HC Deb 08 February 1977 vol 925 cc1253-359

Order for Second Reading read.

Mr. Speaker

Before I call the Secretary of State, I have to announce that I have not selected the amendment in the names of Members of the Liberal Party. However, it is quite clear that their argument can be advanced during the debate if the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) catches my eye—and I should not be surprised if he did.

4.35 p.m.

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

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This is the first major debate on nuclear power that I think the House has had since 1974 and I assume that hon. Members will want to feel free to range widely over the outstanding issues of nuclear policy. Your statement just now, Mr. Speaker, that you would be willing to receive arguments in line with the Liberal amendment, encourages me in that view. I should like to touch on the matters raised in that amendment, but first I will deal with the Bill itself.

The Bill deals with British Nuclear Fuels Limited, with the Radiochemical Centre Limited and with the National Nuclear Corporation Limited. It has a number of objects, which are set out clearly in the Explanatory Memorandum. First, it raises the financial limits laid down in the 1971 Act. Second, it permits Government loan guarantees which are necessary for the raising of money by BNFL. Thirdly, it provides some Government guarantee for BNFL in the event of it being necessary to refund any advance payments. Fourth, it authorises the Government themselves to acquire shares in the NNC as distinct from the provision that they should be held by the AEA.

Although this is a short Bill, it involves many complicated arrangements and has a background that the House might like to know. I have therefore arranged that, before the Committee stage, a fuller brief on the history and background and nature of these arrangements will be made available for the benefit of the Committee. I have long thought that if Ministers published their briefs, their speeches would be shorter and the House would be more satisfied with the nature of the arrangements. Also, it saves me from memorising them and trying to repeat them when they are in a form which is very difficult to understand because of their complexities.

I imagine that the House will want to ask one question above all others— namely, does the Bill prejudge the outcome of a planning inquiry in respect of Windscale? I put that at the top of my list because I imagine that that will be in the minds of hon. Members. The answer is clearly, "No, Sir". We are providing statutory authority for BNFL which will not be activated unless and until the planning authority is given. I want to make that absolutely clear. In our judgment, it is necessary to take these powers because we do not want any delay at a later stage.

Mr. T. H. H. Skeet (Bedford)

The Japanese contract will, of course, involve many storage ponds being built for the reception of the fuel elements. Will they be authorised before the planning permission is granted? They will take about three or four years to build.

Mr. Benn

I will come to what I can say about that in a moment, but I must make it clear that in nothing that I say am I seeking, or able, indeed, to intervene in the statutory and quasi-judicial powers of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. But since it was never our objective at any stage to damage the BNFL in its world rôle, clearly these are problems to which we have given attention.

Turning to the Liberal amendment, which will not be called, I should like to deal briefly with the points raised in it because they will be part of the general debate. First of all, on vitrification and the satisfactory completion of a demonstration plant for glassification or vitrification to deal with the waste, I would say that work is taking place on this matter. Of course, under the arrangements to be made with the Japanese, it is provided that it should be possible to return fuel elements brought for reprocessing in the event that the vitrification process does not develop in the way that it is con fidently expected that it will. On that score, I think that the point contained in the Liberal amendment is actually met, unless I am wrong about the intention behind it.

Mr. Robin F. Cook (Edinburgh, Central)

The Secretary of State has referred to the question of waste being returned to Japan following reprocessing. What is the Government's reaction to the recommendation of the Flowers Report which specifically suggested that no sound environmental purpose would be served by sending waste back to Japan and appeared to recommend that it should be kept in Britain?

Mr. Benn

That is a separate question. There was some anxiety about what we had arranged in respect of vitrification and whether Britain was becoming a nuclear dustbin. In the light of the general feeling about that matter, I made it my business to be sure that the option to return the waste in a vitrified form or the unprocessed fuel elements could be provided for under these arrangements. The question whether it would be advisable to return the waste is another matter.

The second matter in the amendment concerns ultimate disposal decisions regarding nuclear waste and what may be done about it. A number of alternative disposal methods are being considered, on land, at sea or on the sea bed. The House will recall that nuclear waste has already accumulated from our Magnox power stations, and that problem must be solved. In so far as this relates to future work, it can be argued that the option is still open, but a satisfactory method of disposal of existing waste must be found. That work is in hand.

The third question in the amendment concerns the return of plutonium following reprocessing. That is a matter of considerable interest, for obvious reasons, because of the potential uses which can be made of plutonium. An absolutely clear provision of our existing contracts—hon. Members will note that we already have contracts for reprocessing from abroad—is that the plutonium should be handled under full safeguards. I am not using this argument to divert Liberal Members from pressing their point. I made these three points because I thought that they were important.

I come now to the question which was raised by the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet). The company's construction of an oxide fuel reprocessing plant is subject to a planning inquiry, and this legislation is without prejudice to that. It is important that the company should be able to keep open with its customers the option of undertaking reprocessing business should the outcome of the inquiry be permission to build the plant.

Two considerations are required if that option is to be preserved. First, consideration has to be given to the capacity to continue to accept delivery of the fuel which is due to arrive under existing contracts. We are in contact with the company on this matter. But since BNFL is not prepared to undertake long-term storage of fuel as an alternative to reprocessing, it is its intention to arrange with customers for clauses to be added providing that if permission is not given for the oxide plant, the company shall, within a set period be entitled to return any irradiated fuel so delivered and that no further deliveries should be made. That is one point, and there is provision for import licensing in that case.

The second consideration arises in relation to further available business. It is necessary for the company to continue to discuss contracts with prospective customers and to take these, if necessary and if approved, to the point of concluding provisional contracts which would be conditional on the outcome of the planning application for the oxide plant, and it being acceptable to me as the Minister concerned. I am having discussions with the company about procedures along these lines. That is in line with normal commercial practice where the ability to undertake business is dependent on obtaining the necessary planning permission. I assure the House that this in no way prejudices the outcome of the planning procedure.

Before passing to wider issues, I should briefly mention the background to the Bill.

Mr. Arthur Palmer (Bristol, North-East)

Will the Secretary of State tell the House what is happening to the fuel from the AGR stations until the new processing facilities are available? Is there ample storage capacity at these stations now that the advanced gas-cooled reactors are coming on stream?

Mr. Benn

That point arises not from foreign contracts but from the need to provide adequate storage ponds at the power stations in the interval before their transfer to Windscale and at Windscale itself. It does not hinge on the overseas contracts. Even so, the expansion of Windscale to meet domestic and foreign needs is subject, and will continue to be subject, to decisions that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment will need to take. We are aware of the problems that might arise if storage facilities were not available and their impact on Magnox or other AGR stations.

Mr. Skeet

On the point about the Japanese contract, does the Secretary of State have the authority of the United States to return the spent fuel elements to the United Kingdom for reprocessing? As the original charges were given by the United States, we would have to get their authorisation first for their delivery.

Mr. Benn

I cannot answer that question directly. President Ford, before he retired, made a very important statement in October. I discussed this matter with Mr. Robert Seamans when he came to London. We are at one with the Americans in being anxious not to encourage the proliferation of plutonium which might be used for undesirable purposes. I made clear to him that the proliferation argument should not be used in such a way as to confer a commercial advantage. I imagine that was the point that the hon. Member for Bedford had in mind.

I do not know how much background I need to give to the House about BNFL. It was decided to set up BNFL when I was Minister of Technology in 1969–70. It was set up under the 1971 Act to take over the fuel functions of the Atomic Energy Authority to whom shares in BNFL were issued. A limit of £75 million on loans and payments to BNFL was set, of which £25 million has been used. BNFL has been a financial success, but, in looking at the 10-year corporate plan submitted by the company at the end of 1975, the range of its potential business and the need for further funds became much more apparent. It covered the fuel cycle requirements of existing nuclear programmes—that was the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer)—and work for overseas customers. On 14th July last year, in reply to a parliamentary Question, I announced acceptance of that part of the plan.

To break down the figures further, £245 million will be necessary for the Magnox reprocessing at Windscale, £130 million for the extension of the uranium hexa-fluoride plant at Springfields, and £40 million for the vitrification, making a total of £415 million in all. Also, £300 million was set aside or prepared for in the corporate plan for further centrifuge development at Capenhurst under the Treaty of Almelo, to which I was a signatory, all this being subject to contracts. In addition, overseas reprocessing was to be financed by foreign cusomers in a separate plant. That matter was brought before me in September 1975. On 12th March 1976, after some public debate and discussion, I announced Government support for it.

In addition, proposals related to oxide reprocessing for AGRs and SGHWRs were deferred by the Government. A decision was not taken immediately, because there were areas of policy which were not then decided.

The new corporate plan provides for a single reprocessing plant for home and overseas, subject to the planning procedures that I have described. This plan requires about £1,500 million over 10 years, of which £230 million would be required between now and 1982–83. Therefore, to allow for inflation, I am seeking to raise the limit to £300 million, with the power to go to £500 million. But even without the reprocessing plant it is the view of my Department and the company that £300 million would be needed.

BNFL will be able to borrow, with a Government guarantee which in accordance with normal practice would count against the limits. The overseas business would be on an advance payment basis. There would be some provision for Government guarantee if any of the advance payments became repayable. The financial forecasts for the company—this is a matter which the House will want to know about—are based on profit forecasts based on the fact that home generating boards, which represent 60 per cent. of the businesss, have their work done on a cost-plus basis.

The centrifuge business is likely to be profitable after the first 2,000 tonnes of production which will take place at Almelo and Capenhurst and the reprocessing would be undertaken on favourable terms. I now turn to the Radiochemical Centre.

Mr. David Penhaligon (Truro)

Assuming that the reprocessing did not function, how much money are we committed to returning to the other countries of the world which are offering significant sums to help set it up?

Mr. Benn

I cannot answer that question without notice because the provisions were for advance payments. I would need to know exactly how far this had gone. But I shall ask my hon. Friend whether he will be able to answer the hon. Gentleman at the end of the debate.

Mr. Hugh Fraser (Stafford and Stone)

With regard to fuel for reworking, there will be five AGRs when they come into full production. What allowance has been made in the present Windscale set up for dealing with this fuel?

Mr. Benn

It is complicated to explain this. It was one of the items I referred to as having been set aside for further consideration. It is one of the reasons why expansion of Windscale is necessary.

It would be sad if this debate today were to concentrate solely upon the reprocessing plant, or the element of reprocessing, as if it were only for overseas business. We began a major nuclear programme of our own in 1956, which now gives us 13 per cent. of our electricity generated by nuclear power. That will rise to 20 per cent. when the current AGRs are completed and that is not far away. There is very much a need for reprocessing which is quite distinct and separate from any question of overseas business. That is one of the reasons why BNFL is putting in this application for planning permission.

Mr. Hugh Fraser

The point is that unless we have a reprocessing plant for our own five AGRs we shall have to send that fuel overseas for reprocessing.

Mr. Benn

On 12th March last year, after having given careful consideration to it from a Department of Energy point of view, I made absolutely clear what our view was in a statement to the House. The process under which it goes for planning inquiry is a matter for the Secretary of State for the Environment. But it is a process which the Government have thought right. I share that view. It should go through.

I would make absolutely clear that even with the existing nuclear programme there is a need for reprocessing. That in no way pre-judges the planning procedures but sets the argument into proper balance.

The Radiochemical Centre, again set up under the 1971 Act with a limit of £5 million, deals in radio isotopes. It has provided a 36 per cent. return on capital. It is building a new plant in Cardiff requiring another £10 million, half of which will come from the AEA and half from the market. In the Bill we provide for the limits to be raised to £15 million with similar Government guarantee provisions.

With regard to the NNC the Bill empowers acquisition of the shares by the Government because in the 1973 reorganisation it was the AEA which took 15 per cent., which has now risen to 35 per cent., of shares. There was a provision that the Government could hold the shares in BNFL and TRC but not in the NNC. The Bill remedies this. No extra expenditure or compulsory powers are involved. I recommend it as one of the provisions of the Bill.

Mr. Skeet


Mr. Benn

Because it is an absurdity that the Government can hold shares in BNFL and TRC and, through AEA, in the NNC but not directly. It is an anomalous position that we are going to put right.

I now turn to some broader questions. Britain was the first nation to go for civil nuclear power on a large scale. The Magnox stations ordered after 1956 were then seen by people as the classic case of beating swords into ploughshares. Strange as it may seem, "Atoms for Peace", when first announced was seen as being a dramatisation of that process.

There has been a tremendous pride in the science and technology of this country which made that possible. It was even said that there was higher safety compared with casualties in other fuels. I would like to pay my warm tribute to those who have worked in the industry over those years. The earlier anxieties about energy supplies led, after Suez, to the decision to build the Magnox stations. These anxieties about world fuel supplies have been confirmed by recent forecasts, of which the OECD forecast is the most recent, which indicate that there could be, and is likely to be, a serious shortage of energy for the world developing in the 1980s.

But, having said that, there has more recently been some very serious questions raised about nuclear power. The debate about it is not confined to the United Kingdom. Indeed, the United Kingdom debate has been slower to mature than that in the United States, Germany, Japan, France, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, Holland and throughout the world.

An important debate is now going on about nuclear power. It centres around six issues to which I want to refer in my speech. One is the question of safety in its broadest form—the long-term safety consideration, the disposal of waste, the nature of fast breeder reactors, the possibility of accidents and the problems of transportation for plutonium and, indeed, waste.

The second issue bears on the completely extraneous, but closely related, question of nuclear terrorism—the possibility of the seizure of plutonium by some hostile force and the possibility of blackmail flowing from that.

The third question relates to the possibility of some threat to civil liberties deriving from the remedies necessary to deal with nuclear terrorism. I should like to quote from the remarkable speech made by the hon. Member for Oswestry (Mr. Biffen) to the Fuel Luncheon Club on 16th October last year. The hon. Gentleman said: The politician—and the public whom he serves—are only beginning to catch a glimmer of the military and civil liberty implications of an energy source involving the widespread production, storage, and movement of plutonium. That is a matter with which all hon. Members of the House and others are concerned.

The fourth question concerns the link between civil nuclear development and nuclear proliferation. I quote from the report of Mr. Justice Fox, published in Australia on 28th October. He mentioned in recommendation No. 3: The nuclear power industry is unintentionally contributing to an increased risk of nuclear war. That was Mr. Justice Fox in his statement on 28th October.

The fifth is some questioning of nuclear costings and investment programmes based upon an increasing economic analysis of what has in the past sometimes gone through under what I have called, by and large, a research and development type budget approach. When we add the cost of waste disposal, the final determination of which is not yet concluded, and the possible movement of uranium costs and other matters, it is right that nuclear costings should be looked at at least as critically as ally other costings.

The sixth is the argument put forward by those who have another view about the necessity for nuclear power, querying the doom-laden futurologists, to quote the hon. Member for Oswestry again, about the gap, when it will come, will it come here, what contribution could conservation make, are alternative sources being adequately examined, and so on.

These six questions must be faced and cannot be dismissed as the work of cranks or subversives. There is a tendency to suppose that anyone who questions or who queries the nuclear programme either belongs to what I have heard described as the "sandals and brown bread brigade" or is in some way trying to undermine the whole of our economy. That is not an adequate answer to the questions which have been put forward.

Mr. Neil Macfarlane (Sutton and Cheam)

The sixth category to which the right hon. Gentleman referred concerned alternative sources of energy. Is he satisfied with a situation where the Chief Scientist in his Department is also deputy chairman of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority and that this does not result in a twin view which may not produce an objective assessment of the overall alternative sources which could be investigated?

Mr. Benn

I am well aware of the argument. I have never found it difficult to believe that people can wear more than one hat. There are occasions when I have tried it. We have to differentiate between Dr. Marshall's responsibilities for the AEA and his responsibilities as Chief Scientist to me. Part of the answer which is often given is that it takes some time and some expenditure to develop a programme which can merit expenditure comparable to expenditure going into projects on which expenditure has already been incurred. In other words, it takes a long time to work up and develop a real development programme for new alternative, benign renewable sources of energy. That is an argument very much in my mind, and I want to touch upon it.

Any Minister in any Government who has responsibility for reaching these decisions must satisfy himself and the House that all these considerations have been examined properly before decisions are made. This does not lend itself to any dispute between political parties nor to any of the traditional arguments with which we are familiar. These are very complex and difficult questions, and I believe that Ministers and Members of Parliament, who are laymen—certainly I make no claim to understand more than something of the jargon of this science—should respond by seeing that adequate information is made available before a decision is taken. The decision must be a political one, otherwise we are abdicating our responsibilities to experts. It must be taken with Parliamentary assent and, in my opinion, if I may pay yet another tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer), the Select Committee has played a very important part in this matter.

Therefore, I tell the House that it is not because I am afraid of making a decision, but as a conscious decision in itself that must precede decisions, that everything possible should be published to encourage understanding of what is at stake.

I have heard some people in the nuclear industry complain that they are subject to ignorant criticism by those who do not know the position. The ignorance has been bred by the tradition of secrecy which has surrounded this industry.

Mr. Albert Roberts (Normanton)

The public have always been sceptical about this and about the costs of nuclear energy. I know that my right hon. Friend is very interested in these matters. But I should like to see some of those fears allayed. Over the years since 1956, we have never had a proper costing of nuclear energy.

Mr. Benn

My hon. Friend knows the energy industries very well, and he will recall that I referred to one of the six questions as being the need now for a more critical analysis of alternative energy costings, including nuclear, coal, gas and oil, and conservation and renewable sources.

The tradition of secrecy in the nuclear industry is very easy to understand. It was born in a military history surrounded by the highest secrecy of all. Inevitably, it is a scientific preserve in which those who have knowledge have tended, perhaps unintentionally, to preserve their own special mystique in speaking about it. I have tried to penetrate that curtain by publishing everything possible. I published our evidence to Flowers. On the reprocessing contract, we had a public hearing in Windscale and another one in London, and I would have been very happy if the Select Committee had cared to look at it. There have been questions to the Nuclear Inspectorate in which an Opposition Member played an important part. There has been information to the House about incidents. I shall be publishing the casualty rates in various fuel industries. I strongly supported the planning inquiry now contemplated by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment for the same reason. There must be time for all this to be absorbed—and we have time. I do not accept that criticisms of improper delay can be laid against us in this regard.

We have not yet explored in full the rôle of renewable energy and of conservation. The Energy Commission, which I hope to set up shortly, will subject the investment programmes of all the fuel industries to a similar critical examination. Only in that way can we permit a true choice.

I turn now to a timetable for decisions on three areas of concern in nuclear policy. I start with the fast breeder reactor itself. I want to read into the record some of the points which have been made by those whose judgment the House should especially note. The first is a very general comment by Lord Rothschild in The Times on 27th September 1976. He said: No British Government since 1939 has had a greater responsibility put on its shoulders than the present one—by the Flowers report. I agree with that.

In a speech on 8th July, Sir Brian Flowers himself said: There is no doubt that CFR1 can be built and operated, given adequate safeguards and adequate resources, so as to be environmentally acceptable as an object in itself; we therefore do not oppose it. Nevertheless, CFR1 is a billion pound step down a technological path which may later prove unacceptable or even catastrophic. We have already seen that too little effort has been devoted to dealing with the consequences of nuclear power. There is also the danger that inadequate resources will remain to be devoted to the development of alternative energy programmes which might otherwise have made a substantial reliance on nuclear power unnecessary. Later, after his report was published, Sir Brian said: It has been said that the need for CFR1 overrides all other considerations. I have sympathy for those who hope to press on quickly; they are dedicated to a technology in which their experience leads them to have faith. But CFR1 does not override all other considerations. It does not override the health of future generations, nor the peace of the world. It would not be contemplated at all if we were sure that there was a viable alternative to the plutonium economy. In the speech to which I referred earlier, the hon. Member for Oswestry made some very profound remarks which I should like to read. It was to the Fuel Luncheon Club, and it was reprinted in the Spectator. The hon. Gentleman said: it will be instinctive for many British politicians to want a calm and reflective discussion about the nuclear decisions that have to be undertaken by government during the next decade". On the next page he states: In my view"— he is now referring to the Flowers Report— the whole tenor of the report indicates the danger of choosing an energy process so devastating in its implications that society itself would have to be remoulded to accommodate the fast breeder reactor. Finally, he deals with the question of a proper and informed debate and refers to my demand that it should take place. He states: I want to reinforce his stated intention"— that is my intention— I acknowledge that there is always the danger that reflective debate can degenerate into procrastination and a craven fear of decision itself. I do not believe that danger is yet apparent. He then says: The debate will encompass press, public and parliament. It will not fall within the neatly prescribed lines of party political affiliation. I read those quotations because I believe that there is a case for taking time on the fast breeder reactor. When we come to the thermal system quite different considerations apply. We are talking about the thermal system, not about the fast breeder reactor, and the choice of the thermal system to follow, the SGHWR, that was encouraged by the previous Government and announced by a Labour Government, the strong pressure for the PWR, which has a considerable world export potential, and the AGR, which is now available as it was not in 1974. We have invited proper comparisons by the NNC and a safety analysis of the three systems by the Nuclear Inspectorate. We have encouraged industrial talks with the French on these matters. We have done so because it is important and urgent that the industry should know where it stands on the thermal programme. I hope to make progress, but the House will not be surprised if I tell it that it does not follow that the pace of our nuclear programme will follow precisely that of other countries where certain fuel sources are not available.

