HC Deb 02 December 1977 vol 940 cc884-981

11.6 a.m.

Mr. Leo Abse (Pontypool)

I beg to move, That, faced with the hazards of nuclear terrorism set out in the Flowers Report, this House calls upon the Government to give an assurance that no decisions will be made which would lead to the creation of a plutonium-based economy without full regard to the protection of existing civil liberties; and, apprehensive of the dangers of the creation of plutonium in large quantities in conditions of increasing world unrest, calls upon the Government to make a more positive response to the initiatives of President Carter to bring a halt to nuclear proliferation. It is ironic that a debate seeking to draw attention to at least some of the issues which are raised by the Flowers Report should, as a result of our parliamentary lottery, be brought to the House by a private Member, for the report is surely the most fateful produced in this generation. It is, of course, an uncomfortable report, giving no soft reassurances, and that perhaps is the least creditable reason why neither the Government nor the official Opposition have hitherto taken steps to ensure debate.

The Royal Commission poses for the nation the challenge to life and liberty that arises if we presume with excessive haste and overwhelming hubris to hustle Britain into the plutonium economy. I believe that the whole House, irrespective of whether we agree with the determined anti-nuclear ecologists, the nuclear atomic enthusiasts or the sceptics, would wish to thank Sir Brian Flowers and the other members of the Royal Commission for the clarity with which they have spelled out to those of us who lack scientific training—and that means most of us in this House—the awesome implications as well as the possible prizes to be gained if we move Britain to fast-breeder reactors.

I would wish to express my thanks to those who by their writings or submissions to the Windscale inquiry have illuminated the hazards to our civil liberties if we decide through nuclear fission now to revolutionise our energy supplies. In particular I should like to thank Mr. Paul Sieghalt, the joint chairman of the executive committee of Justice; Dr. Michael Flood, formerly of King's College; Mr. Robin Grove-White, of the Council for the Protection of Rural England; and Mr. Roy Lewis, of the London School of Economics, all of whom have encouraged me to plunder the considerable material they have produced in my attempts to put this motion before the House.

My constituents live within a radius of 40 or 50 miles of one of the largest concentrations of nuclear reactor in the world. There are eight reactors in operation, either Magnox or advance gas cooled, and two more planned nearby at Portskewett and Oldbury. All are producing nuclear waste and plutonium, and so far we, like the rest of Britain, have learned to live with the present generation of nuclear reactors, and are aware of, and pay a tribute to, the highly creditable security precautions—but not impeccable precautions—that have been taken by the authorities.

Now, however, misgivings are growing within the Principality. It is well known that in recent years the Central Electricity Generating Board has established a site bank and that within its contemplation many of the sites are in Wales. With the knowledge that fast breeder reactors would be remotely sited, and could require coastal siting, the geography of the Principality has obvious attractions.

It is not surprising, therefore, that unease exists in Wales, but I do not bring this motion to the House because of a constituency interest or, indeed, because of a Welsh interest. I bring it primarily in response to the publicly-declared wishes of the Chairman of the Royal Commission who said recently at the Royal Institute: I think the issue of civil liberties has to be looked at with very great circumspection indeed. The problem that faced the Royal Commission was that we simply could not get the Government, or anyone else for that matter, to discuss these issues in a sensible manner. We felt we simply had to bring it before the public and try to force discussion. That should not have been necessary, when the issues are so grave. It is a grave comment by the Chairman of the Royal Commission that he could not get the matter discussed in a sensible way. This debate will I hope, show to the Chairman of the Royal Commission and to ourselves how wise he was to insist that the issues must not be s[...]udged or masked.

The fundamental question that I wish to put to the House and hence to the nation is the unavoidable one: is a plutonium-based economy compatible with democracy? Only the most obdurate of atomic enthusiasts, wishing to blot out all reasonable reservations, refuse to accept the sombre conclusions of the Flowers Report that if, in the future, we move into fast nuclear reactor systems in the manner projected by the AEA, the amount of plutonium, one of the most dangerous of toxic materials—if not the most dangerous—known to man, will be of such a quantity, will require such transportation throughout the land, and will have so many people concerned with its use and aware of its potentialities that the present security arrangements overseeing the storage of fairly small quantities of plutonium at a few sites would be totally inadequate.

Mr. Neil Macfarlane (Sutton and Cheam)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and I apologise for interrupting his peroration. [HON. MEMBERS: "Peroration?"] I am sympathetic to certain aspects of his definition, but does he think that his phrase "plutonium-based economy" is accurate? Does he not think that it is a little far-fetched?

Mr. Abse

It is the phrase that was adopted and used by the Royal Commission and it has, happily, gone into circulation because it is a form of shorthand which brings home to the lay public the qualitative changes that will take place when, or if, we ever move into a nuclear breeder reactor system. I continue to use the phrase and to say that it is clear that the present security arrangements would be totally inadequate if we were to move into such a system. No responsible Government would dare to refuse to take all the security measures that could be devised to protect their citizens from the consequences of even a small quantity of plutonium falling into evil hands; and those consequences could be awesome.

The Royal Commission has placed on record its conviction that the equipment required for the construction of a nuclear bomb by a terrorist group would not be significantly more elaborate than that already used by criminal gangs engaged in the illicit manufacture of heroin, and that the knowledge needed of the physical and chemical processes involved, of the properties of high explosives, and of the principles of bomb construction is now readily available in open technical literature.

The Royal Commission said: There seems no reason to doubt that a sufficiently determined group could construct a very crude bomb that might explode with the force of a few tonnes of TNT…The amount of plutonium required could be easily carried by hand. A handful of stolen plutonium, if used within a nuclear device placed in Palace Yard, could create immediate radiation which would be lethal over sufficient distance totally to destroy Parliament and disperse radioactive material enveloping all Whitehall. Worse, if worse can be imagined by hon. Members and civil servants than contemplation of our own deaths, the Royal Commission went on to examine the disputed possibility that an illicit group could construct a weapon with a yield some 50 times greater—of 100 tonnes.

The Commission, finding conflict on the matter between the more optimistic United Kingdom authorities and the United States authorities, tells us that it consulted eminent physicists both in the United Kingdom and in the United States who are experts on the subject, and their replies, the Royal Commission says, bring us no comfort. Their judgment was that the construction of a bomb that would give back a yield was indeed possible, though the precise yield would be very uncertain.

The Royal Commission said: We have concluded therefore that it is entirely credible that plutonium in the requisite amounts could be made into a crude but very effective weapon that would be transportable in a small vehicle. The threat to explode such a weapon unless certain conditions were met would constitute nuclear blackmail, and would present any Government with an appalling dilemma…". But the final sentence of that terrifying paragraph in the Royal Commission's Report, which sounded to me—and to many more, I am sure—when I first read it, like an extract from a science fiction novel rather than the sober assessment of a distinguished Royal Commission, is the sentence that should shock us, sharing responsibility, as we must as Parliamentarians, for decision making. We are"— said the Royal Commission— by no means convinced that the British Government has realised the full implications of this issue". One of the major implications is that there could come into existence an assault upon our existing liberties and rights, an insidious growth in surveillance in response to a growing threat as the amount of plutonium in existence and familiarity with its properties increases. A single serious incident in a future plutonium economy would inevitably bring irresistible pressures to increase security measures to a degree which could be regarded, except in an authoritarian State, as intolerable, but which could not then be avoided because of the existence of our dependence upon plutonium for energy supplies.

When all of us have so recently witnessed the backlash in West Germany, flaying all the liberal-minded in the Republic, making them the scapegoats for the Baader gang kidnapping, we can well imagine how inflamed public opinion would be, even in our more relaxed democracy, should the community suddenly be faced not by a threat of hijackers threatening to execute a handful of hostages but by a threat of nuclear terror from some criminal or politically motivated gang.

The phrases of the nuclear fuel cycle where plutonium could be vulnerable to illegitimate abstraction begin with its separation from every other substance in the spent fuel element and thence through every successive phase down to the point where the new fuel is loaded into a reactor. To hold out any promise of being effective, security measures would need to extend rigorously through all these phases of the plutonium cycle. It would mean physical guarding of the plutonium in the plant stores and the vehicles in which it is contained. It would mean surveillance of all those who have, or might directly or indirectly be able to obtain, access to it in the course of their work. It would mean surveillance of all those who might aim to obtain unauthorised access to it for a malevolent purpose.

It is comparatively easy to protect dangerous or valuable material from abstraction as long as it remains within a secure premises. Perimeter fences could be built so that they are difficult to breach and the material could be kept behind locked doors. But that is not enough. The premises themselves must be protected against attack and the guards who protect them must be able to resist a determined opponent who might be armed.

The Secretary of State for Energy in February 1976 put forward his justification for having the Atomic Energy (Special Constables) Act. That Act created what was in effect a private army which was not ultimately answerable, as are other police forces, to an elected body or to the Home Secretary. It was a constabulary armed with automatic weapons with powers of pursuit and possessing a structure which conflicts with all our tradition of civilian and politically accountable policing. The Secretary of State rightly said at the time: Some international groups might be interested in terrorist activities and looking around the world to see whether this material can be easily acquired. It would be awful"— as indeed it would— if we were considered to be a soft target because that might invite some form of attack". Whatever our misgivings may have been, the Secretary of State would have been doing less than his duty if he had not brought in such an Act. So long as such a force is confined within the perimeter fences of nuclear installations, it will, we hope, not visibly affect ordinary citizens going about their lawful business. But in a future plutonium economy as hypothesised by the Flowers Commission, there will be many transfers of plutonium between such installations. The Commission estimated that there would be several hundred such transfers by the year 2000 and several thousand by the end of 2030. Clearly such transfers will need to be guarded.

The Department of Energy Press notice, which the Secretary of State put out in answer to evidence, which had been put to him, confirms that armed guards will be used. In that event we cannot blink this fact: whatever our views may be about the benefits that might come from atomic energy, or if our views like theologians are that we are opposed to its use in any event, we must face the fact that we would have members of an armed force necessarily trained to use lethal firearms for lethal effect if in its judgment the immediate situation demanded such use. That decision would be in its hands. These powers and arms would be in its hands constantly and it would constantly be at large within the community sharing railways and highways with many other users and on the qui vive against ambush and attack.

It is agreed by many that it is the transfer of plutonium, while in transit, which constitutes one of the most vulnerable points, if not the most vulnerable, point in the fuel cycle. To do its job the present army of the Atomic Energy Authority would need to be multiplied enormously. Who but the most reckless with our liberties could view the growth of this armed constabulary without severe misgivings? Looming behind this constabulary will be the security service. The surveillance of nuclear industry workers is bound to become necessary if the risk of illegal abstraction of plutonium is to be guarded against. That surveillance cannot be confined, as the Royal Commission has rightly pointed out, to physical monitoring, although much of this would and could be done.

Someone with legitimate access to a plant might make off with the material, and that will necessarily involve delay and routine physical search of some or all of the employees who work in such an installation. Such procedures might be unpleasant and sometimes humiliating, but it can be argued that no one is obliged to work in such an installation and that in choosing such employment he or she may be taken as consenting to these necessary searches.

I should like to quote from the authoritative Dyk report from across the Atlantic which went into this issue and which has received considerable attention. It says: Obviously the result of such measures would be to create a somewhat intimidating work environment—all employees might have to file past armed guards, might be required to change into uniform while under observation and might be subject to constant on-job surveillance. Employees might also be subject to temporary detention whenever special nuclear material was unaccounted for at the end of any shift. There is no denying that, even if constitutional, such a regimented work environment is at odds with what many would regard as socially and politically acceptable.

Mr. Arthur Palmer (Bristol, North-East)

If such an extraordinary state of affairs were to arise in a nuclear installation, does my hon. Friend not accept that the trade unions would have something to say? I would also point out that the trade unions in both the nuclear manufacturing industry and in electrical supply support the further development of nuclear power.

Mr. Abse

Of course trade unions would want to take action to protect their workers. But trade unions are responsible bodies. They have already cooperated to the full at Windscale and the consequence of that co-operation has meant that sometimes there is a gap between those who are leading the unions and those who are on the site. We witnessed that during the seven-week strike which took place at Windscale. We noted the demands put by the workers themselves when they were asking for extra payments because they believed that they were working under singular environmental conditions.

The hon. Gentleman has a considerable interest in this matter and—I do not say this in a pejorative sense—he has a vested interest and expertise in this issue. But whatever the legitimacy of his argument, it is no use him or anyone else blinking the fact that there are some extraordinary consequences to those who work in the industry as well as to the wider community.

I have spoken about physical surveillance for those who would be engaged in this big industry. But that alone would not be enough. The exigencies of the situation would demand far more extensive surveillance of workers so that those who exhibilt any signs of being or becoming possible security risks can be rapidly identified. What is worrying is the fact that if such a policy is to be effective it will be impossible to confine it to the workers themselves who are the only ones who can be said to have expressly or impliedly consented to it in seeking such employment. Sooner or later, in isolated cases, in groups or perhaps more generally, it will have to be extended to their families and their "known associates". In some cases at least it will be the very people who are seeking to bribe, blackmail or seduce them in order to obtain plutonium, or information about plutonium or about the means of safeguarding it. Where plutonium is transported, similar precautions will need to be taken for those transport workers; there will be a need to know about consignments and their routes and inevitably about their families, friends and associates.

Among the groups of this kind, to which at least some surveillance will have to be extended on at least some occasions there are bound to be individuals who are perfectly harmless citizens. It may be argued—it often is—that someone who has nothing to hide should not be troubled if the police or the security services keep him under surveillance, investigate his activities, tap his telephone, or read his mail. Within limits, that may be true, particularly when we realise the hazards which are associated with plutonium. Many people have nothing to hide that is unlawful but much to hide that might lower them in the esteem of their neighbours, lessen their prospects of employment or indeed promotion, disrupt their personal relationships, or merely leave them with a painful sense of invasion of their privacy.

I believe that a free society—in any sense of that expression which has any useful meaning—is one which allows its members to lead their lives as they please so long as they do not damage others and extracts from them only the minimum amount of information about themselves that is demonstrably necessary to protect other members of society from ascertainable harm. No doubt in an ideal world, composed exclusively of wise, libertarian, tolerant, co-operative and altruistic citizens, a higher degree of transparency about everyone's private life might be acceptable and perhaps even desirable. But all of us know that the real world falls far short of that ideal, and in the world as it is we are compelled to regard any large-scale system of official surveillance of harmless citizens as an infringement of their human rights and of their fundamental freedoms.

But surely similar considerations apply to the surveillance of suspected terrorists. To be effective in combating their activities, it is essential to identify the individuals concerned and to have advance knowledge of their plans. But here again the net must necessarily be cast widely enough to bring within official scrutiny anyone who might prove to be a terrorist, or a supporter on whose help terrorists can rely. That net, again, will inevitably include citizens who have no connection with terrorists—or at least were not aware that they had.

Nor, I am bound to say, do I find the Department of Energy Press notice, which I have already described as helpful—it was put out to try to elaborate the apologia on the issue—reassuring on this point. According to the Department's document, surveillance in the context of nuclear power will extend to bodies and individuals only where there is reason to believe that their activities are subversive, violent or otherwise unlawful". None of us, as rational men, can have any objection to the keeping of a proper watch on those who plan violent or other seriously unlawful acts, in order that others may be protected from their malign activities. But as a lawyer, happily, I know of no crime of "subversion" in English law. Under the term "subversion", authority could readily and secretly be given for the surveillance of individuals or bodies having political, religious or philosophical views or beliefs of which the Government of the day happens to disapprove, although there may be nothing unlawful about those views or beliefs or the activities of those who might hold them. Moreover, such surveillance might never become known to the bodies or individuals concerned, and they would have no means of having it stopped, or of having themselves taken off the so-called subversive list.

What would be meant by "subversive" in the eyes of the security services? That would be the rub. The importance of the issue is to be stressed because the Secretary of State for Energy has himself given an answer on the matter in a statement put out by the Department, which says that Bodies and individuals opposed to the development of nuclear power would not be subject to surveillance unless there was reason to believe that their activities were subversive, violent or otherwise unlawful. One might well ask what the Secretary of State meant by "subversive". We know that, too, for the Department of Energy officials at Windscale gave the definition. It was taken from a speech by Lord Harris, Minister of State, Home Office, in February 1975, when he said: Subversion is defined as activities threatening the safety or wellbeing of the State and intended to undermine or overthrow parliamentary democracy by political, industrial or violent means. There are many legitimate activities of a political and industrial nature which might be perceived by power holders as threatening the wellbeing of the State. Indeed, perhaps this speech could be placed in that category. Opposition to nuclear development, for example, or industrial action could be regarded in that sense as subversive, and this is the disturbing feature. If the yardstick which is proper to the security service—a service which could scarcely have been more carefully devised to remove its operations from any kind of democratic scrutiny—is of this kind, people will, of course, feel uneasy.

Let me consider for a moment with the House, if I may, how the security services are known to work. The Director General has direct access to the Prime Minister if he wishes to discuss a particularly sensitive matter, but normally he reports to the Home Secretary, although only in the most general terms. The Director General's department is not part of the Home Office, and everyone knows that Ministers are specifically enjoined not to inquire into its day-to-day operations. The security service department works hand in hand with the Special Branch, a specialised part of each police authority.

The courts, as all lawyers know, have in a whole series of cases long since specifically abdicated their right—as was recently reaffirmed in the Hosenball case—to measure the balance when a conflict arises between claimed national security on the one hand and the freedom of the individual on the other. Every hon. Member here knows what a dusty answer he will obtain if he seeks to probe into the operation of the security service.

The fact is that the State has largely rejected democratic control over the most controversial section of the public service—and it is to this section that we should inevitably be handing over massive powers if, in the present state of science, we enter into the plutonium era.

What, then, is the answer of the Government to the forebodings of the Royal Commission? What is their answer to the charge that the fast breeder nuclear reactors will put our civil liberties at the mercy of an extended armed constabulary with sweeping powers of general arrest, answerable to no elected body, and of a secret service effectively answerable to no one?

The House will be aware of the Government's White Paper in response to the Royal Commission's report. The banal and bland replies—I cannot call them anything else—are to be seen in paragraphs 35 to 38 of the White Paper. I was not surprised after I read them, to read the words of Baroness Eirene White, once a distinguished Member of this House and now a distinguished Member of another place. She was also a distinguished member of the Royal Commission and in a debate in the other place, explaining why the Commission had concluded, and I quote—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member had better paraphrase those words. He is not entitled to quote from the speech of a noble Lord or Lady in another place unless he or she is a Minister speaking for the Government.

Mr. Abse

I do not think I will find that too heavy a burden, Mr Speaker. Baroness White explained why the members of the Royal Commission were by no means convinced that the British Government had realised the full implications of the issue. I think that I can quote her exact words, because she, in turn, was quoting from the Royal Commission. However, I have made my point about the issue to which she was directing attention—the consequences of safeguarding plutonium from illegal diversion.

She told the other place that she and other members of the Royal Commission had received a bromide from the Cabinet Office after the Royal Commission's Chairman and two members had discussed the matter "at the highest level". Since we regard the highest level as being the Prime Minister, I presume that is who Baroness White means.

