HC Deb 14 November 1967 vol 754 cc208-11
27. Mr. Wingfield Digby

asked the Minister of Technology whether he will reconsider his decision to halve the British research programme on the control of nuclear fusion.

Mr. Benn

No, Sir. But as I told the House in my statement on 26th July, the Atomic Energy Authority will keep the situation under review. This will be done. But the situation has not changed in any way that justified reconsideration of the decision announced in July.

Mr. Digby

Is there not the serious danger that we are sacrificing our longterm interests in this matter, particularly with regard to future supplies of uranium, and will the Minister make available the confidential report on which this decision was based?

Mr. Benn

On the second part of the hon. Gentleman's supplementary Question, I could not publish the report as it was prepared on the understanding that it was a confidential report which was not even addressed to me but to the Atomic Energy Authority. On the first part of his Question, I can assure him that the Atomic Energy Authority considered the matter carefully and, in advising me on the course which I decided to accept, it had in mind the long-term as well as the short-term interests of the British atomic programme.

Mr. David Price

Will the Minister reconsider his decision not to publish the report in view of the considerable doubt which there is in the scientific world, which is very difficult for hon. Members to evaluate? I am not saying that it was a wrong decision, but, without the report, it is almost impossible to know whether he was right?

Mr. Benn

I understand the interest, not only in the scientific community but internationally and generally. The Authority decided that it was necessary to look at the fusion programme, and it decided to set up a committee to report to it. It would be open to very serious objection if internal inquiries by public corporations at the request of their managements were to be published subsequently. In those circumstances, I have to accept my responsibility for the decision, and it would not be possible to publish the report.

Mr. Maxwell

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I am a publisher of works on fusion on an international scale, that research in the subject is also being produced in the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as in France, and that scientists generally believe that Great Britain cannot support a programme of the size which we have been carrying in the past.

Mr. Benn

I can tell my hon. Friend that I did have an opportunity of discussing this with Soviet atomic physicists and with the Americans from the A.E.C. before the report reached us, and there is no doubt that in fusion research there were early hopes that this would produce a practicable reactor system. These hopes were not realised and, in those circumstances, I am sure that it was right to reduce our effort.

29. Mr. David Price

asked the Minister of Technology whether, in view of the Atomic Energy Authority's decision to reduce the scale of work at the Culham Laboratory by 50 per cent. over the next five years, he will transfer the Culham Laboratory from the responsibility of the Atomic Energy Authority to that of the Science Research Council.

37. Mr. Neave

asked the Minister of Technology whether he will make a further statement on the future of the fusion programme and the work of the Culham Laboratory.

Mr. Benn

The continuing programme of important fusion research, being nuclear, comes within the scope of the Atomic Energy Authority.

Mr. David Price

Could the right hon. Gentleman say, if this is so, why the Atomic Energy Authority has decided that fusion research is not within its normal time scale of realisable commercial results? Surely in these circumstances, this being a long-term project, it properly falls within the ambit of the Science Research Council which deals with matters which are beyond a foreseeable practical time scale?

Mr. Benn

This is an arguable borderline case, but the Authority is of the opinion that the fusion research which is to continue on an important scale at Culham falls within its atomic energy responsibilities. I would not like to see it any more separated from the real work of the authority than was necessary. I take the point which the hon. Member makes.

Mr. Peyton

Is the Minister not aware that many people think that the decision which he made was taken on very short-term considerations and is, therefore, wrong? Will he not reconsider the answer that he gave just now and give more information to the House, even if he does not feel inclined to publish verbatim the confidential report which he received?

Mr. Benn

I know that the decision was an arguable one—many decisions are—but it was not on a short-term consideration in the ordinary sense. First, it was fully examined by the Committee and by the Authority and, secondly, we are talking here about a very long span of years. The Authority is retaining considerable capability in this field and, if the situation changes, arrangements have been made to enable us to reopen the matter. The only alternative open to me was to ask the Authority to continue with research which, in its judgment, it thought could not be justified on the scale on which it had first been begun.