HC Deb 20 December 1976 vol 923 cc293-339

4.39 a.m.

Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton)

I rise at this rather early hour to discuss Class IV, Vote 6, of the Civil Vote on Account, which makes provision for £122 million to be spent on nuclear energy in 1976–77 and for £55 million required on account for 1977–78.

As there are in themselves considerable sums of money but are in fact small beer compared with the huge sums already spent and projected to be spent on nuclear energy in the United Kingdom, I believe it is right for the House to pause at this stage and ask itself a few key questions about the future of nuclear power in the United Kingdom. I believe that we should try to formulate sensible answers to some of these questions before proceeding further.

The key questions on which I should like to focus are these. First, is the further development of nuclear power in the United Kingdom inevitable? Secondly, if so what size and shape should that programme be? Thirdly, what would be the likely consequences of such a programme in all the various aspects that that involves? Fourthly, what would be the impact upon the environment of such a programme? I know that some of my hon. Friends, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for East Grinstead (Mr. Johnson Smith) and for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Rost), wish to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and therefore I shall not be dealing with that aspect in any great detail.

Fifthly, what are the wider implications of such a nuclear programme? I am thinking here particularly of the implications as regards nuclear proliferation which I regard as a key issue. Finally, what are some of the ethical considerations involved? We should not overlook the fact that there is a strong ethical dimension to this whole debate.

The United Kingdom is in the fortunate position of being what is known as a four-fuel economy. By that I refer to coal, oil, gas and nuclear power. However, as our recoverable stocks of oil and gas are definitely finite, a consensus has emerged to the effect that this country will be faced with an energy gap towards the end of this century which, it is said, can be bridged only by the extensive further development of nuclear power.

Everyone from the Secretary of State for Energy downwards, including the Under-Secretary—the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie)—who has kindly turned out at this hour to reply to this debate, foresees that the energy equation by the year 2000 or so will rest upon the tripod of coal, nuclear energy and conservation. The debate so far has been concerned largely with trying to strike the correct balance between those three.

Whichever way we look at the equation, the nuclear industry has been able to argue that the further development of nuclear power in Britain is both necessary and inevitable. I would not dispute that. Nor, I believe, would the British Gas Corporation, which was the only notable witness at the National Energy Conference last July to cast doubt on the now conventional wisdom that an energy gap will materialise at some stage in the future.

Hon. Members will recall that the Corporation, in a paper it submitted to the National Energy Conference, made the following statement, which was notable for its disagreement with virtually everybody else at the conference: Discussions of energy supplies over the next 25 years are tending to take as axiomatic an energy shortage in the United Kingdom in the 1990s. Statements in the discussion at the Church House meeting of February 26th, 1976 by several speakers appeared to accept, almost without question, an 'energy gap' at that period. In the view of British Gas, such an assumption is very much open to question; certainly we would all be most unwise to allow energy policy decisions which have to be taken over the next few years to be determined by such an uncertain premise. The more interesting question to attempt to answer is my second one, namely, on the assumption that the further development of nuclear power in the United Kingdom is inevitable, what size and shape should our programme take?

In one of its documents for the National Energy Conference in July, the Department of Energy forecast that the contribution from nuclear and hydro, which it lumped together, would increase from its present level of some 13 million tons of coal equivalent in 1975 to 25 million tons of coal equivalent in 1980, 30 million tons of coal equivalent in 1985 and a bracket of 40 million to 55 million tons of coal equivalent in 1990. Beyond that, things were thought to be too murky to predict.

The Department's forecasters also had the good sense and the good grace to enter, in paragraph 26 of their submission, the following caveat, that The foregoing figuring and analysis covers a period of only about 15 years from the present day. It is thus heavily conditioned by existing patterns of production and consumption and by fairly well established past relationships between energy and other econo- mic and technological considerations. Analysis related to the projection of past trends can provide a reliable framework for the consideration of energy policy for only a limited period ahead, and in the longer term the patterns of the past become less of an influence, their relationships weaken and the wedge of uncertainty widens. That is an appropriate choice of words, I think— the wedge of uncertainty widens". Indeed, in my view even the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority has become somewhat more realistic as the passage of time, the criticism of its previous forecasts and the light of common sense all begin to break through.

In his most recent public pronouncement on this aspect of the subject, Sir John Hill, Chairman of the UKAEA, wrote in The Times on 26th November 1976: The probable nuclear programme, particularly in view of the high energy prices now ruling and the sustained depression which this country is experiencing, is likely to be much smaller"— that is to say, smaller than the previous reference programme submitted to the Flowers Commission in 1974–75. No 'massive increases' in our nuclear programme are contemplated at the present time. Well might he have said that, and I regard it as at least an improvement on the wild negotiating bid put in by the UKAEA at the time when it submitted its reference programme to the Flowers Commission, when it was apparently advocating 104 gigawatts of nuclear capacity by the year 2000 and no less than 426 gigawatts by the year 2030, of which no less than 370 gigawatts would have been fast reactor capacity.

My first conclusion is that the total nuclear programme for which we plan ahead need not and should not be anything like as large as that for which the UKAEA originally bid in the immediate panic atmosphere engendered by the oil crisis more than two years ago. But that still leaves a legitimate and important debate about the shape of the planned nuclear programme. The UKAEA would like to see an early decision taken by the Government to build the first demonstration commercial size fast reactor—the so-called CFRI—since it sees this as a vital stepping-stone to an eventual pattern of nuclear power generation based increasingly on fast reactors.

That is undoubtedly one of the reasons why the Authority is so keen to press ahead with its plans to extend its reprocessing facilities at Windscale, particularly the mixed oxide plant, which is projected to be able to handle some 1,000 tons of throughput—far in excess of the total foreign business which British Nuclear Fuels Limited is likely to be able to secure in this sensitive and dubious field.

We also gather that, following the so-called Marshall Report on the safety of PWR pressure vessels, the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority is keen to reopen the Government's 1974 decision to proceed with 4,000 megawatts of SGHWR capacity and is veering back to its earlier position of favouring the building of PWRs under licence, or is veering towards a new readiness to consider a modest programme of AGRs. These have proved their advantage in terms of cost of operation and are beginning to look more hopeful.

Our future thermal reactor programme is shrouded in such uncertainty that the AEA is inclined to adopt a "double or quits" attitude by focusing all its pressure on the need for the CFR1 decision and the associated question of reprocessing mixed oxide at Windscale. This suggests that we could be approaching a turning point in the development of Britain's nuclear power programme.

It is doubly important at a time of scarce resources and growing doubts about the AEA's previous advice to the Government, and the virtually stagnant electricity demand, that the Government should take their time and give themselves the maximum chance of taking the best available decision in the circumstances. The Government have the unenviable task of balancing a number of important factors to establish their decision as the best one available.

The first interest which must be taken into account, but not necessarily the most important, is the power plant manufacturing industry, on which the Central Policy Review Staff published an interesting report. Paragraph 29 of the summary and conclusions at the beginning of that document states: It is undeniable that the measure which will help in the longer term is a contractual commitment to a firm and steady ordering programme in the years ahead. It is precisely that firm prospect of a contractual commitment which is not currently available to the four large firms which are principally involved in this sector in the United Kingdom. It makes no economic or social sense to order generating plant far in excess of likely future requirements, because this country's requirements for electricity, from any source, have been consistently overestimated since 1965—long before the oil crisis.

I do not believe that we should make nuclear ordering policy in any way dependent on the need, however pressing, to keep our over-large and under-rationalised power plant manufacturing industry in exactly the same shape as that to which it has become accustomed.

The next clearly identifiable interest is that of the UKAEA itself—the institution which is now in the driving seat. Even if its latest recommendations led the Government to steer an erratic and non-profitcise direction the nuclear industry should established and powerful institution, backed by a mystique of professional expertise which is not readily available to poor lay politicians, like myself, who have to make value judgments and assist in taking decisions which establish how far down the nuclear road and in which pre-able course in recent years, it is a well-be allowed to take us.

In essence, the current argument of the UKAEA is that we have a successful thermal reactor programme which could now be judiciously expanded by further limited ordering of AGRs or PWRs, but that if we are to safeguard "civilisation as we know it", once the energy gap sets in towards the turn of the century, the Government must make a firm commitment to the fast reactor programme in the shape of the CFR 1 and the reprocessing technology which goes with it. My response to that is to say that the need for nuclear-generated electricty on the scale envisaged by the UKAEA is not proven, that the cost of such electricity as provided by fast breeders is more than the country can afford—on its own at least—and that the environmental and social risks raise doubts about whether the game is worth the candle.

I shall deal first with the question of need. Since 1965 the rate of growth of United Kingdom electricity demand has been consistently below the forecast and there is a substantial over-capacity of about 40 per cent., if one includes the usual spinning reserve of 20 per cent. Because the stations ordered in the late 1960s and early 1970s are still under construction, it is estimated on the same basis that there will be about 55 per cent. surplus capacity by 1980. If that comes about, it will produce the kind of situation which I more usually associate with the Soviet Union where some production targets have been so far out that the authorities might as well have done their planning with a roulette wheel. The nuclear industry and the miners must realise that there is such a thing as electricity saturation which may well arise sooner than anyone thought possible.

