HC Deb 08 June 1962 vol 661 cc880-97

2.5 p.m.

Mr. John Rankin (Glasgow, Govan)

I beg to draw the attention of the House to happenings recent and not so recent at Hunterston nuclear power station, which is being built by the General Electric Company. It is commissioned by the South of Scotland Electricity Board.

Some remarkable features in these exchanges call for examination. So far as I know there is no contract in existence which specifies either a contract price for the job or the date when it would be completed. Nor was there any single authority on the site with whom ultimate responsibility for decisions rested. This is a very disturbing fact, rendered more serious by the knowledge that there were two bosses. The Atomic Energy Authority acted as nuclear consultants for the General Electric Company, while Messrs. Kennedy and Donkin were the engineering consultants. It would seem so far as these two authorities were concerned that East was East and West was West and never the twain did meet. We know, of course—at least, it is generally said—that two heads are always better than one, but it may well be that two heads were too many heads.

So the expected cost grew up to be quite a big boy before anybody appeared to notice the fact. In money terms the £37½ million which was the expected price has become £63 million, and for long the two heads were in polite disagreement.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. John Maclay)

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, and I do not want to interrupt him more than once, but what authority has he for that statement?

Mr. Rankin

The authority which I have for that statement derives from an article which appeared in the Economist, I think a fortnight ago; and I understand, from consultation with those who were concerned in the prior investigations which led to the writing of the article, that they acted with some firm knowledge about what they were saying.

The G.E.C. says that it has spent all these last-named millions. That may be true enough. Yet the Electricity Board appears reluctant to pay it. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to talk to us frankly today and to explain this difference clearly and why this occurred. A very large sum of money is engaged in the matter.

On 30th May last the Secretary of State said that in terms of the contract the price had to be adjusted in respect of three factors. First, there were alterations to the civil engineering works arising out of the conditions at Hunterston. It was no secret that Bradwell and Hunterston were fundamentally different sites. There was clay at Bradwell, and rock at Hunterston, and expenditure naturally shot up. As a consequence, there were bound to be layout difficulties. There was also the need for different types of water cooling systems.

I hope that it is pertinent to ask whether anybody looked into these matters in the beginning. Why just go from Bradwell to Hunterston, as it were, assuming that there would be no change? Surely the absence of one single authoritative voice at this initial point paved the pay for most of the subsequent difficulties.

Secondly, there had to be modifications to the reactor design, as the right hon Gentleman said in his reply. I recognise, as we all do, that Hunterston was one of our earlier nuclear stations, the third of the first three, and that as it developed more advanced nuclear data became available. The blow-up at Wind-scale would also affect development at Hunterston, and as a result of that happening, designers and scientists would naturally think about making Hunterston safer and more efficient. One change would be suggested at one point and something else at another, and so delays would occur as a result while research and experiment were conducted. Perhaps a year could elapse in that sort of work. In the end, not improbably, nothing might be done. But the increased cost still remaining to be met.

Once again, why was there no one to deal with this aspect of development at this station and to say whether the time spent in that sort of investigation and experiment could be justified in relation to the costs and usefulness of this much needed project? It is one thing to make changes at drawing board level, and a much more serious matter to make them while the station was actually being built. Existing difficulties could be greatly increased, but that again emphasises the lack of an authority with the overall say-so in these matters.

The right hon. Gentleman himself acknowledged, and regretted, the practical and design difficulties as being inseparable from the most effective development of the new techniques which have been evolved in constructing this station. I am sure that that statement was based on top-level expert advice, but there are other views. The new techniques have not just burst upon the scientific world. Much of the development of the station was based on designs not unknown before it was started.

The Secretary of State attributed the inflated cost to a third cause, the variation in the costs of labour and materials. But he said that allowances for those were made in the tolerances granted on the original estimated price of £37½ million. I must observe that the original estimate was based on Bradwell, not on Hunterston. Thus, the financial and other troubles took root long before labour difficulties arose. But now that we are entering the mechanical and electrical stages in the growth of the station, will the right hon. Gentleman assure us that discords will not further delay the completion of the station?

From what I have heard, I believe that there is now a happier relationship between the Board and the General Electric Company. Does the right hon. Gentleman expect that that will result in a friendly settlement of the dispute between them about what the contractors think they ought to get for building the station and what the South of Scotland Electricity Board believes it should pay? The Secretary of State said: By the end of May, 1962"— that was last Thursday— the South Board will have paid £36.4 million to the contractor."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th May, 1962; Vol. 660, c. 1360.] How much more does the company expect to get? I have to put it that way because I cannot ask the right hon. Gentleman how much more he expects the Board to pay. That would be unfair and I must put it in that roundabout way, although the answer will help us to estimate the other aspect.

