HC Deb 15 November 1976 vol 919 cc1037-68

9.30 p.m.

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

I beg to move, That this House takes note of Commission Document No. R/2284/76 and of the Government's view that Culham is the best site for JET. The Joint European Torus is the proposed centre-piece of the European Communities' fusion research programme. There is broad scientific agreement that it is the right next step for the Community to undertake. The construction phase of JET has always been planned as part of the five-year Community programme for the years 1976–80, but although the Council has agreed the remainder of the programme, and released the relevant expenditure for 1976, we have not yet been able to agree on JET itself.

Several problems have arisen, but the main one has always been, "Where shall we build it?" This issue has been of particular interest to both sides of the House ever since JET was first proposed by the Commission. I welcome the opportunity that we are taking today to give further attention to this important subject. To focus our debate this evening we are fortunate in having the Report of the Select Committee on European Secondary Legislation.

During my opening remarks I shall try to deal with those matters which the Committee has brought to our notice, but first perhaps I might give a brief outline of the ministerial discussions which have taken place in the Community since our last debate on JET on 16th March.

Foreign Ministers of the Community discussed JET on 29th June and 19th July. They came to a favourable opinion on the rapid initiation of the project within the framework of the Community's 1976–80 thermo-nuclear fusion research programme which we had agreed at the earlier Research Council in February. However, they took no decision on the vexed question of the site for JET. This and other outstanding elements relating to the project were held over for the Research Council to consider further.

The Research Council which I attended was held on 21st October. For that meeting the Commission prepared Document R/2284/76 which is the subject of our debate today. As the Select Committee has pointed out, the document highlights the four outstanding questions, and also contains a draft decision which would permit the project's inclusion in the current Community thermonuclear fusion research programme. There was no discussion of the JET siting issue at this Council. Provisional agreement, subject to a decision on the site, was however, reached on the financial and organisation questions to which the Commission and the Select Committee have drawn attention.

On finance, the Commission had proposed that 80 per cent. of the cost of JET—108 million units of account—should be met from the general budget of the Community with the remainder being shared among the associated laboratories. The House will know that, in the past, we have consistently supported this concept of apportioning the costs of JET. The Research Council agreed that the Community should pay 80 per cent. However, it was clear that there was a general desire, particularly among the smaller member States, that the host country should pay some financial premium. A Danish proposal for a 10 per cent. host country premium with Euratom paying 80 per cent, of the total costs and the associated laboratories meeting the remaining 10 per cent. was acceptable to all my European colleagues and we agreed that this should be the basis on which we would proceed.

The Commission had also proposed that the host country should meet the expenditure necessary to bring the chosen site up to a "standard condition" to receive JET, and we all agreed that this was a reasonable condition for placing JET on any particular site. We agreed that at the conclusion of the experiment—in perhaps 15 years' time—the ownership of the assets and liabilities of the project and responsibility for them would pass to the host country. This means that the host country will have sole discretion to decide, in co-operation with its national safety authorities, how to decommission the equipment; but it will own the valuable assets—the buildings and power supplies—in return.

On the legal status of the project, there is general agreement in the Community that JET, no matter where it is sited, needs an independent legal status to enable contracts and management operations to be handled efficiently.

The Commission's proposal in Document R/2284/76 for the establishment of a joint undertaking within the meaning of Articles 45 to 51 of the Euratom Treaty will meet this requirement for independent legal status, and is acceptable to all member States.

On staffing arrangements, the discussion was less clear cut. Ministers accepted the Commission's proposal that the host country should second staff to the project but could not reach agreement on whether the balance of staff would be temporary agents of the Commission. We shall be returning to this matter later this month.

Although not formally discussed on 21st October, the Commission repeated in Document R/2284/76 its view that the project should go to Ispra, the Community's Joint Research Centre in Northern Italy.

The JET project is the most expensive single experiment the Community has ever contemplated, and one of the most difficult. We have made it clear from the start that in our view it is essential that JET should be sited where it has the best possible chance of success. This means that the decision must be based primarily on scientific and technical considerations.

We regard it as essential that the site should have a back-ground of plasma physics and associated engineering to provide support to the JET team in overcoming the problems of construction and initial operation which are bound to be encountered with an advanced technological project of this kind.

Ispra has no relevant experience and we therefore cannot accept the Commission's proposal to site JET there. Culham has a very successful record of machine construction and operation, and its programme since 1970 has been specifically directed towards the Tokamak route to fusion. We therefore believe that our site is particularly well qualified to host the experiment.

Finally, as the Select Committee has pointed out, the Commission has proposed that, if there is no agreement on the siting question by the end of the year, the Commission should choose the site on the basis of a recommendation by the JET Council, which would make recommendations on the basis of a two thirds majority vote.

This proposal is entirely contrary to the accepted principles for decision taking in the Community. When matters are of such difficulty and importance as to need the prolonged ministerial discussion which JET has required, the Government would regard it as particularly inappropriate for the Council to remit the decision.

The Research Council will discuss JET again on 18th November. It is, therefore, particularly helpful to me today to have the opportunity of hearing the views of the House on the important issues which are still outstanding.

9.40 p.m.

Mr. Tom Normanton (Cheadle)

At this late hour both sides of the House should be grateful to the Minister for his presentation of the factual situation in the proposal to implement the Community's JET project within the framework of the five-year research and training programme in plasma physics. I do not quarrel with what he has said. I and my right hon. and hon. Friends are more concerned with what he has not said, and it is that aspect to which I shall address myself.

I hope that the House will allow me to draw upon my own humble and modest experience and that of my hon. and noble Friends who have served for almost four years on the European Parliament's Committee on Energy and Research. The Minister drew heavily on the experience of his hon. and noble Friends who have been active on that Committee since July of last year. I should have been surprised if he had not done so, because he and the Secretary of State for Energy would be the poorer.