The third issue, which is really what the debate is about, is the reprocessing itself. I have made it clear that I strongly support what has been done by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment in respect of the Windscale inquiry, which is now to be organised by my right hon. Friend. I believe that the Japanese, with whom I have had contact on this matter for a long period, really understand why we are tackling the matter in this way.

I quote with approval the report of the speech that was made by the hon. Member for Bridgewater (Mr. King) about the need for an inquiry on the Vale of Belvoir coal reserves that appears in today's issue of The Times. If The Times has not quoted him correctly, I hope that he will stop me. The report states: He argued that there should be a wider planning inquiry in which the NCB application would cover the local planning aspects as well as their fundamental energy policy for coal extraction. If it is relevant that in the Vale of Belvoir there should be a wider range of inquiry than normal, if it is reasonable in that respect that there should be a width of inquiry—

Mr. Skeet

I understand that the right hon. Gentleman is running for a planning inquiry commission under the 1971 Act in respect of Windscale. If he has that in mind, that will be a two-year, three-year or four-year inquiry. Surely by that time we shall have lost all our overseas contracts.

Mr. Benn

The hon. Gentleman must allow me to rest upon the formal position, which is that that is entirely the responsibility of the Secretary of State for the Environment.

Mr. Skeet

The right hon. Gentleman has some influence.

Mr. Benn

In this respect there is a difference between relations between two Ministers, one of whom has the statutory responsibility to discharge, especially in matters of nuclear safety, and the other of whom has responsibilities in respect of matters that might be discussed loosely between Cabinet Ministers. I have made it clear that I support my right hon. Friend's decision, but I do not want to comment upon the outturn.

The full-scale development of nuclear power, including the fast breeder reactor, is neither self-evidently inevitable nor self-evidently wrong. I am not in any way an expert in these matters and, like most thoughtful Members, I want to hear more. I want to know more and I want more time before some of these decisions are made. I believe that we have the time in which to do so.

We shall no doubt need further debates in the House and elsewhere about the matter. Meanwhile, the Bill merely authorises finance to be released for reprocessing subject to the planning procedures and the decisions yet to be made.

5.16 p.m.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

The Secretary of State has introduced the Bill in a suitably grave and, if I may say so, a suitably humble way. He has recognised the scale of the problems that are faced in the wider nuclear debate. Surely there are no Members on either side of the House who would dissent from that.

The right hon. Gentleman has been generous in his tributes to my hon. Friend the Member for Oswestry (Mr. Biffen) and was kind enough to endorse a comment that I made yesterday that is not a correct quotation. The sense is right but for some reason the sub-editor decided to change some of what I said. However, the sense has ended up where it was.

Before going on to discuss the Bill, it is appropriate to welcome the hon. Member for Luton, West (Mr. Sedgemore) to his new position as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State. I am sure that all Members are aware of what a hazardous position PPS has become. This is the first occasion on which the hon. Gentleman has occupied his place behind the Treasury Bench. Bearing in mind that the hon. Gentleman sits behind the Secretary of State for Energy—perhaps I might refer to the right hon. Gentleman as the hon. Gentleman's present master—he is not likely to be there for very long. I had better get in the welcome fairly quickly in case there is not another opportunity.

Mr. Benn

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recall what has happened to all the previous PPSs. They all occupy and grace the Treasury Bench, as I have no doubt my hon. Friend will.

Mr. King

I believe I am correct in saying that a previous PPS is now leading the revolt against the Government on the devolution Bill. I may be wrong about that, but the hon. Gentleman concerned is certainly not leading the revolt from the Treasury Bench. Perhaps Parliamentary Private Secretaries go their different ways.

When listening to the Secretary of State introducing a Bill involving potential expenditure of £1,000 million on nuclear developments, it was interesting to hear him attempt to embrace the sandals and brown bread brigade in his closing remarks. I do not mock him for that, but I suggest that there might be an attempt to embrace the sandals and brown bread brigade and the tea-mug brigade to show that we are all together on these issues.

I recognise that there are real considerations and that it would be a brave man who took a clear decision on these matters at this stage. However, the Secretary of State's timing is not exactly of the highest order in introducing the Bill. Windscale is now much in our thoughts, as it is unfortunately on strike. We have very recently had the incidence of leaks of radioactivity. There has been considerable Press publicity about health hazards and the unfortunate death of a former Wind scale worker, although it is not believed that his death was connected with his work. We are awaiting the possible public inquiry on reprocessing, and the Flowers Report has undoubtedly heightened public concern about all these issues. It is clear, as the right hon. Gentleman's speech brought out, that the Bill, although confined to a narrower subject, widens into the whole question of Britain's nuclear future.

I shall tend to concentrate more on the Bill, but I make no complaint that the Secretary of State took the opportunity to speak more widely on the present situation, as long as it was not intended to forestall the wider debate that must clearly be held on the Flowers Report in Government time. Clearly, it would not be appropriate to deal with those matters on this Second Reading.

Having said that this is a bad time to introduce the Bill, it is necessary to put the Bill in perspective and to make clear why my right hon. and hon. Friends will not be opposing this measure. There are a number of matters that need to be put into perspective. The Secretary of State made it clear that a considerable amount of the expenditure will involve improving facilities for Magnox reprocessing. It is clear that our existing processing facilities are badly in need of improvement. There have been recent instances of silo leakages, which only strengthens the point that those facilities need renewal. I believe that the case is clear.

On the subject of Harvest and the vitrification process, I thought that the Secretary of State tended to get bogged down in considerations involving only the Japanese contract. Harvest and vitrification have wider implications than the Japanese alone and there are also considerations involving United Kingdom waste.

It is most important in the present situation that we should develop a better disposal system. It must be in the public interest to have the safest possible facilities for the processing of Magnox fuel. The present situation is critical and we must urgently ensure that these improved facilities are available. These proposals are supported by the Royal Commission and Sir Brian Flowers as being necessary. We do not regard the first and second items of expenditure as in any sense a new commitment. However, we must consider the third item, oxide reprocessing. That is a contentious matter and is the subject of a possible public inquiry. I say that such an inquiry is possible because it will depend on whether the BNFL makes an application and whether the procedure is invoked. I shall say a little more about that aspect later.

I was glad to have the Secretary of State's confirmation that the situation is clearly covered and that, if planning permission is not granted, there will be no contracts and no need for guarantees. I find it difficult to understand certain Press comments on the matter of guarantees. One thread of the argument running through the story in The Observer suggested that it was outrageous to have a guarantee for one customer's money—namely, that if contracts were cancelled and we were unable to proceed with the reprocessing, we would be liable to return the money to the Japanese. I do not see how that consideration comes into the wider argument. It is surely common commercial practice that if a customer has made a down payment for a service, it should be guaranteed, in the same way as a parent company would be responsible in a normal industrial situation. In this case it would involve the Atomic Energy Authority and the Government.

Mr. Penhaligon

The question is what would happen if there had been a genuine attempt to develop this process and, in the event, it had proved to be a failure.

Mr. King

That is a matter involving commercial contracts and the way in which they are drawn up. I cannot comment on any matter of negotiation between the Japanese and BNFL. In this situation it is a straight customer-supplier relationship in which contracts will have to be entered into. The Japanese will want to safeguard their money and in such a situation guarantees will be involved. The existence of the potential for guarantees following the passing of the Bill in no sense permits the requirement for a public inquiry to be by-passed. We were glad to have a further assurance from the Secretary of State on that matter, and we accept that assurance in good faith and, provided that it is honoured, we see no problem over the third part of the package.

Mr. Frank Hooley (Sheffield, Heeley)

Will the hon. Gentleman explain why the British taxpayer and not the Japanese taxpayer should take this risk? If the Japanese decided to build a processing plant in their country, the risk would fall entirely on their own taxpayers and their own economy. The arrangement in this instance appears to envisage the Japanese wanting the arrangement all ways. They want us to take the risk and, if it does not work, they require us to refund the money that has been put up. Is that not a curious commercial argument?

Mr. King

The taxpayer does not come into the matter. No doubt the hon. Gentleman meant to refer to the British citizen who will have to take the risk, and the hon. Gentleman was examining the matter from an environmental point of view. My understanding is that if the project is to go forward it will do so on a strictly commercial basis, and that it is likely to be extremely profitable for this country in terms of the exchange situation and the profitability to BNFL.

It is odd that the Liberals have tabled an amendment that appears to have the effect of preventing improvement of the existing Magnox facilities. The effect of the amendment would be to allow further leakage out of obsolete silos at Windscale, which seems to be entirely without the national interest. It must be in the national interest to see that the vitrification process is proceeded with. If the Liberal Party has done its homework, it will be aware that there is a critical situation facing the nation on the subject of Magnox. There is an urgent need to improve the reprocessing situation and, if the Liberal amendment is taken seriously, it must involve the closure of Magnox stations which have an outstanding safety record, and also AGRs. This will mean that we shall lose up to 20 per cent. of present electricity capacity, and we shall also lose our cheapest source of electricity thereby putting up prices to the consumer.

I wonder whether the Liberals thought out this matter before they tabled the amendment. Yesterday's Press quoted "a Liberal spokesman" as saying that this is not an environmental bandwagon we are jumping on". I thought I noticed a slight spring in the Liberal amendment and a certain leap on to the bandwagon without sufficient consideration. Perhaps it was wise to ascribe that remark only to a Liberal spokesman instead of trying to obtain a Liberal Member to endorse that sentiment.

Mr. Penhaligon

What lay behind the Liberal amendment was the feeling that we were having these matters forced upon us. We felt that there was no conscious decision as to how our nuclear policy could be expanded. We are told that these considerations are justified and that we have to build more ponds and all the rest of it. I was seeking to get the decision put off for some time so that we should be able to have the debate of which the Secretary of State has spoken so often.

Mr. King

Did the hon. Gentleman or his party oppose the building of the original Magnox power stations? The matter of reprocessing will be covered by a public inquiry, but the Bill initially covers the improvement and restoration of the existing process. Surely that cannot be seen as a further step down the slippery slope.

I have made clear that we shall not seek to obstruct the passage of this Bill on Second Reading. However, there are a number of questions we should like to ask the Government and we shall seek to probe these matters closely in Committee. We should like first to ask what is being done about the inquiry. We were told just before Christmas of the decision to have an inquiry, and the right hon. Gentleman has now said that he warmly endorses that decision. And yet the BNFL is now having to go to the Government to find out what is happening. Now we have the Japanese here wanting to know what is going on and whether storage ponds will be provided as an interim measure. It appears that we are getting into a very muddled situation. He will be aware that when my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) responded to the Secretary of State for the Environment on this matter he made it clear that we welcomed the setting up of the public inquiry, but that we felt the procedure should go ahead with considerable speed. If a Royal Commission sits for two years, no matter what its findings are, it is probable that the whole project will be killed anyway. It is important, therefore, that we should know what is happening.

Mr. Macfarlane

Has my hon. Friend read the report in the Guardian that it is extremely likely that this £400 million worth of business will go to France now? In fact, the project already may have been killed. I expect that the Secretary of State for Energy will be slightly relieved that this matter has been transferred to the Department of the Environment.

Mr. King

I cannot comment on the second part of my hon. Friend's intervention, and I have not seen the reports about the fact that the contract may have been placed elsewhere. That is not my understanding of the matter, but if things have developed in this way it is an indication that overseas customers have no idea of what is happening over the future of reprocessing plant in this country.

We support the need for a public inquiry and the need to give BFNL an idea of the timetable envisaged. That does not prejudge the situation. These matters should be exposed to full discussion and should not be left pending so long that a decision is taken by default.

What is the situation over the Americans' attitude? The Secretary of State referred to the views of President Ford's advisers, but there seems to be an indication that President Carter is taking a different view, and that his Government are opposed to the Japanese shipping any fuel for reprocessing to Europe. If this is so, it would effectively preclude part of this discussion if they were not allowed to ship fuel here.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford and Stone raised the question of AGRs. My understanding is that a reprocessing plant is not viable unless it has overseas contracts as well. What will happen since we have an AGR programme—and there is one already in my constituency at Hinckley Point—starting to produce waste fuel? Will it have to go to France and will the French have a monopoly in reprocessing this fuel?

I find the whole present situation rather strange. I notice that it contrasts with the situation in Japan. The Japanese have laws which say that no nuclear operating licence will be granted unless the operators have adequate provision for dealing with spent fuel. We have a situation in which AGRs are already producing, and yet there is no provision for handling the spent fuel which they are producing. We also have a situation in which the Magnox position is quite critical, and we seem to be fairly laggardly in dealing with it.

In looking at the Flowers' Report one is struck by the importance attached to the matter of disposal of waste. Once upon a time people were much more worried about the operation of nuclear power stations, but now they realise that the key problem is that of waste. We have not yet had the opportunity to debate the report, but its major proposal was for the establishment of a nuclear waste management advisory committee, and a nuclear waste disposal corporation responsible to the Department of the Environment. Although this was the key recommendation of Sir Brian Flowers' Commission the Secretary of State has said nothing about it.

It is worth quoting the final paragraph of that report: Until now, there has been a diffuse pattern of responsibility with the result that too little has been done. This will not do in future. Radioactive waste management is a profoundly serious issue, central to the environmental evaluation of a nuclear power programme. There must be a clear, identifiable, policy centre and a means to ensure that the issues posed by waste management are fully considered at the outset of a nuclear programme, not dealt with many years after the decisions on developments that lead to the wastes have been made and when options may have been effectively foreclosed. That was part of the point being made by the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) that decisions cannot be made years after the original development has gone ahead. That is the situation in which we now find ourselves. I was not encouraged by the Secretary of State who glibly said that this matter was in hand. I wish I had more evidence that it was being pursued with more urgency. Unless we resolve this matter our future nuclear programme is dust. A suitable method of waste disposal is a precondition of any nuclear expansion.

Against this background there must be considerable anxiety and doubt about the future development of our nuclear programme. There are a number of uncertainties. The only person who seems utterly confident is Lord Kearton who baldly stated: There is no major technical problem for nuclear energy developments in the next 20 years. Perhaps that is why he is with BNOC. I would be worried if he were directly involved in our nuclear strategy, because I do not think that anyone would share his view.

I endorse what the Secretary of State said about the quality of our nuclear industry. The Flowers Report which is a balanced and sensitive approach to a very difficult problem—and not at all anti-nuclear as some have claimed—says this: We believe that the standards of safety in engineering design of nuclear plants are of the highest. It went on to say, and this should not be overlooked: Moreover, we accept that, operating normally, nuclear installations offer the possibility of much less pollution than conventional fossil fuelled stations. Lord Kearton made one subsequent point: I think that most people would agree that in the twenty-first century nuclear energy is going to be the key to the world's energy demands. We have talked about the possibility of an energy gap. It could just be that nuclear energy might be the only possible way to fill that gap. Whatever may happen with solar, wind, geo-thermal, tidal, wave and other benign sources of energy, there is no guarantee that these will be available. Therefore, we need to maintain our options. The option of nuclear power will not be kept open unless research into waste disposal is pursued much more actively.

Sir Brian Flowers says that too little has been done, and this will not do in the future, so the whole House will look to the Government for effective recognition of that implied criticism. I have said that nuclear energy may be the only possible way.

But clearly we should be examining as fast as we can just how viable are the possible alternative sources of energy. Recently the Government announced that they were trebling the funds available for research into alternative benign energy resources from £500,000 to £18 million. That takes the amount up to just precisely 1 per cent. of the money being spent on research and development on nuclear energy. These figures speak far louder than any words I could utter. Let me quote Sir Brian Flowers' words to the Energy Forum when he said: we do not believe that the long term implications and the alternatives including conservation have been sufficiently explored. Although a start has been made, certainly they have not yet been explored with the kind of dedication and with the level of resources which have been devoted to the design of the nuclear plants themselves. It is difficult to accept that a massive increase in the nuclear power programme should be envisaged until these matters have received commensurate and responsible attention. At the end was the word "(Applause)", and I think that if Hansard included a similar comment in its report of our proceedings it would appear there, too, in response to that view.

Mr. Hooley

Does the hon. Member recognise that this is precisely one of the most powerful arguments against this Bill? If the House votes to pre-empt £1,000 million for purposes related to nuclear energy where is the public expenditure to come from for all the other resources?

Mr. King

The Bill does not provide for the spending of £1,000 million. It is a much more limited sum for the improvement and refurbishing of the reprocessing facilities. Half the expenditure, in the form of guarantees for overseas payments, may not arise at all, if the planning inquiry finds against the existing processing facilities. As I see it a strong environmental case can be made out for the Bill. I am not happy to think that the present deteriorating facilities at Windscale should stay there any longer than the absolute minimum period necessary, and therefore I believe that this aspect of the Bill has a very sound environmental basis. But I recognise that it still involves a substantial amount of money, and that further serves to underline the small amount of money being spent on research into alternative sources of energy.

We cannot do all this on our own, but I hope that we can do it in a wider European or international collaborative effort. That is one of the further options that we must actively pursue.

The Bill is therefore an interim measure in the much wider issues of the nuclear debate. It does not prejudge or pre-empt the very crucial decisions that will have to be taken in the future, not only on thermal reactors, or the question of fast breeders, or on the question of reprocessing of fuels from overseas. For the limited measure of improvement it offers to existing facilities and for the improved research into waste storage we welcome it.

5.43 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Palmer (Bristol, North-East)

I rise to support the Bill in general terms because I believe that a strong and developed nuclear capacity is essential to the energy future of the United Kingdom for the production of electricity. The Bill deals mainly with processing and reprocessing facilities but it should be seen as allowing for what is, after all, an integral part of nuclear power production as a whole.

The hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) was absolutely right to refer to the urgent situation which is now arising in the Magnox power stations. They are turning out the cheapest electricity at present available in this country. Their ponds are getting uncomfortably full, and unless something is done quickly about this problem the stations will have to reduce output. The Japanese or any other foreign contracts are important economically. We have these facilities, which have existed for a long time, and if we can act commercially by making them available at a profit to overseas customers surely there is no rational objection to that.

When I speak, however, of a strong nuclear and generating capacity I do not minimise the importance of electricity from coal-fired stations. The bulk of our electricity is still produced from such stations, and that is likely to continue for a considerable period ahead. Nuclear output is 15 or 16 per cent. of the total. If the AGR stations come fully in, the figure may climb to 20 per cent. The rest of our electricity will have to be provided by coal, however in the main. Therefore, it is not a question of these energy sources for the making of electricity being competitive, as we thought a few years ago. The truth is that they are complementary to each other in terms of supplies if not always of price.

I do not belittle either the contribution of properly developed renewable energy resources. Both the hon. Member for Carshalton (Mr. Forman) and my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy) will know that because they, too, are on the Select Committee. The Committee is working hard on the question of renewable resources against the background of the Flowers Report. It is trying to put into perspective the commercial fast-breeder reactor. The Committee faces in fact the difficulty of escaping from energy. It is the Select Committee on Science and Technology, but such is the importance of and present interest in energy that we shall have to take care not to become almost permanently fixed on it: the energy question tends to obsess all of us today.

But I am driven to the nuclear conclusion, in spite of paying tribute to what can come from coal and possibly from renewable resources, and assuming that in the future we shall not burn oil and natural gas in power stations. Coal supplies in any case will always be somewhat limited. Coal supplies cannot climb indefinitely—not because there is a lack of resources, but because of the increasing shortage of miners to get the coal out. It is not the kind of work which men are always anxious to do; to have their health ruined in the process of doing it. This used to be one of the favoured arguments for developing a British nuclear capacity. It was argued that if we developed that capacity we could avoid the need for men to risk their lives and their health getting coal out. Whenever there is full employment here and abroad it is difficult to get miners. I believe that the supply of miners will continue to limit the output of coal.

Of course, we could perhaps devise matters so that there was no growth in electricity demand; we could possibly transfer the energy demands away from electricity to other primary sources. In that way we could, in theory, avoid nuclear development. But I accept the evidence given to the Select Committee recently by the CEGB about the future growth of electricity demand though it is common ground that that growth will not be on the scale of the past 20 years. The Board is now making two assumptions, working out one set of figures based on 3.4 per cent. growth per annum, and another set based on 1.3 per cent. growth per annum.

With the higher figure there will have to be about one new power station per year from about 1980 to 1985 onwards. I am not arguing about whether it should be nuclear or otherwise. If one accepts the lower figure, once Sizewell has been constructed and one has taken into account the SGHWR proposed for Torness in Scotland, not much more will be needed for a considerable period. But one can never tell. If the economy picks up again, clearly much more electricity will be needed than is now being used. It is a hit and miss business, and instead of making careful estimates I would put the figure at somewhere between the two extremes, at about 2½ per cent. per annum. That means that eventually there will be needed a considerable extra amount of generating capacity. In any case, old power stations wear out and have poorer thermal and load factors, they have to be replaced.

The Minister referred to the fear that towards the end of the century oil and natural gas supplies from the North Sea are likely to be exhausted. Imported oil will be scarcer and will become more difficult to obtain as well as being very expensive. If railways are still running then, the remaining diesel locomotives will come to a standstill because of the lack of oil to run them. Electrification of the whole railway system will be essential. Domestic and commercial heating, which is now being lost by the electricity industry—perhaps that is understandable for cheaper natural gas is available—will have to return to electricity for there will be nowhere else for it to go. Therefore the need for a larger nuclear generating capacity at the end of the century cannot be escaped.