Public money is involved in the settlement and so also is shareholders' money. The Secretary of State is guardian of the former and also of the public interest. He must not forget, as I am sure he does not, his duty in those two respects. The company is naturally concerned with its shareholders' interests. But if it be true that neither of the two parties discussed who was to pay for the extensive changes in design ordered by the Atomic Energy Authority after examination of the tenders, clearly both must be blameworthy. One may well ask what the Secretary of State was doing in those early days of 1957. I hope that he does not shake his head too dolefully because he was in office at that time. Did he know what was happening and, if so, what steps did he take to control or justify the greatly increased expenditure over the £37.5 million for which in the long run he must assume responsibility?

I make it perfectly clear that I firmly believe in public ownership, and I think that the right hon. Gentleman does not scorn it. Accepting that, it may be expressed in various forms. I want it to succeed at Hunterston and wherever else it operates, but I also want firm accountability, not only in financial matters, but also in regard to public relationships, and the Secretary of State is responsible for both. What went wrong with the commercial arrangements between these two bodies? To what extent was the right hon. Gentleman consulted? How far can we now depend upon the job being completed, as he has said, by the end of 1964? Because of the delays which have already occurred, this question is of exceeding importance.

In connection with the phasing of the contract, it is worth observing that the civil contractor finished his part of the contract, involving an expenditure of £15 million right on time. The right hon. Gentleman, like every hon. Member, will, I think, commend that performance. Even allowing, however, for all the explanations which have been given for the other parts of the project getting out of phase, it is difficult to believe that they cover a lag of nearly three years in completing those other parts of the contract. The Secretary of State should have more to say on this aspect than he has said so far.

There is little doubt that this long delay, which according to all I have read and discovered in other ways is due basically to mismanagement at top level; and has played its part in raising the price of electricity to Scottish consumers. Responsibility for what has happened must lie at Government level. The mistakes are simply being charged to the accounts for industry and for householders. Why should the costs of these financial errors not be more widely shared than is the case?

On the whole, the financial side represents bad business, particularly when thermal stations, as the Secretary of State's earlier reply showed, are being run more cheaply than nuclear stations. Whether this state of affairs continues depends upon what is paid in future for coal. If the price rises further, electricity costs at the thermal stations may increase still more. This tendency could be influenced by other developments that will take place in the thermal plants. One thing, however, which is clear is that the Secretary of State must assure us today that the nuclear stations will be able to compete fairly with those fuelled by coal. This can be the case only if the right hon. Gentleman tells us that, when all reasonable allowance is made, the failures and delays encountered at Hunterston will not be repeated.

2.23 p.m.

Mr. Ian MacArthur (Perth and East Perthshire)

It is obvious from what we have heard today and what has been said in the House on earlier occasions that progress at Hunterston has not been as smooth as we would have hoped. It is helpful that these delays and difficulties should be brought to the attention of the House and we are grateful to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Rankin) for seizing the opportunity of this Adjournment debate today.

It appears, however, that in some respects the nature of the problem has been exaggerated. Indeed, the recent rumours concerning massive overspending were sufficiently persistent to cause the hon. Member only last week to state as a fact in the House that nearly £70 million had already been consumed at Hunterston, whereas the reply by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State showed that the true figure was under £37 million. I do not want to make too much of the hon. Member's overestimate of 53 per cent. because in this, as in so many other matters, he is a searcher after truth.

Mr. Rankin

The hon. Member will have noticed that I used the word "consumed". It was used deliberately because it represented what had been done and what the cost might possibly be.

Mr. MacArthur

The fact remains that the clear implication in the hon. Member's question—I apologise if I have misunderstood him—was that £70 million had been consumed and that this figure was intended as the hon. Member's estimate of cost, whereas the true figure was £36.4 million.

Nevertheless, it is clear that there will be over-expenditure at Hunterston if one regards the original estimate as a final and firm one, which it was not. The original estimate was £37½ million and we know that £36.4 million has already been spent. It appears that the balance of £1 million will fall far short of the sum required to complete the station, because the first reactor is not expected to be in commission until mid-1964, with the second reactor coming into commission at the end of that year.

I suggest, however, that this argument is more apparent than real, because of two factors, on which, perhaps, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be able to comment in his reply. First, the original estimate of £37½ million was subject to adjustment in respect of alterations to the civil engineering works arising out of local site conditions, modifications to the reactor design and variations in the cost of labour and materials during the period of construction.