With one special exception the House would be ill advised to adopt too partisan an approach to our consideration of the document, for far too much is at stake for this country and Europe. But the one exception concerns the widely held belief—and I cannot over-emphasise this—that the Government have no coherent policy for energy—for coal, oil, gas or nuclear power. If there is no clear policy for the protection, distribution and consumption of energy, it is extremely difficult to form a policy for research into future developments in that area.

One only has to study the speeches of such eminent and universally respected experts as Sir John Hill, who addressed the British Association at Lancaster on 3rd September, to understand what I mean. We should also study the evidence given to the Energy and Research Committee about two years ago in Brussels when a panel of internationally highly reputable scientists, including Sir John Hill, were subjected to the most intensive interrogation on energy policy.

That puts into sharper and keener perspective Britain's performance in nuclear power production and programme commitments compared with the rest of the European Community. When we look at the rest of the world and consider the United States and the Soviet Union, I have to confess that the picture looks even more depressing.

I hope that no hon. Members will launch themselves into an exercise of partisanship. Despite all that may have been implied by what I have said so far, we must recognise that here in Britain we have some brilliant brains. It behoves the Government to do all they can to make sure that those brains are deployed in Britain for Britain, to the maximum advantage of the individuals concerned and of the public. If we fail to do that, we shall lose them and shall deserve to be indicted for it. An all-out effort by the Secretary of State is called for if he is to succeed later this week in convincing, or persuading against their better judgment, his fellow Energy Ministers, or maybe even the Council of Foreign Ministers, of the wisdom of establishing the Joint European Torus project at Culham.

It is not for me or my right hon. and hon. Friends to tell the Government how they should do their job, but I must ask a number of questions and make a number of points. Do the Government appreciate how deep seated and sincerely held are the misgivings of most member States about our industrial will and even our industrial capability and, even more, our political will in this area? At a meeting of our Energy and Research Committee only two or three weeks ago, a number of cuttings from German newspapers were quoted. One, from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, was a damning picture of construction progress at Dounreay. Another, an extract from Die Welt, painted a gloomy picture of the industrial climate in Britain, and particularly of industrial relations.

Such reports are not the best encouragement for a commitment by the Community to invest hundreds of millions of units of account in a construction programme in Britain. Whether they are true or false is not the point at issue. They represent a widely-held view which causes deep and abiding distress to hon. Members on both sides of the House who hear it expressed in the presence of other European parliamentarians. It cannot be ignored, and I hope that we shall be assured that it will not be ignored when we are negotiating for the JET project to he established at Culham.

On the other side of the coin it is only fair to say that two years ago it could have been said with complete justification that no one but a fool, and an irresponsible fool at that, would have been willing to put one unit of account into the Joint Research Centre at Ispra. But since then there has been a major change of management. The present director, M. Dinkenspieler, who came from the ELDO project, has made a big impact in the short time he has been there. We should be ill-advised to ignore his influence and the very different climate at the JRC, this Euratom project, compared with what we have heard for so many years.

The Secretary of State will have no mean task in persuading his Continental Socialist friends to fall into line with Culham. They are overwhelmingly, but not unanimously, in favour of Ispra, for a variety of reasons. After at least a year the Commission is still said to be of the same opinion—that the JET project should be established at Ispra. Unfortunately members of the Commission, like parliamentarians of all parties, have not forgotten our tragic affair with Dragon.

Since the Commission showed its preference for Ispra, a number of developments have been formulated which the Secretary of State should note. The Ispra JRC has become very much busier and therefore it is more productive in research activities. It is much busier in research programmes prepared and presented by the Commission through its special consultative committees.

Ispra has also succeeded, under its new management, in obtaining a considerable portion of work in the form of contract research commissions from industry in the EEC and sources in other parts of the world. Ispra still has some small capacity left, and the siting of JET would mean considerable expansion in new buildings and new facilities above and beyond those which are currently available.

Some hon. Members and some noble Lords saw and appreciated the veracity of these remarks when we visited Ispra, a few weeks ago. If Ispra JRC obtains further research commitments other than JET, I suggest that there might be some weakening of the pressure for JET to go to that site.

Does the Minister intend to try to avoid topping up the current Ispra research programme? If so, would he suggest the particular subjects which he considers might be more effectively allocated to Ispra? If the Council of Ministers were to agree ultimately to Culham, would the Minister consider some sub-contracting of part of this major long-term project to Espra while retaining the overall control of the project and the major siting of the greater part of the work at Culham?

The Minister is painfully aware of the "trade-off" which is a common feature of decision-taking in the EEC. Has he considered a trade-off to achieve what the Government have declared to be their policy—to see the siting of JET at Culham?

The view has been repeatedly and strongly expressed by the European Parliament that research and development in new scientific fields should not be based on a process of haggling and bartering as in some Arab bazaar. The sole criterion in our judgment—and this is the uniform view of the European Parliament—for allotting research tasks on behalf of the Community should be expertise, scientific excellence, and specific and potential capabilities of the establishment to which the allocation is made.

I can only place on record that Herr Flamig, a German Socialist, made this point very strongly in a report on the research programme when he spoke on the subject recently in the European Parliament. I need hardly say that in this House there is unquestionably a large measure of confidence that Culham fits the bill exceptionally well—better today than when the Commission did its original homework.

I ask the Minister to confirm this to the House. For example, is he able to confirm that the availability of power supplies, a point on which the Culham site was originally downgraded, is perfectly adequate? On the subject of staff housing, schooling and facilities generally, is it not true that today Culham has facilities equal if not superior to those of Ispra? Would not the Minister also agree—this is a point which, though painful, is true—that the collapse of the pound in recent months would, or at least could, make the expenditure of Community units of account much more worth while in Britain than anywhere else in Europe?

What other attractions can the Government offer to clinch this deal? We have to recognise that the staff at Culham have been going through what can only be described as a truly traumatic time—nearly as bad as that experienced at Ispra two years ago. Does not the Minister feel that there is still a wealth of scientific experience and expertise at Culham in nuclear physics which could help JET get off to a good start—a feature which is not present at Ispra?

