§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Ernest G. Perry.]
§ 4.23 p.m.
§ The Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Eric G. Varley)
This debate is being held following an undertaking given by this Government when they came to office that a decision about the choice of the next generation of nuclear reactors would not be made until the House of Commons had had the opportunity of expressing its views. The same undertaking was of course given by the right hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker) when he was Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.
At the outset, therefore, I should like to repeat and emphasise the categorical assurance that I gave to the House on Monday that no decision of any kind, either firm or even in outline, has been made by the Government on this issue. For us to have done so, in contravention of assurances given by this Government and their predecessors, would have been a gross affront to this House. I therefore again repudiate the unfounded Press report that a decision has been made. It has not.
It is on these same grounds that this debate is taking place on a motion for the Adjournment of the House, and not on a motion to take note of the First Report from the Select Committee on Science and Technology on choice of a reactor system. I should like to assure the members of the Committee, and in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer) and the hon. Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave), that I have read with care the report itself and all the evidence and appendices. I have met many experts and discussed this matter with them. I have read a large number of documents published in this country and overseas. But no person and no document has been more informative than the Minutes of Evidence of the Select Committee, including the testimony of two brilliant witnesses—I name only two of many—Sir Arnold Weinstock and Sir John Hill.
As I say, I have read the report with care. But if we had debated it. even on a "take note" basis, it could have 1345 been inferred that the Government had arrived at a view on the report, one way or the other. We have arrived at no such view yet. Our response to the report will come in my eventual statement about the Government's decision on the choice of a reactor. This, of course, is some weeks away.
At Business Question Time on Thursday, 11th April the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition asked that in this debate I shouldtake care to set out as fairly as possible the various options open to the Government in reaching their decision."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th April 1974; Vol. 872, c. 647.]I had already decided on that course, and I therefore readily respond to his request.
Also on that day the right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin) asked for the House to be furnished with a forecast of electricity demand. He will be the first to agree that this is not as easy as it may sound, but I certainly agree that this debate cannot meaningfully proceed without an attempt to provide this information, and I shall do my best to help the House on this matter.
However, on electricity demand, as on almost everything else to do with this highly charged and controversial subject, the evidence is sometimes confused and sometimes disputed, and sometimes both, as this debate will prove, and as my own speech will, I fear, illustrate. Apart from any other factors, the mere application of compound interest in the calculations means that a very slight deviation can produce quite startling differences to the figures within a few years.
The only aspect beyond dispute is the history of the development of atomic power in this country. To decide how we are to go forward, it is necessary first to consider how we arrived at where we are now. Britain ought today to have been particularly well placed to move forward quickly on a comprehensive nuclear programme. We were among the earliest pioneers in developing nuclear energy to generate electrical power. Even today nuclear power, from Magnox stations, provides a higher proportion of our electricity—10 per cent.—than it does in any other country. We still have an inter- 1346 national reputation on research and development capability and inventiveness.
But it must be admitted that our overall record is disappointing. We have not applied the fruits of our technology sufficiently successfully. We have slipped behind other countries. While they have ordered heavily, we have placed no new orders since 1971. By 1980, on present plans, we shall be behind France and Germany.
The origins of our thermal nuclear reactors lie in defence programmes. In order to produce atomic weapons either plutonium or enriched uranium was required, and while the latter can be obtained only by processing uranium in an enrichment plant, plutonium is formed as a by-product in the operation of a reactor fuelled with natural uranium. Such a reactor must either use heavy water as the moderator or use graphite for this purpose and be gas-cooled. In the immediate post-war period heavy water was not available to us and the graphite-moderated Magnox system was developed, initially with air-cooling at Windscale, but later using carbon dioxide at Calder Hall, which then became standard.
When a civil nuclear power programme was required, it was this magnox technology which was available to us. It was used for the first commercial ordering programmes which began in the mid-1950s. The advanced gas-cooled reactor was a logical development from Magnox, using as fuel enriched uranium oxide clad in stainless steel, instead of natural uranium metal clad in magnesium alloy. This allowed higher operating temperatures and reactor core power densities, which opened the way to reduced capital cost. The 34 MW prototype advanced gas-cooled reactor at Windscale began operation in 1963 and orders for commercial units were placed from 1965 onwards.
The high temperature reactor is a further logical development of the gas-cooled line. Higher operating temperatures and power densities than in the case of the AGR are obtained by the elimination of metallic fuel cladding. The experimental high temperature DRAGON reactor at Winfrith is an OECD project, though with the United Kingdom contributing the largest single share of the cost.
1347 The steam generating heavy water reactor was developed as a reactor which would provide insurance against unexpected difficulties with the gas-cooled systems. It was hoped it might also prove saleable to countries requiring reactors of comparatively small output. The 100MW prototype at Winfrith has been operating since 1968.
Fast reactors have always been seen as the ultimate route to efficient use of the world's uranium resources, and the United Kingdom began a development programme at Harwell in the early 1950s. The centre of fast reactor activity later moved to Dounreay, where a small experimental—15MW—reactor was commissioned in 1959 and gradually raised to full power in 1963, and where the 250MW prototype fast reactor has recently gone critical.
On 8th August 1972 the right honourable Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies) made a statement about nuclear reactor policy. In summary his decisions were: first, to step up the development of the fast reactor, supplementing the Atomic Energy Authority's research and development by a further £15 million of component development over the next five years; second, to complete urgently work on the advance gas-cooled reactor with a view to optimising the benefit to be achieved from the five AGRs currently under construction; third, to study whether design improvements to the AGR could be made with a view to maintaining it as a possibility for future construction; fourth, to commission a complete and specific design and development programme over 18 months for the steam generating heavy water reactor; fifth, to achieve assurance about the questions of safety that have arisen on the light water reactor; and, sixth, to explore the possibilities of an international collaborative development of the high temperature gas-cooled reactor. The announcement indicated that within about 18 months all this work should have reached the stage where firm orders could be placed.
Some of this programme required joint action by the two consortia—British Nuclear Design and Construction and the Nuclear Power Group—in advance of establishment of the National Nuclear Corporation. This was a cause of initial 1348 delay while the two created the necessary structure in which to concert proposals.
Against the background of the August 1972 statement, we have reached the following situation. I will deal first with the AGR. All those concerned—CEGB, SSEB, British Nuclear Design and Construction and the Nuclear Power Group—are devoting considerable resources to solving problems which have arisen during construction. There is uncertainty about when each of these stations will be on power—although the first reactors should start to produce power in 1974—and about the reliability and rating which will be achieved in service. Present AGR commissioning date estimates are: Hinkley Point B 1974–75; Hunterstone B 1974–75; Dungeness B 1976; Hartlepool 1977; Heysham 1977. Work goes on continuously to improve the present designs in relation to the stations now under construction and to the possibility of further AGR orders. All such work on AGR improvements must avoid unnecessary interference with the effort needed to complete the current programme. It will benefit from experience of Hinkley Point B—the station expected to be finished first.
I come now to the SGHWR. In the light of the August 1972 statement the Nuclear Power Group and British Nuclear Design and Construction jointly submitted proposals for a phased £5 million programme, financed by Government, to take SGHWR work to the point where they considered a construction order could be placed. On their assumptions, this was thought to be by late 1974. Expenditure has been agreed to take work to completion of an outline design with indicated price, to an assurance that major safety features can be fully justified to the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, and to completion, or taking to an advanced stage, development work supporting the safety case and designing certain options or improvements.
I will now deal with the light water reactor. Some of the queries raised on environmental and safety issues concerning light water reactors relate to the particular circumstances of the United States of America. But others are of great importance to the United Kingdom if we should choose to adopt LWR.
Therefore the AEA, CEGB and NNC are following closely work being done in 1349 the United States, Germany, Japan and elsewhere on key safety matters, such as emergency core cooling systems and pressure vessel integrity. The NII keeps in close touch on safety matters with its opposite numbers in Europe. Major work is being undertaken by the United States Atomic Energy Commission, but is now unlikely to be concluded before early 1975.
I come to HTR work. Government-financed contracts have been placed with the Nuclear Power Groun and British Nuclear Design and Construction, based on their own proposals, to support work on HTR until the end of June 1974, mainly to maintain an effort in this area as a basis for further international collaboration. A reference design has been formulated as a basis for future discussions and decisions on design and development and possible construction of a 1,300 MWe station, and for the subsequent negotiations of possible international collaborative arrangements.
Developments since the August 1972 statement have resulted in increasing interest in the HTR system world-wide. In particular Shell has joined Gulf in its large programme. The AEA continues to study the system, making use of the experimental reactor DRAGON at Winfrith.
On the fast reactor, the prototype at Dounreay is now operating at low power. After a period of testing it will be raised to full power, and begin to generate electricity, during the next few months. As for the commercial development of the fast reactor, considerable progress has been made on two test rigs, sited at Risley and costing £3.7 million. A number of smaller projects have been put in hand. Further finance to the end of the current financial year for design work on the commercial fast reactor has been agreed. The Nuclear Power Group and British Nuclear Design and Construction have jointly put forward proposals on the CFR covering mainly work on project engineering. They and the UKAEA have identified those aspects which need to be initiated urgently if delay in related design work is to be avoided, and approval has been given for interim Government expenditure over three years to 1975–76.
1350 There is still a good deal of design work to be done upon which the safety case for the commercial fast reactor will rest. This work, and experience of the prototype fast reactor, is intended to lead to an order for CFR being placed within two to three years. Further effort may be needed if this time scale is to be maintained. The PFR should be valuable on data and core information—for example, sodium behaviour—but the design of the CFR is expected to be different because it must take into account the lessons learned during the development of the PFR.
§ Mr. Patrick Jenkin (Wanstead and Woodford)
Will the Minister say now or later to what extent there is any exchange of information on these critical points about the commercial fast reactor with the people who are designing Super-Phenix, which is the FBR planned to be built by the consortium of French, Germans and Italians?
§ Mr. Varley
There are some collaborative arrangements on this but I want to be absolutely certain about the matter because of the importance of the right hon. Gentleman's point. Perhaps I could get in touch with him, or perhaps my hon. Friend who is to wind up will give more information.
That is some of the background which I hope will help the House, and it is against that background that I want to consider the levels of demand for electricity.
§ Mr. Tom Boardman (Leicester, South)
Before the Minister leaves the reactors will he say something about the production of heavy water? Is this not a relevant factor to which he ought to refer?
§ Mr. Varley
I have not left reactors and I do not want to give that impression. So far I have tried to look at the history leading up to the present state of reactor systems, and I intend now to deal with electricity demand. I shall then come back to reactors and wind up on some of the safety matters and other matters of crucial importance.
I was referring to the question of forecasting the levels of electricity demand. They give a guide to the size of the nuclear programme required, and this in 1351 turn can have implications for the choice itself. It is notoriously difficult to forecast demand even six years ahead, which is the normal planning period. Demand depends on the rate of economic growth, the relationship of energy demand to economic growth, and relative prices of electricity and other fuels.
For reactor choice we need to look much further ahead, up to 1990 and beyond. We cannot expect precision or rely on a single view. We also need to see how the estimates relate to the size of programme needed to develop an effective nuclear capability. Indications here are that a steady and sustained annual programme of not less than 2,500 MW—that is 2.5 GW—gigawatts—is required for the necessary investment in facilities and skills.
The growth rates given by Mr. Hawkins of the Central Electricity Generating Board to the Select Committee in December indicate the following build-up of demand: in 1980–81, 61.9 GW; in 1985–86, 79.9 GW; in 1990–91, 103 GW. On this basis the CEGB saw the need to commission about 36 GW nuclear during the 1980s, with the rest peak load and other fossil plant. It reached this view before the full implications of rising fossil fuel prices could be assessed.
As the House may know, the Electricity Council has prepared a new provisional estimate for demand in 1979–80 of 57.5 GW, in the light of rising fossil fuel prices. It is not yet ready to firm this up or to reach a definite view on the longer-term implications. But the CEGB accepts that its own figures need to be revised downward. It proposes that the whole of that cut should fall on the fossil programme, with nuclear unaltered at 36 GW. Hon. Members may feel that these forecasts are in the upper half of the range.
My Department considers that 3.6 per cent. annual growth in the demand for electricity would be a reasonable estimate of the lower end of the range. This assumes further progress to more economic pricing. For the CEGB this means by 1980–81, 56.7 GW; by 1985–86, 67.3 GW; by 1990–91, 84.1 GW. That would still mean a substantial requirement for new capacity by 1990—some 35 GW.
Allowing some peak load plant—gas turbines, for example—some new fossil 1352 stations, and the fact that no nuclear station ordered now can be producing electricity before the 1980s, this suggests a minimum of 3 GW of nuclear plant to be ordered each year for the CEGB. This is equivalent to considerably more than one very large twin reactor station per year, and Scottish requirements would be additional. The overall annual nuclear programme when it gets fully into its stride might, therefore, be as much as 4 GW.
Ultimately, therefore, there will be a major shift in our energy pattern. Fossil fuels will continue to be of great importance—if declining relative importance—and new fossil stations must certainly be considered. We have vast coal resources, and the tripartite examination now taking place aims at ensuring that the coal industry is equipped to meet the continuing demand which the nation will place on it, and most importantly in electricity generation.
Oil will obviously play its part, although we cannot fail to be aware of the problems affecting prices and security of supply Even North Sea oil will not solve all these problems. Like our other indigenous fuels, it will be a valuable but finite resource which in the longer term we may increasingly want to reserve for higher-grade uses than burning under power station boilers. The question is how fast we shall—or need to—move to nuclear generation before the fast reactor can come into commercial service alongside the thermal systems. We cannot expect the fast reactor in any number before the 1990s.
The differences of opinion about the pace at which we should move in the interim are marked, even given that nothing we can do now will provide additional nuclear capacity before the 1980s. There are those who believe that we should move as fast as possible toward reliance on nuclear energy for its potential security and to increase the flexibility of supply, and because on current forecasts even Magnox, the most expensive system, is expected to be cheaper than either coal or oil.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)
Will my right hon. Friend bring his words of good sense on the finite nature of North Sea oil to the attention of the South of Scotland Electricity Board, which is to be 1353 engaged—at considerable public expense and great advantage to lawyers—in a complicated inquiry in Bo'ness in my constituency on 13th May with a view to building an oil-fuelled power station at Carriden? Will he ask the board what the price and availability of oil, not mainly from the North Sea, will be for oil-burning power stations in the mid-1980s?
§ Mr. Varley
I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, who has the statutory responsibility, to the remarks made by my hon. Friend, and I am sure that those who are responsible within the industry will read his words and note them.
I was saying that there are those who believe that we should move as fast as possible to nuclear reactors. I should like to quote what several people have said. Sir Arnold Weinstock told the Select Committee:Looking at the thing from a relatively informed position I think the matter is very, very urgent.Mr. Arthur Hawkins of the CEGB declared:We have had a long time to debate this and we have made good use of that time. We can see what we believe is best for the electricity consumer in England and Wales and we think we have come to the time of decision.But contrary views were expressed to the Select Committee. Mr. F. L. Tombs of the SSEB said:In my view one should not feel it necessary to be stampeded into a rapid programme of nuclear stations, because there is not a low-risk route to a large amount of nuclear power quickly. Therefore, if one were to take very rapid action along a risk route one should at least weight the alternatives in this case by diluting the rate of progress to nuclear power with some fossil fuels during the 1980s.Sir John Hill, Chairman of the UKAEA said:I can really see no reason for making a decision for years ahead as to what type of reactor system we should build in five, six or ten years' time.Right from the start, therefore, there are differing and authoritative views about the pace at which we should proceed. I must tell the House that, in our consideration of the range of choices open to us, none emerges clear and unquestioned as the obvious choice. Otherwise, there 1354 would be no problem and no need for this debate.
There are three main technological routes on thermal reactors that can be taken. They are not mutually exclusive. The first is gas-cooled reactors, our main route till now, with Magnox and AGR so far, and HTR as the next stage of development. The second is the heavy water pressure tube reactor, our secondary effort, with the prototype SGHWR. This is Canada's chosen route through the commercial CANDU programme. Thirdly—and I am placing these in no special order—is the light water pressure vessel reactor. This system is the most widely built in the world, with the United States Westinghouse PWR version preferred by the CEGB and the NNC.
We thus have the list: Magnox, AGR, HTR, SGHWR, CANDU and LWR. How are we to judge them? The criteria must include efficiency, working experience and availability, and cost—capital cost and operating cost, including expectations of delivery on time and performance.
I can tell the House that all figures on cost are hotly disputed but it is reasonably fair to say that LWR looks the cheapest, by however great a margin—and I know that that is in dispute—and Magnox the most expensive.
Other very important considerations in drawing up a balance of gain and loss for the country as a whole are prospects for British technology and employment and possibilities for international collaboration and export potential. There is also the consideration that many would place ahead of all others. That, of course, is inherent safety, with its implications for siting in United Kingdom conditions.
§ Dr. M. S. Miller (East Kilbride)
Taking into account the projection of the number of nuclear reactors necessary to produce energy in the 1980s and 1990s, on the assumption that there will be a take-over of the present orthodox methods of production of energy by nuclear power, can my right hon. Friend indicate roughly how many such reactors will be required in the country? I know that it is a difficult calculation.
§ Mr. Varley
I am sorry, but I cannot give that kind of answer. Perhaps I can examine in HANSARD what my hon. Friend said and write to him about it 1355 after seeing whether it is possible to make meaningful projections over that period.
§ Mr. E. Fernyhough (Jarrow)
My right hon. Friend referred to the export potential. I hope that before the decision is made we shall also take into account the effects on our balance of payments if we import most of the technology and most of the equipment.
§ Mr. Varley
I am glad my right hon. Friend raised that matter. I am coming to it, although I shall probably not cover it in detail. I was about to mention some of the factors affecting the importation of technology.
I had just gone through the considerations and the reactor choices open to us. Permutations are possible; it is not necessary to go for one particular reactor. We can have LWR alone, which is the CEGB's strategy. This would be ruled out if it is not believed beyond all reasonable doubt that LWR will be licensable.
We can have SGHWR only: this is the SSEB's strategy. An acceptable rate of build-up of SGHWR capacity would require substantial additional fossil or other nuclear capacity.
We could have LWR, with SGHWR as insurance against licensing problems.
We could have AGR only: a high-risk option, and in any case an unsuitable reactor for series ordering.
We could have AGR/LWR: work to go ahead on both, with a choice made in 1976. This would provide somewhat greater security than LWR only.
We could have CANDU only: series ordering could start at an early date. Operating experience on this type of reactor is good but limited. Or we could have CANDU and SGHWR, with CANDU seen as providing a breathing space while SGHWR is developed to a point where it can be ordered in quantity.
So much for the permutations. What about the individual reactor types?
§ Mr. T. H. H. Skeet (Bedford)
The right hon. Gentleman is being all things to all men now. Sooner or later he must make up his mind which way he is going. I am not asking him to declare himself this afternoon, but will he give 1356 us a date when the Government will decide firmly what they want?
§ Mr. Varley
I am sorry the hon. Gentleman should suggest that I am being all things to all men. That is not usually the case. I am usually much more clear and explicit. No party politics are involved. I was specifically asked by the Leader of the Opposition to set out all the options as clearly as possible and not come to a decision today. I hope that within a few weeks I shall be able to make another statement to the House setting out the Government view.
What about the individual types of reactor? The case for Magnox is that it is of British design, it can be installed on "relaxed" sites, it has on-load fuelling, proven reliability in operation, and it can be regarded as the most fully developed of all the reactor systems. It uses non-enriched fuel. The case against Magnox is that its operating flexibility is limited, it is technically obsolescent, it is expensive and it has no further development potential and thus will remain expensive. It cannot be built in large sizes, it has poor thermal efficiency and has no export potential.
The case for AGR is that it is of British design, it can be installed at "relaxed" sites, licensed sites are available and it is designed for higher thermal efficiency and on-load refuelling. British industry is experienced in its components and is geared to supply them.
The case against AGR is that it is not cheap even if its performance meets design assumptions. There are substantial doubts whether corrosion problems at present ratings can be solved. Further work would be necessary to solve insulation difficulties. Precision work would be required on site and that could lead to labour and other problems. It could be difficult to build in large sizes, and it is not expected to have export potential. It could be ordered now only if a substantial commercial risk were accepted beyond what the generating boards would think reasonable.
The case for HTR is that it would utilise United Kingdom experience of gas-cooled reactors. It has high thermal efficiency, inherent safety of concrete 1357 pressure vessels and off-load refuelling leading to simplicity of design. The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, subject to further study, believes that HTR presents no fundamental siting problem. It is considered to have development potential and the possibility of use as a source of process heat for the steel industry. It could lead towards a gas-cooled fast reactor. There are good prospects for international collaboration making use of United Kingdom experience. HTR makes low demand on uranium ore supply.