If further evidence were needed, I can do no better than quote from paragraph 7 of Chapter I of the recent CPRS Report which states: The United Kingdom generating boards consider that no additional generating capacity will be required in this country until 1985 or 1986, assuming a 3 per cent. growth in GDP and the associated growth in electricity demand. The significant point is not so much the forecast itself as the heroic assumptions on which it is based. Are we likely to achieve a 3 per cent. annual growth rate over the years to 1985? If we do, what incontrovertible evidence is there that the relationship between economic growth and electricity demand will remain as it was? It is always possible that we shall see a higher ratio of electricity demand to economic growth than in the past. Anything is possible, but since past assumptions are based on a period in our history when "we never had it so good" and the domestic consumer market appeared to thrive, I assume that the ratio is more likely to be adjusted downwards, which means less demand for electricity.

As Harford Thomas said in a recent article in The Guardian: Translated into human terms it is fundamentally simple: enough is enough. I turn to the cost issue. Britain is now a comparatively impoverished country and there is little evidence that North Sea oil will or should much change our basic situation. We already have too much overseas debt to pay off and such extra wealth as the oil does generate will need to be put into the balance of payments and industrial investment. In such a situation I contend that even if it could be demonstrated that we need more and more nuclear electricity, we can no longer afford it unless we allow it to eat up all our scarce resources like a fearful institutional tape worm.

The total cost of our ill-fated AGR technology is estimated at £2,000 million so far, with more to come. No one knows what the development of commercial fast breeders would eventually cost. We know that the development of the prototype fast breeder is already costing some £50 million a year in research and development alone. That is in the Government's recent little document "Report on Research and development—1975–76." We also know that the best estimates of the cost of CFR1 have a margin of error of some 100 per cent. for the future, ranging from £1,000 million to £2,000 million, depending on the accounting assumptions made. We know that the capital costs of the fast breeder are about 77 per cent. of the total, whereas fuel cycle costs are only 18 per cent., so that the acknowledged high uranium efficiency of fast breeder reactors does not necessarily mean that they would be economic as compared with thermal reactors.

Furthermore, the costs of introducing new reactor systems have invariably turned out to be substantially higher than originally forecast, and the real capital costs of nuclear power have risen steeply. For example, according to a recent study by the West German Government, the cost per kilowatt of the German 300 MW fast breeder prototype will be several times greater than that of a standard light water reactor. Other studies have indicated that fast breeders would be economic only if their capital costs were no more than 15 per cent. to 20 per cent. higher than those of light water reactors. That seems unlikely to me, if not totally improbable.

I am afraid that the suspicion must remain that since it would probably be the biggest civilian technology project ever undertaken in the United Kingdom, CFR1 is something that this nation cannot and ought not to afford. If we must go down the fast reactor road, it would be much better to stretch the existing design of the protoype reactor to, say, 350 MW, assuming that subsequent events prove that there is no possible alternative, and then to instal a cluster of such reactors on one or two remote sites, together with their own reprocessing complexes.

However, my broad conclusion remains—namely, that we ought not to allow this particular cuckoo to claim such a disproportionate share of the food that is brought into the nest.

Finally, I turn to the environmental and social side. At this point I should like to put down a marker and ask the Minister whether he can give any indications as to what progress has been made with the questions, to which I personally attach quite a lot of importance, which I and some others put to the Nuclear Inspectorate some months ago, and to which I am still confidently expecting answers in the near future. The environmental and social risks are aspects that have been graphically portrayed, as hon. Members will know, in both the Flowers Report, with which we are all familiar, and the First Report of the Fox Commission in Australia, on the Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry, which is perhaps less well known to my colleagues but which, none the less, I commend to the House.

In many ways, for responsible politicians these environmental and social risks ought to be deemed the most crucial considerations of all. The attitude of the nuclear industry, on the one hand, was typified by Sir John Hill in his famous, or even notorious, recent article in The Times, when he wrote, We could not run today's programme on 1950 technology. I am convinced that the technology of the year 2000 will be satisfactory for the programme of the year 2000. In other words, no matter what the problems, technology will find a way. That, I believe, is a statement of faith, not a statement of fact, and I should like to draw attention to it for what it is worth.

On the other hand, Sir Brian Flowers, in his recent memorable lecture at the British Nuclear Energy Society, said, The crucial long-term issues are on the one hand the competition between nuclear energy and coal, and on the other hand between both and renewable resources; and also between high electricity and therefore high heat- waste, on the one hand, and vigorous conservation measures on the other. These are the real environmental and social issues on which we can make choices and on which we politicians are uniquely placed to deliberate and to decide. Whereas the nuclear priesthood would have us leave everything to the specially equipped initiates behind the altar screen, I say that Sir Brian Flowers and the Fox Commission have got it right in their quiet but insistent demands that these issues be aired, and once aired be decided, after full public debate, by the duly elected repesentatives of the people.

I shall not at this late—or early—hour rehearse all the many important environmental and social issues which are raised by the further development of nuclear power. Suffice it to say that ordinary people in my constituency and elsewhere—I know this from my post bag—are worried by the problems of nuclear waste, and I know that my hon. Friends will say more about that. Ordinary people are worried by the threat of nuclear terrorism and, if they stop to consider the question at all, they must be worried by the prospect of further nuclear proliferation.

It would be irresponsible to take irreversible decisions about the next stage of nuclear development unless and until we have a fool-proof and publicly acceptable way of dealing with the problems of nuclear waste, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Grinstead will no doubt point out if he catches the eye of the Chair. It would be shortsighted in the extreme to embark upon a programme of nuclear development which required much of the paraphernalia of a police State to guard society adequately against the threat of nuclear terrorism. And it would be the very reverse of statesmanlike or responsible conduct for this Government, or any of their successors, to embark consciously on a nuclear policy which tried to maintain the pretence that there is a natural fire-break between the so-called peaceful and so-called military uses of nuclear energy, when every responsible nuclear scientist knows that there can be no such divide.

Today there are at least 19 countries operating nuclear power stations, including such countries as India and Pakistan. There are at least another seven countries with reactors under construction, including such as Brazil and Taiwan. There are at least six more countries with power stations on order, including such as Iran and Yugoslavia. I ask the House to ponder some of the countries that I have chosen and the reasons why I shall not embarrass any country by saying why I pick it out. The nuclear genie is out of the bottle and the only important question is the extent to which the major nuclear suppliers can delay or control its fearful progress.

More dangerous than reactor development, there are now at least five countries with nuclear enrichment capacity—the USA, the United Kingdom, France, the Soviet Union and China—and there is a real likelihood that Iran, Brazil and South Africa will join this select band before too long. Further, there are at least five developed countries with the capability, or the ambition to have a capability, to operate reprocessing plants—the USA, the United Kingdom, France, West Germany and Japan—and there is the distinct danger that this lethal technology will spread to Brazil and Pakistan, unless steps can be taken at the highest international level to undo the damage already done by cut-throat commercial competition with its ruthless disregard for the lone-term survival chances of mankind—and I put it no lower than that.

All this adds up to a disturbing picture of a world drunk on the prospect of nuclear power and desperate for a slice of the Faustian bargain so thoughtlessly entered into by the Americans, the British and the Canadians more than 30 years ago. As I wrote in a letter to The Times, I believe that this country could get by with a more modest nuclear effort, consisting of an extended life for our existing Magnox reactors, incremented with a limited programme of one of the more modern thermal reactors, depending on the outcome of the current review. Of course, in the longer term our energy options in a sane society could be much more varied and benign than those suggested by the nuclear industry's alarming and unsatisfactory dichotomy between their preferred course of action and "the end of civilisation as we know it".

We could begin to implement a really serious programme of energy conservation—and on this I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South-East for his work—based upon significant further price rises coupled with wide- spread design changes in buildings, factories and modes of transport. This would probably save at least as much delivered energy each year as our current nuclear programme now produces.

We could and should rapidly scale up our investment in the more promising alternative energy sources, such as solar, wind, wave and tidal power. There should not still be a differential of some 100 times between the amount of money spent on nuclear research and development and what is spent on alternative sources. We must get the balance right. Equally, we should press ahead boldly with nuclear fusion, which may not have nearly as many environmental disadvantages as fission. One of our laments on this side of the House, judging by what we have learnt from Press reports, is with regard to nuclear fusion. Can the Minister throw light on the situation, which is causing considerable concern on both sides of the House and to the skilled scientists whose future depends so much on the viability of the JET project?

All these things are possible, but I hope that the House will forgive me if I conclude by returning to a few of the ethical issues which I believe to be at the root of this whole debate and put a few questions upon which we politicians should focus our minds. I put them in the form of simple questions.

Can we justify to our complete satisfaction taking decisions which, being effectively irreversible, will influence the state of the world as far ahead as the human mind can see, and well beyond? Certainly a generation which attempted to take such decisions without exhaustive thought about all the consequences would stand convicted of a peculiarly wicked selfishness and shortsightedness—that is, if there were succeeding generations around to convict us.