I want to refer to what the Minister said about the change in attitude towards nuclear power that has taken place over the last decade. When the nine Magnox stations were being planned, giving 4,000 megawatts of nuclear capacity, nobody seemed to doubt that nuclear power would eventually take over. Many hon. Members from all parts of the House, as well as many people outside the House, were proud of the special British contribution to the gas cooled technique that was then beginning to flower into the AGR-style reactors. We led the world and we were proud of it. All the components of the nuclear situation that we now have were present then. There was a thermal reactor programme, research and development on the fast breeder had been started at Dounreay, and there was processing and reprocessing of nuclear fuels at Windscale.

So, 15 years ago the situation was the same, in essence, as it is now. If there are risks now, they also existed then, but there has certainly been a change in attitudes. I wonder why. It cannot be because there has been a major nuclear catastrophe in this country or in the rest of the world. Indeed, from the experience of power plant engineers, it is still more dangerous to life and limb to work in a coal-fired power station—and I have done so, so I speak with practical experience—than in the relatively calm, austere atmosphere of a nuclear reactor station.

If there has been a change, it cannot be because there has been any carelessness over safety standards for projected nuclear stations. Standards are rising as a result of experience. Many people believe that the CEGB in its safety standards for the SGWHR—and this is particularly considered to be the case by the South of Scotland Board—is being over-elaborate. The Select Committee questioned Sir Arthur Hawkins closely on the matter. I do not have time to refer to his evidence. It is contained in the report of the Select Committee and it is available to the House. He went over a whole range of new risks for which he felt the CEGB should allow in future.

So we know from experience that none of the dreadful things that have been predicted has occurred, and even greater care is being taken in future. What then is the explanation for the change in attitudes? What are the alarms that trouble so many people and that cause environmentalists to flourish? I heard what the Minister said about brown bread and sandals. That was a useful expression if I may say so. But many of the engineers with whom I mix and who work in nuclear power stations are not soulless technocrats either. They are simply aware of the fact that if one eats modern brown bread, it will be made in factories that need electricity. Most of the sandals sold in Marks and Spencer have electricity used during their manufacture I suspect.

If the wilder environmentalists really wish to do without nuclear power stations—there are even environmentalists who are opposed to coal-fired power stations and who object to coal mining when it is done in their area—I could understand their outlook better if they all want to live on a desert island and worked for 12 to 14 hours a day, sweating out their own living, ploughing the soil and growing their own food. But when they freely use all the sanitary appliances of modern society, when they type their anti-nuclear articles on typewriters made in factories powered by electricity, I am worried about their intellectual and, sometimes, their moral consistency.

There may some connection of course in an old industrial society like our own between the disdain that is felt for nuclear power and our failure to recruit enough young men and women into engineering and the sciences. Instead, such people take up sociology or merchant banking or some other esotric profession. Perhaps in an old industrial society, a people with great past achievements of technology, tend to turn against it in the present. That is a great risk for a country such as ours that is struggling to maintain its economic position in the world to take.

Without accusing all those who disagree with me of wearing sandals or of permanently consuming brown bread, I want to quote from paragraph 499 of the Flowers Report, because that is now generally regarded as the bible in these matters. Sir Brian Flowers truly said: Nuclear power provides a dramatic focus for opposition in some countries to technological development and we have no doubt that some who attack it are primarily motivated by an antipathy to the basic nature of industrial society, and see in nuclear power an opportunity to attack that society where it seems to be most vulnerable, in energy supply …". I leave the House with that valuable thought. I do not decry the genuine doubts of many people who oppose nuclear power, in whole or in part, for most sincere reasons, but things must be put into perspective and the reactionary motivation of some opponents examined. I agreed with my right hon. Friend when he said that we must have the utmost public discussion, but this will not. I hope, continue to the point where endless talk becomes a substitute for action.

Mr. Hooley

Has it occurred to my hon. Friend that if the same concern had been shown 70 or 80 years ago about the hazards and dangers in the coal industry as some people are now expressing about the nuclear industry, we might have been spared Aberfan and other grotesque and grisly accidents which have disfigured the mining industry?

Mr. Palmer

One can always look back at history and see what could have been done. But thank goodness we developed our coal industry by whatever means because our industrial prosperity was built upon it. I agree with my hon. Friend that we should learn from the past when we can, but I am anxious to keep a proper and calm balance in these matters for the future.

Mr. Penhaligon

The hon. Gentleman and I share the distinction of being among the few qualified engineers in the House. The hon. Gentleman was first elected when I was just one year old. My contact with people in many technical areas suggests that there is considerable concern about these issues and for him to dismiss that concern as "brown bread and sandals" is not good enough.

Mr. Palmer

I did not dismiss it in that way. I merely pointed out that brown bread had to be processed by electricity—nuclear or otherwise—and that electricity also made a contribution in the manufacture of Marks and Spencer sandals. I am staggered by the statistic which the hon. Gentleman quoted. I did not believe from appearances that I was that much older than he.

It is because I believe that endless talk should not be a substitute for action that I have tabled a Question to my right hon. Friend asking him to let the House into his thinking and ideas on a national energy policy. The House needs and now deserves more information on the energy intentions of the Government. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that that is why we have a Secretary of State for Energy; he has to look at the whole picture; not to do the job of other people but his own because he alone can do it.

There has been much past talk on these Benches about the need for a national energy policy. We now have the opportunity if we take it to create at least the outlines of such a policy. It will mean taking decisions that are sometimes unpopular and uncomfortable, but that is the nature of Government.

I welcome the Bill. It is a robust measure and it encourages me as it will the nuclear and power supply industries. The trade unions in the electricity supply industry have been concerned about delays and hesitation over the provision of extra nuclear processing facilities which are so badly needed as we have said. They do not object to the environmental inquiry, but they hope that it will not take too long because this matter is now urgent.

My right hon. Friend paid generous tribute to the work of the Select Committee on Science and Technology which has been in existence for 10 years. The establishment of a State-owned commercially operating nuclear fuel company was one of our recommendations and we also pressed successfully for the setting up of a single design and construction company. These were not controversial issues between the parties and, perhaps through electoral chance, the Conservatives brought in the necessary legislation to implement these sound recommendations.

British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. has been a fair success story. It is a State-owned company and made a gross profit of £9 million last year. We on this side of the House who believe in public enterprise should be glad of its success. The Bill will give the company further financial strength by guaranteeing its loan capital. Can my hon. Friend who is to reply to the debate tell us whether this capital is to be raised privately or by an issue of additional Atomic Energy Authority shares?

Clause 3, which has not yet been mentioned, allows the Government to buy additional shareholdings in the National Nuclear Corporation Ltd.—the manufacturing concern. I welcome this because the Corporation is the single design construction company which was first recommended by the Select Committee. Unless some private enterprise groups are cobbled together, it will be our only nuclear manufacturing capacity and it is important that it should succeed in reactor and component manufacture not only nationally but internationally.

The latest report of the Select Committee is important and deals with the continuing saga of nuclear reactor choice which has, perhaps, gone on for too long. We have made a number of constructive suggestions to expedite matters, I hope.

One part of our report draws the attention of the House to the quality of advice which has been given by experts to successive Governments and Parliaments. There has been much contradictory nuclear advice and although experts will always disagree, we feel that they have been disagreeing a little too much in the past. The Committee suggests that the Government should have an improved centre of advice. We suggested in 1973 that a nuclear power advisory board should be set up as a permanent institution—not just to meet occasionally and to be a forum for warring and contending interests. We suggest in our latest report: In the light of experience since 1974 we believe that the case for an effective Nuclear Power Advisory Board has been strengthened, and that the Secretary of State should once again consider the possibility of appointing a new Board, with a full-time Chairman independent of any of the competing interests, and with the responsibility for ensuring that advice to the Government on nuclear power policy is coherent, consistent and free of preconceived attitudes. Provided that it was genuinely independent of special interests, a body of that type would be of great value to the Government. It could give advice which might be better than the advice that Governments have received in the past; fewer Select Committee inquiries would then be required. I welcome the Bill.

6.10 p.m.

Mr. Hugh Fraser (Stafford and Stone)

The House will welcome what the hon. Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer) has said and congratulate him on his knowledge of the industry and the excellent work that he has done in the Select Committee.

We hoped that when the Minister adumbrated his general views on nuclear power that he would give us more of an energy and nuclear policy than he did. I say that without hesitation even when faced with the Liberal amendment. Unfortunately, it is no longer true that this country leads the world in nuclear capacity and power. I recognise the difficulties which the Minister has in reconciling the viewpoints of the Friends of the Earth or the Flowerites as opposed to those who take a more rough and tough attitude to the problems that lie ahead.

The Minister must explain to the people the problems that will face the country in 20 or 30 years' time. It is not just a matter of the dangers. One must remember that the environment does not consist only of a pellucid atmosphere but the ability of people to live in large urban concentrations and to manufacture and perform all the functions that modern industrial society demands. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) said that it would have been better if we had done more to make coal mining safe, but to take his analogy, if by making coal mining totally safe we would make nuclear engineering impossible we would be faced, by the end of the century with thousands of millions of pounds worth of industrial equipment that could no longer be used.

We are lucky, because we have 300 years of coal supply. Our problem is to get the people to mine that coal. We are surrounded by oil and gas—for the present. We should remember the pressures on the outside world. We should think how the world will survive in the next 30 years. Whatever the Flowers Committee may say there is no doubt that the demand for nuclear power will grow as inevitably as the demand for steam power grew. According to the his tory books, steam power was regarded as highly dangerous 200 years ago.

Decisions must be made on a broad scale. I complain that the Secretary of State has taken none of those broad decisions. He does not face the issue by referring matters to an energy conference, energy committee or consortium. The Government might take a leaf out of the SNP's book. If they have not said this I shall say it for them. Over the next few years enormous sums of money will accrue to the Government by way of tax on North Sea oil. That money should not be spent on day to day general expenditure. It should be used for investment to ensure that our power supplies are refurbished when they come to an end. Any Government should do that. They should put aside money annually and invest it in replacing that power when it is lost. The money will not be wasted.

The power of the future will be nuclear power. Solar energy and other benign forms of energy can only contribute a small percentage to our demand for power. They might replace hydro-electric power, but most of our future power will come from the development of nuclear energy. There is no other way. The Friends of the Earth may prove to be the enemies of the people unless they keep their arguments in proper balance.

I now turn to the more technical aspects. The Government should reach a fairly speedy decision on the fast breeder reactor. A decision cannot be long delayed. We still have an advantage over the rest of the world. If we are right that nuclear power is the power of the future there will be a shortage of uranium as surely as there will be a shortage of oil. The fast breeder reactor therefore requires more urgent consideration than has been given by the Minister today. He talked of the various problems involved with the fast breeder reactor. I advise him to read the speech by Lord Hinton of Bankside who talks of the stability of the nuclear stage and says that the fast breeder reactor produces greater internal stability than other forms of nuclear equipment. It is a pity that nuclear fusion seems to have been hit on the head by rows between the French and British Government.

The immediate problem that faces the country is that there is no immediate demand for further power stations. It would be folly to build further power stations now. We must concentrate on one area so that we can keep our nuclear teams with us and find employment for many people in heavy power engineering—and they must be mainly in the export industry.

The Government have wasted time. They were probably right as an economy to cut £40 million out of their programme on the SGHWR last July. The reports which have been published both by the "Think Tank" and the Select Committee clearly show that the SGHWR, or even the AGR, offers little chance of export gains over the next few years. The Government and the House must do some pride swallowing in the immediate future and accept that this Government, and perhaps the last Government, made a mistake. If there is no immediate demand—although there is an enormous middle and long-term demand—for nuclear stations we must concentrate on the export aspect. I believe that that can be done now only by operating under licence from the United States, Sweden or German on what I believe are called the light water reactors, whether it be PWR or the boiling water reactor.

This is a decision that ought to be taken by the Government in the near future. They ought to take the decision rather than toy with the idea of building a new coal-fired power station at Drax, where already there has been trouble.

This area of nuclear power is an area in which undoubtedly we have had a lead. It is a lead that we may have lost, but we have excellent people who should be kept in employment and given enecouragment and who should be able to see that they have a future ahead of them.

Therefore, I make three points. The Minister really must decide, and tell the House soon, what the energy policy of this country is to be over the next 20 years. Secondly, the present Government and any future Government should assure the country that they will not dissipate in day-to-day expenditure resources that flow from oil but will put money aside for seeing that the power institutions of Britain are properly kept in order. Thirdly, a decision should be taken, and soon, on the ways of keeping our exports of nuclear fuel, nuclear plant and nuclear machinery effective.

Those are decisions that the Government should take within this Parliament, if not within the next few months.

6.22 p.m.

Mr. Robin F. Cook (Edinburgh, Central)

I feel compelled to begin by advising the House that I never wear sandals and that I much prefer morning rolls to brown bread. Perhaps it is as well to put that on record, because some of what I am about to say may be construed as hostile to and critical of the nuclear industry. Because that is the case, perhaps it is as well that I also put on record that, although the burden of what I shall say will relate to the oxide reprocessing plant, as it is part of the operations to be financed by the moneys released by the Bill, that does not necessarily imply that I am opposed to all the other operations that will be financed by the money released by the Bill. On the contrary, I accept as essential and desirable the development of the new Magnox reprocessing plant and particularly the vitrification plant that will also be partly financed by the money released under this provision.

I should like to say to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer), through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and it is a general point worthy of consideration, that those of us who have made speeches critical of expansion of the nuclear industry do not therefore necessarily criticise all that has been achieved so far, do not necessarily want to undermine the present state of the nuclear industry, and do not necessarily oppose even a modest expansion of the present nuclear industry.

However, what terrifies us is to read documents, such as the evidence of the Atomic Energy Authority to the Royal Commission, which forecast a twentyfold increase in nuclear power generation by the end of the century, or to look at the Marshall Plan, produced by the Department, which suggests increases in such generation of between tenfold and twentyfold by the end of the century. We are seriously concerned, and it is very difficult indeed to reconcile those very ambitious expansionist plans with the calm balance to which my hon. Friend referred and for which he was asking.

The Secretary of State referred to the amount of information that he has made available to the public and the House since taking over his present post at the Department of Energy. I think that all hon. Members will welcome the additional information we have been given about the nuclear power industry over the last few months. However, it has to be said in this debate that we are in some difficulty in debating a measure that provides some £500 million in loans to BNFL and the nuclear industry and a further £400 million in guarantees when we do not yet have the Government's response to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution.

It is only four months since the Royal Commission lodged its report. I entirely accept that four months is not an unusual delay for a Government to have in coming to a considered view, though it must be said that we might be more tolerant of that four month delay had it not been for the fact that the Chief Scientist at the Department of Energy appeared on the same day on which the report was published to give his own reactions to the report at a Press conference organised by the Atomic Energy Authority, aptly dubbed by the New Scientist as the "Anti-Report Press Conference". Nevertheless we accept that the Government have difficulty in proposing a response to such a lengthy document. However, it is difficult for us to come to a view, in particular on the reprocessing plant, to which I shall now direct my remarks, till we have the Government's response to some observations of the Royal Commission.

For instance, Recommendation No. 38, to which I referred earlier in an intervention, says that there will be no environmental advantage in returning treated waste to the country of origin. What is the Government's response to that? If the Government's response is to accept the advice of the Royal Commission that there is no environmental case for returning treated and vitrified waste to Japan—and after all, as the Royal Commission points out, if one believes in geological burial it is daft to send it to Japan, which is an area of earthquakes—what is the help to the House in knowing that in the contract there is provision for insisting that the waste be sent back? This is a precise recommendation to which we must have the Government's response before we can resolve in our own minds the question of the reprocessing plant which will be producing a large amount of that waste.

There is also, and more fundamentally, paragraph 378, which says, If it were eventually decided that the use of fast reactors could and should be avoided or indefinitely postponed … the option of not reprocessing"— I repeat, "not reprocessing"— the fuel elements is one that should then be seriously evaluated. In other words, taking the logic of that paragraph, it would be more sensible and rational to decide, first, whether we are to have a programme of fast reactors in the foreseeable future before we resolve the questions of building and providing finance for the reprocessing unit, which makes economic sense only—I shall return to this point—if we are to have a programme of fast reactors.

If I may return to something said by my right hon. Friend in opening the debate, in answer to an intervention from an Opposition Member, if I caught my right hon. Friend rightly I think that he said that it was essential that we should have a reprocessing facility for our AGR programme. I am only a layman in these matters and I stand to be corrected if I am wrong, but I always understood that it was not essential to reprocess the fuel of the AGR programme. We know that in the Canadian programme oxide fuel does not need reprocessing. On a recent visit that I made to Windscale, accompanied by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield. Heeley (Mr. Hooley) it was made plain in private conversation by a scientist on the Harvest project that there was no particular advantage in first reprocessing. In other words, one can go straight from spent fuel to vitrification or deep burial. Reprocessing is not necessarily an essential part of the fuel cycle.

There is another document before the House in this debate besides the report of the Royal Commission. That is the report of the Committee of Public Accounts. That Committee made a report six months ago in which it touched on BNFL's finances. In referring to the future capital programme of the company, it said that the programme should not go ahead unless there are good prospects, carefully assessed, of a fully adequate return, bearing in mind the degree of commercial risk involved. Frankly, when we come to regard the Bill, it is quite clear that the only people who will be taking a commercial risk are the public and the taxpayers, because at the end of the day it will be Government who will he liable for repaying any loans to the company and Government who will be liable for making repayment to any customer whose contract BNFL has not been able to fulfill. The commercial risk, such as it is, is being taken entirely by the State.

If we look at the history of oxide fuel reprocessing we find that it is not surprising that the private sector has been very 10th to commit itself in this field because, although very little oxide fuel reprocessing has been done since the start of nuclear energy generation, the losses in that time have been very impressive. For instance, in the United States the Midwest plant, which was built and completed some years ago, has never come on stream, and the investment in that plant of $64 million has been written off. Similarly, the Getty plant, also in the United States, has now ceased to trade, and the company is desperately trying to get out of contracts for some $180 million worth of reprocessing because it estimates that to carry through those contracts would cost it between three and 10 times the original contracted figure. In other words, in both cases the United States, with a nuclear energy business which compares with our own, has found it impossible to make the operation commercially viable and successful.

It is relevant to look at the two reasons why they have failed to make a commercial success of the business. The first is that both the two plants in operation and the third plant being brought on stream constantly had to face improvements in the regulations for environmental standards and radiation protection. As I have said, I am a layman; I am not a technical man, but I am moved to ask, if it is proving so expensive to reprocess oxide fuel in America, and if it is going to be comparatively so much cheaper to do it in Britain, is it not possible that part of the reason is that the regulations, the radiation protection standards, we are setting are that much lower? I note that only last month the United States Environmental Protection Agency produced radiation standards for protecting the public, 20 times more stringent than those in operation in the United Kingdom. This was reported in an article in the New Scientist which added that these standards will be particularly relevant in the vicinity of reprocessing units. I do not think that any hon. Member can be happy at providing the finance for the development of such a plant when our environmental radiation standards are, by a factor of 20, very much behind those of the United States.

There is a contrast in that the discharge rate from Windscale has clearly gone up in the past five or six years. Over the latest two years, for which figures are available, the level of discharge of caesium has gone up tenfold. Given all that, it is difficult to believe that Wind-scale will be able substantially to increase the amount of fuel reprocessing whilst keeping the level of discharge to even the present—by historical standards—comparatively high levels.

The other reason why the United States has failed to develop a commercial oxide fuel reprocessing industry is the concern of its Government to control reprocessing from the point of view of arms control. We have to take on board the expressions of concern in America by the Administration, by ex-President Ford, and by President Carter when he was Presidential candidate. It is a serious and challenging question. It not only touches the internal security of each nuclear country which develops a reprocessing plant, but there is also the proliferation of nuclear weapons which will undoubtedly come about if there is an expansion of reprocessing facilities throughout the world.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-East indicated that there is a difference between the generations on their perception of nuclear power. At the end of the war, many were in favour of nuclear power, while many of those not present at the time—for example, the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon), and I myself, who was not born at the time—and who have since come into the House, have become rather more sceptical of the potential of nuclear power generation.

Undoubtedly, one of the reasons for the different perceptions is that, at the end of the war, when the major Powers were embarking on nuclear weapon programmes, it was found that they were so costly and consumed so much effort that there was a natural assumption that lesser States would never be able to follow them down this road. It is only now that we are able fully to grasp that once a country is given a nuclear energy industry it will be comparatively easy for it to use that industry to transform itself into a nuclear weapon State.

Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South)

Is my hon. Friend unable to perceive that perhaps the converse of the argument applies? If it is a fact that there are nuclear power stations scattered throughout the country, is it not far better to concentrate the reprocessing industry in highly developed technological countries, to prevent the kind of scenario he is describing?

Mr. Cook

I entirely accept that there is a case for regional reprocessing plants. If we were developing Windscale for a European regional reprocessing plant I would be prepared to think again on that question, but that is a different business altogether from the development of a reprocessing plant partly for one's own domestic industry and partly on a purely commercial basis to take on all comers—for instance the contract with the Japanese which appears to suggest that plutonium is returnable in a form which is suitable for use in weapons.

