difficulties which we are bound to have under any form of administration in persuading people to live such an unpleasant life as that of a miner. We know that even in the best collieries in Britain, like the Bolsover colliery, the modern generation of miners are unwilling to follow their fathers' footsteps. We know, also, how dependent British economy is on the forces of power. Therefore, I hope that my right hon. Friend will indicate tonight that His Majesty's Government are determined to do everything in their power to see that we have sources of power from atomic energy as soon as it is humanly possible.

May I quote one or two comments on this, because it is a matter on which there is a sincere difference of opinion among scientists? On this subject, one might say, there are optimists and pessimists, and it would not be fair to distinguish between the two. Here is the evidence given by one of the greatest authorities on the subject, Dr. Oppenheimer, who was in charge of the actual construction of the atomic bomb, before the Senate Committee on Atomic Energy in the United States: I think that the installation to provide half a million or a million kilowatts in usable form—let us say for electrical energy—is not very far off. One could prove that it was possible. One could supply one and make it economically but to fit it into a living economy and find out whether plants of this kind were preferable to water power or coal may take a long time. A million kilowatts would be equivalent to an immense project like the Boulder Dam. It would yield one quarter of the electricity used in Great Britain in an average year. I quote another distinguished American scientist to show that I am not taking one authority at random. Dr. Zillard strongly supported Dr. Oppenheimer. He said: I would not talk about it if I did not think that in ten years from now uranium will be a cheaper fuel than coal, although it is highly likely that the first atomic power plants to be built w ill not, in fact, produce power at an economic price. But, of course, it is manifest that in scientific endeavours of this kind one first produces the power plant at an uneconomic price and then, as the years go on, one succeeds in reaching a situation in which you actually get the power cheaper than if it emanated from coal. Professor Oliphant, of Birmingham University, to whom, I think, we owe a great debt in many respects, has emphasised that these problems can be solved comparatively quickly if tackled as energetically and comprehensively as the project of the atomic bomb. He considers, and has estimated publicly, that in ten years' time, or thereabouts, atomic power at an economical price is feasible. The great value of atomic power is not only that it would enable us to deal with our fuel problems or help us to deal with them but that, above all, it gives mobility to power. The dependence of power upon transport will vanish, when we get a cheap source of power from atomic energy. Perhaps one of the most remarkable features is that, in the past, it has been necessary at great expense to transport huge quantities of fuel to any part of the world where it was desired to have a source of power. It has been necessary to maintain these plants by continuing to transport fuel and other supplies. Atomic power is compact and largely independent of supply problems. It can enable us to develop huge undeveloped areas in the British Commonwealth, in Australia, in India, and elsewhere. It can enable us to use ores where they are mined, and so save transport; to execute schemes of irrigation, which would have been thought fantastic; to supply cheap and unlimited quantities of hot water and steam for central heating; to save gas and electricity, and to supply power for agricultural purposes.

I will not weary the House by going in detail into the possibilities which unfold themselves, but it is not altogether inaccurate for people to speak about the "atomic age" because, so far, all the processes which man has used for power depend upon chemical changes outside of the atom. Now we have reached an entirely new source of power, dependent on the inside of the atom, on the nucleus, and not on the outside, or electron, which whirls round the centre. That means that we have no longer to go to the mine as the source of power in order to build up industry. We shall be able, in the future, to build industries independently of the source of power and to take the power itself to the industries. That will, undoubtedly, represent a revolution comparable with that which occurred in the 19th century.