Reading the response on this issue in the White Paper I can well understand what she meant when she indicated that members of the Royal Commission were often depressed by what they considered to be a blinkered outlook precluding ade quate consideration of matters that were not directly in the line of vision. The Royal Commission members were depressed by a certain rigidity of mind and, in some cases, an impenetrable complacency displayed by those in high places. A Micawberish attitude does not go well with a substance as potentially risky as plutonium.

In paragraph 35 of the White Paper it says: So far as the present situation is concerned, the Commission were not convinced (23) that the Government had fully appreciated the implications of the possible illicit construction of a crude nuclear weapon. In fact, security measures in connection with the transport and storage of plutonium have been greatly strengthened over the last two years, and will be reviewed at regular intervals. All that paragraph tells us is that security was inadequate, in some degree, in the existing generation of nuclear reactors and it has now been strengthened. I do not know how that was done. It was necessary to do it, but I do not know how it was carried out. It could have been done by escalation of techniques which could somewhat erode our civil liberties. The paragraph simply restates—it does not answer—the question how the security of plutonium and the safeguarding of civil liberties can live together.

Mr. Peter Rost (Derbyshire, South-East)

I have been listening carefully to every single word that the hon. Gentleman has said. I have been most attentive, but I am still confused as to whether he is advocating the abandonment of work on the fast breeder nuclear reactor, or on the whole of the nuclear programme. If these are his propositions will he address himself to the consequences of any such recommendation?

Mr. Abse

I never fall into a stereotyped category. I have a reputation of being a somewhat idiosyncratic Member of this House and I revel in that rôle. I know that there are conflicting ideologies on this matter but I do not intend to take up a stance identifying with either of those warring bodies. What I am doing—and I believe it is necessary—is placing squarely before the House the consequences of moving into a plutonium economy, and ensuring that decisions which have to be taken, will be taken with our eyes wide open.

I said that the White Paper's response in paragraph 35 was no answer to the question of how we can save our civil liberties. In any event, it was a response to the present situation, not to the future. That is a point that the Royal Commission repeatedly emphasised was a matter of concern.

Only in paragraph 37 does the White Paper, in a few sentences, make any attempt to deal with what it acknowledges is one of the two central issues raised by the Royal Commission. It says: However the hazards of plutonium are rated in relation to those posed by other dangerous substances, it is certainly a possible target for terrorists. But by giving careful attention to security considerations at the design stage of nuclear installations, we could ensure that its availability in an accessible form remained severely restricted, even in a society which made extensive use of plutonium-fuelled power stations. Designing security into nuclear systems in this way would not only reduce the risk of successful terrorist action but should also reduce the need for the types of measures (such as any large-scale increases in checks on personnel) which could be regarded as a threat to civil liberties. What do these sentences mean? The first question that I address to the Secretary of State is whether the Government are seriously putting forward a view that subject to cost, there is a technological answer to the problem of security that will prevent an encroachment on our civil liberties. That is the implicit suggestion in paragraph 37, as I read it.

No such suggestion has been made anywhere by the Royal Commission, and that is quite clear from its report. No nuclear physicist or engineer whom I have consulted believes that there is such a technological answer. The White Paper does not suggest that such a miracle design has been created successfully, say, in the experimental breeder reactor at Dounreay, or even that it will be created in the future. All it says is that it could be done. How, and by what method? No Parliament will accept that the security of this issue prevents any answer being given by the Government. No democratic society will plunge into the hazards of the plutonium era on such a vague assurance.

The design modification which is mystically conjured up in the White Paper claims only that it will reduce the civil liberties impact of security procedures. By what margin will it be reduced? What ever the modification of the reactor design, this still does not deal with the major problem of the huge increases in the volume of plutonium that is in circulation.

I warn the Government, in being lulled or seeking to lull the nation, that on security matters technology cannot provide the answers, even though it may supplement them. I was a member of a committee of four, presided over by Sir Leon Radzinowic, to review the state of maximum security in our prisons. The committee was set up to deal with the problem of long-term prisoners, and the recommendations that we made, under the umbrella of the Home Office Advisory Committee dealing with penal affairs, were accepted by the Government. I make no claim to know anything about nuclear physics but when I was sitting on that committee my experiences taught me a great deal.

In the course of dealing with the task with which we were charged we visited most major maximum security prisons in the United States and Western Europe. I learned quite a number of things; above all I learned that there is no absolute security, and that there was no greater danger to it than an excessive dependence on technology in all security matters. Safety depends on an anticipation. That anticipation can be founded only on intelligence—the type of intelligence which, in the context of this debate, would be deployed by our secret security service. I doubt the existence of the technology claimed in the White Paper, but even if it did exist I would be sceptical of its efficacy without the intervention of the secret service, which those who are jealous of our civil liberties fear most.

Since the path to the plutonium era is strewn with such apprehensions, I come to my second question to the Secretary of State. The Windscale inquiry, thanks to the wise intervention of the Government, was elevated to something far more than a local public inquiry on a planning application. I am fully aware that the Government intend, following Wind-scale, to hold a separate public inquiry on the issue of the fast breeder nuclear reactor, but the creation of a hugh reprocessing plant, specifically created to recover plutonium in spent oxide fuel, would take us far along the road to a plutonium economy. Its creation could be according to one's views, either a precursor of the wonderous benign benefits of fast breeder reactors or of the malignant consequences which some prognosticate. Certainly the decision on Wind-scale cannot be isolated or insulated from the next possible decision.

Just as the Windscale inquiry was unique, so should the attendant procedures be. Normally, when a planning appeal is adjudicated on by a Minister, the report and recommendations of the inspector are published only with the final irrevocable decision of the Minister. That procedure is wholly inappropriate to a decision of this nature. The future safety and liberty of Britain cannot, even tentatively, even with the knowledge that there is to be a further public inquiry, be decided in the Lake District. It must be decided with the consent of Parliament after wide public debate, and that can come about only if the Minister sagely decides that the inspector's report and recommendations are published first and made available for public and parliamentary debate before the Minister takes on the intimidating responsibility of making a decision.

Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that he will give the most careful consideration to this request for publication before decision? Unknown to me, and not in collusion with me because I had already prepared my speech, yesterday The Guardian made a request in similar terms to the Minister as expressed by a whole range of organisations. I am not surprised that they directed attention to the matter. They came to the decision that the Secretary of State's decision to call in the Windscale application was brave and an important contribution to public debate.

It was no less brave, in my opinion, for the Secretary of State, who has been criticised on these matters, to have decided to have a public inquiry on the whole energy issue and he is to be congratulated. I am aware that there is nobody who has laid greater emphasis than he on the need to have an open debate and not to have closed government. I hope he will lend a sympathetic ear to what I am putting to him. I am asking that a decision should be reached to publish Mr. Justice Parker's report before a final decision. It would be one more step, to quote the Flowers Report, to enable decisions on major questions of nuclear development to take place by explicit political process". There is no individual Minister who is more sensitive to these questions than is the Secretary of State for Energy. I do not expect an immediate decision, but I hope that in his reply he will make clear that the Government will give careful consideration to the matter I have put to him.

Mr. Robin F. Cook (Edinburgh, Central)

May I refer my hon. Friend to the more enlightened procedure that takes place north of the border. We are accustomed to the findings of fact at inquiries being published before the final conclusion in a report. Surely this is a case in point where the English could learn from Scottish experience. Could we not begin a precedent in this case?

Mr. Abse

I am aware of the Scottish practice. It is, of course, confined only to the facts and not to recommendations. I am asking that both the facts and the recommendations should be published, so that there is an open debate. The decision is too heavy and awesome to be taken simply in the conventional manner as laid down in planning applications.

I make this request not only because of the national implications but because of the international implications. The final portion of the motion before the House seeks to draw attention to the international dimensions and to the dangers of nuclear proliferation. I hope that this debate will make clear to President Carter and the United States Government the resonances in this House and in this country to the courageous presidential speech on 7th April. It will be recalled that in that speech President Carter said: The United States is deeply concerned about the consequences of the uncontrolled spread of this nuclear weapon capability. We cannot arrest it immediately and unilaterally. We have no authority over other countries. But we believe that these risks would be vastly increased by the further spread of reprocessing capabilities of the spent nuclear fuel from which explosives can be derived. We will defer indefinitely the commercial reprocessing and recycling of the plutonium produced in United States nuclear power programmes. Is our miserable answer to that historic statement that, nevertheless, we are to proceed despite President Carter's initiative—an initiative which has raised the hopes of many throughout the world—with commercial reprocessing at Wind-scale? If the inspector recommends that the reprocessing plant should proceed at Windscale, should not, before a final decision is taken by the Secretary of State, the House and the nation have time to consider both the national and international consequences of our proceeding?

I come to my third question to the Secretary of State. Would not a decision to go ahead with a huge reprocessing plant at Windscale sabotage Carter's initiative and inevitably sour relations with our ally? The dangers if we go ahead are clear: the frustrated nuclear industry establishment in the United States will draw new strength and increase its pressure on the United States Administration and, in the meantime, nations whose safeguards are imposed on them by the technologically advanced nations will inevitably fight for looser controls. If President Carter broke under the strain, there would be widespread disillusion. The attitude would be "If you cannot count on him, you cannot count on anybody."

Unhappily, it is entirely possible, if the United States is bound to abandon its initiative, that in a few years' time it will come back into the nuclear market place with a vengeance. That market place is already frighteningly in existence. A document published by Nukem, the German commercial organisation, which I understand performs something of the same function as our British Nuclear Fuels, has been put in my possession, and I shall pass it on to the Secretary of State. It reveals that plutonium is being offered through that organisation for sale at $10,000 a kilogram, and indicates the delivery dates and quantities available. Those quantities could yield an explosion equivalent to 20 kilotons, the yield of the bomb exploded at Nagasaki. I hope that the fears expressed to me that this plutonium has emanated from Britain will, on my right hon. Friend's investigating the matter, prove to be unfounded. But in any event the need to control the market place is self-evident.

Therefore, in response to the third question I have put to him, I hope that my right hon. Friend will not merely say that, far from frustrating Carter's initiative, we are cooperating with the United States in the International Fuel Cycle Evaluation Programme. What credibility will there be if we nominally participate in that programme and yet decide, before it has reached its conclusions, to proceed with the large reprocessing plant? Would not that in effect be sabotage? In defiance of Carter, we should be agreeing to return potential nuclear bomb material to non-nuclear weapon States.

What happens if we proceed and then the IFCEP draws the conclusion that the plutonium recycle cannot be sufficiently safeguarded? The fact is that the question of the impact of Windscale's expansion on President Carter's initiative, and thus on the prospect for limiting proliferation, has received far too little public debate so far. But if Windscale is given the go-ahead before weighing the consequences on international opinion, how will a British Foreign Secretary ever be able to take creditable initiatives aimed to arrest proliferation?

Already there is cynicism abroad about the British Government's rôle, a concern that our conceit over the triumphs of our nuclear technology is prompting us to mute rather than encourage the initiative of Carter and Trudeau. The anger expressed in Australia against the intervention of our Minister of State into the debate on the mining of uranium sprang from a belief, mistaken or otherwise, that his intrusion into Australian domestic politics was a sinister one and that it was not simply related to concern that we had uranium supplies for the present generation of nuclear reactors. The belief was that we wanted access to uranium if, in the event of a decision on our part to proceed with the Windscale reprocessing plant, an angry America reacted by placing obstacles in our way to gaining access to uranium from America and followed what appears to be the Canadian policy already, that of holding up supplies to all the Euratom countries.

Mr. Ian Lloyd (Havant and Waterloo)

On the question of supply of uranium, has the hon. Gentleman given much thought to what I believe is undoubtedly the case, that if our Western energy society does not proceed to a fast breeder reactor base—I agree that these are profound questions—the uranium requirement will be anything from 10 to 20 times as great, and therefore all the consequences of uranium mining and uranium accessibility are not eliminated but are accentuated?

Mr. Abse

I am tempted to follow the hon. Gentleman in that line of thought but I have already taken a great deal of time. I was not affirming that the Minister of State's rôle in Australia was necessarily sinister. I was saying that those views had been expressed and canvassed. I hope that in this debate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will take the opportunity not only to reassure the Australian labour movement that these suspicions are groundless but to reassure those in this country who are concluding that Britain is being less than wholehearted in its co-operation with President Carter in his valiant attempts to limit proliferation.

The subject that we are discussing here has, thanks to President Carter, become the most compelling issue in the United States; it has brought down a Swedish Government; it has provoked extensive riots in France; it has wracked the West German Government and activated fierce debates within the German Social Democratic Party. Yet here, in the very country where we have both the most advanced atomic technology and, thanks to providence, the most extensive energy resources in the industrial world, where the hazards are thus nearer to us and the possibilities of warding them off are greater than in any other land, we have not until today—except peripherally—debated the central issues in the House of Commons. Is says little for our sense of priorities that we are spending weeks of debate to seek to institutionalise tribalism in the land and yet we have almost ignored the most fateful issue of our time.

If the harnessing of atomic energy can ultimately be achieved through nuclear fusion—perhaps through thorium and other techniques—it may be that the malignant side effects of nuclear fission, which are implicit in the present projected plutonium economy, can be avoided. But in the meantime we have a duty to pause and delay. That duty is not only to ourselves. The worth of a society is to be judged by the concern of one generation for the next. The Royal Commission stressed that the concerns that it was expressing were concerns for the society that we could have some decades hence. If we, avaricious for the apparently easy wealth that nuclear energy could bring, enter into a Faustian pact with a meretricious atomic destiny, we may have doomed our children or grandchildren to the loss of their liberties, if not their lives.

12.17 p.m.

Mr. Ian Lloyd (Havant and Waterloo)

The whole House and, indeed, the country will feel indebted to the hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) for bringing this vital issue before us. I agree more fully than I can say with his concluding remarks about the major institutional effort of the House having been devoted in recent weeks, as it will be in future weeks, to the institutionalisation of tribalism, as the hon. Gentleman so aptly put it. I entirely share the hon. Gentleman's judgment that the future of nuclear power, the future of the power base of our civilisation, is undoubtedly the most important and central political issue that should be preoccupying the House and the Administration in this and all advanced industrial countries almost continuously over the next two or three years. The hon. Gentleman's drawing the country's attention to this matter has rendered the House and the country a signal service.

The issue of nuclear power has recently been discussed in three major international conferences. There was the international energy conference some months ago; the special colloquium called by the Council of Europe took place in Strasbourg last week; and there is currently taking place a similar colloquy within the European Community. This shows that many people are aware of the significance of what the hon. Gentleman has drawn to our attention.

But I believe that there are some other criteria against which we must judge these important arguments. The hon. Gentleman has demonstrated a hostility towards what he described as the plutonium economy. We all understand the profound basis on which that hostility was created and has been perpetuated. All those who have followed the Windscale inquiry will know that there is a danger of these matters being turned into a great populist argument, not only by the significant report of Sir Brian Flowers, which is probably at the most responsible end of the spectrum, but by many other documents, views and arguments, going right down to what I might describe as the irresponsible end of the spectrum.

This is something I fear, because although it is right, proper and salutary that the arguments should be widely displayed and that there should be discussion at all levels of the community, we are facing most difficult problems—in that the technical complexities of decisions on nuclear power are such that they are understood by few—and I can see no alternative to society choosing, and making responsible, the best minds that it can find to make these decisions. The decisions might be wrong but that will be the price that we shall have to pay, even if it is a great price.

I have not found any real alternative, because there is no way in which we can extend to the generality of the public decisions on the character of nuclear waste, security or processes or the type of fast breeder reactor to be selected, whether it is to be the liquid sodium type or another kind. With the best will in the world—even if that is one's will—those matters cannot be the subject of populist decisions based on the widespread application of the processes of democracy.

The Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Anthony Wedgwood Benn)

The hon. Member for Havant and Waterloo (Mr. Lloyd) has said something important and I want to be quite clear in my understanding. These are technical and complex matters, but I take it that the hon. Gentleman is not saying that, because of their complexity, such decisions must be taken by people other than Ministers, who are answerable to Parliament and who are elected. That is a serious point and I want to understand it before I reply.

Mr. Lloyd

Of course the decision must be taken by Ministers who are answerable to Parliament, but they should be taken on the basis of the best possible technical advice that is obtainable and that has been tested, if necessary, in the fire of hostile criticism by technical peers and equals. The Minister must satisfy himself that such a process has taken place. This process of testing under fire in the most critical and informed way cannot be generalised throughout the country through the democratic system. The Minister will carry ultimate responsibility—perhaps upwards to the apex of democratic society, but also downwards and outwards in the way that we all understand.

I must illustrate the dangers contained in what I am arguing. A few weeks ago a major television network carried a programme on the plutonium economy described as the Pilger File. This was one of the most dangerous programmes that I have seen since I first began to watch television. To help to demonstrate the dangers and complexities of the issue, the programme started with an illustration of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, showing the B29 flying over the cities, the bombs dropping, and the ghastly consequences of the atomic explosions. It was suggested that that was what could be expected in the United Kingdom if we went towards a plutonium economy. That programme was not responsible or in any way well informed.

The point is that if the broad populist debate is to be conducted at that level—which provides no information—it will be of no assistance to those who, as the Secretary of State has rightly said, must carry the responsibility for the most important decision that we are likely to make in this century.

The hon. Member for Pontypool rightly referred to the appalling dangers of a wrong decision that could produce the consequences that he predicted. However, we must not allow ourselves to assume that those are the only dangers inherent in the decision. The obverse of the decision carries dangers which are just as great.

If I have been able to conclude anything from listening to two days of the colloquy at Strasbourg it is that, whether one takes the upper or lower limit of the best available forecast for conventional energy exploitation towards the end of the century, it is an inescapable conclusion that there will not be enough energy. That will be the case even if we can triple or quadruple the research and development resources being put into solar energy, the use of tides and so on.

The Select Committee on Science and Technology suggested that that work should be increased, and I entirely agree with that. However, even if we do increase that research, the contribution that we are likely to obtain from those sources will not begin to close the foreseeable gap, and that will be so even if the growth of the industrial economies of the West is zero. There will still be a gap that could not be filled in any other way than by nuclear energy.

We are therefore compelled to face the fact that, should we decide not to become a nuclear, fast breeder reactor economy, there will be a severe curtailment of nuclear power. There will be a heavy onus of proof on us to show what alternative energy resources will become available. That onus of proof has not yet been satisfactorily discharged.

I have endeavoured to read most of the long and complex reports produced in the United Kingdom and the United States on this matter. No one has yet said that he can guarantee alternative sources of power—whether from coal, solar energy, wind or by the coastlines of great islands being covered with devices. As Academician Kapitzka pointed out in a brilliant article in the New Scientist a few weeks ago, there is no way in which those sources could supply the power that we need.

We reach a challenging conclusion, that if that is so, the obverse of the decision is that if we decide to forgo the nuclear alternatives, we must clearly face a future in which civilisation will run into a major energy crisis. I suggest that the consequences of that crisis could be every bit as severe in terms of a threat to our democratic processes, our political instistutions and the whole stability of our society as the possible consequences of some plutonium being stolen by terrorists and used in the ghastly ways foreseen by the hon. Member for Pontypool.