The case against HTR is that it involves heavy development costs, new technology and the possibility of high introduction costs. It is unlikely to be available for large-scale ordering before the 1980s.
The case for the steam generating heavy water reactor is that it is of British design and that outstanding issues on safety are considered likely to be resolved on the design favoured so far. In principle, licensed sites are available. There has been good experience with the prototype. Its modular construction gives the possibility of producing smaller sizes for export. It has good load-following ability, and all components could be made in the United Kingdom. In principle, it could be ordered quite quickly as a design concept available for up-dating, but turbine design and other work would have to be carried out before the order were finalised.
The case against SGHWR is that its adoption would leave the United Kingdom out of the main line of world development despite the scope for collaboration with Canada. There is little experience of commercial sizes, so it could not be ordered in quantity without risk until some construction experience was gained from the first order. Substantial development work is still required and costs may have to be recovered over a small volume of sales. It needs precision work on site and a heavy water production plant would be necessary and expensive.
The case for CANDU is that it uses non-enriched fuel. It has been shown to be constructable to time and to be reliable in operation. It is refuelled on load. It makes a low demand on uranium ore supply and it has low fuel cycle costs. The case against CANDU is that 1358 its reliable operating experience is limited to about two and a half years. It is thought to be expensive largely because of the heavy water inventory, but no independent cost assessment is available to us. The importation of heavy water would be required at first, with subsequent large investment in production facilities. Safety has not been examined in the United Kingdom, so that delays and possible modifications could be involved. Its operating flexibility is limited.
The case for LWR includes the well-established systems of PWR and BWR. There are prospects of further limited improvement. It should have low development and launching costs and would probably be the cheapest system. It does not require precision work on site. It could form the basis of collaboration with European nuclear firms. Installation in the United Kingdom should enable British manufacturers to improve their export of components. The design is available and in principle the decision to order could be taken quickly, depending on the version chosen. It could be installed at a high rate without experience by the generating authority of first order, subject to licensing considerations and to sites being available.
The case against LWR is that the basic technology must be imported, probably from the United States. It could be seen as a blow to part of the United Kingdom nuclear industry. There is uncertainty over whether some of the latest United States designs now under construction will operate to specification. Some components representing about 8 per cent. of total cost would have to be imported initially. Safety questions would be raised because difficulties are still unresolved in the United States. We must consider possible public antipathy. More research and development might be necessary due to safety problems. The solutions of safety problems could mean design changes and stringent quality control in manufacturing processes. It is unlikely that an order to start construction could be placed within two years. The export markets for complete reactors are dominated by well-established United States companies.
§ Mr. Peter Hardy (Rother Valley)
In addition to the disadvantages that my right hon. Friend has so frankly presented 1359 to the House, is it not possible that there is a further disadvantage—namely, that the experience of the light water reactor and its capacity over 500 MW is much more limited than many people believe?
§ Mr. Varley
That is a matter to which I want to turn my attention.
When we come to consider the LWR we must bear in mind that it is the system that arouses the most passionate advocacy and the most passionate opposition. Therefore, the House will expect me to go into a little more detail on the system. Operating experience is considerable. For the larger sizes of LWR—namely, 500 to 1,100 MW—the total reactor years in the United States for the pressure water reactor version are about 10, and 12 reactors are now operating. For the boiling water version total reactor years are about 20, and 10 reactors are operating. The experience with smaller reactors of 100 to 500 MW is greater in the United States, being about 40 reactor years for PWR and 10 for BWR. To that must be added the experience in other countries. The reactors that the CEGB wishes to buy are still larger—namely, about 1,250 MW.
Although a number of such reactors have been ordered, there is little prospect of much operating experiencing before 1980. Both have significant changes in fuel and core design, which on theoretical calculations are expected to give some relief to the problem of emergency core cooling.
§ Mr. Airey Neave (Abingdon)
The right hon. Gentleman has referred to pressurised water reactors of 1,200 to 1,300 MW. Will he confirm that the reactor of this size that the CEGB wishes to order is not in service?
§ Mr. Varley
I think that is the case.
For the LWR there have so far arisen three major safety issues—namely, pressure vessel integrity, assurance of functioning of the emergency core cooling system and of shutdown devices. For the past two or three years these matters have been the object of intense technical argument, which is still unresolved to the complete satisfaction of all concerned. However, the CEGB seems confident that it will be able to satisfy the 1360 public and the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate on these matters.
Several hon. Members will know that a specialist team led by Dr. Walter Marshall, Director of the AEA's research establishment at Harwell, has recently visited the United States to consider the integrity of LWR steel pressure vessels. The report of Dr. Marshall's team will be one input—a most important one—into the detailed independent examination of LWR safety which the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate will need to make in the event of the Government authorising the CEGB to take the steps necessary to obtain a specific LWR design and put it to the inspectorate for examination.
§ Mr. Arthur Palmer (Bristol, North-East)
Will Dr. Marshall's report be made available to the Select Committee on Science and Technology if it asks for it?
§ Mr. Varley
May I at this stage take note of that request? All I have seen from Dr. Marshall's team is an interim report, which does not amount to very much—three foolscap pages. The right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford has had a copy and it is wise that he should have had a copy. Dr. Marshall's report will come out in a few weeks' time. I take my hon. Friend's point on board and will see what information can be made available.
§ Mr. Varley
I would rather not give way. I have already spoken for a long time. This is a complicated matter—
§ Dr. Miller
My point relates to the dangers of the light water reactor as against the steam generating reactor.
§ Mr. Varley
I would normally give way. I have given way a good deal and many hon. Members wish to speak.
The safety of steel pressure vessels for LWRs is certainly a key issue. That was generally acknowledged in the evidence given to the Select Committee, and the views expressed to the Committee by Sir Alan Cottrell clearly merit very serious consideration. In view of the importance of the subject and the widespread interest, I invited Dr. Marshall and his colleagues who accompanied him to the United States to give me a background briefing to their visit. I have had a background 1361 briefing, and so has the right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford.
The British Nuclear Inspectorate estimates that about two years from the date of receipt of a firm proposal would be needed to examine all the issues involved in the LWRs. Much must depend on the successful outcome and timing of the research and development work now being undertaken in the United States and elsewhere. To formulate the final advice to me on the issue of a licence, the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate must have from the CEGB a specific design in considerable detail and the opportunity to question the CEGB and the vendors on the physical processes and engineering detail concerned with safety.
The NII has taken its studies on LWR safety matters as far as it can on the published information. I should also seek the advice of the Nuclear Safety Advisory Committee. In a matter of this magnitude in which, for example, the reversion to steel pressure vessels from prestressed concrete pressure vessels would be regarded by many as a retrograde step, the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate would not be willing to take a hurried judgment. That is absolutely right. I do not think any Member would wish the inspectorate to be rushed on this matter.
To me and my Department, safety is a fundamental factor. On LWR, CANDU or any indigenous system our safety requirements must be met. There is no question of any reactor system being granted a site licence and being built in this country until it is clear that it can meet our safety requirements. There has been in this country a most remarkable public acceptance of nuclear power. Our future energy policy depends upon a large element of nuclear electricity generation, and this public acceptance must be preserved.
I hope that the House will forgive me for having gone into such long and inevitably tedious detail on this matter, but the choice of nuclear reactor involves the expenditure of thousands of millions of pounds. It affects the very economic existence of the country in the remaining decades of this century and beyond. We shall listen with great care to what is said today. There will then follow dis- 1362 cussions in the Nuclear Power Advisory Board at which I shall take the chair. Having received the board's advice, the Government will arrive at decisions.
We shall take decisions as soon as possible—I hope within the next few weeks. I shall make a statement to the House announcing the Government's decision and explaining it. I am conscious of the immense responsibility I carry and the necessity to make a decision which meets the needs of the nation.
§ 5.16 p.m.
§ Mr. Patrick Jenkin (Wanstead and Woodford)
The House will have listened to the Secretary of State with a great deal of interest. There is also much interest outside the House in this subject. I accept without qualification the right hon. Gentleman's statement that no decision has been reached. I say that in some disappointment because Mr. Fishlock, to whose report the right hon. Gentleman referred, is highly respected and is usually a well-informed reporter. However, I entirely accept that he got it wrong this time.
As a result of the Secretary of State's not reaching a decision, it was inevitable that his speech should be largely a rehearsal of facts and figures with which most Members would have been familiar as they prepared themselves for this debate and read the many communications sent to them from interested parties outside. I do not necessarily complain about that, but it is inevitable that there are many other matters which hon. Members on both sides of the House will wish to raise, going more deeply into the merits of particular systems and the objections to particular systems, as they put forward their proposals.
One point on which I think everyone agrees is that this is a decision of immense complexity and importance. It must be one of the most complex and difficult technological and industrial questions which has faced any Government. Certainly we were conscious of that when we were in office. Before the election I was privy to the up-to-date papers of the Nuclear Power Advisory Board and, contrary to what Mr. Keith Richardson said in the Sunday Times, we read them very thoroughly indeed. That was a valuable introduction to the subject.
1363 Since the election I have, with a number of my colleagues, steeped myself in the literature and other sources of information on this matter. We have had discussions with the Central Electricity Generating Board, with the South of Scotland Electricity Board, with the Atomic Energy Authority, with many firms involved in industry, with a number of scientists, both British and foreign, with embassies and so on. We have visited Harwell and Winfrith, and a number of us hope to go to Canada in a few days' time to discuss CANDU.
I wish to express my and my colleagues' thanks to all those who have so generously given of their time and expertise in advising us. Oppositions face many problems, but access to information is not one of them. There are difficulties about processing and evaluating the information, but I thank all those who have helped us.
The decision which the Government are to make is very important for Britain. The Secretary of State indicated that we generate as high a proportion of electricity as any other country. It would be idle to pretend, however, that we begin to have the pre-eminence in the nuclear industry that we had in the 1950s and early 1960s. On the contrary, no new nuclear station has been commissioned in Britain since Wylfa in 1971, and that was three years late. The AGR programme has so far entirely failed to live up to the high promise that was offered in 1965, and the construction of the stations is years behind schedule.
Having reread our debate in 1965 on AGR, perhaps I might say on a personal note that I was the only speaker to suggest then that we might have done better to go instead for light water reactors, but I let that pass. As a result, the United Kingdom nuclear industry, in so far as it exists, is demoralised. Apart from two stations for Italy and Japan we have had virtually no exports, and the design teams have been half-starved of work and are very dispirited. It is vital for the Government to take a decision to revive confidence in the industry, restore the morale of the designers, provide a basis for exports and, above all, ensure for the United Kingdom economy a secure and safe source of nuclear energy in the 1980s and beyond.
1364 I come to one point of criticism of the right hon Gentleman. I asked that before the debate we should be given information about the figures for future electricity demand so that we might have the opportunity to consider them and to prepare our speeches accordingly. I recognise that the right hon. Gentleman has tried to be helpful during the debate, but I am sure he will agree that it is almost impossible to assimilate and assess the figures he gave us, except to say that the range between the high and the low is extraordinarily wide. For 1980 the range is from 69 GW to 57 GW, for 1985 from 79.9 GW to 67 GW and for 1990–91 the gap is as wide as from 103 GW at the upper end to 84 GW at the lower end. Forecasts as wide as that are almost useless, and they give us no clue of the likely size of the ordering programme over the next few years. That is extremely important because upon the size of the ordering programme, as upon many other factors, the choice of the reactor depends.
§ Mr. Dalyell
In a previous incarnation the right hon. Gentleman was Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and his own forecasts were equally wide. It is a question of the pot and the kettle.
§ Mr. Jenkin
I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman says, but to enable us to make this extremely important decision, where the size of the programme can determine the nature of the decision, we might have had more specific figures perhaps in advance of the debate. With respect to the figures, my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell) will have a little more time to study what the right hon. Gentleman said and may wish to offer one or two further comments.
It is true to say that the bigger the programme of ordering nuclear stations, the more important is certainty of construction and performance; equally, the more difficult the problems of siting and the more crucial the question of safety. These two factors—the proven capacity to build and produce power and the essential question of safety—are by far the most important factors in the choice which faces the nation. The other questions of cost, enriched fuel, heavy water, the capacity of the industry to build and the export potentialities are all important, but a proven system and 1365 safety are perhaps the most important of all.
I turn, therefore, to the central question—which system? If my speech to some extent follows the pattern of the right hon. Gentleman's speech, it is because that is the nature of the debate.
The Secretary of State mentioned Magnox. That is not suggested as a system for which there could be a long series of further orders. We might build one or two more Magnox stations as a stopgap before more modern systems can be held to be proven. Magnox is proven and it is safe, but there are formidable objections. It is twice as expensive to build as any other system. There would need to be fairly substantial redesigning to overcome the corrosion problem. The latest Magnox at Wylfa has a long way to go before achieving full output. It is operating only at 26 per cent. of its theoretical capacity. Magnox has obsolete technology, with low volume power density—perhaps one-hundredth of that of a pressure water reactor. While I do not rule out Magnox as a short-term stopgap, I would require some convincing that it would be right to build many more except as a last resort.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the well-known construction difficulties of AGR. This programme has fallen so far behind that it has defeated the hopes of those who were so enthusiastic for it 10 years ago. But that is far from saying that AGR is a bad system. On the contrary, it may work very well. We do not yet know. If we did not have to order in the immediate future—and I was interested in the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion that that was one of the permutations that the Government are considering—AGR could turn out to be a much better bet than many commentators fear. It was always envisaged as an intermediate step between Magnox and the high temperature reactors in the sequence of United Kingdom designed and built gas-cooled reactors and United Kingdom technology. It is safe ; it has good siting characteristics and a high thermal efficiency; but as of today nobody could say that it is yet a proven system, and that is a factor of great importance.
I should not like to be the Secretary of State for Energy who had to tell Mr. Hawkins that he now had to order a 1366 further large programme of AGRs. I suspect that the answer would be that he could have either Hawkins or AGRs but not both! AGR depends upon timing and timing is as important as anything.
At the other end one has the most advanced design, the fast breeder reactors, which, it is generally acknowledged, are still at the development stage. They must remain at the centre of the United Kingdom AEA research and development effort. The Select Committee rather underrated the importance of FBR research and development work for the AEA when it suggested that if the choice were for light water reactors that would virtually destroy the AEA's research and development efforts. I do not think that is true.
I have a question to raise later following what I said in an intervention, but at this point it is not possible to disagree with the view that fast breeder reactors could not be a basis for a series of commercial stations here and now. Yes by the 1980s, but not now. The choice we face now is that of thermal reactors, and we have three broad kinds: light water, heavy water and high temperature.
Is it the Government's view that the high temperature reactor is a system of great promise but one that cannot yet be said to be commercially proven? The Secretary of State mentioned Dragon, which is a small experimental reactor, based on very advanced fuel technology—coated particle fuel—using graphite not only as moderator but also for fuel containment. It has a high thermal efficiency and a high safey factor. Dragon works extremely well. I am happy to say that I was invited the other day to switch it off. Of course, it is only experimental.
In the United States, General Atomics—jointly Gulf and Shell—is further advanced. There is a demonstration commercial reactor which is in process of going critical with a rated output of 330 MWe.
Further, the Americans claim that they have a number of straightforward commercial orders for the HTGR, as they call it, from respectable power utilities in the United States. They claim that this is, therefore, a proven system. Is this a system for which we could go now, or is it too soon? When one probes deeper 1367 into the matter, one finds that the Americans are still going through the throes of the lengthy licensing procedures that apply in the United States. The earliest station ordered by Philadelphia Electric is not expected to begin construction for at least a year.
Secondly, we need to look at the small print of the contracts won for HTGR. I understand that because the HTGR is based on the thorium fuel cycle there are considerable problems of reprocessing. To obtain contracts, guarantees have had to be given by the Atomic Energy Cornmission—that is to say, by the American taxpayer—on the reprocessing costs. This again raises the question whether it can be said to be commercially proven.
High temperature reactors have a great potential. Not only would they be more efficient sources of energy for electricity, but they have a possibility of a direct gas cycle to gas turbines, eliminating altogether the steam stage. They may be used for process heat, as, for instance, in steel-making, chemicals, extracting oil from oil shales and tar sands, and perhaps for hydrogen manufacture with its immense potentialities. All this is a number of years ahead but it warrants a sustained effort of development, probably on an international basis, and the United Kingdom must be at the heart and centre of it.
At this point I must ask a further question. Are the Government considering as one of their options letting one of the boards—perhaps the CEGB—give an order as soon as possible for a fully commercial demonstration model of the high temperature reactor? There appears to be a strong case for taking that course now. I hope that the Minister will be able to say something about this in his reply.
I turn to the other two systems: the light water and heavy water reactors. This is where the nub of the problem lies and where so much emotion has been generated, because the light water technology is American and the heavy water technology is partly British and partly Canadian. We are confronted not only with the technical, economic and safety merits, but with pressures of economic and technical nationalism.
I do not necessarily discount nationalism of itself. It may represent a proper 1368 desire to see an advance in British technology; to be independent of foreign technology; and to ensure employment of British designers and fabricators. It may also represent a proper desire to secure British exports.
All that is quite proper and to be applauded, but emotions can sometimes be false guides. We must beware when these are based on little more than the NIH syndrome—"not invented here"—or when arguments are adduced against one system when really aimed at nuclear power as a whole. If these things happen, emotions can become dangerous. We must ask the people responsible to seek to differentiate between the arguments of substance and those which must be explained but discounted when it comes to the question of choice of reactor.
Let us look at the choice in the light of the two paramount factors, safety and reliability. At once we come up against the one undoubted and, for some, uncomfortable fact that between light water and heavy water reactors the difference in experience is colossal. Westinghouse now has 23 pressure water reactors actually working, and an order book of over 100 from more than a dozen countries. I am told that by the time a firm order would need to be placed in this country for a pressure water reactor there would be operating experience of 50 reactors of the size the CEGB would wish to order. This may answer the point put by the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy).
§ Mr. Jenkin
I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman, but by the time an order was placed there would be a great deal more experience than there is now, and that is a factor of some importance. In contrast, the United Kingdom-designed steam generating heavy water reactor has one small prototype operating and not one single commercial-size plant operating or indeed ordered anywhere in the world.
1369 It is true that the CANDU system, also based on pressure tube technology, is operating and next week I hope to visit a plant. There is one large station at Pickering and there are seven more on order. One must, however, ask whether CANDU as it stands is suitable for the United Kingdom. This is a difficult question. CANDU requires heavy water not only as moderator but as the coolant. Because it uses natural uranium, it has a low power density and is a large and expensive plant. Canadian engineers and scientists have scored a great triumph in getting the plant built on time and operating to design capacity.
While that is a factor of great importance, would CANDU be the right system for the United Kingdom? There must be doubts about this system, which Dr. Lorne Gray recognised when he was here a few weeks ago. We have fuel-enrichment facilities and do not need to build the much bigger power stations for natural uranium. Canada has not these facilities. On the other hand, Canada has heavy water capacity and we do not. Therefore, if heavy water reactors are right for us, it would probably be our own SGHWR's and not CANDU. What CANDU can offer is valuable knowhow and design on particular items of equipment such as pumps, valves and other components. No doubt an exchange of information on this topic could give extremely valuable help to the designers and fabricators.
Furthermore, it is argued that United Kingdom/Canadian heavy water collaboration could secure valuable export orders, particularly from the less developed countries for which this technology might be more suitable. Here one needs to ask the question: is it the Government's view that any heavy water reactor for Britain would be the steam-generated heavy water reactor scaled up to full commercial size, using components built with CANDU help? If so, are the Government prepared to ask the CEGB to base a whole new programme on a reactor type of which not one commercial prototype or demonstration model exists—and, moreover, to do so when the consequences of a similar decision on AGR are still unresolved?
§ Mr. Jenkin
My hon. Friend makes a valid point, to which the Secretary of State for Energy referred in opening. I have no doubt that the initial charge of heavy water for the first station would come from Canada, but if there were to be a large programme we would have to have our own expensive heavy water facilities.
§ Mr. Jenkin
I accept that. That is claimed by the manufacturers, and they go on to say that the calandria and tubes of the prototype at Winfrith have been built to a size of 600 MW. That is a factor which clearly must be taken into account. Mr. Hawkins may not want it, but Mr. Tombs wants to order the SGHWR and, as a result of the decision of the previous administration, a full-scale design exists and export orders are in the offing. Apparently there is a very serious inquiry from Romania. The design and construction team based on the Fairey Engineering Company and Clark Chapman—John Thompson has done a great deal of work on it. Therefore, even supposing that the decision for England and Wales were not for heavy water reactors, could it nevertheless be right to authorise the Scottish Board to order them as a foundation for what might be a profitable export trade based on United Kingdom technology?
Turning to light water reactors, the main option is the pressure water reactor with, on the surface, a fairly impressive record of commercial success. The generating board argues that it is the only system with a proven design, a proven operating capacity and proven efficiency. But there is a big question about safety.