I am in no way desiring to make any comments to the Minister which he could consider to be adverse, but I am desirous of putting this point to him. It has been accepted by almost all the authorities, that if one intends to produce atomic power, an expenditure of at least £30 million is necessary at the outset. We know that the expenditure on which we are embarking is only £2,800,000, My right hon. Friend shakes his head, and I am glad to see him do so. The figure so far published is £2,800,000, and I shall listen with great care to what he has to say later. I think it can be taken, generally, that it would cost, as an initial payment, at least£ 30 million to get going on a substantial scale with atomic power. I hope to hear some more hopeful prospects unfolded before us by my right hon. Friend tonight. I am sure that the most immediate benefit to be derived from atomic energy will come, not from power, but from medical research and therapy. Professor Sir Charles Ellis" who delivered a lecture in the presence of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the Scottish Universities (Sir J. Anderson), said: The radioactive substances which can now be made by these new atomic processes will provide complete and adequate substitutes for radium on a scale hitherto undreamed of. In some respects, they are superior as healing agents. A wider choice of radiations will be available to the physicians and a variety of the chemical properties to which the radioactive powers can be allied will provide a refinement of technique which is bound to produce valuable results. Professor E. L. Lawrence, of California University, has stated that the first use to which the giant cyclotron in California will be put is research into and the treatment of cancer. He has stated that he expects to see valuable results within the next two or three years. The treatment of cancer is, of course, a matter of great delicacy. Nobody would suggest that a universal cure for cancer is likely to be produced, but it is necessary here to divide clearly therapy from research. By the use of radioactive isotopes which can be either fed or injected, it will be possible for scientists to discover the metabolism of the human body as they have never been able to discover it in the past. A radioactive element of a half period of no years can be detected down to one thousandth of one millionth of one millionth of a gramme. That means to say that the cellular structure of the body can be examined in a living state, and it will be possible for scientists to discover what makes a cell grow. By that means one feels that it will be possible to discover the cause of cancer.

I do not desire to quote further from Sir Charles Ellis's paper to which the right hon. Member for the Scottish Universities gave his general assent, but Sir Charles Ellis has stated that he believes the results will be great and far-reaching. If my right hon. Friend can give some general indication of how research is proceeding on these lines, it will help to make mankind realise how this great new discovery can be used for good purposes instead of for evil purposes for which we have had to use it owing to the circumstances of the war. It, for instance, one could capture the imagination of the world, assuming one were able to show significant results during the next two or three years in the treatment of cancer, that would help straight away to make the people who are in the habit of saying they wish the scientists had never discovered atomic energy, realise that what is needed is for atomic energy to be used for good instead of evil purposes.

Here I desire to tread on rather more delicate ground. I would respectfully, put to my right hon. Friend the need to exclude as much as possible of the atomic programme in all its aspects from military secrecy. The details of the construction of the atomic bomb are, undoubtedly, a matter of unparalleled military secrecy, and no one is asking His Majesty's Government to disclose details of construction of an atomic bomb; and, of course, there arc other matters associated with it which are also matters for intense military secrecy. My right hon. Friend knows, because I think I first mentioned it in this House, that one fully appreciates that plutonium is the material from which an atomic bomb can be made. All the same, there is no doubt, assuming a determined effort were made by His Majesty's Government, they would be able to separate with a broad line the peaceful developments from such developments of atomic energy as directly go to the making of atomic bombs. This matter has been to some extent exaggerated, because almost all the witnesses before the Senate Committee on atomic energy were agreed that the value of the so-called secrecy of the atomic bomb would last no more than 12 months, if a Power such as the Soviet Union were determined to produce the atomic bomb.

On this subject it is most unfortunate that from answers which have been given by the Prime Minister, it is apparent that our cooperation with the United States of America in the peaceful development of atomic energy is today most unsatisfactory. On 3oth October I stated that we knew all the details of the construction of an atomic bomb made from uranium; that is the type of bomb which was dropped on Hiroshima. That is true, and was accepted by President Truman the next day. Secretary of State Byrnes of the United States of America has recently suggested that we do not know the details of the construction of any atomic bomb. I would like to repeat what I said at the beginning. British scientists know all the details of the construction of the atomic bomb made of uranium 235. We do not know—and it has been made clear by the Prime Minister's answer to a previous question—the details of the construction of an atomic bomb made from plutonium. The Nagasaki bomb was made from plutonium, and was, in fact, about four times as powerful as the uranium 235 bomb which was cropped on Hiroshima. The seriousness of that is this. Of the peaceful development of atomic energy 90 per cent. is associated with the plutonium process and only 10 per cent. with the separation of uranium 235. British scientists know perfectly well how to construct a bomb made out of uranium 235. Therefore, it is not logical for the United States of America, on the grounds of military security, to refrain from divulging to us information about the plutonium process, because we know how to make a bomb made of uranium 235.

