HC Deb 26 January 1953 vol 510 cc673-6
Mr. Sandys

I should now like to answer Question No. 37, Mr. Speaker.

The production of electric power from atomic energy raises a number of novel problems. These have been studied in the light of the experience gained with our graphite piles at Harwell and at Windscale. We have also had the benefit of valuable discussions with the Canadian experts about the results obtained in the operation of their heavy water reactor at Chalk River, Ontario.

The most certain method of generating power from atomic energy would be to build an improved type of natural uranium reactor enclosed in a pressure shell, the heat produced being transferred by a gas under pressure through a heat exchanger to a conventional electric power generator. As a by-product this would yield plutonium, which could be used as fuel for further reactors. The potentialities of such a reactor are being actively studied. If the prospects are shown to be favourable, we shall consider constructing an experimental atomic power station of this kind.

At the same time, we hope to develop reactors of a more advanced type, known as "breeder-reactors," by reason of the fact that they are designed to produce more fissile material than they consume. To facilitate the study of these methods, a small experimental reactor of this kind is being built at Harwell. It should be completed in a few months' time. Meanwhile work is proceeding at Harwell and Risley on the design and development of a full-scale breeder reactor, capable of producing substantial amounts of electricity, and we are at present looking for a suitable site for the construction of this plant.

We are also building at Harwell a natural uranium reactor moderated with heavy water, which will produce a much more intense flow of neutrons than is possible with our present equipment. This reactor is for research work and will not be used to generate power. It will, however, greatly expand the quantities and variety of radioactive isotopes which can be produced for industrial, scientific and medical purposes. This project will take about four years to complete.

We do not propose to undertake work on the application of nuclear energy to propulsion until more experience has been gained in the development of stationary nuclear power plants.

It is still too early to say with any precision how soon electricity generated from atomic energy will be available on a significant scale for industrial purposes. It should certainly not be imagined that nuclear reactors will in the near future supersede existing methods of producing electric power. But if, as we hope, the technical problems involved are successfully solved and these new methods prove to be economical, there is no reason why nuclear reactors should not before very long provide a useful additional source of industrial power.

Mr. Hector Hughes

Is the Minister aware that about five years ago this question was raised in the House and it was indicated that nuclear power units would be available within a few years for the propulsion of ships? Is he now in a position to indicate when nuclear power units will be available of a size, weight and price that will be appropriate for use in ships, on trains, in factories and in homes?

Mr. Sandys

I am not aware of the statement to which the hon. and learned Member refers, but I for my part am not prepared to go further than I have gone in my reply in prophesying the future application of this force.

Mr. Stokes

Whilst admitting that I find these highly technical problems rather difficult to ask supplementary questions about at Question time, may I ask the Minister a question on a matter of a simpler nature: Can he say what is happening with regard to the use of the heat generated in atomic piles which might be used for the generating of steam and other heating purposes?

Mr. Sandys

That goes rather outside the Question on the Order Paper.

Colonel Clarke

Can my right hon. Friend say what are likely to be the comparative costs of generating electricity from nuclear power and by the traditional methods?

Mr. Sandys

We have made certain calculations, but I should not like to state them publicly.

Mr. G. R. Strauss

Is the Minister aware that in the view of those who, until a little time ago, were responsible for all atomic energy activities, the advance which seems to have taken place during recent years in thoughts and experimentation on the industrial side, as expressed to us today by the right hon. Gentleman, seems extremely satisfactory and promising? Will he bear in mind that all this great experimental work, which requires a great deal of initiative and all sorts of qualities from the best scientists in the land, is all being carried out under direct Government agency, direction and inspiration?

Mr. Bellenger

Although it is interesting to hear the Minister's answer in relation to the generation of electricity, may I ask how he proposes to extend the experiments and the practical application of these experiments to industry itself without enlisting some aid from private industry rather than Government-controlled stations? Is the Minister aware that in America the application of certain of these experiments is being carried out in industrial undertakings, both to the benefit of the community at large and for strategic purposes?

Mr. Sandys

We are obtaining considerable co-operation from private industry.

Mr. Hughes

Is this country collaborating with other friendly countries in this matter instead of wasting our energies in independent research?

Mr. Sandys

I do not think that there has been any waste of energy in this research.

Mr. Hughes

Are we collaborating with other countries?

Mr. Noel-Baker

While I think that everybody, including my hon. and learned Friend, will welcome what the Minister has said today, may I ask whether the Government intend to participate in the work of the international station for research into the civil use of atomic energy, which is to be started by a number of Governments at Geneva on the initiative of U.N.E.S.C.O.?

Mr. Sandys

I think that that question has already been asked of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on an earlier occasion.