Can we justify pressing ahead with nuclear power without heeding the Swedish scientist Hannes Alfven's warning that if a problem is too difficult to solve, one cannot claim that it is solved by pointing to all the efforts made to solve it. That is worth pondering.

Can we justify passing on to subsequent generations a pattern of electricity power generation which decisively influences our social priorities, pre-empts a disproportionate share of our economic resources, and increases the ever-present risks of nuclear war? I do not think we can, and that is why I urge the House and the country to think again before it is too late.

5.13 a.m.

Mr. Hector Monro (Dumfries)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton (Mr. Forman) on his excellent speech and on initiating the debate, which I welcome. This is not the hour at which to start off on a major debate about nuclear energy when the House has been crying out for long enough for a debate in relation to the Royal Commission report. Nevertheless, we have to seize every opportunity.

I recall speaking in the debate in 1974 when we discussed in some detail the future power programme, and again more recently in the debate on the Address, because, they gave me an opportunity to turn attention to some of the issues relevant to my constituency. These pressures have developed during the summer following the announcement by the Secretary of State for Defence in April that there would be a tritium plan at the atomic energy site at Chapelcross—an announcement that he would not have made had he thought that nuclear weapons were not going to be continued in three and a half years' time.

I welcome the announcement of the new plant and reaffirm my belief that the Magnox plant at Chapelcross is most important for my constituency. The Magnox system has been proved to be safe and there is nothing secret, sinister or new about tritium. One group in my constituency has said that I have taken up an ambiguous position on nuclear power. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have been absolutely consistent and I made my position clear at an open meeting in Annan this summer, arranged by the district council and attended by representatives of British Nuclear Fuels, the Atomic Energy Authority, the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate and the Scottish Development Department. All were available to answer questions and to give any requisite explanations about nuclear power.

I accept that the Magnox generating station at Chapelcross should continue. There has been no difficulty so far about waste at Windscale. I do not accept in that statement the recent seepage, which has been clarified by the detailed statement by British Nuclear Fuels. Second, I accept the tritium plant, always believing that the indication of costs has been greatly exaggerated and also realising that at some time in the future the tritium produced may be used commercially as well as for defence. Third, in the general field, which is important in relation to operations at Chapelcross, I accept the nuclear deterrent in my insistence that Governments since the war, of both parties, have followed the right policy, that peace is more certain to be maintained with a nuclear deterrent available to our Armed Forces. Those who are opposed to the nuclear deterrent on moral grounds should say so and not hide those objections behind a smokescreen about environmental pollution, which is another matter.

I want electricity generated by nuclear power, I want defence on the present basis, and I want the 500 or 600 jobs which are provided at Chapelcross. Safety precautions are of an exceptionally high standard and those who work there take them more seriously than anyone else. Accidents in Britain have been a remote possibility.

We now have a new situation, covered in Chapter 8 of the Report of the Royal Commission, in relation to waste disposal and the announcement by the AEA that members of its staff have been prospecting for sites for disposal in the relatively distant future. I believe that a decision is several years away. It is therefore right to spend a few months ascertaining the facts, but I hope that the Minister will be able to give us further information.

I understand the wave of emotion in South-West Scotland and other areas, although I certainly would not use the emotive language about a nuclear dustbin which some have used. But it is essential to have as much information as possible on which to form a judgment. To this end, I asked for assurances when I spoke in the debate on the Queen's Speech. The Minister of State, Scottish Office said that he would write to me and I am grateful for the letter which I have just received from him. As it is crucial to this issue, I will quote the gist of his reply.

The Minister wrote: Your remarks about Chapelcross were most welcome and I am glad that you took the opportunity to reaffirm your support for the construction of the tritium plant. I am satisfied that the plant, which will provide much needed new jobs in the South West, can be operated safely under the stringent inspection procedures applied by the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate. You asked specifically for an assurance about consultations on proposals for the disposal of radioactive wastes. The Atomic Energy Authority is undertaking a preliminary research programme to investigate geological strata which might be suitable for the disposal of long-lived radioactive wastes resulting from the reprocessing of irradiated fuel and, as you know, crystalline and hard sedimentary rocks in the Southern Uplands are being studied as part of this programme. No decision to begin preliminary test drilling will be taken before public announcements have been made and the consultations with local authorities have been undertaken. The authorisation of the Secretary of State is required before any disposal of radioactive waste can be made and the construction of a disposal facility would require planning permission. I can, therefore, give you an absolute assurance that there will be ample opportunity for public discussion before any decision to authorise the disposal of radioactive waste in Scotland is taken. I am pleased that he took the trouble to send me that detailed reply so quickly and I hope that it will go some way to allay the fears of people in Scotland, because it applies to the whole of Scotland, and not just to the South-West.

As for consultations with local authorities, many of us realise that the site mentioned by the AEA near Loch Doon is in the Strathclyde Region and that there would need be cross-border consultations, as it is likely to affect Dumfries and Galloway more than the larger region.

I will not go into further detail about the power programme, which my hon. Friend has outlined with great clarity, dealing with the forecasts of requirements towards the end of the century. I believe and hope that the Magnox stations will continue to run certainly into that period, assisted by the AGRs. I agree that we must proceed with the SGHWRs we talked about in 1974 in such detail only if there is a clear requirement for their construction, on grounds of cost or power.

The crucial decision will be made only after careful consideration by the Secretaries of State for Scotland, the Environment, Energy and Defence. Those four Ministries must have exceptional expertise not only on safety factors, which must be paramount, but also on environmental issues. Before a final decision is taken, I am sure that the House will want to debate the issue in the greatest detail.

I accept that some of my constituents view the whole nuclear programme with the greatest horror, but I believe that they exaggerate the likelihood of an accident. The Magnox and later tritium plants at Chapelcross have not been and should not be dangerous to the environment. However, none of us can give an absolute assurance that an accident will never happen.

So far as I know, waste from Chapel-cross is at the moment no problem at Windscale. But if we are to have new sources of supply—as may well be the case, as suggested by my hon. Friend—and there is additional waste to be disposed of, it will create a new situation. Then we shall require the provision of all the facts, in the greatest detail, in order that we can discuss them in the House.

Tonight I await with great interest the Minister's reply. I hope that he will continue in the helpful fashion shown by him and by the letter from the Minister of State, Scottish Office, and that his reply will go further towards allaying the fears of my constituents and the large number of tourists who come each year to this attractive part of South-West Scotland.

I hope that the Minister will be able to give a great deal more information than we have at present, including, perhaps, the time scale in respect of the decisions and actions that are likely to be taken. On what the hon. Gentleman says tonight will depend to a great extent the degree to which this problem continues—the problem of the emotional approach to this subject, which is arousing so much attention in Scotland at the present time.

5.26 a.m.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

Like the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Monro) I thank the hon. Member for Carshalton (Mr. Forman) for initiating the debate. This is a subject which we are in danger of sweeping under the carpet. I cannot follow the hon. Member's remarks in detail, because I do not have the mass of information and figures which he presented to the House. I simply wish to make two general points.

The question of the use of nuclear power as a principle is something to which the House has given only cursory attention. It may be—I do not accept it, personally—that at the end of the day we shall have no alternative to nuclear power installations, owing to the disappearance of fossil fuels, although the discovery of oil fields and new coal fields at this time should put that decision a considerable way into the future. There are also sources of solar power and wave power, which are in an elementary stage at present.

It appears to me that, in the typical fashion of this country, we are bumbling into something without any serious consideration beforehand. There will probably be second thoughts, as with Concorde, when it is too late to call the whole thing off.

According to information that I have been able to gather, nuclear power stations have a finite life of approximately 30 years. They cannot be dismantled; they will be buried in concrete—monuments to the foolishness of man for future generations. We are the inheritors of the foresight and provision made by previous generations. Are we to hand on to those coming after us a landscape dotted with these insane monuments? Surely it is time to stop this Gadarene swine advance.

This brings me to the question of the disposal of radioactive wastes. It has recently been announced that surveys have been made in the Western Isles, Galloway and other parts of the United Kingdom for suitable sites to bury such wastes. It is the height of obscenity to bury them in such areas. Windscale at least has some employment from its nuclear installation. My constituency in the Western Isles—one of the areas under consideration—would have the danger and pollution with any of the employment—although I would not even want the employment. If, as has been reported, we are to do this work for the Japanese and others, it is a degradation of this country that is scarcely credible.

In my constituency in the Western Isles we live in the face of many obstacles, such as the highest cost of living in the United Kingdom, the highest cost of transport, the greatest level of emigration, and so on. The "abominable no-men" of the Scottish Office react with indifference to suggestions that might make life easier or somewhere nearer parity with the rest of the United Kingdom, but when they have to find a new dumping ground for dangerous material they seek to dump it on us. The people of the Western Isles and the rest of Scotland are fully aware of the insult of such a suggestion.

I am not as sure as the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Monro) that, if we receive various assurances from the various ministries he mentioned, we should give our approval. We know that they will give us the assurances.