I am not in any way giving secret information on this subject, because anyone who studies very carefully the Smythe Report, the White Paper and the statements made by American and British scientists, is perfectly well aware that what I am now saying is true. British scientists know how to make the first kind of atomic bomb. Therefore, it seems to me to be a most serious matter that the United States of America should be failing to allow our scientists to visit, for instance, Stamford Engineering College, where plutonium is manufactured, which produced the bomb. As an illustration of how important the plutonium process is as compared with the uranium 235 process, it is from the plutonium process that one is able to extract, in bulk, the radioactive substances and radiations which are of such vital value in medical research and therapy. This is, in some respects, most ungenerous, when one considers that Britain was responsible for almost all the fundamental research on this subject. Our British scientists went over to the United States of America; our British scientists contributed every scrap of knowledge they had on this subject.

As was most generously admitted this year before the Senate Committee, our British scientists were of inestimable value in the general promotion of atomic energy. I believe that history on this subject will record that the visit of Professor Oliphant to the United States of America in 1941 had a very valuable psychological effect on American scientists. Dr. Oppenheimer, I think, described Professor Oliphant as the greatest meddler that God ever sent to the United States of America. That was because Professor Oliphant caused Dr. Oppenheimer to nose into a number of things he perhaps should not have been permitted to nose into. The result was, he gave great impetus to this whole atomic process. I am quite sure that is accepted by most American scientists, certainly by the American scientists whom I have been fortunate enough to meet. In these circumstances one entertains a great hope that the American Government will follow the general inclination of American scientists.

I think that people in this country have a less vivid imagination on this matter than people in the United States of America. The reason is this. In the United States of America atomic scientists have started a great campaign to wake up public opinion to the tremendous importance of this subject. They have campaigned in Congress and in the Senate. They have given evidence before the Senate Committee They have produced papers. The atomic scientists of Chicago produced a most valuable paper. They have taken the unusual step of allowing themselves, as scientists, for the first time, to come into the political arena, to this extent and this extent only: that they consider it their duty to inform the American public of the essential facts about atomic energy, on which so much depends in their own personal life. One very much hopes that the American Government will appreciate not only the desire of American scientists for a full exchange of information on these. vital matters with British scientists, but also the need to show generosity to Britain, in view of the great generosity which Britain showed at an early stage to the United States of America.

I turn next to the consideration of the two materials from which both atomic bombs and atomic power can he produced. The Smythe Report states that there are two forms of such materials, and not one: uranium, of which there are four parts per million in the earth's crust, and thorium, of which there are 12 parts per million. Thorium is roughly three times as common as uranium. I understand from an answer previously given that a survey has been conducted of the whole of the uranium and thorium in the British Commonwealth. That is of great importance, because it is unlikely that we shall be able to go ahead on a large enough scale with the development of atomic power unless adequate steps have been taken for the control of atomic energy, and the control of atomic energy will depend in the first place, and probably in the most important respect, upon the control of the raw materials, namely, uranium and thorium.

There is a great embarrassment here, in that thorium is used in gas mantles. The production of gas mantles in Great Britain is 20 or 30 million per year. In those gas mantles there are 10,000 kilogrammes of thorium oxide, and, therefore, in the annual production of gas mantles in Britain there is sufficient thorium to produce a number of atomic bombs. That is a most serious matter from the point of view of the control of atomic energy. I should like to make it perfectly clear that thorium is only the equivalent of uranium. Atomic bombs are not made solely from either uranium or thorium; a moderator has to be provided. But the essential material will be either uranium or thorium, thorium being not quite such a good material but far more plentiful. It is, unfortunately, a problem we shall have to tackle. The gas mantle industry in Britain obtains its thorium from Travancore, from the monazite sands which were originally worked by a company with German associations before the last war. The present concession is held by a company called Hopkin and Williams (Travancore) Ltd., in which a substantial interest is held by Imperial Chemical Industries. These supplies of thorium were described as being three-quarters of the world's supply before the war.

I am not asking my right hon. Friend to give a detailed answer on this point tonight; I merely desire to indicate that the proper survey, classification and utilisation of the total resources of uranium and thorium throughout the British Empire is a matter which concerns us in the greatest degree. I hope that His Majesty's Government will, at some stage, be able to give an assurance to Parliament that all steps have been taken to acquire, on behalf of His Majesty's Government, all the uranium and thorium which exists in the British Commonwealth and Empire.