There can be no question of making any compromise on safety. We have a system of reactor licensing and a record of nuclear safety of which we can be proud, and the skill and independence of the Nuclear Inspectorate under its Chief Nuclear Inspector, Mr. Bill 1371 Williams, are beyond reproach. They are the bedrock upon which nuclear safety in Britain has been, and must continue to be, founded.
There can be no question of allowing the board to order pressure water reactors until the inspectorate says that they are safe. It is no use talking about remote areas, because to the people who live there those areas are not remote. I suspect that to the Members who represent them they are not remote. It is no good talking about the laws of probability. If people have to live within reach of these plants, they want to know that they are safe.
We are not talking about bombs. There is no scientific possibility, I have been assured, of a civil nuclear reactor turning into a nuclear bomb. For that reason I am very critical of those media —television and newspapers—which accompany a serious discussion on the nuclear safety of civil reactors with a picture of mushroom clouds ascending to the sky. I hope that they will not do this, because it is scaremongering and calculated to cause alarm when no such risk exists.
What there is is a danger of an escape of radioactive particles. It is this accident which must at all costs be prevented, whether it happens from a rupture of the pressure vessel because of a flaw in manufacture, because of a failure in the emergency core-cooling systems or because of some other failure.
It is there that the safety of PWRs has been questioned. In the United States, attention has been focused primarily on failure due to the loss of coolant and the consequent need for the emergency core-cooling systems to work properly. The LOFT experiment in the Arizona Desert will prove that, but it will be many months before it is brought to a conclusion.
In the United Kingdom, attention has tended to focus on the risk of a sudden rupture of the pressure vessel—through propagation of a crack which has lain undisclosed during the manufacturing process, leading to failure under stress conditions. Sir Alan Cottrell's memorandum about the science of fracture mechanics dealt, with consummate brevity and expertise, with this very difficult area of technology.
1372 It is a truth which needs repeating that the PWR cannot be licensed in the United Kingdom until the Nuclear Inspectorate pronounces the designs and the procedures for quality control as safe, and Mr. Williams said that that would take 24 months.
The CEGB says that it wants to order now. I see that it was suggested by David Fishlock in the Financial Times on 16th April:An attempt by the Central Electricity Generating Board to accelerate the choice of a new nuclear reactor by issuing a letter of intent to Westinghouse for two 1,200 MW pressurised water reactors was foiled by the Conservative Government decision to call an election.I can assure the House that there is not a scintilla of truth in that. Not only is there no question of a decision having been reached, but the precise question of the board's timing difficulty in ordering pressure water reactors, had the choice gone that way. was discussed frankly in a comprehensive manner between Mr. Hawkins, my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Carrington and myself. It was clear to all concerned that no letter of intent could have been issued without ministerial approval of pressure water reactors—and that depends on the Nuclear Power Advisory Board's advice, on the debate in this House and then on a Government decision.
It is true that if the inspectorate is to give a licence it must have the information on which to work. Therefore. there has to be some sort of agreement with Westinghouse. The inspectorate would have to get the designs, the manufacturing techniques and so on. But there could be no agreement to build until the inspectorate was satisfied, and we were told that that would take two years.
Does that rule out PWR? Does it mean that the Government are obliged because of timing difficulties to narrow the choice to one of the other systems and to overrule the generating board and the NNC?
When Mr. Williams gave his estimate of 24 months, he assumed that the inspectorate would have to generate all the necessary information itself. In reply to Question 476 he said:I am literally starting from scratch in this country.1373 However, from what the right hon. Gentleman said today—and I am grateful to him for making me privy to this information from Dr. Marshall—it appears that a great deal of the information on pressure vessel integrity is already in the hands of the Atomic Energy Authority and could be quickly made available to the inspectorate.
There has been this study by Dr. Marshall's study group. It has been given a great deal of help by Westinghouse, which has been very forthcoming in providing all the information that the study group could possibly have. As manufacturers, Westinghouse has an enormous amount—
§ Mr. Palmer
When the inspector gave evidence to the Select Committee, he was of course referring to a licence for a light water reactor on a particular site. The reactor must be related to the site.
§ Mr. Jenkin
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer). I am coming to that. I shall ask a question of the Secretary of State which refers to it.
Dr. Marshall's study group has now come to the provisional view that, subject to very stringent quality control procedures at all stages of manufacture, and subject to two points on which further work has to be done,the pressure vessels should be safe when put into service under normal, upset and test conditions.Does that shorten the inspectorate's time scale? It has to have a design on a site before issuing its final certificate. However, it has to proceed to approve the various components in the design. Does this shorten the time scale, and does it enable the inspectorate to approve pressure vessel integrity before it gives the final licence for the full design on the specific site? This might have a material bearing on the timing. Could this be done for the emergency core-cooling systems and for the concrete containment of the whole structure? Could it be done? If so, would it shorten the time scale, and is it a feasible procedure?
There are other timing difficulties. There is the NNC's suggested tie-up with the French company Framatome. We are told that the French require a decision in 1374 weeks to go ahead with pressure water reactors. I do not believe that that is so. In fact, Framatome told Keith Richardson that six months was all right. Therefore, despite Sir Alan Cottrell's problem of fracture mechanics and Mr. Williams' problem of timing, it may be that, if the CEGB can wait a few months before ordering key components, it is still open to the Government to choose pressure water reactors. I think the right hon. Gentleman indicated that this option was still open.
I should like to make two further points. The first concerns the capacity of the United Kingdom's scientific and nuclear industry effort in this sphere. I think most people would be satisfied that both the scientists and the industry could cope with building SGHWRs and a demonstration commercial high temperature reactor, and with pressing ahead with research and development on the fast breeder reactor. They could cope with building pressure water reactors and a high temperature reactor and with the research and development on fast breeder reactors. There must, however, be a big question mark whether they could build pressure water reactors and heavy water reactors and a high temperature reactor and carry out the research and development on fast breeder reactors. The general consensus seems to be that this would not be possible. That was the view to which Lord Rothschild gave expression last year.
Some of the pro-heavy water reactor people quite frankly say that that is right and that we should therefore abandon the high temperature reactor. Others would regard that as a disaster because of the great promise and development potential of the high temperature reactor and the fact that that is in the main stream of the United Kingdom's gas-cooled technology. I take it that it would be unthinkable to abandon the fast breeder reactor.
If we choose pressure water reactors, do we therefore face another, equally difficult choice whether to go on with the tube heavy water reactors or with the high temperature reactor? Do the Government see that as an inevitable consequence of opting for pressure water reactors? If so, it indicates the depth of the choices we must make on this important issue.
1375 The second point concerns the fast breeder reactor. The sad fact is that France, which was behind us in this matter, has now overtaken us. The United Kingdom must catch up. The Phenix prototype went critical in France last year and Dounreay went critical this year.
The three utilities—RWE in Germany, EDF in France and ENEL in Italy—are reported to be on the point of ordering a full-scale commercial prototype fast breeder reactor, to be known as Super-Phenix, to be built on a site near Lyons.
§ Mr. John H. Osborn (Sheffield, Hallam)
Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that those three countries are co-operating in that venture, whereas in this debate we have been talking about going ahead alone?
§ Mr. Jenkin
I do not know whether my hon. Friend was present when I expressly asked the Government whether there would be any international co-operation on the fast breeder reactor. I was promised a reply either by letter or later in the debate.
If the CEGB is not prepared to order a commercial reactor sooner than the two or three years indicated, is there no other body that could do so? What about British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. or the Atomic Energy Authority itself?
We must learn from the mistakes of the past. If in eight or 10 years we are debating, as we are today, the choice of the next generation of nuclear reactors—fast breeder reactors—and we are faced with the prospect of a prototype at Dounreay and perhaps a commercial station in the course of construction, or an operating, proven French-German-Italian system—the Super-Phenix—will we not find ourselves in the same state over the FBR as we are today over the heavy water reactor? I cannot begin to judge, on the basis of information available to me, whether the suggestion of building a commercial size fast breeder reactor sooner than the right hon. Gentleman indicated is remotely possible. But if France can do it, based on the Phenix prototype, why cannot we do it based on our Dounreay prototype?
I have spoken at some length, but I hope not irrelevantly or unconstructively. I should like to end by quoting some wise words by a distinguished engineer who 1376 wrote a pamphlet for PEST which was published a month or two ago. I refer to Mr. Derrick Streeton. After noting the unpalatable facts of the supremacy of the United States in light water reactors and the continental achievements in high temperature and fast breeder reactor technology, Mr. Streeton wrote:Some claim that it was money and the so-called 'technological gap' which put the Americans and Continentals into this position. In reality we have never suffered from a lack of funds while our basic nuclear technology has kept abreast, and indeed led, anything coming from the other sides of the Atlantic and the English Channel. The 'gap' of which some people speak does exist, but it is more concerned with attitudes and organisation, rather than technological capability.This may indeed be the heart of the United Kingdom's problem. It is not confined only to the nuclear race but applies to other advanced technologies.
The previous Government, by setting up the National Nuclear Corporation, by establishing the Nuclear Power Advisory Board and the Department of Energy itself recognised the necessity of adopting new attitudes and creating new organisations to maintain our supremacy in this sphere, and we were steadily moving towards reaching a decision. It remains to be seen whether the Present Government can build on those advances to restore to this country the world supremacy in the peaceful uses of nuclear power that we once enjoyed.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Oscar Murton)
Order. Before calling upon the next speaker, I should advise the House that a considerable number of right hon. and hon. Members are desirous of speaking in the debate. Therefore, short speeches would be to the advantage of everyone.
§ 5.56 p.m.
§ Mr. Arthur Palmer (Bristol, North-East)
I am glad that the right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin) referred to the recent progress that has been made in the organisation of the nuclear industry. Naturally, he also referred to the contribution made by the last Government, who carried out two recommendations made by the Select Committee on Science and Technology. I do not think that any complaint could be made against my right hon. Friend the 1377 Secretary of State for Energy taking a long time, because the previous administration started to think about making a decision three years ago. As my right hon. Friend has had responsibility for less than two months I do not think that an accusation of delay can be made against him at the moment. Of course, the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet)—he is not present now, but he has been here, jumping up and down—rather gave the impression that he would have made the decision by half-past six. He has probably gone out to make it and may return.
I suggest, from my experience on the Select Committee on Science and Technology, that in discussing nuclear power and the choice of reactors Governments would always make a great mistake if they supposed that somewhere there are impartial experts who can advise them. The truth is that experts vary and differ in their opinions. Eminent scientists and engineers divide themselves into rival camps on these matters and can get as passionate and divisive one with another as theologians.
The Select Committee has carried out four investigations into the affairs of the nuclear reactor industry in this country since 1967. There was a full-scale investigation in 1967, a follow-up report a little later, a new investigation into the structure of the industry in 1973, and this year a short, rather lively, inquiry was made into the new desire of the Central Electricity Generating Board to install American-style light water reactors.
The contrast between the evidence of experts was particularly noticeable at our last inquiry. There was the Hawkins versus Tombs debate. Mr. Hawkins is an eminent engineer. I know him personally, and he has some of the best nuclear technical brains behind his organisation. Equally. Mr. Tombs, who is Chairman of the South of Scotland Electricity Board, is another eminent engineer with great experience, not only in supply but in manufacturing too. He is assisted by Mr. Berridge, who was once chief nuclear designer at the Central Electricity Generating Board.
Let me consider the conflict of evidence given to the Select Committee by these two gentlemen about the steam generated heavy water reactor. In 1973, Mr. Hawkins told the Select Committee that 1378 it was an "out of date technology", but Mr. Tombs said in 1974 that it was a "tested and proven system" and that if it were left to him the SSEB would put it into commercial operation.
Dealing with the light water reactor, Mr. Hawkins said that it was a thoroughly "proven system" which could be put into operation almost immediately. He added that there would be a little difficulty for the nuclear inspector, of course, but that that could be overcome. Mr. Tombs denied the Hawkins' claim. He said that it could be up to five years before British industry would be ready to manufacture the light water reactor successfully on a wide enough scale.
Let us not deceive ourselves, therefore, by supposing that this decision can be left to experts, because if it is to be left to them one has to choose one's expert. Also, in retrospect experts can prove themselves to have been wrong. This is seen when we try to understand the historical perspective against which the present required decision must be made.
In 1964 the then Labour Government decided, on the recommendations of experts, including the CEGB—at any rate it did not dissent openly—to adopt the AGR as the standard large-scale British reactor as an answer to the American LWR system for the future. American reactors were as available in 1964 as they are now, but they were rejected. Now, nearly 10 years later, there is still no AGR working in this country, and, as we know, there has been a sad history of delay and difficulty. There is a tendency to say that the AGR is a failure. I do not agree with that view in a design, research or engineering sense. The design is difficult, but to say that it is technically a failure is unfair.
§ Mr. Ronald Brown (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)
Does my hon. Friend agree that the basic fault was that there were three different designs?
§ Mr. Palmer
My hon. Friend's mind and mine are working almost in tandem, and I shall come to that.
It is not the reactor that is a failure. The trouble has been the system of management administration under which AGR stations have been constructed. The AGR programme has been carried through by three, and more recently by 1379 two industrial groupings, or consortia as they were called. As my hon. Friend reminded me, there were three separate engineering teams, with the result that talent has been spread instead of being concentrated as it should have been. Inevitably, mistakes have been made, and they have been made separately.
I have had some experience, even though some time ago now, of engineering in power stations. Mistakes are inevitable, but one should try so to organise project management that one learns from mistakes. Separating the teams means that there is not the same possibility of learning from pooled experience. We have been building three types of AGR instead of one, and that is the root of the dilemma facing us in our choice for the future.
The matter goes back to 1967 when, in defiance, if I may say so modestly put it, of the advice of the Select Committee, the Government of the day—a Labour Government I regret to record —accepted the CEGB view that technical separation or so-called competition in applying the same Atomic Energy Authority design to different stations should be maintained. That was an absurd view and the great bulk of the evidence given to the Select Committee was against it but, unfortunately, the Minister backed the CEGB.
We now have one design and contruction company for nuclear matters, and Mr. Hawkins on the last occasion but one when he gave evidence to the Select Committee was handsome enough to say that the Select Committee had been right and that the CEGB had been wrong. Had the AGR programme been properly organised under the arrangement now set up the AGRs would probably have been available, and it is doubtful whether we should have heard much of the proposal to install light water reactors.
In fairness, in those circumstances the future of the steam generating heavy water reactor would have been also a little in doubt because the natural progress would have been to move from the AGR, the gas-cooled reactor, to a high temperature reactor and eventually, as the right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford said, to the fast breeder. Indeed, only two years ago—and there 1380 was an earlier report of the Select Committee on nuclear power policy in 1972–73—in evidence given to us Mr. Hawkins and the CEGB seemed to be moving along that line of development.
I suggest that the House should, therefore, consider with a little caution the latest argument that is coming principally from Sir Arnold Weinstock of GEC Ltd., which is dominant in the new nuclear construction company. It is an argument that has its supporters in French industry, because it dropped its own gas-cooled programme some years ago in favour of the LWR system.
Sir Arnold's latest argument for Britain turning to the American light water technology is that we must bow to the inevitable and adopt the American light water reactor system because all the rest of the world is doing it anyhow. I suggest that had it not been for the difficulties in the organisation of the AGR programme there would be no need for that argument to be brought forward because there would be no suggestion of adopting the American system, rightly or wrongly. We should have kept our own system in spite of the rest of the world.
The fact is that in international markets the gas-cooled reactor system still has a bright future. The Japanese are beginning to realise this. They have had many difficulties, in that over-populated country, with their American style light water reactors. Also, in the United States itself there is now a very real investment interest in the gas-cooled system. So let us not suppose that in the long term, in world markets, the gas-cooled technique is necessarily a system which has no future.
I turn now to a criticism which was made in the columns of the Sunday Times by Mr. Richardson, who heads the Sunday Times school of nuclear reactor fanciers. He charged the Select Committee—we did not raise this as a matter of privilege; we were much too kind and generous about it—with bias, because we subjected witnesses, he said, particularly Mr. Hawkins. who came forward advocating the claims of the light water reactor, to a more rigorous examination than that to which we subjected those who put the case for the still available British systems. But what was biased about that? After all, for the last 25 years Parliament and the country 1381 have come to regard Britain as a leader in nuclear technology. A whole generation of British infants has grown up imbibing that faith almost with their mothers' milk. We have been reassured in the House from time to time that all was well, and many millions of pounds of public money have gone into the development of gas-cooled and British heavy water reactor technology.
Now it is suddenly announced by the CEGB that it wishes to order nine twin-reactor stations, each of 2,400 Mw to 2,600 Mw capacity, and that the bulk of them are to be American designed or styled light water reactors. In those circumstances, surely one has to take breath and gasp a little. The question that sprang to the collective mind of the Select Committee was, "Why"? Please explain yourselves." We thought it necessary for this U-turn in British nuclear policy to be justified, because the old familiar path had been so well trodden.
The Select Committee came to the broad conclusion—nothing beyond this—that in the light of the oral and written evidence to us, in our admittedly very short examination—the CEGB's case for a switch to the American nuclear technology had not been made out. We did not go beyond that.
I shall say practically nothing about safety. The report is there for all to read. But I will say this: if it had not been for the existence of the Select Committee and our decision to look at this CEGB request to adopt the American technology, I am doubtful whether the vital evidence of Sir Alan Cottrell would have been uncovered at all. Indeed, it was only by chance that some of us heard that he had written a most interesting paper. We asked for it to be submitted. We received it. Now it is in front of the House and the public. It has been a key paper in discussion since then.
We shrank from going beyond the conclusion that the case for the change to the American technology had not been proved. We shrank from trying to tell the CEGB its business. We assumed that if the American system was not used, naturally British systems would continue to be developed.
In view of the AGR now not perhaps being repeated but evolving to the high temperature system—in those circum 1382 stances—the British heavy water technology becomes of outstanding importance if we are to supply the extra nuclear capacity which the electricity supply system undoubtedly needs. I believe that here a new opportunity shows itself. It is an opportunity that was not necessarily in existence a few years ago. It is the opportunity of combining in a joint programme of development the British heavy water technology with the rather similar Canadian technology. The opportunity is there. If taken, it would certainly be attractive to the South of Scotland Electricity Board; but less attractive to the CEGB and the National Nuclear Corporation.
I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has a difficult decision to make. He has to serve the long-term interests of the country in matters of investment and employment and to maintain the standards of British advanced technology. All of those are interests which are beyond the understandably narrow interest of the CEGB, and that is to produce electricity cheaply. The CEGB is bound to think within a rather narrower bracket of reference. One cannot complain about that. After all, this House approved the statute under which it works. I can understand my right hon. Friend's difficulty. It is not easy for him to set aside the desire of the principal generating utility in this country—indeed, in the world, in terms of size—to use the reactor of its choice. It is not easy for a Minister to turn aside that wish. I shall not now give the view of the Select Committee, because it was not that positive; I shall just give my view, for what it is worth, of what I think should be done.
First, we should examine carefully the estimates of load demand which have been made by the CEGB. No one has worked more enthusiastically for the expansion of the electricity supply industry than I, but I am inclined to think that the CEGB is probably tending to exaggerate the extent of the development of the country's electricity demand in the future, particularly with so much natural gas coming in. Therefore, those estimates have to be looked at carefully.
Secondly, we should also look critically at the size of reactor proposed by the CEGB. I am inclined to think that it is too large and will present problems of its own, whichever system is taken. 1383 Smaller reactors would be easier all round.
Thirdly, I think that we should let the South of Scotland Electricity Board have its way in this matter of reactor choice. It is a responsible generating authority in its own right. It has excellent technical leadership. It wants to install a steam-generating heavy water reactor system. Let it. This could be combined as part of a general CANDU programme, but immediately the SSEB should give to the steam-generating heavy water reactor something which so far it has lacked: some commercial experience.
Finally, I turn to what is, perhaps, a controversial suggestion. If the CEGB insists on taking light water reactors it should, in my view, be allowed to do it, but on a far more limited programme than it is at present proposing. I am not too sure about the much canvassed argument that the country cannot sustain a mixed programme. The Swedes have done this fairly successfully; they have a mixed bag of reactor types. It is not necessarily a question of all or nothing, and in that way it might be possible to find a route through the present controversy.
§ Mr. Palmer
I do not know whether I would be happy to have one near any place, but I am not putting forward safety arguments at present. I am doubtful whether we need American reactors at all but I am trying now to deal with a situation where a responsible utility wants a particular system. The South of Scotland board has a right to the other system. Perhaps the CEGB should have a limited choice as well. I know this view will not please GEC or Sir Arnold Weinstock, who gave skilful evidence to the Select Committee. GEC is, however, far too dominant a part of the National Nuclear Corporation. There has been a suggestion that Sir Arnold and GEC might withdraw from the National Nuclear Corporation if they do not have their LWR way In that case it is always possible, if the CEGB went ahead with light water reactors on a limited scale, for it to make direct arrangements with American companies with a cast-iron 1384 guarantee that the great bulk of the manufacturing is done under licence over here. That could be the answer to Sir Arnold. It would not be a desirable development but it could be a good bargaining counter.
