HC Deb 27 July 1962 vol 663 cc1978-90

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

4.0 p.m.

Commander Anthony Courtney (Harrow, East)

I am grateful for the opportunity of raising today the question of the provision of a nuclear-powered merchant ship, so close to the debate which took place on science and industry on 12th July this year, for one special reason. In that debate, I made a speech and raised a number of points on this important question, none of which was replied to by the Government. In fact, the previous Financial Secretary to the Treasury did not mention my speech at all.

I am, therefore, very grateful for the opportunity of raising this matter again, more particularly as it is the concern of two Ministers. It concerns my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport and my noble Friend the Minister for Science. Research and development, which form important parts of the question that I am raising, are the responsibility of the Minister for Science, and the general problem of maritime development for merchant ships rests with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport. I hope today that the House may gat replies to questions which I put previously, some of which I shall touch on again.

We are at a time of economic urgency concerning the shipping and shipbuilding industries of this country. We have heard evidence this week that one-tenth of our shipbuilding yards are without further orders. We know that the total percentage of the British component of world construction is down to 14.1 per cent., an unheard of low percentage for this great maritime country. At the same time, we find ourselves at the beginning of an era of new means of marine propulsion. I refer to the possibility of nuclear-powered merchant ships with acceptable capital and running costs which will make them an economic proposition and which could prove to be one means of the salvation of the shipping and shipbuilding industry.

I have touched previously on the great expansion in this direction being made by our competitors. The Americans and the Russians have for several years been operating nuclear-powered merchant ships. Our West German competitors, so strong in many other fields, have at present five subsidised schemes for the development of marine nuclear reactors, one of which an organically moderated reactor is to be fitted in a ship now building in Western Germany. All our competitors are, in fact, designing, building or actually operating a prototype nuclear-powered merchant ship.

What is the economic aim of the industry concerned with this development? I believe—and I have the best authority I can get on this—that if we can approach a capital cost of some £750,000 for a nuclear reactor in a mechant ship coupled with a running cost of about 0.15d. per shaft horsepower hour, we shall be in a field in which nuclear propulsion may sweep right through the merchant shipping of the world because it is a feature of new methods of marine propulsion, in panticular, that both capital costs and running costs decrease rapidly as the new system is adopted and the industry develops.

In this field we are now in a position, I understand, at which we can build a marine nuclear reactor for fitting into a ship for something over £1 million. This is estimated from our paper studies —which is all we have to go on. The running costs are estimated in such a reactor at about ¼d. per shaft horsepower hour. It is surely clear that we are within sight of the goal at which we are aiming and on the threshold of a change-over to this revolutionary method of marine propulsion.

The Government have somewhat belatedly, I must say, allocated £3 million for research and development on nuclear reactors. We must not look a gift horse in the mouth, but it is a tiny fraction of the total sum allocated particularly to atomic research and development in this country. We are well up in the race. There is one grave omission from our programme; we have as yet no ship. What are the arguments on practical grounds for the provision of a prototype merchant ship such as that which I have mentioned? First, there are the great constructional problems of the re-allocation of weight and space arising from the fact that the fuel normally carried in a merchant ship will in future be dispensed with. There are stability problems and safety factors, and the associated problems of waste products, which all have to be dealt with on a practical basis, and which can, in my submission, be properly investigated only at sea.

Secondly, there is the problem of training shipbuilders, shipbuilding engineers and marine engineers in all the problems not only of running the engines when they are at sea in the prototype which we hope to have but of installing in the shipyard the very complicated mechanisms associated with this type of propulsion. The third and perhaps most important factor is the importance of a study of the economic factors of the running of this type of merchant ship. We must study these problems under operational conditions.

We dare not start building a series of merchant ships, for we cannot recommend that any shipowner should lay out the capital to build a series of merchant ships until we have a properly tried prototype and can prove to the shipping industry that this is a demonstrable, economic proposition. What kind of ship should we be aiming for? I must admit that my own technical knowledge is insufficient to go more than briefly into the problem, but I think that I am justified in expressing a few ideas. A passenger liner has been mentioned as one of the more favoured types in this connection. From the figures and graphs, it certainly has some striking advantages in the great step forward which would be taken by the installation of nuclear machinery in such a ship, but it has corresponding disadvantages, if we are considering the prototype of which I have spoken.