I conclude on this note. The Central Electricity Board has announced a programme for power stations during the next ten years which will involve an expenditure of £300 million. Obviously, that is not the only plan, but it is an example of plans being made by industry, which very largely depend upon industry knowing exactly what the Government's programme is in relation to atomic energy, and what the impact of the Government's programme on atomic energy is likely to be upon the future of Britain. I shall very much welcome the right hon. Gentleman's statement on this subject, and I hope he will continue to give after tonight as much information as he can, both to relieve the great anxieties of British—

It being a Quarter past Nine o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Pearson.]

Mr. Blackburn

I hope as I say that the right hon. Gentleman will give this information both to remove the great anxieties of the British people and also to enable British industry to know how it will face the future.

9.15 p.m.

Major Peter Roberts (Sheffield, Ecclesall)

After the speeches we have had, I must say I think we do need a great deal of clarification in this matter. I want to bring a certain amount of Yorkshire practical common sense into the discussion of this subject. We have heard a lot of talk about coal and chemistry and medical supplies; we have also heard much about terms of from two or three to ten years. I feel it is necessary, if we are to plan our industry—if, for instance, the Minister of Fuel and Power is to carry through his great schemes—that we should know, here and now, whether these dates are practical, or likely to be correct. Something has been said about the coal industry. I feel that it is most necessary at this time that there should be clarification upon this point. The Minister of Fuel and Power, and others in the industry, have been doing their best to obtain entrants into the industry, and I do not think it helps very much when statements are made, whether loosely or not, that coal will become unnecessary or that atomic energy, in five or ten years, will take the place of coal, and that, therefore, it is not necessary to persuade new generations to come into the coal industry. It is most important at this time to have some indication of what the future position will be, not only in relation to the coal industry, but in relation to power and electricity, too.

My second point is this. If these periods of time are correctly estimated, if they are not to be as long as 50, 60 or 70 years—which, to my mind, is more likely—then our location of industry must be replanned. The Minister of Town and Country Planning must start changing his ideas, and the people who are building houses must also start changing their ideas. I feel that it is most necessary that a clear statement should be made so that industry can know where it stands with regard to the very airy statements we hear of what is happening in America and what is going to happen all over the world. I think such a statement might possibly he made in a White Paper.

My third point—and this is possibly the most important—relates to the question of war and war secrets. We have been talking about industry. I want to know whether there is a conflict between the use of atomic energy in industry, and the necessity of keeping atomic uses quiet, because of war purposes. If that is so, however necessary it may be to improve our industry in this way, it seems that that will have to be put into the background until the world is in a quieter state. So we have these three points. First, the question of power and basic industries in this country, such as the coal industry; secondly, the location of buildings and of centres of living in this country and in the world; and thirdly, the question of security. I press most earnestly that this matter should no longer be left vague, but that it should he clarified. We should know whether the term of years is likely to be from two to ten years or from 50 to 60.

9.19 p.m.

The Minister of Supply (Mr. John Wilmot)

In considering this most important matter of the industrial application of atomic energy, I think we should do well if we would get it into perspective, to remember that the immense development in recent years in the controlled release of energy by nuclear fission has been carried out under the stimulus of war. It is for that reason that the discoveries have been directed primarily to war purposes and to the production of the atomic bomb. As yet, up to the present time, the main product of this astonishing new discovery has been a new destructive agency. Vast and unprecedented dangers have been imported into the future of the world, and it is to find safeguards against these horrifying dangers that the United Nations organisation has set up its Atomic Energy Commission. If ever the labours of a body of men demanded the prayers and good wishes of their fellows, then it is these. But this Commission's work may have very far-reaching effects upon the non-military use of atomic energy. The development of military science in this, as in so many matters, is bound to have its effects upon the potentialities of atomic energy on its peaceful and humanitarian side.

