§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 3.42 p.m.
§ The Minister of Power (Mr. Richard Wood)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The purpose of this Bill is to make a limited, but I think important, modification to the Electricity Act, 1957. The House knows that Section 2 (7) of that Act limits the power of manufacture by the Central Electricity Generating Board toanything required by the Generating Board or by any Area Board for purposes of research or development or for the repair or maintenance of their equipment".The Bill seeks to leave that limitation in being, except in one important respect. Its aim is to give to the Central Electricity Generating Board permission to produce radio isotopes in its nuclear reactors. Perhaps I can take a few minutes of the time of the House to explain, for the benefit of anyone who does not know, what an isotope is and what isotopes do. I will try, shortly, to state why the Generating Board should have this power.
I should like, first, to apologise to the House for my lack of qualifications to give a scientific lecture on the subject of isotopes. Before I made my maiden speech in the House of Commons, I received advice from an old and very wise Member. He said to me. "Whatever else you do, do avoid giving the impression, even if it is true, that you know a great deal more about the subject that anyone listening to you". I shall have no difficulty whatsoever in following that advice this afternoon. Indeed, what I shall say first about isotopes is, in the scientific sense, elementary, because it is about elements, but in every other sense, to me particularly, it is extremely complicated.
There are about 100 elements from which everything is made, and all of them are composed of atoms. I am told that each atom of each element is chemically the same, but it was discovered some time ago that many elements consisted of a mixture of atoms of different mass. The isotope is, in its 775 strict sense, an atom which is chemically identical with other atoms of the same element, but one which is different physically—that is, in weight. The term "isotope" or "radioisotope" is more generally and loosely applied to artificially produced radioactive materials. An important method of their production is by placing a target material in a nuclear reactor and exposing it to radiation.
I should now like to say a few words about what these objects do. There is, as I think is generally known, a growing use of isotopes in industry, medicine and scientific research. What they do is to emit radiation which can be detected by photography, by electronic instruments and in other ways, although they may be embedded in other materials.
For instance, in medical research, radioactive iron injected into the blood has revealed the working of the chemical mechanism of the blood's colouring matter. Radioactive iodine has revealed much the same information about the working of the thyroid gland.
In general, when a sample of the body's constituents is "labeled" with a radioisotope the course and timing of the bodily processes can be detected. In other words, if scientists will permit me a homely little simile, it is rather like having a spy sending back messages about the behaviour of those around him.
Similarly in industry, radioisotopes are used like X-ray machines to make examinations through thicknesses of material to test, for example, the quality of castings and welds. They can be incorporated in liquid or gas and, if so, they enable the flow of that liquid or gas to be traced. They can be watched. It therefore makes possible such things as the spotting of leaks and the checking of the efficiency of filters, and I understand that useful work was done with isotopes in detecting the movement of mud in estuaries. There is, therefore, a variety of uses to which these useful little things can be put.
I shall try to explain to the House why, in our view, it is most necessary for the Generating Board to have this power in the future which it does not enjoy at 776 present. Our trade in radioisotopes is steadily expanding and the percentage of exports to total sales in this country is much greater than it was five years ago. In 1954–55, the export sales were £160,000, which was one-third of the total sales. In 1959–60, the export sales were about four times as much, namely, £620,000, more than half the total sales of isotopes in this country.
The United States, which is our principal rival, has been overtaken and left considerably behind. It has a considerable internal market to satisfy, but its export sales are well below ours and they are not, like ours, increasing very rapidly. France is a long way behind but is making rapid progress, and we are likely in future to get competition not only from France, but from other countries where reactors are being built, and where irradiation capacity—the ability to do this—is becoming available.
This country's present position is that the irradiation capacity available to the Atomic Energy Authority is now approaching its limit. At the same time, as I have suggested, there are large opportunities to be seized if the Generating Board, with its rapidly expanding capacity over the next few years, can be empowered to produce isotopes in its new reactors. I suggest that if we give the Board this power, the country will enjoy an irradiation capacity that will be comparable with any available elsewhere.
I should like to make three further points about this short Bill. The first is that it is the Board that will carry out this irradiation, some of which, I should explain, is likely to take more than a year—some materials will need that length of time before they become properly radioactive—but it will be the Atomic Energy Authority that will be responsible for the finishing of the material that the Board has irradiated.
Secondly, I should like to dispel any doubts that may be in hon. Member's minds by saying that the irradiation of these isotopes will have no adverse effects at all on the capacity of the reactors to generate electricity, because the target material to be irradiated will merely take the place of the control rods that would otherwise be necessary to keep the reactor under control.
777 Thirdly, the cost to the Board of adapting the two reactors—Bradwell and Hinckley—that it intends to use if the Bill is enacted, would be about £100,000 each, compared with the cost of the stations themselves, which is roughly £50 million. Having made considerable inquiry, I am quite convinced that the return on this extra investment of £100,000 in each case would be very satisfactory, and, therefore, represents an additional reason for requiring the Board to have this power.
After what I have said, I hope that there is no need to stress the valuable contribution that the expansion of this trade can make both to our exporting position and in those spheres that I have mentioned, such as industry, medicine and scientific research. The position is, as the House knows, that the Board will soon have the capacity to take advantage of these opportunities, but that, it will otherwise be illegal, so I am advised, because of the 1957 Act, for the Board to manufacture these isotopes for sale.
I therefore invite the House to give the Bill a Second Reading. It would have the limited effect of removing this single disability from the Board, and would make it possible for the Board and for the country to take advantage of the opportunities that offer in the future.
§ 3.54 p.m.
§ Mr. Frederick Lee (Newton)
Any reservations I had about the Bill, and about advising my hon. Friends to support it, or not to oppose it, were eliminated when I heard the scientific elucidation of the mysteries of the chemical forms of isotopes to which the right hon. Gentleman has just treated the House. He said that one of their qualities was that they helped to discover the source of leaks; I wonder whether the Chief Whips on both sides are interested in this somewhat revolutionary suggestion.
The Minister said that the sole reason for the necessity for the Bill arises from the wording of Section 2 (7) of the 1957 Act. I am rather interested in that Section, and I had an idea that that would probably turn out to be the case. I have before me the OFFICIAL REPORT for 3rd April, 1957, containing the Report stage of the 1957 Bill, as it then was.
778 It appears that there had been a great amount of discussion in Committee, and that the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) and some of his colleagues had insisted at that stage that the suggested wording of the Bill should be changed. The present President of the Board of Trade, then the Paymaster-General, was not seized of the importance of the Amendment that the hon. Member for Kidderminster and his hon. Friends sought to move. Indeed, he was adamant that it was by no means necessary to have it, and pointed out that it would probably restrict the scope of the Bill.
During the proceedings of Standing Committee D, on 7th February, 1957 which was dealing with the Bill, he said:We must give them the maximum degree of commercial freedom in order that they may work as efficiently as possible, and it is very difficult to see how we are to give the proper commercial freedom if we do not leave the Board free to manufacture its own equipment."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee D, 7th February, 1957; c. 77.]The then Paymaster-General was quite certain that to accept a form of words that limited the 1957 Measure would handicap the Board in regard to the very problems that we are now discussing. Strangely enough, by the time the Report stage of that Bill was reached a remarkable transformation had taken place. The present President of the Board of Trade was so sure that he had been utterly and completely wrong in Committee that he actually moved the words as an Amendment to his own words, which the right hon. Gentleman has now described to us as being the limiting factor that forces the Government to bring this Bill forward now.
I understand the pressures that come from certain groups on both sides of the House, but it appears to us that we are now seeing the results of gross irresponsibility on the part of Ministers Who were not open-minded on the issue in Committee, and who said that they were certain they were right to give the Board powers to manufacture. They were overwhelmed, though not, I think, by argument—I do not know how it happened. Certainly, in between the Committee and the Report stages, the President of the Board of Trade switched over completely and, as I have just said, included in an Amendment that he 779 moved the words that now force the Government to bring this Bill here.