Much depends upon construction work and upon the work of outside contractors who must not let the scientists down. Can the Minister assure the House and the Ministers of the other eight member States that such frustrations and delays will not affect the JET project at Culham once it is approved, as I hope it will be?

Time is running out for us. So are our present supplies of energy from fossil fuel sources. Fusion is certainly seen by many, if not most forward-thinking scientists as offering an excellent, some would say the best and most promising, prospect for a new form of energy for the early part of the twenty-first century.

Delay in reaching a decision, or the reaching of the wrong decision about the siting of JET, will mean economic impotence for Britain particularly and for Europe in general. The Secretary of State carries a great responsibility in his deliberations with his European ministerial colleagues. His greatest duty is for him to convince them beyond any shadow of doubt that Britain is in Europe and irrevocably committed to staying there.

If by any of his words or deeds there is produced the slightest lingering suspicion in the minds of the Ministers representing the other eight member States, that will be the most certain way of killing Culham's expectations stone dead.

10.0 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Palmer (Bristol, North-East)

The hon. Member for Cheadle (Mr. Normanton) speaks with a considerable knowledge of the European politics of energy and of nuclear energy in particular. I would not attempt to rival him in that respect, because I do not serve on the various European bodies, although I am a straunch pro-European, but I feel that there was a defect in his speech in that he seemed to take too much for granted the possibilities of nuclear fusion. That is a mistake which is all too easily made.

The search for success with nuclear fusion is rather like the search for El Dorado which was undertaken by Elizabethan explorers. It was to be the perfect goal if it could be attained. It was always tantalisingly possible and it was felt that if it could be attained it would make all the previous successful explorations poor by comparisoin—that is, if El Dorado were found. It never was found, and the explorers and their backers had to be content with the more minor riches which had been found and were exploitable.

It is the same with nuclear fusion. The search for a nuclear method that will give abundant energy from isotopes of hydrogen without radioactive waste continues in all the advanced industrial countries, including the United Kingdom.

Yet it would be foolish to neglect what I call the imperfect possible for the hope of perfection. This is borne out to some extent by the evidence that was given to the Select Committee on Science and Technology when we visited Culham on 25th February this year. That evidence has been published and is available to the House.

I hope I shall not take too long in quoting answers given to several penetrating questions—I put them, so I have good reason to know—and answered by our witnesses, particularly Dr. Marshall, the chief scientific adviser to the Department of Energy, and also the Deputy Chairman of the Atomic Energy Authority, who presumably is in a good position to understand these things from the British point of view.

The first question I put as Chairman was this: It would not be true to say that you can obtain energy by the fusion process by snatch- ing it from the water or from the air, as the so-called popular Press have suggested? Dr. Marshall replied: That is quite correct". I went on to say: There are natural limitations here? The answer was: Yes, it is extremely difficult technology. I think the difficulty about making judgments on this subject is very easily summed up by saying that the potential that it has is, for all practical purposes, unlimited and infinite, and the difficulty is near-infinite. It would be my best judgment that we will be able to make electricity from controlled fusion, but whether it will be done reliably and economically is a much more difficult question. The next point I put to him was this: I was always told that the test of a good engineer is not just to be able to do something, but to be able to do it at a price. How far do you think that rule applies here, that is the balance between what is scientifically and technically possible and what is economically worth doing? Dr. Marshall replied: That is the 64,000 dollar question. At the moment we are trying to establish that it can be done at all. Then we have to examine whether it is going to be economic. It is no good doing those sums with present day values of fuels; you have to look ahead to the next century and anticipate the situation. Dr. Marshall did not anticipate difficulties apparently in looking into the next century.

Mr. Anthony Nelson (Chichester)

I am listening with interest to the hon. Gentleman and to the evidence from which he quoted. Does he believe that we would get far more power out of the scheme than is put into it, quite apart from the economic considerations involving JET? Was there any indication in the evidence of the basic facts to make the machine more efficient—and not only an economic but a scientific proposition in that it works? My understanding at present is that it does not work. Did the hon. Gentleman inquire into this matter and did he discover what were the factors involved?

Mr. Palmer

It would take me a long time to quote all the questions and answers given to us when we went to Culham, but if the hon. Gentleman reads the evidence—and I am pleased that he is now a member of the Select Committee—he will find that the question of the balance between the power input and what is obtained from it was dealt with by the experts who gave evidence to us.

I wish to make it clear that I am quoting these questions and answers not in any sense to belittle the great work undertaken at Culham but in seeking to argue that it would be wrong to overspend on nuclear fusion if it means diverting funds from, say, development of the fast breeder reactor. Success with these sources of energy is well within our grasp, but fusion is fram from being within our grasp.

Matters would be very much easier for us to understand if my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy would give Parliament some inkling of his overall energy strategy. Such a strategy is badly lacking. In a recent debate I urged the Government to produce a White Paper on their energy policy. The weakness in the Department at the moment is that it is an excessively technical Department but it has not been treated as such. In other words, it attempts to find answers to social questions to which its answers are not required, while at the same time neglecting to deal with questions on which decisions are required and in relation to which, in the nature of things, only the Energy Manister can make the decisions. This is suspected not only by moderate critics such as myself in this country but by those on the Continent as well.

The high costs of fusion work make it unlikely that any single Community country could afford a big enough programme and certainly none would be able to afford a successful fusion reactor on a commercial scale. When the Select Committee took evidence at Culham, Dr. Marshall talked of a successful fusion reactor being about 2,000 megawatts, which is a very large enterprise.

Tokamak is only one fusion technique. When Lord Mills was Minister of Power about 20 years ago, the ZETA technique was hailed as a tremendous breakthrough for nuclear technology in the fusion field. But there were doubts and misunderstandings about what was actually going on within the plasma contained in the magnetic loops and Zeta turned out to be a false dawn.