Two years ago I went to the German Embassy to express my concern over Germany's announced intention to sell a reprocessing plant to Brazil. I was received with great courtesy and treated with great sincerity by the staff. I asked one of the diplomats who was involved in the contract what was the point in selling Brazil a reprocessing plant when, after all, the economics of reprocessing were doubtful. He accepted that the economics of reprocessing plants were very dubious, but said that the Brazilians saw Western European nations developing reprocessing plants and, therefore, refused to believe that they were uneconomic and wanted one of their own to prove it for themselves. That is an understandable reaction. If we are to say that a reprocessing plant is essential to running a nuclear energy industry many other nations will say the same and will try to follow us. That is one reason why we must pause and carefully consider the matter before taking such a step.

Quite apart from the arguments of environmental standards and radiation protection, and quite apart from the arguments about nuclear proliferation, there are strong grounds for doubt about the economics of reprocessing plants. After all, it all depends on the commercial value of the plutonium at the end of the reprocessing. Plutonium will only have a significant commercial value if it is used as fuel in a programme of fast breeder reactors.

Here we come to the root of my reservations about the proposed development. In two decades we have put a large amount of investment into our nuclear industry. At one point it was suggested that AGR did not burn uranium oxide but paper money. At the end of two decades, after substantial investment, with a large ongoing programme, we have reached a point where it is difficult to put it into reverse. The logic of that process is the continual expansion of the nuclear energy programme. We are reaching the point where the Concorde syndrome is in danger of setting in. Perhaps it has already set in.

I was struck by a speech of the managing director of BNFL, Coningsby Allday, last month when he said: Unless we use plutonium as a fuel in fast reactors the vast amounts of money which have been spent in developing nuclear energy will have been largely wasted. … I believe that having spent so much and having got so far down the road, now is not the time at which to turn fainthearted. In other words, having spent so much already, we have to build a fast breeder reactor and a reprocessing plant in order to capitalise on what we have already invested. If that is the view he was taking last month, how much more will it be his view tomorrow, after we have voted to increase the Government's lending capital to his company sevenfold? How much more will it be his view 10 years from now when he has spent the money, has built the plant, and will require a fast breeder reactor in order to sell the plutonium and make economic sense of the reprocessing plant?

Mr. Peter Rost (Derbyshire, South-East)

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not wish to misrepresent his case. Does not he agree that the real reason for wishing to proceed with the reprocessing plant is not the investment already made in fast breeder reactor technology but the probable shortage of fuel? If we are to have any nuclear power at all the next generation must be fast breeder.

Mr. Cook

The forecasting of uranium and thorium resources is complex, and I do not want, in the sixteenth minute of my speech, to get involved in it, but if one accepts the Atomic Energy Authority's programme of a twenty-fold increase in nuclear power generation, and that that is the only way to meet energy demand, I would accept that the corollary is that one will have severe difficulty in obtaining one's fuel, and that the logic may be to build fast breeder reactors to maximise its use. But I do not accept that the only course open to the nation in order to maintain electricity supply is the scenario of the AEA of a twenty-fold increase in nuclear power generation. I think that there are other ways in which we could meet that energy demand.

There is an obverse side to the coin. We here are all conscious that public expenditure is finite. We would differ as to where to draw the line—there are differences between the two sides of the House and, perhaps, between the Government and me on the matter—but we all accept that public expenditure is finite. The resources that we put into the nuclear industry and are providing in this Bill are, perhaps, best judged in terms of where we are not going to be able to put those resources, having spent them on the nuclear industry. In the case of the Department of Energy, that must mean that the resources we put into nuclear energy will not be available to alternative forms of energy production.

It is a considerable irony that we are debating the Bill on the day when the newspapers carry reports that scientists in Australia have succeeded in a break-through to solar energy, having developed a process whereby they can produce sufficient energy from solar energy to bring water to boiling point. I do not know whether the scientists who achieved this feat eat brown bread and wear sandals, or whether they are right, but, if they have genuinely achieved such a breakthrough, I suspect that their innovation will have greater repercussions for employment and exports for their country than anything we are able to achieve for ourselves through an oxide reprocessing plant.

It may well be that, given the nature of our climate and country, it would have been unrealistic to have expected us to make a breakthrough in solar energy, but I do not believe that we are incapable of harnessing the resources of the waves and tides around our comparatively small island, with our considerable maritime and offshore technological expertise. We can do it if we are prepared to put resources into such projects, rather than spend 80 times as much on research into nuclear energy as we do on all alternative forms of energy combined.

In a speech two months ago Sir Brian Flowers pointed out that we have a considerable period between now and 1990 when, at the earliest, an energy gap is going to appear. He rightly went on to say that that period must not be an excuse for delay but a period in which we develop alternative options. My fear is that, by diverting so much of our resources, as we are doing by this Bill, into the single nuclear industry option, we are sealing off the other options and committing ourselves irrevocably to the road towards nuclear dependency, which is precisely the option about which the Royal Commission expressed so many disquieting and disturbing fears.

6.45 p.m.

Mr. David Penhaligon (Truro)

I start with two asides, one of them about something that annoys me no end. I made an effort not long ago in an Adjournment debate on the Windscale inquiry to outline a number of very technical questions. The Minister in that debate, who was from the Department of the Environment, replied that he was not technically responsible for answering them. Today we have with us a Minister from the Department of Energy who, when asked a number of environmental questions, replies that he is not technically responsible for answering them. I recognise that both are right, because that is the way their various responsibilities lie, but it is a nonsense in a matter in which environment and technology are so closely intertwined that it is, in my view, impossible to unravel them. I should like the Prime Minister to make a Minister responsible for both aspects.

Secondly, the Minister's speech was somewhat difficult to follow. He spent most of his time outlining good reasons why he was against the Bill, but at the end he said that all the arguments against the Bill had been thoroughly investigated and dismissed. That was the end of his references to them. He outlined six categories about which, he said, there was great public concern. At one time or another I shall mention most of them in my few words. I think that there is some possibility that the Liberals tonight will vote against the Bill. However, we seek first a number of assurances or specific answers which may well stop us from doing so.

Comment has been made about the change in attitude towards nuclear energy since 1945. It is hardly surprising. For 30 years, in one form or another we have been trying to solve this problem and we have not done so. The world has spent enormous sums of money on the great growth of the peaceful uses of energy, but a clean and environmentally safe form of energy has not been achieved. I am not prepared to say that it never will be achieved, so I do not join those who say "Let us give it up as a bad job". With some assurance and care, I think that we can carry on along this path, but we are naģve if we believe that we are near the end of it, and even more naive if we believe that getting to the end of it is going to be cheap.

I should like reassurance that in no circumstances within the United Kingdom will plutonium in a form suitable for making a guerrilla bomb or a homemade bomb be transported. I am assured by people who are technically more competent than I that there is no actual proposal to use plutonium as such in any form of reactor, and that it will be mixed up with various oxides. Therefore, why cannot we insist, if we have to cart this stuff around, that the oxides are mixed up with the plutonium at the processing plant? This would at least make it virtually impossible for terrorist organisations to separate the two, although we are being naive if we do not recognise that virtually any country could separate the two materials. But such a step would at least make it impossible for a terrorist organisation to do so.

I also want an assurance that no further overseas material will be accepted in this country till the reprocessing plant is proved to work, that the glassification process is proved to work, and that a safe disposal place is found for the material when these two objectives are achieved. We hardly appear to need some of the material here for research purposes. We heard even today of the ponds overflowing with stuff we do not know what to do with. If this is the technological problem, if this is the area in which we have not got a solution, then I suggest that each country that wishes to use nuclear power should be responsible for looking after its own rubbish.

These are basically the assurances we seek, but I want to outline a number of other concerns to which the Liberals are increasingly applying their minds. We have some doubt about the nuclear future, but it is the plutonium future which concerns us most. As I understand it, if we are to have fast breeder reactors, we have to have plutonium: that is the end of the conversation; there are no "ifs" or "buts".

It has been said that if one uses fusion instead of fission, there is a possibility of not using plutonium.

Mr. Skeet

In a Magnox reactor plutonium is produced and in a fast breeder reactor it is used. If it is kept in stocks from the Magnox, it can be stolen, but no thief will go into the central core of an FBR to retrieve it.

Mr. Penhaligon

That sounds simple, but as I understand it it has to be reprocessed to make it suitable for the fast breeder reactor.

Some people fear that as this material is transported from one station to another —presumably they will not be on the same site—there is substantial danger; that that is when it is most likely to be stolen.

The House will not need to be warned that there are basically two problems—handling the material in preparation for use and the disposal and handling of waste. We are not desperately happy about the first, but today I will stick to the second.

As I understand it, the proposal is that we should construct a unit capable of commercially reprocessing nuclear fuel and separating the plutonium, that the plutonium will be returned to its place of origin and that the waste left over will be glassified into blocks which will be disposed of either underground—in granite, clay or salt—or under the sea.

I have some doubts about that scenario, but let us go through the details. The waste material is said to be safe in the ponds which now exist. It is only fair to point out exactly what that means. I understand that those ponds are guarded and the temperature of the waste monitored night and day and that if the waste stays there it will be there for a long time before anyone would dare handle it. Estimates range from 500 to 500,000 years. It makes little difference which is correct in terms of the responsibility of this Parliament.

If nuclear energy is to become our main source of electrical production and the waste problem is not solved it is possible that the ponds could increase in size and number throughout the country. Someone has called them potential pools of death. Even if we were prepared to store our own rubbish, I am certainly not prepared to vote for this country storing other people's rubbish. How much of the rubbish which is now in this country comes from elsewhere? How much is currently coming in, and does the Minister intend to stop it?

The argument has been advanced with some enthusiasm—I think by the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall)—that it is better for good old stable Britain to do it.

Mr. Jim Marshall

I do not think that I mentioned any particular country. My point was that, if there is to be reprocessing, in the interests of non-proliferation of nuclear bombs it is best that it should be done in countries that have the high-class technology to do it.

Mr. Penhaligon

It would certainly be difficult to do the reprocessing in a country without the technology to do it. I accept the hon. Member's correction, but some people have argued that the reprocessing should be done in Britain because of our political stability. At this moment I would remind those who argue in that way that there is a strike at the company where the reprocessing will be done, involving about 4,000 people. A couple of weeks ago, there were bombs in the main street of this country's capital. We also have the never-ending problem of Northern Ireland, which this House decides not to talk about in the hope that the problem will eventually go away. We are at the moment discussing devolution to Scotland and Wales and we have many race problems. Who can possibly say what will happen in this country in the next 250 years? It is naive and just not acceptable to think up a scheme which commits us to 200 to 400 years of storage.

Mr. Palmer

Is not the hon. Gentleman's argument a curious one for a Liberal? I understood that Liberals were free traders and internationalists, certainly not economic nationalists. Surely nuclear processing is an interdependent world concern?

Mr. Penhaligon

There is some truth in that. I intend later to outline what I believe is the solution, and why I believe that the European connection is the avenue through which the world, or at least the European, problem will be solved.

If reprocessing works we shall be landed with plutonium. I cannot accept the argument that no terrorist will go for the plutonium because of personal danger. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that personal danger does not influence such people. I have read papers from various American sources which say that the aspect which concerns them most is the possibility of proliferation not of the most technical bombs but of a rather crude affair which could do substantial damage.

Let us assume that the separation and glassification process works. The next part of the scenario is finding a dump. The Western Isles and Cornwall seem to be two of the most favoured places for this. I should have thought that the clay deposits in London would have been worth investigation, but it is the aforementioned two places which have been and are being investigated.

With my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe) I recently met some officials from the Department of Energy, to discuss the Cornwall aspect, but the opportunity was taken to explore the general level of technology available for this solution. I was somewhat disturbed. It appears that at this moment, in collaboration with the Camborne School of Mines, a series of tests has been embarked upon. They consist essentially of using holes which the school happens to have handy—Cornwall is full of holes, and it is not difficult to find a handy one —and putting into them packages such as it is visualised will be used for storing the glassified material.

Instead of being filled with nuclear material the canisters will be filled with electrical heating elements. The object of the test is to discover how heat is dissipated in granite. I was staggered by this, since I should have thought that the answer to that problem was already known, but I am assured that it is not. I was similarly staggered that the tests should be done in Cornwall since Cornwall is being dismissed as a possible long-term store because our rock has a great deal of water in it. However, apparently it is suitable for tests to check heat dissipation characteristics. Will not the same water affect those characteristics?

I do not say this just because I am from Cornwall, but it seems to me that at the present level of technology available for solving this problem the "separate and dump" answer is the wrong one. Other conversations that I have had suggest that if we had a choice we would not put this material down a hole but would put it on the bottom of the sea. Given a choice, I suspect that the average Cornishman, and indeed anyone else, would vote for that option. However, we have recently signed international agreements banning that sort of solution. I do not know whether we can unsign them so far as they relate to the disposal of one of the most toxic materials known to man, but we have signed agreements saying that the sea will not be used for the disposal of these materials. Yet it looks like the most likely and attractive disposal place. I should be interested to know how the Minister expects to handle that matter.

There have been several references today to what, I believe, is the biggest scandal of all—namely, the disparity between the amount of money spent on nuclear energy as a possible answer to our energy problems and the amount spent on other possible solutions. I am pleased that this has now become a general cry from hon. Members on both sides of the House. The hon. Members for Bridgwater (Mr. King), Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) and Bristol, North-East referred to the enormous disparity in financial provision for nuclear energy and alternative sources of energy. Those of us who believe that there might be alternatives to nuclear energy want to see a substantial increase in the amount of money devoted to alternative solutions. It would do our confidence good if we thought that the Government were taking seriously the question of alternative sources of energy.

A further point is the financial consequence of the Bill. I asked two questions today to try to unravel this serious question. I understand that at one time the banks offered £100 million towards solving this problem and that the Japanese offered about £200 million, and I have heard rumours of other offering the odd million here and there. The Bill seems to give an open guarantee to various people that, if the research takes place but fails—not that the inquiry would not allow it to take place—and we are unable to carry out the contracts, we shall return every single last farthing of this money to the people involved. I am sure that is the agreement with the banks, but I am not sure whether it is the agreement with the Japanese. Presumably one could under these circumstances arrange to borrow money to build a papier mache bridge from Cornwall to New York, because the person lending the money would be taking no risk at all. He would be lending money for a lunatic scheme in the certain knowledge that, if it did not work, the Government would pay back every penny.

It seems that Britain is on the verge of taking on both the financial and physical problems of the world. To try to solve the nuclear waste disposal problems of the world seems an unreasonable burden to take on merely in the hope that, at the end of the day, there might be some money in it.

Reference has been made to projects that have lost money. I think that I probably read the same paper as the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central because I have the same figures as he has. These are colossal figures for companies which have got involved in the supply of materials for the treatment of nuclear waste. Getty Nuclear Fuel Servicing has been shut down, and it is trying to get out of a contract which could severely embarrass even that financial empire. I did not know that financial contracts were signed at that level.

I understand that many people in Government departments in Europe believe that the whole idea of recycling plutonium may not be the answer at all, and that it might be cheaper to find more sites where we can dig up the basic material and dispose of it immediately after it is used.

What worries me is that, if we are not careful, the argument that the Japanese will go to France instead may well be being used by the Japanese in France. The Japanese may be telling the French that they are doing well because they are getting ahead of Britain. I believe in competition and free enterprise, but I am not enthralled by the possibility of one country competing with another to be the first to achieve success in this particular programme, with all the risks involved.

I was one of those who compaigned enthusiastically to join the Common Market. I sometimes wonder whether I am now as enthusiastic as I was. If the Common Market, direct elections to Europe, and the whole paraphernalia of the Federal State of Europe is to mean anything, Europe must take such problems on board. It is nonsense for one country in Europe to take risks in competition with others to find a solution to this problem.

I shall not promise opposition to the Bill. I shall listen carefully to the Minister's reply. To a certain extent, one is loth to end a period of general agreement in this House, and anyway we do not oppose every proposal in this Bill. However, the Liberal Party is tonight precious near to breaking that agreement. If the Minister can assure me on the points that I have raised we shall be able to continue the present concord.

7.5 p.m.

Mr. Frank Hanley (Sheffield, Heeley)

I should like to begin by quoting from paragraph 512 of the Flowers Report—the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution: The basic belief of the Department of Energy and the AEA is that nuclear fission using the fast breeder reactor is the only real option for meeting our future energy needs. We tear that on this premise there may be a gradual step by step progression to overriding dependence on nuclear power through tacit acceptance of its inevitability, and a gradual foreclosing of other options that might have been available had they been exercised in time. That sums up very well the objections to this untimely Bill, which is part of the step by step progression to the use of the fast-breeder reactor about which I and other people have very serious reservations.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State somewhat whimsically said that the Bill authorises expenditure of only £1,000 million. Opposition Members questioned that figure, but I think that it is perfectly clear from the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum that that is the sum of money involved. It states: Clause 2 sets new limits on the capital payments … in the case of BNFL these are £300 million (which may be increased by order"— which involves the very minimum or surveillance by the House— up to £500 million) … A separate limit of £400 million (which may be increased by order up to £500 million) is imposed on the aggregate of guarantees given in relation to advance payments made by customers of BNFL. We have a potential commitment of public expenditure of £1,000 million. It will not do for the Government and hon. Members to say that it is only a guarantee and that the expenditure may never occur. It is clearly important to the Japanese and to BNFL. If they regard it as an important part of the contract, we must take it seriously as part of the financial commitment of the Bill.

What is the purpose of this enormous sum of money? It is clearly to establish the possibility of the reprocessing of the oxide fuel for the production of uranium for the fast breeder. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has explained, there are three elements to the Bill. There is the question of the Magnox fuel and the vitrification process. My right hon. Friend said that dealing with the Magnox fuel would cost £245 million and the vitrification £40 million, which makes a total of £285 million against a total provision in the Bill of £1,000 million.

It is clear that the Department of Energy and the BNFL believe that the crucial feature of the Bill is the provision of money for the reprocessing of the oxide fuel, and for accepting the overseas contracts to do just that. Why is this so important? Some hon. Members have suggested that nuclear power is the answer to all our power problems and that we cannot rely on oil, gas or coal. It is argued that we therefore have to go for the nuclear option. What is meant is that there are serious disputes and differences of opinion about the availability of uranium world wide. It is argued that even if we did decide to get the uranium only 1 per cent. of its capacity could be usefully used in nuclear reactors unless we go for the fast breeder reactor, in which case 60 times the effective power contained in uranium could be made use of. That is really the substance and the nub of the Bill.

Notwithstanding the caveats of my right hon. Friend about the planning application—I entirely accept his good faith on this issue—we must regard the Bill as paving the way for the fast breeder reactor as our future nuclear system. Otherwise, the sums of money involved do not make sense. We do not require anything approaching £1,000 million to deal with the Magnox fuel problem and the experimental vitrification.

I would quote again from paragraph 521 of the Royal Commission Report. It states: We regard the future implications of a plutonium economy"— obviously that is the fast breeder reactor— as so serious that we would not wish to become committed to this course unless it is clear that the issues have been fully appreciated and weighed. … We are perfectly clear that there has so far been very little official consideration of these matters. Admittedly, that was a report published last September arising from considerations over perhaps 12 or 18 months. It may well be that the Department of Energy, BNFL and others have given greater consideration to these matters since that time.

But the fact is that the nuclear debate was brought to a head in this country—although it has been going on for some time elsewhere—by two issues: first, the publication of the Royal Commission Report itself in September last year; secondly, the planning application for the extension at Windscale to deal with the oxide fuel reprocessing and particularly the Japanese contract, which caused a great deal of public concern.

I am advised that next year there will be enough capacity at Windscale for dealing with the domestic requirements of oxide fuel reprocessing. If that is true, it means that the argument about having to have this capacity anyway because of the AGRs falls to the ground. What we are being asked to do in the Bill is to provide equipment and funds mainly for the overseas contracts, particularly the Japanese contract, and that it would be perfectly feasible for BNFL to go ahead and deal with its own oxide fuel from the AGRs without the provisions of the Bill at all.

The Minister should answer that point and say whether it is correct. Whether it is or not, there remains the point that it is not essential to reprocess this fuel at all. In fact, President Ford, in announcing his moratorium on reprocessing in the United States, stated quite clearly—presumably on high-powered advice—that the United States: should no longer regard the reprocessing of nuclear fuel as a necessary and inevitable step.' It will not do to argue that if we want a a nuclear policy or nuclear stations we must have this oxide fuel reprocessing plant. It is not an essential part of the issue.

Incidentally, uranium is the only source of power of which we have no indigenous supply. If we are to take account of uranium in the light of known world sources, then probably the reprocessing and the use of the fast breeder will become inevitable, and the Bill is part of that step.

The House and the public are therefore entitled to examine some of the hazards associated with the use of plutonium as a fuel for our power resources. The hazards of the plutonium economy were well enumerated by the Secretary of State. I was interested to note that the list of issues that I wanted to touch on coincided almost exactly with the six headings that my right hon. Friend gave as the problems we would have to solve if we were to move forward with the fast breeder reactor and the reprocessing of oxide fuel on any scale.

These, of course, are the health of the workers involved, the waste disposal problem, the risk of accidents, security against terrorism and the international dangers of the proliferation of nuclear weapons. I accept that great care has been taken by BNFL and public authorities such as the National Radiation Protection Board to enforce and bring in health safeguards for those involved in working with this enormously dangerous substance. But the Royal Commission made some criticism of the present arrangement. It found it rather surprising that the NRPB played a peripheral and not a focal rôle in health. It criticised the NRPB specifically for not following up throughly enough the incidence of leukemia among plutonium workers at Windscale. It also criticised the fact that the NRPB did not appear to be as completely independent and separate from the AEA as it should be. The Royal Commission felt that it should not only be independent but clearly be seen to be independent.