I would like to see the National Nuclear Corporation given statutory force instead of, as at the moment, being a kind of loose coming together of interests under Government influence, but not under Government control.
I do not envy my right hon. Friend the difficult decision facing him. We need an up-to-date electricity supply system, one in which primary fuel sources are mixed. There is room for coal, and for some oil, particularly when North Sea oil becomes available, and there is certainly room for a great deal of nuclear energy. It is a question of balance, and I emphasise again the need to avoid all or nothing solutions. Under that condition progress can be made, and be made fairly quickly.
§ 6.25 p.m.
§ Miss Harvie Anderson (Rcnfrewshire, East)
I shall not presume to match the hon. Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer) in his experience and knowledge in this field. The House recognises that the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) have almost unique experience in the work that they have done, and the debate today is only part of the result of their work. The House will be grateful to them.
I am glad to have an opportunity to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I have had close concern about the future nuclear reactor programme for several years and I have worked with men, unions and management in examining the capability of British industry in this field.
The first conclusion that I and many others reach is that there is a strong British capability and that those who advocate "buy British" do not do so simply as a jingoistic slogan but because in this field and at this time the British contribution is still extraordinarily good. We have the know-how, and the men, unions and management have been working together as a team harmoniously to establish the capacity of British firms and the British work force in this field.
1385 I wish to bring to the notice of the House the often overlooked point about conditions of work. I do not know how many hon. Members are familiar with a modern nuclear shop, but it is a new world. All the horrors of nineteenth century heavy industry have gone. Men are working in clean air, in clean clothes, in pleasant atmosphere, with precision and pride, and the whole presents a picture until now only in the minds of distinguished and far-seeing writers. Such transformation has been made possible both by the quality of the work required and by massive investment of British firms, some of which the hon. Member for Bristol, North-East referred to.
The choice of system is a matter where inevitably experts must have their say. The Minister will be given much advice on this as on other aspects, but the experts' view has a big part to play. For my part, without going into the detail of relative merits, I simply want to redress the balance in one direction. Unless the experts have identified something in the AGR system not widely known, the AGR will produce megawatts, and this is very important. Moreover, it will probably produce them more quickly and more effectively than any alternative. The system is not cheap to install, but it has lower running costs. There have been teething troubles, and still are, but there will be just the same teething troubles in any alternative not yet producing megawatts to the extent now required. This has been pointed out already in the debate and is important. Delay, too, is built into the alternatives, however adequate their performance on a modest scale. For example. Winfrith output is at present about 100 MW, while today we are discussing orders which are expected to produce 1,000 MW. Even hearing that in mind and even with permutations which have been referred to, there will be considerable delay in alternative systems.
The particular point I wish to make in connection with the AGR is that prejudiced propaganda has gone a long way to discourage this project, and I hope that no decision will be taken in this connection, or in any other, on that basis. Most importantly, there is need for a quick decision. I appreciate the difficulties for any Minister and I understand the pressures, but I suspect that any foreseeable decision will be limited to 1386 two stations with, one hopes, at least an outline for future ordering.
Industry cannot progress in a void, and it, too, has huge sums at stake. Men's jobs are also at stake. I have never believed in a policy which enables a public utility to buy marginally cheaper products from abroad, or even from regions of full employment at home, when one result is the subsequent spending of taxpayers' money to the tune of £10,000 in creating each new job for each person thus made unemployed. Over the years I have had considerable experience of this approach in and around my constituency.
In my constituency at present, and especially in that part of the constituency now represented by the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan), should there be no equivalent work to that at present going on for the AGR, the jobs of 1,000 highly skilled men in this new sphere of nuclear work are at stake. This is in a works where the nuclear shops are as I have described them, where the example of good relations throughout is the envy of many, where there are presently cranes capable of a 600-ton lift, a dock capable of shipping a 1,000-ton load and ample scope for development.
What this adds up to is that we British are, and can continue to be, in the business. We have the skill. We have the men and we have the capacity. Our duty today in the House is to see that they are given the job.
§ 6.31 p.m.
§ Dr. John A. Cunningham (White-haven)
I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this debate, for several reasons. First, I am a member of the Select Committee on Science and Technology. Secondly, as many hon. Members know, I have a major constituency interest, in that the Windscale-Calder Hall complex employs a considerable number of people in my constituency. Thirdly, I am a sponsored member of the National Union of General and Municipal Workers, which represents a large number of men who work in the industry.
We listened to two very long Front Bench speeches today. Both speakers seemed to be at great pains to keep all their options open. That is perhaps understandable in a very difficult and complex area. One of the problems which they cannot escape is that successive 1387 Governments have never acted with sufficient decision in the matter of the British nuclear industry and its capabilities.
I asked the right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin) to give way on a point which interests me. This is the point about public acceptability. I am in complete agreement with what the right hon. Gentleman said, but it contrasted sharply with his attitude when in office when I pressed him on a number of occasions to publish the report of the nuclear inspector into an incident at Windscale.
Before the right hon. Gentleman seeks to rise, I acknowledge immediately that this was not an incident involving a nuclear reactor. It involved the plutonium plant at Windscale, but the point is still important. If the public are to accept nuclear installations of any kind, they must be continually reassured that every effort is being made, both by those running the industries and by the Government, to ensure that they, their families, and people living and working in the surrounding area are being properly protected.
I expect the right hon. Gentleman wants me to give way. I do not see why I should in view of his previous attitude.
§ Mr. Patrick Jenkin
I think that the hon. Member does me an injustice. I well remember the question he asked. My answer, which I cannot quote verbatim, was to the effect that I would certainly consider whether the report could be published in some form but that it could not be published in full because to do so would disclose details of individual medical histories. I believe that the hon. Member will on consideration acknowledge that that is a pretty fair approach.
§ Dr. Cunningham
It is this kind of hedging about problems involving nuclear installations which gives rise to modern public mythology about the dangers and disadvantages of going along this line.
I also have words of criticism on the same topic for the Secretary of State, because when pressed to publish a report by my hon. Friend who is now the Chairman of the Select Committee he said that he hoped to be able to publish it. Here again, there is this qualification about the need to make absolutely clear, not only 1388 to the public, but to those of us who are considering these matters, what is at stake. I also remember, for good measure, the difficulty the Select Committee had in obtaining copies of the Vinter Report, which was never published.
However, I must press on. The Central Electricity Generating Board wants to embark on a very substantial programme of power station building involving nine nuclear stations, although late in 1972 its evidence to the Committee was that there was no immediate rush. Indeed, in the last six years not one order has been placed in Britain for a nuclear station. This evidence was given before the energy crisis. We are entitled to ask: why was there this sudden and very remarkable change of direction by the CEGB?
The chairman of the board went out of his way to say that the board must be empowered to build light water reactors. There are many serious question marks to be raised against these reactors. A reactor of the size suggested by the board is not in operation anywhere. Further, the option the board is choosing—the Westinghouse pressurised water reactor—has not had clearance in America at this size yet and is unlikely to achiev clearance this year. That, too, is a very significant point to bear in mind.
I believe that in going for a massive programme of an entirely new reactor of this type the board would be placing us in the situation that we have known all too well: we would be committing a large number of eggs to a basket of which we had no experience. In short, we would be in a prototype situation.
§ Mr. Ronald Brown
It is even more serious than that, because as every month goes by the Americans are finding more and more reasons for reinvestigating the present water reactor.
§ Dr. Cunningham
Absolutely, Being in a prototype situation with a large-scale programme would mean probably an even more disastrous series of events than we have seen with the AGR programme. I also agree with my hon. Friend that the main weakness of the AGR programme was not a matter of the technology. It still is not a matter of the technology. The problems were problems of constructional engineering and of project management of the CEGB itself. To be fair to the 1389 Chairman of the CEGB, he acknowledged this in evidence to the committee. There were also problems arising from the fact that we chose three different designs and no one at that time saw the necessity for a standardised approach. If there is one contrast between the American experience and our own in this field, it is that very important point.
We have been told that America has now produced an off-the-peg reactor system. I do not accept this argument either. The nuclear inspector certainly does not accept it. Whatever the claims may be for light water reactors, we should be quite clear that if there is an urgency about this programme, if it is important to place orders, if it is important to have nuclear stations coming on line in the early 1980s, this cannot be guaranteed simply by choosing light water reactors.
I have considerable faith in the AGR system. The Chairman of the Atomic Energy Authority said in evidence to the Committee that in his view the logical progression for us would be to build a further AGR, to build a high temperature reactor, and then to go on to a fast breeder programme.
All the scientific evidence about the progression and development of reactors supports that view. There is no reason at all why we should not have faith in British gas technology. I agree with the right hon. Member for Renfrewshire, East (Miss Harvie Anderson) that for us to decry our achievements in this area is damaging. One of the most damaging aspects of this long debate has been the fact that it has dismayed British scientists and technologists to such a great extent that many have felt there was no point in going on because there was no future for them in the British industry. If I could make a brief aside here, may I say that I hope that the Government will not vaccilate much longer on the issue of scientists' pay. However, that is another problem.
If we are to have this substantial programme we should remaln with a system that has been proved in terms of safety. There are many serious question marks about the safety of American reactors. The paper by the Government Chief Scientist drew attention to the problem of the integrity of the pressure vessel, which confirmed the worst fears of many 1390 people. There is also the unproven state of the emergency core cooling system.
The conclusion of the Select Committee is the right attitude to take. It is for the manufacturers of the system to prove its safety beyond all doubt. It is not for anyone else to prove that the system is unsafe. It would be unthinkable for any Government to take a decision to locate a reactor of this type near a densely populated area if there were any question marks about the safety factors.
It is clear that in our reactor programme there has been a considerable measure of success, in terms of industrial relations, in getting the labour force to accept the undoubted dangers, hazards and risks. It could be impossible to get people to work in reactor systems. Even without major failures it is clear that water-cooled systems would produce radiation in areas where regular maintenance was necessary, where men would have to go to put things right. This is a serious objection to water-cooled systems.
I do not think that we should embark upon any new co-operation with the Canadians. Here again we would be making a right turn when the more simple method of progress would be to keep going in the path we have trodden. The critics of the AGR system are simply saying that the programme has been delayed, that conventional power stations are badly delayed. More than 30 light water stations in America are behind schedule. A considerable number have been down-graded. Which nuclear programme anywhere has not had major problems?
One of the major disappointments to me has been the complete lack of co-operation in these areas and in high technology generally within Europe. I remember the right hon. Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies) telling the Select Committee during our research and development inquiry that one of the best arguments for being in the Community was that Britain would be able to continue in high technology on a shared basis when otherwise we would have to give up.
§ Dr. Cunningham
There is absolutely no evidence that this has happened during our membership of the EEC. The 1391 reverse is true with plutonium enrichment capacity. We now see ourselves, with the Germans and the Dutch, going in one direction and the rest of Western Europe heading in quite another. There has been no co-operation in reactor design. We should decide on a programme which is suitable not only in terms of our construction and design industries but also in terms of CEGB ordering policy. There is no argument in favour of a multitude of design choices. The programme should be kept as simple as possible.
It is essential to retain British control. We have been told that this is a jingoistic approach. I do not accept that. It is essential to retain British control of our energy supplies. If we handed over the whole programme to American technology the reactors would need to be fuelled by American fuels. We would then be in the position of having to import fuel elements. The price of uranium is expected to increase sixfold by the 1990s. We would immediately have fuel supply problems. For all these reasons I hope that we will stay with British technology.
§ 6.46 p.m.
§ Mr. Airey Neave (Abingdon)
The hon. Member for Whitehaven (Dr. Cunningham) was a member of the Select Committee, under my chairmanship, in the last Parliament. He has given an effective account of some aspects of the evidence which was before us. I do not entirely agree with him in that, while I think we should keep our gas-cooled technology, we shall in the short term require the heavy water reactor now being developed at Winfrith Heath.
I have first of all to declare an interest in the Clarke Chapman-John Thompson boiler-making group which has already been referred to. I have been engaged in that group for many years. It will, of course, be affected by what we are discussing. It has a 10 per cent. shareholding in the National Nuclear Corporation. I also have a large interest, in that many thousands of my constituents are employed by the Atomic Energy Authority at Harwell.
I wish to thank all of my colleagues in the last Parliament who were members of the Select Committee under my chairmanship and who helped produce the 1392 report which has been mentioned. Although I was Chairman of the Committee, I sat under the extremely able chairmanship of the hon. Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer) as a member of his sub-committee which took the evidence on reactor choice. The Committee's report demonstrates not only the difficulties involved in the Secretary of State making a decision but the need for this House—because the Select Committee is part of the proceedings of this House—to question the assumptions and judgment of the CEGB. Since it continues to assert the advantages of the American water reactors it must be made to justify that decision. This is the function of Parliament and the Select Committee in this case.
We must try to prevent a wrong decision being made, such as has been made in the past and from which the industry has suffered gravely. It was to meet those who claimed that British science and reactor design should not be included in the programme of nuclear power to be commissioned in the 1980s that we insisted on this inquiry. That is why we published our evidence and report. It is not true that the Committee set out to find reasons why the CEGB's "buy American" proposals should be rejected. That was one of the less unpleasant remarks directed at us in an article in the Sunday Times in March. The Select Committee set out to test by cross-examination—and, I think it will be generally agreed, by pretty rigorous cross-examination—the breath-taking assertions of certain people, particularly Sir Arnold Weinstock and Mr. Hawkins, that there was no alternative to a large American order. That was the reason for the Select Committee's inquiry. It was not a question of bias. We simply put the questions to the test and came to the conclusions which are now before the House.
We also felt that there were people who were prepared to announce decisions which had not been fully discussed in the House. For that reason, we welcome today's debate and we congratulate the Secretary of State on putting before us the various difficult options. However. there are those who have already decided what will happen. In the New Scientist of 28th February this year the CEGB headquarters was advertising under the heading of "Research opportunities" for 1393 physicists, mathematicians and statisticians experienced in the neutronics of reactor systems related to power distribution, and particularly to hydraulics coupling for light water reactors. The board is already advertising for personnel for light water reactors on the assumption that the Minister will make that decision, one more reason why the Select Committee should eo into these matters and report to the House on them.
It is difficult to discover what is the opinion of the CEGB on the potential demand for electricity, and in this respect I sympathise with the Secretary of State. However, assuming that we have to order two or three nuclear stations between 1974 and 1977, the test which the Secretary of State should broadly apply is "What is the national interest?", and by that I mean not only the cost and reliability of the stations but the state of our own science and our industry.
It is ingenuous in the extreme to imagine that if the National Nuclear Corporation is allowed to make Westinghouse pressurised water reactors under licence in the United Kingdom future design and construction will not come largely under American domination. It is ingenuous in the extreme to imagine anything else, and I do not believe that our industry deserves that treatment. There is, as I shall seek to show, a viable alternative. We do not need to be the licensees of Westinghouse as the French are. Just because the French are licensees—Framatome is one example—there is no reason why we should do the same. Nor is it the case that what is good for Westinghouse is necessarily good for Britain. Those are not sound industrial arguments. The answer lies in the type of reactor which is most likely to be required in the world markets in the next 20 years. We all wish to see built up an effective British nuclear industry in view of the many disappointments of the past. In spite of the large sales of American water reactors in many industrial countries I do not think, judging from my contacts with the industry, that the pressure vessel system will be the most suitable in the long term. It is certainly not the easiest for this country to make, and even if Dr. Marshall reports satisfactorily on safety, that does not mean from the long-term manufacturing point of view that it is the best 1394 system for most countries, particularly the under-developed countries.
I come to a most important aspect of my personal opinion. The International Atomic Energy Authority estimates that between 100 and 200 power reactors of less than 660MW—the smaller reactors—will be required in the next 10 years and that the pressure tube type of reactor is much more suited to these requirements. CANDU and the SGHWR reactors are pressure tube systems which are already classified as safe by our nuclear inspectorate. Already the Canadians have more export business for CANDU than they can manage on their own, and the argument for collaboration with the Canadian Government is strengthened by this. The pressure tube market presents significant opportunities for British and Canadian exports, which would hardly be the case if we were licensees of the Westinghouse Corporation for the rest of the century. No one suggests that it would increase the export potential for Britain if the market was already dominated by our licenser, Westinghouse, which is what would happen.
To argue that Sir Arnold Weinstock and GEC could create a British nuclear industry by manufacturing American components in collaboration with France is unlikely to indicate any benefit for heavy engineering in Britain since many of the products which have to be exchanged would be French. I hope the Minister will bear that very much in mind. The creation on the other hand of a pressure tube industry with Canada would help our firms which have had no stable orders, as the Minister told us, since 1971. In effect, it would mean that both the SSEB, which wants to, and the CEGB, which does not, would have to order water-cooled reactors of either the CANDU or the SGHWR variety.
It is in this area that the Secretary of State will have to act, if necessary by using his statutory powers. He was asked this afternoon what would happen if the CEGB insisted on ordering light water reactors. He could always withhold his approval and he could also give a direction in this case if he thinks it to be in the national interest. The SGHWR is not considered obsolete by anybody except those who are fanatically in favour of American reactors, and this is one of the 1395 difficulties of people attacking other people's reactors. The Canadians do not think the SGHWR is obsolete. They want to work with us, and Sir John Hill, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Authority told the Committee that it was sad that so many years had been lost in not adopting SGHWR. He did not agree that it was out of date. Those who have sought to decry and devalue this British reactor are not speaking the truth. Nor has Mr. Hawkins' statement that it is unproven, as he told the Committee, any validity. It has been operating at 100MW for some years. The House should not forget that Mr. Hawkins is proposing light water reactors of 1,200 to 1,300MW which are completely unproven. The ZION reactor is up to 1,100MW but the larger the reactor the greater the safety problem, and I hope that the Minister will pay particular attention to that. Since no one has even built a 1,200 to 1,300MW light water reactor, either pressurised or boiling water, it would be an enormous risk for the Minister to authorise the board to order these reactors when it did not even know when it came to the Select Committee that these reactors were not in service. It came to a Select Committee not knowing that the reactors it proposed to order were not yet in service. We must bear that in mind when assessing the CEGB's judgment.
To start a British-Canadian pressure tube industry is what I am proposing. We need an agreement between the two Governments as soon as possible. The SGHWR is a modular construction, which can be made in a large size. It should be ordered.
The supporters of Westinghouse in this country say that British industry lacks the capacity to make it. I intervened in the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin) on that point, because it is very important. People are going around the country saying that British industry cannot make the SGHWR. It may seem astonishing that that sort of sales propaganda from a foreign competitor should be so easily absorbed. It is quite untrue.
The hon. Member for Bristol, North-East and I have discussed the matter with the Canadians, and we know that it is also 1396 untrue so far as they are concerned. They do not believe it for one moment. We could make the pressure tube reactors, as Sir John Hill told the Committee in evidence, and we could not for some years make the pressure vessel in this country, as Sir Arnold Weinstock readily admits. So in point of time, if this is a decision for the short term, the Secretary of State has the advantage of those facts.
§ Mr. Palmer
Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that it is probable that the steam-generating heavy water reactor is the easiest of all reactor types of engineering?
§ Mr. Neave
I agree. The pressure tubes and everything else have been thoroughly tested since the late 1960s at Winfrith Heath. It is nonsense to say that the reactor could not be brought to commercial size. It has been developed on the basis that it will be brought to at least 600MW. Let us in any case move to smaller-sized reactors. Let us not allow them to become too big. The engineering industry has a great deal of difficulty over the matter, and one of the causes has been moving suddenly to the large reactors, which are inherently less safe. I emphasise that the larger light water reactors are inherently less safe.
That is not to say that we should not pursue our interests in gas-cooled technology and the HTGR with Gulf Atomic to the extent of planning a prototype station at a later date. But it is possible to fill the gap between the HTR and the fast reactor in the short term by the Canadian connection. That is a very realistic possibility that I am sure the Secretary of State has examined.
I finish by referring, as others have done, to the people in the industry, with whom I have worked for nearly 20 years. Whether they are research workers, engineers, or people who make boilers and turbines, they have been obliged to live in hopes that after years of indecision their industry would benefit and people in important position in their own country would stop devaluing that industry, especially when there are no fresh orders at present on the nuclear side of heavy engineering.
For years they have been assured, especially the scientists and engineers to whom the hon. Member for Whitehaven 1397 referred, that nuclear power was a growth industry. In a memorandum circulated to hon. Members recently, the Institution of Professional Civil Servants stated:All this time our career prospects have dwindled. We have maintained our professional standards and have stuck to our work while the CEGB have attacked our products in the most outrageous terms.It is not unfair to say that. The CEGB has attacked British capacity, British industry and British designs before the Select Committee on two or three occasions. There is only too much truth in that statement by the IPCS. I regret it very much.
