HC Deb 05 December 1960 vol 631 cc973-80

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Clause stand part of the Bill.

8.50 p.m.

Mr. Roy Mason (Barnsley)

Before Clause 1 goes through, I should like to raise one or two points with the Minister. First of all, I was very disturbed during the Second Reading debate, when time and time again I came across references by hon. Members opposite to the fact that they were pleased that private industry was not to be precluded from processing and disposing of radio isotopes produced by the Central Electricity Generating Board's stations. Towards the end the Minister said that it might be as well if private industry intervened.

First, I should like to draw the attention of the Committee to comments made by the hon. Member for Dorset, North (Sir Richard Glyn) during the Second Reading. He said: I am glad to see that there is nothing in the Bill which absolutely precludes the job of finishing and marketing being handed over to a private firm or firms should that later become desirable."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st November, 1960; Vol. 630, c. 790.] The Minister in introducing the Bill, and particularly when dealing with Clause I, said that only £100,000 was required to convert a nuclear power station to produce radioisotopes and envisaged that from two stations there would be a return of £500,000 in one year. To many hon. Members opposite it was too good to be true that there should be such a profitable sideline from a nationalised industry. Therefore, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir A. V. Harvey) said. Putting it out into private industry will help our export trade."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st November, 1960; Vol. 630, c. 800.] What disturbed me most of all was that when the Parliamentary Secretary wound up the debate he said: At the moment, the Board has only one customer—and that will probably be the case for a long time—and that is the Atomic Energy Authority. Later he said: If there is unity between the Authority, the Board, aid one or two private firms in this new and expanding industry … such a partnership will, in the long run, be best for this industry."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st November, 1960; Vol. 630, c. 816.] Before the Clause goes through Committee, I should like the Minister to give me an assurance that there is no intention of private industry being drawn in either to produce or to dispose of radioisotopes produced by the Central Electricity Generating Board's nuclear power stations. I should prefer to see a close and more continuous working partnership between these two nationalised bodies, the A.E.A. and the C.E.G.B. It disturbs me time and time again that, if a nationalised body produces a profitable sideline, private enterprise wants to step in when all the costly and initial research has been done by the taxpayer.

I should like the Minister to assure us that there is no chance of private industry stepping in and gradually taking over the Radioisotope Division at Harwell, thereby creaming off the profit after all the initial research has been done by the A.E.A. and the production by the C.E.G.B.

Secondly, I should like to ask the Minister something concerning the storing capacity of the C.E.G.B. stations. When they start producing radioisotopes, is it the intention that they shall be stored on their sites or is it the intention that they shall be immediately transferred to the Radioisotopes Division at Harwell? Not long ago we dealt with the Radioactive Substances Bill. We have been worried a great deal about the growing dumps of radioactive material and radioactive waste. I wish to ask whether this matter is to be passed immediately to the A.E.A.

Finally, I should like to deal with safety in transport. Now that these two extra stations will be producing radioisotopes and radioactive material more of them will be transported by road or rail to the Radioisotopes Division at Harwell. The Minister undoubtedly is aware that I have asked time and time again that we should give consideration to the introduction of a national code of symbols so that all radioactive materials transported in containers have a symbol on them which immediately conveys to a policeman or fireman the degree of radiation if an accident or fire occurs.

Although, as I understand, this has been discussed recently abroad with a view to the introduction of an international code, in view of the time it is taking—and we are transporting a great deal more of these substances on the roads and railways; we are the largest exporters in the world—we ought to have introduced an international code already. I therefore ask the Minister to tell us whether we have made progress in this regard.

Mr. Frederick Lee (Newton)

I was pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason) again introduced the safety element. It will be recalled that on Second Reading we on this side placed special emphasis on it and pointed out that we were not yet satisfied with the safety provisions which obtained, despite the fact that a considerable number of Acts on the Statute Book dealt with the subject. We will not oppose the Clause. It is what might be called the "guts" of the Bill. It is an improvement on the position in which we were left after the 1957 Act and we welcome the enlargement of the powers of the Generating Board as laid down in in the Clause. We are not satisfied, however, that the wording is as wise as it could well be.

I do not wish to repeat what we argued on Second Reading, but it will be recalled that the reason why the Clause has to be discussed and brought before us at all is that the 1957 Act struck out the words of the 1947 Act which gave power of manufacture; and now that we have reached the stage when the Board obviously wishes to manufacture radioactive isotopes, it is necessary for the Clause, which enlarges the powers of the Board, to be brought into legislation.

In view of the experience of the last three years, would it not have been far wiser of the Government to have written wider powers into the Clause than it contains? It deals entirely with the production of radioactive material. I notice that in the Schedule we shall write certain words into the 1957 Act to corres- pond with what we are now discussing in Clause 1. We are, however, in a phase in which great changes have taken place rapidly. I do not suggest that we should enlarge the financial scope of the Bill or anything of that kind.

It is impossible for any of us to say exactly how the development of radioactive isotopes will go in the next two or three years or the kind of manufacture which will be necessary. It may well be that within a short time the Minister will once more have to come to the House to point out that the scope of the Board's activities has again widened con-considerably and that because of the limiting nature of Clause 1 of the present Bill, the Government must, for the second time within three years, seek the permission of the House to widen the scope of the Generating Board.

For that reason, I regret that the Minister has not seen fit to go far nearer to the wording of the 1947 Act—in other words, to give general power concerning manufacture to the Generating Board, rather than merely to restrict the Board's powers to what is contained in the Clause. I am not saying that it is necessary to go outside the scope of the Bill, which is concerned with radioactive isotopes. I do not feel, however, that we are best serving the objectives of the Board by restricting it in the way we are now doing.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will, even now, reconsider the wording. It may well be that during its passage through another place, the wording of the Clause could be made a little more elastic, so that not only it may give the Board powers for developments which are not yet foreseeable, but so that the Government will not have to take up the time of the House in asking for further powers for the Board. That was the kind of thing I had in mind. It is a very limiting point within Clause 1, and I would have welcomed the widening of these two conditions.

