HC Deb 21 March 1960 vol 620 cc181-90

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

11.8 p.m.

Dame Irene Ward (Tynemouth)

I am glad to have the opportunity tonight to raise the question of the marine application of nuclear propulsion. I shall be able to raise the question, of course, only as a layman looking at the general picture.

Since shipping and shipbuilding were removed from the care of the Admiralty after the last General Election and placed under the control of the Ministry of Transport—though that has great advantages which are felt by the industry itself—I am inclined to think that this problem of nuclear propulsion has disappeared somewhat into the background and that we seem to have lost the momentum. I am anxious, therefore, to obtain from my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport a report on the progress that is being made.

The annual report of the United Kingdom Chamber of Shipping for 1959–60 laid down guidance in this matter of the application of nuclear propulsion in these terms: The ultimate goal is to ensure that the United Kingdom is ready to take early advantage of such technical advances which are at present unpredictable but which it is hoped will one day produce a nuclear ship that is commercially more attractive to ship-owners than conventional ships. If I may have the temerity to add something of my own to the pronouncements of this august body, I would say —though I know that it is in the long term and not in the short term—that if Great Britain and Northern Ireland can seize the initiative in operating nuclear-propelled ships competitively and commercially we may once again lead the world through our inventive genius. This is why I am raising the matter tonight.

Just before the House rose for the Summer Recess, in July last year, we were expecting the Galbraith Committee to report. It had taken quite a long time. I have been told that orginally the Report was expected as early as April last year. This did not materialise, but, finally, the Committee reported to the Minister of Transport. After some pressure had been exerted on the Minister it was announced that the Government would ask for tenders for two types of reactors, and that when the tenders were received they would then decide whether they would order a nuclear-propelled ship. During the time when tenders were being prepared by the companies producing the reactors, negotiations would go on between the Ministry of Transport and the shipbuilders and shipowners as to what the future should be, who should build the ship and who should be responsible for operating it.

The original intention was that when the tenders were received for these two reactors the specification should be for application to a 65,000 ton tanker. If I understand the position correctly, it is felt that for the foreseeable future the development of a nuclear-propelled ship will be as a passenger vessel or a tanker. I think that the general idea was that if we could have a prototype ship which could be tried out commercially on its normal ploy throughout the world, we should know what the advantages were commercially for such a ship.

If I understand the position aright, the "Dreadnought," at present building at Barrow, has an American reactor, and the new submarine provided for in the Navy Estimates is to have a British reactor. I do not think that we had any idea of what the cost of the American reactor was in the "Dreadnought." nor what the cost of the British reactor in the projected submarine is likely to be. I understand from the comments of shipbuilding and shipping authorities that the evidence is that both these reactors, and the operating of these submarines, will be very expensive.

It is obvious that in the future, when we will, I hope, have a prototype ship fitted with one of our own reactors, it is vastly important, if we are to have it within the framework of the method outlined by the Chamber of Shipping, that we should know its commercial and competitive value. Though, of course, to a certain extent the United States, with the "Savannah," and the Russians, with the "Lenin," have got ahead of us, neither of them, on their own acknowledgment, has tried out these ships from a commercial point of view, so that the field is wide open for British initiative and enterprise.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport has made an announcement about tenders and has called for the reactors. I notice that in the 1960–61 Estimates he has put in a figure of £250,000. I assume from what he said, and from the little detailed knowledge I have, that that applies only to the reactor and, probably, the preparation therein for using in a prototype, and that decisions have still to be taken as to whether shipbuilding and shipping interests are to find the necessary money for building the hull.

That is a matter of controversy which has been slightly played down by the Minister and is not mentioned, either, by the Chamber of Shipping in its annual report. But in the interests of future development of nuclear power in marine application, a little more responsibility should be accepted by the Government. With the best will in the world, the Minister, I think, puts shipping and shipbuilding as his third priority. In other words, he has to find, first, money for roads, then to persuade the Treasury to find money for the railways, and there is a general feeling among those particularly interested in shipbuilding and shipping that they are likely to come off third best.