Following our experiences of incomes policy and inflation in this country over the last 10 years, it is doubtful whether our institutions are so robust as to enable us, as representative politicians, to turn to our electors and say that we see an end to the growth of society. We should have to do that, and I do not know how the community would react to that conclusion. We should have to say that all the promises that we have made at General Elections about which parties will do what, with one party promising 3 per cent. growth and the other 5 per cent. growth, were completely bogus.

No one would know that better than ourselves, because we know that the economic growth of our kind of civilisation is directly dependent on the supply of energy. An obligation will rest on us, in promising certain percentages in a sustained growth programme, to say how we shall obtain the necessary energy and at what price, and to give an assurance that the international community will allow us to obtain and supply it. I do not see that any of us in particularly anxious to move into that area or to discharge such a responsibility.

12.19 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Palmer (Bristol, North-East)

My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) quite properly referred to my vested interest in this matter. Engineers, of course, have a vested interest in engineering in the same way that lawyers have a vested interest in the law, and this House makes law, but fortunately it has not yet attempted to make reactors, and we should be grateful for that.

Like the hon. Member for Havant and Waterloo (Mr. Lloyd), who works very hard with me on the Select Committee on Science and Technology, I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool selected this important subject for debate. I join my hon. Friend in regretting that the House has not found time until now—and it is only due to my hon. Friend's initiative that we have the time now—to debate the Flowers Report and its implications for the further development of nuclear energy in this country.

I listened closely to my hon. Friend, who made a long speech—and I am not complaining about that—but I did not hear him introduce, let alone answer, the fundamental question about the energy future of the United Kingdom and the world. Most informed opinion accepts that the practical availability of fossil fuel supplies will cease somewhere between the years 2000 and 2500. Of course it can be argued that they may last somewhat longer and that new finds may be made, but it cannot be doubted that they are finite, and this is the key to the understanding of the whole energy situation and its development.

The reasons for the exhaustion of fossil fuel supplies will be the physical running out of supplies, the increased expense of extraction and, in the case of coal, the difficulty of obtaining miners prepared to risk life, limb and future health in what is still a very dangerous trade. In the meantime, a number of things will happen because of the increased scarcity of fossil fuels. It will cause prices to rise, although this will be modified by the development of nuclear power, if it is allowed. I shall come to that in a moment.

Other things will also happen. Obviously, there will have to be very much less waste in the use of energy than there is now. There must also be much more effort put into conservation. The Select Committee on Science and Technology, of which I have the privilege to be Chairman, has been looking at this question very closely in the past two or three years. In our report on conservation we made 42 recommendations to the Department of Energy and concluded that, if they were carried out properly, we could probably save up to 15 per cent. of our present energy consumption.

There will be another development as fossil fuels run out. Developed modern technology will give us the opportunity to look again at the primary sources of energy that were discarded by our ancestors as too inefficient following the arrival of the steam engine, followed by the oil engine and the electric motor. Our ancestors used these resources of sea tides, sea waves, sun and wind in a rather primitive way to extract energy.

Once again, the Select Committee has done some useful work I think on alternative sources and has suggested that they should be looked at closely. On the Severn barrage, we have suggested that there should be four or five defined studies on the feasibility of the barrage and that this work should be put in hand as soon as possible. In terms of capacity, the barrage could give the country an output of two or three times that of a large modern power station, whether nuclear or coal fired.

On the general question of renewable sources of energy the Select Committee said: We therefore recommend that the investment programmes in R & D in renewable sources of energy should be expanded so that those renewable sources which prove to be technically and economically viable are in a position to begin making a worthwhile contribution to the United Kingdom energy requirements by 1990 so that when self-sufficiency in indigenous fossil fuel energy sources is past,"— and this will come, despite North Sea oil— they are well established. Although my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool did not say it, he implied that we must do all we can to conserve energy and develop alternative sources. I agree, but at the end of the day it is a question of quantities. Unless we are to scramble madly among ourselves for a share of the national productive cake, we must have growth in the economy. The cake must grow steadily—though perhaps in practice not as quickly as it has in the past. All this means more energy. The whole of modern industrial civilisation is reared on energy.

In terms of the equivalent amount of coal, we need to allow for a growth in energy supplies from about 300 million tons in the United Kingdom now to about 350 million tons in 10 years' time. Presumably the figure will continue to grow after that at compound rates. At the present level of technology the only certain source of much-needed massive blocks of power to ensure that growth can continue as fossil fuels decline—allowing fully for conservation and the further development of ancillary primary sources—is undoubtedly nuclear fission, and that includes the fast breeder reactor.

The fast breeder reactor has not been worked up in the last few years. It dates from the beginning of the British nuclear power programme. The need for it was always understood—in order that we might economise in the use of raw uranium. It could be said to be the cornerstone of the long-term British nuclear programme. It is well known that the fast breeder has the useful property of producing or breeding extra nuclear fuel. It reduces dependency on imported uranium; the nuclear energy yield can be increased by up to 50 times by the use of the breeder.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool said, in effect, that the fast breeder was dangerous, that it made plutonium. Of course it does. It can be adjusted to make a number of isotopes. My hon. Friend quoted in aid the Flowers Report. I have a copy of the report here. It is rather like Shakespeare or the Bible: it is a sort of quarry from which one can get any kind of quotation to suit oneself.

Mr. Russell Kerr (Feltham and Heston)

The same is true of Marx.

Mr. Palmer

Yes, indeed. I have also read Marx. I should like to draw attention to a document that is perhaps not as well known as the Flowers Report. I can let my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool have a copy of this publication if he wishes. It was published by a body so eminent that one has to draw a breath before pronouncing its name—the Royal Society. After the Flowers Report, the Royal Society appointed what we would call a working party on energy research and development in the United Kingdom. Its report was published in February 1977 and, after reviewing the Flowers Report sympathetically, the group said: The group therefore formed a strong opinion that all necessary preparatory steps should be taken to ensure that the CFRI"—that is the commercial fast breeder—" Project can proceed without delay, provided always that these steps include full consideration of environmental and public safety aspects". We would all agree with that last reservation. Another paragraph states: It seemed to the group that Britain need only to maintain its strong position in FBR technology, by expressing a clear intent to design and construct a single commercial fast breeder, in order to have an excellent chance of becoming a partner in a future EEC venture aimed at joint work on FBR design and assessment on a cost-sharing basis". The report of the group is signed by a number of leading scientists. In fact, it is a sort of scientific Debrett's. I made the calculation, and there are fourteen belted knights and one mere Ph.D. as the signatories.

Mr. Robin F. Cook

Then it must be wrong.

Mr. Palmer

The names are interesting, especially the fourth name, which is that of Sir Brian Flowers.

Many interpretations can be placed on the Flowers Report, but when Sir Brian —I know him very well and have a high respect for him—came face to face with his own peers, he felt obliged to get a little closer to what is the normally accepted view among those with knowledge. To some extent, his scientific reputation depended on it.

The group did not want to go beyond the commercial fast breeder reactor for the present time. Nor do any of us. In fact, that is what many of us are asking. We want a declaration of intent on that. We must consider the Flowers Report not in a partial context but in a full context.

I hope that the Government will see the wisdom of encouraging the further development of our highly successful nuclear industry by giving clearance fairly soon for the two extra thermal reactor stations that the electricity supply industry now needs, the one at Sizewell and the other at Torness, Scotland.

I had hoped that a declaration of intent on the commercial fast breeder would also be made fairly soon. I know the difficulties, and I respect my right hon. Friend's desire to consult every interest. However, I think that there have now been too many delays and hesitations. I have said that before, and I say it again.

When the Select Committee on Science and Technology went to Dounreay in April 1976 it took evidence on site from Sir John Hill among others. It was told that a decision was expected in the autumn of 1976; that there would then be a declaration of intent to proceed with the commercial fast breeder. We have gone a year beyond that time and the declaration of intent is still wanted. As my right hon. Friend knows, the electricity trade unions are pressing for a decision. The TUC, through its fuel and power sub-committee, has pressed my right hon. Friend fairly recently for a decision.

I understand—this was stated first at the Windscale inquiry and I have had a letter since from the Prime Minister to the same effect—that there is now to be a public inquiry into the commercial fast breeder. So be it. There is obviously somewhere a public opinion that needs reassuring. We must accept that I suppose. However, I cannot honestly believe that it was so necessary to add this further delay.

Presumably, the inquiry will be on the lines of the Windscale inquiry into the processing plant. I make two observations about the inquiry. First, I think that the Government should set a time limit. The inquiry should not be allowed to go on and on. Secondly, I think that it should be mainly a site planning inquiry. I hope that the Government will not give the impression that they have put the fast breeder on trial.

Mr. Benn

Perhaps my hon. Friend will clarify his position. Is he saying that in his judgment the only subject of the inquiry into the fast breeder should be where it should be sited, and that the inquiry should not be free to examine the issues raised by Sir Brian Flowers or in this debate about whether we are wise to go in for fast breeders on a large scale? Is that my hon. Friend's position?

Mr. Palmer

I do not take that over-narrow view. I should rather take the view that was taken as the planning inquiry at Windscale developed. Of course it is difficult to separate planning issues from the more general issues, but given the need of British energy economy, of which the nuclear reactor programme is an integral part, the Government would be doing the future of the country an injury if they were to give the impression that the fast breeder as such was being put on trial.

I deal shortly with some other aspects that have been introduced. It is suggested that terrorists might break into civilian nuclear fuel manufacturing plants and fuel processing plants. I suppose that it is also suggested that they might enter electricity supply reactor power stations, whether it is the thermal reactor type station or a future fast breeder reactor station, to steal plutonium to make bombs.

As is fairly well known, civil plutonium is not of the grade or quality that is used for military weapons. It would make a poor explosion if it were stolen and an attempt were made to use it for such a purpose. Terrorists would probably kill themselves in the making. If there are terrorists anxious to obtain nuclear bombs for terrorist or military purposes, the best thing for them to do would be to break into military establishments and take the bombs ready made.

Mr. Abse

Is my hon. Friend suggesting—he has made this comparison in the Press as well—that the same type of military security that governs the storage of our military nuclear weapons is the type of security that would have to be extended throughout the country? Is not that the implication of what he is saying when he asks "Why do they not break into military establishments?"

Mr. Palmer

I said that the plutonium available in a civil nuclear reactor establishment was not of a suitable grade for making bombs. It needs much additional processing. I am suggesting that if terrorists wish to do this thing, they would be better advised to obtain the kind of plutonium that can be used for terrorist purposes. What they should do—I agree that it would be difficult for them to do it—is attempt to get at the bombs themselves. They would not gain very much from obtaining plutonium from a civilian plant.

Of course, plutonium is dangerous. There are many dangerous substances and chemicals of all sorts in industry. That means that there are stringent precautions. It often means that there has to be special security for dangerous substances. That is well understood. However, I do not see why this should constitute a threat to normal civil liberty. I think that that part of the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool was much exaggerated in argument.

Where they are used the guards in establishments containing dangerous substances are special constables. Under the 1923 and 1976 Acts they are authorised to possess arms under normal police terms. The technical staffs were anxious that there should be extra safety precautions and more security and the Government responded.

Many of the issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool mentions in his motion were extensively discussed at the Windscale inquiry. I have a trans-script of that inquiry. Mr. Walter Peterson, the main objector on behalf of the Friends of the Earth, did not hold his ground when questioned about the possible nuclear danger to the environment. He was asked by the Inspector, Mr. Justice Parker: And you also said very fairly that the danger to the work force and the public from reprocessing is one of the least of your worries and that is why you really have not made it any part of the Friends of the Earth case? Mr. Peterson answered: "That is correct, Sir".

Mr. Justice Parker asked him: Would I be right in supposing, therefore, that you regard lead from vehicles as being of much greater significance than the radioactivity which might emerge on to the workforce or the public from reprocessing? Mr. Peterson answered: On the basis of what is certainly in my case definitely very secondhand understanding of the issue, Sir, yes, I would. That extract shows that Friends of the Earth, the main environmentalist group, had to abandon that part of their case.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool rightly referred to President Carter's appeal and initiative. If that initiative is construed as a powerful move further to strengthen the international arrangements for the possible exploitation of nuclear power—because there are dangers in the proliferation of nuclear materials—the Carter approach is excellent. A total of 102 countries have signed the non-proliferation treaty, which involves regular inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency. I hope that other countries, many of which do not yet possess the means of nuclear electricity generation, will enter the arrangements of the non-proliferation treaty. If the Carter approach means that, it will have the support of us all.

But if the Carter approach means that countries such as the United Kingdom and France, whose energy future largely depends on nuclear power, should now halt their work on the fast breeder and the reprocessing of nuclear fuel, that would be a different matter. One should not overlook that the United States possesses half the world's uranium and that it can afford to be as wasteful in its use as it is already in its use of petroleum. Western Europe cannot afford that luxurious outlook.

The opposition that is concentrated against nuclear technology results from social developments in the Western world in the last 10 to 20 years. To some extent it represents an opposition to advanced technology as such. One can compare the attitude of someone who objects to nuclear technology with the grandchild of a self-made millionaire who despises the vulgarity and the wealth that has brought about his cultured leisure. That reaction is not uncommon now in the Western world. Some people who enjoy the practical benefits of advanced technology, have an irrational resentment against it apparently.

I see technology rather differently. I think that it was Thredgold, one of the founder members of the Institution of Civil Engineers in the first part of the 19th century, who defined technology as being the art of directing the latent powers in nature for the use and benefit of mankind. Nuclear technology is a further development in man's onward march and struggle upwards to remove darkness and dirt and needless physical toil from his life.

Technology has always involved risks. It brings dangers, but safety measures are always found. I cannot see that nuclear technology breaks that normal sequence of technological evolution, any more than did the steam engine.

12.48 p.m.

Mr. Peter Rost (Derbyshire South-East)

I welcome this debate and congratulate the hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) on initiating it. He should know that he is not the first to have the opportunity of raising the Flowers Report in debate. I had that opportunity soon after the report was published about a year ago. Unfortunately, the opportunity arose at dawn after an all-night sitting on the Consolidated Fund Bill. On that occasion the House was not in the mood to respond to a profound debate as it is responding today.

Nevertheless, the issues which were raised by the report are of such great significance that even today's debate does not do justice to them. We are naturally pleased to see the Secretary of State, who has attended all the debate so far and who will contribute to it. We also have the Shadow spokesman, my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), in the Chamber. We hope that the debate will be followed by a full-scale debate lasting a full day.

I am particularly pleased to be able to follow the arguments put by the hon. Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer). I agree with much of what he said and I have the pleasure of assisting him in his work on the Select Committee.

I also have my interpretation of what the Flowers Report says and what its message is. I believe that the message is clear and precise and that it is not capable of being misinterpreted, although selective quotations from it may be used. It has a clear message for us. It is a message which has not been put across in the House in a voice which is loud enough.

I suggest that the message is, first, that there are dangers in the plutonium route. Of course there are, The hon. Member for Pontypool is quite right to set them out, even if in my view he could be accused of having slightly over-sensationalised the risks by using selective quotes and slightly emotive language. Nevertheless, I believe that the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right in assessing the risks and the dangers as we see them. Flowers, of course, says so, too.

However, the Flowers Report goes on to point out that, despite all the dangers, the choice is inevitably towards nuclear power, including the fast breeder reactor, but that we must go slowly and carefully. Recommendation No. 45 makes quite clear The abandonment of nuclear fission power would, however, be neither wise nor justified. So perhaps there is an important distinction between the argument of the hon. Member for Pontypool and the Flowers Report, because I found very little in the hon. Member's argument which would appear to lead him to accept that nuclear power, even if it were to be developed more carefully and slowly, was inevitable. Flowers, however, makes that argument and attempts to justify it, despite all the risks and dangers.

Finally, I believe that Flowers leads on to the fundamental conclusion that we must go on carefully and slowly, but what we can do in the meantime to give us a far longer lead time in order to come to the right technological solutions is immediately to put greater emphasis on conservation—the more rational use of energy—and to develop more rapidly than we are doing possible alternative sources of energy.

It is to this third major conclusion that the hon. Member for Pontypool has not really addressed himself. This surely could be a compromise solution for the hon. Member, in that if he were to accept the argument that we could be doing a great deal in the meantime to put forward the time when we need and cannot do without the next phase of nuclear power, a great deal of his anxieties and those of others could be met. The longer lead time that we have available to us before we are faced with what could be a very serious energy gap after the year 2000, the longer we have in which to find more acceptable solutions, either with a safe development of fast breeder technology or with alternative sources, the more acceptable it will be for mankind and for civilisation.

The way in which that can be done immediately without any major technological problems or risks to the environment is by reducing the massive waste that we still allow to continue in the production and use of the energy that we have already. We say that we can do this without any environmental risks, but quite the contrary is the case, because the main environmental pollution risks facing us at the moment come not from possible developments of nuclear power but from an acceleration of fossil fuel burn and other wasteful energy practices.

There is an increasing number of scientists who express the fear that, for example—just to take one instance—the alternative to nuclear power would be a more massive coal burn which, if we continued to burn with the present wasteful processes, would extend the carbon dioxide pollution to the point at which the whole of the environment on the globe could be at far more serious risk than from any form of nuclear proliferation. That is one serious scientific theory now naturally being considered.

So there are very strong arguments, as Flowers puts them, for concentrating more effort now on reducing the massive waste of energy that goes on, not only because it will be cost-effective in that it will make it less necessary to develop a crash programme of nuclear development before we are perhaps ready technologically to do that, but also because it will do far more to reduce environmental hazards and pollution than any other form of investment could possibly achieve.

Most pollution is caused by the waste of energy. It is not caused by the production or use of energy. It is caused by that proportion of energy, which is mostly two-thirds of the energy, which is wasted in the processes of production and use. If we can work on that, we can do a great deal more to avoid the sort of hazards to our environment which the Flowers Report emphasises and which a nuclear fast breeder programme might involve us in, as the hon. Member has said.

The main point, therefore, that I take out of the Flowers Report is that it suggests a constructive alternative for mankind. It is not a negative approach. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept it as a kind of criticism when I say that I found his most interesting speech rather negative, in the sense that he was not prepared to give us an alternative hope for mankind, whereas I believe Flowers does just that. It is a positive recommendation that, provided we accept that there are risks and dangers, we can proceed more carefully and more cautiously towards nuclear energy if we develop the more rational use of energy in the meantime and concentrate more research and development on alternative resources.

That proposition Flowers puts as the first priority for the immediate future. I support that argument. I regard it as a constructive alternative to the proposition which the hon. Member for Pontypool put to us by simply warning us of the immediate dangers without offering us any real solution. I believe that Flowers offers us that solution, and I have therefore for the past two or three years, in the House and elsewhere, attempted to the very best of my humble ability to draw the attention of the Front Bench to this alternative.