Mr. Monro

I should not like to be on record as being as forthright as that. I said that we could not come to a decision until we had received all the assurances, and if the balance of evidence is against the storage of nuclear wastes in the south-west of Scotland, I shall fight it tooth and nail.

Mr. Stewart

I apologise if I pitched the hon. Gentleman's argument higher than he intended it to go.

Most people are aware that there is some evidence that an appalling disaster took place in Russia as a result of an installation or the burial of radioactive waste. The disaster caused heavy loss of life and devastated an area for the foreseeable future. I say on behalf of my constituents that they will never approve of this. If it is tried it will meet bitter and determined resistance. I await the Minister's reply with interest.

5.32 a.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Johnson Smith (East Grinstead)

I do not want to sound churlish, particularly as there are two Ministers on the Government Front Bench, for which we are grateful, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. Monro) when he says that this is an appalling hour at which to have a debate on this subject. The only way in which we could have a debate was for my hon. Friends the Members for Carshalton (Mr. Forman) and Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Rost) —both Englishmen, though one is beginning to wonder to what extent this is once more a Scottish debate—to raise the matter. The Leader of the House should be asked to arrange a debate on this subject in Government time, at a more civilised hour, and at an hour calculated to arouse much greater public interest, and to give, one hopes, more education. It is disgraceful that, although the House debates so many other things of a comparatively trivial nature, it has to be through our own initiative in choosing a subject on the Consolidated Fund Bill that we can have a debate on this monumentally important subject.

I declare an interest, not in the nuclear field but as a director at the British end of an American company which manufactures and sells a machine that helps to conserve power. I think it was my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton who pointed out that the conservation of energy has an important part to play in the whole question of the timing of any future energy policy based on nuclear power. Indeed it does, and from my knowledge of fuel conservation I would say that we have not yet begun to touch the subject in this country.

It is not my purpose to publicise the activities of the company with which I am involved. I want to confine my remarks mainly to the question of radioactive waste. It always seems to me that so many of us, when we consider the problem of nuclear energy, are faced with an either/or argument—with two stark alternatives, both of a Doomsday nature. There are those who say that if we travel some way down the nuclear road we shall end up by blowing ourselves up. Others say that if we do not embrace nclear technology we shall travel down the road to slow starvation, to a life depicted by the BBC in "The Survivors" programme, and it will be back to the caves for us. Certainly disruption of normal civilised life as we know it would be our fate.

I hope that somewhere between those two stark alternatives there is a more rational and realistic solution. But I am sure that we should be quite wrong to ignore the serious warnings which have already been referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton in his excellent survey of the whole problem.

I begin by referring to what was said in the Flowers Report, the Sixth Report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, in paragraph 338: … there should be no commitment to a large programme of nuclear fission power until it has been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that a method exists to ensure the safe containment of long-lived, highly radioactive waste for the indefinite future … We are clear that such a demonstration will require a substantial programme of research. Nothing that we have heard either in the debate this morning or on other occasions, it seems to me, can detract from the serious point there made. The report emphasises with devastating clarity the serious risk posed to civilisation by the creation of radioactive wastes which arise from nuclear fission.

These wastes—hope that hon. Members will forgive me for going into this a little, but one is seeking through the debate to trail a line of thought for a wider audience—are nothing more nor less than cancer-producing substances which can remain dangerous to human, animal and plant life for thousands of years, or, some say, for hundreds of thousands of years. It is therefore essential, if we are not only to protect ourselves but to prevent needless and untold suffering for succeeding generations, that we devise measures designed to ensure the containment of these highly radioactive wastes.

The Flowers Report is right to emphasise the immorality and irresponsibility of committing future generations to the consequences of fission power until it has been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that at least one method exists for the safe isolation of these wastes for the indefinite future. It is, therefore, disturbing to read in paragraph 391 the following words: Neither the Atomic Energy Authority nor British Nuclear Fuels Limited in their submissions to us gave any indication that they regarded the search for a means of final disposal of highly active waste as at all pressing, and it appears that they have only recently taken firm steps towards seeking solutions. We think that quite inadequate attention has been given to this matter, and we find this the more surprising in view of the large nuclear programmes that both bodies envisage for the coming decades, which would give rise to much greater quantities of waste. To be fair to the organisations mentioned, they have subsequently started inquiry into methods which can, we hope, lead the way to finding out just how they could dispose of these nuclear wastes. Nevertheless, in my view, the criticism sticks. It does not seem that adequate thought has been given to the matter.

According to the report, it seems that there are at least two reasonable options for the permanent disposal of certain types of waste, certainly in a vitrified form, that is, by disposing of them in some large thick almost impenetrable formation on land or below the ocean bed. The hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart), the Leader of the Scottish National Party, has said that neither he nor his constituents would be at all happy to have anything dumped into the ocean bed, so I join him in hoping that the Minister can give us a comment on that aspect of the problem.

The Flowers Report tells us, however, that although both those methods would seem to point to a solution, we should need a substantial period of study and research. What action has already been taken? What is the Government's view on this aspect of the problem?

On the lower levels and less-long-lived radioactivity, the report points to a lack of a clearly formulated policy for the disposal of intermediate-level solid waste at nuclear stations. It also says that a programme of research is required into the possible future effects of plutonium discharges to the sea from Windscale, and that the responsibility for waste management strategy should rest with the Secretary of State for Energy, backed by a national waste disposal corporation charged with responsibility for the safe disposal of all waste at national sites.

On this matter, and others to do with safety, the report has much to say, in language which I found both reasoned and dispassionate. But it is easy to exaggerate the risk to our health and environment, and it is not my purpose to do that. Exposure of the British population to radiation from nuclear power is less than 1 per cent. of that from cosmic rays. It is comparable with radiation from luminous watches. The accident rate in the nuclear industry is not high, and its safety record is good. I can well understand why my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries should seek to have more information on this point, not with a view to taking easy assurances but with a view to being able to give assurance when he believes that the record justifies it.

Chlorine is just as toxic as plutonium, but production is permitted, and we do not have people starting scares about chlorine every five minutes. As for the problem of waste, Sir John Hill, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Authority, is quoted as saying that it is the biggest non-problem of the century". According to a report in, I think, The Guardian, he is much more worried about the prospect of handing down to his children an inheritance of a carbon monoxide polluted world, following massive use of fossil fuels, than one in which there are deposits of nuclear waste buried in obscure areas of this planet.

What must puzzle many people is how two such highly-trained and intelligent men can disagree so profoundly. Sir John Hill seems to think that the fast breeder reactor is vital to our future. I believe that he has predicted that without it we shall face catastrophe—not just a drastic drop in our standard of living but a complete breakdown of civilisation as we know it. On the other hand, the Royal Commission, chaired by Sir Brian Flowers, reported that its anxiety about the hazards of an economy based on plutonium leads us to the view that fast reactors should be introduced only if they are demonstrably essential". The Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Strathclyde wrote in a letter to The Times on 1st October: The recent Flowers Report has stimulated Lord Rothschild to an emotional outburst on the United Kingdom nuclear programme. He argued: The breeder is an excellent plant for burning plutonium, the best use of the material. …The breeder could be the safest form of reactor. In the light of that type of comment and debate, it is no wonder there is public unease about the polarisation of views by those eminent men—unease about the nature of nuclear technology, unease possibly based on ignorance, but real enough, for, unlike the people of Sweden and the United States, the British people have not yet been exposed to the information that is available. There is also unease about the consequences of making the wrong decision.

When one adds to all these questions about safety and health the political, military and social dimensions—the threat of terrorist activity, the vulnerability of nuclear sites to conventional attacks in war, the demands for greater surveillance, leading to security measures at variance with civil liberties, the need for international collaboration and control over the proliferation of nuclear weapons—my inescapable conclusion is that the Secretary of State should do two things.

First, the right hon. Gentleman should ask his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for a full debate in the House at a proper time so that reports appear in the Press and that those who are associated with radio and television and who are now asleep should add to the publicity. He should also consider ways of informing the public of what is at stake. Secondly, he should refuse to be stampeded into taking an early decision.

There are some other conclusions to be drawn but I offer them more tentatively. First, there is the energy gap prediction. I find such predictions notoriously unreliable. They are even more unreliable than long-term and mid-term economic forecasts, on which they are based to a large extent. Therefore, they are often doubly wrong, or have factors introduced into them that make them more likely to be inaccurate. They have that built-in unreliability from the start.

Secondly, how sure are we that other forms of energy, such as solar power, wave and tidal power, together with better and more effective use of existing sources of conventional power, cannot give us rather more time than perhaps we once considered possible so that we can decide whether we must plan now or whether we have a little leeway in which to make up our minds about how far down the nuclear road we should go?

Might we not, given realignment of our research efforts and a greater concentration of energy conservation programmes, find that the next step in the application of nuclear technology will turn out to be nuclear fusion, which eliminates the most dreaded dangers to our environment?