The other type of ship so often mentioned is a tanker. We must remember that the Government have set their face against building the 65,000 ton deadweight tanker on which design studies have been made in recent years. I feel that that decision was right, but now, when we are considering the problem afresh and are perhaps closer to the break-through for which we all hope, we should perhaps go back to the tanker as the proper type of ship for this prototype.

I would favour a medium dead-weight tanker of 25,000 to 30,000 tons, built to Ministry of Transport specification and Lloyd's Register of Shipping. It should perhaps be a Royal Fleet auxiliary, owned by the Admiralty. One shipowner is needed. No ship can be run and operated by a committee. The operational conditions under which the ship will run will necessarily by supervised by a committee which has been set up partly with this purpose in view, the Dunnett Committee, broadly based and representing the British Shipbuilding Research Association, Lloyd's Register and the shipping world as a whole. Perhaps the ship could be chartered to commercial operators. I have no doubt that the results gained from these trials would be invaluable for the purpose we have in view.

What would be the advantages of this type of ship? I suggest that there are four. First, a medium tonnage deadweight tanker would have the widest range of operating conditions. It would be able to enter all the major ports of the world and pass through various canals where a large tanker would not be suitable. Secondly, ownership by the Admiralty, with uniformed personnel as a Royal Fleet auxiliary, could improve control of the training facilities and the modifications necessary to a ship while in service and facilitate putting it out of service for various major changes over in the propulsion machinery.

Thirdly, I believe that this type of ship corresponds in tonnage to a pair of the 10,000 shaft horsepower reactors which are perhaps the optimum power for which we should aim in our prototype. Again, there should be separate types of nuclear core, perhaps operating the propulsion machinery geared to turbines with a single shaft. Finally, an arrangement such as I have suggested would facilitate the general promulgation and dissemination of the commercial knowledge gained so that we can assure the shipping world in terms which they understand that the prototype will really be an economic proposition when produced in the first series of ships.

My hon. and gallant Friend is a man of ideas. I hope that we shall have a few of them today. I remind him that in an allied industry the Central Electricity Board is receiving very large sums of money from the Government not only for a research and development programme but for the application of that programme in generating stations which are uneconomic propositions. I suggest that there is a parallel between that clear evidence of Government policy and what we are asking this afternoon. I believe that there is a distinct parallel between shipbuilding and our power requirements from the atomic energy point of view.

I ask my hon. and gallant Friend not to emulate that earlier admiral of the eighteenth century, Sir Richard Strachan, in his relations with his noble Friend the Minister for Science. The House will remember how Lord Chatham, with his sword all drawn. Stood waiting for Sir Richard Strachan, Sir Richard, longing to be at them, Was waiting for the Earl of Chatham. There is a tremendous economic advantage in sight and to be gained, providing that this country develops its resources to the full in the establishment of our marine nuclear industry which will prepare the way for a first generation of British nuclear propelled merchant ships.

I believe that the time, which is a matter of judgment, for the provision by the Government of the means of giving industry a prototype nuclear merchant ship has arrived, and I ask my hon. and gallant Friend to look very seriously into this matter.

4.15 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Vice-Admiral John Hughes Hallett)

It might be for the convenience of the House if I reply to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Commander Courtney) but try to leave a little time at the end for my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West (Mr. Wingfield Digby) and then I will write in answer to any points he may raise.

I am not sure whether my ban. and gallant Friend has added very much to What he said in his most interesting speech on 12th July last. Indeed, I doubt whether there is very much more that cam be said in support of the proposition that this country should build a prototype nuclear ship without further delay. At the same time, I recognise that this view is fairly widely held, as is witnessed by the number of hon. Members who have signed my hon. and gallant Friend's Motion on the subject. I therefore welcome this opportunity of restating the Government's position.

The trouble about a prototype nuclear ship is that it could not be a prototype in the true sense if it were to be laid down this year, because the reactor would not be commercially attractive to a shipowner. And the reactor is the heart of the matter. It would not be at all easy—indeed, I am not sure that it would be practicable—to change from one type of reactor to another, and from one system to another, as my hon. and gallant Friend has hinted—

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

Is the Parliamentary Secretary quite sure that "commercially attractive" is the right criterion in this context?

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

I am quite certain of that, because we are talking of reactors for use in ordinary commercial ships. I shall have little more to say on that in a minute.

I do not want to mislead the House. I do not say that we could not build a nuclear-propelled ship that would run at a small profit, but the return on the capital invested would be less than that with a comparable ship propelled by conventional machinery. That was the reason for the decision we reached only last year to concentrate all available resources of money and scientific manpower on reactor research, and having just made that decision it would be strange and inconsistent were we now to build a ship without awaiting the fruits of that research.