Tokamak is another development, albeit probably much more hopeful than those of the past, but it is only one approach. If it is more hopeful, that is largely because not only the EEC but the United States and the Soviet Union are for the moment following the same path.

No one has so far mentioned that there has been fruitful collaboration between Culham and Soviet fusion research stations. When we were at Culham, our witnesses assured us that there was no clash between European co-operation and working with the Russians in this respect.

I can imagine that in working with the Russians on a scientific matter of this kind, one is probably as far from everyday politics as it is possible to get with the Russians. It is probably as genuine a scientific and technical collaboration as is possible between two countries with widely-varying social and political systems.

Noting the universality of this Torus fusion technique, understanding its limitations and getting it into perspective, I believe that the House must approve, in general terms, the Community communication which we are now considering. It is obvious that our national resources are too slender to pursue any other course. We either go in with the European Torus or leave fusion research to others. This may not be the view that we held 20 years ago, but it can be the only view now.

The major disagreement—and this has been well canvassed already—is about the siting of the work. The Government wish the decision to rest with Ministers and not be left to the Commission. At this stage, I do not disagree with that approach. Obviously, it keeps things more in our own hands—or at least that is the hope.

But a question about which I am not very clear is this. Since our main rivals in the matter of the competition for the site are the French, the Germans and the Italians, one would expect them to take the same attitude as ourselves at this stage, at any rate, that it should be left to the Ministers, because it might in some circumstances give them the bargaining edge. But do they? I should like to have this information. I did not get it from my hon. Friend's remarks.

I believe, because of my admiration for the work done at Culham and the facilities which are available there—as was stated, they have been considerably improved from not only a technical but a social point of view, and that is very important—that it would be foolish if Culham were not to be used. But I must put this very bluntly to the Government. Suppose that we do not get our own way. I hope that, if we do not get our own way, we shall loyally accept any decision which is made against us by our friends in the EEC.

I should like to quote what was said in evidence at Culham by Dr. Marshall—presumably on behalf of the scientific staff in the Atomic Energy Authority—in reply to a question by a member of the Energy Resources Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on Science and Technology. The question was: Perhaps I may ask Dr. Marshall to reconsider the answer to the question he regarded as hypothetical if I put it in a different way. Instead of asking him what he thinks the future is if the JET project does not come here, could I ask him: does he consider we should continue to support the joint European fusion project if it does not come here, even if that means substantially reducing the budget for fusion research here at Culham? Dr. Marshall gave a plain answer to that. It was "Yes". From the Chair I attempted to reinforce the point. I asked: You would support continuing to work with the European programme? The answer to that question was "Yes".

I suggest to the Government, therefore, that we must certainly fight as hard as we can to get the project sited at Culham, but that if we are unsuccessful in this respect it is very much in the interests of our nuclear research and development and the staff at Culham that we work in with our colleagues in the EEC. We certainly could not afford to do it without them now.

10.18 p.m.

Mr. Nigel Forman (Carlshalton)

I do not seek to follow or emulate the widely recognised expertise of the hon. Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer) but to make a small conaribution as a layman to the debate on these very interesting Community documents which are before us tonight.

I believe that these EEC documents are important because they concern the next stage of the European effort in nuclear fusion technology. I believe that this par- ticular technology is important because it offers the long-term possibility of what Dr. Marshall, the Department of Energy's chief scientist, has described as an energy source of infinite value balanced against almost infinite difficulty.

I suggest, therefore, that since there is no way in which it would make any sense to push ahead with this superstar technology except on a collaborative basis with our international partners, it is therefore vitally important from the European point of view that we secure agreement to proceed with the five-year Euroatom research programme for 1976–80 which is under consideration tonight and to do so at the best of the available sites.

We know that the Commission has proposed that, if agreement cannot be reached on the main outstanding question of the site for this project, it should choose the site itself on the basis of a recommendation by a two-thirds majority of the JET Council. Surely such an arcane procedure should not be necessary. In my view, it would be better, even at this late stage, if the member Governments recognised the urgency and importance of this matter by taking a final decision before the end of this year, if necessary at Heads of Government level in December.

By all accounts, even the Germans and the Italians now recognise that Culham would be the best site for the next stage of this work. It would be what Lord Hinton so aptly described in another place as the best "centre of excellence" for this purpose.

Looking at the Site Committee's criteria, which were clearly set out by Lord Melchett in another place, we see that certain considerations have to be borne in mind. On all these considerations I believe that we can demonstrate that Culham has the edge.

First, there is the question of the availability of electrical power supplies. It is clear to me that Didcot power station could satisfy that need.

There is the question of facilities for handling tritium and activated materials. Surely the enormous experience of Harwell and its proximity would satisfy that point.

There is the question of the quality of supporting services and the infrastructure necessary for such an adventurous project. Again, I believe that hon. Members on both sides of the House will recognise that Culham's record so far, going right back to the early 1960s, both on the design and other stages of the project, fits it well for that task.

There is the slightly more tangential consideration of appropriate conditions for the multinational staff who would be involved in such a project. As an alumnus of Oxford University and somebody who deeply loves the town of Oxford, I believe that nothing could be better for this multinational team than to be in sight of the "dreaming spires" where these days one hears many more foreign tongues than English spoken due to the prominence of the tourist trade.

I believe that this House should leave the nine member Governments in no doubt whatsoever of its strong opposition to any further delay in taking the necessary decision on this matter.

Delay has discouraged the JET project staff and made it difficult to hold the team together, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mr. Normanton) so rightly said. Delay runs the growing risk of jeopardising not only the fairly modest European fusion programme, which is likely to be less than half the cost of the American or Russian programmes, but the spirit of European co-operation to which we on the Opposition Benches attach considerable importance. Delay is damaging the already diminished credibility of the Community's decision-making procedures, to which this House should pay serious attention.