There has been a transfer of civil aviation from the Ministry of Transport to a special Ministry. The reactors in the naval submarines are the concern of the Admiralty. Only the Admiralty is concerned with the production of naval ships. Those Departments are more likely to have money expended on them by the Treasury than the shipbuilding and shipping industries. I know that the Minister of Transport is very active and effective in these matters. He keeps saying, quite rightly and very generously, that if the shipping, shipbuilding and ship-repairing industries will tell him what they want he will do his best to ensure that they get it. I hope that my hon. Friend will convey a message to his right hon. Friend. I think that I am entitled to say this, though I suppose I am rather daring; I do not think that shipping and shipbuilding interests would contradict me.

I want to tell my right hon. Friend that there is one thing which I think he can do to meet the needs here. We are spending enormous sums of money on the development of a supersonic aeroplane. We are spending, as far as I can make out, large sums of money on the development of submarines, important though they may be to our naval fleet—I do not underestimate that. We have been able to find a large amount of money for the cotton industry in Lancashire. It is equally important that we should find money so as to do the best we can to keep our shipbuilding and shipping interests the finest, the most competitive and the most commercially effective in the world.

I ask my hon. Friend to consider earnestly my pleas when the appropriate time comes. I hope that we shall not be too long delayed in this. I have a fear when the Minister says that it will take a long time to get the tenders in. I wonder how long it took to get the American reactor and the British reactor to go into the naval submarine. I am filled with gloom when the Minister says that it will take a long time. I hope that my hon. Friend will disperse that gloom.

The difficulty about my raising matters on the Adjournment is that I always want a whole row of Ministers to be on the Front Bench. One Minister does not suffice to satisfy me. It is always likely that even the most reliable and helpful Minister will say, "This is nothing to do with me". I know that the shipbuilding and shipping authorities feel that the Atomic Energy Authority spends too much of its time in researching into the needs for, or the possibilities of, nuclear-controlled power stations and too little time on research into the effective marine application of nuclear propulsion.

As I am not able to get a direct answer today from the Minister who deals with atomic energy, I hope that my hon. Friend will convey a message to the Atomic Energy Authority through the appropriate channels. Those of us who feel that our shipbuilding, shipping and ship-repairing industries deserve the best that we can give them would like to see more research done by the Atomic Energy Authority on problems of nuclear propulsion. I know that the Atomic Energy Authority is very successful in the matter of nuclear-controlled power stations. What is the proportion of money spent on the various aspects of research carried out by the Authority?

All I want tonight is a very satisfactory answer. I want to be assured that we are making progress. I want to know that we are not to have an interminable wrangle between my hon. Friend's Department and the shipbuilding authorities when we come, as I hope we shall, to the building of the prototype ship. I shall not even say that I would like the prototype ship to be built on the Tyne. That, of course, goes without saying, but I must say it. I hope, as I say, that we shall hear that we are not to have an interminable wrangle, and I shall be very glad to hear what my hon. Friend can tell us of the progress that is being made.

11.25 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. John Hay)

May I say at once that I very sincerely welcome the opportunity of this debate, because it enables me to clarify a little the situation that we have now reached in our long search for a suitable method of applying nuclear power to ships. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne-mouth (Dame Irene Ward) for having raised this subject, but I cannot promise that I can satisfy her on every point she raised, or deal fully and faithfully with all her questions, particularly those for which my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport is not responsible. Nevertheless, I hope that by the time I have finished speaking the situation will be a little clearer.

The idea of using nuclear power for the generation of electricity is one which, as we all remember, first appeared following the use of atomic weapons in 1945. I well remember in those days that the initial Press comment and speculation following the dropping of atomic bombs contained a very graphic illustration of the power that had been discovered. One newspaper said that with this new form of energy it would be possible for the "Queen Mary" to make the crossing of the Atlantic twice on the energy contained in a cupful of water.