One or two tragic deaths of workers at Windscale have recently been reported in the Press. Whether these are to be regarded as particularly significant I do not know. I can only say that they have raised some disquiet and have led to actions in the courts for compensation from BNFL. There was the case of John Troughton who died in 1975 of a malignant disease of bone marrow. There was Harry King who died in 1973 and it was known that he had traces of plutonium of the brain. Both were plutonium process workers.

There was the recently startling case of 22-year-old David Berry who died from a cancerous disease of the blood only two months after spending 12 or 14 months as a worker at Windscale. Yet he was a perfectly healthy individual when he took up his post.

I understand that BNFL is now carrying out a wide-ranging research into the medical records of 20,000 workers. As well as examining the medical records of people at the plant, BNFL, is also trying to follow up those who have left the plant. I am glad to hear this. I am less enthusiastic about the fact that it has taken BNFL over three years to make up its mind to undertake this far—reaching investigation into the health hazards of its workers.

A rather disquieting report, which I gather has not been published, was made by two British medical workers at the Hanford plant in the United States concerning the incidence of cancer among workers there. They investigated the medical records of nearly 4,000 workers from 1944 to 1972, which showed a high incidence of cancer among people who worked at that plant. Therefore, I think that there are health hazards which we do not have completely under control, which perhaps we do not fully understand, and which require very thorough investigation by fully independent and high-powered bodies.

In saying that, I do not criticise the provisions which have been made, and I I am not criticising BNFL. I am saying that there may exist hazards which we do not expect, which we could not foresee, the nature of which was not fully known, and which only now are we making more detailed and thoroughgoing investigations to establish.

I am well aware of the argument that there are other industries—coal mining is often cited—where there are considerable dangers in respect of life and limb to the people working in them. But I do not think that that is a very good argument for adding to the hazards present in existing industries about which clearly we do not yet know enough.

Then there is the major and in many ways the most frightening problem of the nuclear power industry. It concerns the disposal of nuclear waste. We have to acknowledge that this is a problem which is just not solved. At the moment we are simply storing these highly dangerous waste substances. We do not know how to dispose of them. The Bill provides for an experimental scheme for vitrification, which may perhaps help in the disposal problem. But even then the chunks of radioactive glass material have to be disposed of somewhere.

The Royal Commission said quite bluntly that the picture was disquieting and that there had been insufficient appreciation of the problem by Government and other organisations. But there is a very serious cleavage of opinion at the moment among scientists and engineers about whether these wastes should be kept accessible under surveillance where they can be guarded, watched, monitored and checked, or whether we should try in some way to dispose of them under the ocean bed, in geological strata or salt domes where they will not cause future trouble. There is no sign of a consensus on this.

I attended a symposium in London a couple of months ago where there was vigorous argument amongst the most highly qualified scientists in the country. Some geologists were dubious about whether it was wise to bury these wastes in whatever form deep down in geological strata. Some took the view that for the foreseeable future we must simply keep these wastes where we could monitor, watch and check what was happening to them. But the ugly fact is that these wastes will be highly dangerous, poisonous substances for thousands of years. I believe that the half-life of plutonium is 24,000 years, and there are other substances which may be even worse than that.

It is obvious that at the moment we are nowhere in reach of producing a solution to this extremely difficult problem. Until we are in reach of it or have made serious progress towards it, it casts a serious shadow over the future of nuclear energy, whether we stick to thermal reactors or go for the fast breeder.

Reference has been made to the recommendation of the Royal Commission that we in this country should have a nuclear waste disposal corporation. There is considerable force in that. The Commission drew attention to the dispersal of responsibility for nuclear waste. There may be a case for drawing responsibility together under a highly expert central body.

There is the problem of pollution off the coast at Windscale. According to the NRPB, the plutonium deposit is building up steadily year by year in the sediment off the coast. It does not disappear. It simply builds up. At the moment it is held to be at a safe level. I hope that that is so. But it is being poured out from Windscale, and it is steadily accumulating. We do not know what will happen in that part of the sea over the next decade or two.

The third point concerns the possibility of accidents. Once again I accept that the British nuclear industry has a very good record. We had a serious accident at Windscale in 1973, which led to the discharge of radioactive gas and to a considerable amount of contamination in Cumberland. But to the best of my knowledge that is the most serious accident to have occurred in this country over the past three decades during the development of nuclear power.

However, I do not think that we can be confident that we shall avoid all possibility of accidents if we continue building station after station and if we are to become heavily dependent not on 14 or 20 nuclear power stations but on some 40 or 50. Clearly, the list of accidents will build up. What is more, if we go for plutonium as a fuel, transporting it from reprocessing plant to reactors creates additional hazards of its own. We have seen what can happen in the very tragic disaster which occurred at a chemical plant in Northern Italy. In our own country we had the equally tragic disaster at Flixborough. But we have to acknowledge what might be the consequences of a similar kind of accident if it involved this very dangerous radioactive substance. We should not shut our eyes to these possibilities however much we admire the security and the efforts made so far to avoid them.

Then there is the possibility of nuclear terrorism. The Royal Commission says categorically: The construction of a crude nuclear weapon by an illicit group is credible … The Government underrates this danger. In case hon. Members conclude that I am resting my arguments too heavily on the report of the Royal Commission, though it is a very important document, perhaps I may also remind them of the report of the Fox Commission in Australia, which went into this matter with care. In part of its report, it says: The evidence points strongly to the conclusion that very destructive nuclear explosive devices can be made from reactor grade plutonium produced in power reactors operated normally. The physical data needed to make such devices, with uncertain explosive yields but probably in the range of hundreds of thousands of tonnes equivalent of TNT, are available in the open literature. Construction of a nuclear explosive device is not of such complexity as to be beyond the apparent resources of existing terrorist organisations. Production of a device to disperse plutonium oxide in the atmosphere would be comparatively simple. The evidence indicates that undetected theft of small quantities of plutonium from reprocessing plants would probably be feasible, especially for trained organisations in countries with large nuclear industries … There is a very real risk that the opportunity and motive for nuclear blackmail will develop with time. So we have there a suggestion from another very high-powered Commission in different circumstances and in a different country which backs up the contention of the Flowers Report that nuclear terrorism is a possibility with which we have to contend. Only a short while ago this House took a lot of time to pass special legislation, the Atomic Energy Authority (Special Constables) Act, designed specifically to provide special safeguards for nuclear installations and to counter exactly that possibility.

Then there is the very complex and hotly disputed argument about the proliferation of nuclear weapons. I do not want to go into the details of that. The argument has ranged over 30 years and all kinds of opinions have been expressed about it. But it is only fair to draw attention to the fact that there is currently a major diplomatic row between Canada and Pakistan about reprocessing plant.

Strong pressure is being brought to bear by the United States on France in respect of its proposal to supply Pakistan with a reprocessing plant. The United States is also bringing pressure to bear on Germany in respect of its Brazilian contract. We already know that the Americans appear to take a rather uncertain or ambiguous view of whether it would be proper for Japan to send its fuel to this country for processing.

If we are seriously considering progressing towards a nuclear power economy, we cannot rule out the inter- national consequences of the production and use of plutonium on any considerable scale. There is a school of thought—I am afraid that it is not absent from the House—that regards those who criticise, oppose or express reservations about nuclear power as middle-class cranks who want to return to wood fires and spinning wheels and who have no regard to our industrial economy.

That is not so. The objections that have been raised and the problems that are being discussed by serious people on the issue of nuclear power and a progression towards a greater reliance upon it are also reflected in other countries. In Sweden the new Government have recently introduced tough proposals for the reprocessing of nuclear fuel and the disposal of nuclear waste. In West Germany the Government of North Rhine Westphalia, the largest industrial component of the Federal German Republic, stated categorically that there will be no nuclear stations until the waste disposal problems have been solved.

Reference has already been made to the statement by President Ford prior to the American election on the non-necessity of reprocessing nuclear fuel. It is generally accepted that President Carter takes an even stronger view about the dangers of nuclear power than his predecessors.

At the same time as countries as sophisticated as Sweden, Germany and the United States are expressing doubts, the House is being asked to authorise the Secretary of State to spend up to £1,000 million on plant that is designed to extend and continue the nuclear power policy. I suggest that that would be unwise.

7.33 p.m.

Mr. Peter Rost (Derbyshire, South-East)

I could not help getting the impression from the remarks of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) that he is not very happy about the Bill. The hon. Gentleman and I both serve on the Select Committee that for some years has been investigating various energy matters. It is presently considering the longer-term options that are open to us. I am in sympathy with the approach that the hon. Gentleman takes to nuclear power and environmental factors but I cannot agree with his conclusions.

I do not wish to enrol in the sandals and brown bread brigade, although I must admit that I have joined its ranks on the odd occasion. I have been accused of stirring up anti-nuclear or nuclear scaremongering stories. I believe that they have been unfair accusations. I have merely expressed the anxiety that seems to be coming from a wide area of the House about the longer-term uncertainties.

Although I have expressed anxieties and although I believe it to be one of my duties to remain vigilant in this respect, I am very much in support of the Bill. British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. is doing a first-class job. I wish that every nationalised industry produced 13 per cent. profit on its capital employed. I have confidence that any contracts that it undertakes both at home and abroad will be undertaken efficiently, safely and profitably.

Having said that, it is only right for me to continue by confirming that in the past in the House I have taken a fairly vigorous line in criticising the Government over various aspects of their policy, or lack of it. In particular, I have criticised the Government for not having taken seriously the possibilities of alternative energy sources. I have criticised them for not having allocated sufficient priority to research and development towards ascertaining the potentials and how they can be developed. I have criticised the Government for not having taken energy conservation more seriously and for not giving higher priority to cost-effective investment producing a more rational use of energy.

Indeed, I have criticised the Government for not having anticipated the sort of report that came from Sir Brian Flowers. They have failed to prepare public opinion adequately, and instead of taking the public along with them they have tried to conceal the real anxieties. If there had been a more open approach to the various unresolved questions concerning the future of nuclear power, we should not suddenly be faced with something of an environmental reaction that could be counter productive to the country's long-term interests.

Having expressed those criticisms, I support this measure wholeheartedlv. It is essential that we keep our nuclear options open. Although I have sympathy with some colleagues on both sides of the House who would prefer to see more emphasis on other energy solutions, such as renewable sources and, tidal, solar and wave power and, as we hope, eventually fusion power, and a greater emphasis on a more rational use of energy in other ways, and although I should like to see greater priorities and solutions in those areas, I accept that we are not at a stage where we should take the risk that solutions will come From those sources.

Until we are certain of that, and until we have done the work that will confirm that there are adequate and special alternatives to nuclear power, we must keep the nuclear option open. We must maintain a viable nuclear industry, and all the support that is necessary to do that must be secured. That includes the processing of nuclear fuel and the safe disposal of waste. It is for that reason that I support the Bill.

I am concerned about the attitude that seemed to be taken by the Secretary of State in his opening remarks in supporting this measure in a slightly lukewarm way. I detected a strong tone that he would like to keep the ball rolling on all the nuclear decisions that have to be taken, that he would like to keep his options open and to defer decisions over a whole range of energy strategy. I felt that he was using the present planning inquiry at Windscale as vet a further excuse for not taking any decisions. If I am right in those suspicions I hope that they will be denied by the Minister when he replies to the debate.

In the last two or three years there have been more decisions on energy deferred by this Government than decisions taken. I have in mind a whole list of problems that must be in the Secretary of State's "In" tray, and I cannot think of one problem that has gone into his "Out" tray. I accept that the right hon. Gentleman has made a helpful contribution in widening the debate on energy problems, but that must not be used as an excuse for not taking decisions. We have a national energy conference, energy debates on our nuclear future, and deferred decisions on a whole range of nuclear matters—to the point when the industry is almost in a state of collapse. We have had deferred decisions on the crucial electricity industry, whose reorganisation has been recommended by the Plowden Committee, but we have still had no indication of what the Government intend to do on that score.

We have now had the report of the "think tank"—the CPRS—on the heavy plant industry, and again we have had no reaction from the Government. We have had two years of deferred decision-taking on crucial matters touching energy conservation strategy, and there has not even been proper debate on the Select Committee's recommendations. Endless committees have deliberated on these matters and have given their advice in countless reports. The Government's chief scientist headed a committee into the possibilities of combined heat and power facilities, but again nothing happened. The Minister is almost encouraging the talking shop as an excuse for procrastination. We are waiting for an outline of the Secretary of State's energy strategy and how he sees the nuclear industry fitting into it.

In the meantime we are promised some kind of energy board. That is fair enough if it is to be an organisation that will help to shape strategy, but if it is to be another talking shop, I do not think that it will get us very much further.

In view of all these deferred decisions, we now have the prospect of a public inquiry at Windscale. I see that the Secretary of State is paying keen attention to my constructive criticisms and I hope that that inquiry will not be used as an excuse to defer for a period of two or three years essential decisions that must be taken if we are to proceed safely to produce fuel and to process the waste. Public inquiries and talking shops are no substitute for decision-taking. They do not allow Ministers the luxury of sheltering behind indecision or avoiding conclusions on the longer-term energy strategy.

I wholeheartedly support the Bill because it will allow us to keep our nuclear options open. I suspect that the Secretary of State supports this measure because he knows that our existing power stations will close unless they are improved and unless extended facilities are provided to reprocess the fuel. I believe that the right hon. Gentleman would prefer to procrastinate on those issues, but he must know that he has not that amount of time. Therefore, if only reluctantly, he has to support this Bill.

If I am wrong in that assessment, perhaps the Minister can make the situation clear when he replies to the debate. Perhaps he will be able to say that the Government heartily support the operations of BFNL in what must be an essential step towards keeping our nuclear options open in a safe manner, provided that we safeguard our environmental security as an essential back-up to the nuclear power industry.

7.46 p.m.

Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South)

I apologise for being absent during the opening speeches in this debate. That arose from no fear of the content of those speeches, but from the fact that I had a previous engagement which I could not cancel in time.

I welcome the Bill because, for the first time in many years, it shows some Government confidence, albeit lukewarm, in the nuclear industry. In my opinion the nuclear industry is under attack and the argument over the reprocessing programme is the tip of the iceberg. If we prevent the reprocessing facility from going ahead, we shall, as a matter of logic, kill the nuclear industry in this country. We must realise that Magnox fuel cladding erodes within a year and therefore has to be reprocessed within that period. I realise that oxide fuels can be kept for much longer periods, but there comes a time when ultimately the decision to reprocess that fuel must be taken. One cannot go on indefinitely collecting spent fuels because of the environmental danger.

Most hon. Members have quoted the Flowers Report by endeavouring to pull out of it those items that support their own point of view, but that report made clear that the reprocessing facility is an integral part of the nuclear industry and that once one cuts that cycle at the reprocessing point, the nuclear industry will collapse. I emphasise that the nuclear industry is under attack from certain quarters. I do not wish to implicate my right hon. Friend in that statement, except to say that to a great extent I agree with what was said by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Rost), who drew attention to the prevarication on certain nuclear matters which may have hindered the nuclear industry. That is the only degree to which I implicate my right hon. Friend.

Without doubt the nuclear industry is under attack. We have had quoted tonight the leakage at Windscale and other minor damage there as well. Here again the situation is highlighted and unfairly dramatised by my right hon. Friend's decision to have every little incident reported to him personally. It is like asking the Chairman of the National Coal Board to report to my right hon. Friend every time a miner loses his thumb down the pits. That kind of situation cannot continue because it over-dramatises incidents. A great service would be done to BNFL if the need to report directly to the Secretary of State every time some minor incident occurred was removed.

Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton)

Has it occurred to the hon. Member that if a requirement is made to ensure that such incidents are reported openly, honestly and frequently as a matter of course, this will, in many ways, ensure that public anxiety will be reduced and not increased? In this case I support the Secretary of State.

Mr. Marshall

I totally disagree. The implication behind what the hon. Member has said is that BNFL has something to hide. My right hon. Friend is on record as saying that BNFL has carried out its legal responsibilities and obligations in every law pertaining to the safety of the nuclear industry in this country. Therefore, it gives the wrong impression to imply that BNFL is trying to hide something. Certainly that is not so. The need to report every little incident tends to over-dramatise the situation. I would be foolish to deny that there are dangers—

Mr. Tom King

Personally, I support the hon. Member's view. It is the immediate reporting of incidents which highlights the point he makes. The need for the Secretary of State and the public to know immediately whenever a small incident has taken place is what causes the concern. The objectives of the Secretary of State could be met by regular reporting and full publication, without this added need of urgent and immediate reporting of every single incident.

Mr. Benn

I have now instituted a system for fulfilling what the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) has suggested—namely, normal reporting. I share the view that much anxiety is derived from the fact that incidents of a minor character in nuclear establishments have been kept quiet. This practice is not helpful to the nuclear industry. In fact, the industry has a record second to none in terms of incidents such as gas explosions. Yet public feeling is more sensitive to this industry because people tend to feel—and I agree that it is not satisfactory—that it is wrong to learn by a roundabout route later on of an incident which occurred in a plant which was under discussion at the time. The time will come when the industry will thank me for normalising its reporting of incidents rather than leaving it in a special category of secrecy.

Mr. Marshall

I thank my right hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King). When I rose seven minutes ago, I resolved that my speech should be very brief, and now that the big battalions on both sides have entered the debate during my contribution, and while I am very grateful, it is still my intention to be brief.

There are dangers in the nuclear industry, but one must accept that there are dangers in any industry in which one battles against the elements. In the coal industry, for example, when a miner goes down a pit to extract coal from the bowels of the earth he is confronted with danger, and in some cases may even lose his life. The trawlermen who battle against the elements of sea and wind face danger. Similarly—and the analogy is apt—when one battles against chemical elements one also faces dangers. But one attempts to minimise those dangers, and this has been done to a considerable degree in this country.

In this respect the record of the nuclear industry, among the fuel industries, is second to none, and we should be proud of it. It is a shining example to the rest of the world of what British technology can do when allied with good sense. I hope that this process will continue. We have a nuclear industry, and we want it to continue and flourish.

However, the attack on the industry has been helped by the lack of an energy policy. The oil price increase in 1973–74 concentrated the mind beautifully for about six months, and there were some beneficial consequences flowing from it. One of these was the conservation policy, and another was the plan for coal, which I welcome nearly as much as this Bill. These were two good things that came from the oil crisis.

But, despite his well-publicised national energy conference last year, and his recently publicised proposed energy committee, the Secretary of State still has no coherent energy policy in terms of demand for energy over the next 20 to 25 years. How can we determine a coherent policy for supplying that demand when we have no policy for ascertaining the demand? Despite the environmental lobbies, which want to see energy requirements reduced in absolute terms, which means a reduction in the standard of living of everyone in the developed world, all Governments will wish to continue increasing their peoples' standard of living. This implies an increase in GDP, which in turn necessitates an increase in absolute energy requirements.

The recent OECD Report "World Energy Output" pointed out that between 1960 and 1974 energy consumption and economic growth went almost hand in hand. They were practically in a 1:1 relationship. That has since been revised slightly, in view of the oil crisis and conservation policies. Even so, it is now predicted that in future the relationship between energy consumption and growth will be on a 0.84:1 basis. If one is looking forward to a period of continued growth, which most people want to see, one must look to increasing energy resources. In my view, and that of my right hon. Friend, coal will continue to play a big part, and perhaps a bigger part than hitherto. In spite of the platitudinous remarks about the so-called benign sources of energy, I believe that they will make no significant contribution to the country's energy requirements this century—in spite of the so-called breakthrough reported today. So, we shall be reliant on coal, and, to a degree, though a decreasing degree, on oil, and we shall therefore need a nuclear power industry.

I should like to see an expansion of the nuclear power industry. On any realistic and honest assessment, the industry will continue to make a contribution to the energy requirements of this country within my lifetime and, I strongly suspect, within the lifetimes of my children and their children. Whether we like it or not, we have to look forward to nuclear power continuing to make a large contribution to our energy requirements. We must, therefore, accept the logic of that. Reprocessing facilities will continue to be required. Here I should like to quote that eminent physicist Professor Flowers, who, in the company of others, put together the report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution.

What Professor Flowers says to some degree refutes the assertion that the only need for a reprocessing facility is in order to produce plutonium. That is total nonsense, as is implicit in what Professor Flowers says. In paragraph 130 the report says The extraction of plutonium still provides the main reason for reprocessing fuel: the element is valuable as a source of energy either in fast reactors or as a substitute for extra uranium-235 needed to enrich fuel in thermal reactors. There are other reasons. It would be possible to get enriched uranium from the reprocessed fuel, and this could be fed back into the normal thermal reactors. Professor Flowers indicates beyond any shadow of doubt that reprocessing is required and that it gives enriched uranium which can be used in the present generation of nuclear power stations. It also provides plutonium which might or might not be used in fast-breeder reactors but can certainly be used in the existing reactors to enrich the fuel.

Mr. Hooley

Does my hon. Friend not accept that known world supplies of uranium would be inadequate to sustain a massive nuclear programme for every industrialised country in the world, much less the developing countries? Therefore, it is much more meaningful to go for the plutonium for the fast-breeder reactor so as effectively to use existing uranium stocks.