Perhaps most insidious of all, further delay might undermine the necessary political will in this country to support the necessary research and development expenditure involved in an area where we in Europe could and should be able to achieve comparable results with those of the two super-Powers. I cannot believe that it is beyond the determination and wit of this country to capitalise on something where we already have a manifest scientific and technological advantage, when the cost of this project, as outlined by the Commission in these documents, is £56 million.

As with all other aspects of nuclear technology, the lead times are long and the costs can be daunting. Indeed, further research, as the hon. Member for Bristol, North-East pointed out, may show that the game is not worth the candle, but we must at least investigate, and investigate properly.

I believe that the prize of eventual successful commercial development of fusion technology will be what the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority described as an opportunity to use an energy source which could be of almost limitless magnitude. I would add that it is one that is likely to have significantly fewer deleterious effects, environmentally and otherwise, than those associated with fission technology and especially the fast breeder reactor.

We are invited tonight to take note of the Community document before us and of the Government's view that Culham is the best site for the JET project. I do more than take note of the latter half of the motion. I strongly support the Government's view. I hope that it v ill be some small comfort to the Minister and to his right hon. Friend when they attend the ministerial meeting later this week to know that those of us on the Opposition side of the House strongly wish them success in their venture to gain for Culham the repute and position that it deserves.

10.26 p.m.

Mr. John Davies (Knutsford)

In the course of this interesting and enlightened debate, one issue arose from the Minisster's opening remarks on which I should like to feel that there was some elucidation. I refer to the proposed Council decision and the rehearsal of the "Whereas" paragraphs which go before it. I come to that which says Whereas the host Country will bear all the costs necessary to provide the JET project with the site in the required condition as well as all the costs for de-commissioning the device at the end of its operation. The Minister elaborated somewhat on the meaning of this "whereas", and the meaning of at least part of it was, he said, that at the end of the research project the physical assets would remain the property of the host country, which would also be answerable for the liabilities. Being a somewhat hesitant person in respect to acceptance of liabilities without definition, I should be grateful if the Minister would say what that might amount to and the degree to which he considers it proper that the host country should accept at this stage a total answerability for the residual liabilities of the operation.

It seems a matter of considerable importance, as one embarks on the kind of project about which the hon. Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer), for instance, has spoken with great knowledge. I am much less able to discuss it with such knowledge, but it seems a new important and vital Project, which I wholly support.

The Minister must feel content that all around the House, despite questions and points that hon. Members may wish to raise, there is a feeling of support for his mission. It would be wise for him to let us know very clearly that he will not be exposing the country, when he brings back the project with him to Culham, as I sincerely believe he will, to a degree of liability which is unjustified and which might be exceedingly heavy. Therefore, perhaps the Minister will say what he meant by the expression "all residual liabilities".

10.29 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Dodsworth (Hertfordshire, South-West)

I should like to make a brief intervention following that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies), who has referred to his doubts about the question of future financial costs. It is to that subject that I should like to address my remarks.

I notice that we are to have a joint venture, a new animal, to run this project. One of the responsibilities that is given to this joint venture is not only the scientific control but the financial and administrative control. I speak with due trepidation in an area of extreme scientific expertise and knowledge, and I recognise that purely financial considerations are somewhat difficult to identify in those circumstances. Nevertheless, I look at the project which, as I understand it, is likely to cost about £56 million in sterling terms over a four-year period and ask myself how that expenditure relates to the strategy of this country overall.

I welcome the opportunity of sharing with the Community research and deve- lopment of this nature and doing it in this way, but in whatever way I try to identify what the likely outcome is to be it seems that the benefits are not likely to arise probably until the year 2000, so we seem to be setting off on a long course indeed.

When I hear about the desirable prestige of the project and what a unique opportunity it presents, but I do not see much information about the methods of financial control and monitoring, I begin to say to myself "Perhaps I have heard this before", and I have to express some concern that in the desire to capture a scientific and technological lead we ensure that we do not lose sight of our own financial difficulties and, indeed, the world's financial difficulties, and that we look at this project in that sort of light. We have some knowledge of some of the problems that arise from research and development. It is a cost that can be endless. It continues to be fed. It is a hungry animal which, once started, goes on and on.

I draw attention briefly to some of the difficulties. In the accounts of British Nuclear Fuels there is a qualification in the auditors' report. It refers to the difficulty of assessing losses that might occur as a result of processing contracts. These contracts are having to be renegotiated. I mention that only because it was not possible to quantify those figures. It was not possible to say what the figures might be. We are in a new technology, a new area of energy, but we are also in a new area of the need for financial control. I should like to be clear exactly where this project fits in with our national strategy. I recognise that it is a European decision, but where does it fit in with the decisions that we have to take? Do we understand the financial consequences of what will follow?

The project has led a hand-to-mouth existence over the past few months. The original agreement has to have a little more money, and it was extended for six months. We would not make a decision on how much money to spend until we knew where it would go. I should like to raise a little mouse of doubt about what is to take place, to make sure that we know where our money is going.

10.33 p.m.

Mr. Ronald Brown (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

I believe that we have to strike out at some point to make sure what our strategy will be for the twenty-first century, and this decision has to be made. I am a supporter of the project, and it is right to go ahead, recognising, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer) said, that Zeta has fallen off. It is my belief that the kind of knowledge that we shall gain will be valuable, even if the JET project is not totally successful.

I agree that it is a little sad that the Government have not been able to make up their minds about their general strategy. My hon. Friend and I who serve on the Select Committee frequently find that in questioning both members of the Government and experts in the field there seems to be little idea of what the general direction is supposed to be.

The hon. Member for Cheadle (Mr. Normanton) quoted in some detail from Sir John Hill. My experience of Sir John is that he is hardly a punter to whom I would listen for making good bets. He is the sort of adviser to keep away from. We seem to be incapable of having advisers who can offer the same advice two months running. I feel rather concerned that my hon. Friend has to rely upon that advice to make the important decisions that are before him.

