HC Deb 14 October 1968 vol 770 cc4-5
6. Mr. Wall

asked the Minister of Technology if he will make a statement about plans for development of nuclear propulsion for surface warships, fleet auxiliaries or merchant ships

28. Mr. Cronin

asked the Minister of Technology if he will indicate what plans he has for the development of nuclear propulsion for surface ships of the Royal Navy and merchant ships.

The Minister of Technology (Mr. Anthony Wedgwood Benn)

Work on the development of nuclear propulsion for naval surface vessels and merchant ships is now under review and I understand that certain shipbuilders may shortly put to me proposals for future development in the merchant ship field.

Mr. Wall

As the Minister has persistently refused to build a nuclear-propelled surface vessel until it becomes economic, would it not be a good idea at least to experiment in the realm of a fleet auxiliary or surface warship?

Mr. Benn

That would be a matter for the Ministry of Defence. The House has accepted that the technical feasibility of building a nuclear surface ship is not in doubt and that what we are waiting for is for the economics to shift in favour of this. With the big container ships and possibly giant tankers, this time may be coming.

Mr. Cronin

In spite of the high capital costs, would my right hon. Friend bear in mind the enormous potential considering the low operational costs? Therefore, will he make sure that we do not lag behind more than is necessary for economic reasons?

Mr. Benn

It is not only a matter of operational versus capital costs, but the rapidity of turn-round. Traditional merchant ships spend a very long time in port, and they have to pay interest charges on the capital costs while they are in port. Containerisation is important not only because of the larger ships but because more of the time of a ship is actually spent at sea.

Mr. David Price

Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that we shall soon approach the point at which we cannot resolve this issue further without having an experimental ship at sea?

Mr. Benn

I am not absolutely persuaded of this. If the shipbuilders' proposals, which I am expecting, indicate anything, they might indicate that one would be moving more rapidly towards a ship that had economic operation. I do not want to find that I am committed to a prototype which was not intended for ultimate use.