Mr. Marshall

I accept that the plutonium could be used in fast-breeder reactors. I am in favour of the fast-breeder reactor, and I should like to see plutonium which is produced used in this way. But the argument this evening is not about the merits or demerits of the fast-breeder but about the need for BNFL to have more financial resources so that it can deal with the reprocessing required for the present generation of AGRs.

The second point put forward by Professor Flowers is in paragraph 131, and it shows how the critics of the nuclear industry turn the arguments on their heads. Professor Flowers says, quite rightly. Another reason for reprocessing irradiated nuclear fuel is the environmental one". One would never believe it from what has been said this evening, particularly in view of what was said by the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon), who is extremely worried about the dangers which might occur in Cornwall. One can think of one that has happened there already. Professor Flowers goes on to say. it facilitates management of the radioactive wastes, which can be concentrated in a relatively small volume for more convenient storage. I ask the House therefore to accept the environmental need for the reprocessing cycle to continue.

There has been discussion of the need to glassify or vitrify the nuclear wastes. I accept that BNFL is in the forefront of this technology, but I remind hon. Members, particularly those who have not read the Financial Times today, that there are other means of doing that. We are told by my right hon. Friend that the Swedes are reducing their nuclear power commitment, but today they announced that they have discovered a new method of consolidating and concentrating nuclear wastes, not in the form of glass but by a process analogous to the production of a diamond under high pressure. So developments are taking place throughout the world, and I am sure that the reprocessing will be an environmental advantage rather than a disadvantage.

We, together with other developed countries, have an obligation to Third World countries. A Third World country which was totally lacking in indigenous fuel resources and asked for nuclear power—

Mr. Hooley

The last thing Third World countries want is nuclear power.

Mr. Marshall

Presumably the first thing they want, if they are to develop their industrial infrastructure, is electricity. A Third World country totally lacking in any indigenous fuel presumably does not want to put itself in the hands of the Middle East oil sheikhs, who have been known to quadruple the cost of their product overnight. Presumably, therefore, one of the possibilities such a country might seriously consider is the use of nuclear power stations which, in spite of their high capital costs, compared with conventional fuels, are very competititve with other power stations.

If we decided to build a nuclear power station, it would mean a lot of economic activity for this country and for the firms which did the construction. I should have thought that in the interests of world people and the need to prevent the proliferation of fissile material, which is available for the production of nuclear weapons, this country should in principle at least have the facility to reprocess the spent fuels from such reactors.

I should like to see that extended further. I should like BNFL to be allowed to develop the precise requirement of reprocessing the Japanese spent fuel. It is in the interests of world peace and the prevention of proliferation of fissile material that this technology should be concentrated in the countries that have the technology to take care of it, experience that has been gained over many years, and the knowledge that goes with it. I would like to see this country, if possible, perhaps in co-operation with France, become a regional centre in Europe for the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. I hope that in the not-too-distant future the Secretary of State for the Environment will give the go-ahead for British Nuclear Fuels Limited to develop additional reprocessing facilities at Windscale.

8.11 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Johnson Smith (East Grinstead)

The time left for debate is short, so I shall endeavour to be brief, for I know that many of my hon. Friends wish to speak.

The hon. Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) made a most robust defence of the nuclear industry, in marked contrast to some speeches that have been made from his side of the House that struck a more Jeremiah note. I welcome his speech. I do not go all the way with the hon. Member, because he is chasing an illusion if he suggests that we can become one of the major nuclear reprocessing centres. It may be that other countries will want to do this.

There are dangers in taking the nuclear road. The Flowers Report is not basically anti-nuclear, but we cannot run away from the rather serious warning note that it sounded and that was echoed today by the Secretary of State. Anyone who listened to the debate today would go away a worried person and would welcome the reassurance that has been given by Opposition spokesmen and the Secretary of State that our options will be kept open. There are many problems to be solved before we can decide one way or the other.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Rost) that it is right to support the Bill. I am sure that we should do that. I agree with my hon. Friend that the Secretary of State was in danger of giving the impression that he was keeping options open for options' sake because there were so many other issues in the broad spectrum of energy upon which he had to make decisions. The Secretary of State would help us all if he came out with a clear-cut policy for energy, even if not in great detail. He should make some decision that would sharpen the issues.

As a country we are badly informed and if we continue in that way the public will increasingly fear even the possibility of a modest nuclear energy programme. In order to explain what is at stake, the Secretary of State will have to spell out the Government's conclusion on the energy gap. The Government will have to tell us more of their views on alternative sources and define the alternative sources of energy. The Government will have to be more robust in their energy conservation programme.

The report of the Select Committee makes it clear that what has been achieved in this country is pathetic. For a time, we have been subject to euphoria about North Sea oil, the abundance of natural gas, and our huge deposits of coal. But I hope that the lesson of the United States, which has just experienced a terrible winter, will come as a chilling reminder that, despite our proven resources of oil and gas, the days are running out for us. We shall again find ourselves in 15 or 20 years' time a major importer of fossil energy fuel. We have a short time in which to deploy an effective conservation programme. The Secretary of State must refine some of the arguments about the possible dangers of taking the nuclear road.

Few people have time to digest or even the ability to understand the many complex arguments put forward both in the Flowers Report and in the correspondence columns of The Times, where erudite—even if sometimes pretentious —writers argue their respective viewpoints. The Secretary of State must step up a campaign of information. That campaign will depend upon his refining some of his own views and making certain decisions in the matters that I have indicated. Meanwhile, the Secretary of State must take some steps. As the Flowers Report indicated and as the Opposition spokesman emphasised, he should deal with the matter of nuclear waste. The public cannot possibly have any confidence in a nuclear energy programme for this country so long as action cries out to be taken in this important matter. What is to be done with the waste from our existing energy plants?

I hope that I am not going too far, but it will be necessary for the Secretary of State to consider setting up an organisation that will be seen to be truly independent in its judgment to supervise the Atomic Energy Authority and the safety of anything to do with the reprocessing of nuclear fuels. The point was made in the document "Nuclear Prospects: a Comment on the Individual, the State and Nuclear Power" by Michael Flood and Robin Grove White that the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate was concerned with only the safe operation of nuclear plants and that its remit did not extend to other operations of the industry.

Nobody wishes to suspect this able inspectorate of being partial, but the inspectorate is too close to the business that it seeks to police. If the Secretary of State and the Government are to gain the confidence of the public in this area, the Secretary of State should think about establishing, beyond any measure of doubt, the true independence of an organisation that acts as the watchdog of the people in this matter.

Mr. Palmer

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the report of the Select Committee. That was one of the Committee's recommendations.

Mr. Johnson Smith

I apologise. I had meant to mention that.

I come to the matter of cost, which has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members already. It is a most serious problem. We cannot go it alone. I suspect that one of the reasons why we no longer lead the world—even if we think we ought to do so—in nuclear energy is that we have tried to do too much ourselves. A regrettable decision was made a few months ago when it was thought right to reject the light water reactor developed in the United States. I do not want to get drawn in into that matter. But it is inevitable that we must come closer to our friends in Europe, in developing proper security arrangements as well as in matters of safety.

I do not want to be personal about the Secretary of State, but it is well known that he had strong reservations about our entry into the EEC. I hope that his objection to the system by which we in Western Europe have come together under the umbrella of the Community will not prevent his co-operating enthusiastically with our friends in the EEC. I hope that when the Minister replies tonight he will say something about the progress that has been made as a consequence of his right hon. Friend's visit to the European Community nations recently.

My last point also arises from the need to co-operate more closely with our friends in the EEC, and it is on the matter of nuclear fusion. I do not want to run away from the problems posed by the Flowers Report and the many comments made in the debate. One good reason for keeping open the fast-breeder reactor option is the possibility that, quite apart from the better use of indigenous fossil fuels, which could give us time, we can expect to find out in the next 10 or 15 years whether nuclear fusion is likely to be practical and commercially possible.

Nuclear fusion would be the answer to many of the problems that have caused us so much concern. In the meantime we know that the future of the industrial world—and with it the future of the developing world—is at stake. It is right for the Secretary of State to keep open the fast-breeder reactor option. If he decided to go ahead with one tomorrow, it would be three years before it was built in that time, if the right hon. Gentleman presses on with the resolution of which he has shown himself capable in other matters, it should be possible for us to come to a conclusion with our friends and some of the doubts over our nuclear future might have been lifted.

8.22 p.m.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Rother Valley)

I heard the opening speeches in the debate, but I regret that I missed some other contributions. I had other commitments. But the speeches which I have heard have been valuable and serious contributions to the consideration of an important and complex problem. I shall try to follow the example of the hon. Member for East Grinstead (Mr. Johnson Smith), and keep my speech brief, but I hope that he will forgive me if I do not follow him too closely except to say that his comments on Europe were not entirely justified. There is a danger that, but for British technology, at least part of the EEC could become excessively dependent on the United States. Such dependence would not be desirable, and I am therefore delighted that we have maintained a substantial and worthwhile nuclear industry.

The hon. Member for East Grinstead referred to nuclear fusion and mentioned a time scale of 10 to 15 years. It may be that within 15 years the world will have some idea of the steps which will be required to provide energy through fusion, but it will be much longer before fusion can make the contribution which, in the interests of maintaining civilisation, we must all hope that it can make.

Before fusion becomes a commercial reality, we may find that our resources of uranium have become scarce and, therefore, expensive. An alternative to fusion may, therefore, have to be explored, certainly by the turn of the century.

I do not share the views of my hon. Friends who have been very critical of nuclear power, but neither am I a supporter of the extreme proponents of nuclear technology who too glibly assume that the world's fossil fuel resources will be rapidly diminished.

Coal must play a major rôle in this country, perhaps for a great deal longer than to the end of the century. We have vast resources, and I sometimes wish that Ministers and the National Coal Board would be less shy about making the public aware of the immensity of our coal resources, some of which have been discovered only recently. We cannot ignore these resources; we need to use them.

I was pleased to hear that the Minister who is to reply to the debate made some interesting comments in a radio interview tonight in connection with the Coal Industry Bill which is, I understand, to be published tomorrow. It would be a help if my hon. Friend would say a little tonight about the tidings which he has given to the country already.

If we have even the moderate rate of growth which has been projected in the debate, we should be foolish not to go some way along the nuclear road. Otherwise we should have to rely entirely or largely upon a foolish and perhaps prodigal use of oil and gas.

I hope that the Minister will be sensitive to the point that the use of nuclear capacity for the rest of this century must not be a threat to the proper use of coal reserves, but merely an alternative to the wasteful use of oil and gas. I accept that the Government must make arrangements to provide Britain with the ability to meet the needs which any rate of growth will present, but without allowing for the wasteful use of oil and gas. Certainly the use of natural gas and oil in boilers during the 1980s seems to be the height of absurdity.

In providing for future capacity and maintaining our present nuclear capacity, there are grave problems, and the House has been right to view them as seriously as it has done so far. The Secretary of State approached the matter with sensitive and entirely fair-minded care. I think that the House was reassured that wise arrangements were likely to develop. They will have to be very wise because the responsibility on the Government is an awful one.

Any steps down the road to plutonium technology must be cautious. As we approach that road, the questioning and criticism must be maintained. I should like to reinforce what other hon. Mem bers have said—that, in order to ensure an overriding concern for health and peace, structures of the sort recommended by Sir Brian Flowers should be established. I hope that the Minister will comment on the Government's intentions and note the request that urgent consideration should be given to these matters.

I welcome the intervention of the Secretary of State a few moments ago on the question of the reporting of incidents. I hope that the arrangements for reporting, which seem entirely satisfactory, will not preclude consideration of the justified recommendations put so ably by Sir Brian Flowers.

In any urban society, one must concede part of an individual's freedom in order to maintain civilised life. Now a new balance has to be struck between the possible conflict of plutonium and the reality of human folly. Effective vigilance is needed to ensure that the loss of liberty is minimal and that the bureaucracy of security is unobstrusive.

I am sorry that I missed any speeches by hon. Members of the Liberal Party. There are no Members of that party in the Chamber at present. Their amendment is rather negative. They appear to wish to oppose nuclear development without spelling out the implication that one must draw—that some nuclear capacity is necessary if a return to the primitive is to be avoided sooner or later. I am not convinced that alternative sources can replace fossil fuel or cope with the economic growth that we shall demand or, if we do not, that the rest of the world will insist upon.

My right hon. Friend removed some of the anxieties about which I intended to speak. It seems that there is no urgent reason for immediate decision about the prospects of the commercial fast-breeder reactor. That might disappoint those at Dounreay who have worked so vigorously and deserve approbation for their achievements. The hon. Member opposite who accompanied me on a visit to that establishment will agree that the work that is done there is impressive. The workers there may be disappointed if the Minister is cautious. However, they are sensible and civilised people and they are aware of the nature of the problem. They are also aware, as are some hon. Members, of the need for energy that will last as long as there is human life. Politicians must ensure that energy is available.

However, may I press my hon. Friend to say something about the present stage of fast-breeder development at Dounreay? I do not suggest that he strikes a note of triumph, because the trumpeting of national pride is deplorable when it occurs on this subject. There has been an element of that in some parts of Europe.

I should be grateful if the Minister could give the House one or two estimates about the pace of development of the vitrification process. It would also be useful if the Minister could say when he expects the vitrification process to be commercially operational.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State spoke of the costs of nuclear-generated electricity. Many hon. Members believe that the estimates of these costs offered in the House are sometimes misleading. We need to know the real costs. We are not speaking of a minute provision of electricity which could be described as experimental. Nuclear-generated electricity provides 15 per cent. of our electricity requirement. It is, therefore, essential that the real costs be given.

The awesomeness of the beast itself might cause us to overlook the vastness of the moneys involved. I read in the Press yesterday that the Treasury is conducting a deep-seated reappraisal of the objectives of public sector investment. Normally I am in favour of the public sector industry being allowed to get on with its job, but in this case there are other considerations. Will my hon. Friend comment about the arrangements and the frequency with which contact is to continue between the various public sector bodies involved and his Department?

The Minister may say that he does not wish to interfere, but the House must ensure that he is kept fully informed. That information may be vital in its consequence since it could take us to the edge of finality. No chance must be given for inadequacies to develop.

We are right to be anxious, but, because of the possibility of future energy requirements and because most of us are aware of the existing need, I shall support the Government but, on this occasion, without enthusiasm.

8.34 p.m.

Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton)

I am grateful for the opportunity to squeeze into the debate. In the interests of my hon. Friends who still wish to speak, I shall abandon those parts of my speech concerning the costs of reprocessing and the doubts involved in that, and also those parts concerning the environmental hazards of the nuclear fuel cycle. Many hon. Members on both sides have throughly examined those aspects.

I shall concentrate on what I regard as the most disturbing dimension of the debate on the future of nuclear power, especially on the reprocessing and enrichment, and on the funds which are provided as contingent liabilities in the Bill. This is really the political dimension of the hazards of nuclear proliferation. I believe that it is really on these grounds that concerned scientists and responsible politicians all over the world are coming round to the view that it is right to pause and think about the proliferation implications of the spread of nuclear power, and especially, as I have said, the implications in these sensitive areas.

It was no coincidence that the Nuclear Suppliers Group spent so much time last year trying to ensure that the sensitive technologies are not exported as part of so-called peaceful nuclear deals. It was no coincidence that President Ford in a major policy speech on 28th October 1976 said: I have concluded that the reprocessing and recycling of plutonium should not proceed unless there is sound reason to conclude that the world community can effectively overcome the associated risks of proliferation. I believe that avoidance of proliferation must take precedence over economic interests. It was no coincidence that President Giscard d'Estaing of France announced in a statement of major importance just before Christmas that his country would make no further sales of nuclear reprocessing plants to foreign customers, and that his aides were letting it be known that he hopes that American pressure will lead the Pakistani Government to call off their recent deal with France.

It will be no coincidence, and no surprise, if President Carter presses very hard to secure three important objectives: first, a voluntary moratorium on the national sale or purchase of enrichment or reprocessing plants; second, to ensure no new United States commitments for the sale of nuclear technology or fuel to countries which refuse to forgo nuclear explosives and to refrain from national nuclear reprocessing and to place their nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards; and third, to withhold authority for domestic commercial reprocessing until the need for, the economics of and the safety of this technology are clearly demonstrated. Those were three points that were very significant to presidential candidate Carter, as he then was, in his speech at San Diego on 25th September 1976.

None of these developments should be regarded as a coincidence or a surprise, because the fact is now established in scientific opinion that there is no natural or tenable firebreak between the so-called peaceful and the so-called military uses of nuclear technology. This is what the nuclear power utilities in Spain, Switzerland and Japan are likely to discover for themselves in the near future, if and when the United States, which supplied them with the original fuel, declines to allow its transfer for reprocessing in England or France.

That is why Albert Wohlstetter and other authors of the very interesting study "Moving Towards Life In A Nuclear Armed Crowd?" said in the thirteenth key conclusion in their summary at the beginning of the book: Our analysis of what it would be like to live in a crowd of nuclear nations leaves very little doubt that the potential spread would introduce new and very threatening dangers in the world. However, while it is very likely that there will be some further spread, how much and how rapidly is not a matter of fate but a subject for policy. So is the management of the additional spread that does take place. That the rate and extent of spread is not immutable is shown by the fact that past and recent plans in various countries to install power reactors and chemical separation plants have altered. We can affect such plans by deliberately changing the economic and political-military incentives. That was what that very learned study said and, again, that is why, in spite of or because of all the diagnosed weaknesses in the non-proliferation treaty régime, the Fox Commission concluded in much the same spirit, saying that it believed that it was both essential and possible to make safeguards arrangements more effective. I could go on, but I shall not do so because, in the interests of brevity, I want to come to my conclusion.

There is one other quotation that I should like the House to hear because of the importance and the balance of the source. It comes from the editorial in the Christmas issue of Nature, in which the leader writer felt able to argue as follows: A decision against reprocessing, if sustained, would be a decision against a nuclear future, and to that extent against nuclear power. But at least it would be a reversible decision which would not later preclude lengthening the resulting nuclear interlude finitely (by allowing reprocessing to go ahead) or almost infinitely (by allowing a system of fast breeders). A decision the other way permits no such flexibility. It is sad that it seems to be only British policy which is out of step with this rapidly dawning realisation world-wide—the realisation, in Mr. Carter's words, that considerations of commercial profit cannot be allowed to prevail over the paramount objective of limiting the spread of nuclear weapons.

As I understand it, British policy is still as it was expressed by the Prime Minister in his previous incarnation as Foreign Secretary. He said in a Written Answer: We shall also study with particular care proposals for the export of sensitive equipment or technology … In general we shall exercise restraint in the export of such plants or their technology, and we are at present contributing to the IAEAs study of the feasibility of including such plants in regional fuel centres in the future. When we decide to export them we shall, of course, require assurances that any senistive plants using transferred technology, now or in the future will be subject to IAEA safeguards."—[Official Report, 31st March 1976; Vol. 908, c. 515.] It is apparently Government policy not if but when to export this technology. I should like some indication from the Minister on that point.

I conclude by saying that this issue has the most enormous ethical implications of which the whole House is aware and to which many of us will want to return in the Standing Committee if we get a chance to serve on it. I am not alone in pointing to the implications, and there is nothing cranky about it. I can do no better than to quote President Carter who wrote an article which appeared in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in October 1976, when he was presidential candidate. It was based on a speech he gave to a United Nations sponsored conference on nuclear energy and world order on 30th May last year. He said: Of one thing I am certain—the hour is too late for business as usual, for politics as usual, for diplomacy as usual. An alliance for survival is needed—transcending regions and ideologies —if we are to assure mankind a safe passage to the twenty-first century. The political leaders of all nations, whether they work within four-year election cycles or five-year plans, are under enormous temptations to promise short-term benefits to their people while passing on the costs to other countries, to future generations, or to our environment. The Earth, the atmosphere, the oceans and unborn generations have no political franchise. But short-sighted policies today will lead to insuperable problems tomorrow. The time has come for political leaders around the world to take a larger view of their obligations, showing a decent respect for posterity, for the needs of other peoples and for the global biosphere. I hope that that happens in the interests of mankind.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)

There are four more hon. Members who wish to take part in the debate and there are 34 minutes left for Back Bench speeches. May I appeal for brevity?

8.44 p.m.

Mr. Edwin Wainwright (Dearne Valley)

I shall be brief because I appreciate that some hon. Members have been in the Chamber all day and therefore deserve time to speak. We ought to be grateful to the two Front Bench speakers who have given time away so that all of us can take part in the debate.

We must think now not so much of the dangers of nuclear power but the danger of not developing nuclear power. That is why I welcome the Bill. There is a tremendous fear about what it might leave in its wake, but one must consider what will happen when we reach that stage in the year 2000, or even in 1980, when the world demand for fuels of all kinds will greatly exceed supply. Therefore, something has to take the place of the ordinary fuel we get from the bowels of the earth.

We have supplies of coal that will last 300 years at the present rate of demand. But coal is always difficult to get, and whether we shall succeed in future in getting it more cheaply than we can today, and whether it will be more competitive with other fuels than it is today, I am not certain. Years ago, Professor Thring talked about getting coal from the bowels of the earth without anyone going down to get it. That would be a delightful situation if it could be achieved but, from my experience as a miner, I doubt whether we shall succeed in achieving it. But there may be ways and means by which we can get coal from the earth without many men being employed down below.