Thirdly, I hope that the time spent analysing and sifting these issues will not be regarded as procrastination. I hope it will not be thought that we are running away from the problem. But even if the Government decide in favour of the fast breeder reactor, there is—I do not believe we can escape this problem either—the question of cost. If it has to be faced, I cannot see how we can surmount it unless we do so in concert with our friends in the EEC.

Fourthly, I hope that the Secretary of State will begin to consider the implementation of those parts of the Flowers Report which, it is generally agreed, will benefit the environment. The right hon. Gentleman has a daunting task. The report is probably the most significant that he or any other Minister has had to consider since the war. The decisions that must flow from it can have nothing but the most profound effects.

As we know from our correspondence and what we have read and heard already, it is easy to take an emotional view on either side of the argument. All I ask is that we take a realistic view.

5.48 a.m.

Mr. Robin F. Cook (Edinburgh, Central)

When I was a very much younger man my father firmly warned me against betting and lotteries. I am bound to say that my experience in every ballot and lottery in which I have taken part since coming to this place has amply borne out his words, not least the place that I received in this debate

It might be for the convenience of the House, and not least for the convenience of my Front Bench colleagues, if I raise in this debate the matter that I had hoped to raise on its own in a later debate. It is a matter of high relevance to tonight's debate and a matter that has already been discussed by many of the Members now in the Chamber. I think that no reasonable objection can be taken if I speak on the same matter.

Before doing so, I want to turn back to one of the comments made by the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Monro), who said that he could not agree with some of the higher estimates of cost produced for the tritium plant at Chapel-cross. I think that he will agree that it is difficult to put up an accurate estimate of the cost for the plant when the Government refuse to make an estimate any more accurate than "a matter of several million pounds." In such a situation it is not surprising that members of the public and Members of the House are encouraged to use their imagination in either direction as they may wish.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is difficult to make an environmental case against the proposed development at Chapelcross, precisely because it has been producing plutonium for 20 years, and in the light of that it is perhaps difficult to object to the production of tritium which is comparatively benign.

The objection lies in its use in the nuclear deterrent. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, on that matter we differ and I do not think that he sought to suggest that I have ever attempted to hide the fact that we differ on that issue. But that is another debate.

I wish to concentrate my remarks on the points that have been raised by other hon. Members, particularly the hon. Member for the Western Isles, (Mr. Stewart), concerning the permanent disposal of radioactive waste. This is a narrower matter than the wider view taken by the hon. Member for Carshalton (Mr. Forman) in introducing the debate so ably, but it is nevertheless, although a narrow matter, one that is bound to give rise to concern, as I am sure my hon. Friend is aware. It has aroused concern particularly in areas where people have found that bore holes are to be dug at the bottom of their gardens in the Western Isles and Dumfriesshire.

It is an irony that these areas should have been chosen for the disposal of radioactive waste. I share the doubts of the hon. Member for Carshalton about whether we shall need an expansion of the nuclear power programme or a substantially expanded electricity generation capacity, but, if we do need such expansion, it will be because of the demands of the industrial areas and not because of the demands of the communities in Galloway or the Western Isles. A new ethical dilemma is introduced when industrial communities contemplate taking the waste which arises from their activities and transporting it to other communities with a different life style. It is ironical that the Western Isles is the one corner of Britain that can be found where there is a large number of communities without electricity.

There may be sound geological reasons against burying the waste in the main square of Whitehaven or in Workington. Yet, it is just this solution of burying the waste on the site where it arises that the Germans are considering. They intend, if they can, to build their re-processing facility on the site which they identify for permanent disposal of the waste arising from the re-processing factory. They are at present only hopeful that they will be able to find such a site, as we are. Neither of us has yet successfully identified an absolutely cast-iron safe site for such an activity.

However, in principle I should not object to the search—quite the reverse. I and others before me who have been sceptical about the need for nuclear power have urged on a number of occasions that the fact that it has not been established that there is one infallible way of disposing of the waste that will arise from the programme is one reason for exercising caution in the development of the nuclear programme.

It is surely a matter of surprise that it is 20 years since we started generating electricity by nuclear power and that only now, 20 years later, are we getting round to looking at whether there is a safe way of disposing of the waste material. We all have our favourite passages in the Flowers Report. Some have been quoted already. I find this sentence striking: It is strange in retrospect that a matter so important for the safe development of nuclear power should have been delayed for so long. It is, perhaps, not surprising that the task has been postponed for so long, because it is not an easy one. We are faced with the problem of disposing of fission products which will remain radioactive for several centuries during which time they will need to be infallibly separated from the environment and infallibly safeguarded. Looked at from the other end of the telescope, it is as if somebody during the Wars of the Roses had buried a dump of toxic material which only now was ceasing to be radioactive and could be released into the atmosphere.

It is a daunting task. Quite apart from other considerations, it will demand the transmittance and transference of knowledge from one generation to the other on an unprecedented scale. When we remember that in London or in any of our major cities we have already lost sight of where we buried the cables and drains of the previous century, it is difficult to envisage that we shall quite so easily transfer the knowledge about such a burial chamber over centuries and, indeed, over millennia.

I find it a particularly graphic illustration of how long such a burial chamber would have to be in operation to be safe that one of the criteria applied in identifying a site is that it will be immune to change in the event of a future ice age.

Faced with such a problem, it is perhaps not surprising that some of the solutions proposed are quite bizarre. It has been suggested that the waste could be put in a rocket and fired into the sun. That is a solution which is open to a large number of objections, not least the fact that it would be very extravagant in its use of energy in disposal of waste which arose from a process which was intended to increase the net production of energy.

It has also been suggested that it might be put in the Antarctic ice cap and allowed to melt its way down to the bottom, but that, too, is open to the very obvious objection that it would be contrary to the Antarctic Treaty, which is one of the few achievements we have obtained from the process of multilateral disarmament of the past two decades.

All in all, geological disposal appears the most likely bet, and in that context it is certainly sensible that we should see what is the most likely and appropriate site. But before we do so, the public, and in particular this House, are entitled to more information. A particular point on which I seek information from my hon. Friend the Minister when he replies is the capacity that is envisaged for the disposal site. Are we looking for a place where we can dispose of the present amount of highly active waste which has accumulated at Windscale, or a site to deal with the waste which will arise from the present British programme if and when all the AGRs are started up?

If that is the capacity we are looking for, I for one would find it difficult to take exception in principle to a survey seeking to identify a suitable site.

If, however, we are looking for the waste which would arise from an expanded nuclear programme, we are involved in a very different search indeed. As the hon. Member for Carshalton has indicated, the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority has quite unrealistic forecasts of expansion in nuclear generation. The proposal which it submitted to the Royal Commission indicated that by the end of the century it saw nuclear power increasing twentyfold. As the hon. Member observed, Sir John Hill appears since to have written in The Times saying that in effect the authority did not really mean it. This is undoubtedly in response to the criticism of that unrealistic forecast.

Nevertheless, undoubtedly there are those in the nuclear industry who see a substantial expansion of nuclear power over the coming two or three decades, and I was very struck to note that a Mr. Allardice of UKAEA, speaking in Portree over the weekend, said that the site it was looking for was in connection with the development of a fast breeder reactor station. He appears to have said in Portree that the waste which would arise from an expanded British nuclear programme, including a fast breeder, would only come to something like the size of the average semi-detached house. Some hon. Members may be familiar with this comparison, because it is one that is already used by BNFL to describe the waste it has accumulated to date.

I am beginning to find BNFL's concept of the average semi-detached house distressingly flexible. If it is the case that we are now hunting for a place where we could dispose of the waste which would arise from a programme involving fast breeder reactors, I should be deeply distressed, because the approval of such a programme is a decision which should be taken on its merits and a decision about which I and other hon. Members have grave reservations.

Lastly, on the question of the capacity of the site we are seeking, I ask the Minister for an assurance that the site is intended to cater only for waste from the nuclear programme in Britain. The survey is part of a European survey, and, as I understand it, each country is specialising. Britain is looking at granite areas, Germany at salt areas and Italy at clay areas in order to establish which is most suitable for a site. Am I to understand from that division of labour that if we discover that granite is not suitable, and salt is, the Germans will establish a site, and we shall be able to apply for the use of it? Or, if we discover that granite is suitable, will other Eurpean countries be able to apply to us to use our site on some isolated island in the West Hebrides?

The question of foreign waste also arises in relation to the contract of BNFL to reprocess foreign nuclear waste, and in particular, the contract which was signed recently with the Japanese authorities. I was interested in the story in The Times last Saturday which said that the United States may prevent such a contract, and stop the shipping of waste to Britain.

Mr. Forman

Does the hon. Member have any information to suggest that BNFL has actually signed the contract? If so, would he tell us more about it? My impression is that the Japanese and BNFL are about to sign the contract, but they have been "about to sign" for some time.

Mr. Cook

I cannot speak with the authority of the Minister. My hon. Friend will have to clarify that when he winds up the debate. My understanding is that they have signed, but I cannot recall the reference to mind.