It is not possible, nor has it ever been possible, to give a precise estimate of total cost because of the uncertain effect of those clauses on the original estimate. These questions are, I believe, the subject of negotiation between the South of Scotland Electricity Board and the contractors and it might, therefore, be as well not to develop further that aspect of the problem at this stage.

The second factor is the basic and unavoidable uncertainty of estimating for work in this new scientific field. Contracting work can usually be quite closely estimated because of a wealth of previous experience, but in this case there was little previous experience on which to draw. As construction advanced, so modifications were constantly introduced in the light of achievement in this young and rapidly developing science which is striving to discover and to harness the very secrets of nature.

Those uncertainties were made clear in the White Paper, Programme of Nuclear Power, Cmd. 9389, published in February, 1955. I should like to read a few extracts from the White Paper, which appeared just about two years before Hunterston began, to show the way in which we were unavoidably groping for the unknown. Paragraph 21, for example, which opened the part of the Paper discussing the provisional programme, contained these words: The programme outlined below is provisional and must be considered only as the best indication that can now be given of the probable line of development. Types of stations, numbers and dates are all subject to change. Paragraph 23 stated: British industry and consulting engineers have as yet no comprehensive experience of nuclear technology. They will be faced with a major task in training staff, in creating the necessary organisation and in designing the stations. Paragraph 29, which discussed capital expenditure, contained these words: The cost of the initial charges of uranium, including fabrication, might amount to a further £40 million. The new ancillary plant that would be required within the 10-year period might cost £30 million. The concurrent capital expenditure on prototype development might be £30 million to £40 million. The cost of the ten-year programme might therefore come to £300 million. There was continual emphasis upon the uncertainty and impossibility of making firm estimates at that time. In view of all this uncertainty, it seems unreasonable to expect firm estimates for work of this experimental nature, in which continual modification must follow hard upon the heels of new discovery.

I should like to make one other point at the risk of taking a little time. Soot-land has a big stake in this new science. Dounreay has transformed the local economy of the far North. Hunterston has provided new employment and new wealth in the South-West. Scotland has a good share of this new science-based industry, and I am grateful for it. Perhaps we are only scratching at the surface of a new and almost infinite dimension of science-based industry, and its development may yet bring benefits which the mind can scarcely grasp.

2.30 p.m.

Dr. J. Dickson Mabon (Greenock)

I shall not pursue the point raised by the hon. Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. MacArthur) in his closing remarks. It is true that we have a fair share of science-based industries in the public sector. I only hope that private industry will follow the same line.

The House is indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Rankin) for raising this matter. We are engaged here in an exercise in Parliamentary accountability, a subject dear to the heart of the Secretary of State who, in his last speech on the subject in 1960, waxed eloquent about all the difficulties facing a Minister particularly in the institution of new public enterprises.

We are considering now an enterprise the principle of which the right hon. Gentleman does not contest. He is responsible as Scotland's chief Minister for answering on the matter. I am sure that he will be anxious to set at rest many of the fears which have been expressed by my hon. Friend and by many other people, including contributors to Scottish newspapers, who have been genuinely concerned about the unhappy story of Hunterston so far. We shall be very much indebted to the right hon. Gentleman if he can say when he expects the plant to be in operation. I know that it is embarrassing for him, perhaps, to deal with this question, but it is reasonable, particularly in the context of the contribution made by the hon. Member for Perth and East Perthshire, that he should make an effort to give a revised estimated cost for the station.

I appreciate that there must have been some major errors somewhere, but then the question comes—my hon. Friend has been very fair about it—whether all these errors were more or less unavoidable or not. If they were not unavoidable, what steps have been taken to ensure that such mistakes do not recur in comparable Government enterprises in Scotland or elsewhere? I remember the words of one of my professors at the university—this is becoming a favourite theme of mine from time to time; it shows how much I learned at university—who said, "Gentlemen, I do not mind your making a mistake, but I will not permit you to make the same mistake twice". I suggest that this is as important in relation to the body politic as it is to the body human. The Government should regard mistakes made in these matters seriously and ensure that they do not occur again. Scotland wants that assurance today. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will reply adequately and in no hostile mood to my hon. Friend who challenged him at Question Time when the matter was not explained fully.