My hon. and gallant Friend spoke on 12th July about getting our feet wet in this project. I can only say that that was, perhaps, an unfortunate metaphor, because that is what one hopes to avoid in a well-designed ship. He also asserted, and several other hon. Members have asserted at various times, that we are virtually alone among maritime nations in having a nuclear merchant ship on the stocks.

That is not so. It is true that Russia has an ice-breaker, operating under conditions that render nuclear machinery attractive quite apart from the economics. The Americans have the "Savannah" and, with their usual generosity are keeping us fully informed of their experience with her, but that does not claim to be an economic ship.

According to the latest available information, no firm decision has been taken in any other country to place a contract for the building of a nuclear-propelled ship. Germany was last year reported to have taken a decision in principle, but no contract has yet been placed. In Italy, although it is known that design studies are being undertaken by Fiat and Ansaldo, no decision to build a vessel is expected for some years. Euratom is contributing to several European design studies, but is not committed to contributing towards a nuclear ship project. There are also reports that Japan is to build a nuclear-propelled ship, but the position is that these relate to design studies only. The same applies to Sweden. Three nuclear ship projects are being undertaken by the European Nuclear Energy Agency. These are design studies only. The United Kingdom has been associated with the thought that the Agency has been giving to the possibility of an international nuclear merchant ship. On present showing, the prospect of such a project is, to say the least, doubtful.

We have sometimes been asked whether, in view of our general line, we think that the Americans are wasting money with the "Savannah". That is hardly for us to say. There is no doubt that those operating the "Savannah" will gain much valuable experience, but it is not clear to us how it will contribute in any direct way to the development of an economical reactor.

On the other hand, the "Savannah" is faced with complex and important questions regarding safety, liability and insurance. I feel some sympathy with the Americans at the magnitude of the problems Which confront the first commercial nuclear ship. We should be grateful to them for the pioneer work they are initiating in this field.

I do not think that any useful purpose would be served were I to say much about the research work being undertaken in this country. It is chiefly being carried out at the Atomic Energy Authority's establishment at Risley, backed by some industrial firms. The Parliamentary Secretary for Science recently gave the House an outline of the work being done. It involves at present research on four alternative types of reactor, in one of which—the Vulcain project—we are now associated with the Belgian syndicate known as Belgonuclaire.

As the research progresses one would normally hope to narrow the front of the advance and concentrate on what appears to be the most promising line. Like my hon. and gallant Friend, I, too, have visited Risley and I am glad to endorse the praise he gave to the team working on this project. I have had some experience in the past with research and development establishments and I must say that I was greatly impressed by the enthusiasm and energy with which this task is being tackled. I hope to visit Belgium during the coming Recess and to meet those working there as our partners in this aspect of our great enterprise.

For myself, I firmly believe that the time will come when we shall be told by our seientists that they can see their way to the construction of a reactor suitable for marine use and likely to prove significantly more economical than conventional machinery. The important thing is that when the green light burns this country will be in a position to build a prototype ship without delay.

This is partly a question of being ready with the design of such a ship. In other words, there is much ship de- sign work which should go forward in parallel with the scientific research on the reactor. It is for this reason that the British Ship Research Association is closely associated with the work being done at Risley and, indeed, some of the team are drawn from B.S.R.A.

It is partly a question of arriving at suitable international agreements on safety and liability. A good deal of work on safety has already bean done and is incorporated in Chapter 8 of the draft Convention on Safety of Life at Sea which was agreed at the international conference in London early in 1960. A recant conference in Brussels concluded a convention on liability, but I cannot pursue that because legislation would be needed before we could ratify it. Much remains to be done and I can assure the House that we are pursuing this facet of the matter.

It is also partly a question of being clear how the prototype ship will be financed. My hon. and gallant Friend has suggested that the first ship might be built on Admiralty account, presumably as a fleet replenishment ship. This, of course, is a matter for the Board of Admiralty. Obviously, there is something to be said for it and, naturally, it is a matter to which a good deal of thought has already been given. At the same time, I doubt whether shipowners as a whole would be persuaded to change over to nuclear propulsion in a big way until they are satisfied that a nuclear ship has been successfully operated as an ordinary commercial venture. This, too, is a matter about which we are keeping in close touch with the shipping industry.