Another important factor is that we could utilise the burning of coal more thoroughly. The fluidisation system is now coming to the fore and will probably enable us to get double the present amount of power from coal. That will be a tremendous push forward.

Then there is the subject of oil supplies throughout the world and what is to happen in the next two or three decades. There is a strong possibility that unless we conserve oil we shall be short of the motive power that we have today. We all seem to take our own oil supplies for granted, but they have great limitations. Even if our Scottish friends have their way and conserve our supplies, those limitations will be extended by only a few years.

Our own oil will help us over the next two decades to overcome our present difficulties, but when that time is over we shall have to look around again, and although fusion may come during the next half century, it is not with us now. It appears, therefore, that nuclear power will be essential to supplement our fuel supplies from the bowels of the earth.

But in the wake of that fact there is great and disturbing fear. What are we to do about it? In the first place, uranium itself is in short supply and could run out. I therefore welcome the Bill because it means that we shall be developing the fast-breeder reactor, which is a necessity. But then, of course, one has to think of what is to happen to the radioactive waste. Shall we be able to control it? Are we able to ensure that it will not leave in its wake tremendously harmful effects not merely on the life of mankind but wherever we put it?

We talk about, and are, dumping it in the sea. Some scientists say that we can guarantee that it will be there for thousands of years without danger of leakage. Others say that it is too dangerous to do what we are doing with it, that some of it can last 20,000 years. So, of course, one is deeply disturbed, for no generation of mankind is entitled to do something that will be of great harm and hurt to posterity. We should therefore think deeply about this and go cautiously.

Undeveloped nations need energy and power. The hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet) smiles, but there is truth in that. How can nations be developed without power? Nuclear power is probably far easier to establish in such places than other forms of energy. We owe them something, having taken from them minerals, oil and gas. I am not sure that we are not still transporting liquefied gas today.

We have a tremendous responsibility to control radioactive waste and to ensure that posterity is not harmed. The answer is not simple. Reasonable people are upset when those who speak on this subject express too much confidence, for they can give no real guarantee. Let us go forward steadily and surely, developing the fast-breeder reactor, remembering always that the waste must be made safe so that posterity does not suffer.

8.53 p.m.

Mr. T. H. H. Skeet (Bedford)

I, too, will economise on time and select only three points.

While Britain has achieved little success in exporting nuclear power stations, it has succeeded in building up a considerable export and potential in the production of radio isotopes at Amersham, the reprocessing of spent fuel at Windscale and the conversion of uranium into UF6 and enrichment of uranium at Capenhurst and the fabrication of fuel elements at Springfield. The work of British Nuclear Fuels Limited is a centrepiece of the Bill and it would be lamentable if, through lack of foresight and judgment, Members of Parliament curtailed the prospects of BNFL and thus passed on to the French and possibly the Germans much of the work which will have to be done.

Britain has a nuclear presence which will shortly account for 13 per cent. of total power generated, and its commitment to reprocessing the spent fuel elements of 11 Magnox stations and several AGRs is inescapable. In fact, it will be environmentally hazardous to do otherwise.

Paragraph 131 of the Flowers Report says: Magnox fuel reprocessing should be begun within a year of leaving the reactor because corrosion of the cladding allows fission products to leak out. That is an obvious conclusion.

The volume of Magnox fuel reprocessing undertaken for customers is at least £200 million-17,000 tonnes of fuel elements—plus £12 million-700 tonnes of Magnox fuel—for customers in Japan and Italy. A total of £245 million is obviously required for the replacement of these facilities at Windscale and a further £40 million for the development of the vitrification. Professor G. N. Walton of Imperial College has said that, resulting from the Magnox power programme, 20,000 tonnes of depleted uranium were stored. This is equivalent to billions of tons of coal if a breeder reactor is developed. This "waste" with a breeder reactor represents an addition to the real indigenous wealth of the nation comparable with coal and North Sea oil.

I should like to ask the Secretary of State one quick question. I know that his policy is not to come to any speedy conclusion about the fast-breeder reactor. The French, West Germans and Italians are acting in concert on this matter. Therefore, will he announce at a fairly early date that he will allow the AEA and others involved to go ahead with the CFR 1? That will enable this country to use uranium as a fuel 50 times more effectively than' in any other nuclear reactor system and enable us to run down our plutonium stocks.

I should like to make a quick reference to the oxide plants. The BNFL is a participant in United Reprocessors Gmbh, which is designed to co-ordinate the investment in the reprocessing of nuclear fuel elements, the marketing of services—to provide technical exchange. It would be ludicrous for Britain not to go ahead with building the planned oxide facilities. That is self-evident.

There is substantial nuclear capacity around the world and, indeed, in Western Europe which requires oxide fuel reprocessing. The refusal of Britain—which is perhaps the leading country in oxide processing technology—to build a plant or inordinately to delay it would leave the world problem unresolved.

As URG associates three sovereign States, doubtless if one country refused to participate with oxide ventures the others would seem to benefit. Thus, the French company Cogema, which has a contract to reprocess 1,635 tonnes of oxide fuel from Japan, could take the lot.

With the long lead times involved in setting up plants, the Government's policy of going on a decision-making holiday hoping that problems will resolve themselves in the meantime is both irresponsible and totally against the national interest. The Secretary of State should state specifically whether the Government are prepared to commit BNFL to go ahead with its 1,00 tonnes per annum thermal dioxide plant and the expected time gap envisaged before a firm decision is reached—his early enunciations are not clear on that point—and whether the planning inquiry required to consider the views of those involved is to be of the normal type or a public inquiry commission under the Town and Country Planning Act 1971? That would unduly prolong examination of the issues involved. I put that point to the right hon. Gentleman, and he seemed to be going along the lines of a planning inquiry commission. That could be extremely detrimental to the industry.

I should also like to inquire whether the Secretary of State has given the Japanese Overseas Reprocessing Committee firm assurances that the BNFL will be able to go ahead with building storage ponds in pursuance of the contract and prior to the completion of the inquiry. I think that should be done, even though the Secretary of State will be waiting for the outcome of the inquiry.

Will the United States Government, who provided the initial fuel charges for the Japanese nuclear power stations, per mit the shipment of nuclear waste to the United Kingdom for reprocessing? The right hon. Gentleman has given me a partial answer on that point.

We are in extremely big business here. The AEA has been very successful over the years. In 1975 exports of natural uranium amounted to £29.6 million and exports of radio isotopes amounted to nearly £25 million.

The Under-Secretary is on record as having said: Earnings from past and current foreign reprocessing contracts are expected to amount to about £45 million by 1980, and the Japanese work would be worth some £400 million."— [Official Report, 8th December 1975, Vol. 902, c. 201.] All the work done on the home front for the domestic industry amounts to about £200 million to date. The extent of the business up to 1990 which has been planned by the BNFL would work out to about 29,835 tonnes, of which 25 per cent. would be held abroad.

I shall mention briefly the capacity for oxide fuel in the United Kingdom. On the Magnox front, the BNFL has a proven capacity of 1,500 tonnes per annum. Up to date it has been working beyond that capacity most successfully. the Oxide Headend Plant of 120 tonnes capacity was closed down because of an incident in 1973, but will be refurbished and reopened in 1978 at 400 tonnes per annum. I think that would take care of the total reprocessing requirement of the 5,000 megawatt AGR programme, because it is not likely to exceed between 200 and 300 tonnes per annum of oxide fuel. I am assured that the SGHWR programme of 4,000 megawatts will not go ahead. I am concerned, however, about the reprocessing of the fuel elements from Japan, Sweden and other Continental countries. It is, therefore, essential that if BNFL do not have a home oxide plant and a foreign oxide plant as well, at least the pooling should be of one oxide unit.

Let us make it perfectly clear that on a European basis the United Reprocessors GMBH are the ones which coordinate investment. I have established that by the second half of the 1980s this would be about 8,000 tonnes capacity per annum. That is 5,300 tonnes oxide plant and natural uranium at 2,400, making 7,700 tonnes per annum. This would be available. But let us make no mistake that, while there was an overcapacity in 1971, today there is a total undercapacity which is likely to persist. If we are to have any success reprocessing must march hand in hand with the development of nuclear power.

I promised that I would not speak for any great length of time. I am concerned with a final point—vitrification. The Minister has said that it is a possibility that he may have to return the fuel elements to the Japanese because they cannot be vitrified in the United Kingdom. I would have thought that with all the experiments that are going on in the United Kingdom, France, Sweden and elsewhere vitrification is a dead cert. He will be in a position to tell the Japanese that in fact they have found a way through this problem and that elements which are 3 per cent. of the total can be calciumed, embedded in glass or put aside in locations, either for future disposal under the bed of the oceans or in salt mines or clay, for future protection.

In the United Kingdom we have done all the research and development on that. We have all the assistance of our collaboration with Europe. The French are very advanced in waste solidification with a semi-continuous pilot facility Piver. They have produced up to 12 tonnes of glass and are also going ahead with an industrial-scale facility at Marcoule which will have a considerable capacity.

The ASEA of Sweden has been using powerful compressors to compact the waste with ceramic materials into a rocklike solid, thus avoiding high temperature operations in the United Kingdom method.

With all this development, I would have thought this was sufficient to give guarantees under the Japanese contract.

I would make a plea for a National Waste Disposal Corporation. This is an excellent idea. I hope it will be independent, and that it will look at the AEA, the CEGB and the several companies in the United Kingdom and ensure that this matter is not lost sight of.

9.4 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Dodsworth (Hertfordshire, South-West)

The whole House is grateful to the Secretary of State for his introduction of this Bill and for indicating the possible areas of interest and development of ideas. I hope that I will be forgiven if I concentrate on one of those particular areas. I should like to say more about parliamentary control and the effective use of the instruments of government in the nuclear industry. But I restrict myself to nuclear costings because in that one simple illustration I may be able to make my point in a practical way.

It seems to me to be true that the nuclear industry represents a financial minefield. I should not like anyone to think that that observation reflects antipathy on my part towards the nuclear industry, because the case is very much the reverse. However, I am anxious that the Government and Parliament should be alert to the problems which the industry faces, and there are illustrations from our own track record to which I want to draw attention.

I had the pleasure of reading the annual report of British Nuclear Fuels Limited to 31st March 1976, and I found that on page 17, in the notes referring to profits. it said: Certain reprocessing contracts entered into in previous years which have now become unprofitable are in course of renegotiation. Pending the outcome of these negotiations it is not possible to determine whether any provision needs to be made for losses which may arise in future years. So we have to say that here is perhaps a reservation.

Having read that, I thought to myself "This is Parliament, and I should ask the Minister". Accordingly, I tabled four Questions to him, and on 2nd December last year he replied. He said. These are matters within the day-to-day management of the company and I have asked the Chairman of BNFL to write to the hon. Member about them."—[Official Report. 2nd December 1976; Vol. 921, c. 226–7.] That is quite fair. If they are matters which are day-to-day running affairs, perhaps they should be dealt with by the company itself.

In due course, on 11th December, I received a letter from the Chairman of British Nuclear Fuels Limited giving me some of the information that I sought. But, arising in that letter, we start to see some of the problems of parliamentary control, and to illustrate my point I quote from the letter. He refers to the Minister and says that he declined to answer your questions because they related to matters of day-to-day management of the Company and were not therefore the Secretary of State's responsibility. As you will see from the letter, Government decisions do in fact impinge on two of your questions, but I will nevertheless do what I can to answer them. That seems to reflect perhaps not a difference of opinion but a difference of view about what is a matter for Government decision and what is not.

I refer immediately to the reprocessing contracts, and I quote from the letter: As to the reprocessing contracts mentioned in the Auditors' Report on our Accounts for 1975–76. renegotiation of these is still in progress. delayed in part by our inability to commit ourselves to the extension of the contracts until planning consent for the proposed new plant at Windscale has been given. I cannot, in the present uncertain situation, give an estimate of future losses. We had hoped to negotiate arrangements which would minimise or eliminate loss, but the announced intention to hold a public inquiry into the new plant for reprocessing oxide fuel, coming as it does a year after the Government's approval for further overseas reprocessing business, could make a substantial loss unavoidable. It seems to me that we have political problems attached to this operation for which, in our parliamentary rôle, we are responsible. I had hoped to refer to some of the social problems which we bring about. But we have here a commercial operation which we have set up and which is bedevilled by actions that in my view we have properly taken.

One way or another, this Bill represents £1,000 million. Some of my hon. Friends doubt that, but I do not. It seems to me that in one form or another it commits the Government to support of that order. I notice that Clause 1(6) reads: Any sums required for fulfilling a guarantee given under this section shall be paid out of money provided by Parliament. If I may summarise that, it seems to indicate the belief that if we lose money on any reprocessing contracts, the Government will be forced to make payments under the guarantees. That suggests that there will have to be a negotiated settlement under these reprocessing contracts and that we are contemplating making losses.

It is quite wrong in my view to have a sense of euphoria about what can be achieved under these reprocessing contracts. The nuclear industry is a superb export opportunity for our country, and reprocessing contracts may well be part of that. I shall not bore the House by quoting examples from the United States that run into billions of dollars and the problems that have arisen from reprocessing contracts that are likely to be contemplated. All I ask is that we ensure that we carry out our duty and satisfy ourselves that when we undertake commitments of this size and nature we have a prognosis with which we can live in future.

9.11 p.m.

Mr. Neil Macfarlane (Sutton and Cheam)

First, I express my gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Gray) and the Under-Secretary of State for curtailing their speeches and allowing greater participation in the debate.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for the refreshing way in which he viewed some of the problems facing the nuclear industry and the entire energy programme. I was especially interested in the six decision-making areas that confront him. However, I am concerned that this measure, which I support wholeheartedly, may, alas, be another example of some of the piecemeal operations that the Government and the country have always tended to apply to energy matters over the past 15 to 20 years. That is my sneaking concern. Maybe the purists will argue that once again there are powers to be taken in respect of the purchasing or acquiring of shares, or other securities, in the NNC. That is a matter that we can discuss further in Committee.

I share some of the concern about nuclear safety that has been expressed both inside and outside the House. I am happy that this measure will be a modest contribution towards helping the nuclear industry and the nation to overcome the long-term energy problems that now bedevil us as well as most of the rest of Western civilisation.

I have to confess to some sympathy for the Secretary of State and his junior ministerial colleagues in the Department of Trade, which is a newish Department in comparison with some of the longer established Departments of State, as they try to grapple with some of the energy problems. There are the interdepartmental difficulties through the corridors of Whitehall and the complex nature of government. I have some sympathy for them as they try to create some co-ordination of the nation's energy requirements and try to produce a long-term plan. I suppose that in this context "long-term" is 10 to 15 years, but many of us look to the 1990s and beyond.

I am prepared to forgive the Ministers in the Department of Energy if they are not 100 per cent. successful. That is because the complexities are well understood by those of us who have had a past career in some part of the energy sphere. The lack of co-ordination has been deep-rooted for a long time, both through poor organisation of government in power and energy matters and through the lack of a conservation policy for the fossil fuels.

The other problem that I shall consider briefly is the last item to which the Secretary of State referred—namely, the alternative energy sources open to the country. I was concerned to read in "Atom" of December 1976 a paper by the chief scientist of the Department of Energy, Dr. Walter Marshall, who is also the Deputy Chairman of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority. I refer to the paper that he presented at the Unwin Memorial Lecture to the British Nuclear Energy Society at the Institution of Civil Engineers on 28th September 1976. It was a good paper and a good lecture but I was concerned when he stated: My view, and that of the Department of Energy, is that we cannot see beyond the immediate future with any confidence, and that we therefore cannot take a decision on R &D which assumes any one out of the range of possible futures which might be imagined". I was depressed by his lack of enthusiasm for the potential alternative sources of energy. I should like to think that some of the money that is to be appropriated under the Bill could be apportioned towards research and development in alternative sources of energy. Although they might not be directly applied in this country, they would have tremendous benefits in other countries that have more adaptable climates. We have discussed solar, tidal, geothermal and other sources of energy, but the fact is that the chief scientist's comments worry me because he and his colleagues do not appear to be looking commercially at potential exports to suitable countries.

Perhaps the Minister in reply can say which Department has responsibility for looking at this area, and certainly the Secretary of State will know from his experience in the Department of Industry all about the responsibilities of the National Research Development Corporation. Perhaps the Minister will be able to say who is handling potential exports and examining alternative sources of energy. There is no doubt that this country needs a whole series of interrelated decisions. Those decisions must be made now. There has been too much vacillation for far too long, and the difficulties this country has suffered are well known to all of us.

I conclude by saying that we are fortunate in having a reliable, dependable and successful nuclear research industry, and in the Atomic Energy Authority, the TRCL and the BNFL we have organisations which are second to none. We should be proud of that fact and we should not fear for the future of nuclear fuel.

I want to see that industry expand, and I was pleased to hear the Secretary of State say that the use of nuclear power in electricity terms will increase from 13 per cent. to 20 per cent. by the end of the decade. I look forward to the time when we can monitor these provisions in Committee. I wish the Secretary of State well as he tries to grapple with our nation's energy problems.

9.17 p.m.

Mr. Hamish Gray (Ross and Cromarty)

It is interesting that this debate has at least proved one thing—namely, that there is no unanimity on either side of the House on the subject of nuclear fuel. We are all grateful to the Secretary of State for Energy for the way in which he introduced the Bill and for enabling the House to have a general discussion on nuclear topics.

I was grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Bedford (Mr. Skeet), Hertfordshire, South-West (Mr. Dodsworth) and Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Macfarlane) for condensing their speeches. We are all grateful for their co-operation.

The importance of the documents and questions prepared by the staff and trade unions at the Dounreay Experimental Research Establishment highlighted the problems of nuclear fuel. We are in danger of discussing nuclear questions in isolation. We must bear in mind the risks run in various types of industry and we must seek to compare those risks for the future with the risks attached to the use of nuclear fuel.

In a Written Answer on 26th January 1977 the Secretary of State for Energy said that he was referring the list of questions to the Secretary of State for Employment, and he also reported that his right hon. Friend was asking the Health and Safety Commission to prepare detailed replies for consideration. He added My right hon. Friend will then arrange for a report by the Commission to be laid before the House in due course."—[Official Report, 26th January 1977; Vol. 924, c. 634.] I wish to emphasise the need for a speedy presentation of that report. Those who work in the industry are very concerned about their future, and we are grateful to the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for initiating a wide-ranging public debate on the matter. Those who work in the nuclear industry have shown a great deal of apprehension, and the sooner these matters are resolved the better.

There are in all 32 questions together with appendices produced by the establishment at Dounreay. One important question deals with the subject of what pollutants are released by nuclear-powered stations, oil-fired stations and coal-fired stations and seeks to compare the results.

Another worrying feature is the storage of petroleum gas. If, for example, some petroleum gas were to escape and explode over such a place as Canvey Island, what would be the result? It is important to consider these matters when we are considering the dangers of nuclear fuel.

The decisions which the Secretary of State must take in the nuclear field are many and varied. One wonders sometimes whether the Secretary of State has consultations with other bodies in mind when taking these decisions. I was interested to see that he has decided to set up his Energy Commission, but I was surprised that he had not included anyone from the managerial side of those companies exploring the oilfields in the North Sea on that commission. It may have been worth while to include a representative from an area where so much success has been achieved.

This is a sort of Bullock of his own. The Secretary of State has created an organisation with strong union representation, but not so plentiful representation from other areas. It might be called "Bean's Bullock". I wish it success and I hope that it comes up with some constructive answers, but I should have liked to see it strengthened in other areas.

Many hon. Members have referred to sites for disposal of waste, and the fact that there are a lot of fears in both Scotland and Wales. My hon. Friend the hon. Member for Carshalton (Mr. Forman), in a thoughtful speech which displayed his great knowledge of the subject, mentioned a number of factors of note. I thought that his attitude could be compared with that of the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon), who was less than responsible in some of his remarks. Indeed, some of the questions he posed to the Minister could have been answered if he had taken the trouble to spend an hour or so with the BNFL people, who could have eased his mind on many issues. It is wrong to make a speech which stirs up anxiety outside, in many ways unnecessarily.

Mr. Penhaligon

Is the hon. Member saying that by knowing a problem one can make it disappear?

Mr. Gray

On the contrary, I would not suggest any such thing. I was suggesting that the hon. Member was less than responsible in some of the things that he said without checking his facts beforehand.

The hon. Member for Cardigan (Mr. Howells) mentioned the anxiety in Wales. He asked the Secretary of State to list the areas being considered for underground storage of nuclear waste. The Secretary of State replied: Proposals actually to use geological strata for disposal would only be made after the fullest consideration of all the safety and environmental issues including wide consultations—and on the basis of a conclusion that it would be safe to do so."—[Official Report, 2nd February. 1977: Vol. 925, c. 209.] Those hon. Members who have some fears about sites in Scotland should take things a little easier and stop chasing around the countryside with petitions about refusing to have nuclear waste dumped in Scotland. They would be wiser to wait until the reports are produced about the most suitable areas and types of area for disposal of this waste.

The Sunday Times on 14th November, in a very interesting article, dealt with the problem of burying nuclear waste. I quote: The form the burial ground takes will depend on a research and appraisal programme that will take 10 years before operations start, even on a pilot scale. We are in danger in this House of stirring up anxiety when it is not justified.