The hon. Member for Cheadle also said that reports coming through from people in the European Parliament refer to the fact that there is some doubt whether this country has an industrial will, or a political will, I think he said. Of course, things are often said. After all, the European Parliament is a place where everyone makes his bid. I hope that my hon. Friends who represent us there will also make their bids.

As far as industrial relations is concerned, all the evidence shows that we have a remarkable picture as against many of the other countries. I hope that the hon. Member for Cheadle was able to make that point. That evidence certainly shows that our strike record is very much lower than those other countries which claimed that we have a depressing picture.

I would also draw attention to the fact that we ourselves have made tremendous strides in challenging the frontiers of knowledge in this expertise.

Herr Gerhard Flamig and I are old friends, but when I heard of his report I felt that he seemed to be losing his way since I have not been there to guide him. Perhaps I ought to go back and guide him more kindly along the road so that he will not accept what the bureaucrats were offering him.

Since the Commission has already made up its mind where it wants the site to be located, it is not surprising that the rapporteurs, willing and able to accept the views of the Commission, have come up with the same conclusion. While we know where Herr Flamig stands, those of us who know him of old perhaps fee] that he has been guided by the Commission.

A point was made by my hon. Friend drawing attention to Soviet involvement. I wonder whether that has not perhaps played a part in the minds of some of our partners. Whilst we are co-operating with the Soviets in that field, the French ought not be too worried. They tied up with the Soviets a long time ago in other fields of technology and claimed that it was perfectly satisfactory.

I hope that tonight we can offer the Minister best wishes for his fight out on Thursday. This country has a first-class case to make in all respects. I believe that our European colleagues will listen to us. I believe that the Minister will be able to give the assurances they ask for and I believe that we can be successful in having the project sited at Culham.

10.38 p.m.

Mr. John Biffen (Oswestry)

I join the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown) in wishing the Minister every success in the meeting that he will attend on Thursday, and for a successful outcome to the haggle in the negotiations which have been proceeding for a long time concerning the siting of the Joint European Torus.

I am certain that it is wholly appropriate that the House should have the opportunity yet again to discuss the Torus before the Council of Ministers meet. While I feel that the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch is instinctively right in identifying a certain common purpose between the Assembly and the rapporteurs of the Commission, I think that the cause of Culham is most likely to be served through the Council of Ministers.

In seeking to fight for Culham in the Council of Ministers the Under-Secretary of State will be able to take with him the unanimous wish of this House that the resolution that it passed on 16th March should be reinforced. That is the purport and tenor of this evening's debate.

I should like to make four quick comments on the document before the House. First, I note the interesting contribution by the hon. Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer), drawing upon his authority as Chairman of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, and the questions he posed and the answers he elicited when he was at Culham. Any project which has an infinite beneficial capacity, with infinite risk, is almost certain to lead to infinite cost. I therefore welcomed the hard-headed accountant's comment which came from my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, South-West (Mr. Dodsworth). I hope that the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch will not think that we are being ledger clerks, but the House of Commons never does such useful work as when its Members occasionally act as ledger clerks over projects of this potential magnitude.

The Thirty-Fourth Report from the Select Committee on European Secondary Legislation observed: An upper limit of 232 mua is proposed, compared with the 124 mua currently quoted in Decision 76/345/Euratom. That is interesting, because when we last debated this matter, the Under-Secretary of State said: The Commission has estimated that the construction phase of JET will cost 135 million units of account—£56 million—but we think that it will be more than that, nearly £70 million."—[Official Report, 16th March, 1976; Vol. 907, c. 1277.] That was an increase of nearly 25 per cent. which the Government thought was in prospect. The change in the indicated upper limit is an increase of about 80 per cent. I would tell my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, South-West that that is how it begins. We are told that it is an upper limit and that it may be undershot, but I will believe that when it happens once.

The House is entitled to know what factors have led to this substantial up- ward revision in a fairly short period. Much of the debate has proceeded on the assumption that a project of this magnitude could hope to have a chance of success only if it were sited where consideration of technology indicated to be the most appropriate. If it were the product of a haggle, of a trade-off, and were to be located with other considerations held in regard, the possibility of success would be seriously infringed. That was a widespread belief—I do not think that it was peculiar to this country within the Community—and naturally one is anxious because the whole concept of the Torus is bound to be affected by which site is chosen.

My second point relates to the implications for the host country. Obviously the unanimous voice of the House tonight is that the United Kingdom should be the host country, but what considerations may flow from that in terms of impact upon our own domestic law? My right hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies) has asked what are the contingent liabilities on termination of the project. I should also like to know whether the Government have now concluded what in their Explanatory Memorandum they call the "consideration" which is being given to … the implications for UK law of the immunities and privileges which could attach to a joint undertaking under Article 48 and Annex III of the Euratom Treaty. As I read it, the Community document makes provision, under paragraph 3.1.1 and 3.1.2 for management bodies which so far as I can see would be free of taxation. I should be grateful if the Under-Secretary of State would indicate whether we have in prospect the establishment of an enclave of tax-free scientists and what consequences are thought to derive from that. This is not a decision that we should embark upon without being fully conscious of all the consequences, if my interpretation is correct.

The third point I wish to raise with the Under-Secretary is by way of confirmation. I think he is entirely correct in believing that the siting decision should rest with the Council of Ministers and not with the Torus council operating on a qualified majority. The reasons were underlined in a persuasive speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton (Mr. Forman). The Under-Secretary is right to fight for this decision to rest with the Council of Ministers. It is of that order of magnitude. I hope that it will not be necessary for it to be resolved at one of the meetings of the Heads of Government. I think that the Council of Ministers in one guise or another is the appropriate forum for this decision.