During the Report stage on 3rd April, 1957, my former hon. Friend, Mr. Palmer, asked:Has the Minister any knowledge of the electrical manufacturing industry having complained, either to the Central Electricity Authority or to his own Department, that these powers have been used or are likely to be used?There was then a bull-like intervention from a certain part of the House and the OFFICIAL REPORT reads:MR. NABARRO: They have complained to me, though. That is what matters.The President of the Board of Trade, doubtless when the echoes had died down, said:I cannot recall whether the manufacturers have complained to my Department, but certainly not only one, but several of my hon. Friends have represented this case."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd April, 1957; Vol. 568, c. 462.]In other words, we are clear as to what had happened to the unfortunate President of the Board of Trade, as he now is, between the Committee and the Report stages. Indeed, I see that when so gentle and considerate a Member as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Newport (Sir F. Soskice) spoke on that occasion, he said:The Paymaster-General has made an extremely gallant effort to dissemble his profound sense of humiliation.… I think, however, that his effort failed, and this is about as humiliating a spectacle as the House has been treated to for some time."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd April, 1957; Vol. 568, c. 464.]That is the only reason that the Bill is now before us. In the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum to the Bill, we see:Clause 1 (1) permits the Board to produce radioactive material in their reactors for purposes of sale and to sell it. This provision is necessary because the Board's power to manufacture anything is at present limited by section 2 (7) of the Electricity Act, 1957, to things which they or any Area Board may require for research or development, or for repair or maintenance.which, of course, is precisely the Amendment that the President of the Board of Trade moved in 1957.
The right hon. Gentleman gave us some very helpful figures indicating the way that exports are increasing. I see that the figure in the Bill for additional capital outlay is £250,000. It would 780 obviously appear to be a very good investment to lay out that sum, in view of the figures which the right hon. Gentleman has been able to give us of the volume of exports. He intimated that we may well be meeting severe competition in the future, and I am sure that it is right and proper that we should assist the Board in every way that we possibly can. Therefore, we welcome the Bill and we have no intention of attempting to delay its passage through the House.
Questions of safety, which are bound to arise on such a Bill, are matters on which the right hon. Gentleman or his Parliamentary Secretary ought to touch when winding up the debate. We are well aware that in an industry such as this, in which change is taking place so rapidly, despite the formidable list of legislation which the House has now passed, we can never feel that we are really abreast of events. I am sure that the A.E.A., with all its knowledge of nuclear development, has a good safety code itself. I have been looking at some of the regulations which the Generating Board has, and from what I read in such productions as the Electrical Power Engineer I am sure that it has an effective safety code for employees who come in contact with this kind of problem.
Looking at the Electrical Power Engineer for October, I was interested to see that there was a meeting of the Authority with the trade unions concerned, and that a whole list of suggestions were the made by the trade unions, none of which was in the slightest degree frivolous and which were seriously considered by the representatives of the Board. It was pointed out that at further meetings it was hoped to consider them again and to include them as time passed.
No matter how effective we may consider the safety regulations may be, we can never look upon them as having reached such a stage that we can all be satisfied that the maximum amount of safety exists. It is, I think, something with which the Government will constantly have to keep in touch, to use the experience of the A.E.A. and of the Generating Board itself, and, where necessary, to include in legislation the results of the code which the employees of the various boards agree upon when they are shown to be very important in guaranteeing safety.
781 I know that when we are discussing a subject like this there is that element of the unknown, with the exception perhaps of the right hon. Gentleman; there is that feeling of the mystery of atomic energy the feeling that we have to concentrate more and more on safety precautions which would not be necessary in any other industry. I want to guard against that approach. I remember the late Aneurin Bevan, when speaking at this Box, once saying that he was sure that one could effect perfect safety in the coal mines, the only reservation being that we should not get any coal. We must seek to guard against that sort of approach.
I was reading a few lines in a newspaper the other day about the deaths of two miners in Durham. The incident was not regarded in the slightest degree as one demanding headlines. To me, it was as great a tragedy as if the two people had died as a result of radiation. Therefore, I am trying to keep the balance right in saying that we must eliminate the feeling that we can never get efficient safety regulations in these industries merely because we are dealing with isotopes.
§ Mr. Leslie Spriggs (St. Helens)
I have been listening very intently to my hon. Friend on the subject of the dangers of radiation. All that he has said has been very interesting, but would he not agree that safety measures would come within the terms of the Factory Acts?
§ Mr. Lee
My hon. Friend has a point there. The last Factory Act, with which we dealt towards the end of the last Parliament, touched upon this matter. There are certain provisions in that Act for the registration of certain types of people. From that point of view it does deal with safety matters. We have a whole host of Acts which deal with various aspects of safety and that kind of thing connected with this industry. But I do not believe that merely because we have this volume of legislation we should feel that we have necessarily reached the ultimate in safety. I do not believe that we have in an industry which is changing as this one is.
I was wondering whether the right hon. Gentleman could say something about the safety precautions which will exist in the industries or professions of those employed by customers of the Board. So far as the Board is concerned, I think 782 that we are doing fairly well. But now we are branching out. As the right hon. Gentleman said, industry will be using isotopes in a far greater degree than in the past. An increasing number of industries will be using them.
My anxiety relates to the conditions of safety which will obtain in many of those industries using isotopes and such materials for the first time without much experience of the results which can flow from their use. I wonder whether the Electricity Generating Board itself will stipulate certain conditions before agreeing to the sale of isotopes to customers who are just branching out into their use.
I have read through the speeches made by the Minister for Science and by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Power when the Bill dealing with this subject was introduced in November, 1959. As I then read it, Section 10 of the Radioactive Substances Act, 1960, stipulated merely that where adequate facilities for waste disposal were not available to people using these materials it would be for the Minister himself to make the arrangements.
I am not very happy about that. I should regard the lack of facilities for disposal of waste as a good reason for refusing to register such a customer at all. I know that the disposal of waste is a subject upon which opinion varies greatly among scientists. There is a great amount of radioactive waste now being disposed of in to the sea and in other ways. This is probably one of the most contentious points among scientists in this work, and, surely, it is an issue which we should now be examining very closely at a time when we are embarking upon something quite new to many of the industries which will in future be using isotopes of this kind.
These are some of the reservations which we on this side have, not, as I say, because we oppose in any way the purpose of the Bill. We should, however, like to have from the Government an explanation about the adequacy of safety arrangements among customers of the Board, and we should like to know also whether the point I have referred to in Section 10 of the Radioactive Substances Act could be turned the other way so that people who have not the facilities for getting rid of radioactive waste would be deemed to be people whose 783 consideration of the dangers was not really adequate and who should not, therefore, be granted permission to use such materials. We wish the Government to give us a further explanation on those matters before we part with the Bill today.
I began by saying that the reason why we have to waste the time of the House now was the political bias displayed by the hon. Member for Kidderminster and his hon. Friends who, obviously, have such great supremacy over the thinking of the President of the Board of Trade. On many occasions, when the Government have been in trouble, the cry has gone round Whitehall, "Send for Reggie" Today, it has probably turned into a whisper, "Smuggle Reggie out", fortified by—who knows?, for I see there is a gap on one of the benches below the Gangway—a supplication to our friends the police to turn back at the gates any car sporting the numbers NAB 1, NAB 2, NAB 3 or NAB 4. We have often seen this kind of humiliation inflicted upon the Government as a result of action of the kind I have mentioned.
On this occasion, the arguments adduced in Committee by so many of my right hon. and hon. Friends have been shown to be well-founded and justified. Indeed, the logic of the position now is that the President of the Board of Trade should be leading the opposition into the Lobby against the Bill passing. For our part, we are consistent. We have looked constructively upon the efforts of the Government to give back to the Generating Board powers which it should never have been debarred from having, powers which, in fact, were vested in some private companies long before nationalisation, in order that it could carry out the objects for which it was in business.
I hope that this will be a lesson to right hon. and hon. Members opposite, and that political spleen of the type we have seen, which has resulted in the Government having to bring this Bill before us today, will not again be in evidence; and that they will, in the fullness of time, even manage to master some of the people who, now, apparently are far more in charge of the government of the country than those who sit on the Front Bench.
§ 4.15 p.m.
Vice-Admiral John Hughes Hallett (Croydon, North-East)
The hon. Member for Newton (Mr. Lee) devoted a good deal of his speech to matters of safety. I am not aware that the extraction or marketing of radioactive isotopes will in any way decrease the safety of nuclear power stations. This is a highly technical point, but I should not have thought that they would.
§ Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett
I am coming to that.
As I understood him, the hon. Gentleman suggested that the Central Electricity Generating Board should be encouraged to stipulate conditions—I think those were his words—under which the radioactive isotopes might be used. I can only express the hope that my right hon. Friend will allow no such practice. Whoever's business it may be to stipulate conditions, I cannot think that it is the business of the Generating Board to do so. The great danger, if it tried to do so, would be that people wanting to buy radioactive isotopes would go to some other source and we should not succeed in selling them.
After all, although the use of these isotopes is comparatively new, it is not all that new. They have been used very extensively. This country is already the biggest exporter in the world of radioactive isotopes, and the object of the Bill, as I understand it, is partly to maintain that position and partly to enable the Board to exploit a very profitable side line.
