HC Deb 15 February 1955 vol 537 cc187-91
The Minister of Fuel and Power (Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd)

I feel that the House will wish to have the latest news regarding the peaceful use of atomic energy in this country.

As the House is aware, much progress has been made in developing these uses. Already research, medicine and industry have made great and growing use of the isotopes manufactured at Harwell and substantial quantities have been sold to overseas customers.

I can, in addition, announce that our knowledge of the means of producing electricity from atomic power on a large scale has, thanks to the efforts of the Atomic Energy Authority and its predecessors, now reached the stage when it has become possible for the Government to decide to embark on a programme of big nuclear power stations comparable in output to modern coal-fired stations. In our view, the successful use of atomic energy to generate electrical power on a commercial basis is of crucial importance to the future of the national economy.

The Government also look forward to the time when the United Kingdom will be able to assist other countries not only, as now, with their research and development programmes and with training their scientists and engineers, but also be ex-porting nuclear power stations for the generation of electricity, especially in areas where generation by other means may be difficult or more expensive. Copies of the White Paper describing the provisional programme drawn up by the Government for the construction and development of nuclear power reactors over the next 10 years or so are available in the Vote Office.

Mr. Robens

May I thank the Minister for this momentous statement which he has made, which is a very great tribute to public enterprise? We shall study the White Paper with great interest and may then require to put further questions to him. Meanwhile, may I ask him what part the British Electricity Authority is to play in this matter?

Mr. Lloyd

Owing to the secrecy of much of the knowledge on which this programme is based, it was necessary for the Government themselves to take the initiative in the matter, but they gave to the British Electricity Authority an opportunity of undertaking this programme as part of its normal activities, and I am very glad to say that it has accepted that opportunity and will do so. Therefore, we are confronted with a situation in which there will be the closest collaboration between the Atomic Energy Authority, which will be the expert body in nuclear factors in the stations, and the British Electricity Authority, which will under-take their ordering in the normal way. They will, of course, be built for the British Electricity Authority by the private enterprise companies which normally build the stations at the present time. I hope that we may look forward to a constructive period of co-operation between both public and private enterprise in this matter.

Mr. Nabarro

While congratulating my right hon. Friend on behalf of right hon. and hon. Members on this side of the House upon his extremely important statement and the bearing which it will have on our growing shortages of coal year by year, may I ask him if he will clarify two points? First, is it not a fact that no significant contribution to our coal shortages will be made by this programme of nuclear power stations until after 1960, and, second, on the 20-year basis which is generally envisaged for large-scale production of nuclear power, can he say what the resultant coal economy is estimated to be until 1975?

Mr. Lloyd

My hon. Friend is quite correct that in the early years we cannot expect a substantial contribution from nuclear power.. That is the period during which, as I have explained to the House on several occasions in fuel and power debates, we expect to get a considerable supplement to our coal resources from the use of oil in power stations which are now going ahead. This is a provisional programme, but at the end of 10 years, if all goes well, we should have 12 large nuclear power stations which should be saving coal to the tune of 5 million or 6 million tons a year. Looking ahead to the longer period, with all the reservations that are necessary and which are stated in the White Paper, the saving in 20 years' time may be in the order of 40 million tons of coal a year.

Mr. G. R. Strauss

Can the right hon. Gentleman give any indication what the kilowatt output of these stations is likely to be altogether—some approximate figure—and can he tell us, or say whether it is stated in the White Paper, whether all these reactors are to be of the same type, or are we to launch a programme similar to the one in the United States, where a large number of different types of reactors are being built with the object of seeing which is the best?

Mr. Lloyd

For the first 10-year period the kilowatt output will be 1½ million to 2 million kilowatts a year, and at the end of the second period, between 10 million and 15 million kilowatts a year. The right hon. Gentleman is quite correct in foreshadowing the kind of programme that it is. It is a programme in which one might broadly say that there are at least two different sets of stations. The earlier stations will be of a type similar perhaps to the improved Calder Hall type, and later on we will have a second series of stations. I would not like to commit myself to a technical description of these this afternoon, but they are described in some detail in the White Paper. The important difference between the two stations is this: that in the amazing technology of the nuclear age, the first series of power stations will be required to produce the special fuel which will be used in the second series of power stations.

Sir L. Ropner

My right hon. Friend has confined his remarks to power stations, but I understand that the Americans are driving a submarine by atomic energy. Can he give any forecast when atomic energy may be used in a ship or a motor car?

Mr. Lloyd

No, Sir, I cannot. I think that I can make quite clear to the House why I cannot, when I say that what I have described this afternoon is the commercial application of nuclear power. We feel that the commercial application of nuclear power will take place through electricity generation, at any rate in the early stages. The other uses which are technically possible would not, I think, be immediately commercial.

Mr. J. Hynd

Does the White Paper tell us anything about researches to assist us in the matter of the disposal of atomic waste?

Mr. Lloyd

Yes, Sir. The White Paper deals with that subject.

Mr. Elliot

Can my right hon. Friend say what relation this programme has to the similar great programme in the United States, and whether close liaison is being kept up with that country in the programme that he has outlined?

Mr. Lloyd

That is certainly true in all these matters. But, as my right hon. Friend knows very well, the United States not only have plentiful supplies of oil and natural gas, but their coal mining industry is operating at not much above 50 per cent, of capacity, and he will see that we have a greater need of nuclear power in this country. That is one of the important reasons why we are trying to get on with it.

Mr. Peart

As the right hon. Gentleman appreciates, Cumberland is already playing an important part in the development of electricity from atomic energy, and will he consult his right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport and impress upon him that, in view of the importance of atomic energy in Cumberland, we are in urgent need of improved rail and road transport facilities?

Captain Orr

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, while this is great news from a national point of view, it is of special important to areas like Northern Ireland, which are already lacking in their own power resources, and will he assure us that this has been borne in mind in the White Paper in dealing with the siting of reactors?

Mr. Lloyd

Certainly, Sir.

Mr. Bowles

May I express the hope that the Minister will remove a possible feeling of insecurity amongst the mining community?

Mr. Lloyd

I am grateful for that question, and I should like to say that, as is set out in considerable detail in the White Paper, not only will this programme be a great boon to the country, but also, indeed, to the mining industry itself, which would find great difficulty, I believe, in providing in 1975, say, 100 million tons of coal for the generation of electricity alone. There can be no doubt that this programme will be a supplement to the mining industry, which will remain the great fuel industry upon which, during our lives and our children's lives, our industry will depend.

Mr. Peart

Can the Minister say how the cost of generation by atomic energy compares with the normal method of generation?

Mr. Lloyd

Yes, Sir. Just about the same.

Mr. Albu

Can the Minister say what steps are being taken to ensure that there are adequate numbers of technologists, scientists, research workers and designers in the companies which will have to produce the equipment both for this country and for export?

Mr. Lloyd

That is a very important point. It is for that reason that courses have been started at Harwell and are already proceeding.

Mr. E. Fletcher

Can the Minister say to what extent this most satisfactory announcement is the result of research by British scientists, and to what extent there is the fullest interchange of technical information between British, American and Canadian scientists?

Mr. Lloyd

The application of nuclear energy to commercial purposes is fundamentally based on the brilliant work of Sir John Cockcroft and his team at Harwell.

Mr. Chetwynd

Can the Minister give an estimate of the cost, spread over a period?

Mr. Lloyd

About £300 million for the provisional programme of the first 10 years.