I turn to the fourth and final point, which I do not wish to elaborate at any length—the virtues of Culham. They were put in a very compelling fashion by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mr. Normanton) in the debate on 16th March, and his words bear repeating: We earnestly hope that in the interests of British technology and this considerable amount of experience that Britain has by way of a lead over the rest of Europe, the Secretary of State will take up the challenge to sell Culham's case strongly and convincingly on its merits, and do so not as a political package."—[Official Report, 16th March, 1976; Vol. 907, c. 1274.] Those ringing words of faith in Culham hardly need underlining by me in the light of what has been said in this debate.

I have no wish to disparage whatever may happen at Ispra, and I am certain that the French have an interest in Cadarache and the Germans in Garching. That is natural and appropriate. However, on almost any judgment the case for Culham, certainly in technological terms, must stand pre-eminent. To reinforce the words uttered by the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shore-ditch, I do not think that there are any Reds under the Culham beds and I cannot believe that the contrary belief has influenced any of our continental partners.

The House is rightly proud of those areas of our industrial, commercial and scientific community where there is a proven record of excellence and success, and in assenting to the Government's motion tonight the House is in its way seeking to strengthen their hands and to underline the virtues and the advantages that undoubtedly rest with Culham.

10.50 p.m.

Mr. Eadie

I am grateful to hon. Members on both sides of the House for the way in which they have approached this important issue. I shall endeavour to answer some of the important points raised during our constructive and helpful debate.

Before I deal with the specific points which have been raised by hon. Members, I should like to take a few moments to remind the House why we attach so much importance to the success of the Community fusion programme.

It is now widely accepted that unless fast reactors are introduced on a large scale in all the major industrial countries, uranium supplies will be insufficient to enable nuclear fission to meet the world's growth of energy demand.

The production of energy by the thermonuclear fusion of the relatively abundant isotopes of hydrogen offers a possible alternative in the long term. If the fusion process can be made to work, it will have the advantage that it is unlikely to give rise to some of the environmental problems associated with nuclear fission—notably those of long-lived radioactive wastes.

Furthermore, it is not fraught with great danger in case of accidents, and its fuels—deuterium and tritium—are of no use to terrorists.

When one examines the possible sites one finds that only four candidate sites now effectively remain in the running, Cadarache, in France; Culham in the United Kingdom; Garching, in Germany; and Ispra, in Italy. As I indicated earlier, the Government have consistently maintained that JET must be sited at an existing fusion laboratory to provide essential plasma physics and engineering support.

Ispra is not a fusion laboratory and has no relevant scientific background. The case for siting JET there is based primarily on infrastructure considerations which, although important, are secondary to the scientific success of the project. Similarly, Cadarache is not a fusion laboratory. However, the French have undertaken to move their fusion laboratory from Fontenay, near Paris, to Cadarache. But such a move seems to us to carry a risk that essential support might not be available when needed by the JET team. Cadarache, as yet, also lacks adequate electricity supplies for JET.

Garching, like Culham, is well qualified scientifically, but we understand that if JET is sited there the Germans will have to cut back appreciably other fusion work which is important to the Community programme.

We have made clear on a number of occasions that we think that Culham is the best of the candidate sites and we continue strongly to press its claims. It is particularly well qualified scientifically. Since 1970 its fusion programme has been directed towards Tokamak devices. Culham gave up its own plans to build a large Tokamak, at the request of the European Community and with the approval of the United Kingdom Government, so that its own effort could be included in the team designing JET for Europe as a whole.

Therefore, for JET to be built at Culham would be a natural evolution of the laboratory's programme. Furthermore, we consider that it is time that a major Community project was sited in this country. We have none at present, although we have been a member of the Communities since 1973.

Hon. Members will recall that the European Parliament has also considered the question of the JET site and has recommended that the site should be an existing large research centre in this specific field that has an attractive location for qualified researchers and a particularly favourable infrastructure. Culham meets these criteria. It is one of Europe's leading fusion laboratories and has the advantage of being close to the academic and cultural life of Oxford.

We do not regard as appropriate the Commission's proposal to choose the site for JET on the advice of the JET Council, which was intended to form part of the management structure for the JET project once it had been established. It would comprise senior energy research officials from each of the countries which have contracts of association with Euratom, together with representatives of the Commission. In the Government's view, the question of siting is of such importance that it should be reserved to Ministers.

The hon. Member for Cheadle (Mr. Normanton) hoped that the Government did not have a partisan approach to the question. I never apologise for trying to put forward the good things about my own country and to describe how we think we have so much to offer. I have consistently said that the European Council, to which I have now been three times on this issue, should deem the project vital in the interests of future generations, and that as a European body we should give a commitment to the whole of Europe that we are determined to proceed with this technological adventure. I said that as a country we did not give way in our belief that Culham was the best site, but that we were prepared to see applied the test of what was technologically the best site. The chairman of the Council said that that was the most constructive approach of any member country in dealing with the question of JET.

The hon. Gentleman talked about a coherent energy policy for Europe. It will be generally agreed that Europe has no energy policy as yet, although it is trying to arrive at one. The hon. Gentleman said that we had no energy policy in this country, but we have probably now come nearer to having one than we have for the past decade or more. We have made a whole range of policy decisions, and we must integrate many of them. We have stated the rôle that coal, oil, gas and nuclear power will play. Although we have not reached the pinnacle of perfection, no hon. Members going to Europe should be in any way ashamed of the work being done in their own country in striving for an energy policy. I go even further. The United Kingdom is on the record as having said that we are prepared to make a contribution towards any efforts that Europe may make to get an energy policy. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has tried to make a contribution to that role. We have no reason to deride our efforts on energy policy.

Admittedly our nuclear power programme has to some extent been disappointing. We should remember, however, that the energy that we get from nuclear power makes a substantial contribution to the energy potential and resources of this country. It is well known that other countries have had problems with their nuclear power and energy programmes. Only last week we read that two major countries in Europe had to decide to scale down their nuclear power programmes. This is something that we should not be concerned about.