I am therefore, particularly pleased, as I said earlier, that the Secretary of State is here to reply. I hope that he will address himself to that section of the Flowers Report which offers this constructive route out of our possible problems—the conclusions of which he will no doubt be well aware from Recommendations 42 to 50. I hope that he will respond to that in a constructive way and tell us why the Government have still not taken the whole area of a more ambitious investment programme and incentives programme for the more rational use of energy more seriously. I hope that he will tell us whether he accepts that the alternative to a perhaps dangerously rapid necessary development of nuclear power is this alternative, to give us that extra time which we may desperately need and which we can use only by proceeding now to provide the incentives for the more rational use of energy by developing the alternative new resources and by doing far more than we are to see that the energy that we have at the moment is used more effectively.

If we follow that route as recommended by Flowers, I do not think that them need be much to divide the opinions expressed so far on both sides of the House, because I go along absolutely with the hon. Member for Pontypool in his anxieties about the future. The only difference between us is that I regard the eventual development of nuclear technology and the fast breeder as inevitable, but I want to see it developed slowly, carefully and progressively. That can happen only if we accept the only alternative solution, which is a greater emphasis and priority on reducing the waste we at present still accept in the application and production of energy.

1.1 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Blenkinsop (South Shields)

I share the feelings which have been expressed by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Rost), certainly in so far as he is drawing our attention to the very important need for much more work to be done about the conservation of energy. That is a central point in the whole argument today. He was querying, too, whether enough effort is being put into research and other work on the whole range of alternative sources of energy.

I welcome equally, however, the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse). He is rightly drawing our attention to the very real threats and dangers which are inherent in a concentration of development of nuclear energy, and, more particularly, the concentrated development of the use of plutonium. That issue is certainly clearly raised in the Flowers Report. I share my hon. Friend's sorrow that we have not had a chance before now to discuss that issue and the wider issues that were raised by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East. I hope that when the report of the Windscale inquiry is published we shall have full opportunity in the House to enter into the discussions which have been so long delayed.

I want to raise issues which have concerned me particularly through my association with a body that presented evidence at the Windscale inquiry, namely, the Town and Country Planning Association. In many respects it holds an independent position. It is in no way committed to supporting or opposing nuclear development. At the inquiry it was honestly seeking information, and it was seeking to make the fullest possible use of the procedure of that inquiry. It was one of the major bodies calling for the setting up of the inquiry and urging the carrying out of one of the major recommendations of the Flowers Report which was that there should be a much fuller attempt to involve the country, both experts and non-experts, in the implications of the whole development.

I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool said about my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in welcoming the efforts he has made in trying to ensure that our processes of debate are full and open. It is precisely because of that that we feel that he has a sympathetic ear for this issue and that the kind of case that has been made for much fuller discussion and debate is one that he understands and supports.

As chairman of the council of the Town and Country Planning Association I have been involved in a good deal of the evidence which it sought to present and the inquiries that it sought to have resolved in the course of that inquiry. We all accept the need for this wider debate. There are, therefore, aspects of the inquiry to which I shall call my right hon. Friend's attention because they should teach us something about the possibilities of the further inquiries that we are promised, notably on the fast breeder reactor proposal.

The first point is that many of those who occupy the sort of independent position held by my friends in the Association were unhappy at the composition of the body undertaking the inquiry. Only two assessors were included in addition to the chairman. None of those people had qualifications in economics, planning or any of the wider social interests that some of us feel should have been included in that inquiry. Any future inquiry should ensure that there is such representation of that wider character. The panel, if that is what we are to have, should not be as limited as it was at the Windscale inquiry.

Recognising, as we do, the difficulty of the operation, many of us were surprised that the inquiry that was held was not based on the legislative provisions that are available. I do not know whether the Government were frightened off by the whole complexity and extent of the Roskill Commission, but one would have thought that the planning inquiry concept as enshrined in law was precisely what was needed for future inquiries into the fast breeder reactor.

I suggest that that inquiry needs to be in two stages. The first should inquire into the broad issue of the requirement or otherwise in principle of the fast breeder reactor. Possibly the second stage should look at the proposed siting. The other issue which is of very great importance arising from the Windscale inquiry is that a good deal of damage was done to the way in which the inquiry was conducted by the lack of suitable information at the outset.

It seems to many of us who are concerned in the matter that if only something like an environmental impact analysis or some kind of statement of the major issues had been available at the commencement of the inquiry, a good deal of time could have been saved and a good deal of the complication for those giving evidence would have been overcome.

It is understood that those who gave evidence, who after all had no great financial backing, were put at severe inconvenience by the timetables being continually altered, sometimes completely disrupting the evidence that was put forward. Some very eminent witnesses, such as Professor Rotblatt, had their evidence interrupted on a great many occasions to the great detriment of the whole case.

We want to try to avoid that happening again if possible. I realise the difficulty, but some of that difficulty could be overcome if there was a real attempt to make major statements of information available in advance of the actual inquiries. Another obvious point is the whole question whether there is any way by which those giving serious evidence to an inquiry of this sort can be afforded some financial support for the very heavy costs they have to bear. The situation is uneven and unfair for those who, in a serious way, are seeking to get information out of an inquiry. The costs to them are very high indeed, whereas industry is able to face this problem in a much more secure way.

I can see the dangers and difficulties of offering any kind of open grant to anyone who wishes to provide evidence, but I wonder whether there could be some kind of procedure, such as is not uncommon in our courts, whereby the chairman could take on the responsibility of considering whether costs should be allocated to those who, his in view, had gone to great trouble to try to secure evidence and information of general public benefit. That might be a way in which some of the bodies about which I am concerned could get public support in what is, after all, an important public service.

I do not, and nor does the Town and Country Planning Association, have a fixed view of this situation. Members of the Association appreciate the difficulties and dangers of following whatever course is adopted. They are not committed antinuclear people in that sense, but they are concerned, on broad social and planning grounds, about the dangers of concentration upon the nuclear answer to our fuel needs and the dangers to our communities, including those so vividly raised today by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool.

Members of the Association are seeking answers, but their questions have to remain unanswered because we do not have the information to tell us whether there are prospects for smaller scale developments, even in the nuclear field, that could meet the kind of industrial society—or, as some would say, the postindustrial society—into which we are moving. Are we necessarily committed to the concentration of nuclear power resources? Are we committed to the firm estate complex that has been suggested by the industry in some of its forms? It is suggested that if all the plants were concentrated in one or two places the security risk might be diminished. In the sense of transportation that might be so, but in other ways the risk might be vastly increased.

Some of us wonder whether it is possible to avoid the use of plutonium in as wide a way as is envisaged by the industry. One could perhaps think of using thorium or uranium, with all the dangers and difficulties involved. Is it impossible to conceive of the use of materials in smaller packets which might be more realistic in terms of our future industrial development?

I assure my right hon. Friend that there are many people who wish to play a full and responsible part in the argument that goes ahead and are asking only that there shall be a full opportunity for them to do so.

1.14 p.m.

Mr. George Thompson (Galloway)

I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) on raising this subject today, and I associate myself with what he and others have said about the fact that we have to debate these matters of prime importance on the Queen's Speech, on the Consolidated Fund Bill, or on a Private Member's motion. When will there be debates on the Floor of the House on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday so that these matters can be debated thoroughly by many more hon. Members than are able to be present on a Friday?

I feel a certain measure of reassurance on these matters by the fact that the Secretary of State has asked for a great debate and that he and his Department are participating in it. I feel a certain reassurance also that his right hon. Friend the Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore) is at the Department of the Environment, because I am convinced that both right hon. Gentlemen take on board completely the problems raised by this issue.

I found my mind going all the way with the hon. Member for Pontypool until he mentioned the word "tribalism". I do not suppose he will hold it against me that I reacted at that point. Today I want to talk at a level which he would call tribal, but which I would call national. Indeed. I even want to be parochial.

The debate raises the highest issues about human greed and profligacy. It poses the question whether "progress" must necessarily be allowed to flow on its own way as a sort of tide without mankind at any point taking thought of tomorrow and perhaps having to decide that certain currents available to it are not acceptable for the sake of future humanity. If we are to have a simpler life style, I believe that it will do none in the Western world any harm at all.

I want to raise again today, as I have done in the past, the issue of the ultimate irretrievable disposal of high-level radioactive nuclear waste. This is, after all, the crucial question in the whole nuclear debate, as the Flowers Report says in Recommendation 27 on page 202: 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 safe containment of long-lived highly radioactive waste for the indefinite future. That view is also accepted by the Government who, in response to the Flowers Report, in "Nuclear Power and the Environment", say in paragraph 6 on page 4: In particular two central issues raised by the Royal Commission's Report are the subject of current debate both within the United Kingdom and internationally: i. the management of radioactive wastes; ii. the security problems…". Those are the very problems that the hon. Member for Pontypool has so eloquently, and I feel persuasively, raised in our debate today.

I want to deal with a particular local matter in South-West Scotland—the choice of a site for test borings in granite as part of the European Economic Community programme of research into the possibility of acquiring sites for the ultimate, irretrievable disposal of high-level waste in stable, geographical formations on land. Even as we are debating this matter here today, geologists are at work on such a site, and the name of the hill selected is Mullwharchar. It is in the Kyle and Carrick District of Strathclyde and so lies within the constituency of South Ayrshire, but it is at the very boundary of South Ayrshire with Galloway.

Hon. Members may say that this is a very parochial matter.

Mr. Robin F. Cook

Not at all.

Mr. Thompson

I do not consider that "parochial" should be used as a term of abuse, as it sometimes is in this honourable House. In its origins the parish tied men horizontally to the whole universal Church, and vertically it opened men out to the infinity of God—surely not a "parochial" proceeding in either direction.

In the case that I wish to discuss today I shall be maintaining and hoping to show that from the local and particular we raised questions of the greatest importance, at the national level, at the level of the British State, and at the level of mankind. I have defended the parish and the parochial because, I suppose, I am a parochial person. For me, the dearest part of this dear planet Earth of ours is the parish of Kells where I was born and lived for the first 12 years of my life, and the parish of Dalry where I was schooled, where I have lived for the past 37 years, and where in God's good time—I hope it will not be too soon—I hope eventually to be laid to rest.

These two parishes lie on either side of the River Ken, which is partly fed by water flowing south from Loch Doon as part of our local hydro-electric scheme. Water from Mullwharchar flows into Loch Doon and, therefore, we in the valley that runs from Loch Doon to Kirkcudbright would do well to heed what is going on on or in Mullwharchar.

The hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Sillars) told me at the beginning of the debate that, unfortunately, he would be unable to be with us today. It is only right that I should put on record the stand that he has taken on this matter in his own constituency. I have shared several platforms with him and am firmly convinced that the whole of what I have to say will also represent his views.

The House will remember how details of the EEC research project came out in answer to a Parliamentary Question on 18th November 1976 when my right hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) was told: the AEA is undertaking a preliminary research programme to investigate granites and other hard rocks The areas to be studied are some crystalline rocks in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland; crystalline and hard sedimentary rocks in the Southern Uplands; some ancient rocks in North-West England; and some mudstones and rock salt deposits in the Cheshire-Welsh border area. There are no plans to undertake borings in Cornwall…".—[Official Report, 18th November 1976; Vol. 919, c. 747–8]. This information was supplemented by material emanating from the Atomic Energy Authority and from the Secretary of State's Department in response to letters from hon. Members, in the Press and at meetings in South-West Scotland.

In February this year my peasant's mind became aware of the fact that although there had been an outcry in the Western Isles and in South-West Scotland there had been no outcry in the other places mentioned. I put down a Question to the Secretary of State for Energy asking, (1) if he will list (a) the places where the Atomic Energy Authority will make test borradio-active waste in geological formations-ings with a view to the disposal of high-level and (b) against each place the month and the year in which the borings will be begun". The Minister properly replied that no places were being sought as actual disposal sites. I quite accept that. They were being sought only to do research. He then listed the share-out of the research projects among the EEC countries. The United Kingdom, with France, is to study hard rocks. Germany and the Netherlands will study soil formations and Italy and Belgium will study clay. The Minister also said: Sites for actual disposal could not be sought until the research is completed in at least three years' time. (b) Borings could not commence until any necessary planning permission had been granted and the weather conditions were suitable. The earliest possible time would be late April 1977."—[Official Report, 2nd March 1977; Vol. 927, c. 214–15.] For that we were grateful.

Let us take a closer look at the EEC project and ask some questions. Why hard rock for the United Kingdom and not clay? Presumably because we have a lot more hard rocks and a lot less clay. But it was intriguing to find in the Flowers Report a sentence which ought to be considered in the other parts of the United Kingdom which are not mentioned. The report says that clay formations have certain distinct advantages but goes on: There are extensive areas in southern England and other areas of the UK that might be geologically quite suitable, and would be worth investigating as potential disposal sites, but there will undoubtedly be difficulties because of public reaction. I suppose a sigh of relief was heaved that granite and crystalline rocks were chosen for the United Kingdom rather than clay. Why do the Government mention several sites and then choose only one? Was it because they thought that it could not be an area with a strong and articulate bourgeoisie like Cubblington, nor an area sacred to the English people and, therefore, the North-West of England was ruled out because the Lake District could not be dealt with in that way without a terrible rumpus? I understand that Northumberland has now had tentative approaches made to it and that it has not exactly welcomed those approaches.

So where would they go? How about choosing an area near Windscale, a lightly populated area where the land was vested in the Secretary of State for Scotland? Incidentally, according to the Government's White Paper, the Secretary of State has responsibility for the management of civil nuclear wastes. How about an area with a docile and submissive population, a population needing desperately more employment and not so likely to look Atomic Energy Authority gift horses in the mouth? So the Government chose Mullwharchar.

Mr. Robin F. Cook

I hope the hon. Gentleman will not overlook another alternative that he has not yet mentioned. Sir John Hill has stated that he would be quite happy to have this waste put in his back garden. That is perhaps an offer which would merit further consideration.

Mr. Thompson

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. That is a splendid thing and, indeed, there are other gentlemen in the Kingdom who are apparently happy to have it under their houses or in their back gardens. The Secretary of State should have no difficulty in finding other sites if he eventually has to give up South-West Scotland.

Of course, we can only speculate whether this was the thinking behind the decision, but I believe that the Government forgot one or two things. They forgot that the people of the South-West, of Galloway and South Ayrshire are no longer docile to their former political masters. In Galloway the former feudal tide has receded sufficiently to enable the electorate to choose a representative who was a member of the common folk of Galloway. I think I am the first hon. Member for the constituency who was born indeed on an estate but in an estate worker's house. I am convinced that the people of Galloway will remember that fact when they elect their Member at the next election.

I believe the Government also forgot that in our hunger for work we had not reached the ultimate human degradation of accepting just any jobs at all on any conditions. Of course, we do not really think that there will be all that many jobs anyway. They forgot that the Scottish people were gradually becoming suffused with a new spirit as we began the march towards self-government. And so they raised a hornet's nest about this matter as public meeting followed protest meeting on both sides of the hills.

The Atomic Energy Authority is now humbly preparing to submit planning applications for test borings to Kyle and Carrick District Council. I hope that the council will tell the AEA where to get off. Then we shall see whether Big Brother in the shape of the Secretary of State for Scotland will come marching into the area to put us down. The name of Mullwharchar may yet become as familiar as Cubblington was once.

However, the House may ask "Are you not just making a great fuss about a wee bit of research? Do you not trust this nice kind Government here in London?" I have already said that I trust the Secretary of State because of his public stance on this matter. But I would be straining my credulity if I were to say that I trusted the nice Government in London.

Let us look at this question of research more closely. I raise it at three levels; first, at the national level, because for us Scots it raises the fundamental question of what control, if any, we have over our own land. If the granite of Mullwharchar were to prove ideal, if the EEC persuaded the Government here in London, and if the Government here in London decided to use it as the site for what is euphemistically called a disposal facility, what could prevent this from happening? So far as I can see, the answer is that nothing can. The proceedings may be gone through, the democratic process may be gone through, but waht I fear is that at the end of the day it might just be that Government would decide to install this disposal facility even against the manifested wishes of the local people.

The message for us Scots, therefore, is crystal clear. We have to become a State again, resume our national sovereignty, and then we shall be able to resist the siting of nuclear coups in Scotland. But I hasten to add that even then, with a Scottish Government in Edinburgh, we in the South-West would still have to watch them like hawks, because Big Brother's tendencies seem to be pretty much the same in any country of the world, and he has to be watched.

Devolution will not help us much in this, except that it will provide a Scottish Assembly which, even though it is not charged with responsibility in this matter, will nevertheless be able to manifest the feelings of the community of Scotland to the Secretary of State and to the Government here. I agree that there is Scottish nuclear waste, and I shall return to that in the final part of what I have to say.

The House will see that I have now reached my second level of consideration, which is the level of the present British State. I take a rigidly simple view which can be summed up as—no test borings, no nuclear coup. I use the word "coup", which is a good Scots word for a municipal dump, because it conveys my feelings better than any other words that have been suggested.

I agree that in strict logic it does not follow that if there are borings there will be a coup, but we are not engaged here in logical word games. We are talking of political decisions. If there are test borings there could be a coup, and for me that is enough. We oppose the borings utterly and absolutely, for without them there simply cannot be this nuclear coup.

I agree that we are passing judgment on the British State as it is at the present day. We believe that we have to nip the project in the bud, otherwise, by a process of slithering from one position to another, in the best British tradition of muddling through or muddling along, we could end up with precisely what we do not want.

Mr. Benn

I intervene solely for the purpose of wishing to understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Is he developing an argument—which I fully understand—about Scottish independence, or is he saying as well that he is wholly and irrevocably opposed to nuclear power as such? There are nuclear establishments in Scotland which would have waste requiring to be disposed of. I am not up to now entirely clear what the hon. Gentleman is saying.

Mr. Thompson

I thank the Secretary of State for his intervention. I intend to deal with this question, because I think that the problem of Scottish waste—and indeed, of any wastes—is one which faces us at the international level as well as at the level of the State and of the nation.

The question posed to all mankind, as far as I can see it, is simply this: where is the waste to go? Notice how the waste arose, or was allowed to arise, without a cheep from anyone, as far as I can see. Before we started out on this industry there was, if I recollect correctly, no great debate such as the Secretary of State now wishes us to have, yet surely that was the point at which a great debate should have taken place, before we committed ourselves to this programme which has gone as far as it now has.

I shall not trouble the House by quoting from the report of the Royal Commission, but paragraph 391 suggests that there was an entirely lackadaisical attitude to this problem right from the start. But the waste is there and we have to do something about it. Notice, too, that the amount of high level waste is growing here, all the time, through the peaceful use of nuclear energy and also through the defence programme.

In the White Paper on "Nuclear Power and the Environment" at page 8, section 22, we are told quite candidly, in relation to the wastes which arise in the defence nuclear programme: For security reasons, information about the processes giving rise to these wastes and about their size and composition must be restricted and therefore the Secretary of State for Defence will retain full responsibility for their management. Are we allowed to know how much there is—because it is never actually taken into the calculations which are fed to us at the public meetings that we have in Galloway and South Ayrshire. It is growing all the time in an ever-increasing number of countries all over the world.