Many scientists and engineers resent it. They certainly resent the pay dispute. I hope that that will be resolved through the intervention of the Secretary of State for Employment.
The failure to order British designs has had a very bad effect, but it is not too late. My right hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, East (Miss Harvie Anderson) referred to Scotland and the works in Glasgow which should be given encouragement to get down to the job. If that happened everywhere, there would be a viable solution to the problem.
The Secretary of State must be heroic, and stand up to those who want dependence on foreign sources of technology. That is not the way to benefit our industry and give our own designs a fair chance. If he gives them that chance, he will have my support and, I hope, that of all hon. Members.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. George Thomas)
I remind the House that many hon. Members want to take part in the debate. Unless some self-discipline is exercised, many will be disappointed.
§ 7.6 p.m.
§ Mr. E. Fernyhough (Jarrow)
I shall try to respond to your request, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
Like the right hon. Member for Renfrewshire, East (Miss Harvie Anderson), I must declare a substantial interest. In my constituency 6,000 men are engaged in the heavy electrical engineering industry. Six years ago there were 11,000. I have a feeling that if Mr. Hawkins and Sir Arnold Weinstock have their way the number employed in the works that I represent will continue to fall. As the 1398 right hon. Lady said, when we make decisions, whether about a power station or anything else, nobody takes into account the social consequences and their costs.
I do not believe that there is a need for hurry. Ten years ago we had not struck the first North Sea gas field. The first discovery of gas was not made until December 1964. We know full well what it has meant. It was only in comparatively recent times that we discovered oil. In view of the coal industry's new image and the availability of the other sources of energy, I do not believe that there is anything like the hurry that Mr. Hawkins and Sir Arnold Weinstock show in rushing across the Atlantic to bring back technology and equipment which I am satisfied we are capable of building here.
I am certain that the vast majority of the British people are not prepared to think in terms of 0.001 per cent. of the cost of a unit of electricity unless they are sure that the cheapness will not bring with it fatal consequences. All those who would rush into buying American power stations must be prepared to have them put on their own doorstep. Given the safety factor, about which there are still some doubts, anyone who is prepared to rush to buy those power stations should say "Let the first one be built in my constituency."
§ Mr. Fernyhough
I am saying that those who have great faith in them should have them in their constituencies. Let the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet) put the point to the housewives in his constituency. Let him ask them whether they are prepared to take the risk.
I do not believe the experts. You and I, Mr. Deputy Speaker, were here when we were told that there was to be an explosion of an experimental bomb in the Pacific. We were told that provided the ocean was cleared for a few hundred miles nobody would be hurt. We all know that Japanese fishermen who were 700 miles away from the area in which the explosion took place suffered severe burns. If there is a mishap with one of 1399 the reactors in question. I am not as sure as some that we can quantify the consequences and say now how much or how little damage will be done. I do not believe, therefore, that we should take any risks until we are sure of the position.
I am not prepared to run the risk. Like the hon. Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave), I believe that we should look towards some co-operation with the CANDU system. That could be the answer to the early part of our problem. It may be that as a result of that cooperation we could again begin to think in terms of becoming once more a real world leader. I should like to see that happen because it would be good for the British economy, good for my constituency and, good for the safety of the entire population.
§ 7.13 p.m.
§ Mr. Ian Lloyd (Havant and Waterloo)
The interests of brevity demand that we must be brief almost to the point of being brusque and not refer to what has been said so far, although that is something I should like to do. I turn straight away to other points I should like to make. In this context I have no axe to grind and no interest to declare.
The impartiality of the Select Committee was to some extent criticised by the Press. It was alleged that the Committee had a bias against the American light water reactor system. That was not true of myself and I do not think that it was true of the Committee. I came to the subject with a mind like a blank slate. Therefore, I approached it with as much impartiality as it is possible to obtain in this imperfect world.
On the basis of the argument and on the evidence which was presented to the Select Committee I accepted the conclusion that the Commitee reached and made available to the House. I was, however, concerned that the scale of investigation and evidence that the Committee had available was utterly disproportionate to the complexity of the issues, to the size of the investment that the country was being asked to make and to the industrial and national importance of the issue.
The Committee had no comprehensive evidence from the United States. It had no such evidence from Japan, vir- 1400 tually none from Western Europe and none from Sweden, which is facing the same problems and considering the same matters. I found it strange that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin) should have said that access to information was no problem to the Opposition. I think that such access is always a problem not only for Oppositions but for all Select Committees. My instinct made me conclude that the expertise of some of the witnesses that appeared before the Committee was narrowly based at least in a geographical sense.
Occasionally one has a stroke of luck not in the political sense but in another sense. Two or three weeks ago it came to my notice that there had been made available in Washington a comprehensive report on the nuclear reactor choice for the United States. I made some inquiries and I found that there were no copies of the report available in England. Thanks to the good offices of the Library the first copy of the report to arrive in this country reached me yesterday afternoon. I shall make some observations on what I have been able to discover from the contents of the report in the past 24 hours.
The report consists of five volumes and the two which I have here are the tip of the iceberg. It is a report that is comprehensive, analytical, informative and, above all, illuminating. It is an outstanding example of open government. Had it been in my hands for more than 24 hours I could probably have made a greater contribution to the debate.
I think that my conclusions are important. The report suggests even more than the report of the Select Committee that we are not deciding an issue of whether we build light water reactors of an American kind or a British type of burner breeder reactor. The major and great divide in the technological history of our civilisation is whether we go on to build burner breeder reactors or go over as soon as possible, as the Americans are clearly contemplating, to the liquid metal fast breeder reactor. The whole of the five volume report is on the environmental impact and on the whole range of economic and technological consequences for the United States of the liquid metal fast breeder reactor. The report casts a powerful searchlight on the subject of 1401 the debate because the United Kingdom light water reactor programme cannot fail to be judged in such a context.
Time permits me to draw but five limited but defensible conclusions. The first is that the decision turns on an issue that we have so far glossed over completely. The second is that the United States is now making a massive commitment to the next stage of the nuclear power technology and control of that technology.
Third, Western Europe should, with, if possible, the United States, and without if not, embark on a breeder reactor crash programme as soon as possible.
My fourth conclusion is that the light water reactor programme or any burner converter programme—SGHWRs and CANDU, for example, being burner converter reactors—should be regarded at the very best as a stopgap. I should describe it as a nuclear fossil fuel substitute and no more.
My fifth conclusion is that unless we bring a combined OECD effort to a successful conclusion the OECD Governments as a whole, with perhaps the exception of the United States, will be making a conscious decision to default and to add, according to the report, which is my sole source of information, tens of billions of dollars to the cost of our energy programme within the foreseeable future. In the year 2000 the nuclear power defaulters will loom much larger in the history books, if the report is correct, than will the oil sheikhs' action of the past few months.
An issue that we have glossed over is the uranium supply. It is the most critical parameter bar none of any of the parameters that we are now considering before making our decision. What are the facts? Mr. Hawkins gave the Select Committee a complete reassurance that uranium was not an important matter. However, the world resources of uranium in 1974 are just over 1 million tons—namely, 1,150,000 tons. The world requirements to 1985, given the foreseeable nuclear reactor development, are exactly 1 million tons. That is assuming that our reserves will function at the current price level which is approximately eight dollars a pound.
§ Mr. Lloyd
It may go up from 8 dollars to 12 dollars.
The distribution of reserves will become of fundamental importance. The United States and Canada have between them 556,000 tons or 49 per cent. of reserves. South Africa and South-West Africa have 300,000 tons or 26 per cent. of known reserves. In France, Gabon and Nigeria the figure is 124,000 tons, or 11 per cent. In Australia it is 8 per cent. and in the other countries 6 per cent.
What are the United States requirements for their foreseeable light water reactor programmes? These figures are available for anyone who wishes to study them in detail. I shall summarise them baldly.
§ Mr. J. Grimond (Orkney and Shetland)
Do the figures refer to the whole world or to the free world?
§ Mr. Lloyd
The figures which I have given refer to the whole world. The figures which I am about to give refer only to the United States programme.
By 1985 United States uranium requirements will be 1.5 million tons, 50 per cent, greater than the total known world reserves. By 1990 they will be 2.6 million tons. By 2000, with the liquid metal breeder reactor programme, they will be 4.4 million tons. By 2000, without such a breeder reactor programme, the requirement will be 6.4 million tons, six times current world known reserves. A 1,000 megawatt reactor requires the mining of 1,600 metric tons of ore per day and the removal of roughly 9.5 million tons of overburden per annum. This is the nuclear fuel requirement of one of the proposed burner converter reactors. Even taking the United States uranium resources as being at 30 dollars per pound—which is three or four times the figure mentioned by one of my hon. Friends—the total available reserves are thought to be a maximum of 2.4 million tons.
The Atomic Energy Commission concludes that the extension of the light water reactor capacity beyond 1990 woulddepend on the location of large additional quantitiesof uranium ore. That conclusion applies equally to the programme we are considering, not only for the United Kingdom but for the whole of Western 1403 Europe. The commission has pointed out that the reserves, if they are to be made available, taking the eight-year cycle from discovery to availability, will have to be found in this decade. There is no sign of that happening. The commission concludes:It is prudent to assume that conventional uranium resources will probably not support continued growth of burner-convertor capacity beyond the year A.D. 2000.That is looking merely 26 years ahead, and the expected life of the type of reactor we are debating is 30 years.
If the United States depends on light water reactors alone, 7 million tons of uranium will be needed by 2020, according to the AEC estimates. It concludes that this needcould be met only by using the most expensive sources of uranium ore at recovery costs up to the range of $100 per pound.This in turn would increase electricity costs in the United States by $100 billion.
The capital investment required for uranium mining alone is about $10 billion. If shale mining is required, as the AEC thinks possible if the programme is brought forward, 12 million tons of shale will have to be mined each day in the United States to provide the uranium required—that is about 150,000 lbs. of uranium oxide a day—with a total investment requirement of from $50 to $85 billion, 300,000 men in mines and mills, a continuous mining process and such other factors as the consumption of sulphuric acid at a rate five times greater than the present United States consumption.
This is a sombre picture, but it is a picture of immense importance. If it is correct—and clearly the Government will have their views about it and the House will have to make a decision on the correctness of their conclusions—we must be facing a similar position in Western Europe, but in our case at least half the mining—and the House has controversial views on this question—would take place in South Africa or South-West Africa, and we must draw conclusions from that.
Therefore, the United States solution and requirements are of great importance and are, perhaps, controversial. They have decided to go flat out for the liquid metal fast breeder reactor. They have 1404 made massive and comprehensive cost-benefit analyses which show that on almost every one of 40 separate parameters they have analysed there will be an enormous plus for the United States. They have made a major commitment. They have started a major demonstration plant which will produce 400 megawatts. They have set up two major national corporations, the Breeder Reactor Corporation and the Project Management Corporation, to carry their great programme forward. They have established three major industrial groups. Major contracts were signed by the AEC in July 1973. They have concluded that the project requires the support of the entire utility industry of the United States if it is to be brought to a successful conclusion.
§ Dr. M. S. Miller
For the benefit of those who do not have the tremendous knowledge and experience of the hon. Gentleman, will he tell us what is a liquid metal fast breeder reactor? Is it a plutonium metal reactor?
§ Mr. Lloyd
I understand that it consists of a mixture of radioactive materials and is designed in such a way that when the reactor operates the radiation process breeds greater radioactivity and the liquid metal is merely a coolant used for that process.
The United States feel that they will not succeed unless they combine all the private and public utilities in one massive organisation. That is possibly a controversial conclusion. If it is right, how can we in Western Europe, with our fragmented mini-world, with nations of, perhaps, 40 or 50 million people, and with our much more limited public utility resources, hope to achieve anything like the same results if we carry on as we are? I do not think we shall do so.
As recently as 1971 President Nixon, in his message to Congress, said that it was important to establish a successful demonstration utility by 1980 as a major national goal. Whatever the merits of our problem, and whatever the problems of choice in the context which we have been discussing, my conclusion is that the United States, rightly or wrongly, have gone one step beyond. They are reaching out in a major way to an entirely new spectrum and horizon in nuclear energy. It is also happening in the USSR.
1405 Therefore, what right have we to look at these problems with the confidence with which we are apparently looking at them? Since the USSR has the largest liquid metal fast breeder reactor facility in the world about to come on stream—within 18 months or so, I believe—and already has a 300 megawatt prototype operating. it suggests that in that part of the world a different view has been taken of the vulnerability of the world's electrical power generation industry to an obviously dangerous limited uranium resource. So back we come to the fundamental question of uranium resource.
Dare we in the United Kingdom say with any confidence that we can contemplate, or even should be contemplating, going it alone as we seem to be doing? The evidence suggests in every word, syllable, figure and statistic that we shall fail abysmally if we do. That is the major conclusion I wish to put before the House.
§ 7.30 p.m.
§ Mr. Ted Leadbitter: (Hartlepool)
I am not sure that we should consider the conclusion arrived at by the hon. Member for Havant and Waterloo (Mr. Lloyd) to be final. In this debate we are dealing only with a relatively small part of our total energy resources. We cannot plan the future nuclear programme of the United Kingdom without bearing in mind the need to balance it with our total fuel requirements, including coal and North Sea oil. Many of us feel that we are relying far too much on outside sources for our energy requirements.
It would be foolish to sweep aside more than two decades of work that has been done on nuclear power and the vast amount of investment that has been made in the companies concerned. We must remember also the hopes and aspirations of the scientists and the work force in the industry. It is of paramount importance to calculate the long-term needs of the country and assess them properly against any makeshift short-term provision.
The experts are consistent only in inconsistency. Eighteen months ago the Chairman of the CEGB was adamant that there would be no nuclear programme in this decade, with the possible exception of a fast breeder reactor. On 8th March 1973 Sir Arnold Weinstock told the Select 1406 Committee on Science and Technology that it was not in his mind to have a light water reactor programme for the United Kingdom, although he said that the choice of an advanced gas-cooled reactor programme had not worked out so well. That observation is understandable, because with high technology there are bound to be teething troubles and we are only on the threshold of nuclear energy production. To sweep aside what has already been done in the United Kingdom would not make sense.
By December 1973 Sir Arnold Weinstock had changed his position. When he was questioned, he spoke not so much in terms of the justification for light water reactors as in terms of preferences. The word "preferences" was used in an attempt to scotch the Select Committee's questions which were in pursuit of more technical arguments for some justification of the change. Sir Arnold appeared to be confused when I asked him whether he had changed his mind. He has an even more remarkable facility for talking himself out of more contradictions than has the Prime Minister—and that is an achievement. That is a parliamentary skill which is not to be criticised. Sir Arnold said that he had not changed his mind, he had changed his position. When I asked him whether his mind and his position were two different things, he took up his silk handkerchief and sniffled for a few moments until another question inevitably had to be put. Those two men, the Chairman of the CEGB and Sir Arnold, both of considerable ability and unquestionable reputation, arrived at new conclusions in a few months.
Over the past two decades we have moved from the principle of consortia to the principle of two groupings—the National Nuclear Power Group and the British National Design Corporation—and from there to the National Nuclear Corporation. In that time there has been little more than starts and bursts in the nuclear programme because there has been an overall lack of understanding of the total United Kingdom energy needs.
A national energy board should be set up. It is not in the national interest that decisions about future power stations and their nature should rest entirely with the CEGB. I accept the argument that the CEGB has a duty, taking all commercial considerations into account. to 1407 produce energy at the best possible price for the consumer, but that notion defeats us year after year. To give an example, it was said that North Sea oil and gas would be cheaper and that with certain types of nuclear power station electricity would be cheaper. But that is not the world in which we live. The priority overall must be the national interest.
A national energy board such as I suggest could bring together men of the calibre of Sir Arnold Weinstock and Mr. Hawkins, leaders of the gas and oil industries, consumer representatives, trade unionists and Government representatives. The board could arrive at a rational energy policy and eliminate wasteful competition between the different forms of energy. This would produce long-term certainty for the coal industry and long-term investment for the nuclear industry.
§ Mr. Leadbitter
The value of the hon. Gentleman's interventions is in inverse proportion to his contributions. He is quick with his comments. But he belonged to a Government to whom we appealed many times for a White Paper which we never had. At least under a Labour Government we had a White Paper.
We start on the basis of seeking to coordinate the various elements of our energy resources. In no other way can we utilise our material, mineral, manpower and investment resources for the good of the people as a whole. If we manage to do that, we shall succeed in putting a competitive edge on our export programmes which in the past have failed to satisfy the industry. The industry has been found wanting.
Following the recommendations made by the Select Committee, the Government agreed to set up the National Nuclear Corporation. I wish to question the way in which that body was set up. GEC has the controlling interest with 50 per cent. of the shareholding. other parts of the private sector have been given an option of 35 per cent. of the shareholding and the Government have taken 15 per cent. Is it right for the Government, which is the agent of the British taxpayer, to take only 15 per cent. of the shareholding in this important sector? When the going is critical, the taxpayers shoulder the burden and probably have 1408 to provide more finance to ease the situation, but if the system proves to be profitable we can have a hand in only 15 per cent. of the profits.
I should have thought that the Select Committee's recommendations might be acceptable to the Government. I should like to quote from the Second Report of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, 1972–73, Paper 350. It states:The correct policy for the Government to follow in the public interest would be to take up a larger investment of its own at the outset—not less than 30 per cent. as a minimum. They should then offer the remainder of the equity on an open-tender basis to such private interests as are willing to participate. No single commercial interest should be permitted to hold more than 30 per cent. of the total share-issue. If, in the judgment of the directors of the new company when set up, any existing organisation—GEC or otherwise—has a special expertise in management, then such services could be secured on a contract basis. Under no circumstances should the Government favour any particular private commercial interest, financially or otherwise, by its advance policy decisions.The Committee concluded, I believe wisely:We therefore recommend that the company should not be represented on the Nuclear Power Board.In other words, we sought by that recommendation to enhance an equal partnership. The total private enterprise interest would have amounted to 66 per cent. at the highest, or 60 per cent. at the lowest. There would have been a three-way partnership, the GEC taking 30 per cent., the Government a further 30 per cent. and private interests taking up the remainder.
§ Mr. Ronald Brown
Does my hon. Friend agree that the position is worse than that at present because, although the GEC has only 50 per cent. of the shares in this co-operative venture, its pressure on the rest of the industry associated with it, which has 35 per cent. interest, means that de facto GEC has 85 per cent. of the shares?
§ Mr. Leadbitter
I agree with my hon. Friend; the situation is worrying.
There must be concern at the pressure being mounted for a light water reactor. For example, the Westinghouse people have been to the House of Commons seeking to persuade hon. Members to come 1409 round to their way of thinking. There is a GEC and Westinghouse interest, and if GEC has a 50 per cent. holding its influence and pressure on the other sector of industry may have the result that Sir Arnold Weinstock will rule the roost. That is the position in a nutshell.
The House should take care over this matter because the programme over the next 15 years may well involve a sum as great as £10 billion. This was the situation outlined by the Chairman of CEGB and it is in contrast to the earlier judgment which envisaged a need for caution. A change of ground of that kind must be questioned. In the Select Committee we found no reason that such a view was justified other than Sir Arnold Weinstock's view. Certainly on the grounds of safety or technology we could find no reason for that change of attitude.
It would be helpful if there were a statement of preference in regard to the possibility of using the SGHWR system for the Scottish Electricity Board. We must not lose faith—
§ Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)
Will the hon. Gentleman agree that in connection with the argument he is building up. with a great deal of which I have some sympathy, one of the most important questions is whether the CEGB's estimate of future energy requirements has been thoroughly and heavily over-estimated bearing in mind oil and gas finds in the North Sea?
§ Mr. Leadbitter
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Past practice and information show that these assessments are bound to be wrong. Therefore, there must be a continual re-examination of the evidence before coming to any final decision. Decisions must be made on the basis of hastening slowly rather than coming to any quick conclusion. I hope that the Government will be more receptive to feelings expressed in the House of Commons than to any pressure groups of influential people outside the House.
§ 7.45 p.m.
§ Mr. John H. Osborn (Sheffield, Hallam)
I had prepared a lengthy contribution to this debate but, in view of the remarks made by the Chair, I shall try to abbreviate my speech, in which I wish to express the considerable consterna- 1410 tion felt in industry on this important subject.
I have some sympathy with those, including the Secretary of State, who now have to make a decision, and, indeed. I had similar sympathy with those who found themselves in that situation in the past. I was a member of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, and I accept the conclusion which was so ably advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) supporting 3 GHW and CANDU. I am a rapporteur for the Science and Technology Committee of WEU, which is looking into nuclear problems. It is a committee that has observed the dilemma facing Britain from outside—that is looking at the European industrial capacity as a whole in terms of international considerations rather than merely from an isolated point of view.