One is often asked whether one can give any indication of a timetable. Personally, I have a preference for a certain degree of reticence where experimental work is concerned. It is a mistake to "stout the odds" too soon. I will, however, say this. The outlook today is more promising than seemed likely a year ago. Indeed, our decision not to go forward with a prototype then has already been fully vindicated.

At the same time, we are well aware that in the realm of research and development the best can be the enemy of the good. Hence the Steering Committee—a Committee made up of men of diverse interests—which has the task of co-ordinating the experimental work. Its members will look for the first and will not be diverted by the promise of an even better one at some future and uncertain date.

My hon. and gallant Friend was mistaken in suggesting that the A.E.A. was being left as the sole judge and jury for the project. On the other hand, I agree most strongly with what my hon. and gallant Friend had to say about the magnitude of the stakes. The development of marine nuclear machinery significantly more economical than conventional, may well shake and transform the world of shipping. Indeed, we might see a change-over to nuclear ships comparable in scale and in speed to the change-over to motor ships between the wars.

Nor would this be all. It does not take much imagination to realise that such a development could have far-reaching effects on land as well as on sea. A tremendous prize, therefore, may go to those who are first in the field with a small and commercially attractive reactor. If we are to stay in the running for this prize we cannot afford to dissipate our energies by going into production with equipment which is already obsolescent.

4.26 p.m.

Mr. Simon Wingfield Digby (Dorset, West)

While thanking my hon. and gallant Friend the Parliamentary Secretary for his reply, may I say that I still feel that the Government are not showing the desired sense of urgency. In times when we are speaking of difficulty in breaking into export markets, it is strange that we should be neglecting our great reputation in shipping and shipbuilding.

From the facts that have been given to us by my hon. and gallant Friend in this debate and in a previous debate, it is obvious that others are pressing on and getting the "know-how". If we continue to wait until this new type of reactor—be it a boiling water reactor or any other kind—tons up, we may not have the "know-how" and be able to operate it.

We have heard about the "Savannah" which was launched several years ago. We are told that observers were present. Are we to understand that there are no lessons in hull construction to be drawn from that and that any lessons there are to be drawn we shall get as well as the Americans? I do not believe it.

Turning to the military sphere, the outlook is very depressing indeed. When we think that the Americans have actually launched or have on order more than fifty nuclear-propelled ships and boats, mostly submarines, it is obvious that they must be getting enormous experience. Against this we have one launched, "Dreadnought". She, I understand, is powered by an American reactor. There again we learn nothing at first hand.

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

I should like to reply to one point. Of course, there are lessons to be drawn from the construction of the "Savannah" so far as hull design is concerned. I have no doubt about that. But they will not necessarily be the same lessons as those which will be applicable to the reactors which we foresee in the future.

Mr. Digby

I should have thought that screening alone was a very big factor. Presumably screening must be reduced to a minimum amount.

It is perfectly plain, according to the Atomic Energy Authority Report, which I have here, that nuclear propulsion plays a very small part in its affairs. It is tucked away in a small part of its Report. I have read in recent weeks and months in the Press the suggestion that the Authority was so completely committed to the Central Electricity Generating Board that it might just as well become part of it. But that is not my conception of what the Atomic Energy Authority ought to be doing in a maritime country like our own. We have been the best shipbuilders in the world and the biggest shipowners for generations.

The Parliamentary Secretary talked about going into some international project. My conception is that we should be leading the world. We cannot afford not to. There are many who said that only jet-prop aircraft and not pure jets would do commercially. We were, perhaps, unlucky meveatheless not to toe able to lead the world in the sphere of jet aircraft Now we have the Boeing 707 and other American jet aircraft reaping the reward. I hope that we shall not make the same mistake in shipping. We are much further behind in jet-propelled shipping than we were in jet aircraft and I can see very little excuse for it.

I agree that it is necessary to go on with these four projects which are probably well chosen, but £3 million in three years is not a great sum of money. We have no assurance that one of those reactors will be built as soon as possible so that we do not fall further behind in the race. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will try to persuade the Government, including the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to give greater urgency to the matter.

4.29 p.m.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

I hope the Parliamentary Secretary is aware that Ms statement will bring dismay not only to many shipbuilders who were hoping for contracts, but also to the young merchant sailors, among whom I have been working for the last thirteen months, who are hoping that Britain will take the lead—

The Question having been proposed at Four o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Four o'clock.