Then we are told that we must have it in order to plug a gap, as though later we shall not need to have it. For how many decades does this increase have to go on, or is it a question of going on for centuries? If that is so, is there any point at which we can actually manage to stop it?

Where, then, is the waste to go? I submit that it must be decided by the international community. If it must be kept on planet Earth, it must be in a safe place, as far as possible from human habitation. I pose simply as a suggestion, without having investigated the possibilities, that consideration could be given to Antarctica—not in the ice, I hasten to add, because that would be dangerous, but in stable geological formations in the land mass. It would be expensive, but I agree that the correct principle is that the polluters must pay. We who use electricity from nuclear sources must pay for it at the full economic price, including the provision of disposal facilities wherever on the planet it is possible to have them.

If high level radioactive waste cannot be placed safely on this earth in the conditions of which I have spoken, plainly the whole of mankind must come to the only decision that is wise, and that is to do without it altogether. I am not as yet fully convinced that this is the decision we should take, but I have to tell the Secretary of State that that is the direction in which my mind is moving.

1.39 p.m.

Mr. Robin F. Cook (Edinburgh, Central)

The hon. Member for Galloway (Mr. Thompson) has raised an issue which we would all agree is not a parochial one. It is a very important aspect of the debate which we are considering, because it is in the nature of this industry that it gives rise to problems that are nearly unique to it, in that the waste from it has to be put in one particular place in the country. Therefore, in order to have the benefits—which some of us would dispute—or the apparent benefits of nuclear energy, one particular community must be prepared to accept the consequences of that in terms of the waste. I entirely understand the hon. Gentleman's anxiety and share his views on many of the issues to which he has referred.

There is at least one major barrier to putting the waste in the Antarctic. Great Britain is a party to the Antarctica Treaty, which specifically forbids the placing of such waste in the Antarctic. I suppose that it would be open to an independent Scotland to withdraw from the Antarctica Treaty, but it would come in for grave international criticism in doing so.

Mr. Thompson

Would it not also be possible, since treaties are agreed by sovereign States, for those sovereign States to abrogate the Treaty in whole or in part in order to accommodate nuclear waste if it were shown that this was the only part of the earth in which that waste could be safely placed?

Mr. Cook

I would not rule that out. However, I personally view that with some alarm, because the purpose of the Treaty is to prevent the involving of the two poles in nuclear warfare. This is a matter of grave importance, and one which would have to be placed in the balance. I am not assuming that the hon. Member for Galloway should accept the nuclear waste in his constituency because of the Antarctica Treaty.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) on choosing this topic for debate today. I join in previous expressions that it is unfortunate that neither Front Bench has given the opportunity for a debate. Had such an opportunity been given, there might have been a fuller attendance in the House. I do not say that bitterly, because I understand the very many pressures on the business of the House. However, I put it to both Front Benches, whose members have nobly attended throughout this debate, that they can remedy the neglect of the past 14 months by ensuring that one side or another gives an opportunity to debate the Wind-scale Report some time between publication and the decision of the Government. There is grave concern outside the House, and it is no good saying that it is not possible to provide an opportunity to debate an issue which is of such concern to the community at large.

The fact that a year has passed between the publication of the Flowers Report and our debating it gives us an opportunity to take account of some of the developments that have occurred in that period. I refer to two such developments which underline the importance of the Flowers Commission's recommendations and the urgency of implementing them.

The first area is that mentioned by the hon. Member for Galloway—the disposal of nuclear waste. This was one of the main anxieties of the Flowers Commission. No sooner had the Commission's report been published than we had a revelation in the pages of the New Scientist, in an article by Mr. Medvedev, to the effect that there had been an explosion at a nuclear waste dump at Chelyabinsk in the South Urals. What was interesting about that was the remarkably vigorous denial it provoked from the nuclear establishment in Britain. Sir John Hill described the report as "science fiction", "rubbish" and "a figment of the imagination". Unfortunately, Sir John was wrong—belted knights are sometimes in error—and it appeared that the report was correct.

In the past 12 months there have been a number of corroborations of the statement that the explosion did occur. Last summer there was a second article by Mr. Medvedsev to the effect that more than 100 scientific works in the Soviet Union had appeared about it and there was the emergence of United States satellite pictures of the area. Also there was an article only last Monday in The Guardian disclosing that the CIA had had the matter on its files for 15 years and that the area had been visited by the CIA as long ago as 1961. It is perfectly clear that the nuclear community in the West had known about this for many years and had concealed it from the public with as much care as the Russians, for reasons that we can only speculate upon.

Were I to suggest that British nuclear scientists were capable of making the same error as the Russians I should be accused of being emotional, but the fact that such an incident occurred albeit in the Soviet Union, underlines the importance of Recommendation No. 27 of the Flowers Report which says that there should be no substantial expansion of the nuclear power programme until a method of disposal has been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt.

I found the Government's response to that recommendation in their White Paper a little less than convincing. They said that the recommendation was bound to be part of the Government's decision. That statement argues greater confidence in Government decision-making than many of us in this House feel. I hope that when he replies to the debate the Secretary of State will say not just that it is bound to be part of Government decision-making but that it will be made part of Government decision-making.

The other development is in the area of environmental pollution. The Flowers Report laid great stress on the standards of the International Commission on Radiation and Pollution. It came to the conclusion that the Government's practice of agreeing with and applying those standards was the correct approach to the problem.

Since then the ICRP has departed from its previous position. Its current recommendation is that each country should follow the same standard of control of pollution but that each country should carry out an economic justification of nuclear activities and prepare a statement of the radiation pollution that it regards as acceptable in the light of the programme. In America the Environmental Protection Agency, in carrying out that instruction, has produced standards which are, in some cases, 200 times more stringent than those that are applied in Britain.

I had the opportunity of visiting the EPA in Washington recently and I was extremely impressed by the quality of control exercised by one centralised agency of this kind. It contrasted rather favourably with the situation in Britain, where our control is extremely widely disseminated. For example, when the waste arrives at Barrow—assuming the project goes ahead—it is taken in trains to Windscale. While it is in the trains, its control is a matter for the Secretary of State for Transport. When it reaches Windscale, its control is a matter for the Secretary of State for Energy. When it leaves Windscale, through the pipeline towards the sea, it is under the control of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. If it then washes back on to the beaches, it is a matter for the Secretary of State for the Environment. It is difficult to see in that wide dissemination of control any kind of efficiency in the controlling of a high technology industry.

I was particularly impressed when I called on the EPA and I asked why it was departing from the ICRP standards and going beyond them. It gave me a rather puzzled response and said that its standards did not depart from the recommendations but were a fulfilment of the new approach by the ICRP. I was referred to the document of the National Radiological Protection Board at Harwell published in July this year, which studied the American standards and concluded that they were in line with the new recommendations of the ICRP.

The Secretary of State for Energy is a very politically conscious Member of the House. I am sure that he is alive to the fact that this is an issue of great political sensitivity. If it became apparent to many people outside that Britain was behind many other countries, that would cause grave suspicion. It is a cause of considerable irony that we have a situation in which Fairey Engineering is developing a reactor to export to Romania with a considerably higher degree of control of the remission than any designed for sale in Britain.

We also have another irony in that BNFL is arranging a contract with Japan for the discharge of caesium at Windscale in a way that would never be tolerated in Japan. I do not think that the population outside this Chamber will tolerate that situation for long. It is a matter to which the Minister and the House will have to address themselves with greater concentration than has happened in the past decade.

My making these reservations and expressing concern does not mean that I am calling for the closure of all nuclear plants. The House will know that I have never yet put that suggestion to the House. But it means that we must be wary of any qualitative shift in technology until those doubts and concerns have been answered.

I wish to deal with the qualitative shift represented by the advance into the fast breeder technology, and particularly the development of the commercial fast breeder. I was interested in the speech by the hon. Member for Havant and Waterloo (Mr. Lloyd), who has had to leave the House. He asked whether there were guarantees that these other alternative energy sources would meet our energy needs. That question was posed unfairly, because he himself is unable to give a guarantee that the fast breeder will supply that kind of energy need in the same categorical way he demands in respect of alternative energy supplies.

We do not yet have anywhere in the world a single commercial scale fast breeder. A few prototypes have been built but their history is somewhat chequered. The American experiment at Enrico Fermi was closed down after a core melt within 18 months after it had been opened. The Russian one at Sherchenko suffered sodium water reaction, which put it out of action for some time. These are sobering thoughts, and obviously we are still not in a position to say that our energy supplies will be guaranteed by the fast breeder. Furthermore, the economics of the exercise looks tatty.

Mr. Rost

Surely this argument should not centre on the fast breeder reactor technology or alternatives to it, but we should keep all our options open until we know whether one or a combination of alternatives will fit the bill.

Mr. Cook

I would not disagree with that. The hon. Gentleman accepts that the fast breeder option is open to Britain and we have a unique experience, rivalled only by France, in this area. However, I part company with the hon. Gentleman in respect of a commercial fast breeder reactor, because it will so absorb resources in energy development that it will have an effect on the fast breeder economy and will close other options.

I wish to pursue this point by dealing with the economics of the fast breeder. A large number of holes were blown in the concept of the fast breeder following publication of the Flowers Report. In America the Ford Foundation issued an authoritative report on the subject. Last time we debated this matter my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North- East (Mr. Palmer) described many of those who criticise nuclear power policy as "the brown bread and sandals brigade".

Mr. Palmer

Only some of them.

Mr. Cook

I think my hon. Friend will agree that those who sat on the Ford Foundation working party hardly came into that category. One was Mr. Harold Brown, the American Secretary for Defence.

Mr. Benn

We all know how utterances, particularly political ones, are misunderstood and misquoted. I hope my hon. Friend will recall that I used that phrase, but in the opposite sense to the one to which he referred. I said in the course of debate that I hoped that nobody would dismiss these arguments on the ground that they were to be attributed to the brown bread and sandals brigade, because they merited serious consideration. I hope that my hon. Friend will not accidentally perpetuate a wrong interpretation of that analogy, which was intended to be respectful to environmentalists.

Mr. Cook

I willingly stand corrected. I must also say that, despite my views on defence matters, I would not dismiss the views of the American Secretary of Defence. Let me quote the conclusion reached by the Ford Foundation on the economics of the matter: Our analysis indicates that, social costs aside, breeders are not likely to develop even a competitive edge over conventional fission technologies until well into the next century". The reason that the foundation reached that conclusion was simple. Fuel costs account for only 10 per cent. of the costs of energy produced from conventional thermal reactors. Fast breeders can reduce the costs of that fuel by only a fraction. Therefore, one will be saving, at best, only 1 or 2 per cent. of the costs of delivered energy.

But even that percentage figure depends on two highly critical assumptions. First, we must have in mind the capital cost of the fast breeder. We do not know the answer to that, because we do not have a commercial scale reactor in being. However, it must be of the order of two or three times the cost of present reactors.

Secondly, the exercise depends on the cost of reprocessing the fuel from those fast breeders. That, again, is an area of darkness, because as yet we have no reprocesing unit anywhere in the world recycling fast breeder spent fuel on a commercial basis. The Americans have tried their hand at this three times and each time have burnt their fingers.

Let me give an example of one plant in the United States that was originally estimated to cost £17 million. It had cost £70 million at the point when the contractor gave up his attempts to build the reactor, but it is now estimated that it would take a further £120 million to bring it back to working order. That represents a 10-fold increase in costs in a period of less than a decade.

Mr. Palmer

I am listening with great interest to my hon. Friend, and I have visited the Ford Foundation in the United States. Some of these costs surely must be tested in practice. Why does my hon. Friend object to this extremely cautious next step forward, namely, the testing of a commercial fast breeder under strictly controlled conditions? Surely we must test these things by experience.

Mr. Cook

My concern is that once one brought in the commercial fast breeder, it would be a type of firebreak. Once one crossed that firebreak, one would not be able to reverse the process. I have spoken to nobody in the nuclear industry who pretends that one fast breeder could hope to be economic. The process will only prove economic if there are a large number of them, and it will be expensive. I am confident that, once the cost has been sunk into a fast breeder, the argument will be that another half dozen are required. I know that my hon. Friend cautions hon. Members about quoting the Flowers Report, but may I refer him to this passage: The cost and momentum of technological development on this scale are such as to make one fear that it will lead inevitably to a large fast breeder reactor programme in the future.

Mr. Palmer

Is it not quite evident that Sir Brian Flowers is not against a commercial fast breeder?

Mr. Cook

Sir Brian's views were set out in the Royal Commission Report and also in a parliamentary report. Surely we must take note of what is contained in a document that has been laid before Parliament. It would be wrong for Parliament not to pay regard to it. Apart from Sir Brian's opinions, I believe that he was correct to say that, if we examine progress in the nuclear industry in the past decade, we shall see that from one step we are now being impelled to justify a further step.

I wish to refer my hon. Friend to what was said on this subject by Mr. Con Allday: The present investment of the British nuclear industry could only be justified if we proceeded to the development of a fast breeder generator. I have no doubt that he would like to redouble that effort if we let him get away with the fast breeder programme. That is why I regard it as a firebreak. Therefore, when we get the inquiry that we have been promised, it should consider the wider issues and the economics of developing a kind of joint generator. It would be wrong if it were confined mainly to the question whether the site was appropiate. This gives us the opportunity to test the economics and the wide considerations. I hope that that opportunity will be fully used.

There is one other point that will have to be weighed in the balance when the decision is made, whether at the public inquiry or within the Department of Energy and this House. That is the consideration of nuclear proliferation, to which reference is made in the motion. There is no doubt in my mind that, if we in the West choose a nuclear supply based on a closed nuclear fuel cycle, other countries will follow us. Not only that, but we shall be obliged to encourage them to do so, because the economies of scale would be essential if it is ever to prove profitable to us.

Only this week I was in Paris attending a debate on the issue in the Western European Union, on a report introduced by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel), whom I am pleased to see here. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would be the first to concede that his report was a compromise between two points of view. The original draft presented to his committee recommended against the export of fast breeders and of reprocessing units. That recommendation was not supported by the committee, because it felt unable to forgo the economic advantages. It would be necessary to export that technology if we were to develop reactors domestically.

I view that decision with grave concern, because there can be no doubt that, if we encourage other nations to develop a closed nuclear fuel cycle, we are in danger of accelerating nuclear weapon proliferation. There are certainly other ways of acquiring nuclear weapons. One can do it with even a demonstration or experimental reactor. But the significance of a reprocessing unit is that it would drastically shorten the time between a nation's deciding that it wished to acquire nuclear weapons and their arriving as fabricated instruments.

The significance of that shortened time is that it entirely undermines the benefit that we should derive from international safeguards and inspection under the Non-Proliferation Treaty regime, because they make sense only if they give the rest of the world timely warning of what might happen if a nation has developed full nuclear facilities, including reprocessing units, particularly if it has fast breeders. The time scale is cut to a few months, which would be useless to a concerned world which might wish to inhibit the nuclear weapon development. Only three months are required to withdraw from the treaty. A nation which possesses a reprocessing unit might well be capable of developing nuclear warheads within three months.

It would be naive to imagine that these considerations have not occurred to some of the nations now trying to purchase nuclear facilities. Pakistan does not have one reactor that can burn plutonium. I very much doubt whether there is one hon. Member present who really believes that Pakistan would now be seeking to purchase a reprocessing unit to separate plutonium if India had not carried out a nuclear explosion three years ago.

It would be equally naive to imagine that once one has given a country the capacity to develop nuclear warheads, it will not come under intolerable pressures from its own military and nuclear industry to take that additional step and use that particularly expensive investment in that way. I recently addressed a university in this country when I referred to the extent to which we had under estimated the overlap between civilian and military nuclear technology. At the end of the meeting I was approached by a student in the audience, a Brazilian, who made the telling point that in Brazil it is in any case impossible to separate the military from the civilian functions of the Government in charge. In those circumstances, to what extent will they draw a clear distinction between civilian and military applications of nuclear technology?

These are weighty considerations which must weigh heavily with us. We are not being honest with ourselves if we pretend that in developing a closed nuclear fuel cycle we are not encouraging other countries to do so and if we disguise from ourselves that, if they are to do so, they will have the capacity to develop nuclear weapons and are therefore much more likely to do so. That is a very heavy responsibility.

I, for one, think that it would be much wiser for us to follow the advice given to us by Sir Brian Flowers in his official report that we should not take that step towards a closed nuclear fuel cycle until we are absolutely convinced that there are no other energy options.

2.5 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Johnson Smith (East Grinstead)

I do not think that hon. Members on either side of the House would dissent from the last statement of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook). I do not know anyone who is advocating that we should set off down a nuclear road based on a plutonium economy and the building of a fast breeder reactor. I do not think that the hon. Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer) has advocated such a rôle. All that he is advocating is that we should not shrink from building at least one commercial fast breeder reactor, to see whether it can be done, to study the costs and all the lessons that can be learned from such an exercise. That is not the same as saying that the whole future energy needs of the country should be based on such a nuclear process. At times the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central carries his scepticism a little far.

I believe that the hon. Gentleman wants us to shut the door on the building of a commercial fast breeder reactor before we have even had an inquiry into the matter. We should have the inquiry before we decide what to do. If we shut the door, the hon. Gentleman is telling us that for nuclear energy we must rely on the ordinary thermal nuclear reactors with finite nuclear resources with all the problems of radioactive waste. That process will not get rid of plutonium. On the contrary, we shall have nothing that will burn it up.

What is the alternative? Solar energy? Wind technology? The hon. Gentleman does not know and nor do I. That is one reason why, wisely, no one on the Government or Opposition Front Benches has asked the House or the country to shut the door on any form of technology. We shall have the Windscale inquiry. I very much support the view of the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Blenkinsop) that more help should be given in future inquiries to those who represent organisations which have done considerable work on these matters. They should be given the financial and technical help which will be necessary, in the light of what happened at Windscale, if we are to make sure that the views of those outside the Government are put as forcefully and as rationally as possible. Unless we do this we are in danger of finding ourselves increasingly out of touch with public opinion.

The public in this country and elsewhere are intensely hostile to technology. Many people are hostile to nuclear technology in particular. The case for nuclear technology or any technology at all tends to be smothered by this growing hostility and the fear induced in many people's minds by organisations—I do not want to point the finger at worthy environmentalist organisations—which use some of the environmentalist arguments but press them to an extremist and illogical conclusion, with a view to encouraging the prejudices and fears about technology that many people have.

The newspaper reporter, Mr. Eric Sevareid, who is retiring whom the Secretary of State will know very well from his past involvement in broadcasting, said only yesterday in the United States, in what was his valedictory address to the American broadcasting public: Never underestimate the intelligence of the public. But he added: Neither should we over-estimate their information. I shall come to the technical aspects of safety in a moment, but I fear that there are certain basic facts that are not sufficiently well-known and that ought to be made known. If we do not have some of the answers to questions put by the public, I fear that the debate will gradually grow more acrimonious and the unity that we can find in the House will evaporate. A year ago we had two debates during the small hours of the morning and no more attention was given to those than will probably be given to this one—although we are graced by the presence of the Secretary of State today and I am glad to see that we also have the Opposition spokesman who attended those debates.

