HC Deb 27 May 1977 vol 932 cc1766-76
The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Peter Shore)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the Government's response to the Sixth Report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, entitled "Nuclear Power and the Environment", Cmnd. 6618. The response is published today in the form of a White Paper, copies of which are available in the Vote Office.

Last September I welcomed the Royal Commission's Report as a major contribution to the debate which is taking place in this country, and throughout the world, on the proper rôle of nuclear power. The Royal Commission concluded that the abandonment of nuclear fission power would be neither wise nor justified. But it expressed concern about certain risks it believed would be involved in a large-scale commitment to nuclear power several decades from now, particularly if it involved fast reactors. It makes a number of specific recommendations for the future, and the Government, as the White Paper shows, have decided to accept the bulk of these.

In the short term we shall need to take decisions about the thermal reactor programme and thereafter on policy towards the further development of the fast reactor. These decisions would not involve any commitment on the part of the Government to a large additional nuclear power programme, which was the Royal Commission's prime consideration.

The extent of our eventual commitment can be resolved only in decisions taken progressively over the years in the light of national need, and of the acceptability to the country at large of the possible economic, social and environmental impact of an extended nuclear programme. For the present, it is important that the Government should examine carefully the adequacy of the arrangements for supervising and controlling the use of nuclear power. It is equally important that we should undertake what ever research is necessary and should provide the framework for public debate on future developments.

The Royal Commission was broadly satisfied with the present radiological safety standards, with the arrangements for enforcing them, and with the system for controlling releases of radioactivity into the environment. On the other hand, it considered that much more attention should in future be paid to the management of radioactive wastes. The Government accept that an overall long-term strategy is needed and that waste management problems must be dealt with before any large additional nuclear programme is undertaken of the kind about which the Commission was concerned. They further accept that departmental responsibility for nuclear waste management policy should be independent of departmental responsibility for energy policy. The Prime Minister has, therefore, decided that I, together with my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales, should be responsible for civil nuclear waste management policy.

We have already taken steps to review present policy for the management of civil nuclear wastes. We shall ensure that there is adequate research into methods of disposal and adequate research on, and monitoring of, radioactivity in the environment. We shall assume control of the waste management element of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority's research and development budget. The Government will consider whether further statutory powers are needed to help in carrying out this new responsibility and, if so, will bring forward proposals.

A Nuclear Waste Management Advisory Committee will be set up and will submit an annual report, which will be laid before Parliament. This will make a wider range of advice available to the Government, as the Royal Commission recommended. Following the current review, and after consulting the new Advisory Committee, the Royal Commission's proposals for a Nuclear Waste Disposal Corporation will be considered further.

The Government are taking a number of other measures, as described in the White Paper, to make more information available about nuclear matters, and so help public discussion.

The Royal Commission drew special attention to the possibility that plutonium derived from the peaceful uses of nuclear energy might pass into the hands of terrorist groups and to the possibility that it might lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the hands of other national Governments. The primary aim of British nuclear export policy is to ensure that no export of nuclear material or equipment from the United Kingdom adds to the danger of proliferation. The Government intend to play a full part in any programme for international fuel cycle evaluation, and will participate in the study group set up by the Downing Street Summit. Security measures against terrorist groups in connection with the transport and storage of plutonium have been greatly strengthened over the last two years. The position will be reviewed at regular intervals. As regards nuclear systems, the Government will ensure that full attention is given to security at the planning and design stages, not only to reduce the risk of successful terrorist action but to minimise the need for any measures which could be regarded as a threat to civil liberties.

The Royal Commission's views on energy policy will be taken into account in a Green Paper which the Government intend to publish later this year. The Government accept the Royal Commission's view that the development of alternative energy sources should be undertaken with greater vigour, and they are actively pursuing possibilities for energy conservation as a contribution to the efficient overall use of resources. The Government consider that there is a need for a high-level independent body to advise me and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy on the interaction between energy policy and the environment and are considering what form it should take.

The Royal Commission was strongly of the view that decisions on major questions of nuclear development should take place by explicit political process. One approach to this is the holding of public inquiries on specific projects like the one I have arranged into the building of an oxide reprocessing plant at Windscale, which is due to open on 14th June. As for wider public debate, the Government will consider the most suitable kind of special procedure to achieve this. They accept that, before any decision is taken on a first commercial-scale fast reactor this procedure shall be settled and announced.

Her Majesty's Government are grateful to Sir Brian Flowers and his colleagues for all their work in producing this report. For the detailed response to their individual conclusions and recommendations, I refer the House to the White Paper.

Mr. Heseltine

Will the Secretary of State recognise that this is a subject of massive public concern? The need for a wide public debate is probably not best served by a statement on a Friday before the recess. Will he urge upon his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, as part of the process of the wide public debate, that there must now be an early debate in this House on the profound issues raised by the Flowers Report and which are covered by his statement and the White Paper today?