The major premise of the hon. Gentleman's speech was the suggestion that this amending Bill has been forced upon the Government by the 1957 Act. The inference to be drawn is that, if there had not been the 1957 Act, it would have been legal for the electricity undertaking to go into this business without further legislation. I am not a lawyer, but I do not think that that is right. I challenge the hon. Gentleman altogether upon that. I think that under the Act as originally passed by the Labour Government it would have been necessary to pass some form of legislation to make this particular sideline possible.
§ Mr. Lee
The hon. and gallant Gentleman challenged me. The 1947 Act did not prohibit it. If he listened to his right hon. Friend, and if he has read the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum, paragraph 2, he will understand that I was precisely relating that matter to that which is now put in the Bill itself.
§ Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett
I am merely expressing the opinion that the hon. Gentleman is wrong. I remind him that any organisation established by Act of Parliament is to some extent circumscribed in its activities by the nature of the Act. Does the hon. Gentleman recall the parallel case when, in 1932, I think it was, the Minister of Labour endeavoured to start pig farms for the unemployed? The courts ruled that that was unlawful because it was not within the powers of the relevant Act. I think that the same thing would happen here. If British Railways, for instance, were to go in for, shall we say, agriculture, the courts would, I think, grant an injunction to restrain them.
However, even on the narrower point of what happened when this matter was under consideration when the Bill was passed in 1957, the hon. Gentleman is quite mistaken in saying that the Government surrendered entirely to my hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro). I was on the Committee and I took part in the proceedings. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the record, he will find that, so far from accepting that the Amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster further restricted what might be done, I said that, if ever the undertaking went into the manufacturing business, a statue would be put up to my hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster for having rendered it possible.
The hon. Member for Newton did not say that my hon. Friend's Amendment was in substitution for a Government Amendment which, to my way of thinking anyhow, was very much more restrictive in its effect than the one which was actually adopted. However, I do not think that these excursions into history are all that interesting or all that relevant. I do agree—this is really what brought me to my feet—that this Bill raises an important question of principle with regard to the nationalised industries. 786 After all, the case for allowing nuclear power stations to extract this valuable by-product themselves are obvious. They are so obvious that they do not need restating.
The Government have repeatedly affirmed that the test for a nationalised industry should be its profitability. My hon. Friends, who have no love for nationalised industries, have repeatedly said that those that exist should be run, as far as possible, as normal commercial undertakings. If those words mean anything at all, they must mean that a public undertaking is free, like a private business, to exploit any profitable sideline, such as this. Therefore, why, one may ask—indeed, the hon. Gentleman did ask—should it be necessary to have this cumbrous procedure of an Act of Parliament? If it were entirely because of one Amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster some years ago, I would not be unduly disturbed. But that is not the true answer.
The reason why more general enabling legislation which would enable the Minister, shall we say, by Order, to permit an extension of the activities of a nationalised undertaking, has not been introduced by a Conservative Government or by a Labour Government is the understandable fears of private industry about unfair competition. I think that we on both sides of the House would do better to realise that here is a genuine dilemma. Those of us on this side who, on the one hand, are opposed to the principle of nationalisation but, on the other, are determined that the existing nationalised industries should be profitable and a success have to face the difficulty that it is not easy for an undertaking set up by Act of Parliament suddenly to branch out on to a sideline which may not be within the terms of the Act. I merely state the dilemma without making any attempt to offer a solution. It is, however, a dilemma which we must recognise.
I should like to ask my right hon. Friend whether it would be possible either for the Ministry, or for him to ask the electricity undertaking to let the country have some more up-to-date figures concerning the financial position of nuclear power stations as a whole. 787 The mere passing of the Bill would, presumably, improve their financial outlook to a small extent because they will have another source of income. The most up-to-date information which we have concerning the financial position of these power stations is contained in, I think, Chapter 5 of the Herbert Committee's Report. Since then, the position has changed to a certain extent. There has been a considerable drop in the world price of uranium in addition to various other matters. Also, there are the very important possibilities under the Bill.
I ask my right hon. Friend whether we may be given some information in due course about the financial position, or the probable financial position, of nuclear power stations in the years ahead, because it has such an important bearing on our policy vis-à-vis the conventional types of power station.
§ 4.24 p.m.
§ Sir Richard Glyn (Dorset, North)
I agree with what my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Croydon, North-East (Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett) said on a number of points, but I cannot entirely agree with what he said on the question of safety, with which I shall deal in a moment, because I think that that is something which the House should regard in considering this matter.
I was interested to observe from the interesting speech of the hon. Member for Newton (Mr. Lee) that he did not in any way dissent from the principle of the Bill. It seemed clear that he did not oppose the passage of the Bill. He had a good deal to say about what happened during the Report stage of the Electricity Bill in 1957. I refreshed my memory by reading the debate which then took place, and, although I am sure that he is anxious to be extremely fair, I noticed that radioisotopes did not appear to have been considered at all.
The debate at that time, for what it is worth, seemed to be concerned with the manufacture and sale of plant and fittings. That appeared to be the point at issue. It may well be that, although they were beginning to be used in industry and research, radio-active isotopes had not at that stage reached the importance which they have now 788 reached. As far as I could see, they were not even referred to by either side of the House.
§ Sir R. Glyn
As we have heard, that is slightly contentious. Several Amendments were before the House on that occasion, one of which was eventually accepted.
As I say, I think that at that time the question of radioisotopes was not considered at all. The limitations involved in that Amendment were, as the event showed, too tightly drawn, and I think that that must be accepted. The result is that at present the production of these important isotopes is restricted to those produced by the Atomic Energy Authority's research reactors which produce them only as a by-product. Whereas their production was adequate three and a half years ago, it is inadequate today. As I see it, that is the whole essence of the necessity for this Bill.
It is very encouraging to hear of the tremendous progress being made in our sales of isotopes overseas. During the last five years our exports have increased fourfold. I think that that is an important fact. Also, the fact that we are now a leading exporter is very important. I understand that last year we exported over 30,000 individual shipments of isotopes to over 60 countries. It is important to realise the way in which the export of and the demand for isotopes all over the world are increasing. Almost every other day a new use for them in industry or research is discovered. This is an extraordinarily interesting fact which could almost be described as a break-through in some cases, because the economies which the use of isotopes makes possible are very striking and amount to enormous sums even in an individual factory or plant.
Problems which were almost insoluble in the pre-isotope days can now be solved relatively cheaply and quickly by the use of isotopes. The position of isotopes might be compared with that of petrol 789 at the turn of the century. We know of certain uses for them, but other uses are only suspected and the full possibilities have not by any means been developed. Enormous economies which can be made in many spheres are being discovered and elaborated daily all over the world.
The demand for isotopes in the world is increasing enormously. At present, I understand, America produces more isotopes than this country, but it exports less because of very large internal demand. If the Bill is passed, as I think we all hope that it will be, we shall have a total potential altogether greater than that of America. This may be a factor of considerable importance.
It would be wrong to delay the House with a list of the potential uses, because they are extraordinarily comprehensive, but, for instance, in agriculture, in which I take an interest, they are being used in insecticides with tremendous success and experimentally to help with the storage of things like grain and potatoes. It is now possible to sterilise grain in such a way that it will keep, and there is no risk of attack by mildew or weevils. It can be sterilised so that it will keep much better than it will without such sterilisation. Radioisotopes are also used to stop potatoes sprouting, and these uses, while I admit that they are in the experimental stage, are very important.
Here again, factors of safety arise. We must never overlook the safety aspect of any of these developments, but that, perhaps, does not come within the scope of this Bill.
There are an enormous number of uses connected with medical research. Hospitals which are particularly engaged in research now wonder how they ever managed before isotopes were available to them. There are many uses for gamma radiology which enables one to do testings of castings and forgings in a way never before possible. Isotopes can sterilise many sorts of raw materials which, previously, could not be used because of the fear of known infection of one kind or another. The sterilisation of goats' hair which is infected with anthrax is only one example. This can now be completely overcome by the use of rays from cobalt 60 and similar isotopes, of which we exported very large 790 quantities last year to Australia for that purpose.
These uses are growing and the factory which is using cobalt 60 for the sterilisation of carpet materials is one of interest because it is the first of its kind and it is voted a success. I have no doubt that others will follow What is so interesting is that the half life of these isotopes is not indefinite and that, unquestionably, there will be repeat orders at intervals. It is for us to make sure that we get the repeat orders. We have competitors—France, and competitors from other places—and we must make sure that we get these orders.
I am sure that we would all agree that it is a very satisfactory position that we in Britain are leading the export field. We welcome the fact that the enormously increased production which the passage of the Bill will make possible will enable us, we hope, to get still further ahead. This is almost like a fairy story, because we do not very often get a chance of enormously increasing our production without a very large increase in expense and, what is so particularly attractive in this case is that we are able to adapt the two selected stations, Bradwell and Hinckley Point, so cheaply.