The fundamental matter on which people must be convinced is the extent to which we are faced with an energy gap. Everything that I have read convinces me that the Secretary of State would be wholly derelict in his duty if he did not accept that there is a serious problem with energy unless we as a nation voluntarily and unilaterally opt out of the industrial system—with all the economic and social hazards involved in that process. The public need to be convinced—as do many of those who took part in the debate on the Continent last week—of the size of the energy gap, when it is coming, what we are doing by way of conservation methods and how much time we have. I do not know, and have yet to see figures that convince me, whether the time scale is five years, 10 years or three years, but we know that the gap is coming because fossil-based energy is finite. As a background to the debate we shall need more information on when we can expect the energy gap and its size.

Similarly, I am also sure that the public will need to be convinced that the alternative sources of energy, benign and renewable sources such as the wind, do not offer the sort of solution that many people believe they do offer. There is an optimism about the possibilities of science being able to harness power of the sun, but nothing that I have read leads me to believe that the energy gap can be tilled by these unconventional methods. We are therefore forced back to the conclusion that at some time—probably sooner rather than later—we shall have to accept the risk of extending our dependence on nuclear energy for at least a period of time. I want to emphasise the word "risk" because there is undoubtedly a risk involved, and probably a series of risks.

The hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse), to whom we are all indebted for the debate, spent a large part of his time openly emphasising the risks that he believes are involved, particularly those involving security and the possible loss of civil liberties. On the other hand—as I am sure the hon. Member would be the first to concede, because he is a fair-minded man—there are other risks. There is the risk that if we do not extend nuclear technology we shall find ourselves treading another road to doomsday.

It therefore comes down to a balance of risk, and not least in that balance is the whole matter of the cost of research and development of benign and renewable sources of energy as well as of nuclear technology. I do not see how a country with our resources will be able to do that research single-handed. We need to exploit all the talent that is available to us in the West. I regret that France has embarked on such a heavy nuclear expansion programme without closer consultation with its friends and neighbours. I know that the Secretary of State has taken a different view of European co-operation within the EEC from some of his colleagues, but I hope that in this instance the right hon. Gentleman will use his best endeavours in a serious way to ensure that in the matter of nuclear technology we should work increasingly closely together in Western Europe. I see no solution to the problem if we go it alone.

There is also the matter of nuclear proliferation and the dangers associated with one nation after another extending its dependence on nuclear technology. Again, that is not insoluble. Of course if nuclear knowledge is extended throughout the world, we run a risk, but the alternative is not to do it and to hope that somehow the scientists will be able to produce some other form of energy. I am sure that the Secretary of State knows that that would be an extremely serious risk. It is the belief that somehow, something will turn up. That is a Micawberish view.

If the public needs to be satisfied on these wider grounds in the short term, pending the outcome of at least two important inquiries, then it is only fair and right to draw the attention of the public to the more positive aspects of the nuclear industry in this country as well. I do not propose to produce figures to indicate the extent to which we are indebted to the industry for increasing our energy supplies, but I wish to spend a few moments pointing out that the industry's health and safety record should prompt us to take a rather less jaundiced view of the achievements that have been made by those who work in it. After all, that is one of the touchstones upon which one is able to decide whether they work in a climate that induces the sort of social responsibility that we rightly regard as important in such an industry.

The nuclear industry has a good safety record. With the fast breeder reactor, we are not working with a new and unknown technology. We have had some 28 years of operating fast breeder reactors. We produced electricity by that method 26 years ago. It is our oldest and most firmly based nuclear technology. It is therefore interesting to note how well in comparison with much older technologies, the nuclear industry has done in terms of the death and safety rates and how they stack up. According to figures published earlier this year by the Secretary of State, the average death date per 1,000 workers in the 10-year period between 1967 and 1976 for the various energy producing industries were: deep-mined coal, 0.26; gas, 0.09: electricity, 0.1; offshore oil and gas, 1.65; oil refining, 0.06, and nuclear 0.014. That is a good record by any standards.

Professor Norman Rasmussen, who headed a study of reactor safety in the United States, said, in an article in the magazine Atom—which is a publication of the British Atomic Energy Authority—referring to the United States experience: In 30 years, we've run commercial plants for an accumulated time of about 300 plant years. And, for several thousand plant years, we've run sizeable nuclear power plants for military uses, principally in submarines. During none of this time has there been an accident that released a significant amount of radiation, and never has a member of the public been injured by radioactive release from these plants. That's an outstanding record for any industry. There are figures showing the average risk of fatality in the United States from various causes. The individual's chance per year of being killed by a motor vehicle is one in 4,000; of being killed by lightning, the chances are one in 2 million; and the individual's chance of dying through a nuclear reactor accident is one in 5 billion. There are also figures concerning the probability of death by various causes in other areas including, for example, smoking. We can calculate the probability of death over a 40-year period for various activities. The probability of death from smoking 20 cigarettes a day is 7 per cent., from driving 15,000 kilometres a year it is 0.2 per cent., from medical X-ray radiation, the probability for an average person is 0.002 per cent., and from fall-out from nuclear power at present levels it is 0.00001 per cent.

Mr. Rost

I believe that my hon. Friend has omitted a nought from the last figure.

Mr. Johnson Smith

I probably have. I should have put on my glasses to read that figure. Looking at it again, I see that my hon. Friend is correct. The probability of death over a 40-year period from fall-out from nuclear power at present levels is 0.000001 per cent. I am obliged to my hon. Friend.

People have also rightly raised—since these matters must be put to the sternest test—the question of deaths from cancer and respiratory diseases for those working in nuclear industries compared with those working in the coal industry or in the docks. I shall not weary the House with the figures. I am sure that the Secretary of State is familiar with them. They show that those working in the nuclear industry are in a far better position as regards risk of suffering from cancer or respiratory disease than those working in other industries. These figures seem to show that we are right to have some confidence in those who have designed the equipment and who are responsible for controlling the environment in which nuclear technology operates in this country.

We must also consider the question of pollution. There are many facts concerning pollution of the atmosphere in an industrial society which relies on indigenous fuel for its energy. Professor Rasmussen said: According to analyses done in recent years the effects of burning coal are 100 to 1,000 times more dangerous to the health than the emissions from nuclear power plants. Further, about 1,600 acres of land must be strip-mined to feed one coal plant for a year; it takes only 16 acres to supply the uranium for a similar size nuclear plant. Then there is the question of disposal that was mentioned by the hon. Member for Galloway (Mr. Thompson). I have always had considerable respect for Sir Fred Hoyle. He has written an interesting book "Energy or extinction—the case for nuclear energy". I do not know if what he says is right, but he is a respected man and I doubt whether he would risk his scientific reputation by publishing facts that he knew to be untrue or insufficiently tested. He says that a nuclear power plant produces 2 cubic yards of waste a year. It is thought that we need about 100 nuclear reactors in this country.

There would, therefore, be only a small problem over space, but of course there is the question of where to put it. I know that some people say that the Director of the Atomic Energy Authority, Sir John Hill, would not mind it being dumped in his back yard. As Sir Fred Hoyle points out, there is a fear that if it were buried underground in Scotland or the Lake District, the radioactive waste would work its way through the rock into the springs and rivers. Professor Hoyle says: The hills of the English Lake District generate within themselves as much radioactive energy as would come from the buried waste products of three or four large nuclear plants. He says that this natural radioactivity does not enter the heavy rains that percolate downwards and wash out in the streams and rivers of the Lake District. He also contends that radioactivity from the nuclear waste would not increase indefinitely. It would increase for about 50 years, when a balance would be reached. After that, the rate of fall-off of the radioactivity of the old waste would become equal to the radioactivity of the new waste being added from year to year. He says that the waste does not remain menacingly radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. I found that an astonishing statement, but he said that these wastes, which, from the international point of view could be very large are: no more menacingly radioactive than the wastes which build up in 10 years and the wastes which build up in 10 years are no more menacingly radioactive than radium and the decay products of radium contained in the fly ash produced by coal-fired power plants". So we see that there are reassuring comments, to say the least, from distinguished scientists about disposal.

Concern has also been expressed about the possibility of terrorist acts involving the theft of plutonium in transit. Various estimates have been made about the possibility of this. The American bomb designer T. B. Taylor estimated that a group of thieves would have much less than a 50 per cent. chance of escaping with their lives. Sir Fred Hoyle says that a median of experts would be necessary. He thinks that it would need at least three people, highly skilled in different technical areas, to deal with the stolen plutonium and that they would require at least one month and perhaps $50,000-worth of equipment to develop a bomb from the stolen plutonium. They would have a 70 per cent. chance of doing extensive damage and would also run a very high risk of blowing themselves up in the process.

Dr. J. N. Marsham, the managing director of the Northern Division of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, pointed out that non-irradiated plutonium would be carried in flasks each weighing over 80 tonnes. Even if terrorists gained control of a flask, they would need either a very large crane to transfer the flask to their own vehicle or to gain control of any transport used. He says that the transport vehicle would be provided with effective immobilising devices which normally would prevent any movement after the start of an attack and points out that, in any event, the vehicles can travel only at a speed so slow as to be unattractive for terrorist activities. The terrorists would therefore be forced to attempted to to open the flask in situ and to move the fuel elements themselves into a lighter, less conspicious vehicle. This would probably take many tens of hours.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Pontypool is not here. Dr. Marsham points out that the technical requirement of ensuring public safety is looked after and that the safeguarding of the fuel would depend on physical security measures and not on phone-tapping, mail-opening, infiltration of organisations or other supposed implications of security operations.

As for irradiated fuel, any thief would have to take into account that it would be carried in a shielded flask weighing over 100 tonnes. In addition to the difficulty of physical security, there would be the deterrent effect of radiation that would be increased still further if subassemblies were removed from the flask. I suppose that that would be the supreme deterrent.

To return to the article written by Dr Marsham, he states: Even if the fuel were by some means to be transferred to another shielded flask a remotely operated chemical plant would be needed to separate the plutonium". He adds: Again timescale for any of these operations and their nature give time for counter measures to be effective". Although we cannot rest entirely when we know that there are products of this nature being transferred from one site to another, we know that that is a risk that we take already with other dangerous fuels. There are many dangerous chemicals that travel the roads and motorways, many of which have caused accidents on occasions. There have been chemical explosions that have resulted in serious loss of life. However, in respect of the nuclear industry there does not seem to have been anything that has come to our attention so far that indicates that those involved in the process are less aware than they need to be of the risks that we run. To judge from experience on the ground, it would appear that in this area their record is second to none.

It is possible that in this argument, which stretches many months ahead of us, and in the various inquiries that will take place, we shall lose sight of what has been achieved. If and when the Secretary of State takes up the suggestion of the hon. Member for South Shields that background papers should be produced for the benefit of those who take part in the inquiries as well as for the wider public, I hope that he will issue a list of the significant steps that have been taken already by the nuclear industry to safeguard the health of those who work in it, as well as the wider community. Unless we do that, we are unlikely to get a more rational approach and a more realistic view of our needs.

2.32 p.m.

Mr. Ronald Brown (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

I think that the contribution of the hon. Member for East Grinstead (Mr. Johnson Smith) characterised one of the problems of the debate on nuclear energy. It seems possible to introduce at least two sides, if not more, to the same question. The solutions produce facts that appear to be totally contrary. On occasions the hon. Gentleman referred to facts that seemed to be irrefutable, but there is always a vast army that is able to refute them. That is one of my difficulties.

When I read the motion I was rather surprised to find the phrase: calls upon the Government to make a more positive response to the initiatives of President Carter to bring a halt to nuclear proliferation. In fact, the Americans have come to a halt. Their initiatives have been rejected by many in America, including those who are concerned with the industry in America. I do not know why we should be called upon to support President Carter's initiative. My own sadness stems from the delay, both in our own country and in Europe, in the development of a nuclear strategy. It seems that we are using the concept of consultation as a means of not making a decision.

When I listen to the observations of those who reject the nuclear power solution, they appear to me in general to be satisfied to rehearse all the arguments, real and imaginary, against the concept of nuclear power, but they ignore all the same dangers that exist with immediate resources. For example, I can never understand why we are apparently happy to accept coal as an energy source. I was brought up to understand the disgraceful and shocking atmosphere in which the miners had to work. I was brought up to understand that it was immoral to send men into the bowels of the earth, grovelling on their bellies to bring out coal, in the knowledge that when they got it out it would be used inefficiently. Not only that, its use pollutes the atmosphere in tensely. I was brought up to believe that we should not force men into that environment.

The miners, quite rightly, are demanding to be at the top of the wages league. They want to be paid a minimum of £135 a week. They are absolutely right to take that course. They justify their demand by pointing out that they are doing a dirty, filthy, rotten job that no one else will do. They say that they are entitled to that sum because no one else will do the job. If we do not pay the miner to do it, we shall not get our coal.

The miner justifies his claim, quite rightly, by pointing out the awfulness of the task that he has to undertake and the fact that he is likely to suffer from pneumoconiosis and other diseases. He says that he should retire 10 years earlier than workers in any other sector of the community. He argues that because of the nature of his job. I do not deny him that right.

What I question is why we want the job to be done if it is so bad. Why are we asking men to be working in that environment? Apparently, only men can work in it. It seems that we are not to have equal rights in the mines. It is time for us to question whether we want coal to be mined, quite apart from the inefficient way in which it is used.

For example, the coal-fired power stations are known to be inefficient. They are expensive to run. They cannot be justified on economic terms when there is an alternative source. They were good in their day, but we have moved on from that day. Those who are arguing against the nuclear concept should examine the coal mining industry. It has been said by some that they are not satisfied that the energy gap has been well defined. I agree that that is a problem. What has been said is speculative and we can consider the matter only in the light of available information.

What we do know is that present resources are finite. Coal is finite, but it will continue for much longer than oil. We know that both coal and oil are finite resources but exactly how finite we do not know. Discoveries of oil sources are being made every day and the discovery operation will obviously be pushed forward. The frontiers will be extended, but there will come the day when we have no more. It is sufficient to say that we know that it is a finite resource.

It is not a question of whether we dissent from nuclear power or whether we dislike it for a variety of reasons; it is a question of what we put in its place. If it is the wrong source of energy to pursue, what source do we pursue?

I am not attracted to the proposal that we should all have windmills in our back gardens. If we do not have windmills, it is said that vie can use the waves. It is argued that we should try to harness the power of the waves, or, if we cannot do that, we should dig holes so as to obtain geothermal energy. It is said that that can be done, but surely it is right to challenge the promoters of such a scheme. Surely it is right to say "That is all very well, but where is the geothermal energy and the hot rocks?" They normally reply "We are hard pushed to find where they are". We should find that it is necessary to spend vast sums that would be equal to the amount of money that has been put into nuclear power if we were to pursue their ideas, without comparable achievement. Those who refuse to accept nuclear power brush off the argument and grab any straw to justify their attitude.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

The hon. Member has disparaged the notion of the exploitation of renewable energy. Does he not agree that we know for sure that the waves, tides, the wind and the rays of the sun are certainly there?

Mr. Brown

I am impressed by the hon. Member's perspicacity. The sun is there, but the problem is to harness it to replace our energy sources. The experts claim that, at best, alternative resources will be able to be used at the turn of the century and that they are likely to produce only about 5 per cent. of our total energy need.

Mr. Palmer

Does my hon. Friend not agree that nuclear energy uses the sun's process in miniature?

Mr. Brown

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He and I could hold a seminar to introduce the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) to these matters.

I disparage not the attempt to use our natural resources, but the suggestion that such action will fill the energy gap. The experts say that we cannot hope to have any real help from these alternative resources until well into the twentieth century and beyond. I do not believe that we can wait that long. We have a nuclear solution and we should use it.

I hope that the Secretary of State will come round to making a decision on nuclear reactors. I have been giving him my advice free for many months. He should have decided in January this year that we should buy two new AGRs. If he had done that, we should have been well on the way to ensuring that the energy gap was of less importance to us, but we have gone on waiting. My right hon. Friend argues that there must be the fullest consultation, but we have not heard much about AGRs or anything else in the last nine months. I hope that he will tell us, having considered all the factors, heard all the arguments and made all the consultations, that we should permit the industry to build two AGRs to take us beyond 1985.

We must examine a number of other aspects. If the Secretary of State takes the right decision, we shall not have to rely on the importation of nuclear technology. We have no light water reactors, because they are very dangerous. I agree with the criticism against them.

Further examination is needed in this country and in Europe of the siting of nuclear power stations. We should also be examining the supply of nuclear fuel. We have to rely too much on the whims and fancies of foreign Governments.

I have listened with interest to the arguments about reprocessing plants. I was against the way in which the Windscale inquiry was set up. I was happy to have a discussion on reprocessing, but I was not prepared to accept that the Secretary of State for the Environment should use a planning device in order to have an elliptical argument on reprocessing. If he wanted to discuss the value of reprocessing and whether we should have such a plant in this country, that should have been the subject of the inquiry. It should not have been held under the facade of a planning application. The disposal of nuclear waste is essential. That has been said by many hon. Members. We must tackle the problem. There are many dangers but we can mitigate them by taking care in the way that is suggested by the experts in the industry.

Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)

This is the weakness in the hon. Member's argument. He says that the experts will tell us where we should get rid of this waste. In Cornwall and in my constituency waste is buried in clay or rock formations. Can he be satisfied that this will not affect coming generations? I have doubts about it. I have to be more reassured than that before I can say "yes" to an extension of the use of nuclear energy.

Mr. Brown

We discussed this matter earlier. It was interesting to hear the to-ing and fro-ing of the argument based upon assurances. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) says that he is not prepared to accept an extension of the industry. He must go further and suggest where we should go and how we should fill the energy gap to provide for people in the year 2000.

One of my hon. Friends said that people would have to give up their present style of life. I am not sure that people will be prepared to do so. I do not think that people will accept being told that they must give up the things to which they have become accustomed and go back to the style of the caveman. I do not think that people will believe it reasonable to stop them enjoying the benefits of nuclear power.

I do not rely too heavily on the experts, but we must have their advice. As politicians it is up to us to make a judgment on the information given to us by the experts.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer) said, possibly the most important factor is the future of the commercial fast breeder. All the evidence now suggests that the technology appears to be right. We know the parameters and the safety factors involved. We know exactly what the situation is.

What is questionable is whether it can be turned from this prototype, satisfactory technology into a commercial possibility. I cannot understand the argument of my hon. Friend for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) that somehow or other he did not want to know whether it was commercially viable but was prepared to regale us with facts to prove that it was not economically viable even though we have not got one to prove it. I did not quite follow that strategy of his, though I found his contribution extremely interesting.

I believe that there are strong indications that unless we are prepared to make our decisions now, because of the very long lead time that is necessary in this technology, we are unlikely to have sufficient resources available to us by 1990 and beyond. I firmly believe that oil supplies will be difficult for us thereafter, and therefore I think that it is imperative that my right hon. Friend should now make his decisions on the objective of a commercial fast breeder reactor programme, look at it, examine and evaluate it, and see how far it is likely to be the gap filler for us from 1985 onwards.