I agree with those hon. Members including my right hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin), who have said that attitudes are all-important. This is such a complicated problem that it is extremely difficult not to adopt some prejudice or other. It may be that I myself am guilty of this attitude.
My hon. Friend the Member for Havant and Waterloo (Mr. Lloyd) stressed the question of international cooperation. In looking at what has been said in this debate and at the general dialogue which has taken place on this whole subject, my view is that Britain appears to have been looking at this matter in blinkers and alone. Therefore, perhaps it would be wise to look at the situation as a whole. The international scene has been examined by an OECD commission, and its findings on this complex subject are overdue by several months. I could quote some vital statistics, but I shall content myself merely with saying that world electricity requirements in the period 1950 to the year 2000 will see a tenfold rise.
I could comment on types of reactor, but I shall stress only one point. The European experience in terms of LWR reactors, which is very much less than experience in the United States with its own LWR reactors, shows that some 65 per cent. of reactors under construction or in operation in Europe are light water reactors. We have many prejudices and 1411 objections about light water—PWR—reactors, but we must not forget that the objections seem to have been overcome in other parts of the world.
I touch briefly on industrial attitudes. I was very impressed when I met German leaders of the industry through the Deutsche Atomforum. I was reminded that when I visited the 1955 Atoms for Peace conference there was, after all, no German industry. Germany's policy has been based on competition and on international co-operation. German and French investment in the peaceful uses of atomic energy has far away exceeded investment in this country over the past 20 or 25 years. I can produce statistics to prove that.
The Germans have tackled the problem in an interesting way. Companies have been given high grants to build pilot plants. When those plants have been proved, they have then been given grants of lesser proportion for prototypes. In other words, German industry has had public funds in order to build up its strength, and that is a complete reversal of the situation in the United Kingdom, even though expenditure in the private sector has increased.
In the United States of America, the AEC for a number of years has concentrated on building up its industrial strength in the private sector. There is now a total throughput of construction of 40,000MW nuclear capacity per annum. That is nearly our total nuclear generating capacity. Of it, approximately 40 per cent. is construction through Westinghouse, 40 per cent. through General Electric, and the remainder is divided between International Combustion, Babcock, and General Atomics. Our problem in Britain is that the scale of demand has not been big enough.
If there had been sufficient time, I would have picked up the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Leadbitter) when he commented on the industrial structure. In the Select Committee we had difficulty in deciding what was a fair public shareholding. I content myself with the comment that the creation of the National Nuclear Corporation, even with private sector investment, leaves us with a monopoly supplier supplying a monopoly user. In Germany there are a number 1412 of utilities and two major suppliers owing to amalgamations. In France we have a monopoly utility, EDF, but there are two groups, of which Framatome is one and Societe Electricite Generale is the other.
I had intended to comment on our Magnox and gas-cooled programme. If Britain continues with the gas-cooled programme as a major venture, we shall find ourselves isolated from programmes elsewhere in the world.
I had also intended to comment on the dramatic French decision two years ago to go over to light water reactors. That was dramatic enough, but to go over to a direct licensing arrangement and organisational arrangement between Framatome and Westinghouse must have been galling to the French, who are extremely nationalistic about these matters.
A number of hon. Members have been quite right to ask what is our likely future energy demand. The Minister has given the estimate of nuclear capacity likely to be required in the 1980s.
Some comment has been made about North Sea oil. It should be borne in mind that the cost of extraction of North Sea oil, according to unverified estimates, is about 10 times that of Middle East extraction. On the basis of those estimates, it would appear that the extraction of oil from shale and tar sands could be competitive.
Mr. Hawkins of the CEGB informed me in a letter recently that last year the best coal-fired and oil-fired power stations were costing respectively 0.40 and 0.39 pence per kilowatt hour of electricity produced. This has to be compared with a nuclear cost of 0.33 pence per kilowatt hour. The latest estimate from France is that conventional power stations cost 4 cents per kilowatt hour compared with 2 cents per kilowatt hour for nuclear generation. A crash programme was proposed, part of which was to dismantle smaller conventional powers stations. If those estimates are true, we too ought to consider carefully this new situation because it could have an important impact on our decision making.
The Minister has to consider a number of factors. There is collaboration in Europe, and there is international collaboration. Strangely, we seem to have 1413 gone our own way. We ignored the rest of the world, possibly because 10 or 15 years ago we thought that we were in the lead. However, we have now been overtaken, and we must ensure that this state of affairs does not continue.
The French and German budgets for the peaceful development of atomic energy have been far in excess of our own. Perhaps because we have had a monopoly user, some of the flexibility shown in other countries to join in research programmes and to explore different alternatives has been denied to us.
What are the alternatives facing Britain? Four months ago—before the Select Committee made its recommendations—I would have advised the Minister not to make a precipitate decision. However, having discussed the Select Committee's report with others, I do not think that we can afford to wait. The Minister has to make some decision fairly soon.
What have we to guide us? Canada has gone down one road and has been very successful with the CANDU. But we must bear in mind that France, for instance, is going down all the four roads at once with HTR development, fast breeder development and boiling water and pressure water reactors.
When my right hon. Friend was talking about the Super-Phenix, I intervened to point out that the present project has a 51 per cent. French majority share-holding, the second will have a German majority shareholding and the third an Italian majority shareholding. Co-operation between manufacturers and utilities is evident, but where does Britain come in, especially in view of the fact that fast breeder reactors could well be important in the future?
Looking back a little, light water reactors have been developed. The only outstanding question concerns making the commercial arrangement. The National Nuclear Corporation could work on the pressure water reactor with Framatome, Westinghouse, Babcock and Wilcox Combustion Engineering or Kraftwerke Union. A direct link with Westinghouse seems to be the likely choice.
The CANDU reactor has many advantages, especially in manufacturing terms, and we have the capacity to make it. The difficulties have been outlined. There 1414 is the question of the supply of heavy water, there is the problem of spillage, there is the difficulty of repairs in operation, and it could well be that some utilities, unless they were sophisticated ones. would shy away from such a sophisticated reactor.
The high temperature reactor has gone ahead more rapidly than many people realise, and General Atomic has given it an impetus which we should all recognise. In the States, a capacity of 8,000 to 10,000 MW has already been ordered. In my view, the high temperature reactor could well be the next line of action for us to follow. Again, we are extremely proud of the Dounreay project, but there must be greater international collaboration.
We have talked about sodium cooling. Some say that it may prove too difficult for the utilities. Perhaps there could be an international project with helium or some form of gas cooling as an alternative.
The South of Scotland Electricity Board wishes to buy the CANDU type reactor. Why should it have to follow the CEGB? Utilities elsewhere in the world are going their own way. Why should not the SSEB, if it has know-how to exchange with utilities in Canada, do the same? The CEGB wants the light water reactor. The NNC has said so, too. No one knows whether or not it is a winner. Most of the rest of the world think it is, but there are those who do not agree. Perhaps the SSEB should be permitted to place an order for the CANDU.
§ Dr. M. S. Miller
On a point of correction. The South of Scotland Electricity Board has opted for the steam-generating heavy water reactor, not the CANDU.
§ Mr. Osborn
I think that we might have a discussion on the extent to which the steam-generating heavy water reactor—SCHW-—for which the SSEB has opted, could be constructed in conjunction with the Canadians' know-how. If it were to go solely on a prototype that we have developed without industrial experience it might take longer than hon. Members in this House, particularly Scottish Members, would tolerate. However, I thank the hon. Gentleman for drawing that point to my attention.
1415 No one is certain about the future of the fast breeder or the high temperature reactor. It is useful to have prototype experience of both.
What must we do for the future? I hope that the Minister will look at what is going on elsewhere in the world and will encourage industry, our scientists and the AEC to look at and benefit from experience and knowledge elsewhere and give other countries the benefit of our knowledge.
I hope that the Minister will consider the operation of financing prototype and pilot plants specifically, particularly if the CEGB is not prepared to consider the financing of pilot and prototype development.
I hope that the Minister will take note of what is going on in the Soviet Union, the United States of America and other alternative sources of nuclear supply. A week ago today the Anglo-Soviet Parliamentary Committee of which I was a member went to the Institute of High Energy Physics and we learned about alternative materials or sources of energy. such as hydrogen plasma and anti-matter. It would be too complicated a matter to describe the thinking that is going on amongst our scientists. However, there are other long-term sources of energy for nuclear power generation. We must share the expenditure or long-term research and development with other nations.
What should the Minister do now? He should not rule out the AGR. It may be better than we believe. In my view, we should go ahead with at least two out of the three water programmes, of which one could be the CANDU steam-generating heavy water reactor. However, I do not wish to rule out the light water reactor, which seems to be the universal answer today, although it may not be later. The fact that General Atomic and Brown Boveri are interested in the high temperature programme in Germany means that it could come on quickly, and, as a collaborative venture, should also go ahead with the fast breeder with all speed and develop, if not a 1,000 MW reactor, something smaller, but not in isolation, from breeder reactor development elsewhere. Britain should learn to walk before we try to run in this field. That 1416 is why I support the view of many hon. Members who suggest that there should be prototype work on large reactors. Let us be safe. We should import nuclear power station technology, and develop at slightly below the maximum world capacities, but get to our goal as quickly as possible.
§ 8.4 p.m.
§ Mr. David Stoddart (Swindon)
We have had a most interesting and at times impassioned debate for such a technical subject. I have listened with great interest to hon. Members who served on the Select Committee on Science and Technology. The House owes that Committee a debt of gratitude for bringing this issue to public light and getting it debated on the Floor of the House. I feel that but for its action we would not be debating this subject today.
I can claim neither nuclear expertise nor membership of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, but having worked for the CEGB for a quite long period I know something of the workings of that organisation.
I am also a member of the Electrical, Electronic and Telecommunications and Plumbing Trades Union and I must straight away declare that I enjoy the sponsorship of that union. As a member of the union I know that it has taken a great interest in this subject and conducted a great deal of research into it. Indeed, the general president is the chairman of the TUC Energy Committee.
What surprises me is that, with all their knowledge of the industry and their incipient common sense, the trade unions have hardly, if at all, been consulted about future reactor types. That is most unfortunate. There is certainly no trade union representation on the Nuclear Advisory Board, and the Select Committee did not think to invite the TUC to give its views. I believe that it has been altogether reprehensible that the trade unions have been virtually excluded from consultation on this crucial matter, especially bearing in mind the implications that the decision will have for jobs in the engineering and construction industry. I do not blame the present Secretary of State. However, I wish that the previous Secretary of State had thought about the trade union expertise 1417 and common sense that could have been brought to this problem.
Sir Arnold Weinstock and the CEGB do not have a monopoly of expert knowledge on the subject of nuclear technology; still less do they have a monopoly of common sense, which is so often lacking amongst those who usually give advice on such crucial matters as this. It may be too late for the proper consultation between the trade unions and the Minister to take place, since my right hon. Friend is now on the threshold of taking a decision on future reactor types for this country.
Is it necessary to take a decision so soon? I have been reading the report of the Select Committee. Clearly the CEGB is of the opinion that it must have a quick decision if it is to meet demands on the system in the 1980s. But the Select Committee, wisely in my view. questions the need for such urgency. I agree with the view that the estimates of demand up to 1982 and beyond could be wildly inaccurate. Indeed it is questionable whether it is desirable to attempt to meet that sort of demand.
Is it sensible to attempt to meet a demand of 400 million tons of coal equivalent of generation of electricity by the year 2000? That is an absolutely mammoth figure. We should question whether it is in the interests of the nation and the conservation of world energy supplies to attempt to meet that kind of demand by the year 2000. We should take account of our ability as a nation to meet the capital requirements that will be necessary to meet that demand of 400 million tons of coal equivalent. That figure appears in the report as the CEGB's thinking about demand by the year 2000.
The projected demand even up to 1982 is questionable and probably does not take into account the considerably increased cost of energy to the consumer both now and in the future. Increased cost will inevitably, and rightly result in the more careful use of energy, and in particular of electrical energy. Indeed, there is evidence that some industrial consumers who gained experience of operating standby equipment during the coal mining dispute intend to use that equipment to reduce their maximum demand on the supply system. That is some 1418 thing that ought to be taken into account, because if it were done on a relatively large scale it would affect the estimates of the CEGB of its future load requirements.
That leads me to the matter of spare generating capacity. For a long time the CEGB and the Government have believed that absolute or near-absolute security of supply is vitally necessary. That is undoubtedly a laudable aim, but it is no longer an aim. It has virtually been achieved, but there could be an argument about whether the cost of achieving absolute or near-absolute security of supply is worth while.
It has been held by the CEGB that 20 per cent. spare capacity is essential if security of supply is to be maintained, and again some would argue that that figure is too high. Be that as it may, before coming into the Chamber I looked at the CEGB's annual report for 1972–73. Perhaps I misread it, but nevertheless I read it.
The report shows that output capacity of the board was 56,427MW, yet the maximum demand met for that year was only 40,639MW. That means that there was spare capacity in the system of nearly 16,000MW. In percentage terms of maximum demand, that means spare capacity of no less than 40 per cent., and 29 per cent. of output capacity. Whichever of those figures one takes, it is clear that the spare capacity in 1972–73 was well in excess of the safety margin of 20 per cent. thought desirable by the board.
That is clearly an aspect which the Secretary of State should take into account when examining the board's projections of demand and when he has to meet the pressures on him for an immediate decision about the nuclear programme. He should clearly be asking what margin of spare capacity is being catered for and weigh the cost of that very seriously, bearing in mind that as we shall be installing nuclear equipment to meet that spare capacity—that is what it means—it will cost about £250 per kW to install electricity generation capacity which in essence will be standing idle. I hope that my right hon. Friend will take serious note of that, because hundreds of millions of pounds are involved and there might be millions of pounds worth of spare capacity.
1419 As far as I can see from research carried out by my union, there are compelling reasons for much hesitation before falling hook, line and sinker for the Westinghouse light water reactor system. The doubts on the safety of these reactors voiced in the United States and here are well known, and we cannot afford to take a chance on safety in our densely-populated island.
We should also have grave reservations about contributing to a world monopoly situation that is being built up by the United States nuclear industry. We must bear in mind too the implications for our own industrial potential if we go for the light water reactor, and of course our balance of payments will be affected. I am sure that the Secretary of State will want to take that into account.
What, then, is to be done? My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer) hit the nail on the head when he said that there was a good case for going for the natural progression from AGR to HTR and perhaps filling in with the SGHWR. I believe that that is a good idea, and I understand that it is the view of the Select Committee. It would look in to a great degree with the Canadian system, and the co-operation with other countries about which so many hon. Members have spoken would be possible with Canada. This is the kind of solution for which I should be looking, and I am sure that it would be welcomed by the great majority of the people of this country.
This decision obviously needs a some-what longer time scale. That is why the Minister should not allow himself to be stampeded by the charge of the light water brigade into an over-quick decision. If necessary, he can bring up his heavy water cannon against those concerned. But if the Minister takes the wrong decision now it will hang round his neck like a political-technical albatross for the rest of his life, particularly as it has not been discussed with the trade union movement—let us make no mistake about it. The Minister could perhaps stand the albatross round his neck for the rest of his life, but unfortunately the country cannot afford a mistake now. I urge him to hesitate very long before he 1420 takes that decision. It would be better for him to take longer to make the right decision, than make the wrong decision too soon.
§ 8.18 p.m.
§ Colonel Sir Harwood Harrison (Eye)
We have had a learned and rather technical debate, and I should like to speak purely from the human angle. I do so because in my constituency we have for some years had the Magnox nuclear generator. It has become part of our countryside and our life.
About seven years ago it was thought that a twin generator should be built. The site was cleared, and about £3 million was spent on it but at the last minute the CEGB found that it had got its figures wrong and the project was put off for a year. It has continued to be put off for seven years, and has still not been built.
People in my constituency are desperately worried that this is one of the first sites for a nuclear power station, and they are concerned about what will happen in the future. People have telephoned me about this matter. I have met many people about it. I have received telegrams today. All of them are against the light water American reactor.
I have had discussions with the Leiston Urban District Council. There is no party politics in this matter. We were united in the view that we had to see that people's fears were completely allayed. I gave my assurance that I would never vote for an American-type reactor if this would endanger the life of a single child in my constituency.
Although the safety factor has been mentioned on both sides of the House. it has not received quite enough attention. My county council, quite rightly, engaged the services of Professor Leslie, Professor of Nuclear Engineering at the University of London, to write a report. The Leiston UDC and the Suffolk County Council have read the report. I have had letters about it from villages far away from Leiston. I shall not give the House some of Professor Leslie's arguments because time is short. However, he was firmly of the opinion that there was a far greater 1421 risk with the American reactor than with the British-built reactor.
Why should we give way on this matter and have an American reactor when we have our own? This is a factor which has caused tremendous unease in my constituency. That unease must be allayed if the Minister decides on the American reactor. I invite the Minister to visit Leiston. I know he is very busy, but if he is thinking, on those lines he should see the anxieties of the people of Leiston. They have seen this report. They are not stupid. They know that accidents happen and that if a reactor went wrong the disaster would be catastrophic for the people of that area.
Just over a year ago, as Chairman of a Select Committee dealing with the defence of this country, I visited Washington. I had the pleasure of meeting there Admiral Rickover, who is a very unusual character. He has done more in recruiting men and training them for work in nuclear submarines than any other American. He made a very wise remark when he said "You can get experts on anything, on one side or the other. The first side proves that what the other side says is entirely wrong." He was very polite. He also said "I believe that a committee of Members of Parliament such as yourselves have a wide knowledge, and you are more likely to arrive at the right answer than is a body of experts."
That is why I was glad to see my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) appointed Chairman of the Select Committee. The hon. Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer) is also very knowledgeable on these matters. Other members of that Committee have spoken today and have elaborated on the report. I fully endorse the view that:In fields of conflict of opinion on the safety of the LWRs it is in our opinion for the proponents of the light water technology to prove its safety beyond all reasonable doubt rather than for its opponents to have to prove the contrary.That point is of particular importance in a densely populated country such as Britain. It may work all right in America, where there are vast expanses of land, but it is not proved that these reactors are all right here.
Although my constituency is a low-density area, Leiston is a town of 3,000 1422 people. Up to now there has been a restriction of two miles on building because of the nuclear power station there. That has now been relaxed a little. But with this American reactor it would be up to five miles for anything like the same safety factor.
Before this matter is decided upon, the House must, above all, think of people. That is what politics is about. We must think how people live and the sort of conditions in which they work. There is a risk in this matter. It has not been proved otherwise. I should be uncertain in my mind about the American reactor and I would not vote for it—not because of any party politics but purely for the protection of the welfare of the people.
I was delighted that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin) spoke highly of the Nuclear Inspectorate and said that it would not pass any site as suitable for a nuclear power station if it thought there was a risk. I hope that the Minister will ensure that safety factors predominate over factors of cost or anything else before he makes his decision.
§ 8.25 p.m.
§ Mr. Ronald Brown (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)
I commence by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on accepting a debate before he makes his decision on this crucial matter. I endorse very much his view about the confused situation In which one finds oneself in dealing with this matter.
The Sunday Times article has been referred to frequently in the debate. It seemed to be anxious that the Select Committee was not biased. I am bound to tell the Sunday Times that I suppose that I was biased. On the Select Committee I wanted to discuss matters with witnesses and I wanted to inform myself on various matters. The more I did that the more questions I had to ask. Therefore, when the proponents of light water reactors came to the Committee I was very well fitted to question them. The fact that they failed to answer does not alter the fact that I had a right, as a member of that Committee, to question them. I am in no haste to deny that I was biased if by "biased" one means that one has fitted oneself to ask the right questions of those who purported to have the answers.
1423 The Select Committee's job was well done in attempting to unravel some of the confusion. The reality of the situation was made clear by the CEGB evidence.
It is worth recording again that when the question was put to Mr. Hawkins as to what were the requirements of the CEGB from 1972 through to 1983 he was absolutely clear and went through two possibilities. The first was a 5 per cent. growth which, he said, was absurd. We never reached it. He gave us then a 3½per cent. growth rate, although the Secretary of State's view today was a 3.6 growth rate. He made matters abundantly clear when he said:Therefore we would only require 4,000 MW more plant. That would mean in this period"?that is, 10 years—for commissioning until 1980 only three new station starts, of which one would be probably nuclear—and probably the fast reactor.We questioned him closely on that. He was adamant about it. At one point he asked why should he buy what he did not want and he said that his job was to produce cheap electricity. He said later:This, as I tried to stress, is the result of our very latest thinking, and, if it is of any advantage to say so to clear up Mr. Brown's point…He went on to give an illustration. He made it absolutely clear that that was the latest thinking, in August 1972. He said he did not really want any stations but that he might have to have three in ten years and that one might be nuclear.