They will cost perhaps only about £250,000 and they will produce, among other things, I understand, a great deal of cobalt 60, to which I have referred, and other isotopes in great demand. I have seen an estimate that the profit from this new production may amount to about £500,000 a year and that profit—if that is the correct figure—for an expenditure of £250,000 capital cost is really almost too good to be true.
I wonder whether we can be given a little further information on the methods to be used for finishing and marketing these isotopes, because I understand that at present the Atomic Energy Authority takes over the isotopes and finishes them with a view to marketing and transporting them. I presume that that will still be done, and that they will be taken over from the Board by the Authority to be finished with a view to marketing. I imagine that will be the case and I suppose, from what has been said, that no extra finance will be involved in this part of the transaction. I am glad to see that there is nothing in the Bill which absolutely precludes the job of finishing 791 and marketing being handed over to a private firm or firms should that later become desirable.
It is also important to see that the production of these isotopes will not reduce the Board's capacity for generating electricity. I understand that it will be done by the neutrons which exist already in good supply, and that it will be only a matter of putting the target material into the reactors to be bombarded by them and that this will not in any way affect the production of electricity which is, of course, the primary task.
The question of safety is a consideration which ought to be borne in mind. I am particularly concerned with a point of safety to which no reference has yet been made. We have not only to think of the workers in the industry who, in my opinion, are fairly well-informed already and working under appropriate conditions, so far as I know; but we have to consider the question of the transport of the very large number of isotopes which will be delivered by post and other ways, both in this country and other parts.
Although that is perhaps not a direct responsibility of my right hon. Friend, I should like to draw his attention to the fact that there are at present certain gaps in the existing regulations. It may be that he can bring his influence to bear to get these gaps closed before the greatly increased production which the Bill will make possible leads to an equal increase in the number of packages being despatched by one means or another, each of which is, of course, a potential danger if the correct regulations are not observed.
As I understand, the International Atomic Agency, at Vienna, has not yet made final recommendations on this matter and it may well be that we shall have to wait for them, but I hope that it will not be a question of waiting too long, because my information is that the G.P.O. regulations concerning postal packets are under review, that the Ministry of Transport regulations under the Radioactive Substances Act, 1948, are not yet finally approved, and that the Ministry of Transport regulations for ports and harbours are still in the course of preparation. As larger quantities of isotopes are now being sent 792 by sea, it seems to me that all these regulations should be in working order before the tremendously increased flow of isotopes which must result from the passing of the Bill—not perhaps for twelve months or so, but which will eventually result. I would welcome some assurance from my right hon. Friend on this matter.
Some of these isotopes are packed in extremely small packages and there is the possible risk of someone inadvertently pocketing one and perhaps carrying it about for some time. This may involve a very considerable danger. Unless these packages are properly marked in such a way that they cannot possibly be mistaken, and unless there are suitable regulations and they are observed, there is a real danger here, which, I think, we should consider.
There is one final point which is of some importance. I would welcome an assurance from my right hon. Friend as to his plan for raising the necessary finance. I know that it is only the small sum of £250,000, but there is a principle involved. I know that the Finance Act, 1956, permits the Exchequer to make advances for purposes of this kind and I think that it is also possible for my right hon. Friend to proceed under Section 17 of the Electricity Act, 1957, by the issue of stock. I do not know whether he is in a position tonight to indicate which course he will take, but I hope that the latter procedure will be used because in this case there is a hope that the total cost may be returned within a relatively short time.
I believe that wherever it is possible nationalised industries should raise funds by the issue of stock as opposed to Exchequer advances and I think that this particularly applies where there is a very small amount at stake. I see no difficulty in raising it and although it is a small sum I do not think that there is any justification for going to the Exchequer if it is possible to raise the funds by the issue of stock. I hope that my right hon. Friend will say something on this point.
§ 4.40 p.m.
§ Mr. Alan Brown (Tottenham)
I do not intend to oppose the Bill, nor is it my desire to encroach upon the valuable time of hon. Members for more than a 793 few moments. I feel myself called upon, however, to make certain observations coupled with a plea concerning safety precautions. My hon. Friend the Member for Newton (Mr. Lee) was quite right to dwell upon such important matters.
We are informed that the purpose of the Bill is to empower the Central Electricity Generating Board to use the substantial capacity that will be available in the reactors of its nuclear power stations to produce radioisotopes and, further, to enable the Board to sell such radioactive materials. It would, therefore, follow, as I deduce the position, that the Board will be able to manufacture radioactive material at any of its generating stations and that it can sell such radioactive material to persons desiring to purchase it.
No one can other than wholeheartedly support the concept that the products of nuclear energy should be used for medical, biological and industrial purposes, as the Minister has explained. Indeed, it is only by virtue of such application to peaceful purposes that mankind can benefit from nuclear energy. I do not, however, exaggerate when I say that the public generally are extremely fearful of the possibilities of accidents occurring in the reactors of nuclear power stations.
Hon. Members will recall that such an accident occurred to No. 1 reactor at the Windscale atomic plant in 1957. On 29th October, 1957, the former hon. Member for Clitheroe, Mr. Fort, asked the Prime Minister:Can my right hon. Friend confirm that a similar accident could not occur in the types of reactor being built at Calder Hall and built for the electricity authorities as happened at the Windscale plant?The Prime Minister replied:I think that, broadly speaking, that is the case."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th October, 1957; Vol. 575, c. 35.]I submit that that reply by the Prime Minister fell a long way short of confirming that such an accident could not occur in the reactors being built for the electricity authorities.
Therefore, I would welcome an assurance from the Minister that these reactors will not be permitted at generating stations such as the Battersea Power Station and other generating stations 794 which are sited in densely populated conurbations. Secondly, radioactive isotopes and other radioactive substances constitute, as we are all aware, a grave danger to health and, indeed, to life. As a chemist, I venture the opinion that radioactive materials can be infinitely more dangerous to the public than are 90 per cent. of the substances appearing on our list of poisons, in all schedules. A rigid control on the sale of these substances is already in force by law.
I would, therefore, also welcome an assurance from the Minister that in the interests of public safety, similar control on the sale of these radioactive materials is envisaged by the Government.
§ 4.45 p.m.
§ Mr. T. H. H. Skeet (Willesden, East)
The hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. A. Brown) indicated that these radioactive substances are dangerous. It is correct to say that radium may have a half-life of something like 1,620 years, but there are other radioisotopes which have a very short half-life, such as certain isotopes of gold and yttrium 90, which has a half-life of only 2.7 days. Therefore, when food is being dealt with, it has to be borne in mind that radioisotopes with a short life are used and that when it comes to the question of human consumption, the radiation content is negligible.
There is one case which I should mention, because the hon. Member for Newton (Mr. Lee) indicated that we were deprived of these powers by the 1957 Act. Possibly, one of the explanations may have been that the Atomic Energy Authority was responsible for the production of isotopes in this country. Bepo, Dido and Pluto are the reactors at Harwell and the others are at Chapel Cross and Calder Hall. It was only at a later date that it became necessary to have further production of radioisotopes. Therefore, it is necessary to come to the House of Commons to ask for additional powers. It does not follow that something which is appropriate now was necessarily appropriate in those days. One can examine the situation in this way and say that the Radio Chemical Centre has made considerable progress. Its 1949 deliveries figure of 3,500 has shot up considerably in ten years to 35,000.
795 One of the points which is a matter of anxiety to us all, however, is why progress has not been greater. In the home market, 15 per cent. of production goes to the industrial sector, 35 per cent. to research and 50 per cent. for medical purposes. It may be that industry has feared to use radioisotopes or has been unaware of their value. Looking ahead, however, especially when one realises the utility of radioisotopes in both the West German and the American market, one feels that greater use should be made of them here.
This is a paradoxical situation. We are the world's leading exporter of radioisotopes. We have a quite considerable lead and yet, relatively speaking, industry in this country is a comparatively small user of them. Obviously, something must be wrong. From time to time, trends of development apparent in the United States are, after a number of years, generally adopted in the United Kingdom. It is a great pity that we have not picked up the lesson of the use of radioisotopes a little earlier.
There is another way of looking at the question. The saving to industry by the use of radioisotopes has been evaluated at approximately £3½ million to £7½ million a year. That is an extremely low level. If, however, all the accepted uses of these radioisotopes were to be implemented, the saving could be as high as £14 million per annum, and it has been evaluated that within the next 10 to 15 years the value of the saving to industry could be as much as £70 million. To make an immediate comparison with the United States is difficult. However, in 1956 the saving to American industry amounted to 400 million dollars, a large part of which was utilised in oil-well stimulation, but at least 220 million dollars were accounted for by industrial purposes. That would be equivalent roughly to about £70 million, which makes an unfavourable comparison on our side, namely a saving of £3½ million, in this country.