I would end by saying that I am in favour of public consultation and always have been. I was anxious to have public hearings on the light water reactor years ago, but we could not get them. I am in favour of public hearings. I am in favour of hearing the views of everybody concerned in the country.

But I draw the line at using that technique of consultation to avoid making decisions. I am coming more and more to the conclusion that if we are not careful we shall be pursuing the argument of consultation not because we want to listen to what people are saying but rather because it will enable us not to make a decision. Anybody who has to make a decision cannot by definition be popular. He will upset somebody somewhere along the way. I do not envy my right hon. Friend his job of having to make a decision, but I think that he has to make his decision now.

We have had a lot of talk. It has gone on for ever. We now want decisions. I suggest to the Minister that he now has sufficient evidence to say that we ought to put our country on a strategy of nuclear power so that by the 1990s and the year 2000 we have laid down for posterity the sort of life that people would expect.

Mr. Stephen Ross

Will the hon. Gentleman tell us how long he thinks it will take, even if a decision is taken today in principle by the Secretary of State, to proceed with the first stage of the fast breeder reactor prototype? How long would it take before that FBR1 is actually operational?

Mr. Brown

My assessment is that it would take between 10 and 20 years. If we take the mean of that, we are talking about 15 years. But certainly that decision would have to be taken today. It would not come anywhere near to being seen until 10 or 15 years' time.

I am underlining the point that we cannot postpone this decision now and what one is doing is giving up hope. I would prefer my right hon. Friend to say that he was running away from the decision rather than to pretend that we are to keep on having interminable inquiries which will somehow provide a solution.

2.53 p.m.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

Unlike the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown), I do not believe that we have to wait until we are in the next century, let alone well into the next century, before we can derive any benefit from the renewable sources of energy. Only last week someone called at my house offering to put a gadget on the roof which should produce energy from the sun within a matter of months. It would contribute to the supply of hot water in my house in a few months. We ought not to exaggerate the size of that benefit. We know that solar energy in houses can provide all the hot water used in summer and a little of the hot water used in winter, but it certainly cannot provide the heating required for a house.

However, it is not a finite source of energy, which coal and oil are. It is eternal when it comes on and is powered by the sun. It never runs out except temporarily, and the same is true of the tides and the waves. The waves are very much more promising, because expert opinion is that electrical energy derived from the waves can produce up to 50 per cent. of the country's present electricity requirement. That is, by any standard, a substantial contribution. It is particularly valuable as the waves are heaviest at the time of year—that is, the winter—when we need the most electricity.

As for the tides, I do not think that that approach is quite so promising. But there are two right hon. Members opposite who have Bristol constituencies and my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) is also at the Severn estuary. No doubt they have local knowledge of the prospects for the Severn barrage. I believe that we would be absolutely crazy as a country not to develop to the absolute maximum potential these eternal sources of energy which will never run out, and to get what contribution we can from them towards meeting the energy gap.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Grinstead (Mr. Johnson Smith) spoke of the energy gap, as have several other hon. Members. Is there a gap at all? We know that we have enough coal for at least 100 years. It will not run out for well over 100 years at the present rate of increase in the rate of digging. Certainly there is enough oil in the Middle East at the present rate of increased production to last for at least 100 years. The world is not imminently running out of finite sources of energy. The problem is that they are in the wrong place. Once our own North Sea oil has run out, the Middle East suppliers will be in a position to blackmail us as, indeed, the miners in our own country are in a position to hold the country to ransom over the price they charge for their coal and, consequently, the price for the electricity that is derived from it.

Whatever one feels about the sufferings of the miners and what they deserve, about which the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch spoke eloquently, they are in a position to demand a very high price for what they produce. It is surely wrong that we as a country allow ourselves to become too far dependent on them. So I believe that there is an energy gap which has to be filled. I see no alternative whatever to having some form of nuclear energy contributing to it if we are not to run out of energy and become very cold and have our industries slowed down within a matter of 20, 30 or 40 years.

The worry is the proliferation of this nuclear energy and of nuclear weapons in other countries. There are now no fewer than 35 countries which are using nuclear energy, have the stations for it under construction, or have it on order. The peaceful uses of nuclear energy interact with the defence implications and the prospects for peace and security. I am one of those who believe that the stalemate in nuclear weapons between the Soviet Union, on the one hand, and the United States of America, the Western Powers and NATO, on the other, has prevented a world war. Had it not been for that nuclear stalemate between the two great Powers there would probably have been a world war either in the 1950s or the 1960s, and a large proportion of our countrymen and of other people would have been killed. However, a stalemate is different from nuclear proliferation by which a large number of countries, including some that we would recognise as flashpoints in the Middle East, South-East Asia and South America, possess such weapons.

I have a list of the countries which have signed the non-proliferation treaty, which is generally held to be the main sanction for controlling the spread of nuclear weapons. Most countries of importance have signed it, but many have not. Those which have not include such states as Liechtenstein and Monaco, which are hardly likely to embark upon nuclear adventures. But the list also includes Brazil, China, France, India, Israel, South Africa and Spain.

A non-proliferation treaty which has not been signed by those countries does not afford sufficient protection for the world. I was very sorry to hear that France had supplied nuclear fuel to Pakistan and that West Germany had supplied it to Brazil. That fuel was of the kind which can be used to provide the knowledge for making nuclear weapons. It is little use talking of co-operation between members of the Community when two of its largest members behave in that way.

The non-proliferation treaty has in a sense been superseded by the London agreement between 15 nuclear exporting countries. I hope that the Secretary of State will tell us more about that.

Great risk arises with nuclear weapons from the threat of terrorism. The hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) spoke vividly, in introducing the debate, along those lines, and the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) developed the point. The hon. Member for Pontypool was right to draw attention to the frightful risk that can arise from access by terrorists to nuclear materials, especially plutonium or highly enriched uranium, both of which might have to be moved about if they were to be used.

Suppose that the IRA hijacked a load of plutonium and threatened to let it loose in London unless all the IRA terrorists were released. The IRA is only one of many international terrorist groups whose activities seem to be on the increase in different parts of the world. A highly-organised international terrorist group could manufacture a nuclear weapon from stolen plutonium, given the knowledge that is now likely to be available to a reasonably intelligent group of that kind.

This risk must be taken seriously. This is not simply science fiction or the adventures of James Bond. If plutonium or highly enriched uranium and waste are being moved about in 10, 15 or 20 countries, it will not be enough to have the nasty kind of police State here about which the hon. Member for Pontypool warned us.

Perhaps my only criticism of his speech was that it did not have a sufficiently international approach. Terrorist groups are now inclined to be international, and plutonium used in foreign countries could be employed for blackmail purposes here by terrorists in an alliance. Terrorist groups could move into a country and threaten to create not only nuclear explosions but nuclear pollution of the sort described by the hon. Member for Pontypool when he explained that a group of people with a handful of plutonium could effectively destroy life in Whitehall and Westminster.

Mr. Palmer

Surely much depends on the grade of plutonium concerned. Not all plutonium is suitable for destructive purposes.

Mr. Jessel

I accept that some is and some is not. But given that some is, there is a risk of danger.

I hope that the British Government and all the international bodies with which this country is connected which have any powers over these matters will alert member Governments all over the world to the terrible dangers of nuclear terrorism. Those dangers are perhaps greater even than the dangers of proliferation of nuclear weapons in the hands of Governments. It may be that if India and Pakistan have nuclear bombs we are less rather than more likely to have a war between those two countries. It may be that if Israel and the Arab countries have nuclear weapons it is less likely that there will be a war between them. The same is perhaps true of Brazil and Argentina and other pairs or groups of nations in different corners of the globe that are hostile to each other.

I believe that the energy gap is so great that we must use nuclear power. Indeed, nuclear energy is a fact of life, and we cannot go back on it. It exists in 30 to 35 countries. But I believe that we should delay any decision on fast-breeder reactors until we are satisfied that the dangers that they could create for our peoples are not greater than any advantage that we shall get from the cheaper electricity.

3.5 p.m.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

I join others in congratulating the hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) on taking the opportunity of his success in the Ballot to introduce this important motion, but I must make one correction to what he said.

Understandably, I think, the hon. Gentleman sought to chastise both sides of the House for the failure to have this debate on an earlier occasion. I think that he did that understandably from his position behind his Goverment, but I am sure he will accept that the Government have the prime responsibility for allocating time for debate in this place. It is the Government's prime responsibility, particularly on a report of this importance—a Royal Commission report—to find time to debate it. They must not use the excuse of inviting the Opposition to use one of their precious Supply Days for a debate.

Furthermore, I draw attention to the point that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) when he responded to the statement by the Secretary of State for the Environment on the Government's response to the Flowers Report. My hon. Friend said that there must be an early debate in this House, and the right hon. Gentleman replied: I entirely agree … I shall certainly undertake to discuss with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House what I agree is a clear need for a debate in this House."—[Official Report, 27th May 1977; Vol. 936, c. 1770] We have had very little response to that.

It has been left to this side of the House, in the shape of my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Rost) and my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton (Mr. Forman), to use the Consolidated Fund to initiate such debate as we have had on nuclear power.

I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East was a little unkind when, on the occasion of the Consolidated Fund debate he said that the House was not in the mood to respond to the profound issues involved. I was staggered when I looked at it again at the profundity of the speech that I made on the subject at 6.6 a.m. I accept that the Secretary of State for Energy and the hon. Member for Pontypool were not present at the time. I do not criticise them for that, because it is a ludicrous time of the night at which to try to debate issues of this importance. But I have to say that if 6.6 a.m. is not a very attractive time, Friday is not much better, and hon. Members have only to consider the sparsity of the attendance to realise that Friday is always a problem and is not the most satisfactory day on which to debate these matters.

I say that particularly because this debate is taking place in the shadow of Mr. Justice Parker's report on the Wind-scale inquiry. We have complaints about the form in which today's debate is taking place, and I hope that the Secretary of State will give a clear undertaking that when Mr. Justice Parker's report is available an opportunity will be provided to debate it in what I call mainstream time.

The right hon. Gentleman intervened in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Havant and Waterloo (Mr. Lloyd). Nobody disputes that, ultimately, Ministers have to take these decisions, and that they are answerable to Parliament. Therefore, Parliament must have the opportunity to express its views in advance of those decisions being taken. If any concept of a wide, public or great debate is to be coherent, Parliament must have its rôle within that debate. I hope that the Secretary of State will today be able to give the assurance that there will be a debate at that time.

I do not want to introduce any acrimony into what has been a sombre and realistic debate on a very profound subject. The hon. Member for Pontypool was glowing in his tribute to the Secretary of State for Energy for initiating the Windscale inquiry, but it is important to remember the history of that matter.

What happened was that there were the negotiations with BNFL over the Japanese contract. There were then the hearings conducted on the initiative or prompting of the Secretary of State in Barrow in Furness and Church House. Subsequently, the Secretary of State issued his instructions—this was given in a Written Answer to the House—that the contract would proceed. There was no question of the great Windscale inquiry. Rather, the Secretary of State for Energy gave his authority for the contract to proceed.

Owing to a technicality, the Chairman of the Cumbria County Council wrote to The Times urging a public inquiry. Cumbria had referred the matter to the Department of the Environment because of the technicality that the development was not included in the five-year plan. Leading on from that, the Secretary of State for the Environment, at the time supported by the Secretary of State for Energy, set up the wider planning inquiry at Windscale. We certainly supported the Government in that, and I am sure that that was the right way to proceed.

It was important merely to get the history of the matter right. We have been learning as we have gone along. The history was not entirely as the hon. Gentleman set it out, and it is important to put the record straight.

In his interesting speech the hon. Member for Pontypool gave a fair presentation of what would be generally agreed to be one aspect of this problem. This motion is specifically directed towards the civil liberties and terrorist implications. There is some question as to whether it is even an energy debate at all. There has been some dispute within the Government and there was some change of team with regard to who would respond to the debate. Was it an environmental matter, a Foreign Office matter, or an energy matter?

The fact is that this issue transcends the whole range of Government Departments. I make no complaint, as I think that it is proper that the Secretary of State for Energy should respond to the debate. The hon. Member for Pontypool did not chose the title for the debate, which is headed "Nuclear Power". That is the heading given to the debate on the Order Paper.

The hon. Gentleman fairly set out his concern and the background to this matter as seen from one point of view. He will be aware that there are other points of view as well. A number have been expressed, particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for East Grinstead (Mr. Johnson Smith) in a well-balanced and serious contribution. But other hon. Members have contributed to the debate including the hon. Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer), whose views we know well, the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown), and several of my hon. Friends. They have set out some of the other considerations that must be taken into account.

I wish to quote from one letter in The Times which the Secretary of State may remember contains within it another quotation. It says: It is also becoming recognised that renewable and (so called) 'clean' energy resources, cannot be developed on a scale sufficient to provide more than a token contribution on this time-scale. The main requirements of the civilised world must, in fact, be met by the development of a combination of coal reserves and nuclear energy. That was not written by Sir John Hill or some well-known protagonist of the nuclear cause. It was written by Sir Peter Kent, Chairman of the Natural Environmental Research Council. That is a significant statement which is backed up by a further statement by Professor Ian Fells, professor of energy conversion, in which he says: The suggestion, however well intentioned, that nuclear power can be abandoned and replaced by alternative sources of energy plus coal is regrettably unrealistic. I frankly wish that this were not the case, but we seem to have almost no room for manoeuvre. Those are are two quotations contained within a letter, written to The Times by Mr. Frank Chapple and Mr. John Lyons, which was critical of the failure of the Secretary of State to tell the British people the truth about the real choices that they face. The writers' view is that It is not a question of whether we need a much greater nuclear programme, including a demonstration fast breeder reactor. It is a question of how we shall deal with the problems which the inevitable adoption of such a programme will require us to face up to. I accept straight away that that letter is written by two very enthusiastic proponents of nuclear power. They would themselves admit to a vested interest, in the sense that their members work within the industry. I instance it not as my opinion but as perhaps a synopsis, contained within that letter, of an alternative point of view with which the lion. Member for Pontypool did not deal. He quite properly dealt with the other aspect.

Mr. Palmer

Will the hon. Gentleman also agree that a similar conclusion was reached by the Select Committee on Science and Technology, which has taken a vast amount of evidence that is available to the House?

Mr. King

I accept that, of course. These issues have been looked at, and it seems to me that on both sides there are questions which cannot be answered. Challenges may be thrown, as they were, at the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook), who threw them back. Neither side can give the entire answers to these questions. No one can give the hon. Member for Pontypool the total assurances that he is seeking. He knows that they cannot be given, and he is right to point that out.

The fact remains that we have some very real problems which cannot be ignored on either sire. My hon. Friend the Member for East Grinstead dealt with the health hazards of not going nuclear, and there is a most interesting book with this very title, on the subject. My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire South-East discussed the sort of problem which could arise from non-supply. A similar point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Havant and Waterloo, in speaking of civil liberties and of the social and industrial dislocation which could arise from the absence of adequate energy supplies at economic prices.

I do not necessarily accept any one of all these points because I am an agnostic on this issue. I have studied enough of the forecasts and the prognostications of extremely wise and intelligent men to know that I could get together not just a cricket team but enough speakers on either side to fill this Chamber and argue black and white on this issue.

Our responsibility as Members of Parliament, as Government or Opposition, is to seek to have responsible discussions and to avoid the sort of polarisation which could otherwise arise on this issue. In his report Sir Brian Flowers said: The environmentalists tend 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 … The arguments of both deserve to be heard with greater mutual understanding. I say "Hear, hear", to that. That must be right, and it is our responsibility, if we seek to lead in this very difficult issue, to recognise the importance of that.

The forecasts for the future are most uncertain. Many of my hon. Friends would dearly like to see a change in the traditional pattern of energy demand in this country—a move away from what is called the hard path to softer energy paths. I hope that efforts will be made in these directions. My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East, who has taken a leading interest in the use of combined heat and power never ceases to advise me and many others as well, of the benefits which could come from developments in this field. There are so many things that might happen, but at this stage none of them can be guaranteed. Nor can the impact be measured as accurately as we need. Against that background we are left with a certain need to keep our options open.

We must pursue more vigorously the search for alternative energy sources. The Government are slowly increasing their work in this field and it must be pursued as actively as possible. We must also pursue more vigorously—and I hope the Secretary of State will respond to this point specifically—the further development of the waste disposal research programme as promised on 27th May by the Secretary of State for the Environment.

This is where the hon. Member for Pontypool is absolutely correct. This is a most obvious and trenchant criticism by the Royal Commission and despite the acceptance of that criticism by all concerned, too few signs of action have been seen.

Against that background and subject to these comments it is our view that there is a case for proceeding with one demonstration commercial prototype fast breeder reactor. This is hedged with certain very important qualifications. It must not in any way supersede the research into alternative energy resources. Also, there must be no commitment to an on going programme at this stage. We must simply regard it as an insurance premium.

Some people have said that it will be expensive, but I wonder. Just how big will the expenditure be? It might be the difference between the conventional power station and the prototype fast breeder—of the order of £500 million. It may be a lot more, of course. If it is £500 million it will be half the development cost of the Magnus Field, which was not our most major development in the North Sea. Energy development in so many fields is very expensive.

Against that background of accepting the development as an insurance premium there is a case to proceed with it. However, we should not proceed before there is a public inquiry. The only matter of great substance on which I differ from the hon. Member for Bristol, North-East is that I do not think that a public inquiry can be concerned solely with the siting question. It must be concerned also with the principle of fast breeders as a whole.

Mr. Palmer

I said that the inquiry should obviously be enlarged to take in other considerations in the same way as the Windscale inquiry was enlarged. But I think it should start on a planning basis, and I hope that it will not be too long. I do not believe that the fast breeder should be put on trial at an inquiry.

Mr. King

I think that in a sense it is bound to be on trial, and there should be confidence that it is able to prove itself. The argument is very strong for the production of one prototype commercial fast breeder. But it is impossible to go into an inquiry on the basis that the principle is not in question.

Against this background, the problem we face is that there is much misunderstanding on the widest international level, as well as on the domestic level, about the issues involved.

The motion records President Carter's initiative. The hon. Member for Pontypool will have seen the Foreign Secretary's reply, which asks a number of questions and is far from accepting the basic concept the non-reprocessing approach suggested by President Carter. I do not know whether the Secretary of State will comment on the Foreign Secretary's speech at Chatham House shortly after President Carter's statement, but I think that that is the only Government response to date following President Carter's initiative on reprocessing. I would be grateful if the Secretary of State could clarify that point.

We see the problems that could develop from President Carter's approach. We recognise its importance and significance, but wonder whether there are serious risks that it could aggravate the very problem which it seeks to tackle. In the interests of time I shall not develop that theme, but simply say that I very much endorse what was said in the Foreign Secretary's speech in his response to President Carter's initiative.