I was dealing with the United States intervention in the contract between BNFL and the Japanese, and I would hope that my hon. Friend will comment on this. In any event the Royal Commission, in its report, said that it would be wrong to return the reprocessed waste to Japan, partly because of difficulties of transport, and partly because, if we accept that geological disposal is the way to bury it, it would be eccentric to return the waste to a country with a high incidence of eathquakes.

The quite clear implication of the Royal Commission is that if we handle foreign waste, we should consider burying in our own country the vitrified waste arising from that process. It is difficult for us to evaluate the correctness or otherwise of this, as long as we are in doubt about the Government's reaction to the Royal Commission Report. Indeed this difficulty occurs on a number of points. One particularly relevant passage of the report relates to its suggestions about the creation of an independent agency for handling waste disposal. The Royal Commission suggested that there should be an independent National Waste Management Advisory Committee, and a National Waste Disposal Corporation. The reason for suggesting that these should be independent of the nuclear lobby is that those who dispose of the waste and take decisions on its costs should do so free of any influence as to its effect on the profitability or otherwise of the reprocessing business. We are entitled to know the Government's response to that recommendation.

This is a new technology. No one has yet succeeded in the permanent disposal of vitrified waste on a commercial scale. We should approach the matter cautiously and we must have a high degree of confidence in those responsible for evaluating the project. I would have greater confidence in their ability to do so objectively, if I knew it was being handled by an independent agency, rather than the nuclear industry which may be seeking to justify the decision to go ahead with the fast breeder reactor. I would be much more encouraged by the creation of such an agency than I would be by assurances of adequate public consultation, because I think that we shall see at Windscale that adequate consultation does not include the full rigours of a public planning inquiry.

I recognise that I have sought a considerable amount of information which the Minister may not be able to provide tonight and I shall be happy if he writes to me later. However, it is absurd that we should be debating a matter of this gravity during a necessarily brief debate in the middle of the night. It would be unfair to press my hon. Friend the Minister on that because he has no ministerial responsibility for the timing of debates, but I would assure him that were he and his Department to press for a full day's debate at a more regular time of day, he would have the support of all hon. Members.

There is some controversy about how future generations will regard our decision to develop nuclear technology. But there can be no disagreement that future generations will find it inconceivable if we embark on an expansion of that industry without finding time for a proper debate.

6.6 a.m.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

The closing comments of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) will be supported by all hon. Members. I do not wish to restrain my gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton (Mr. Forman) not only for initiating the debate—albeit at such an early hour—but for his impressive speech. That is not to say that I endorse every word that he said, but I was impressed with the range of the speech and the way that he dealt with the issues. Although I value this opportunity I regard it as a house warming party for a more substantial, full-ranging debate soon after the House reassembles.

The hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) referred to hiding things under the carpet. We would be outraged if the Government thought that they could get away with it by wrapping the matter up in a parliamentary nightshirt. The scale of the issues involved requires a major debate at a time when all hon. Members can take part and when it will receive full publicity. The conclusion drawn by Sir Brian Flowers is that it is now time for a debate by Parliament and people—and he did not mean at 6.5 a.m.

I tip-toed towards this subject with caution. I am here only because of the unavoidable absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Gray). I should not otherwise have chosen to take part in such a controversial debate so soon after taking over my present responsibility. It is one of the most important spheres with which I shall be concerned. The subject is complex and technical. As my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton said, the ethical, moral and futuristic implications of the issues are beyond the experience of any hon. Member in the House. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Grinstead (Mr. Johnson Smith) said, the report is probably the most substantial and significant which has been received by any Minister since the war. One can see the scale of the problem and the scale of the isues before us.

As I look for certainty and information in trying to familiarise myself with the issues, I realise that everything I touch turns to dust and that uncertainty is everywhere. My hon. Friends have referred to the difficulties of forecasting. I can appreciate the Minister's difficulties in that respect, because if he attempted even now to give us any sure forecasts of energy demand, he would know that no one in the House would believe them. The uncertainties and difficulties, especially against the background of recent unfortunate forecasting experience in relation to energy, electricity demand and the major economic forecasts give us no confidence that we can see with any certainty what the probabilities are. The scope for variations is enormous. The potential margins for error are very great.

Is there an energy gap to come? If there is, how big will it be? These are very difficult issues which the Government and the House will have to consider.

The issues raised in the Flowers Report provide at least some guidelines as to the way in which we should go forward into the whole question. This debate deals with nuclear power, but one cannot separate nuclear power from the capabilities of the other energy sources, and our dependence on those will depend on the demand for energy and the resources available and on the decisions that are taken about the availability of those other resources.

There have been cries for a great debate. I very much hope that in that great debate, if it takes place, as we have said, in Government time as well as in public time, and elsewhere, there will be borne in mind something to which Sir Brian Flowers drew particular attention. He contrasted the two sides of the argument that tend to become polarised. Perhaps one has tended to imagine certain identikit images across the Chamber of the great protagonists of the argument. Sir Brian Flowers said, The environmentalist tends to see those in the industry as being so committed to furtherance of their technology as to be wilfully blind to its dangers to the world. Those within the industry tend to see environmentalists as people opposed to all technology who are prepared to denigrate their work on the basis of nebulous fears of future catastrophes. That puts very clearly the two extreme poles of the argument. The plea of Sir Brian that The arguments of both deserve to be heard with greater mutual understanding is a cry that we should echo in the House, because it is extremely important as we move into what is clearly a very serious and most important debate.

Having accepted, therefore, the honest motives of both sides, it is equally important to ensure that we avoid any unnecessary sensationalism. Comments have been made about plutonium and the effect of a quantity of plutonium no larger than an orange. Sir Brian Flowers indicated that this was a highly misleading and most unfortunate description which was clearly very sensationally presented.

We also need to ensure that in the House we preserve a balance. The Secretary of State has made great play of his desire for the fullest and widest possible public debate, and for a realistic approach to the issues. I am not sure that he has played quite as valuable a part as he might have done in ensuring that. His reaction to the incident at Windscale has raised public concern, when perhaps a little more study would have shown that there were other Ministers who were well aware of what had happened.

I think that an official statement from a body that is responsible to the Minister that In the view of the company it is very important that questions of this sort, blown up as they are by the media out of all proportion to their true significance"— with respect, they are blown up by the media egged on by the Secretary of State—is something to which the right hon. Gentleman will wish to give his attention, because these are difficult issues and they must be approached responsibly.

I welcome the approach of submitting questions to the Nuclear Inspectorate. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton has his list on the table, but when I read the Secretary of State's list of questions I get rather concerned about which angle he is pursuing. Question No. 1 is: Has the work done on fast reactor technology so far, here or world-wide, enabled you to say authoritatively that fast reactors will be as safe in operation as thermal reactors now in use? I think that anybody in the House with a fairly elementary understanding of the subject could answer that.

One wonders how that question can lie together with Question No. 16. which is: What advantages do you see in Britain building its own commercial-sized demonstration fast reactor … on the present state of technology, as compared to the alternative possibility of waiting until the state of the art has advanced here and abroad and certain unresolved safety questions are better understood and better remedies have been found in dealing with them? That is the most loaded question that could have been put to anybody, and rather contradictory to Question No. 1.

When one is worrying about a sensational approach to this problem I am not sure that Question No. 6 which asks If the core melted through the pressure vessel and sank into the earth how far would it go and what could stop it and how could it be subsequently recovered? does not take us into the world of science fiction, or, if not that, whether it is helpful at this stage to raise that sort of issue.

Having posed all the difficulties—and I recognise the real problems that face the Secretary of State and Ministers over this issue and the scale of them—and having outlined the uncertainties, I think that the first clear opinion that impressed itself on me in my initial study of the subject was that made at the nuclear forum about the importance of keeping all the options open for as long as possible, because it is clear that we are moving into an uncertain technological field, with distinguished people holding diametrically opposite opinions. There is a need for clarification in order to avoid commitments too early or any earlier than is absolutely necessary.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. Monro) spoke up boldly for the situation in his constituency. In a sense I share his problem because I have a Magnox reactor and an AGR in my constituency. I know many of the problems and difficulties that can exist in such a situation.

I now come to the problem of the disposal of waste. I was struck by the statement of Sir Brian Flowers that he was confident that an acceptable solution would be found. I thought that that was a bold statement, recognising the difficulties that exist. But that statement having been made, he emphasised the time and scale of effort that would be needed to identify that solution.

Clearly, if we are to keep our options open. that search must be pursued as a matter of urgency, because we do not know now whether that option exists. If there were no acceptable way of dis- posing of waste, that would raise real problems for the future of any fast breeder programme. It is therefore a matter of crucial urgency that the Government press ahead with their search for a suitable disposal method. It is true that this is needed in any case to deal with the waste from the present reactor programme. It seems inescapable that that programme must be pursued as a matter of urgency.

It seems to me also that, in giving ourselves the greatest time in which these options can be maintained, the most active programme of energy conservation is essential. In my new responsibilities, I have the initial impression that energy conservation has not received more recently the impetus that it should have done. There was impetus at the time of the oil crisis, but that has now gone, and those who see further ahead can lee even more reason for an active programme now.