Here we have before us a tool of industry which could be of great value in abating costs and in finding the shortest way to do a job. It could be useful in processing and in a number of ways, which I shall endeavour to indicate. 796 We also have in almost embryonic form a new export industry which will continue to grow.
It may be of interest to the House if I repeat the figures for 1957 successively to 1960. The value of production has been £541,000, £650,000, £800,000 and £1,100,000. The export figures for those years have risen in this way: £302,960, £390,000, £480,000 and £660,000. We can, therefore, say that in the very short compass of years between 1957 and 1960 our exports have doubled, going primarily, of course, to the United States, Canada, West Germany and Sweden.
All I want to do on this occasion is to point out the desirability of going ahead with this proposal. The Central Electricity Generating Board will shortly make the adaptations which we have been told about by my right hon. Friend and which will cost only £100,000 per station, and we have also learned from my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Sir Richard Glyn), that the profitability range is likely to be between £500,000 and £750,000 which is an exceedingly good profit from this type of development. We have our competitors overseas. All the time we are looking ahead for a profitable investment in our export trade. Here is one.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North, also indicated that isotope production is of value in agriculture, for example in fighting weevils in grain. It can also assist in altering the mutations of nature and it is possible to breed a high-yielding barley. It is possible to turn out a wheat which is rust-resistant and will have a shorter straw. It is also possible to produce oats which have a special resistance to disease. My hon. Friend also mentioned the establishment which has been set up in Australia for treating goat's hair used in the manufacture of carpets. In the process carried out at present, formaldehyde and steam are used after the bales are taken apart. In using the new method it is unnecessary to break the bales. The radiation will go straight through them. The bales can be dealt with in situ and that means that they are not exposed to re-infection from dust. One of these facilities is available in the United Kingdom and the other in Australia.
The uses of isotopes are extraordinary. For example, antibiotics and penicillin 797 have to be sterilised "cold". By the use of isotopes this can be done and they can be sterilised in packages which are already sealed up. This is of great value. An example of industrial use is the examination of welds in pressure vessels by utilising cobalt 60, caesium 137 and a number of other isotopes of great value. Isotopes can be used instead of X-rays to examine spots which are otherwise inaccessible. Furthermore, the isotope equipment does not have to be connected to electrical leads. Many other uses could be enumerated, but it is sufficient for the moment to point out that on this occasion the Central Electricity Generating Board is being given powers to produce isotopes.
The Board will be able to radiate materials in its own reactors. It will not be able to finish them. The processing will continue to be done by the Atomic Energy Authority and it is possible that it can be done outside the Authority. Greater use should be made of isotopes in British industry so that it will approximate the utilisation in Germany and the United States.
§ Mr. A. P. Costain (Folkestone and Hythe)
Does my hon. Friend agree that isotopes are of great value in speeding up the installation, examination and repair of oil pipelines?
§ Mr. Skeet
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding me of that use. If engineers are trying to find a blockage in a pipeline system they send a go-devil through the pipe. The only way of determining its exact whereabouts is by the use of a radioisotope. If different grades of petroleum are sent through a pipeline one can determine by the use of radioisotopes when the new grade is coming in, following on the tail of the other. It is essential that we should keep ahead and utilise these aids to industry to the full. The petroleum industry is one of the leading industrial users but that does not mean to say that other industries should not cash in on this development.
One industrial use of isotopes is in the measuring of the thickness of paper, plastic materials or printed fabrics. Gamma rays are capable of penetrating through several inches of steel. If isotopes are used the thickness and quality of the material can be automatically 798 adjusted in the course of manufacture. I could tabulate a large number of other examples of the use of isotopes which I have been able to assemble in the course of trying to take an intelligent interest in the subject of this debate. The uses fall into three categories. The first is agricultural. The farmer can utilise isotopes to the fullest advantage. Secondly, there is the industrial side which is growing apace, and finally there is the medical side.
These new tools are available to British industry. Is industry slow in taking up these advantages? Are industrialists allowing the Americans to creep ahead? If so, is this the result of basic indolence on our part, or is it because we do not appreciate their value? We are authorising the Central Electricity Generating Board to produce isotopes. We can sell them overseas almost as fast as we produce them. One of the greatest advantages to us would be to sell them in the home market as well to increase our efficiency and reduce our basic costs.
§ 4.58 p.m.
§ Mr. John Taylor (West Lothian)
I do not wish to detain the House for more than a few minutes because the last thing that I would want to do would be to retard the progress of this excellent extension of public ownership. It occurred to me, however, on reading the Bill, that the Clause which deals with its scope confines its operations to England and Wales. I appreciate the legal necessity for this because the operations of the Central Electricity Generating Board are, I believe, confined to England and Wales and, therefore, it would be impossible in its present form to extend the scope of the Bill to Scotland or Northern Ireland.
I am anxious to know whether the fact that the scope of the Bill is confined to England and Wales precludes any enterprise on the part of the Electricity Boards in Scotland in extending their activities to the production of isotopes for sale. I should be glad to hear from the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Power whether it is possible that a further Measure will be brought in to enable both the South of Scotland and North of Scotland Electricity Boards to engage in these activities if it is thought fit for them to do so.
§ 4.59 p.m.
§ Sir Arthur Vere Harvey (Macclesfield)
I welcome the Bill and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister of Power on the way in which it has been introduced. He has tackled this matter on the right lines. In a science of this kind it is extremely difficult to look very far ahead. One must take matters step by step.
Reference has been made to marketing. I should like to have an assurance from the Government that private industry is being brought into the picture with the Central Electricity Generating Board and that they are co-operating. I believe that if the Board works closely with private industry good results may well be achieved in the export market.
The point made by my hon. Friend about the use of radioisotopes in industry is a very important one. Clearly, we are lagging behind in this country compared with others. I wonder whether sufficient information reaches industry through the various channels. That ought to be looked into. Great Britain lives by its brains, and this is typical of what the country has achieved in the last century. I should like an assurance from my hon. Friend about the situation in regard to atomic power stations and, more important, research stations. I have heard it said that while research stations are doing a wonderful and tremendous job in bringing off great achievements, they are so insular in their outlook that they are losing touch with the outside world, as it were. I wonder whether there is a sufficient influx of new knowledge and brains into the research establishments. That is very important, and I hope that my hon. Friend will give us some assurance about it.
This development represents an enormous market. As I see it, Britain is losing exports to some extent in textiles which she has had for generations, and we are losing exports in the way of ships. We have now to export pharmaceutical products, transistors, electronics, and computers and other things which are more in line with isotopes. This is a typical example of what Britain is receiving as a result of its technical and university education effort, where we probably lead the world. I am prepared to say that a boy coming out of a technical college in 800 Britain is probably two years ahead of his counterpart in the United States. Unless we make full use of this knowledge in our own industry, we shall surely lose ground. Putting it out into private industry will help our export trade.
The question of safety has been mentioned. There is always an element of risk, but I am satisfied that every precaution is taken and will be taken. I think that we can well leave this matter in the hands of the Government and the authorities concerned.
I wish my right hon. Friend and the industry concerned in this great enterprise well. We may well see further legislation brought before the House with the aim of enabling our country to go ahead in this important field.
§ 5.2 p.m.
§ Mr. Airey Neave (Abingdon)
I regret that I have missed a large part of this most interesting debate, but I congratulate my right hon. Friend upon the Bill, which, I think, is supported by all hon. Members. It is obviously a very wise extension of the Board's powers that it should be able to produce radioactive material in reactors in commercial nuclear power stations and to sell it.
I join with what my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir A. V. Harvey) said about the need to promote knowledge about the industrial importance of radioactive isotopes. He was quite right in what he said. If hon. Members will study the Report of the Atomic Energy Authority for 1959–60 in that connection, they will see, in paragraphs 278 and 279, that the Authority has given progressively increasing attention to promoting the use of radioactive isotopes in industrial and other activities and has collaborated with the D.S.I.R. on the subject.
I am not satisfied that sufficient is known about the very valuable work that is being done in this connection. I have very considerable constituency interests in the matter. Not only is Harwell in my constituency, but so, also, is the Wantage Research Centre and Radioisotope School. I should like to congratulate all those who have done such excellent work in the development of radioisotopes from Harwell and Wantage and have made us the main exporting 801 country. But I do not think that enough is known about their work.