Can the Secretary of State explain with some greater precision exactly what he means by a greater vigour in the development of alternative energy sources? He has pointed to the danger of nuclear waste falling into terrorist hands. Will he now say that he is satisfied with the security measures in force covering the transportation of nuclear waste materials between sites within the United Kingdom? Will the right hon. Gentleman give the House some further indication whether the White Paper published today goes further than he was able to go in his statement, in that the statement includes a number of good but rather vague assurances of further intentions? Can we look forward in the White Paper to seeing more precision about the timing of those intentions?

Mr. Shore

I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman this is a subject which requires intense and continuing public debate. I look upon the White Paper and my statement today as only the beginning of such a process. I shall certainly undertake to discuss with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House what I agree is a clear need for a debate in this House.

I would make the additional point that I was aware, and greatly regret, that I have had to make this statement on a Friday. I would have much preferred to make it yesterday, but I am sure the hon. Gentleman will understand that I have been somewhat caught in the time scale between President Carter's major statement of policy, the No. 10 Summit—which obviously had certain implications for nuclear policy—and my own desire to publish this White Paper before the Windscale inquiry opens on 14th June. That is the reason I have taken this rather exceptional step of making a major statement on a Friday.

Let me reply to the two questions asked by the hon. Gentleman. I agree with him about employing greater vigour in examining alternative sources of energy. That is absolutely right. I believe that the programme, which involves examining wave power and solar energy, is very important. I know that this view is strongly shared by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy, who will have more to say on this matter.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the dangers that may be posed in regard to terrorist activity related to the transport of nuclear materials are again important considerations. It would be wrong for me at this stage to say that I am entirely satisfied and content, because that would be a wrong attitude for any Minister to take on this matter, but if the hon. Gentleman is asking me whether I believe that we have taken measures designed to strengthen security in this area of activity, I would reply in the affirmative. It is a matter that I shall take up a good deal further and in greater detail in consultation with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.

Mr. Palmer

May I suggest to my right hon. Friend that some parts of the Flowers Report are ambiguous and occasionally contradictory? It appears to accept a much larger nuclear programme than we are now providing. Will my right hon. Friend give the House an assurance that this proposed new machinery—I accept its good intentions—will not be another impediment in the way of the British nuclear industry doing the job which the country badly needs to be done in the interests of our industrial future?

Mr. Shore

I accept that on certain matters dealt with in the Flowers Report there is almost an inevitable ambiguity, given the complexity of the subject, but that should not detract from the great value of the report. If the report has done nothing else it has justified the existence and establishment of the Royal Commission seven years ago.

I agree that the subject of the larger programme is important and that in terms of what was envisaged in the report, which is described as an alternative energy policy, there would be a substantial increase in the nuclear contribution over and above what is already planned.

I do not consider inquiries into the major forward stages of the development of nuclear policy are an impediment. The time scale of these developments makes it possible for us, if we set about matters carefully, to make inquiries that do not stand in the way of decisions which otherwise we might wish to take on industrial or energy grounds. I believe that by having inquiries and by taking the public more into our confidence than we have in the past, we shall in the long run make it easier for ourselves to make progress and to have an energy policy that best suits this country.

Mr. Stephen Ross

Is the Secretary of State aware that we generally welcome his statement today, which seems particularly pertinent following reports in yesterday's newspapers that there had been 22 leakages and spillages in atomic waste in the first three months of this year—information which emanates from the Health and Safety Executive? Will the right hon. Gentleman's Department be represented at the Windscale inquiry, and will it be prepared to be examined on the White Paper? We welcome the right hon. Gentleman's comments about examining the possibility of achieving wider public debate before the first fast reactor begins, but will he consider setting up a public inquiry planning commission? Will that be one of the alternatives?

Mr. Shore

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the general welcome he gives to the statement. I agree with him that the matter of leakages and spillages is important. I find it reassuring that the new machinery of the Health and Safety Executive was able to report to the public on these minor matters. This is not a confidence-destroying way of proceeding; it is confidence-building.

I have to be a little careful in answering the hon. Gentleman's question about Windscale, but if the inspector wishes the attendance of officials from my Department and wants to examine them, that will be arranged. I believe that under the rules of the inquiry it will be proper for my officials to explain and deal with technical matters which arise, but policy matters will properly be left to me as the Minister concerned.

Lastly, the hon. Gentleman asked about the kind of debate that was envisaged and whether the Planning Inquiry Commission procedure has a rôle. That might be the best way of proceeding. However, we have not used it before, although that does not mean that we should not use it.

The matter was discussed in 1968 and the planning inquiry commission procedure envisaged two stages of the inquiry. One involved discussion of general issues, rather as the Flowers Commission discussed the general development of nuclear power. That was to be followed by a second stage, on the lines of the inquiry which I have set up at Windscale. The larger policy programme flowed from a combination of those two matters—specific questions as to where, and the implications of a particular decision. That might provide the best way of proceeding. I am considering the matter further and would welcome comments on this subject.

