HC Deb 26 July 1967 vol 751 cc644-8
The Minister of Technology (Mr. Anthony Wedgwood Benn)

Last year, the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority appointed a Working Party to review its present effort on plasma physics and fusion research. After considering the views of the Working Party, the Authority has advised me that this effort should be reduced over the next five years by about 10 per cent. a year. I have now endorsed its conclusion.

Since the decision to start fusion research, rapid progress has been made towards economic nuclear fission power. In particular, the fast breeder reactor programme shows real promise. Consideration of this progress in relation to the earliest period when fusion could conceivably contribute to the power programme, leads inevitably to the conclusion that plasma physics and fusion research should be substantially reduced. The present annual expenditure of £4 million on this work will be cut by nearly half.

In so advanced a technology as this, circumstances can change rapidly. I have, therefore, agreed that the Atomic Energy Authority shall keep the situation under review and that in any event there should be a re-examination in five years' time.

Fewer professional staff will be needed on this work. The Authority has told me that it will keep in close consultation with its staff and trade union sides in dealing with this. While I do not intend to authorise non-nuclear work for the Atomic Energy Authority solely in order to absorb surplus staff, whether at Culham or elsewhere, I shall continue to authorise such work where this is appropriate.

In reaching the decision, full account has been taken of the outstanding quality of the work being done, of the high international standing and the considerable scientific achievements of the Laboratory. The Atomic Energy Authority assures me that Britain will still maintain a leading position in this field of research. The work done at Culham has attracted international interest and respect. I am confident that it will continue to do so.

Mr. David Price

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that this is an extremely serious statement, which we should like an opportunity to debate? To get the matter into perspective, may I ask two questions?

First, has there been a general survey by the Government of our total national effort in plasma physics and in the whole field of high energy physics and of the contribution made by the universities and by international organisations, in which Britain participates, because surely the right hon. Gentleman's proposal must be looked at in its total context? Have the Government referred the total matter of plasma physics and high energy physics for survey by the Zuckerman Committee?

Secondly, if the Atomic Energy Authority thinks that the work at Culham is on too long a time scale to make sense to the A.E.A. for its own purposes, has consideration been given to the transfer of Culham from the orbit of the A.E.A. and to its establishment as a separate institution of national excellence and possibly, in my mind, connected with Oxford University?

Mr. Benn

On the first part of the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question, I entirely share the hon. Gentleman's view that any decision on a matter of this kind is very important. He will recall that I first answered questions about this matter a year ago. He can safely conclude that during this period the most exhaustive consultations have taken place between all those who could conceivably be concerned.

On the second part of the supplementary question, there is a very close association between the Culham Laboratory and Oxford University. More recently, we have had the Sutherland Working Party reporting on the need for greater collaboration between Government research laboratories and the universities, and we would expect these relationships to become closer. I am not able to give an answer to the hon. Gentleman's proposal that Culham might be separated entirely from the A.E.A. and attached to a university, because the fusion programme was begun as a part of the A.E.A.'s advanced work in the provision of a possible alternative source of nuclear power for general purposes. We are still bound to consider the work by the authority in this context.

Dr. Owen

While not quarrelling in any way with the reduced expenditure in this field because it is right, may I ask my hon. Friend whether he is aware that there is a quite considerable belief that this Laboratory should be separated from the A.E.A. and possibly put under the Science Research Council? Would he look at the whole structure of the A.E.A. with a view to separating quite a considerable proportion of its research functions?

Mr. Benn

I am very well aware of the discussion which has taken place on this subject. I understand that the Science and Technology Committee of the House is now giving consideration to this matter. But I thought that it would he wrong to postpone a clear decision on a matter on which I have received advice from the Authority relating to one part of its programme until the Parliamentary Committee had reported. I think that it was right to take this decision in this form at this time.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

Bearing in mind that Culham has been successful against foreign competition in getting agreement with E.S.R.O. with regard to the scientific payload for the large astronomical satellite, may we have an assurance, in the light of this very serious and grave statement, that what has been begun will not be undone and that Culham will be enabled to play its part in the international field as well as go ahead, to a limited extent, with fusion research?

Mr. Benn

It is more than a limited extent. It is proposed that over a period there should be a reduction of about 10 per cent. a year. Although this is a serious matter, to describe my statement as grave is perhaps overstressing it. The work done at Culham in other respects is very well known—the work which is done on super conductivity, cryogenics, vacuum technology, software for the K.D.F.9 computer, and, as he says, its work which led to its getting this contract. This is part of Culham's achievement and has no bearing on the statement which I have made today.

Mr. McGuire

Would my right hon. Friend confirm that the Working Party recommended that Culham be wound up altogether? Would he agree that what he has demonstrated is that we shall have more accountability from our scientists than we have done in the past? They tend to become divorced from economic realities when pursuing objectives like this.

Lastly, would my right hon. Friend devote some of the energy, money and attention of his Department to improving efficiency in conventional power stations rather than pursuing this elusive one?

Mr. Benn

Although I can understand the thoughts in my hon. Friend's mind about the need for focusing research on economic projects, which is very much part of the philosophy of my Department, it would be most unjust to allow to go unchallenged the suggestion that the scientists at Culham thought this programme up and imposed it on the A.E.A. or the Government. It was the other way round. The possibilities of fusion attracted great interest in the Government and in the Authority and they set up the Culham Laboratory to pursue research in this field. The scientists there include some of the most brilliant in this country or in the world.

On the question of the recommendations made to me by the Authority, it set up a Working Party itself to consider this matter, and everyone who has thought about it realises that this is a very difficult problem. I have considered the views of the Working Party and I have accepted the recommendation made by the A.E.A.

Mr. Neave

Since both the right hon. Gentleman and Lord Penney gave evidence before the Select Committee on Science and Technology on this subject, would it not have been better for the Minister to have the advantage of its Report, which is due to appear in October, when this matter will have been considered?

Secondly, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the brilliant scientists to whom he referred consider it shortsighted that he should cut down research into an entirely new source of energy at a time when the United States is stepping up its expenditure on this research?

Mr. Benn

As to the merits of the decision, all I can say is that the problems of providing cheap power by means of fusion have proved much more difficult than was thought at the time. Indeed, although a great deal of research has gone into plasma physics, we are not yet within sight of a reactor which could provide cheap electricity. Meanwhile, we have to take account of the fact that the fast breeder programme, particularly its integration with the A.G.R. programme, promises us cheap electricity. We are, however, maintaining the research programme which I have described to ensure that we have a stake in the programme and to see how it develops.

As to the constitutional point, it is true that questions were addressed to me and others at the Science and Technology Committee. As I understand it, however, that Committee is looking at the reactor programme and there is no reactor even in view for fusion. This is pure research; this is plasma physics. It does not bear upon the reactor programme. It bears much more, as the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. David Price) made clear, upon the academic research that is done at universities and elsewhere.

Since the matter has been hanging fire for a very long time—I answered my first Question on it a year ago—I thought it wrong to prolong uncertainty when I had had a clear recommendation on this matter from the Atomic Energy Authority.

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