Benign sources would be everyone's ideal if they were achievable. I see no desire for nuclear power for the sake of it. If the renewable sources of energy are a rather earlier prospect than seems to be the case now, that is extremely important. I would like to see some evidence of a greater concentration, perhaps on a European or wider international scale, on the process of research into such sources.

Mr. Forman

One of the important points to be brought out on benign sources is that they have tended to be dealt with by the Department so far as something which can or cannot be plugged into the existing system for the provision of electricity through the highly centralised grid. If one is to make a success of renewable benign sources, one has to think in terms of different kinds of provision for different purposes. More could be achieved if we liberated our imaginations from the old concepts and studied other applications of solar energy beyond those derived from the provision and storage of electricity in photo-voltaic cells, for example.

Mr. King

My hon. Friend is moving his imagination even wider, and at this late hour I cannot follow him, but he may well be right. I shall study that suggestion carefully to see how he is going to do it. Since the proposed Severn barrage would be just outside my constituency, I know that there has been a lot of talk in the West Country about one of the possible sources of renewable energy in that area. The project has been looked at repeatedly for the last 60 or 70 years but little direction and drive has been put behind it.

Mr. Peter Rost (Derbyshire, South-East)

The Government have at no time been prepared to sponsor a feasibility study, which could be done at relatively low cost.

Mr. King

My understanding is that a small feasibility study is now going on. However, my hon. Friend may be more correct than I am in the matter, so perhaps the Minister can enlighten us.

But the issue on which there will be the most disappointment arises from Dr. Brunner's statement, reported in this morning's Press, that the fusion JET programme project is on its deathbed. It will be tragic if that element in European co-operation has collapsed so completely. As one eminent scientist has said, if even scientific co-operation is impossible to obtain in Europe on projects which could be so beneficial to the whole Community, the prospect is distressing.

We all know the problems which the Secretary of State has had with his opinions of European energy policy. It is not for me to say what effect that may have had on the programme and on attempts to get the JET project for Britain. I know that the Under-Secretary has been working very hard to rescue something from the project and to get it sited at Culham. I pay tribute to his work, but his row may have been made harder by the way in which it was originally hoed by his right hon. Friend.

I do not want to be controversial at this hour and I hope that the Under-Secretary can give us better news than appears in today's papers. If Europe's attempts to fund a research programme have collapsed, we face a grievous problem.

This debate, so ably initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton, has just skimmed the surface of issues which transcend party political differences and which will affect not just our children and grandchildren but many generations to come. We face many problems. None is easy and we shall find no perfect answers. It is clear that decisions will have to be made, and this House has a major responsibility and rôle to play in reaching those decisions.

6.27 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Alex Eadie)

We have heard some interesting views in this debate and it has been useful to the House to consider this important subject. I note the strictures of hon. Members about the time at which the debate has taken place, but it is hardly inspiring for a Minister to be replying to a debate at this hour. No doubt hon. Members' comments have been noted.

The hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) made fun of the difficult questions posed by the Secretary of State to the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate. It may be a new experience for the hon. Gentleman to find someone asking questions to which he does not know the answers. It is a tradition of the House that people pose questions when they already know the answers. Let us await the replies of the inspectorate and perhaps the lion. Member for Bridgwater will wish to return to this subject.

I hope that the hon. Member will reflect on words he used about JET. He said that nuclear fusion was on its deathbed. I have not seen the Press reports, but I doubt whether that was the implication of any remarks made by Dr. Brunner.

Mr. Tom King

That is the view of Dr. Brunner reported in the Press today. It is not my sentiment.

Mr. Eadie

The hon. Member was generous in his comments about the part I have played in this issue. I have answered three debates on the subject and I believe that the demise of the subject has been greatly exaggerated.

We are coming to the end of the Dutch presidency of the Council of Ministers and we had to consider whether it would be possible to have discussions before Dr. Brunner's term of office ends. I can reveal to the House that Dr. Brinkhorst, the Dutch President of the Research Council, and Dr. Brunner have seen me at the Department of Energy to discuss matters relating to fusion. Dr. Brinkhorst pointed out the time dilemma involved and said that unless he could be assured that a deal could be clinched at one further meeting, he was not disposed to call a meeting of the Council of Ministers.

I have fought hard for the JET project to come to Culham. I have been conscious of the fact that we have a strong case because we have the necessary scientific and technological background there. Our case impressed many people in Europe, but I also stressed that the European Community must do fusion and that there would be no obstruction from Great Britain if the European Community decided to take the project somewhere other than Culham. I have made this clear here and in the Council of Ministers.

I do not believe that fusion is on its deathbed. I am sure that the EEC will show the necessary determination and resolve to ensure that fusion becomes a Community project and I look forward to reporting to the House any progress which can be made in the new year. I am reasonably optimistic that I shall be able to impress on my colleagues in the EEC that Culham is the best site for the project.

Mr. Forman

Will the Minister comment on my point about the questions asked of the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate or will he be coming to that later?

Mr. Eadie

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could wait a little while. I broke off from my speech because fusion is so important.

The future development of nuclear power in this country raises issues of great concern to us all. They relate to our long-term energy supplies, to our economic and industrial health and to our standards of living up to the end of the century and beyond. No less important they relate to the safety of nuclear power, to protection of the environment and to the well-being of our society.

At one level, nuclear power is a highly technical subject which it is often difficult for the layman—however intelligent—to grasp or fully understand. At another level, the issues are much too important to be left to the experts. They are the sort of issues on which many people, without expert background, can have firm views; and it is important for the Government that these views should be formed now, before decisions are taken, rather than later, when the decisions are being carried out and when a change of views would be damaging and disruptive.

That is why the Government attach importance to public debate now. We recognise the need to explain the facts, inform the public and publicise the issues. Discussion of a subject such as the fast reactor, for instance, on which strong views are held, can all too easily become a sterile confrontation between two opposing points of view. We must try to break through these fixed positions to a balanced discussion of the issues.

Nuclear power at present contributes about 3 per cent. of this country's total energy needs, or about 10 per cent. of our electricity generation. As the AGR stations currently under construction come on stream over the next few years this proportion will increase. Beyond that point the development of nuclear power will depend on decisions yet to be taken.

One decision that we shall have to reach concerns the future of the steam generating heavy water reactor. I am sure that hon. Members are familiar with the background. It has been referred to in the debate. The SGHWR was chosen by the Government in 1974 as the reactor system to be adopted for the next nuclear power station orders. Following this decision the programme of design and component development work was undertaken by the Nuclear Power Company with the aim of producing a detailed reference design for the generating boards. The NPC completed and submitted this documentation last June. The Atomic Energy Authority then advised my right hon. Friend that this was an appropriate moment to take stock of progress with the SGHWR programme. The Authority recommended to us that, for a variety of reasons, the SGHWR looked less attractive than it had seemed two years before. In particular, they were concerned at the prospect of launching a new reactor system, which appeared more expensive than other reactor systems at a time when forecasts of electricity demand had fallen sharply from what was previously expected. On balance, it was their view, though the SSEB dissented, that the programme should be replaced by advanced gas- cooled reactors—AGRs—or by pressurised water reactors—PWRs.

The Government have not yet reached a view on this advice. We still have it under study. The House will recall that in October, my right hon. Friend agreed to a proposal that the Nuclear Power Company should carry out a six-month assessment of the SGHWR, AGR and PWR systems, on the clear understanding that this would not jeopardise the nuclear industry's ability to start work on site on an SGHWR early in 1979. The Government are not committed to accepting the outcome of this assessment, but I believe that it should provide a firm basis on which to reach a decision on the future of the SGHWR programme. We recognise the importance of ending the present uncertainty as soon as we are able to.

I would like to turn to the question of future policy on the fast reactor, which the Government currently have under review. I would stress that no decisions about the next stage in the development of the fast reactor have as yet been taken. The Government have not made up their minds about what should be done. There is a lot of misunderstanding about the nature of the decision which is before the Government. I should like to clarify it.

The fast reactor has been under development in this country since the 1950s. At the present time, a prototype fast reactor is being brought un to its full power of 250 MW at Dounreay. We have already, therefore, progressed some way down the road of developing a fast reactor for commercial use. The question is whether we should continue down that road and, if so, at what pace and in what way.

Let me emphasise that we are not about to take decisions whether to install fast reactors in great quantity in this country. We could not take decisions of that kind at the present time. Nor are we in any way committed to an official energy strategy, of the kind which the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution outlined in its recent report, involving the installation of 33 GW of fast reactors by the year 2000.

I noted that the Royal Commission report was fairly extensively quoted. One can lift a page and make a quotation. Incidentally, since it has been suggested that I was trying to be critical, let me say that I was making the point that one has to read the whole report and not pick out pieces of it. I was not deriding the report. I was making a constructive comment.