Since there appears to be disagreement on technical matters at the highest level between the United States Government and the British Government, it is hardly surprising to find confusion among the lay public in this country. There is much misunderstanding about the fast breeder. The name lends itself to confusion. Many technical people maintain that it is not a fast breeder at all, but a slow breeder, if, indeed, it is required to breed at all. They say that it should really be called "a fast burner" and indeed that phrase was put to me by Sir Brian Flowers. In his view, "fast breeder" is a misleading phrase.

Many people believe that the word "breeder" has something to do with chickens, and they feel that a fast breeder will proliferate in the most rapid way. I understand that there are even T-shirts that proclaim "The only fast breeder is a rabbit". This is only one of the many misunderstandings that surround this issue, and further strengthen the case for a proper public inquiry. There are many people who say that one will have a far greater risk of proliferation from the plutonium present in unprocessed thermal fuel than if it is locked up in fast breeders. That may or may not be right, and here we are dealing with very technical matters. These points certainly underline the need for a public inquiry.

I wish to ask the Secretary of State one or two specific questions. We are now awaiting Mr. Justice Parker's report on Windscale. Once that is out, we shall wish to consider the question of the fast breeder. There is no question of anybody wanting to order a fast breeder next month, or even next year, but development work and the funding of that process must be authorised to proceed towards that possibility.

What action are the Government taking on that ground, and do they accept that there is a case for getting on with the public inquiry? It is important that the inquiry should not be seen as a means of delay, but as a normal part of the procedure of considering a project of this importance.

There are encouraging signs before us. One of the most encouraging, considering the initial reaction, is the general acceptance in the industry—in the Atomic Energy Authority and British Nuclear Fuels Limited—of the good sense of having a public inquiry. We can all take some pleasure from the fact that this approach seems to have been accepted by all concerned.

I appreciate the points made by the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Blenkinsop) in respect of the consideration which the Government give to the form of that inquiry. It is a matter of concern, because under the present format we are placing a heavy responsibility on one judge and two technical assessors. Are the Government considering alternative formats? There is a problem over cost, especially in relation to responsible objectors who wish to mount an effective counter-argument. These are issues that will have to be looked at if we are to use this as a vehicle for public involvement and public discussion. We have to give further consideration to the exact form that this will take.

This debate, provided by the good offices of the hon. Member for Pontypool, has been very helpful in what I would call the initial stage of debating a subject to which we shall undoubtedly return, I hope soon, in the light of the Windscale findings and which will clearly be of such fundamental concern that we shall wish to continue to review its progress in the House.

3.31 p.m.

The Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Anthony Wedgwood Benn)

I join those who have spoken in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) on initiating this debate. There is no doubt that everyone who has spoken today is deeply concerned about nuclear power and would like to see the House devote more attention to it. That must clearly be true of both Front Benches.

I hope that my hon. Friend will allow me to say that I thought that his speech was in a classic prophetic mould. It will read well for many years ahead, which is not true of all speeches made in the House. He asked questions which he knew could not be entirely answered. The answers will largely determine the quality of our society, and I was glad that he refused to be diverted by cross-examination into declaring himself one way or the other on the fuel side of the matter. He insisted that those who have responsibility, including myself and my colleagues, should turn our minds to the questions that he felt it necessary to put before us. It was a philosophical, penetrating and perceptive speech, and I hope that it will be widely read and studied.

I turn to the central question of atomic power. Those who have taken part in the debate, whatever view they have taken, are agreed that in a special way this is one of the greatest issues of the twentieth century, not because of what has happened so far but because of side effects and timescales that are beyond the control of those who take the initial decision. To this extent it is very much a test of our democracy and our parliamentary system, for if we were to sit back and say that this was so big a question that Parliament, Ministers or the public might abdicate their responsibilities, we would be confirming, in a sense, one of the fears expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool about the compatibility of the plutonium economy and parliamentary democracy. We must make the effort to understand and decide. That is why, among many other reasons, I was so delighted at President Carter's initiative, because it was a statement of ministerial or political—in the proper sense—control over a body of expertise which, I suspect worldwide, has had its business too much unchecked by ministerial responsibility.

The second point that I wish to make in that connection is that if we are to control these decisions we must understand them. That means that the information available must be published. If ever there were an area where open government was relevant, it is this area, because it is very easy in ignorance to misunderstand. Either way, I have tried to make it my business to see that everything that comes to me has been put out for study to others. I have done it partly in self-defence, because if people are able to see what is available to the Minister, if they think that that information is wrong they will subject me to their own view. I know that this has been criticised for being a slow process but I think that it is necessary.

I should like to reinforce what Sir Brian Flowers has said, and what hon. Members have said today, that this debate must be a mature debate between people who accept the motivation of others. To present nuclear scientists as in some way people who are unconcerned about safety or world views or the environment is a scandalous misrepresentation of their position. Similarly, it is equally unworthy of serious consideration to suggest that anyone who thinks that nuclear power is wrong must in some way be working for Moscow to undermine the stability of the Western world. Arguments of that kind should not be made.

We must recognise that when we are considering matters of such difficulty it is worth listening to everyone and that the pressures that are brought to bear are not—as is sometimes suggested—only those brought by the environmental lobby against the innocent nuclear power lobby. In my political life I have never known such a well-organised scientific, industrial and technical lobby as the nuclear power lobby. It is not so much the Friends of the Earth as what Eisenhower might have called the nuclear industrial complex of which I am aware as a Minister. One must see the matter against its widest social and international background as, in fairness, hon. Members have done today.

There are one or two points that have been mentioned in the debate that I should like to reinforce before turning to specific issues. One is in respect of the worthy crusade "Atoms for Peace" which launched the post-war nuclear programme. There is a generation gap here, because many of the young people who are committed to the environmental lobby are unaware that 25 to 30 years ago young scientists turned away from the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and for them the "Atoms for Peace" crusade was the classic example of turning swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks. I hear one of my hon. Friends say that it could even be linked with Aldermaston. That must be brought home if the debate is to be sensible. For young environmentalists to think that everyone working on civil nuclear power in some way disregards mankind is to misunderstand totally the nature of the debate and the argument, and the sense of moral conviction that exists on both sides. I underline this because it is necessary for it to be understood if the debate is to be sensible.

I confirm entirely what was said by the hon. Member for East Grinstead (Mr. Johnson Smith) about the safety record of the industry. The hon. Gentleman gave figures that I had intended to quote. In the last 30 years 8,001 miners have been killed underground and 49,971 seriously injured, while in the nuclear industry there has been nothing like the same number. Another example is that in the last 30 years 200,000 people have been killed by the motor car and 9 million injured. Had there been a Select Committee in 1945, under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer), to consider whether a new piece of technology known as the motor car was to be approved and someone had been able to predict confidently that in the next 30 years it would kill 200,000 people and injure 9 million, the House might not have approved it. I do not want to suggest that there are acceptable levels of accidents or safety. I do not mean that at all. I mean that there are problems with all technologies; and we have to recognise that the nuclear argument is not about the current safety level but about future potential, the development of which we cannot, in all fairness, foresee. I want to return later to some of the points that have been raised.

I turn to energy policy, because much of the argument on this related to the energy gap and how we shall fill it. Nobody is asking, to the best of my knowledge, that we should put the clock back. Some 13 per cent. of electricity is generated in this country by nuclear power and that will rise to 20 per cent. when the current gas-cooled reactors are completed. Nor does anybody doubt that there will be a nuclear component in our future energy policy and that it will probably be a growing one, because although our coal supplies will last for 300 years, they are still to be mined and made available. There are also environmental problems about the use of coal. Coal may be too valuable to burn and perhaps should be used for petrochemical purposes. There is therefore a broad consensus about the role of nuclear power.

In the development of energy policy, I have also made available every document that has been published. We had the first meeting of the Energy Commission on Monday, and all the documents and the transcript of the discussions there will be made public. At the Commission meeting, much of what has been said today was confirmed, including the need to develop alternative sources such as wind, wave, solar, geothermal and tidal power.

On conservation, which will probably bring the biggest single return on investment of any energy investment I hope to be making another announcement in a few days. We are on the eve of another stage of announcing conservation policy. These are very important matters and the exact composition of our nuclear component, its size, scale and reactor type, must be discussed seriously and not automatically be supposed to follow an inevitable route.

I greatly resent those who say that either we have a civilised society with energy consumption or we go back to the tent and the candle, and that this is the difference between the nuclear and non-nuclear schools. This is not true. If we are sensible, we are choosing between a wide range of possible scenarios, perhaps with a little more of this and a little less of that. I agree with the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) that it would be a great pity if we were to polarise the argument. There are a wide range of choices. The conventional wisdom is that coal, conservation and nuclear is the right mix, but the exact balance between them and alternative sources, as well as the impact of combined heat and power or anything else which may come through, must be looked at carefully.

We also have to look at the economics of the matter. With a high inflation rate worldwide, the impact of projects with a high capital intensity, such as the Severn barrage, may alter compared with those that have slightly higher running costs, but a lower capital content. The House should not in its consideration of technical matters abandon discussion of the economic criteria, but should seek to get the best value for money for the community and not invest in what will not turn out to be the wisest course. With that in mind, we have to look at what we have to do.

We are on the eve of a decision on the next thermal reactor programme. There is a wide measure of agreement about the urgency of this. I am impatient to announce a decision. The industry needs to know in order to meet the electricity demand. We have a choice between the AGR and the pressurised water reactor. We have to reach that decision. The only voices raised at the last meeting of the Energy Commission were in favour of the AGR, but the Government have not yet made up their mind.

We are spending £60 million a year on the fast breeder. The theory that it has withered on the vine is not true. There was some technical difficulty at the non-nuclear end with the welds—as anyone who has been to Dounreay will know—hut we spent at least £10 million to put that right. The 250 megawatt PFR at Dounreay is the finest fast breeder in the world. People speak as though it were on short commons. It is not. But we have to decide whether it is right to authorise £2 billion on a CFR, what the time scale should be, whether there should be an inquiry and what its terms of reference should be. It would be quite wrong to do this without an inquiry whose terms of reference were wide enough to enable it to ask a lot of basic questions. We have to look at this against the economic background and not just with the desire to be in everything.

The popular phrase "keep your options open" has no limit. We have to look at investment rationally, and the Government will come forward with their view in due course. I am not adopting a pro-or antinuclear stance, but simply saying that there will be nuclear issues in the centre of nuclear policy with a wider implication.

Mr. Rost

Have not the Government already announced that there will have to be an inquiry before any commitment to any expenditure? Why does the right hon. Gentleman not announce here and now that he will allow the inquiry to proceed, which at least would get something moving?

Mr. Benn

I cannot go beyond what I have said. I am explaining Government policy, I am not varying it. We have not yet decided to set up the inquiry. We shall not reach a decision until there has been an inquiry. I am bound to accept from the hon. Member for Bridgwater, as against my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-East, unless I misunderstood my hon. Friend, that such an inquiry must be free to consider the whole question and should not be confined to siting. If that is not so, those who wish to give evidence will feel that the main question has been pre-empted.

There are problems in the nuclear area—I doubt whether they are insuperable—to which reference must be made. One such problem is the safety factor. There are the safety factors that I put to the Nuclear Inspectorate, which have to be considered carefully by it. There are the formidable problems of waste management to which the hon. Member for Galloway (Mr. Thompson) referred. I assure the hon. Gentleman that his area was not selected because it was thought that local people would not protest. I have gone into the matter with great care. It is a drilling programme of a scientific character into various types of rock and subsoil. Any decision taken about the storage of nuclear waste in the long term would be bound to be the subject of most careful public examination and scrutiny. I do not think that it is quite as closely connected with the Scottish national issue as the hon. Gentleman may think. There is quite a lot of waste in Scotland that will have to be dealt with arising out of its own programme.

As for enrichment, reprocessing and fast breeders, to which I have already made reference, much work is going on not only here but internationally. Before dealing with the international discussions I should tell the House how many Departments are involved in nuclear matters. It would be wrong for me to suggest that this is solely an Energy responsibility. I have jotted down the Departments. There is my own Department, which has put extra effort into non-proliferation and safeguards apart from its general responsibility. Also responsible are the Scottish Office, the Welsh Office and the Department of the Environment, the latter being responsible for the Royal Commission on environmental pollution and for—this has been transferred with my good will and, indeed, enthusiastic assent—nuclear waste management.

The Department of Health and Social Security has responsibility for the National Radiological Protection Board. The Department of Employment has taken away from my Department the Nuclear Inspectorate, whose officials used to be among those under my control when I was the Minister of Technology. That has been done with my full support. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has responsibility for discharges of radioactivity into the soil and, in particular, into the sea. The Department of Trade is responsible for the licensing of exports and the Department of Transport is responsible for the movement of nuclear materials. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is responsible for the international aspects. The Ministry of Defence and the Home Office are concerned with security. The Treasury is involved for obvious reasons, as is the Department of Industry.

I assure the House that anyone who thinks that these matters are not being considered in the broadest way—I have not named the Cabinet Committee—should be in no doubt that we are taking seriously every one of the matters referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool.

Mr. Tom King

The right hon. Gentleman has said "We have not even decided whether there will be an inquiry". What is the process to be? Can he give the House any guidance as to how he sees matters shaping as regards an inquiry? Can he say anything more about the form of the inquiry and how he sees matters proceeding?

Mr. Benn

The Government have not decided whether to recommend the building of the CFR. If they decide to recommend the building of one, it will be after the inquiry that is held to examine the matter. That is the position, and there is no change. There is no change from what I have said on earlier occasions. When there is a change, it will be announced by a Minister—by myself, I take it—and there will be an inquiry. The Government will then make a decision.

Mr. Tom King

Do I understand the right hon. Gentleman to say that the Government will not take a decision until the inquiry? I had the impression that he has not even discussed with Ministers the possibility of setting up the inquiry. Is there progress or movement towards instituting the inquiry?

Mr. Benn

That is a matter on which I am not able to make a statement because we have not yet reached that stage. We thought it right to get the Windscale inquiry and thermal reactor question settled first. We are anxious to get on with those matters that must be settled now.

I cannot undertake that there will be a debate. I understand the motives behind asking for a debate and I shall see that the request is brought to the attention of my colleagues. When we have settled the thermal reactor question I shall be better able to answer. Meanwhile, research on the fast breeder is continuing and the question is not closed.

Mr. Palmer

My right hon. Friend referred to what I said about the nature of the inquiry. Surely I was not so far out in trying to suggest a constructive approach to it.

Mr. Benn

I was not complaining about my hon. Friend's suggestion. I understood that he did not want the fast breeder to be put on trial. That view is not identical to my own or to that of the Government. Our view is that the Government would have to open up the question whether and where. That is the marginal difference between us.

There is an International Atomic Energy Agency. We are one of the two repository nations of the NPT. We chair the nuclear suppliers' group and we are active in the International Nuclear Fuel Cycle Evaluation Programme, which has warmly welcomed the Carter initiative.

The Minister of State went to Australia in his guise of customer. He did not intend to indicate to the Australian electorate what they should do. It is entirely a matter for them. They have to consider these decisions in the light of domestic circumstances. We are customers and it was understandable that my right hon. Friend should have said what he said.

I have three or four minutes left before I give my hon. Friend the chance to wind up the debate. He mentioned security and he properly identified the dilemma. Our duty is to protect sensitive materials such as plutonium and to do it in such a way as to provide a deterrent against attack upon them without it leading to a situation where acceptable levels of civil liberty are eroded. I can give only the classic answer—that I am advised that the increase in surveillance and vetting will not go above a normal level. I am sure that that is the answer that my hon. Friend expected.

The central question is, is it possible that technology which was intended to permit man to control his environment becomes the instrument by which man is more fully controlled by his environment? One can argue that in terms of ideology. Is not the real answer that when we become so dependent on high technology—it could be oil, gas or a single ball-bearing company producing all the ball-bearings in Europe—are we actually creating a situation in which what one thought was liberation was really vulnerability, what one thought was freedom actually endangered liberty, and that in order to safeguard oneself against the threat of interruption of those essential supplies that were themselves centralised had one to give up essential and acceptable political liberties?

I deeply admired my hon. Friend's speech and the elevated level at which he put it. Those are questions that society must face and cannot brush aside as a by-product on a Friday debate on nuclear policy or energy policy or anything else. It touches upon what the hon. Gentleman called his proud parochialism. My hon. Friend the hon. Member for Pontypool talked about tribalism. It is about the extent to which liberties are associated with the scale upon which we operate. Any politician, of any political persuasion or party, who failed to see the central role of that question in shaping the future of our society would be missing one of the most important issues of all.

Churchill made a speech on the foundation of this Chamber, which was rebuilt after the bombing by Hitler, as everyone knows, in the shape of its predecessor. We tell this to every schoolchild who comes round the place. In his speech Churchill said: In the beginning we shape our institutions and in the end they shape us. That is how the Chamber came to be rebuilt as it was.

It is the same with the technology that we handle. In the beginning we shape our technology, but if we are not very careful in the end it will shape us. It is for the democratic process to operate to see that it does not do so in a way that damages our central rights and liberties.

3.56 p.m.

Mr. Abse

I am very grateful to hon. Members on both sides of the House who have contributed to a debate that has shown that there is an awareness that we are facing a profound challenge, that there is a necessity on both sides that there should not be excessive polarisation, and, above everything else, that there should be continued and open public debate.

If there is one issue that has come out of this debate it is that we must continue inside the House to have every possible opportunity of debating, in view of the variety of views and the complexities of the issues and that on no account must we be hustled along. On no account must we stumble into a world without a clear understanding, an understanding that must be extended to the lay public.

I am certain, having listened to the Secretary of State's final comments, that he is sensitive to the basic issue of this great debate. I am certain that he is aware of how important it is that we should not find, as he rightly said, that we are moving towards placing ourselves into bondage instead of moving towards greater freedom.

The immediate point which above everything else I am repeating is that which was echoed by the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) and which the Secretary of State has clearly taken aboard. It is that the next opportunity for discussion of this matter must be upon the publication of the report coming from the inquiry. If that report simply passes through in the normal planning procedure and goes directly to the Minister and a decision comes in that way, there is bound to be considerable dismay. Knowing those involved in it, I am certain that the report will adumbrate the issues and will clearly state why the recommendations are made. Those recommendations need to be tested. The House cannot abdicate its responsibility for a decision that could be the penultimate decision to our going into a plutonium economy.

Having said that, I hope that it will be understood by those outside who have asked me to initiate this debate and who have encouraged me. I hope that they will understand that it is in no sense a retreat when, with the permission of the House, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

3.58 p.m.

Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Luton, West)

There is a convention of the House that Parliamentary Private Secretaries do not make major statements of policy. I am a very conventional man. Therefore, I have not risen to make a major statement on policy. Indeed, I do not intend to talk about policy or administration or proliferation. I intend to talk about definitions, because I believe that it is through definitions that we express the values of our society.

If I have time, the first definition that I want to talk about is the definition of a public debate in the nuclear sphere. I believe that there are two basic attitudes to a public debate. The first provides that the object of a public debate is to give the public information and then to ask for its views. Alternatively, there are some who say that a public debate is a public relations exercise in order to—

It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.