I will try to avoid technical descriptions, because I am not the best qualified person to give them. I will try to stick to the plain facts as I know them. Although fissile material, produced in quantity, has been used to release the explosive energy of the atomic bomb, the problem of harnessing the energy of the atom for peaceful purposes has not yet been solved. There is no justification for the belief that there is a quick and easy solution of these industrial problems. I think that it must be some years before practical results of industrial value can be achieved. As we see it now, in the present state of our knowledge, it is doubtful if the achievements of the next Jo years can really have a widespread industrial application. I would invite hon. Members for a moment to consider the nature of the immediate industrial problem. It is necessary to find some means whereby the energy released by the process of fission can be made available as a source of power. Hon. Members who have studied this subject, will appreciate that the first essential is to get away the heat which is generated at a high temperature so that it can be converted into power. There are very serious technical difficulties in drawing off the heat at a high temperature. It is necessary to overcome the difficulty of corrosion, which becomes most serious as soon as one gets into the necessary high temperatures. That problem has not been solved.

Mr. Blackburn


Mr. Wilmot

Theoretically, but not practically. When the solution is found—and it may not be so far off, but we do not know—what is the most likely thing to happen, and what is the most likely development of atomic power for industrial purposes likely to follow? I think that it is most likely that atomic energy will be used for the production of electrical power, by using the heat through steam or gas turbines in big rather than in small units. That is as far as we can see it. It rather looks as though the day of the atomic motor car has not yet dawned.

Mr. Blackburn

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is not making any attempt to compare transport with power, because they are quite separate subjects.

Mr. Wilmot

That was the point which I was trying to make—that it is along the lines of power production that progress is likely to flow. But the atomic motor car, which figured in the imagination of many not so very long ago, is not yet. In fact, as my hon. Friend the Member for King's Norton (Mr.' Blackburn) pointed out in his speech—a speech, I may say so with appreciation, which was charged with a rich understanding of this problem and informed by deep study—atomic energy plant produces an intense radiation, similar to X-rays or the radiation of radium, and of such a powerful character that it is lethal if not screened. Atomic energy plant and equipment of any size must, therefore, he most effectively screened. As the hon. Member for King's Norton also said, the weight of that screening must amount to many tons; not an attribute of the light car. Nevertheless, it is not impossible that we may find a way to use atomic power or nuclear energy, as it should be called, to propel large ships, where these problems are not so difficult to overcome. We think, therefore, of a large power station, deriving its heat not from fuel, as it derives it now, or from hydro-electric water power, but deriving its power from the heat which, in turn, is derived from nuclear energy, using it through steam turbines, or other means, to develop electricity, just as we develop it now, and to distribute it in the normal way.

I am sure that hon. Members will appreciate that that brings us to the next conclusion—the cost of the fuel, which is the only thing we have replaced, because although we have replaced the boiler we have other apparatus in its place. The replacement of the cost of the fuel makes only a fractional difference in the cost of the ultimate generation of electricity, because the cost of the fuel is the smaller part of the cost of the manufacture and distribution of electrical energy. I am most anxious that we should get this thing in its proper perspective I think that we may come to this conclusion: Except where the normal generation of electricity by the normal known means is for some reason excessively costly, it will be a long time before atomic energy will have any economic significance along these lines.

Mr. Vernon Bartlett (Bridgwater)

Can the right hon. Gentleman give us some idea of what is the percentage of the cost of fuel in production?

Hon. Members

It is 28 per cent.

Mr. Wilmot

Well informed hon. Members on all sides have given the answer I had hoped I was going to give. As hon. Members will see, fuel is a small part and we have got to look through to very exceptional circumstances, where the substitution of this new source of heat would give us an economic, competitive factor. The possibilities of the further development of this entirely new source of energy are enormous, and I think it is reasonable to assume that in the long term—and how long that term is it is now impossible to measure, but we will call it long term—the ways of using nuclear energy will be found to compete economically even when present methods are performed under favourable economic conditions. I come to the point which was raised by the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. M. Lindsay), who initiated this Debate, and to whom we are so much indebted. There is a term, even if it is a long one, to the availability of conventional fuels, and, therefore, this country must take its place in the preparation for a world wide economic revolution, for it is nothing else, which the development of atomic power must herald in. There have been some very optimistic predictions as to the effect of this new power upon our economic life. If we just cannot tell them we still know that it has immense possibilities which must not be underestimated. As the hon. Member pointed out, there are benefits to medical science by the use of artificially produced radio-active materials which come as it were as a by-product from the production of atomic power, which may have immense value in their medical and humanitarian application. Then I am told that these radio-active materials may have a most valuable industrial application in themselves, replacing X-rays and radium for industrial purposes. Facing this new future, I feel that the prospects of this country are very bright.