Some of the other decisions which the right hon. Gentleman will have to make involve the SGHWR, which is running late. As the Secretary of State pointed out today, a decision on the £40 million was deferred in July 1976. This reactor perhaps does not have the export potential of its light-water competitor, but this is a decision which unquestionably will have to be made and which is in the right hon. Gentleman's lap.

The right hon. Gentleman has emphasised his anxiety to assess public opinion in every possible way, but I say to him with every respect that wide-ranging public debates cannot be a substitution for decision-making and leadership. It will be up to him to make this decision, and I hope that he will not put it off for too long. It is very important that the whole future of the fast-breeder reactor is decided.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Grinstead (Mr. Johnson Smith) was perhaps a little optimistic when he said that perhaps within 15 years nuclear fusion might be a possibility. I think that the project is much longer term than that, and while I agree with him that we certainly want to keep all options open, inevitably, if we are to bridge the gap which will face us in the 1990s, the Secretary of State must make his decision quickly.

Mr. Skeet

One of the great dangers of keeping options open is that one might never close them, that there might never be a decision on anything. That is what the Secretary of State is doing. This country will be better off if only he will reach one decision on the nuclear front.

Mr. Gray

My hon. Friend has a habit of being outspoken, and I have no doubt that the Secretary of State will take on board what he said. We shall have opportunities during the Committee stage to probe these matters more fully, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will be in that field.

The great advantage of the fast-breeder reactor will be its ability to create its own fuel, and the world-wide scarity of uranium by the end of the century will enhance this attraction. Both Canada and Australia will require their own uranium at that time, and it is therefore unlikely that we shall be able to import. The fast breeder is capable of producing 60 times the energy realised by a conventional reactor from similar quantities of uranium and the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority estimates that with a full commitment to a fast-breeder programme by the Government, with supplies of uranium already existing in this country, we could outlive our coal resources, which at present are estimated to last about 300 years.

In his report Sir Brian Flowers said that there was no objection to the reprocessing planned at Windscale. I do not want to deal at length with Windscale question because my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) dealt with it when he spoke at the beginning of the debate. The Chairman of BNFL, Sir John Hill, is at present considerably worried, not unnaturally, about public acceptability and in a recent speech he made what I thought was a very important statement. He said: I believe that the much-publicised hazards of nuclear power, far from being greater than many other dangers which we accept as a normal part of life, are comparatively modest thanks to systematic analysis and multiple safeguards. Anybody who has visited any of the BNFL establishments can confirm that a great deal of attention is certainly paid to the whole question of safety. BNFL has an outstanding record in this area which stands comparison with the record of any other industry in the country. The hon. Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer) made the point that exactly the same risks existed in the development of nuclear power 15 to 20 years ago and that they have not changed. The risks remain today and are no more serious now than they were then.

The Secretary of State must decide whether the fast-breeder reactor technology is essential for the future of our energy industry, whether it can be developed to a satisfactory safety level, and whether it is socially desirable. Opinion will obviously be divided on that. The Friends of the Earth, Half Life and other bodies whose sincerity cannot be doubted are reportedly carrying out a close examination into that. MPs are fortunate in that they have such a ready supply of information from all sides.

We should consider the opinion of Mr. Francis Tombs, former Chairman of the South of Scotland Electricity Board. A report on his comments in The Times of Thursday, 11th November 1976 said: total energy consumption in the United Kingdom today was about 330 million tons of coal equivalent and was estimated to approach 600 million tons by the end of the century. By that time, North Sea oil would have been developed and actual coal production might have risen to 150 million tons. The gap could not be bridged by wave and wind power, solar energy and domestic refuse, he said. It was irresponsible to suggest otherwise. We must pay particular attention to that view, because Mr. Tombs has been an interested advocate of the steam-generated heavy-water reactor for a long time, and it is interesting to have his long-term prediction.

But it is the politicians who will have to make the final judgment. We must remember that 12,000 people are employed in the nuclear industry and that they are looking to us to see which course we take. In future, the reactors and reprocessing plants may well be designed side by side. That suggestion is made in one of the publications of Friends of the Earth.

The present system of transportation gives rise to considerable anxiety among those who are apprehensive about nuclear energy. It is expected that the transportation from Dounreay to Windscale will not continue for more than a few years. This transportation has been going on for a considerable time. Some people have suggested that the transportation should be done by sea rather than by road, but obviously transport by sea would have almost as serious implications in the event of an accident as transport by road.

The containers currently used are of immense strength, have gone through the most rigorous tests and are adequate for the purpose. Always in discussing nuclear fuel we speak of the largest accidents, but in discussing other industries we do not attach the same importance to their possible immense dangers. Planning carried out a few years ago might have prevented the Flixborough disaster. In future when such plants are built adequate measures will be taken, no doubt, to protect the public. Considering the enormous outcry that there is about the possibility of a nuclear disaster, I do not wish for a moment to minimise the danger, but it should be considered in perspective.

I shall finish now because the Minister kindly agreed to reduce the length of the winding-up speeches and he will no doubt wish to answer some of the many points that have been raised in the debate. We shall want to have a much closer look at the Bill in Committee when we shall be tabling amendments, but in the meantime we welcome it in principle and hope that it will be given a Second Reading.

9.35 p.m.

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

I think that the decision to allow more time for Back Bench speeches was right and one from which the whole House has profited. I should like to congratulate the four hon. Members who spoke at the end of the debate on their weighty contributions.

The hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Gray) said that the reduction in the time for winding up put him in some difficulty. I hope that the House will bear with me if I say that it has put me in a similar difficulty. I have so much to say that I do not quite know where to start. The hon. Gentleman assisted me when he said at the end of his speech that we would be returning to many points in Committee.

Perhaps I might start by drawing the attention of the House to three comments made in the debate—two by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer) and one by the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King). My hon. Friend is an electrical engineer of some experience, and he drew the attention of the House to the fact that workers in the industry would probably prefer to work in a nuclear station rather than in a coal-fired station. That was a significant remark because it showed that we have got away from the argument of whether we have mastered the technology of being able to generate electricity from nuclear power and that the nub of our debate is now whether we can successfully deal with the effluent from that generating process.

The second point raised by my hon. Friend was even more important. He said that decisions might be uncomfortable or unpopular, but that they had to be made. While we have been discussing in this worthwhile debate the dangerous and awesome decisions which my right hon. Friend must make and the burden of responsibility which rests on his shoulders in doing so, we have realised that the nuclear argument is developing not only in this country but throughout the world. As politicians, it is as well for us to remember what my hon. Friend said because when we take decisions we often put people's lives in jeopardy.

For instance, if we decide to allocate resources for a new motorway-building programme, we shall be killing people. If we decide that there should be more investment in coal mining, we know that people will be killed as a result of that decision. As a consequence of our decision to explore the North Sea for oil and gas, people have been killed and more people will be killed in future. The North Sea is one of the most hostile environments in the world, and we are always disturbed when divers are killed in spite of all the modern aids that have been given to them. We should not be comfortable. We should be humble about some of our decisions.

The hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty made out the need for the Bill when he said that there was an environmental case for it. I hang my hat on that argument. Some hon. Members have had doubts, but they have been dealt with during the debate.

If I have time I shall discuss other important matters that were raised by hon. Members but first I shall deal with certain aspects of the Bill which I hope will assist the House, particularly during the Committee stage.

The Bill has four main effects. First, it raises capital payment limits for BNFL and, to facilitate borrowings from the private sector, it empowers the Government to guarantee such borrowings. Secondly, it makes similar provision for TRCL. Thirdly, it allows the Government to guarantee advance payments made by customers of BNFL in relation to contracts for services. Fourthly, it empowers the Government to incur expenditure on buying shares in the National Nuclear Corporation from willing sellers.

BNFL needs extra financial headroom because of its plan to develop its business over the next five to 10 years. The company trades in a large way. Sales, for example, to the home generating boards and others were over £100 million last year. It can provide much of its finance from its own resources. However, the company estimates a need for some £230 million from external sources over the next five years. This, I emphasise, is investment in a profitable business.

Existing legislation limits loans and subscriptions to BNFL for shares from public funds to £75 million. This limit is inadequate for the proposed expansion and the Bill would increase it to £300 million. To take account of possible future developments, including possible price increases, this limit could be further increased to £500 million by an order subject to affirmative resolution of this House.

To facilitate the raising of private finance, the Bill also empowers the Government to guarantee private borrowings. As such a guarantee is an alternative to public funding, sums guaranteed will count against the limits that I mentioned earlier.

In this connection, the company has already negotiated a loan facility of £100 million from a consortium of banks, and the Government have indicated that they will guarantee this loan if the Bill is enacted.

The power to guarantee advance payments by customers is needed because if the company does in the event undertake overseas work—and I re-emphasise that this proposition is subject to the outcome of the oxide plant inquiry—those customers will be called on to make large advance payments to finance construction. It is possible that they will ask for some external guarantee that the funds could be returned if, for instance, the plant were not constructed. The Bill would enable the Government to do this within a limit of £400 million, which may be raised to £500 million by affirmative resolution of this House—figures related to the possible cost of building a plant. The guarantee is, of course, in no way a guarantee of performance on the part of BNFL.

Mr. Macfarlane

Before the Minister leaves that point, will he say why the Bill empowers the Secretary of State to acquire shares in the NNC?

Mr. Eadie

If the hon. Gentleman will recollect, or perhaps look at the record later, he will see that my right hon. Friend was asked that question, and he answered in relation to the AEA and the Government. However, I shall look at the hon. Gentleman's question.

The overseas part of BNFL's business would be separate from the funding of home business, so these guarantees will not count against the company's primary financial limits.

I now turn to the Radiochemical Centre, to which I shall refer as theTRC. This company has traded very successfully since it was set up in 1971, and is also expanding. Future investment totalling £30 million is in prospect. Most of this can be funded internally. The external finance requirement should be limited to £10 million. The Government agreed to subscribe £5 million of this as new equity in July last year: £2 million in this financial year, and £3 million during next. The company expects to be able to borrow the remainder on the private market on its own credit. This has been possible within the company's present financial limit of £5 million.

In view of the expansion of the company, it seems desirable to us to give it more financial flexibility. This the Bill will do. First, the maximum to which the financial limit may be raised by order subject to affirmative resolution is to be increased from £7 million to £15 million. In effect, this would restore the limit to the value that it had in 1971 when it was originally set. Second, as with BNFL, the Government are empowered to guarantee private borrowing again, and sums will count against the financial limit.

The Bill also allows expenditure on the acquisition of shares in the NNC. There is nothing devious in this proposal. We simply want to tidy up a situation which, while not causing difficulty at present, is illogical. First, if the Government at some future time wanted to increase their interest in this part of the nuclear power industry, my right hon. Friend would, as things stand, have to ask the Atomic Energy Authority to do it on his behalf and ask it afterwards to transfer the new holdings to him. This we propose to put right.

Mr. Skeet

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Eadie

No, because I want to come to some of the things that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

Mr. Skeet

It is on that point.

Mr. Eadie

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will allow me to continue.

Secondly, while the Secretary of State has power to direct the Authority to transfer to him the shares it holds on the Government's behalf in TRC and BNFL, he has no such power in relation to the shares which the AEA holds in the NNC. The Government might in the future want to bring their interests in the nuclear industry into a single hand. In such a situation, though the existing Authority holding in NNC could be transferred to him without payment of a purchase price, the Secretary of Sate would not have the stautory financial authority for any incidental expenditure, such as stamp duty, that might be required in connection with such a transfer. It would also be necessary, once shares have been transferred, to be able to meet further possible expenditure; for example, in taking up new issues.

The Bill would allow this to be done. The Government can already acquire shares from willing sellers through the AEA. The proposed provision does no more than give the Government the alternative of managing their existing and future interest in the NNC.

Mr. Tom King

Although the facts which the Minister is giving to the House are extremely interesting, they will probably come out in Committee. Would he make some attempt to answer some of the questions put to him in the debate?

Mr. Eadie

The hon. Gentleman will have to contain himself. He has anticipated what I am about to do. I explained at the outset that certain things needed to be put on the record, and if he reads the debate tomorrow he will agree that I am replying to some of the points made. I propose to deal wih some, not all, of the points in detail. I am sorry if I give the hon. Gentleman offence in the way in which I propose to make my own speech.

The question has been posed of what other things my hon. Friend does in relation to energy. I was surprised at this question, especially as today we published the report of the tripartite committee on the coal industry. If the hon. Gentleman were to read that report he would see that, as a consequence of action between the Government, the trade unions and the National Coal Board, we were signposting the road for investment in future energy production.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dearne Valley (Mr. Wainwright) said that we had 300 years supply of coal, and he asked what the Government were doing to exploit it. By giving coal its proper rôle in energy requirement and in energy production, my right hon. Friend has made a substantial contribution to our present and future economic well-being.

The hon. Member for East Grinstead (Mr. Johnson Smith), in a good contribution, asked about the future rôle of nuclear fusion as opposed to nuclear fission. He asked that my right hon. Friend should bear this in mind, and hoped that the technology would be advanced to some extent. He mentioned a period of 10 to 15 years. I have great pleasure in telling the hon. Gentleman that this year my right hon. Friend is presiding over consideration of this aspect in Europe.

I have already spoken in the House three times on nuclear fusion perhaps better known as JET. My right hon. Friend has already been very active in Europe in trying to get the Council of Ministers to take a decision on the question of JET. Because of his initiative, the whole of Europe will shortly be in a position to know that we have carried out the resolve which was made last year —to get the question of siting a fusion project settled so that our part of the world can go ahead with this new technology.

I agree that the sooner we come to an agreement on that question the sooner we shall be able to accelerate this new technology. One hon. Member mentioned that it might be in the next century before fusion can be used to produce power. The House sympathises with the view that it is time that the EEC went ahead with the principle of establishing a system of nuclear fusion. Culham is still a strong candidate for the JET project, and we will continue to argue the case for this country as a suitable venue.

When we are dealing with nuclear power and alternative sources of energy I accept that Governments past and present have perhaps not got their allocations right in relation to alternative sources of energy. Perhaps, therefore, we should consider how we are to allocate our limited financial resources. What is clear is that no country can hope to become industrialised unless it has adequate sources and supplies of energy. My right hon. Friend is very conscious of that fact, as is illustrated by his idea of an Energy Commission.

Mr. Tom King

As it is clear that the hon. Gentleman will not be able to cover all the questions asked in the debate, perhaps he will answer one that is fundamental to the Bill. It concerns the reprocessing and the guarantees involved. What is happening about the public inquiry? What advice is his Department giving to BNFL in reply to its inquiries?

Mr. Eadie

Had I the time, I would deal with that point in detail. What I have said has been relevant to points made in the debate. The public inquiry is being handled by the Department of the Environment, which will be responsible for the decisions. The application for an oxide plant has to be submitted. and when it is it will be considered.

The Liberals have said that they might decide to vote against the Bill. I hope that they will not do so. I hope that they realise the consequences of defeating the Bill. It would mean stopping the work that is being done to refurbish and improve the plant being used to reprocess Magnox fuel, and it would involve questions of safety in the closing of the stations. It would mean stopping investment in the centrifuge plant, which in turn would mean that collaboration would

cease. The environmental aspects of the Bill will be fully catered for.

Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes, 196, Noes, 22.

Division No. 59.] AYES [9.59 p.m.
Abse, Leo Grant, George (Morpeth) Park, George
Anderson, Donald Grant, John (Islington C) Parker, John
Archer, Peter Hamilton, James (Bothwell) Parry, Robert
Armstrong, Ernest Hardy, Peter Pavitt, Laurie
Ashton, Joe Harper, Joseph Perry, Ernest
Atkins, Ronald (Preston N) Harrison, Walter (Wakefield) Price, C. (Lewisham W)
Atkinson, Norman Hart, Rt Hon Judith Price, William (Rugby)
Barnett, Guy (Greenwich) Hayman, Mrs Helene Radice, Giles
Bates, Alf Heffer, Eric S. Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn (Leeds S)
Bean, R. E. Horam, John Roberts, Albert (Normanton)
Benn, Rt Hon Anthony Wedgwood Howell, Rt Hon Denis (B'ham, Sm H) Robinson, Geoffrey
Bennett, Andrew (Stockport N) Huckfield, Les Roderick, Caerwyn
Bidwell, Sydney Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Rodgers, George (Chorley)
Blenkinsop, Arthur Hughes, Roy (Newport) Rodgers, Rt Hon William
Boardman, H. Hunter, Adam Rooker, J. W.
Booth, Rt Hon Albert Irving, Rt Hon S. (Dartford) Rose, Paul B.
Boyden, James (Bish Auck) Jackson, Colin (Brighouse Ross, Rt Hon W. (Kilmarnock)
Bray, Dr Jeremy Jackson, Miss Margaret (Lincoln) Rowlands, Ted
Brown, Robert C. (Newcastle W) John, Brynmor Sandelson, Neville
Buchan Norman Johnson, James (Hull West) Sedgemore, Brian
Buchanan, Richard Jones, Alec (Rhondda) Selby, Harry
Butler Mrs Joyce (Wood Green) Jones, Dan (Burnley) Shaw, Arnold (llford South)
Callaghan, Rt Hon J. (Cardiff SE) Kaufman, Gerald Silverman, Julius
Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P) Kelley, Richard Small, William
Campbell Ian Kerr, Russell Smith, John (N Lanarkshire)
Canavan, Dennis Kilroy-Silk, Robert Snape, Peter
Cant R. B. Kinnock, Neil Spriggs, Leslie
Carmichael, Neil Lambie, David Stallard, A. W.
Cartwrigh John Lamborn, Harry Stewart, Rt Hon M. (Fulham)
Clemitson, Ivor Lamond, James Stoddart, David
Cocks, Rt Hon Michael Latham, Arthur (Paddington) Stott, Roger
Cohen, Stanley Lee, John Strang, Gavin
Coleman, Donald Lestor, Miss Joan (Eton & Slough) Summerskill, Hon Dr Shirley
Corbett Robin Lewis, Ron (Carlisle) Taylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W)
Cowans, Harry Lipton, Marcus Thomas, Jeffrey (Abertillery)
Crawshaw, Richard Lomas, Kenneth Thomas, Ron (Bristol NW)
Crowther, Stan (Hotherham) Loyden, Eddie Tierney, Sydney
Cryer Bob Luard, Evan Tinn, James
Cunningham, Dr J. (Whiteh) Lyon, Alexander (York) Torney, Tom
Davidson, Arthur Mabon, Rt Hon Dr J. Dickson Tuck, Raphael
Davies, Ifor (Gower) McCartney, Hugh Urwin, T. W.
Davis Clinton (Hackney C) McDonald, Dr Oonagh Varley, Rt Hon Eric G.
Dean, Joseph (Leeds West) McElhone, Frank Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne V)
Dempsey, James MacFarquhar, Roderick Walker, Terry (Kingswood)
Doig, Peter McGuire, Michael (Ince) Ward, Michael
Dormand, J. D. MacKenzie, Gregor Watkins, David
Dunnett, Jack McMillan, Tom (Glasgow C) Watkinson, John
Eadie, Alex McNamara, Kevin Weetch, Ken
Edge, Geoff Marks, Kenneth Weitzman, David
Ellis, John (Brigg & Scun) Marshall, Dr Edmund (Goole) Wellbeloved, James
Evans, Fred (Caerphilly) Marshall, Jim (Leicester S) White, James (Pollok)
Evans, loan (Aberdare) Mellish, Rt Hon Robert Whitlock, William
Ewing, Harry (Stirling) Mendelson, John Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
Faulds, Andrew Miller, Mrs Millie (Ilford N) Williams, Alan Lee (Hornch'ch)
Fernyhough, Rt Hon E. Moonman, Eric Williams, Rt Hon Shirley (Hertford)
Flannery, Martin Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe) Wilson, Alexander (Hamilton)
Fletcher, Ted (Darlington) Morris, Charles R. (Openshaw) Wilson, Rt Hon Sir Harold (Huyton)
Foot, Rt Hon Michael Mulley, Rt Hon Frederick Wilson, William (Coventry SE)
Ford, Ben Murray, Rt Hon Ronald King Woodall, Alec
Forrester, John Newens, Stanley Woof, Robert
Fowler, Gerald (The Wrekin) Noble, Mike Wrigglesworth, Ian
Freeson, Reginald Oakes, Gordon Young, David (Bolton E)
George, Bruce Ogden, Eric
Gilbert, Dr John O'Halloran, Michael TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Ginsburg, David Orme, Rt Hon Stanley Mr. Ted Graham and
Gould, Bryan Ovenden, John Mr. Frank R. White.
Gourlay, Harry Palmer, Arthur
Beith, A. J. Sillars, James Wainwright, Richard (Colne V)
Evans, Gwynfor (Carmarthen) Skinner, Dennis Watt, Hamish
Freud, Clement Smith, Cyril (Rochdale) Wigley, Dafydd
Grimond, Rt Hon J. Stainton, Keith Wilson, Gordon (Dundee E)
Hooson, Emlyn Steel, Rt Hon David
Howells, Geraint (Cardigan) Stewart, Rt Hon Donald TELLRS FOR THE NOES
Lawrence, Ivan Thompson, George Mr. David Penhaligon and
Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin Thorne, Stan (Preston South) Mr. John Pardoe.
Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight) Thorpe, Rt Hon Jeremy (N Devon)

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).