There are some excellent catalogues which are mentioned in the Authority's Report for 1959–60. I should like my right hon. Friend and his Ministry, in collaboration with the Atomic Energy Authority, to ensure that the results of any reseach by the Central Electricity Generating Board, under this Bill, and the Atomic Energy Authority are more widely known throughout industry. My hon. Friend the Member for Willesden, East (Mr. Skeet) has given us such an excellent—I will not say "lecture"—exposition of the use of radioisotopes industrially, medically and agriculturally that I could not seek to emulate it, but I can say that some of the experiments into the measurement of thicknesses—thicknesses of 0.010 cm. are being measured at the moment at the Wantage Research laboratory—are bound to have enormous applications in industry.
There is also the sterilisation of certain materials in medical use and for industrial products. At Wantage, which has gradually developed from a fairly small establishment, very large sources of gamma radiation are now being used for the sterilisation of medical equipment. My hon. Friend the Member for Willesden, East mentioned the development of pipelines. That is another important aspect. Pipelines are only in their infancy in this country.
We have recently been considering a Bill—the Esso Petroleum Company Bill—for the development of a very important pipeline to London Airport. The thicknesses of the pipes are measured with the aid of radioisotopes in order to prevent leaks. Being concerned in an industry which has a great deal to do with welding, I know how very important that is. I hope that wide publicity will be given among manufacturers to the work of the Wantage Research Laboratory. The very fact that the Central Electricity Generating Board is to do some work in the sense of producing and selling isotopes and also, I suppose, conducting research will also be of enormous value.
The Radio-Chemical Centre at Amersham should be mentioned in this connection, though it is perhaps not strictly within the Bill, which relates 802 only to the Board. However, the fact that the Bill allows the Board to produce radioactive materials for the purposes of sale is relevant to work which is being done in that sphere of research in the same direction. I note that there was a 25 per cent. increase last year in the production of isotopes for civil purposes. I have several times called attention to these achievements in the past, and I am very glad to see that progress that is being made and that, from Amersham, there were 35,000 deliveries to the medical services alone and 15 per cent. of all deliveries went to industry last year.
While we all, I hope, approve of the provisions in the Bill which will enable the Board to carry out this work the most important point which emerges is that more widespread knowledge is required of the very valuable functions that isotopes can perform in improving our industrial products.
§ 5.8 p.m.
§ Mr. Frederick Peart (Workington)
I was glad, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that the hon. Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) caught your eye. He is, after all, in a sense, Mr. Atom, because in his constituency, as he has described, we have Harwell and Wantage—in other words, it is the great centre of atomic research. Therefore, it is as well that he should praise the Bill, and I am very glad that he intervened.
There is a point which I wish to clear up. It has been raised by more than one hon. Member. It was first raised by the hon. and gallant Member for Croydon, North-East (Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett), who sought to argue with one of my hon. Friends about the necessity for the Bill. The hon. and gallant Member put forward the view that public authorities—in this case, the Board—dealing the production of electricity were restricted even under a Labour Government. I regret that the hon. and gallant Member is not present at the moment. I have very quickly checked the Electricity Act, 1947, myself. Section 2 lays down the additional functions of electricity boards. Subsection (3) says that:The Central Authority shall have power (a) to manufacture electrical plant and electrical fittings; (b) to sell, hire or otherwise supply electrical plant and electrical fittings … and 803 (c) to carry on all such other activities as it may appear to the Authority to be requisite, advantageous, or convenient for them to carry on for or in connection with the performance of their duties under the foregoing sectionand so on.
I may be wrong, but I would have thought that the original Act, which was passed by a Labour Government and which nationalised electricity undertakings, would in no way have restricted the Board from doing what it is now going to do. I think the history is as stated by my hon. Friend the Member for Newton (Mr. Lee). In Clause 1 of the Bill the Minister is, in fact, seeking to amend Section 2 (7) of the 1957 Act.
I agree with the Minister here. I do not think that there is any point in going in too much detail into the controversies over public ownership and whether boards should be restricted or not in certain spheres of special interest to themselves. However, I think that we should have it on record that hon. and right hon. Members on this side of the House never intended that a public authority should be restricted if it thought fit to engage in certain processes which would be advantageous to it.
We are really discussing a very important Bill which seeks to give a publicly-owned board power not only to manufacture isotopes, because it manufactures them already, but power to sell those isotopes. I am quite certain that hon. Members on both sides of the House agree with that. I am rather interested in the political argument. It is extremely pleasant to hear hon. Members opposite praising the work of a public body. The hon. and gallant Member for Croydon, North-East said that hon. Members on his side of the House had no love for nationalised industries.
It is rather remarkable that today the pressure of events has forced every hon. Member who has spoken in the debate to defend the Atomic Energy Authority and all its work, and, indeed, also the publicly-owned and nationalised generating authority, the Central Electricity Generating Board. While we welcome the conversion of hon. Members opposite, I hope that they will not be doctrinaire any more and that in their election addresses they will defend public ownership.
§ Sir A. V. Harvey
I am rather disappointed to see so few hon. Members on the benches opposite today. The legislation was introduced a few years ago and I think that the hon. Gentleman should be quite fair about this matter. We on this side of the House are always ready to give praise where praise is due, but I would point out that over the last fifteen years the losses have been so disastrous that it has been very difficult to give praise. We are always perfectly willing to do so when we can.
§ Mr. Peart
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is too little interest in this matter on both sides of the House and that both sides must accept responsibility. However, I think the hon. Gentleman must accept the fact that hon. Members opposite, and their party generally, have campaigned in the House and in the country against public ownership.
All I am saying is that we are today discussing in detail the successful working of two publicly-owned bodies. I am merely referring to what was said by the hon. and gallant Member for Croydon, North-East, one of the hon. Gentleman's colleagues, who stated that hon. Members opposite have no love for nationalised industries. The hon. and gallant Gentleman injected that point into the debate. I am merely taking it up. All I am saying is that the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir A. V. Harvey), the hon. Member for Willesden, East (Mr. Skeet) and other hon. Members opposite have praised public ownership. I made a note to the effect that I welcome to these debates an approach of the kind that has been made this evening. I have never been doctrinaire on the subject.
§ Sir A. V. Harvey
I think that the hon. Gentleman is making awfully heavy weather of the matter. If he had been here more often he would have heard me make a speech a few months ago praising B.E.A., but I did not praise British Railways or B.O.A.C.
§ Mr. Peart
Surely, it is not making heavy weather of the matter to say that it is pleasant to have a debate about two publicly-owned bodies which are doing successful work. All I am saying is that it is refreshing that hon. Members like the hon. Member for Macclesfield should not be doctrinaire about it.
§ Mr. Peart
We are having a very pleasant evening, but I would point out to the hon. Gentleman that in his speech he stressed that private industry had not caught up with the nationalised boards. I thought that that was the theme of his speech. I am not complaining, because I think that he made a very valid point. He said that we had produced the isotopes. Here is an amending Measure to enable another public body to produce more.
§ Mr. Peart
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will read his speech. His case was that private industry had not caught up with events. We want a more intelligent approach by management etc. in the use of new techniques. From the point of view of more production, the production of the Atomic Energy Authority in no way lags behind that of Western Germany and the United States. I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman looks at the position in Western Germany he will find that to be so. Western Germany has not gone into the field to the same extent that we have. Although the United States market is a very large one from the domestic point of view, relative to our own resources we lead the world if we consider our effort in relation to our home production and use and also the position of our exports.
I also welcome the making available of more capital to the value of £250,000. I want to ask the Minister some questions and I hope that he will be able to answer the point raised by the hon. 806 Member for Dorset, North (Sir R. Glyn) concerning how this operation can be financed. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will give us some details. I have made a note about my own approach to this matter, but I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will pinpoint what was said by the hon. Member for Dorset, North.
I think that the Bill is an unusual one. The Minister has explained it very carefully, and he need not apologise for acting the schoolmaster this afternoon. Technically, this is a very difficult subject, and perhaps that may explain why many hon. Members are reluctant to participate in the debate. It is a difficult subject and it is not easy even for an hon. Member with a classical education to understand the intricacies of science. I accept that.
Here we have a public authority participating in an activity which was formerly the prerogative of another public authority. I think that we know the reasons for that. Obviously, as the Minister has said, we have developed our nuclear power programme. The programme has increased. We have places like Bradwell and Hinckley, and inevitably there will be resources there for the production of isotopes. Economic and scientific events have really forced us to keep pace. Here we are bringing our legislation up to date in order to give effect to what would normally happen as we develop our nulear power programme.
We on this side of the House, of course, support it strongly. I, like other hon. Members have done today, pay a great tribute to the work of the Atomic Energy Authority in the field of isotopes. I think it has been one of the most successful parts of its work. We know that the work of the isotopes division of the Atomic Energy Authority embraces not only the production of isotopes, as was mentioned by the hon. Member for Willesden, East but also considerable research into new methods of production.
