HC Deb 14 June 1976 vol 913 cc8-9
7. Mr. Palmer

asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will make a statement on the progress of the steam generating heavy water reactor project.

Mr. Benn

The Nuclear Power Company and the electricity boards have agreed the main parameters of the SGHWR design. The NPC is now preparing the documents describing the reference design and these will shortly be submitted to the electricity boards. Work is being carried forward in parallel on the component development programme.

Mr. Palmer

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the statement made recently by Mr. Peddie, a member of the CEGB, to the effect that the steam generating heavy water reactor was proving more difficult to build than Concorde? If so, as our nuclear energy development is founded on the SGHWR, is not special investigation required by my right hon. Friend?

Mr. Benn

As my hon. Friend knows better than most—because the Select Committee of which he was chairman recommended it—the Government decision on this was announced in 1974 and it was not a view shared unanimously at the time. I have made it my business to maintain close contact with the chairmen and officials of the main organisations connected with the programme. Although there has been some delay, design work is in progress and I am satisfied that there has been no obstruction of the programme. I regard it as my responsibility to take a very close interest in this matter.

Mr. Hannam

Has the right hon. Gentleman seen the report of the Cavendish Laboratory in today's newspapers that by the late 1970s we could be once again a major importer of energy? Is he aware that the report recommends that we should therefore increase our efforts in the use of coal and nuclear capacity? In view of the remarks of the hon. Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer) about the steam generating heavy water reactor, should we not be examining alternative systems, such as the light water reactor or the AGR?

Mr. Benn

I am not reopening the question of the decision taken in 1974. The AGR has now come onstream and the early operating experience of it is, I am advised, very satisfactory.

As to whether, when, and to what extent there is an energy gap is disputed between the industries. The British Gas Corporation does not take the same view about margins of energy gap as some of the other industries do. Nobody doubts—and this is the basis of present policy—that coal, nuclear power and conservation, in appropriate proportions, will be central to the meeting of our long-term needs. The fact that there can be a conflict between two fuel industries about this basic question indicates the need for a harmonisation of forecasts before we reach a decision to invest many thousands of millions of pounds.

Mr. Mike Thomas

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the importance of turbo-generation and its effect on the employment of thousands of people in C. A. Parsons, in my constituency? Will he give some indication of the state of the turbo-generator industry and say whether he is considering advancing the hardware orders from March 1977? Will he give an assurance that there will be no more slippage in the timetable, and that it will be adhered to?

Mr. Benn

I think it would be wrong to advance by political fiat decisions in many important matters, including safety standards. At the same time, I am aware of the problems of the turbo-generator manufacturers, although this is primarily the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry. But there is pressure from the mining industry for the advance of the Drax B station, and we must not think of turbo-generator orders only in connection with nuclear generation.