Mr. Abse

May I thank the Minister for his statement? May I join with him in paying tribute to the Chairman of the Flowers Commission for producing what some of us regard not as an ambiguous report but as one of the most fateful reports, probably, in our generation? is it not clear from the report that the escalation into a plutonium economy by this country, with all the current dangers of sabotage and terrorist theft which would undoubtedly result, would involve the most severe encroachments on civil liberties which have ever taken place in this land if anything like adequate security arrangements were to be made? Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is essential, in involving the public and taking them into the Government's confidence, that we stress again and again that the price of being lured into a plutonium economy means that our democracy will change qualitatively and that we may well be subject to the era originally envisaged in Orwell's "1984"?

Mr. Shore

My hon. Friend was absolutely right to pay tribute in the way he did to the Flowers Commission and the great importance of its report. The Commission was concerned with two major issues. One involves the implications of a plutonium economy in any country that goes in for large-scale nuclear energy, and particularly for fast breeder reactors. The implications of that decision stretch the mind. The implications of dealing with highly active waste, which has a life that goes far beyond our history, means that we are entering an era in which we have a duty to the future to provide the utmost care before we make decisions in this sphere. I accept that.

I accept also that because of the importance of the material with which we are dealing and because of the potential dangers involved, the question of security is of vital importance and interlocks with the question of civil liberty. How to find the right balance between the two, however, will be one of the subjects which I am sure will be debated—and, I hope, debated very thoroughly—in this House this year and in later years.

Mr. Christopher Price

May I thank my right hon. Friend for the care and intensity with which he is approaching this subject? May I remind him that there is a wide and growing feeling, not only in Great Britain but throughout the Western world, that this drift into the plutonium economy not only involves a danger to civil liberties but could involve a drift into the dangers of nuclear war? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the time will come when we have to make a decision whether to pull back or whether to go irrevocably forward? Can he assure us that when that day of decision comes the Government will make clear that an irrevocable decision is being taken and will not allow the sort of drift to take place whereby, later on, an announcement is made that it is too late to abandon the plutonium economy and rely on other more humane sources of energy?

Mr. Shore

I assure my hon. Friend that I have no intention of just drifting into major decisions that affect the environment and the future in the development of nuclear energy. Indeed, I do not believe that any Minister exercising this responsibility would allow that to happen. What I have been concerned with is setting out various subjects and various procedures by which we can avoid the very drift that my hon. Friend fears.

My hon. Friend spoke of the dangers of the spread of plutonium, the risk of proliferation and the risk of nuclear threat and war. That, of course, requires action on an international scale, and I am sure that he welcomes, as I do, the new vigour that has been imparted into the debate by the initiative to prevent the proliferation of nuclear materials that President Carter has launched, and in which, of course, the British Government are most anxious to co-operate.

Mr. Greville Janner

I accept that we must of course exercise the utmost care, since we have clear duties to the future in that respect, and that the perils of nuclear proliferaton may place hideous weapons in the hands of terrorists, but do we not also owe a duty to the future of the country in ensuring that adequate energy is available to meet the needs of our people, that employment is kept up, and that the country remains alive and flourishing? In the circumstances, can my right hon. Friend say whether he is satisfied that in the nuclear plans he has put forward there will be sufficient nuclear and other energy available to replace North Sea oil and gas when those resources are exhausted?

Mr. Shore

It is not for me to give any final judgment on that question, certainly not this morning, but my hon. and learned Friend is right to bring into the equation the other major national interest of securing an adequate supply of of energy. That is, as it were, the other half of the story. My hon. and learned Friend is right to bring it back into the picture. I do not think that we should be complacent about our energy position, but we are somewhat better placed than many other countries, and I believe, therefore, that we can investigate the matter and assure ourselves, in a way that may not be available to others, about the right way to proceed in the development of nuclear supplies.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

If the public inquiry is to be a major factor in the great debate, is my right hon. Friend satisfied that the objectors will have sufficient resources available to them to make a good presentation of their case? Is he satisfied that some contracts for alternative sources of energy will go to those firms which at the moment are suffering a considerable shortage of work because of the great debate on nuclear energy?

Mr. Shore

It is not for me to speak about the timetabling, as it were, of the development of resources, and perhaps even the development of alternative sources of energy. That is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy.

My hon. Friend asked whether objectors would have the necessary resources. I understand the problem that inquiries pose for objectors, but I am not convinced that it would be right to depart from the practices that we have followed ever since the Council on Tribunals reviewed this question in 1964. I believe that there is sufficient sense of the importance of these developments among professional and expert people to ensure that there will be available to the inquiry men of distinction on either side of the argument who will be prepared to come forward and put their points of view. I believe that we shall get a very thorough inquiry, if my hon. Friend is referring to Windscale, as I think he is.

Mr. Nicholas Fairbairn

In view of the risks of a plutonium-based economy, will the right hon. Gentleman consider urgently the question not only of such energy sources as solar energy—there is a successful example of it in my constituency, at Kinloch Rannoch, where plants are heated by it—but whether such supplies as oil resources, which are given limits based on economic factors, could be more cheaply expanded than an expansion of the nuclear programme, which would have to supplement them when it was regarded as no longer economic to extract them?

Mr. Shore

I am interested to hear what the hon. and learned Gentleman says about the promising development of solar energy in his area. I believe that it is one of the developments well worth pursuing in the future. The best use of our energy resources, including oil, is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy rather than for me.