The hon. Member was right when he said that British scientists had made an immeasurable contribution to this great service, and, if we see these British brains allied with our special engineering ability—and we have specialists of high quality, thrustful and inventive—we certainly stand in a very good position in this country with regard to these developments. It is true that the United States have acquired very valuable technical experience from the vast productive programme said to,cost, I am told, upwards of 2,000 million dollars, which was confined to America during the war by mutual consent as part of the agreed distribution of the war effort. However, let us not forget that a most important contribution to the work in America was made by British brains. It is a fact that for the reasons which I have given we are not fully seized of all the aspects of what has come to be known as technical "Know how "Very valuable experience is being gained through the project which is now going on mainly financed by the Canadian Government. I hope, as we all do, that the cooperation with the United States of America which was established during the war will be developed and continued. If it is realised that the future of atomic energy, in its industrial sense, is dependent on extensive research, then I am sure that the Government will be supported in their efforts to carry that research and development work through with great energy and determination.

It has been decided that as much of the resources of this country as can possibly be made available shall be devoted to this work. The central planning is in the hands of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, advised by the learned Advisory Committee presided over with great distinction by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the Scottish Universities (Sir J. Anderson). It is the intention to marshal the very best brains in the country in solving the problems which confront us. The research establishment which it is proposed to establish at Harwell will be got going as soon as it is physically possible. It will be provided with every possible facility. The airfield was evacuated by the Royal Air Force at the beginning of the year, and work of converting the buildings to their new purposes is already under way. New, highly specialised, buildings will need to be constructed, and a team of experts is at' present in Canada preparing plans to incorporate the very latest knowledge. At the same time, we shall press on with the construction of the main production plant to produce the fissile material which the research establishment will require. The execution of this project, the main production plant, is a major technological effort.

I was asked to state the money which the Government are prepared to spend upon it. I will say this: The limit of what we can do in this direction is a physical, and not a financial, limit. Whatever we can do we shall do. This is part of the responsibility which, I am glad to say, has been taken up by Lord Portal of Hungerford, who has now joined my Ministry. The first stage of the work of extensive designing and planning of operations is going forward. A special organisation is being established for the purpose. Work is starting. Accommodation for the designing team has been made available at a Ministry of Supply factory at Risley, near Warrington. Engineering and other expert staff is being recruited as quickly as it can be obtained. The examination of sites for the establishment of the main production plant is now going forward, but no decision has yet been made. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Supply factory at Springfields, near Preston, has been selected as the site for the subsidiary plant for the processing of materials. Over and above these direct Government research and production activities, it is the Government's policy to encourage and support, in every way, research at universities and elsewhere on fundamental problems which may, in time, lead to discoveries of prime importance in this new field of nuclear energy.

I can assure hon. Members that we are losing no time and sparing no effort. We are mobilising the best brains and preparing to devote as large a sector of the national effort as can be spared to this development, which we regard as of transcending importance. It may well be that we are at any rate within sight of the greatest, industrial power revolution in the history of the world. When it is remembered that in nuclear reaction about a million times more energy is liberated from a given weight of matter than in any known chemical reaction, such as burning, and that in time it may be possible to liberate the atom's energy by reactions other than the fission process, it will be realised that there would seem to be no limits to the contribution to human progress which this astonishing development may produce, provided that men will have the wisdom to use this new-found power for their happiness instead of their universal destruction.

Major P. Roberts

Would the right hon. Gentleman answer the two short-term questions I put to him? The first was, is this industrial energy at the moment subject to military security? Secondly, will he agree that there is for many years to come a great need for our present coal industry?

Mr. Wilmot

I think the answer to the first question is that the industrial application of nuclear energy is not a matter of military security; I think the answer to the second question is that there is no immediate danger of not needing coal.

Adjourned accordingly at Eighteen Minutes to Ten o'Clock.