It is perfectly sensible that we should spend some time discussing these questions. There have been delays, as we all know. We have so far referred to commercial delays and technical problems, but there have been industrial delays also, some of which are deeply to be regretted. The right hon. Gentleman and I, representing respectively Port Glasgow and Greenock, have seen the difficulties there in the engagement of labour. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will think it worth while to make some comment about that situation; I leave it to him.

There is no doubt that Scotland is unhappy about this project. The station will be of tremendous advantage to the country. There is absolutely no criticism of the whole principle of the public ownership, organisation and development of electricity supplies in Scotland. What we are discussing here is method—method under the stewardship of the Secretary of State, who, in the last analysis, is responsible. I hope that I have allowed the right hon. Gentleman sufficient time to explain the troubles and give us the assurances we want.

2.34 p.m.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. John Maclay)

I find myself in the surprising position of being a double number on a Friday.

Mr. Speaker

I think that, in the circumstances, the right hon. Gentleman should have leave to speak again.

Mr. Maclay

I had not thought of that, Mr. Speaker. May I have leave to speak a second time? [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear".] I note with great interest that, for once, I have the unanimous support of the House.

I join with hon. Members who have spoken in expressing gratitude to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Rankin) for raising this matter. In the light of what has been said in the Press and elsewhere, it is quite right that the subject should be debated in the House. I am responsible for electricity in Scotland, and it is right that I should be asked to explain what has been happening and, if possible, set at rest any fears which have been aroused.

I turn now to the present position of the project. The Board informs me that work is progressing satisfactorily. I am very glad to say that the test of the first pressure vessel, to which I referred on 30th May, in answer to Questions, took place successfully last weekend. This marks an important stage in the progress of the work and enables the next stage of assembling the graphite blocks in this vessel to proceed.

The Board is confident that the increased rate of progress which has been apparent during the last two or three months—it has speeded up a good deal in these months—will continue and that the revised programme for commissioning the first reactor in mid-1964 and the second at the end of the same year will be adhered to or, the Board hopes, even bettered. It is impossible to be certain yet.

The hon. Member for Govan asked whether I was satisfied that the general relationships, which, I agree, have not been altogether happy throughout this very difficult period, have improved. I am assured that the relationships are such that work is now going on without some of the difficulties which undoubtedly existed at an earlier period. I am not laying blame anywhere for these difficulties. This has been a complex job, for reasons which I shall explain, and there was a period of difficulty, but I hope that the difficulties have now been successfully resolved.

In order to give the full story properly, I have to give a little of the history of the project since this is essential to an understanding of what has happened. The House will recall that in 1955 the White Paper Cmd. 9389 set out the provisional programme of nuclear power for the following 10 years, giving an indication of the probable developments up to 1975. That programme envisaged 12 stations to be constructed from mid-1957 and to come into operation by 1965. That, of course, has been modified since then, as the House knows. At that time, no decision had been reached as to the location of these stations. The South of Scotland Electricity Board asked for one of these stations to be located in its area and later, when it was decided that three stations were to be started in 1957 instead of two, it was agreed that the South of Scotland Board should build the third station. That is how the South of Scotland Electricity Board came in with one of the first three stations of the programme.

The Board's formal invitation to tender went out to the four atomic power consortia on 23rd August, 1956. This invited tenderers to submit offers by 1st November based upon the design for a station under the site conditions at Bradwell in Essex. The inquiry was made in these terms because all the necessary information about the Scottish site could not be available until later. It was recognised at that stage that the tenders would be subject to adjustment in the light of the final site information. But no great difficulty was foreseen on this score. There was a real need at the time to get on fast, and this was the method devised to get the Scottish station going as quickly as possible. It is easy, looking back, to say that it might have been better to wait, but we must remember that, in the conditions of the time, we wanted to get on.

The tender of the General Electric Company was duly received and, after certain modifications had been discussed, the Board accepted the G.E.C. offer by letter on 12th December, 1956.

To sum up the contract established by these exchanges, it is for the construction at a price of £37½ million of a complete nuclear power station based upon site conditions at Bradwell and subject to adjustments in relation to the matters which the hon. Member for Govan spelt out. I will give them again because I want the House to have the exact information. They were as follows: the altered civil engineering works as required by the Scottish site; the modifications of the original design required by the Board and the Atomic Energy Authority to ensure safe operation; other modifications if introduced during the course of the work; and a cost variation clause.

The contract provided also for the price to be adjusted in relation to these items and for the determination of matters in dispute by arbitration. It provided, too, for progress payments to the company of 80 per cent. of the work done, the remaining 20 per cent. being regarded as retention money to be retained until partial release when the two reactors were commissioned. This makes it plain to the hon. Gentleman why it is hard to get exact figures and to link them to reports which he may have had from various sources.