9.0 p.m.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will bear in mind what my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley said and others of us tried to say on Second Reading, that safety precautions in an industry which is yet in its infancy cannot hope to be sufficient in themselves when that industry develops as this one will undoubtedly do; and that he will give us an assurance that, from time to time, he will come to the House and ask for powers of safety concerning waste disposal, which my hon. Friend mentioned, and other matters of that kind. This is a great problem. Scientists are not agreed on the degree of safety now in our rivers and in the sea, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman, having these powers, will regard himself as under an obligation to the Committee to ensure that the widening of powers will not mean that safety, as we now know it, will be neglected.

The Minister of Power (Mr. Richard Wood)

In reply to the points raised, I should say how pleased we are to see the hon. Gentleman for Newton (Mr. Lee) still dealing with power matters. We heard that he had translated to another field, but I am glad to find that he is still "caretaking" on this subject.

I agree entirely with what he said about safety, and I should like to deal with that when I come to the points raised by the hon. Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason). As to the general point that the hon. Member for Newton made made about the amendment to the 1957 Act and the narrowness with which Clause 1 of the Bill is drawn, our view is that the amendment of the 1957 Act was a wise one, because it was desired to limit the functions of the Generating Board to electricity generation. But it has been necessary in this case to introduce this modification of that limitation, and, no doubt, if it becomes necessary in the future to make some further modification, then it would be necessary—and I think quite rightly necessary—for me or my successor to ask for the relevant powers from the House. Therefore, I do not think this is too narrowly drawn. I think that it is drawn exactly rightly to deal with the limitation that we have in mind.

I should like to deal with one or two of the points which the hon. Member for Barnsley raised. I think that he has been a little doctrinaire about private enterprise, if he will forgive me saying so; and I should like to make quite clear to him that I support entirely what was said by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary and my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Sir R. Glyn) on Second Reading. I am fortified in this because not only do I support what they said but also what the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Peart) said. I thought that perhaps the hon. Gentleman might have read his speech—perhaps he did, but did not agree with it. The hon. Member for Workington, who as Opposition spokesman for science has been dealing with the Betting Levy Bill tonight, said on that occasion: I am in no way doctrinaire, and I welcome what has been done, and, indeed, private industry, for example, through Hawker-Siddeley, is doing work for the Atomic Energy Authority. This association will continue with the Central Electricity Generating Board."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st November, 1960; Vol. 630, c. 808.] It is rather difficult to know exactly where the Opposition stand when these diametrically opposite views are expressed by the hon. Member for Barnsley and the hon. Member for Workington.

Mr. Mason

The Minister when referring to the Atomic Energy Authority is not necessarily referring to the production, processing and disposal of radioactive isotopes with which this Bill deals.

Mr. Wood

I gathered from the hon. Gentleman's speech—I will take the opportunity of discussing it with him later—that he was giving his blessing to a partnership between the Central Electricity Generating Board and private enterprise. I would agree with that blessing. At the moment, as my hon. Friend said on Second Reading, the A.E.A. is doing the processing, but I think it would be wholly undesirable if for the rest of time the C.E.G.B. were to be limited to one single market for its isotopes, in the shape of the A.E.A. Therefore, I think I would in no way exclude but welcome, when the time came, private enterprise joining with the A.E.A. in the processing of isotopes for the public good.

As for the profitability of this nationalised industry, that surely will not be affected at all, because all it will mean is that the Central Electricity Generating Board in future will have the alternative of two markets, and, therefore, its profitability will presumably, I hope, increase.

Mr. Mason

On this question of the production of radioisotopes and the processing of them, surely it is not possible—and the right hon. Gentleman knows this, for this was a point made in the debate—for a private firm to put in the initial expenditure required for the elaborate processing equipment for the job. Consequently, it can venture into this only if first of all a nationalised body, which has been fed by Government money received from the taxpayer, is willing to give it all that initial research free of charge, so that it can set up the equipment and plant.

Mr. Wood

If it is not possible for private enterprise to enter the field I do not know what the hon. Member is worried about. But it will not matter if the Central Electricity Generating Board gives them the research because the job they will do, as I am sure the hon. Member appreciates, is to process and finish off the job which the Generating Board has not done. Therefore, I do not think it at all unwelcome—if we consider it as a purely non-doctrinaire matter—that there should in the future be a possibility of more than one processor of the Central Electricity Generating Board's isotopes. I should have thought that the hon. Member would have welcomed that as being a good thing, that the Generating Board in future will not have to deal with only one market.

Secondly, he mentioned the question of storage by the Board. I understand that it is the plan to transfer isotopes for processing without delay. As the Generating Board's nuclear stations will have to be licensed under the Nuclear Installations (Licensing and Insurance) Act, appropriate safety conditions will be imposed if it has in fact to store these istotopes for any length of time. That will apply not only to isotopes, but, as the hon. Gentleman knows, to anything on the site as far as safety is concerned.

Lastly, he mentioned the question of the symbols which will advertise their radioactivity as these isotopes move from one place to another. I think the position here is that under Section 1 of the Radioactive Substances Act, 1960, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government is given power to prescribe conditions prohibiting the sale and supply of radioactive material unless it is marked in this way; the position at the moment is that the conditions which might be prescribed are now being considered. I will certainly bring the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the notice of my right hon. Friend and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will see an advance in this matter in the near future.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule agreed to.

Bill reported, without Amendment; read the Third time and passed.

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