HC Deb 06 February 1968 vol 758 cc235-8
The Minister of Power (Mr. Richard Marsh)

Mr. Speaker, with your permission, I will now answer Question No. 48.

It has previously been Government policy that nuclear power stations should be built on remote sites. In view of the knowledge of the safety factors we now have, some modification of this policy is now feasible, while still maintaining a proper standard of public safety.

The advice given to the Secretary of State for Scotland and me by our independent Nuclear Safety Advisory Committee is that in a country such as the United Kingdom the major contribution to public safety derives from the high standard of design, construction and operation of nuclear power plants. As the result of advances in technology we are advised that the safety of a gas-cooled reactor in a prestressed concrete pressure vessel is such that it may be constructed and operated much nearer built-up areas than we have so far permitted.

We have accepted this advice, but each application for a site will, of course, be considered individually.

Mr. Leadbitter

That Answer is welcome and reassuring, and it augurs well for the projection of the nuclear power programme in the future. Can my right hon. Friend now say that the sites at Heysham and Hartlepool fall within the terms of his statement, and, based on the criterion of safety, are acceptable to the Government for development?

Mr. Marsh

Yes, in terms of safety.

Sir D. Renton

The Minister has said that nuclear power stations may now be- built much nearer to built-up areas than formerly. How close does he mean?

Mr. Marsh

It is impossible to say, because this will depend upon each site. One wants a population density which is sufficiently light so that, in the even of any very unlikely occurrence, at least the population could be moved from the immediate surroundings of, say, a mile and a half, or two miles or so. This would mean within most areas like Hartlepools or Heysham. This question would be open to discussion in relation to each individual site.

Mr. Rankin

Will my right hon. Friend assure us that nothing in the statement he has just made will negative the Government's promise to build a nuclear power station at Invergordon?

Mr. Marsh

I do not think that that comes within the Question.

Mr. Lubbock

Is the Minister aware that there are valuable overseas contracts, such as the one for B.A.S.F. in Ludwigshafen, which could be secured if it is the policy of Her Majesty's Government to set an example by siting nuclear power stations in the centre of large conurbations? Is he also aware that in London, in particular, there are many antiquated coal-fired stations occupying large chunks of land which could be released if it was the Minister's policy to put nuclear stations in greater London itself. Will he therefore give consideration to this matter—in Greenwich, for example?

Mr. Marsh

That latter sally raises an entirely different point. As the hon. Gentleman says, the power station in Ludwigshafen is very close to a centre of population, and another station will be built 20 miles north-west of Hamburg. There is no reason why a British nuclear station could not be used for that site.

Mr. McGuire

Is my right hon. Friend aware that this review will cause some of us great disquiet, because this is a new and untried technology and there is ample proof throughout the world that the nuclear power stations in this country can be very dangerous? My right hon. Friend should hesitate very long before deciding to build in this way, because it is a new and untried technology and the results, if anything goes wrong, could be disastrous.

Mr. Marsh

My hon. Friend is not on this occasion being his normal, restrained self. Far from this being an untried technology, the United Kingdom has 132 reactor years of experience. That is a great deal of experience. It would be a great mistake for people to raise fears which are not justified. There has never been an accident to a nuclear power station in this country.

Mr. Doughty

As modern coal-burning techniques have improved enormously, would it not be better for the Minister to concentrate more on coalfired stations, thus ensuring employment for miners?

Mr. Marsh

I think that the hon. and learned Gentleman is joining the fuel policy debate rather late in the day.

Mr. Shinwell

Does my right hon. Friend realise that there are other considerations apart from safety ones? Will he take into account in the future, apart from what is contemplated for Scotland in this particular instance, that there are social, industrial and security considerations which cannot be ignored?

Mr. Marsh

I take my right hon. Friend's point entirely. I have made a statement purely on the safety aspect. This in no way impinges on any other aspect.

Mr. Deedes

Does not the Minister's statement mean that some half dozen of these stations which have been put in remote areas and many miles of highly controversial pylon and overhead lines are now proved to be unnecessary?

Mr. Marsh

I do not think that it means that the stations are unnecessary. The, stations which are farthest from centres of population—Dungeness and Wylfa—are about 60 miles from such centres. I think that it was right to wait until there was this firm evidence. This is a serious decision to take. The Nuclear Safety Advisory Committee has considered this matter and has come to a decision. I think that it was right to change the policy. This does not make the original policy wrong.

Mr. Manuel

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that there is a great deal of concern on the question of safety? Is he aware that during the past year there have been two mishaps in Scotland where dangers were very evident from radiation spread and that strict precautions had to be taken?, If my right hon. Friend has moved so quickly from the previous position to that which he has enunciated today, he should tell us what grounds he has for proceeding to change the policy?

Mr. Marsh

I think that my hon. Friend should give his grounds for making that statement. I repeat that there have not been any accidental radioactive releases by United Kingdom power stations.

Mr. Edward M. Taylor

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the building of nuclear power stations in remote areas has some positive advantages in regional development? Will he keep this aspect in mind as well as the safety aspect?

Mr. Marsh

I think that there are also advantages in having these stations near centres of population in terms of amenity and of transmission costs.

Mr. Palmer

Would my right hon. Friend in this connection look at the American experience and refer particularly to that part of the Report of the Select Committee on Science and Technology which deals with the siting of nuclear power stations and which points out how in the United States they are getting much closer to centres of population?

Mr. Marsh

Yes. I think that there is a general recognition in advance nations using nuclear power stations of the ability to do this in the light of experience.

Earl of Dalkeith

Will the Minister carry out a public opinion poll in any area where he is considering setting up a station, if it is in a highly populated area, before he takes a decision to site it there?

Mr. Marsh

That would be an interesting hut not particularly practical constitutional innovation. I have made a statement purely on the safety aspect of siting nuclear power stations. If the hon. Gentleman believes that they are unsafe, he should say so. I do not think that it is either necessary or practical to conduct what I may describe as Gallup polls.

Mr. Ginsburg

Will my right hon. Friend publish the report of his experts? Without being alarmist, will he specifically tell the House whether there would be any danger in the hypothetical event of an aircraft crashing into a nuclear power station?

Mr. Marsh

There is no danger of a nuclear explosion in any one of these stations. The report of the Nuclear Safety Advisory Committee is highly technical, but I will consider the suggestion my hon. Friend has made as to publishing it.