I now want to say a word or two about the site, about which there has been some misunderstanding. The Board's formal application to the Secretary of State for approval of the station was received on 15th October, 1956, and the acquisition of the site gave rise to considerable difficulties and an inquiry under the planning Acts was necessary. This took some time and formal consent in terms of Section 2 of the relevant Act was not given until 29th July, 1957. That is the critical date. In the end entry was taken on 21st August, but it was only a little less than two months after the date which had been originally planned. There was not a tremendous element of delay there, but two months were lost at the beginning.

I should now like to deal with the civil engineering works. The Board tells me that no great difficulty has been encountered in adjusting them to the site conditions at Hunterston, and the company, in making its offer, anticipated that the rock conditions at Hunterston would be more suitable for supporting the massive weight of the station than the clay conditions at Bradwell.

Mr. Rankin

Since the right hon. Gentleman says that no difficulties have been experienced on the civil engineering side, how does he account for the appointment of a new contractor on the site?

Mr. Maclay

I think that the hon. Gentleman had better let me continue. I was explaining the fact that there seemed to be some view that Hunterston was a much less suitable site than Brad-well, but, in fact, the rock site had great attractions. The main changes in this part of the contract—this is where there were substantial problems—arose because it was necessary to provide support for the substantially increased weights of some of the units of the station made necessary by the technical amendments to the original design. Some examples of the items whose weights increased substantially are the nuclear fuel charging units, the steam raising units and the biological shields. All these changes were necessary in the interests of safety and efficiency.

It may be convenient if I now say something about the nuclear design of Hunterston and about the modifications which have been introduced, because they are very relevant. As hon. Members know, it is based, as is the design of the two English stations, on the Calder Hall magnox type of reactor. The General Electric Company's design, however, has some features which are not present in the others. The principal one is that the charging of the nuclear reactor with fuel elements will take place from below instead of from above, which is the more usual method of conducting this operation, as the hon. Gentleman no doubt knows. Certain operating advantages are hoped for from this arrangement. In addition, there were other changes.

I now wish to say something about output because, as a result of all the changes and the work which has been done, important changes are expected in the output of the station. The output guaranteed by G.E.C. when it tendered was 300 megawatts sent out, the same figure as was guaranteed for Brad-well. It was not certain at that time that this could be achieved, but present assessments indicate that an output in excess of 300 megawatts should be obtained. The Board is confident that it will be 320, and there is reasonable hope that it may be still higher. However, the calculations to confirm this simply cannot be completed for some time. It will be seen that this is a fluid operation in many ways, if one can apply the word "fluid" to this complex matter.

I have already referred to the main modifications which were explored before the Board accepted G.E.C.'s tender. All of them required a great deal of design work and their cost could not be estimated and agreed before the contract was concluded. Furthermore, during the course of construction, various modifications have been required for very good reasons as a result of increased knowledge of reactor technology, from continuing research and development work, and also, as the hon. Gentleman said, as a result of recommendations by the Fleck Committee following the Wind-scale incident in October, 1957. Modifications of this kind were required on all three stations and not merely on Hunterston.

The hon. Member for Govan made a major point about supervision and I can understand his concern in the light of what he has read. He paid an implied tribute to the many individuals concerned with this project, and I am glad that he did so. But clearly—and I say this deliberately—one could argue that any undertaking could be managed in a number of different ways, but I do not think that either he or I is qualified to lay down exactly how the Board should organise its working arrangements, above all, when dealing with completely new techniques.

The point has been made by the hon. Member for Govan—he made the same point in a Question—that this was not a new technique, but, if I have time, I will explain later exactly why these first three stations together represent new techniques, because they are developments from Harwell. They have not just been taken straight from Calder Hall and Chapelcross.

The method of working at Hunterston was as follows. To co-ordinate the nuclear and conventional electrical engineering side of the contract, a main project committee was set up comprising representatives of the Board, its consultants, the Atomic Energy Authority and the contractor, meeting under the chairmanship of the Board's Chief Engineer. Under this Committee two panels with similar membership were set up to consider the nuclear and conventional problems respectively. Most of the work of the main project Committee centred on the panel dealing with the nuclear design. It met regularly and frequently. Its purpose was to keep under review the nuclear design and to ensure that due note was taken of advances in knowledge in this whole field. When important modifications were necessary they were all fully thrashed out with everyone concerned—the Board's engineers, the contractors, the Board's consultants and the A.E.A. That is the answer to the hon. Member's question on control. I think that his point was that there should be one individual who was overlord, master and dictator of the whole operation. As I have said, the Board's Chief Engineer was the Chairman of this Committee and was under the Board. As Chairman of the main project Committee his task was to do the job in the best possible way.