I shall not go into the details about radioactive isotopes because they have been mentioned by many hon. Members and by the Minister, too, but radioactive isotopes are used in research and in agriculture and medicine and form a very 807 large part of the work of the isotopes division at Harwell and at Wantage mentioned by the hon. Member for Abingdon. Reactors now have become famous, like Bepo and Dido, and we all pay a tribute to what has been done, but here we come to another phase.
I said earlier that I hoped that hon. Members would not be doctrinal, and this is a very real argument because when last year we discussed a very important Bill, which has a bearing on some of the problems that have been raised today—I am thinking of safety—the Nuclear Installations (Licensing and Insurance) Bill, which is now an Act, we had this main argument whether we should approach the private ownership of atomic energy and the production and use of isotopes and so on. There was the question of public ownership versus private industry. I myself raised this and I make no apology for repeating it today.
I was suspicious that the Government here in our own country were going to follow the path of the United States of America. In America, as hon. Members know, there is a Commission very similar to our own Authority, a Commission which operates under an American Act of 1954, but that Act declares in principle that the aim of the United States is to put more responsibility on private industry. I am not against that.
§ Mr. Peart
Certainly. However, in order to do that it sought also to see a diminution in State responsibility. I hope that hon. Members will not cheer that.
I want to see responsibility on both sides, and I was glad that we were able to extract then from the Minister, who was responsible for site installations, safety, the production of fuel elements, radioisotopes, their transport, and so on, an assurance that the Government would not be doctrinaire and would in no way weaken the work of a public body. So I am very glad to see that today the Government are amending the Electricity Act, 1957, and that although we are going to have an increase in the production of radioactive isotopes, although 808 we are going beyond the work of the Atomic Energy Authority, which has been doing the work up to now, we shall still have the main production in the hands of the public authority, and I compliment the Government today on not being doctrinaire. In that sense they have our support.
It must, after all, be a partnership. I myself only last week visited the research establishment at Hawker Siddeley who have a very fine reactor, the Jason, making a very valuable contribution. I also had the privilege in that same week of examining some of the atomic energy research conducted by G.E.C. at Erith. 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.
However, I should still like to ask certain questions and I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will reply. I wish to know what will be the relationship between the Atomic Energy Authority and the Central Electricity Generating Board, and what the legal arrangements will be. I know there has always been close co-operation. Obviously, much of the work of the Authority has really been work for the Central Electricity Generating Board. What, however, really is the legal position now? The Authority has always been virtually the executive agent of the Government.
Let us look at the Atomic Energy Authority Act, 1954. Under Section 2, dealing with the functions of the Authority, the Authority has virtually a monopoly. Will that be changed? Who has the full legal obligations for the production of atomic energy? Section 2 (2) of that Act states:Subject to the provisions of this Act, the Authority shall . . have power …809 Then comes paragraph (c) which is very relevant:
- (a) to produce, use and dispose of atomic energy and carry out research into any matters connected therewith;
- (b) to manufacture or otherwise produce, buy or otherwise acquire, store and transport any articles which in the opinion of the Authority are, or are likely to be, required for or in connection with the production or use of atomic energy or such research as aforesaid, and to dispose of any articles manufactured, produced, bought or acquired by them".to manufacture or otherwise produce, buy or otherwise acquire, treat, store, transport and dispose of any radioactive substances".Subsection (2, e) says:to make arrangements with universities and other institutions or persons for the conduct of research into matters connected with atomic energy or radioactive substancesand so on. Does that still apply? Will the Board's installations now come under that Section 2? Will they be covered by subsection (2, b, c, e)?
I should like to know, because I think this is important, because we had, again, a very involved argument about responsibilities when the Nuclear Installations (Licensing and Insurance) Bill went through the House last year. Will standards of isotopes be the responsibility of the Authority still? I understand that in 1954 the Authority had an arrangement with the National Physical Laboratory whereby there was virtually a form of agreement to accept standards of isotopes as laid down by the Laboratory. Does that sort of work still go on? Will the Authority still have supervisory powers or administrative powers or functions over the work of the district boards and the Central Electricity Generating Board itself?
Will there be any duplication of the work? While I agree with the hon. Member for Willesden, East that it is important that we should have a great effort here in the production of more isotopes, which we need for industry, agriculture, and medicine, I would ask whether there will be duplication of the work of the Authority. It is a very real problem, because we cannot afford to waste our scientific and technical staff. That is a view which has been expressed by many hon. Members in many debates over and over again. The hon. Member for Macclesfield has paid tribute to what our scientists and technicians have done in nuclear work. He has spoken of their quality, he has said their work is second to none, and that we lead the world in the peaceful use of atomic energy. We cannot afford to waste our efforts. Can I have an assurance, therefore, from the Parliamentary Secretary that there will be no waste of effort here?
After all, we are giving the Board £250,000. The hon. Member mentioned 810 that £100,000–I believe that was the figure—would be spent at Bradwell and another £100,000 at Hinckley. At these places, there will have to be special additions to the plants concerned and also specialised staff to look after the plants. Are the Government satisfied that the staff is available and that it can be supplied by the Board itself? Will there be duplication? This is important.
Again, I stress that there must be a partnership between the Generating Board, the Authority and private industry. We must have efficient and more effective production of radioactive isotopes. I ask bluntly: will this Bill achieve it? It is important that we should develop this industry. The chairman of the Authority, Sir Roger Makins, spoke at the fourth general conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna on 23rd September and he had this to say:First—there is a great scope for expanding the use of radio-isotopes in industry, agriculture and medicine. A recent survey in the United Kingdom showed that British industry in 1958 was saving £3½ millions a year as a result of the use of radio-isotopes, but that it could have been saving four times that amount by the use of techniques which were already practicable.That is a very important statement from one of the leaders in this industry in our country. Sir Roger went on to say that a similar conclusion would, no doubt, be reached in other countries, including West Germany, France and even the United States.
I am glad that part of the work of Britain will be to help other countries to improve their production and use of radioactive isotopes. Indeed, in his speech at the International Agency, Sir Roger also revealed that Britain had assisted in the promotion of radioisotope technology by offering the Agency in 1958 six free places for Agency-sponsored research workers in this country. I understand that five of those scholarships were taken, and that the Authority is again offering six more research scholarships for scientists and technicians from overseas who can thus develop their own techniques and knowledge of the use of isotopes.
When discussing this little Bill, let us remember that this work which has been mentioned by so many hon. Members has a great bearing not only on our home 811 industry but also on our international relations. Britain is second to none in this sector. Relative to our atomic energy resources, we have given more help to Europe and to the world than has any other country. In this, I am not thinking of physical resources alone but also of technical skill and ability.
The presence of the hon. Member for Southgate (Sir B. Baxter) reminds me that when I was in Canada recently and speaking about this matter, I was asked by a Canadian journalist about Britain's work and I said that Britain could lead the world in the use of atomic energy, as in the use of radioisotopes and other branches, and I reminded him of our new power reactor in Japan. I said that Britain had nothing to apologise for but something to shout about from the housetops. That is why I am so glad that hon. Members who are normally critical of public ownership should praise what has been achieved in a mainly publicly-owned atomic energy industry.
I could go on dealing with details. Exports have been mentioned by many hon. Members. I have with me the figures quoted in the Annual Report, which have been given by the right hon. Gentleman. Our exports of isotopes, according to that Report, which covered the period 1st April, 1959, to 31st March, 1960, increased by 25 per cent. over the previous year. As has already been said today, 60 per cent. of the isotopes were exported. We want this record to be maintained. That is why we have this Bill. Obviously there will be many fission products arising from the development of atomic reactors and power plants, and more and more radioactive substances will be created. There will also be more research.
We sometimes forget, in considering radioactive isotopes and their uses, that alongside this new and growing industry there is another, which is related to it, for producing instruments. Instrumentation in atomic energy is important. The control and handling of radioactive substances enable people not only to develop new processes and new materials but also show how to handle those processes and materials.
812 There has grown up in this country a very important and valuable instrument industry, which, in a sense, has been inspired by the main nuclear energy programme and by what has been done for the production of isotopes. For example, many countries use geological survey meters from this country. Many of our gauges for measuring are used abroad.
I understand that in Norway at one period British gauges were used in practically every paper mill. There are other examples of our instruments being used for measuring handling materials. Our peaceful atomic energy programme is creating another valuable export where British quality products can be second to none.