The whole House will agree with the hon. Member for Cheadle when he talks about "the brilliant brains" that we have in Britain. Of course I endorse that. I have visited Culham twice, and have met these brilliant brains. My second visit coincided with that of Dr. Brunner, Commissioner for Research, Science and Education and I think that he was impressed with what he saw.

I want to correct one point made by the hon. Gentleman. It is I, and not my right hon. Friend, who should be going to Brussels on Thursday. I do not know what has happened, but I understand that I may not have the opportunity after all. I regret that, because I really do believe that Britain has the opportunity of landing this project.

Reference was made to industrial relations. Hon. Members should acquaint themselves with the figures for industrial relations in this country over the past two years. They will see that we have nothing to be ashamed of.

I cannot understand the point that the hon. Member for Cheadle made about Dounreay. I understand that there have been problems with every fast-breeder reactor in Europe. Some of those problems were predicted by the Dounreay team. I think that we have a fine fast-breeder reactor at Dounreay, and we should be proud of it. When dealing with high technology like this we should not be ashamed to say that we are prepared to keep trying until we get it right.

The hon. Gentleman talked about Dragon. He said that concern had been expressed that we had damaged out chances of getting JET by withdrawing from Dragon. I must put the record straight by stressing that there is no connection between the two projects. Dragon was an OECD experimental high temperature reactor project, based at Winfrith. We did not withdraw. We were fully prepared to contribute, through the Community, to any fresh extension. Regrettably, our partners were unwilling to agree to this arrangement and the project ended on its scheduled date.

The hon. Member for Cheadle made some comment about the pound and devaluation. The fall in the pound does not at present affect the cost of JET in the United Kingdom. Euratom transactions are carried out on a fixed exchange rate in which £1 is equal to 2.4 units of account. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that that is not a point we would raise.

Mr. Biffen

Does the Minister agree that a fall in the pound on the international exchange should make a site in the United Kingdom more attractive than a Continental site?

Mr. Eadie

I agree. In the course of his remarks the hon. Member for Cheadle implied that because of our problems Culham would be unattractive—

Mr. Normanton

When the Minister has the chance to read my speech he will see that I was making the same point as that made by my hon. Friend the Member for Oswestry (Mr. Biffen). A fall in the pound on the international exchange will mean that European currency will buy more in Britain. I put this forward as a bull point in favour of the siting of the JET project in Culham. The hon. Gentleman will find that I am correct.

Mr. Eadie

I accept what the hon. Gentleman says, and I am sorry if there has been any misunderstanding.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer) was right to point out that there was no certainty that attempts at fusion would be successful. On the other hand, we have to be on the side of the scientists, if research and development were to be judged solely by the criteria of success they would come to a standstill. We must be prepared to be adventurous and to realise that there may be losers. We cannot come up with winners all the time.

There was reference to the Zeta project, which I remember well. There is, however, a distinction to be drawn here. There is a difference between embarking upon high technology projects alone and in co-operation with others. I have long been a proponent of technological collaboration, not only in Europe but throughout the world. This is a difficult project, but I believe that it has the best chance of success at Culham. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-East was right to draw attention to the fact that Russia and America are pursuing the same approach.

The hon. Member for Carshalton (Mr. Forman), in a forthright manner, nailed his colours to the mast on this important project. He was correct to say that there will be environmental advantage if we are prepared to pursue this road.

The right hon. Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies) mentioned the subject of decommissioning. He was concerned about assets and liabilities, and he knows that I attach a great deal of importance to resolving, at meetings of the Council of Ministers, the decommissioning problem. If that were to happen, we would not retain not only liabilities but assets—and the assets are far greater than any liabilities.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether there were any problems over decommissioning. I wish to put on record the fact that the Government have consulted the Atomic Energy Authority on the technical and financial implications of decommissioning the JET device and have been advised that the device might simply be sealed at the end of the experimental period, or be dismantled. The latter would be a more expensive option, but it is estimated that the cost would be appreciably below that of the assets. I hope that to some extent I have alleviated the anxieties expressed by the right hon Gentleman.

I was glad that the hon. Member for Oswestry (Mr. Biffen) gave wholehearted support to this project, and there was no ambiguity in his words. The hon. Gentleman mentioned four points with which I have already dealt, the most important of which was whether civil servants would be put in a privileged position in regard to taxation. The amenities and privileges granted to a joint undertaking under the Euratom treaty apply only to the joint undertaking and not to its staff. The treaty grants no special privileges, such as exemption from income tax, to staff of a joint undertaking.

The hon. Gentleman concluded by quoting his hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle. I can only say that I accept the sentiment behind that quotation, as I am sure would the whole House. Bearing in mind that the project should have started at the beginning of this year and that the Council on Thursday will be the fourth that I have attended in an effort to get JET moving, the House will understand my personal disappointment that no decision has yet been reached. The JET design team is located at Culham and, as hosts for the design phase of the project, we have been especially conscious of the anxieties of the team as the decision has been remitted from one Council to another. We were, therefore, very pleased that the Council was able to agree to the release of 4 million units of account from the JET appropriation to enable the design team to continue work and to place contracts for some site-independent equipment for JET.

I was also very much encouraged by progress at the last Council, which gave cause for hope that the log-jam of JET decisions was beginning to break up. It is a great pity that the start of the project has been so long delayed and I give the assurance that I shall be pressing hard for a decision on Thursday.

We should not get the question of delay out of perspective. JET is a project designed to run for 10 to 15 years, and the commercial exploitation of fusion power is perhaps 50 years ahead. We need not take too serious a view of a one-year delay at the start. It is far more important that the project should get off on the right footing. As the House knows, it is the most expensive single experiment that the Community has ever contemplated—and one of the most difficult. It is therefore vitally important that it should be sited where it has the best possible chance of success.

We believe that this means at Culham.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House takes note of Commission Document No. R/2284/76 and of the Government's view that Culham is the best site for JET.