The report on nuclear power and the environment needs to be taken very seriously by the Government and I am glad to see that the House will be debating it later tonight. The point I am making is that decisions leading to the large-scale use of fast reactors can only be taken progressively over the years. What is at issue at the moment is whether we should plan to build one commercial-scale demonstration fast reactor—a CFR for short—in this country at an appropriate time, with or without international co-operation, or whether we should adopt some other approach to the further development of the fast reactor in this country, perhaps by relying on foreign technology, designs and licences later in the century if we find then that fast reactors can be operated safely and acceptably and are needed to maintain our energy supplies.

A variety of possible options are involved in a decision of this kind. In particular there could be flexibility in timing. If we were to decide to build a CFR in this country, we would not necessarily be bound to start construction right away. There is also the question of international co-operation. This is a very important factor which the Government will want to take into account in reaching their decisions.

The Government have these matters under review. The arguments involved in a decision about a CFR are complex. There are no easy or clear-cut answers. I would like briefly to draw the attention of the House to two of the issues.

First, there is the basic argument about energy policy and about whether we shall need to install the fast reactor in the long term to maintain our energy supplies. At the moment, with our massive coal programme and North Sea oil and gas coming ashore, it is hard to believe that there will come a time when we shall have problems of this kind. None the less, we must take seriously the possibility that by the end of the century we shall face declining indigenous reserves of oil and gas, and a tightening of world supplies of oil and uranium.

In such a situation, the advantages of the fast reactor would lie in its ability to use uranium up to 60 times more efficiently than existing thermal reactors. For a country like the United Kingdom, with virtually no reserves of uranium of our own, this could be of great importance. It could turn our large stocks of depleted uranium into a major new energy source, give us greater independence of world uranium suppliers and extend our ability to meet our energy needs economically as our North Sea reserves decline.

There are, of course, great uncertainties about the long-term prospect for energy supplies. There is nothing inevitable about the future pattern of energy supply and demand. Nonetheless, the question for the moment is whether, and how, we should keep open the option of ordering fast reactors in the long-term, assuming that they can be shown to be safe and, what is more important, publicly acceptable.

Mr. Forman

Will the hon. Gentleman come to the question of the commercial fast reactor, because the points that I sought to make about the proportion which is a capital cost as opposed to a nuclear fuel cycle cost is relevant to the argument that he was making about uranium and the efficient use of uranium.

Mr. Eadie

I did not intend to come to that point but, taking a figure from the top of my head, figures of up to £2,000 million for the total gross cost of a CFR, including its fuel cycle, have been mentioned. If I am wrong I shall rectify that figure by writing to the hon. Gentleman.

In considering this, we need to bear in mind the considerable assets in terms of expertise and hardware that we have built up in fast reactor technology over the last two decades. We need also to make the bset judgment we can about the contribution we can expect from other energy sources and from energy conservation. I believe that coal production and the development of the Government's energy conservation programme will play an important part in meeting our longer-term needs. Research into the renewable energy sources, much of it already under way, should show more clearly than we now know how far their development will be technically and economically viable before the end of the century. I resist the temptation to deal with some of the other points made, save to point out that wave energy is energy generated in a similar fashion to energy from power stations.

Our present judgment is that we cannot rely on the energy sources besides nuclear power to meet our longer-term needs without involving undue economic penalty.

The second issue is whether the arguments against the fast reactor on the grounds of safety and its social and environmental effects are so strong that we should pull back from developing it any further. Here most of all, I think, we need to have public debate, and, as a contribution to that debate, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy has put a long list of questions to our Nuclear Installations Inspectorate. These questions include a number from the hon. Member for Carshalton (Mr. Forman), to whom we are grateful for initiating this debate. I am sure that the House will appreciate that the answering of these questions is a substantial task. Anyone who has seen, for example, the questions posed by the hon. Member for Carshalton will readily agree that it is a formidable task. Although I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the help and interest he has shown, I cannot give a precise date for when the answers will be available, but I expect that they will be available next month.

The recent report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution is a major development in public discussion of nuclear safety. The Government are studying it carefully, and we shall be publishing a reply when we are ready to do so.

Mr. Tom King

Why not sooner?

Mr. Eadie

I do not want to pre-empt that reply—it is a formidable report, which should not be replied to hastily—but I make two points in this connection. First, there is no such thing as absolute safety or absolute freedom from environmental effects in any energy strategy. Coal mining, North Sea exploration, nuclear power and even the development of renewable energy sources all involve risks and uncertainties. The hon. Member for Carshalton has heard me talk about the theory of probability and so on. One can make a good speech on that alone. They all involve risks and uncertainties, and all require us to pay a price for the advantage which they give to us. As a former coal miner, I know of the toll taken when one tries to develop that source of energy.

Nuclear power development raises safety and environmental issues of a special nature. It is therefore all the more important that we evaluate the risks in an orderly and responsible fashion. We shall not find all the answers at once. We need to be satisfied at each stage that they are properly prepared, in terms both of our knowledge and of the precautions we take before going on to the next stage.

My second point is that to some extent we have time in which to resolve these safety issues. We are not about to embark on a large-scale fast reactor programme. Decisions of that kind are a decade or more away. The Royal Commission said that its concern about the effects of a plutonium economy on our society related not to the position at present, or even in the next decade, but to what might happen within the next 50 years. What is important is that our decision-taking should not outstrip our grasp of the safety and environmental implications of what we decide and our ability to develop adequate precautions and counter-measures.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) addressed himself to questions of radioactive waste. I have spoken for long enough, and anyway my hon. Friend was right to say that probably this morning I could not reply to his questions in any detail, but I undertake to write to him answering them to the best of my ability.

Long-lived highly-radioactive wastes resulting from the reprocessing of irradiated fuel are at present stored in liquid form under constant surveillance. They are mainly at Windscale, but there are also some at Dounreay. I say to the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) that it is not a question of England getting all the nuclear power jobs. Thousands of people in Scotland depend on nuclear power for their livelihood. Therefore, it is wrong to speak of the Scots not getting the jobs, If the hon. Gentleman went to Dounreay he would find thousands of people dependant on the jobs there, and then he would probably look at the matter from a different angle. In the case of oxide fuels, these wastes represent well under 3 per per cent. of all the material processed.

It is intended to solidify the wastes into stable glass, which will be insoluble in water and will thus be capable of being disposed of safely. A process to do this, called Harvest, is well under way. A full-scale demonstration plant should be in operation in the 1980s.

It is expected that it will be possible to dispose of such vitrified waste in at least one of three ways—burial in deep and stable geological formations on land, emplacement in suitable long-lived containers on the bed of the deep ocean, or burial under the floor of the deep ocean. The Atomic Energy Authority has under way a programme, financed with EEC funds, to assess the suitability of granites and other hard rocks for the safe underground disposal of such wastes. Similar assessments of clays and salts are being undertaken elsewhere in Europe.

The AEA is making use of a recent study which it commissioned from the Institute of Geological Sciences and which is to be seen as a contribution to the debate on the factors and criteria which bear upon the selection of areas in which the use of specific geological formations for disposal would he possible. In this early part of its research the AEA is examining the suitability of geological strata against these criteria and trying to identify suitable sites for test drillings.

The areas currently under consideration occur in different parts of the United Kingdom, from parts of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland and the Southern Uplands to parts of North-West England and the Cheshire-Welsh Border area.

There are no plans to undertake borings in Cornwall. The AEA has said that West Country granites do not satisfy most of the criteria laid down by the IGS as necessary for the safe disposal of hight radioactive waste. As the programme develops, it may be necessary to extend the search to other areas and to other geological formations.

The Authority also has a very small current research programme on disposal to the deep ocean floor. This is likely to expand into a point programme with with the United States, France and Japan, under the auspices of the Nuclear Energy Agency of the OECD. One cannot stand still on these matters. Indeed, we have a responsibility to continue the researches.

The need for such programmes to be carried out has been fully endorsed by the recent report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, which argued that research work should be carried out vigorously into methods of disposal of high level wastes. That report has been quoted fairly extensively during the debate.

No decisions have been taken on where to dispose of the wastes. Any decision to use geological strata on land would be taken only after a thorough evaluation of other methods of waste disposal and after the fullest consideration of all the safety and environmental issues involved, which would include consultation with local authorities and other bodies concerned, and on the basis of a conclusion that it was safe to do so.

The research involved in establishing the feasibility of alternative methods of waste disposal will take a number of years to complete, and this will provide ample opportunity for wide public debate.

The Government have to reach decisions on the future of both our thermal and our fast reactor programmes. The safety and environmental issues will be of major concern. We shall also have to assess the rôle of nuclear power in meeting medium and longer-term energy requirements, as I have explained. The future of our nuclear construction industry is a further aspect that was referred to in the debate and is one that we must consider carefully. Finally, we shall have to take into account the implications for public expenditure.

Mr. Forman

Is the Minister in a position to say anything about the exact status of the Japanese contracts as regards BNFL?

Mr. Eadie

I shall write to the hon. Gentleman on the matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central asked me the same question. I give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that I shall write to him.

I welcome the initiative of the hon. Member for Carshalton in raising the future of nuclear power in the United Kingdom. It has given the House the opportunity to consider the issues involved in our future decisions on nuclear power. I have found it valuable to hear the views that have been expressed.