This is interesting, and I mention it simply because it shows that even at that early stage we, as a great maritime nation, were already thinking in terms of the application of nuclear power to marine propulsion. As we all know, however, the possibilities of nuclear power being applied to peaceful purposes have taken a lot of exploring in post-war years, and we are still only on the threshold of the possibilities both on lard and sea—and, indeed, in the air.

When it became apparent that it was feasible to use a nuclear reactor to supply the motive power for electricity generation on land, our shipbuilding interests began to take the first steps towards its application at sea. In 1955, they sent a team to Harwell to pursue their studies with the Atomic Energy Authority, and two years later it had become clear that, in theory, at any rate, the use of nuclear power in ships was feasible.

In that year, therefore, the Government set up a Committee to go into the question, and to make recommendations about what would have to be done. On the Committee were represented shipowners and shipbuilders, the Atomic Energy Authority, Lloyd's Register, and the Government Departments concerned. The Chairman was my hon. Friend, who is now Under-Secretary of State for Scotland but who, at that time, was Civil Lord of the Admiralty. The Committee was officially called by the somewhat jaw-cracking title of Committee on the Application of Nuclear Power to Marine Purposes, so, Mr. Speaker, you will not be surprised to learn that it has always been known in Government circles as NUMARCOM, although, generally speaking, it has become more familiarly known as the Galbraith Committee, taking its name from the then Chairman.

Since the Government will still for some time need the kind of advice and guidance that the Committee has been giving it for the last three years, perhaps I may take this opportunity of telling the House that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport has decided to keep the Committee in being, and has asked my colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, to act as its Chairman. NUMARCOM has already had its first meeting under his chairmanship. The Committee will also continue to be served by the Technical Committee set up last year, and I am glad to say that the Director-General, Ships, at the Admiralty, who has been the Chairman hitherto of that Committee, will continue in that capacity.

The period which followed the setting up of NUMARCOM saw the emergence of a number of possible types of reactor for use in ships, so the Committee's initial task was to examine them. As we know, other countries, particularly the United States and the Soviet Union, had already put in hand the building of ships with nuclear reactors. The United States ship "Savannah" will be at sea soon, and the Soviet Union icebreaker "Lenin" is, I believe, already on her trials.

At that stage of the Committe's considerations, the moment had arrived for a most important decision to be taken. Knowing that it was feasible to build a ship with an atomic reactor, the question arose as to whether we should follow the United States and the Soviet Union in building a nuclear-propelled ship as soon as possible, or whether we should undertake a good deal more study and investigation to see whether it would be possible to build a ship which would be economic in operation when compared with the more conventional types of propulsion, such as oil and coal.

This is the first point I should like to get straight. Our obvious interest as a maritime country is to have ships at sea which are economic. If nuclear propulsion turns out to give us more economic ships than oil or coal, it will catch on. If it does not, it will be of little use and that is what the Chamber of Shipping meant in the Report to which my hon. Friend referred. Frankly, had we been prepared, some years ago, to spend a vast amount of money, I have no doubt that by now we might well be in a position of having an atomic ship either built or building, but it would not have been an economic ship.

It is estimated by the Americans that the "Savannah" will not be economic by comparison with the conventional forms of propulsion. The "Lenin" is an ice-breaker, and that important question of economy which is so vital to shipping in normal trade does not apply. So the decision was deliberately taken by NUMARCOM, with the full approval of the Government, to concentrate its search upon the ultimate objective of building a nuclear ship which would be economic to operate. That decision meant that we would have to pay a penalty in time, but only in the sense that we would not for some years have a nuclear ship actually at sea.

But since our objective is not to have a nuclear ship regardless, but to have a nuclear ship which would be economic, I think that we can well claim that in the light of the progress since then, which I will now briefly review, we are by no means behind in the race. On the contrary, we have every reason to think that we may be considerably ahead of some of our competitors in this field.