We support this Bill and nowhere oppose it. Indeed, we welcome it. We think that it is a good thing that the Central Electricity Generating Board should have this power and that the 1957 Act should be amended. It is rather refreshing to have a bit of unity on atoms for peace instead of disunity on atoms for war
§ 5.38 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Power (Mr. J. C. George)
This has been an extremely useful and happy debate, and I am sure that the Central Electricity Generating Board will be greatly encouraged by what has been said on both sides of the House.
I begin by dealing with Scotland, and I must remove at once the doubts in the mind of the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. J. Taylor). Scotland and Northern Ireland are expressly excluded from the Bill, not because the Government wish to handicap them but because the nationalisation Act for electricity does not relate to Northern Ireland, Though it applies to Scotland, the original Statute which nationalised the industry remains there unimpaired by the amendments in the 1957 Act. The power is already provided, and there needs to be no alteration.
In a way, that answers what was said by the hon. Member for Newton (Mr. Lee). He said that the amending legislation in 1957 had led to the need to introduce the Bill. That is quite right and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Croydon, North-East (Vice-Admiral 813 Hughes Hallett) was wrong to assume that the Bill would still have been needed if that amendment had not taken place. However, at that time no one envisaged the production of isotopes on this scale and, now that the industry is expanding rapidly, it is only right that we should seek to encourage the Generating Board to play its part in the expansion.
The hon. Member for Newton enjoyed himself jobbing backwards to the Committee stage of the 1957 Measure, but he was generous in his welcome to the Bill. He confined himself largely to questions of safety, which is clearly one of the dominating factors in the minds of the Generating Board and everyone concerned with nuclear generation or the use of isotopes derived from nuclear generation. I assure the hon. Member that arrangements for safety are a continuing interest of my right hon. Friend who has a Nuclear Inspectorate watching over the operation of the Nuclear Installations (Licensing and Insurance) Act, 1959, which governs safety in nuclear stations. Regulations have been and can be made as practice develops and experience grows. The matter is constantly under review by my right hon. Friend, whose staff keep him informed of any changes which it is thought should be made. These are then discussed with the industry so that regulations can be brought forward.
Anxiety has been expressed about safety, and the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. A. Brown) spoke of the general safety of the public and the public's alarm about nuclear stations in densely populated areas. The Government's policy has been clearly seen to be to keep nuclear power stations away from densely populated areas—at least, in this stage of their development. There is more than one reason for that. The stations require certain services which are not regularly and readily obtainable in densely built-up areas—vast quantities of water, for instance. To some extent, also, the stations are sited in areas where other fuels are not available. There are several compelling reasons why they are sited where they are, and it is not the intention at the moment to bring huge nuclear power stations into densely populated areas, so that I can relieve the hon. Member's anxiety on that score.
814 Much has been rightly said about the advance of this industry. Everyone has watched with interest and admiration the expansion of the production of isotopes, not only by the scientific work of the Atomic Energy Authority at Harwell, where they have been and will be produced until the Bill becomes law, but also by the work done at Amersham. Several hon. Members have commented on expansion at home and abroad. The products of Amersham are used in 60 different countries, which is a compliment not only to the salesmanship of the Authority, but to its ability to pack these dangerous materials and arrange for their special transport, not only at home, but all over the world.
Any doubts about the efficiency or safety of transport should be considered in the light of what has already been done. Isotopes have been and are being transported all over the world. One may sit in an aeroplane which may have in special compartments in its wingtips a consignment of isotopes to be taken across the North Atlantic in one day, or to Australia or Japan in two days. The method of transport has had very close study, but continuous study is nevertheless being made of dangers which may be encountered in transport. As with all safety matters, there is never any let-up in the study of safe transport.
My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir A. V. Harvey), my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) and my hon. Friend the Member for Willesden, East (Mr. Skeet) rather chided the United Kingdom industry for not using present isotope techniques to the full, and they quoted, as did the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Peart), the speech of Sir Roger Makins. That speech, which was made in Vienna, indicated that in Sir Roger's view savings made in British industry by the use of isotopes were four times less than they could have been at the time he made his speech.
Nevertheless, 700 industrial firms in this country use isotopes and their use is spreading throughout British industry. Whether British industry has been laggard in grasping the new opportunities provided by our scientists, I do not know; but every effort is made by the Amersham Radio-Chemical Centre to 815 acquaint British industry with what can be provided—it is done in a beautifully produced catalogue which is circulated throughout the country—and the Atomic Energy Authority is ready and willing to give advice to industry. I am sure that the industrialists of Britain will not be laggard in taking up the advantages which my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Sir Richard Glyn) pointed out might bring about huge economies. There are immense possibilities in the application of isotopes to industry and I am certain that that knowledge is growing and that the use of isotopes in British industry will expand as we expand their production.
A happier feature of the use of isotopes was not mentioned—medicine, where great benefits are being conferred. In fact, 100,000 patients annually are treated by radiotherapy in the United Kingdom. The healing work which can come from isotopes can be of great benefit to mankind and, as has been said, this country is willing to extend its knowledge to serve our brethren in Europe or in any other part of the world for the general benefit of mankind.
The hon. Member for Workington asked me to deal specifically with a question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North, who asked how these proposals were to be financed. The sums involved are not large. As the hon. Member for Workington said, this is a little Bill. It does not make any significant changes and it does not involve any large financial commitments. The sum involved may be £200,000, or £250,000. My hon. Friend suggested that the proposal should be financed by the issue of stock, but I think that on reflection, comparing the smallness of that sum with the cost of the two stations at about £100 million and the sum of £190 million which the electricity industry borrowed from the Government last year for its capital programme, my hon. Friend will not wish me to pursue that line.
The hon. Member for Workington asked about the relationship between the Generating Board and the Atomic Energy Authority. The Bill does not in any way affect the powers of the Authority or its relationship with the Generating Board. The hon. Member 816 for Newton spoke of the customers of the Generating Board being given safety instructions by the Board. 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. The Authority is the only purchaser of isotopes and the relationship of the Board and the Authority, formed many years ago, is to continue unchanged.
§ Mr. George
I purposely added the words, "for some time to come". I am aware that the phrase in the Bill referring to sale to other persons opens a door. That door is not likely quickly to be opened because the centre at Amersham is rather a complicated place. It will not be readily duplicated until those who intend to duplicate it see that there is a far bigger market for them and that market will develop slowly. I hope that they will eventually come in because when they do other benefits will be conferred.
Only people of substance can come into this industry, and, if they do, they are almost certain to start their own lines of research. If there is unity between the Authority, the Board, and one or two private firms in this new and expanding industry, as the hon. Gentleman said, such a partnership will, in the long run, be best for this industry.
Nothing alters the relationship which exists at the moment between the Atomic Energy Authority and the Generating Board. The Board has a duty to generate electricity and to supply it in bulk, and there is nothing to stop it from doing this by means of nuclear energy. Nothing is changed by the Bill in the relationship between the two authorities.
As regards the duplication of staff, the Central Electricity Generating Board will require very little staff to exercise the power which we seek to confer on it by the Bill. I think that we can, therefore, safely assume that there will be no duplication.
As regards duplication of research, nothing new is being done. The Bill 817 simply gives the Board power to do something which has been done for a long time at Harwell. No new technique has been evolved. Perhaps on a bigger scale the Board will apply the practice which has been applied for many years at Harwell. Therefore, little research will be required to make sure that the Board carries out properly the process on which it will be embarking if the Bill is accepted.
My hon. Friend the Member for Willesden, East made a most attractive and well-informed speech. I learned a great deal from what he said, but running through his speech was the fear which he felt about the use made of isotopes by British industry. I have no doubt that British industry is as far ahead today in its use of isotopes as industry in Germany, Europe, or even in the United States of America. We have had information to that effect this evening. What has been said will do no harm. It might make those in industry concerned with production look again at their practices to see what is available for them in the products of the Amersham Radio-Chemical Centre, but this little Bill, trying to confer, as it does, new powers on the Generating Board, does what the House hoped would be done. It ensures that this new industry, as yet a small one in what to many people is a mysterious field, will be encouraged in every way to go ahead and expand, so as not only to confer benefits medically, and not only to bring more and more devices to the use of industry, but also to help the general prosperity of this country, and our export drive.
This new surge forward which will come about by the use of the vast resources of the Board can ensure that we achieve the one thing Which I believe is vital to this country. There are not 818 many fields today in which we can say with certainty that we lead the world. From time to time there were many fields in which we could declare openly and with certainty that we led the world, but, as my right hon. Friend says, here is one sphere in which we lead the world.
It is essential that we grasp every opportunity, and bring in every party capable and willing to help, to ensure that this country of ours continues to lead the world in the use of radioactive isotopes.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. Sharples.]
§ Committee Tomorrow.