HC Deb 09 July 1969 vol 786 cc1346-9
18. Mr. Brooks

asked the Minister of Technology what progress he has made in his discussions with the shipbuilding and maritime interests over the possibility of constructng nuclear-powered container and bulk cargo vessels; and when he will make a statement about the technical and financial aspects of such a venture.

24. Mr. Wall

asked the Minister of Technology if he will make a statement on the Government's proposals for the construction of nuclear-powered container ships.

32. Mr. Wingfield Digby

asked the Minister of Technology if he will make a statement on the consultations he has had with the Shipbuilding Industry Board about the use of marine nuclear propulsion for merchant ships, in particular, container ships; and what is the policy of Her Majesty's Government on the development of systems of marine nuclear propulsion.

Mr. Fowler

The study of the probable costs and benefits of a nuclear ship project, of which I informed the House on 15th April, is now proceeding. Information is being sought from shipbuilders, shipowners, the Shipbuilding Industry Board and others. We hope to have the first results of the study by the autumn.—[Vol. 781, c. 230.]

Mr. Brooks

Will my hon. Friend confirm that several shipbuilding companies, including Cammell Laird, have now submitted propoals for a feasibility study, the total cost of which would be the equivalent of the average daily escalation in costs of the Concorde during the past eight years? Would this not be an entirely appropriate method of investing funds in long-term technological innovation which might have an important bearing on our balance of payments position in the years ahead?

Mr. Fowler

It is true that some firms have submitted proposals.

Mr. Wingfield Digby

Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that the situation has changed greatly since the Padmore Committee reported, and that there are grounds for haste in this matter if the possibility of a class of nuclear-propelled ships is to be examined? Will he press on regardless of the fact that certain vested interests, such as the oil industry, can, obviously, have no interest in such a project?

Mr. Fowler

I entirely agree that the situation has changed since the Padmore Committee. I was glad to hear the hon. Gentleman refer to a class of ships. We have to look here at the economics of a fleet of nuclear-propelled ships, not simply at the economics of a single ship. As for haste, I agree that we want to reach the right decision as quickly as possible, but it must be the right economic decision, and that is where we have to take great care.

Mr. David Price

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm the implication of his last answer, that the study will look at the use of nuclear-powered vessels as part of a commercial fleet and not in isolation, since it is most unlikely that individually they would today be economic, but as part of a fleet the case is a good deal stronger?

Mr. Fowler

I willingly confirm that. I think that this is where some other countries may have gone wrong, in building ships which even as part of a fleet could not be economic and certainly individually could never be economic.

19. Mr. Brooks

asked the Minister of Technology whether he will organise an international conference in Great Britain and invite to it United States, German, Japanese and British shipbuilding firms and shipping firms whch have experience in the designing and operation of nuclear-powered vessels.

Mr. Fowler

The Department was represented at a seminar on this subject held in May by the European Nuclear Energy Agency, and we do not think that it would be useful at present for this country to organise a further international conference.

Mr. Brooks

But will my hon. Friend confirm that at least a number of advanced industrial countries, notably Japan, apparently seem to be persuaded of the merits of pressing ahead with investment in this project, and would it not be obviously in our self-interest at least to consult them to find out why they take that view?

Mr. Fowler

We have consulted those countries, at the seminar which I mentioned and on other occasions. I hope that my hon. Friend will not mislead the House: the Japanese have gone ahead with a nuclear-powered oceanographic survey ship. This is by no means the same sort of thing as a nuclear-powered container ship or bulk carrier.

Mr. Lubbock

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that none of the countries which have operated nuclear-powered vessels so far—the Americans, the Germans, the Japanese and the Russians—has sought to break even but has done it only to acquire experience? Before going ahead in response to the pressures put on him today, will he make sure that shipbuilding companies involved in such an enterprise would be willing to put up their own money as well as making use of the Ministry's money?

Mr. Fowler

It is vital in a field such as this that, if a proposition is put up which can be profitable, firms should show their own confidence in its profitability by putting some of their own money at stake.