However, on 18th December 1973 he told us:Regardless of what the choice of reactor is, we are saying at the moment that we would like to order in 1974 two stations and…in 1975 one station, another in 1976, another in 1977, two in 1978 and two in 1979.He said that there would be nine new stations, and then nine more from 1980 to 1983, meaning 18 stations. He then went on to talk of two sets at each station, which meant 36 reactors. That meant that from the time of his latest thinking, in August 1972 during which he said that he did not want anything for 10 years, the argument was stepped up to 18 stations with 36 reactors.
1424 Therefore, my right hon. Friend was right when he said that there was confusion. Some of the greatest confusion lies with the CEGB. It has never been right. It has never backed the right horse yet. I have no reason to believe that what was called the latest thinking at 18th December is backing the right horse.
Therefore, I tried in the Select Committee to find out why the CEGB was so petulant about the AGR. I could not understand that. I could understand the frustration and the delay and one accepts that professional pride is involved, but the reason for the delay, as I have pointed out in an intervention, is that it stems from an excessive degree of extrapolation of the operating conditions, from the very successful small Windscale AGR prototype.
One of our problems is that we tend to believe that if something works in a small way we have then only to size it up and it will operate satisfactorily. I believe that sufficient work has been done on the AGRs to show that we will have ironed out snags.
I want to know from the CEGB why it wants to cast the AGR aside. It has cost a lot to arrive at this stage and the AGR should not be cast aside. It still has validity. I have faith in it. It will work well. Expertise and the inventiveness of the industry have together found solutions to the problems.
My principal concern for the past three years has been about the safety factors. Some people thought that I was, perhaps, on the wrong matter and that I should have addressed myself to other issues, but I still believe that the safety arguments about the LWR are real. I made a lot of inquiries to try to find out what sort of testing was done, what sort of parameters the Americans had made for the introduction of LWR in America.
I was a little worried why my right hon. Friend said that we must rely on the American Energy Commission. The AEC is regarded as being pretty low down the list in terms of veracity in America, one finds when speaking to people there. From what they say it seems that public confidence in the pronouncements of the AEC must be at a low ebb. Time and again it has been demonstrated that the AEC has been 1425 found not to have told the facts as they have been known, and I trust, therefore, that my right hon. Friend will not place too much reliance on the AEC.
I detected that my right hon. Friend has already spoken to Sir Arnold Weinstock and Lord Aldington. Both of those proponents of the LWR have got their evidence from exactly the same place. This was discovered by the Select Committee. The more one probes and presses about how information is being obtained and where it is coming from, the more it is found that it is all coming from the same fount of knowledge—the AEC. However, it seems that the AEC cannot any longer be relied upon, according to the Americans, and I am prepared to take their view. Therefore, I fail to see why this country should place much reliance on it.
I asked Sir Arnold Weinstock and Lord Aldington where they had done testing on the LWR in this country. The answer was that they had done nothing. All they could say was that it had been done by the Americans. The fallacy of the argument is that it has not been done by the Americans. The Americans have used a computer and simulated all the safety issues. They have then extrapolated the answer from the computer as being de facto what will happen if anything happens in real life.
The Americans are now discovering that the computer answer is wrong and they are building for themselves a prototype of a light water reactor way out in the desert to reduce it to dust. They hope to create each of the nine possible accidents that could arise, including the worst, the ninth, namely, that of a pressure vessel bursting so as to satisfy themselves that they are right.
If the Americans are still doing that at this late stage, if they are still so concerned as to spend huge sums of money to satisfy themselves of the answer, how wrong would it be of my right hon. Friend to jump in and say" That is all right. We do not mind. The AEC sold a duff story a long time ago, so we will buy it now. There is now all the evidence that we require."
I put this issue to Sir Arnold Weinstock and asked him about the evidence that had been offered at a public hearing. The Americans have a very useful way 1426 of dealing with this: they have public meetings at which people can probe the proponents of reactors before licences are granted. I asked Sir Arnold why a certain passage had been deleted from the report of the proceedings at one of the meetings, at Bethesda in America, of which I had knowledge. Sir Arnold told me "I do not know of any expurgation of a paragraph or what it said." It would not have caused much trouble for Sir Arnold to find out.
I found out. The heading of that paragraph, as I told the House in the debate on 22nd January 1973 was:Major accidents: Causes and the Consequences.That part was deleted on the specious argument that it could cause panic, that if people could see what was possible they might think that it could happen immediately and not realise that this was a series of possible accidents whose effect increased in severity.
The public have the right to know the possibilities, however improbable they might be. It is not for anybody to delete that information. I was astounded to find that people like Sir Arnold Weinstock and Lord Aldington, who should have known, had not made themselves familiar with these matters, as they are the men who claim to be advising the Minister on advisory boards I therefore hope that my right hon. Friend will be careful before he accepts too easily and too readily what the American Energy Commission says.
I tried to create for our witnesses a scenario in which they could tell us how much work they have done on these issues. Nobody could show any evidence of understanding what these catastrophies could mean.
The Chief Inspector, who is a man of great capacity, was very helpful to us. The House has doubtless read his valuable evidence. He said that he was not prepared to accept the safety parameters from America. He said, in answer to me, "I will start with a clean sheet of paper and determine my safety requirements from there." Apparently it would take two and a half years before the Chief Inspector would be able to tell us what his requirements for the light water reactor would be. Yet the CEGB, Sir Arnold Weinstock and Lord Aldington had argued the case that there 1427 had to be an immediate decision, because these things had to be going in 1974. How can we go ahead with light water reactors then, up to the safety standard which the Chief Inspector says we cannot have for two and a half years—
§ Mr. Brown
Mr. Williams made that remark. It was my figure. I said, "Two years." Mr. Williams agreed with me. He thought I was right in saying about two years. I was allowing for a 10 per cent. error. Let us call it two and a half years.
It was argued that we should purchase the light water reactors because they were the cheapest. I ask my right hon. Friend: How are they the cheapest? We were given the figures of £366 per kilowatt put out for the Magnox and £233 per kilowatt put out for the LWR. I asked on what rating was the £233 based for the LWR, because we know that many LWRs are down-rated. The Americans will not have them operating at the standard rate.
We had an altercation about what I meant by "rating" and "down-rating". When my right hon. Friend says that they are the cheapest, on what figure is he working for down-rating, since the Americans do not have one such reactor working to capacity? They are all down-rated 20 per cent., 30 per cent. or more. Why does my right hon. Friend choose to work on that particular rating?
There are wide areas dealing with safety which have not been checked. It is not right or proper for us to go ahead and undertake the enormous expansion of LWR capacity which the CEGB wants till we are satisfied about this. In paragraph 19 of the Committee's report I argue as I argued throughout. I was challenged so often. It is not for me or any individual parliamentarian to prove that the light water reactors are unsafe. It is for those who are manufacturing them, who are claiming that they are important to this country, to prove that they are safe. I submit that they have not done that.
§ 8.43 p.m.
§ Mr. Hector Monro (Dumfries)
The hon. Member for Hackney, South and 1428 Shoreditch (Mr. Brown) has very much added to the consensus that seems to be emerging that we will not accept the LWR system without a great deal more proof about the safety factor. I wish to deal with the issue in the Scottish context. Whatever the future of coal-powered and oil-fired power stations, nuclear power is not an option. We must accept that it is an essential. That is why this debate is so important and why the Select Committee's report is so valuable.
We must do first things first when dealing with the type of reactor that is to be used in future. It is also important to consider where reactors are to be situated in relation to such factors as environmental damage, transmission line problems and proximity to domestic and industrial consumers. I trust that in the decisions that are made a fair share of investment will be given to Scotland.
I wish to deal particularly with Chapel-cross nuclear power station in Dumfriesshire, geographically in the centre of Britain. It was a wise decision to site this Magnox reactor on a disused aerodrome near the Solway. It brought to the area new technologies and many new jobs, which is important to the South-West of Scotland where unemployment is higher than the national average. The UK AEA built houses and a fine social club and entered fully into the life of the community. After construction, and when the manufacture of plutonium was at a high level, there were more than 1,000 employees. In recent years, however, the labour force has declined to around 500 and Chapelcross has become a generating station run by British Nuclear Fuels, which sells power to the SSEB. The contract for the sale of power is due for renewal this year.
Chapelcross generates electricity most efficiently with a load factor of 92 per cent., which is very high compared with figures quoted for other types of reactor. It generates 200 MW for the grid and has a highly-skilled labour force and an exceptionally good training scheme for apprentices. A great deal of the credit for the power station must go to the recently retired superintendent Mr. Desbruslais, to his successor Mr. McDougall and to the work force. I hope that the difficulty over pay will be resolved as soon as possible.
1429 I hope too that the Minister will give some information about the future of Chapeicross. The Government have 100 per cent. ownership of British Nuclear Fuels and since BNF took over from the UKAEA it has been responsible for development. Over the years I have asked for additional reactors and turbines for greater generation of electricity, for laboratory work, for an experimental desalination plant and originally for the prototype fast-breeder reactor. That could not come to Chapeicross but I am delighted that it has remained in Scotland at Dounreay. I have urged appropriate and constructive work to keep the labour force together and to increase it.
I believe that the SSEB does not feel that it needs additional power in the south of Scotland, even though the recent electrification of the railway from Crewe to Glasgow takes power from Chapelcross. But surely Chapelcross is no more remote from industry or areas needing electric power than Girvan in South Ayrshire or Berwickshire on the East Coast, both of which I believe are front runners for future nuclear power stations in Scotland. One important factor about Chapelcross is that it has ample space around it and that planning permission for development should not be difficult to obtain provided that services are available, particularly fresh water—although obviously sea water presents no particular problem. I do not believe that planning permission would be easily obtainable at the other sites I have mentioned. The questions of planning and the environment are as important as the type of reactors which will be installed.
§ Mr. Ronald Brown
What we discovered through questioning in the Select Committee was that planning procedures had been altered. Planning permission is sought for every type of reactor one can think of, and when it is given the CEGB has carte blanche to choose whichever reactor it wishes.
§ Mr. Monro
I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman says, but my opinion is that, whatever type of reactor was sought around the coastline of Scotland, there would need to be a great deal of pressure and many public inquiries before permission was granted. But that does not apply to the site I am mentioning. That is why it is worth consideration. 1430 Because it is so valuable, the site at Chapelcross should be considered for future developments.
There is concern in the district about the future of the site. No one can state with certainty the life of a Magnox plant. Is it 20 years, 25 years or 30 years, or what is it? All the information I have managed to obtain is very vague. Chapel-cross has been running efficiently for 15 years and is therefore entering the area of doubt about its future. What is to happen to it during the next decade and further into the future if its life is to continue? It would be ridiculous to think of abandoning the site and leaving a modern generating station with no power to drive the turbines. It would be a monumental white elephant. The hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie), now Under-Secretary, knows full well the size of the Chapelcross power station. We must think not only of the long-term future, which many hon. Members have discussed today, but the medium term, the period of 10–15 years ahead, in relation to the Magnox station of the present day.
To site a new reactor at Chapelcross would be a major decision. There are alternatives that could take up the present staff, and increase the staff, such as an enrichment plant which would separate U235 from U238; a centrifuge plant; a prototype HTR, which is a development of the AGR, a well-tried system; or a prototype SGHWR of the type favoured so strongly by the SSEB. That would fit well into the time scale of the future of Chapelcross.
I am not competent to agree or disagree with the Select Committee or Vinter on future policy. Naturally, however, one tends towards a British reactor, which includes all the research and development of our nuclear effort over many years. It would seem foolhardy to throw away our experience, though I suppose that many of our design and engineering staff would move over to work on whatever reactor system was accepted for the future.
I note that, whatever the CEGB says about the PWR or the HTR, the SSEB—and Mr. Tombs, the chairman, in particular—with its vast experience of nuclear generation of electricity in Scotland, came out strongly in support of the 1431 SGHWR. Its advice should not be discarded lightly. I believe that its evidence was the most conclusive put before the Select Committee.
We are all very conscious of safety. It has been a front runner throughout the debate. We are aware of the concern about the LWR system in America. I appreciate that in view of what can only be described as a very remote accident possibility, from whatever reactor system we choose, safety will be high on the agenda when the Secretary of State makes his decision.
Here I should like to say something, because of recent comments in the Press, about the transport of nuclear fuel by road. I believe that the fears are grossly exaggerated. The transport of nuclear fuel has been carried out in perfect safety, and I see no reason why there should be criticism of the system that is used now or of the drivers and staff who undertake the work.
I conclude by saying that we have ample space at Chapelcross in Dumfriesshire, and I am sure that the area would welcome developments which could take place at the site. I ask the Minister to make a statement as soon as he can about what will happen to this important Magnox station, and I ask for his assurance tonight that he will give its future the most careful consideration.
§ 8.55 p.m.
§ Dr. M. S. Miller (East Kilbride)
I listened with great interest and with more than a degree of admiration to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. He gave the House the facts upon which any future decision will be based. He did so with clarity and precision. I am sure that we can have absolute confidence in him as someone who has obviously gone out of his way to master the complexities and intricacies of this highly technical matter.
I am glad that my right hon. Friend set out the whole position as he did. We must take into account all the factors that are involved before committing ourselves to something that may have irrevocable effects on the very lives of future generations for perhaps as long as the human race survives.
There are, if I dare to state the obvious, two main considerations. The first con- 1432 sideration, in the light of future power requirements, is what part nuclear reactors play. The second consideration, on the assumption that we shall have to build nuclear reactors, is what type they should be. It must be remembered that our thoughts about nuclear power in general were in the formation stage against a background of the rundown of the coal industry and when firm evidence of offshore oil was relatively scanty. That situation has undergone drastic change. The oil crisis of last autumn, which could recur at any time, has concentrated our minds wonderfully.
Oil has become very expensive, and we have rightly given a new lease of life to our coal industry. Both oil and coal are finite, but at a fairly conservative estimate we have enough coal under our soil to last 200 years. In the foreseeable future we should be producing sufficient oil for our needs. I agree with my right hon. Friend that we should not be profligate in the use of coal. It is much too valuable merely to be burned.
I agree with the right hon. and gallant Member for Eye (Sir H. Harrison) that the prime consideration must be safety. That consideration must not be sacrificed for greater energy. That is the real problem. The hotter the reactor the greater the pressure on the coolant and the more dangerous the apparatus becomes. We should make up our mind that we do not intend to proceed with any of the light water reactors because the dangers are too great. Both the Westinghouse PWR and the American Electric BWR use light water as coolant and as a moderator. The water therefore becomes radioactive, and as the operating pressure is high—it is a little more than a ton per square inch—leakage means the escape of radio-active material. Sir Alan Cottrell, the Government Chief Scientist, giving evidence to the Select Committee, impressed his views on the Committee to the extent that it indicated that the PWR system was not a proven design for the size of reactor envisaged.
It would therefore seem that heavy water reactors are a safer choice, and, as has been amply demonstrated today, there are in this respect the Canadian CANDU and the British steam generating heavy water reactor—the SGHWR. The advantage of heavy water is that it absorbs fewer neutrons than light water, thus 1433 permitting natural uranium to be used as fuel. In addition, in the steam generating heavy water reactors the pressure is much less. For example, the SGHWR, which has a fairly high power density, has a comparatively low pressure; it is considerably less than half that of the PWR. CANDU has a lower power density and a much higher pressure than the SGHWR. The Select Committee summed up the position regarding the LWRs, and the hon. and gallant Member for Eye quoted the words of the Select Committee which, in my opinion, concisely summarised the position concerning the light water reactors.
I have learned to be wary of scientists. I am not blinded by their flashing genius It is touching to hear erudite, knowledgable speeches by hon. Members who know their subject extremely well but accept all the blandishments of the scientists. Some of this rubs off in my profession. The extent to which people have confidence, which is often exaggerated, in the medical profession is extremely touching. I am very sceptical about what scientists tell us as definite facts because much of it is experimentation; it is not proved.
I do not disparage science; far from It. But, in the main, scientists do what they are asked to do. If asked to design an efficient nuclear reactor, they will do so, and they will in all probability draw attention to its deficiencies which are inherently and intrinsically involved in their terms of reference. For example, if more power is wanted, more risk must be accepted. A choice has to be made, and we have to make it not only on behalf of people today but for far into the future.
The danger is minimal when we have few reactors. We can watch them extremely carefully. If anything goes wrong, there are not many sources of contamination to involve ourselves with. But think of the time when the number of nuclear reactors runs into hundreds. Nuclear waste remains radioactive not for hundreds but for thousands of years. I should like the Secretary of State to estimate, on the basis of the decision which he must make at some time in the future, how many nuclear reactors we shall have in operation in this country In 20 years' time.
1434 I say to the Government, with all the seriousness I can muster: do not rush. There is plenty of time for experimentation, and it should be experimentation with safety in mind. Spend more on coal research. Powdered coal, on which the National Coal Board is experimenting. can be burnt with an efficiency approaching 95 per cent. There are also other sources of power which have to be investigated.
In conclusion, I can do no better than quote a paragraph of an article which appeared last week in the New Statesman. It runs as follows:The as yet unsolved problems of large-scale permanent radioactive waste management, the risk of catastrophic releases of radioactivity and proliferation of bomb-grade material create grave and justified misgivings about a premature major expansion of nuclear power.It goes on to say that there is—an incontrovertible case for a much more thorough investigation of the issues involved than has so far been made available to Parliament and the public. The issues of public safety and the scale of the resources involved clearly require a public and properly researched investigation about a decision which threatens to cost many times more than Concorde and is inherently more dangerous.The Government would do well to give this comment close attention.
§ 9.6 p.m.
§ Mr. Edward Gardner (South Fylde)
In the few minutes available to me I shall return to the question of safety. Whatever reactor is ultimately the choice of the British Government, it must clearly be one which satisfies British standards of safety. The consequences of a catastrophic accident in a nuclear power station, the disintegration of the reactor followed by the escape of radioactive particles, cannot be lightly contemplated.
British reactors all satisfy the high standards which British tests apply. One is not so certain about the standards being satisfied if we have American reactors. The nuclear fuel is contained in steel pressure vessels 15 ft. wide by about 45 ft. high. The fuel is covered by water and is kept from boiling by the water being under pressure of about 1 ton to the square inch. In the view of our best experts, the risk of a pressure vessel of this kind suffering a rapid fracture is in principle possible.
I have spoken this evening to one of my constituents who is a scientist at the 1435 Springfield works of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority in my constituency. He expresses the concern that is felt on both sides of the House about the safety factor in American reactors. He says, perfectly seriously, that he would not live within 50 miles of an American reactor. He said that if we had 30 or more American reactors in this country he would consider leaving the country. That is the view he takes, rightly or wrongly, of the standard of safety as it is known at present of American reactors.
Sir John Hill, the chairman of the UKAEA, the South of Scotland Electricity Board and scientists and technologists who work in nuclear energy have all in turn expressed faith in British industry and British technology producing the kind of reactor which the country needs. I ask the Government to give those people a chance to see that their faith is justified.
§ 9.10 p.m.
§ Mr. John Evans (Newton)
I am grateful to have this opportunity of speaking in this debate because I must confess that at one stage I doubted whether I should be called to make my contribution. Most hon. Members have made clear in this debate that the decision which must be made is of profound importance to the future of this country —and I refer not only to the nuclear industry but to the engineering industry in general.
I agree with those of my hon. Friends who have said that the trade union movement should have been consulted on this occasion. I wish to make it clear that I am a sponsored member of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers. I also have a large constituency interest in this subject since I have in my area the nuclear centre at Risley. Also situated in that area is the Nuclear Power Group, which is now being made part of the National Nuclear Corporation with its responsibilities for the design and construction of four Magnox stations. There are in the area the headquarters of the British Nuclear Fuel Company and the headquarters of the Reactor Group of the AEA, including its main mechanical engineering laboratory.
It is obvious that I have a tremendous constituency interest in this debate since 1436 hundreds, if not thousands, of my constituents are concerned with the issues which we are debating tonight. I hope the Minister has been made aware that this subject is not to be approached in a party political spirit. I was hoping that this debate would be marked by a concern for British technology, and it must be said that this topic has been debated irrespective of party affiliations.
Some hon. Members have suggested that a decision on this subject should be put off. I disagree. The CEGB is forcing a decision on the Government, and if my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy resists its blandishments and refuses to accept the American system I suggest that he will have time to give further consideration to the problems that face our own nuclear industry.
The industry has made clear in its evidence to the Select Committee—the Select Committee Report was a wonderful piece of work—that it wants to buy American, and wants to buy it now. What puzzles me greatly is that at one period the CEGB was suggesting that there was no hurry, but on 19th December the board suggested that it had to make an urgent decision on this enormously important matter. It said that it wished to purchase nine nuclear stations, all with twin reactors, making 18 reactors in all. It also said that nine further stations were involved. Since we already know that the South of Scotland Electricity Board is talking in terms of a further eight reactors for its own requirements, this envisages a total of 36 to 40 reactors in the next 10 years. This is an enormous decision for any one man to make. Therefore, I believe that the Secretary of State must make a decision and that it must be based on British technology.
