HC Deb 13 February 1978 vol 944 cc10-2
8. Mr. Palmer

asked the Secretary of State for Energy if, in the light of his recent statement on the Government's decision to proceed with two further advanced gas-cooled reactor power stations, a new decision will be taken on additional stations once the preliminary design study for possible pressurised water reactor stations is completed.

Mr. Benn

The Government's policy was set out in my statement of 25th January. To provide us with the option of adopting the pressurised water reactor system in the 1980s, we have endorsed the declared intention of the CEGB to order a PWR station provided design work is satisfactorily completed and all necessary Government and other consents have been obtained. In deciding whether to give these consents, I would expect the Government of the day to have regard to safety, economics and operational experience but not to withhold consents on arbitrary grounds.

Mr. Palmer

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that varying interpretations have been placed upon his last statement about the Government's intentions for the choice of reactors in the future? Is he saying that, once the AGR stations such as Torness and Heysham and the station in Suffolk have been completed, there will be no further gas-cooled reactor stations in this country?

Mr. Benn

Such an interpretation would be wholly wrong. As I told the House in the course of supplementary answers to my statement, the generating board does not rule out the possibility of a further AGR before 1982, and the implication that this is simply a way of slithering into a permanent decision on PWRs is entirely without foundation. There was no suggestion of that in my statement, and my statement should not be read in that way. We want to leave a genuine option open to us.

Mr. Rost

Did not the right hon. Gentleman mislead the House and the country when he said that the PWR could not be started before 1982 and that it would take longer to complete a PWR than an AGR?

Mr. Benn

I did not mislead the House, because I reported that the generating board was of the opinion that site work could not begin until 1982.

Mr. Skinner

If we have these nuclear stations, of whatever kind, is that not bound to have an adverse effect on the use of coal? Does not my right hon. Friend accept that recent studies have shown that unless this country is capable of exporting 50 million tons of coal a year, whereas now we export hardly any, many mines will be closed as a result of the policy of moving from coal to nuclear power?

Mr. Benn

If my hon. Friend is supporting what we have said about the need for greater production of coal, I fully agree with him. He will know from last year's Coal Industry Act that we have given the industry the opportunity to move into refineries and other work and that the market for coal is of very great importance. I have said many times that I believe that our energy future rests upon coal, but we do not see how on coal alone it is possible to meet the anticipated needs or demand for energy.

Mr. Tom King

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the reason why his hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer) tabled this Question is reflected in the total uncertainty in the industry as to precisely what his statement meant in terms of the PWR? Since his answer today has been merely a high-speed repetition of some of the more ambiguous parts of that question and answer session, will he now answer this question? Does the statement on the PWR indicate whether or not there is a residual policy decision still remaining with the Government, leaving aside the obvious concerns about technical and safety aspects?

Mr. Benn

Of course there is a decision. The decision will be taken by the Government of the day in due time. There was no suggestion—quite the opposite—in my statement that we have decided to proceed with an order or even a letter of intent. In fact, those who claim that there is uncertainty are disappointed that the Government did not decide to shift at once to a full range of PWR orders. Having failed to persuade the Government, or even the customer, that that was right, they are now saying that there is uncertainty. There is no uncertainty. If I have repeated what I said on 25th January, it is because that is the Government's policy—that the decision should be made in due time and we wish to have an option for the PWR. However, we fell short of placing an order for it, and I do not want anyone to be in any doubt about what we have decided.

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