There is another important factor to bear in mind. At present, the lowest power worth considering, for various reasons, is 20,000 shaft horsepower. This is sufficient to propel a tanker of 65,000 deadweight tons. It is the power which conventional tankers of this size use. But the vast majority of ships today and in the future, as far as we can foresee, are much smaller than that. So another objective at which we must aim is the development of nuclear-propelled units of progressively smaller power and which will continue to be economic. That is where the biggest prizes lie for our nuclear power industry.

May I now come back to NUMARCOM? In May, 1959, the Committee received eight papers and models produced by the Atomic Energy Authority and certain industrial consortia relating to no less than six different reactor systems. NUMARCOM thereupon set up the Technical Committee to which I have referred to evaluate the merits of three of these systems which were those that appeared to be the most developed in timing and technology. These were the pressurised water reactor, the boiling water reactor and the organic liquid moderated reactor.

In due course the Technical Sub-committee gave its advice to NUMARCOM and recommended that the boiling water reactor and the organic liquid moderated reactor systems showed more promise at that time, and suggested that competitive tenders should be invited from selected firms for both systems, but without any commitment on the Government's part that building would necessarily follow. As a consequence, at the beginning of last February we issued invitations to tender for these systems to five firms. This will be in respect of a reactor to power a tanker of 65,000 deadweight tons. We are now awaiting the tenders, and the closing date is 29th July next.

Why are we doing this? We shall be able to get closer estimates of cost than are available at the moment and find out a lot more than we know already about various technical problems. When we have received the tenders and have assessed them—and I must warn my hon. Friend that this will take a little time— we shall then be in a much better position than we are now to decide whether a ship should be built, and if so, which type of reactor it should have.

We shall not be losing any time by taking this course because, in any event, tenders would be required, even if we were about to build a ship now. Moreover, we shall then have another chance to review the progress of the other types of reactor apart from the two which are the subject of the tenders. I do not think that we shall lose any momentum, as my hon. Friend feared, by doing this. The provision made in the Civil Estimates to which she referred is really in the nature of a token sum which we must carry in our Vote to deal with the tenders when they arrive.

That, in brief, is the history of the matter and the present position. I realise that many questions may be unanswered, in particular, questions about the report of NUMARCOM and its Technical Committee. I cannot go into further detail about those tonight, for reasons which, I think, my hon. Friend will accept as quite obvious.

There is one other topic I should mention. We talk very glibly about the application of nuclear power to marine purposes, but I think that many people have overlooked the fact that, until we know rather more about the subject, there will be hazards in the operation of such vessels to be foreseen and guarded against. If, for instance, such a ship through a mishap, had an accident with its reactor, the damage could be far reaching because of the quantity of fission products which could be released into the atmosphere or into the sea.

Therefore, in parallel with all the work going on into the development of economic propulsion units, we have been carrying out detailed investigations on safety measures for such ships. The House will, no doubt, have seen the recently published Report of the Committee on this subject which my right hon. Friend's predecessor set up last year. The work that the Committee has done will be of very great help to us in the international discussions which are to open at the Conference on the Safety of Life at Sea in May, for it is the first comprehensive review which has been made of this matter in any country.

I hope that the information I have given to the House will prove helpful and will set the whole matter in perspective. Our aim is to secure the application of nuclear propulsion to a substantial section of shipping of all sizes on a basis which will enable it to compete in economic terms with conventional means of propulsion. This cannot be too strongly emphasised, for its importance is sometimes overlooked by those who urge us to move more quickly. It would be very easy for us, but quite useless, to plunge into blind alleys. There is a long way to go. The problems are numerous and complex, and we are moving in a wholly novel field.

In these circumstances, the important thing is to go one step at a time and, at each step, to leave as many further choices of course open as we can. It is that way, I believe, which holds the greatest promise of ultimate success. I assure the House that we shall continue to do all we can to encourage and guide what is a most exciting and, I hope, highly profitable prospect for the British merchant fleet, for ship builders and for the nuclear power industry.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes to Twelve o'clock.