I completely reject the suggestion that we should buy American technology. Our industry has a good record. Mistakes have been made, but it is the politicians who have made them in the past few years and not our scientists, engineers and technicians. It is quite possible that if the politicians had had the courage of our nuclear scientists and engineers we would not have been in the plight that we are today, arguing about whether to accept the case put forward by Sir Arnold Weinstock and Mr. Hawkins of the CEGB to buy American.
1437 I echo the sentiments of those hon. Members who have referred to paragraph 19 of the Select Committee's report. It was probably the most important statement by the Committee. It is incumbent upon those who favour the American system to prove beyond doubt that it is completely safe. It is not for those of us who oppose the system to disprove their arguments. It is for them to prove their arguments conclusively.
I accept what the right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin) said about not adopting scare-mongering tactics and not talking about atomic bombs. But we must recognise that if by chance there was a major accident with a PWR the result would be a disaster of proportions which we have never known in our history. Those who seek to promote this system must first prove to the British people that it is an entirely safe one.
If we accept the blandishments of the CEGB and put all our eggs into one nuclear basket by purchasing 30 or more reactors of this type, what will happen in the years ahead if one of them develops a major fault? Cracking has occurred in this type of reactor in various parts of the world, with potentially disastrous effects on the surrounding areas. I suggest that in the event of an accident the NII would insist on the stations being closed down. If that happened because of the dangers to the population, probably the Nuclear Inspectorate would insist on other stations being closed down. If in the 1980s we had 30 or more of these reactors, what would be the end product for the British economy as a result of having so much of our nuclear technology in them?
§ Mr. Nigel Lawson (Blaby)
Is the hon. Gentleman saying that there is no possibility of any kind of accident in any other type of reactor or nuclear power station?
§ Mr. Evans
Of course I accept that there could be accidents, but the point is that British reactors have been operating successfully for a considerable period and the British people are now satisfied with the safety standards and workmanship which have gone into producing them. My argument is that there is not the same reliability with the American system as British systems have been proved to have. I accept that there could 1438 be accidents. Anything that mortal man builds is subject to accidents. The argument is that our systems have been proved safe, and certainly the British people accept them as being safe and reliable.
I suggest that it would be foolish to throw away that regard of the British people for our systems in favour of a system about which there are doubts, even in America. Powerful voices are raised there suggesting that there are problems. Why should we purchase those problems before the Americans themselves are satisfied?
It is obvious that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has some very difficult decisions to take in the near future. I suggest that he should consider carrying on with the British systems. I believe that the go-ahead should be given to the SGHWR. I believe that the South of Scotland Electricity Board should be given the go-ahead immediately for one of those stations. It is suggested that there is considerable export potential for that type of reactor. However, I understand that there are problems. When representatives of developing countries inquire about this reactor, their first observation seems to be "It sounds very good, but where is the British reactor?" Surely this is something with which we could go ahead.
I believe that we should continue with the AGRs. I believe that, as has been suggested, having spent considerable sums of money in that area of technology, we will find it worth while in the long term.
We are at the crossroads of the British nuclear industry. Down one road lies disaster. The American system would bring about that disaster. Down the other road lies a promising future for the British nuclear industry. Men and women have given their lives working in that industry to create so many leads for Britain. I hope that today we have signposted the roads clearly enough for the Secretary of State to make the correct choice.
§ 9.21 p.m.
§ Mr. David Howell (Guildford)
Whether or not we have signposted any roads clearly today, the House has certainly approached this complicated issue with a good deal of humility, and it is absolutely right to do so. For one reason the whole subject is hellishly complicated, 1439 and for another the nation's record in decision making in this sector has been, to put the best interpretation upon it, abysmal.
As a nation we have made one or, probably, two major national mistakes. As a result, whereas 18 to 20 years ago Calder Hall was the first nuclear power station in the world to feed electricity to the grid, the United Kingdom has now been put way back. If we in this House can agree on nothing else, at least there must be general agreement on both sides, in industry, in the generating boards and in the Government that we cannot afford further costly mistakes. This time the colossal decision must be right.
I think that all who have experience in this area would admit, as I do, that there is precious little ground for confidence from past performance. If we have learned anything from the stories of the last 20 years in nuclear reactor systems. it is that in government our decision-making procedures have been weak. We have a lot to learn in strengthening the processes by which the Government reach decisions on public policy in our major industrial sectors. The interesting book written by the Paymaster-General, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Dell), who analyses some of the industrial decisions and boobs made by the previous Labour Government, will repay study. It shows some of the devastating weaknesses in our decision-making processes on public policy in the major industrial sectors.
Looking back—I do not want to do too much looking back this evening, but we learn from the past for the future—the story of Magnox is terrifyingly instructive. We now know that the decision on Magnox was made without any proper economic appraisal. It was made with inflated ideas of export potential, which were never realised, and an unwarranted, almost absurd lack of attention to foreign experience.
Then we came to the decision in the mid-1960s on the advanced gas-cooled reactor. Some extremely interesting comments have been made about that matter, but the full story has yet to emerge. I shall come back to that in a moment.
What we know is that back in 1965, when it came to the job of the CEGB 1440 and the UKAEA to make a comparison with boiling water reactors, they came up with the decision for Dungeness B that the AGR was better on the basis of cost, of thermal efficiency and a number of other grounds, including development potential, yet here we are today with not one of the AGRs working. That is the dismal story, and we should be wise to keep it in our minds.
Having said that, I must say that the rôle of the House of Commons has been very much more creditable in the whole saga, and it would be wrong to end the debate without a tribute to both my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) and the hon. Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer) who, with their colleagues, over the years have persistently and with vigour continued to open up and expand the public debate on these crucial issues. They particularly, but the House of Commons in general and its Select Committees, have played a creditable rôle in this otherwise sad story.
The truth is that as early as 1962 Select Committees were telling the Government that there was something basically and fundamentally wrong with the organisation of the whole nuclear problem, and later the Select Committee was pressing for a single construction company which eventually my right hon. Friend set up under the previous Government in the form of the National Nuclear Corporation. I believe that he was right to do so and that he deserves credit for it.
We are now faced with this colossal decision. If the CEGB has its way—and there have been discussions this afternoon on whether it should—the indications are that the board wants nine stations, 22GW, by 1980, and eight or nine GW right away. As I understand it—I should like the Minister to clarify this—the Government's estimates are lower. The Secretary of State gave us some figures. I think he said that the Government's estimate was of a likely growth of 3.6 per cent. in electricity demand per annum, and I think he mentioned an expectation of building about 3GW of nuclear capacity a year. If the Minister said that, does it mean that we are talking about a Government estimate of 15GW—15,000MW—by 1980, and should we measure that against the 1441 board's estimate of 22GW? But even if those are the figures, is that the right comparison to make in assessing who is right?
Whether the Government's estimate is right, or the board is right, either way we are talking about colossal sums of money. Depending on which figure one takes, we are talking about £3,000 million or £5,000 million before 1980, and possibly the same again in the 1980s. That is a vast expenditure of resources that will dominate every aspect of engineering, advanced technology and construction. It will be a huge programme. It will be a multiple of Concorde. All this emphasises the crucial need to get the decision right and to use the right decision-making processes to reach it. That is the central point to which all concerned must turn.
I should like, if I may, to press the Under-Secretary to elaborate on one or two things said by the Secretary of State. I know that the Secretary of State came here determined to give us a full rundown of all the different choices of reactor, and he did so. No one could quarrel with that, but I was a shade disappointed at the rather unprocessed and raw list of facts that came out. There were one or two bits of light and shade which the House might have expected to be filled in, and I should like the Under-Secretary to deal with them in replying to the debate.
Starting with the present situation on the AGR, what went wrong? Have the Government a view on this? Was it poor management or poor design? How do the Government react to the clear analysis of the hon. Member for Bristol, North-East that it was a question of three different managements, or three different operations, all working without coordination? Was it poor design? It is important to be clear about the Government's view on this—boiler design, vibration, inaccessibility, all these things—because, if there were administrative problems mainly, are we sure that under the NNC we can overcome all these problems? Must we be on our guard against difficulties in the future arising from the AGR programme?
§ Mr. Palmer
May I reinforce the view that I expressed? I think that it was a difficult design but that the major respon 1442 sibility lies with poor management, particularly the refusal of the generating authority to accept the idea of one nuclear design and construction company.
§ Mr. Howell
I share that view, and I should like to hear the Minister's comment on it.
As for the light water reactors, pressure water reactors or boiling water reactors, much has been said in the debate. This is not the time to add to that, nor would that be necessary. But what do the Government understand by the programme being proposed by Sir Arnold Weinstock and the NNC? Who will make what in the GEC-Framatome-Westing-house club? Is it the right club? Have the Government thought of looking at the alternative club, the Kraftwerk Union capability? When or if we go this way, what shall we be making? Shall we be making reactor internals, as Sir Arnold suggested? What will be export? Shall we find that everyone has got to the export market first while we have arrived in the line too late?
There are central questions of safety which have been mentioned. Do the Government have views on the sort of cost involved in any modifications? Have the Government assessed what changes will he necessary once the big light water reactors are built, and if they have to build to British specifications what major changes will be involved? Sir Alan Cottrell's words are on the record. The pressure vessel of the light water reactorwould have to be subject to rigorous manufacturing and quality control standards and thorough, effective and regularly repeated examination of the vessel by ultrasonic crack detection techniques.I share the view—this is saying nothing against the light water reactor that the safety aspect must be proved beyond doubt. I believe also that the Government should be beginning to form some views about the costs of this matter and reassuring those who support this choice, as many do, that we should not be going along the same path as we did with the Phantom aircraft—that by the time we had got it and modified it it would cost more than the British system.
Then we come to the steam-generating heavy water reactor and CANDU, its Canadian cousin. There is the question about the heavy water. From where will that come? Would we have to develop 1443 our own capability for that? How much will it cost, and where would it be set up? If we do not develop it ourselves, on which sources for imports could we rely? If we are to go along the path with CANDU and make what my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon called the "Canadian connection", what is the export potential there? We have heard about countries such as Romania, the Argentine and Denmark. Are these orders which would be forthcoming if we were to make steam generating heavy water reactors, or have these merely been inquiries? Are such exports to be based on such lavish credit that we could not afford to supply them? What are the facts?
The next in line is the high temperature gas-cooled reactor, in the same technology as our present advanced gas-cooled reactor. I think everyone agrees that this is a starter. It is everyone's favourite son. It is about the one reactor on which no one seems to have anything nasty to say. I am told that Sir Arnold Weinstock is positively ecstatic about it. The Select Committee, at one stage before the present oil crisis, was putting heavy emphasis on this as its favourite. What information do the Government have on this matter? How far have the orders gone in the United States? What is the significance of the order by Philadelphia Electric, which is to be completed in 1981? Are the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin) about the present HTR fuel difficulties borne out by the Government's experience? We must have a Government view on these matters too if a proper public judgment is to be made.
Hon. Members are right to emphasise the virtues of the HTR. This is an open-ended technology. There is heat for process heat and even for cracking water eventually and producing hydrogen. There is virtually an unlimited energy source. There is process heat of every kind, and even heat for coal gasification and so on. Furthermore, the HTGR would be very much in line with the AGR technology and some components would be similar. Again, however, we must hear the Government's views on the extent of similarity of components. HTR a very efficient fuel user, has possibilities for European collaboration. Do the 1444 Government have any views? Dare we wait for it and dare we go straight from AGR to HTR, which in some ways would be more intellectually satisfying? But is it even a starter when it comes to contemplating the real immediate needs of the country?
We would like to ask the Government much more about timing. The Secretary of State spoke several times about decisions in a few weeks, but are these decisions to be to order in bulk now, and what are the sums on which the Government are working? It was a pity that until this afternoon we did not know the Government's mind on load growth, and it seems that information on the relative costs of other fuels is hazy. Comparison with coal has to be considered and oil prices must also be taken into account. The Secretary of State has not yet been able to make much of an assessment on the movement of oil prices, and one man's judgment is as good as another's. Yet this is the sort of context in which judgments have to be taken about investment in nuclear capacity.
There is also the question whether we could get away with a stopgap, with one or two orders, and be able to fill the generating capacity gap that might occur in 1980 or 1981. Or do we have to go ahead in a few weeks with a whole colossal commitment and a decisive undertaking which would commit us for the next generation?
The commercial fast reactor must also be considered. We welcome the prospect of an order being placed in this connection in three and a half years' time, but does this mean that the CFR will be coming forward in the early 1980s, the late 1980s or later still, and what are the prospects of international collaboration in this regard? Why have we fallen behind? How do the Government see this situation?
My hon. Friend the Member for Havant and Waterloo (Mr. Lloyd) referred to uranium and he made some telling points. Do the Government put these aside as being unimportant?
We must also consider the environment and safety. It is absolutely right that the main emphasis should be on this aspect. We must be well aware in the House that resistance to nuclear power stations on safety grounds could be much greater 1445 than anyone estimates in England, and for that matter in Scotland, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. Monro) reminded us when talking about Girvan. Safety must be put beyond all reasonable doubt; it must be the central consideration in talking about our major future nuclear programmes.
No one envies the Secretary of State in having to make these decisions, or not make them, as the case may be. Parliament can advise, and through the Select Committee it has advised, not without effect and not without credit. But now the Government must decide. My hope is that this debate might mark the end of an unhappy chapter in decision making in these matters and the beginning of something better. We shall see.
§ 9.38 p.m.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Alex Eadie)
The Government are aware that the issue of nuclear reactor choice has in recent weeks been the subject of much comment and speculation in the media and among the public at large. In the minutes available to me I will attempt to do my best to answer in broad terms the points put in the debate. But it is fitting that I should say at the outset that the debate has contributed to a greater understanding of the issues involved and the House has had a chance to hear and judge some of the arguments for and against different reactor systems.
My right hon. Friend has repeatedly made clear that the House of Commons must have the opportunity to comment on this issue and that hon. Members must have the chance to give their views before a decision can be taken. When my right hon. Friend took that decision he had the support of the Select Committee which produced the report and he acted in accordance with the best traditions of the House.
The debate has emphasised the very complex nature of this highly technical subject. I am grateful to all those who have spoken. I assure the House that in reaching their decisions the Government will take full account of what they have heard.
I hope that the right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin) will not mind my saying that it was difficult to understand him when he said that he was disappointed when a decision had not been reached.
§ Mr. Patrick Jenkin
If I said that I gravely misled the House. It most emphatically is not my opinion. I was accepting that the right hon. Gentleman had not made a decision and that the report in the Press was wrong. That is what I was saying.
§ Mr. Eadie
Yes, that is all that the right hon. Gentleman said, but he expressed his disappointment that the decision had not been taken. [Interruption.] I do not think it is being churlish. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will accept this in the best spirit. If he wishes to defend himself before the House, as he said, he surely does not think it out of the way that the Government should want to defend themselves. On the question of timing, I merely point out that the right hon. Gentleman had ministerial responsibility. I am sorry that this sour note has been introduced into the debate. [Interruption.] If the right hon. Gentleman dishes it out, he must have the courtesy to listen whilst it is being dished out to him.
The right hon. Gentleman raised important points and he is entitled to answers. He raised the question of a demand forecast. My right hon. Friend emphasised that the range of forecasts is wide. This must be recognised. In this debate there has been an attempt to signpost far ahead. My right hon. Friend made it clear that the ranges one can take mean that there must be a more substantial nuclear power programme.
Our nine Magnox stations have a nominal capacity below 5 GW while we may be looking now for a programme of at least 3 GW per year.
As to the heavy water reactor, the right hon. Gentleman must recognise that the resources are limited and we must be careful not to make any incompatible decision. My right hon. Friend is studying 1447 the position very carefully, and we are aware of the weight of the argument that it would not be sensible to have too many systems widely developed at the same time. We are considering the possibility of a demonstration order of the HTR. The CEGB and the NNC favour the HTR. The system does have potential and would represent a development of our gas-cooled technology. At the moment the system is not suitable for large-scale commercial ordering. The right hon. Gentleman said that he hoped to be going to Canada to examine the situation there. I hope he does, because the whole House will profit from his experience.
The right hon. Member spoke about the SGHWR and Mr. Tombs. I do not know whether he was looking at me then because this deals with the Scottish board. Dr. Johnson said that if Scots were scratched early rather than late it was possible to make them do what they were told. The right hon. Member may have some difficulty in persuading some of his hon. Friends about the validity of the SGHWR. The impression seems to have been created that SSEB had applied for an SGHWR. No such application has been made, although it has already been shown how the Scottish board feels about this reactor.
The right hon. Gentleman was correct to raise the issue of safety. Whatever type of reactor is decided on there can be no compromise here. While there has been argument on this issue it seems to have been directed more towards foreign nuclear technology. There has been a tendency for us to over-emphasise our disappointments.
§ Mr. Eadie
I cannot give way now. This issue of safety lasts for the lifetime of the reactor. It is not just a question of a reactor being declared safe and then being able to generate electricity for ever without being looked at again. This is an important subject. The safety record of the British industry is very good.
My right hon. Friend said that the time for decision was fast approaching. Such is the time scale of nuclear power that the reactors we are here discussing 1448 could not be operative until the 1980s. That creates uncertainty. The Government will have to weigh up all the evidence, including views expressed today, the report of the Select Committee and the advice of the Nuclear Power Advisory Board. It will not be an easy decision. No clear consensus has so far emerged from the debate either inside or outside the House. Hon. Members seem on balance to have placed more emphasis on the need to retain a large slice of British technology.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer) summed up the situation well when he said that there were no impartial experts, as he had found from his experience as a professional engineer and in the Select Committee. He graphically described the "Hawkins and Tombs" debate in the Select Committee and said that the issue was so complicated that it could not be left to the experts. "You can choose your expert" he said, and that is just what hon. Members seem to have been doing in the debate.
The reactor choice must be considered as part of the whole canvas of the energy scene. Nuclear power must be part of the overall assessment of our energy needs, in which the question of security is of great importance. No single source can be totally secure, but the degree of insecurity can be reduced in a variety of ways, one of them being to spread the risk across a number of fuels. We have developed a four-fuel economy, but we are not immune from simultaneous disruption of supply, as recent events have demonstrated. We must take account of the prospects of other fuels, particularly oil and coal, which will both continue to be of great importance, for providing our energy supplies for the rest of the century. We shall have to pay a great deal more for our oil from now on, however. It would be self-deception to hope for a return to the old conditions. We can also expect to run up against the limits of our domestic coal supply. For those reasons we need to increase the amount of nuclear power. All these factors have reinforced our determination to make the best possible use of the United Kingdom's indigenous resources. We are better placed in that respect than most other industrialised countries, and it is realistic to hope that we shall be able 1449 to approach self-sufficiency in the 1980s. But our fossil fuel resources are not unlimited. I have said before that fossil fuels are wasting assets, although I have also said that the Government are conscious that of all the fossil fuels in these islands coal is the most abundant. The Government are determined to try to utilise this great reserve.
The world's reserves of fossil fuels are large, particularly in view of the unconventional sources, such as oil from deeper waters, oil shales and tar sands. Exhaustion is not round the corner, but our reserves will not last for ever. Lead times in energy matters, particularly nuclear technology, are long. It is not too early to plan carefully for the long term.
The size of the nuclear power programme has been mentioned in the debate. Clearly nuclear power must have an increasingly important rôle, but the construction problems must be related to the estimated demand for electricity.
I should like to point out briefly the main factors we have to take into account in reactor choice. I have already mentioned safety. Reliability must also enter into the argument. We need a reactor system that not only can be built in time but will perform reliably and be comparatively easy to maintain.
The question of employment was raised by one of my hon. Friends. He has 3,000 industrial workers involved in his constituency. Many other hon. Members have made the point that it is all very well to be oriented towards a modern technology but if it is to mean something technology must provide work and wages. Such matters must be borne in mind when we consider costs and commercial, industrial and technological factors.
The whole question of the AGR has been raised. It has also been put to me on television. It is true that the AGR programme has been disappointing, but it is extravagant to say that it has been a failure. Post mortems reveal only the cause of death, but the AGRs will generate electricity. I had the pleasure of visiting Hinckley Point last week. It will be the first AGR station to generate electricity for the grid. It is an exaggeration to talk about the failure of the AGR system when AGRs will provide valuable generating capacity.
1450 I am aware of the criticisms that can be made of particular systems. Some hon. Members have spoken for Britain and others for constituency interests. In such a debate hon. Members should reflect the views of Britain and their constituents.
It is their constituents who send them to this House so that they may represent them in the House of Commons.
One matter that emerges clearly from the debate is that there is no ideal solution. If the way forward were clear—
§ It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed. without Question put.