Mr. Rankin

My idea was that one overall authority would be the responsible authority, but, of course, that there would be a small advisory committee functioning with it.

Mr. Maclay

I have explained how the matter worked. It is easy to criticise and to say that we might have gone about the matter differently, but it is hard to say that anyone would have decided that it should have been done differently. I have no reason to believe that another method would have produced better results.

The date when the first reactor will produce power has fallen seriously back from what was originally hoped for. The debate, including the very interesting speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. MacArthur), has shown that there was a combination of reasons for this. A great deal of work undoubtedly had to be done on the changes in the design, and, as the hon. Member for Greenock (Dr. Mabon) and I know only too well because we live near the area and our constituencies are there, there have, most unfortunately, been labour difficulties on the site. This is not a subject which would benefit from much examination, but I fervently hope that these difficulties and strikes are now over.

The problem in everything of this kind is to get a proper balance between the most modern and efficient design and the delays which may arise from pursuing this entirely admirable end. There is no doubt that the changes in the design made the work of building the station less straightforward than had been expected, but, as I have said, I am informed that the work is now progressing satisfactorily.

What will we get at the end of the day? The vital statistics of any power station, so I am told by the experts, are the cost per kilowatt sent out and the cost per unit generated. Until the station is commissioned we shall not know exactly what level of output it will achieve. Until the price adjustment in terms of the contracts have been officially negotiated, we shall not know what the exact cost will be. Furthermore, and this is Where I must resist the temptation which the hon. Member for Govan put before me, any guess I might make at the price which the Board will pay would risk prejudicing seriously its position in the difficult negotiations which have still to be completed with the company, but I will give him a minor clue.

The Board and its advisers are confident that at the end of the day, Hunterston will prove itself the equal of the other two stations in the first group of nuclear power stations. It is the Board's belief that when the station is in use, it will be found that the price per kilowatt will not greatly exceed £165 and that the cost per unit will be about 1d. Hon. Members may recall that in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West (Mr. Wingfield-Digby) on 19th February last, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Power said that Bradwell would cost about £165 per kilowatt and that the cost per unit would be about Id., so that on present information, it looks as if we are running parallel with the other stations.

Mr. Rankin

Would the right hon. Gentleman like to say something about the little comparison I made between thermal and nuclear stations?

Mr. Maclay

On that point, it is difficult to compare current prices with those of conventional stations. It is quite clear that in the development of the early nuclear stations it was bound to cost more than the current price at con- ventional stations. That is the penalty of moving into a new technique, and, while I should not like to be categorical, the nuclear stations will catch up to the others. I have always understood that these stations should be effective in the 'seventies. We are paying the price of moving into new fields of materials and new ranges of activities in the production of electricity, in which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and East Perthshire said, Scotland really must be in at the earliest stage.

I have only a few minutes left in which I want to make one other important point, and that concerns the difficulties of construction. First, the hon. Member said that the problems of constructing nuclear power stations have been exaggerated. I am quite sure that the hon. Member was minimising difficulties when he said that these problems should have been easy. The Calder Hall reactor and those at Chapelcross, have as their primary purpose the production of fissile material, and heat for the generation of electric power was only a by-product. They were by comparison relatively small in size. Furthermore, their operating conditions were such that they could be closed down when the nuclear fuel elements had to be changed.

In the power stations, the circumstances are quite different. The reactors are very much larger, operating at higher gas pressures and higher temperatures, and the Whole design is aimed at the production of a maximum amount of electricity, rather than fissile material, and, in order to reduce the time that the station must be taken off-load, they are designed for the fuel to be changed while they remain in operation. All these factors led to new design problems, and, apart from them, there were also the engineering problems normally expected when a major forward step is being taken in a new technology.

I have tried to explain some of the difficulties and problems which we nave had to meet and which have led to this most regrettable delay at Hunterston. I have indicated that the Board is confident that the cost will be in line with that of the earlier nuclear stations. There has been a period of great anxiety for everybody concerned in the operation, but I am quite certain from this debate that everybody—the whole House, no matter how many hon. Members are here now—will wish well to the Board, to its new Chairman and to all its workers who are trying to make a very great success of this Scottish venture.