HC Deb 25 January 1978 vol 942 cc1391-408
The Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Anthony Wedgwood Benn)

With permission. Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about nuclear reactors for the British power programme.

The House will recall that on 28th June 1976 I announced that I was taking stock of progress with the steam generating heavy water reactor programme at the suggestion of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority.

Since then we have carried out a thorough review of thermal reactor policy. The National Nuclear Corporation has submitted its comparative assessment of thermal reactor systems, which has been made available to the House. The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate—NII—has given its advice on the generic safety issues of the pressurised water reactor, which has also been made available to the House. There has been extensive consultation with all the main parties.

It is the unanimous advice of all concerned that in the changed circumstances of today the SGHWR should not be adopted for the next power station orders. The Government have accordingly decided that it would be right to discontinue work on the SGHWR.

The Government agree with the electricity supply boards that two early nuclear orders are needed and that these must be advanced gas-cooled reactors. The Government have therefore decided to authorise the Central Electricity Generating Board and South of Scotland Electricity Board to begin work at once with a view to ordering one AGR station each as soon as possible.

This decision will enable our nuclear industry to build on our extensive experience of gas-cooled technology. The generating boards have already begun to accumulate operating experience with the AGRs which have so far been commissioned. The completion of the remaining stations in the existing AGR programme and the successful construction of the next AGR orders will be the first priority in our thermal nuclear programme.

The Government also consider, having regard to the importance of nuclear power and present knowledge of the different systems, that the United Kingdom's thermal reactor strategy should not at this stage be dependent upon an exclusive commitment to any one reactor system, and that in addition to the AGR we must develop the option of adopting the PWR system in the early 1980s. This view is also supported by the electricity supply industry.

The electricity supply industry has indicated that, to establish the PWR as a valid option, it wishes to declare an intention that, provided design work is satisfactorily completed and all necessary Government and other consents and safety clearances have been obtained, it will order a PWR station. It does not consider that a start on site could be made before 1982. This intention, which does not call for an immediate order or a letter of intent at the present time, is endorsed by the Government.

All future orders beyond those which I have indicated today will be a matter for decision at the appropriate time. Our aim is to establish a flexible strategy for the United Kingdom nuclear power programme in the light of developing circumstances. We believe that these decisions will do so.

Mr. Tom King

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we welcome this long delayed but extremely important statement? Is he further aware that we believe that it was right not to abandon the AGR at this stage of its development, and we hope that it will prove to be successful? We also recognise that the current lack of experience of the AGR makes it prudent to develop the PWR option. Will he tell the House what those paragraphs are supposed to mean in exact terms? Is the Government consent that which applies to the normal financial and technical approvals, or is there still a residual policy decision to be taken whether the Government are prepared to go ahead with the PWR?

Is he aware that the answer to that question is most important if we are to have the confidence of those who will be involved in the development and design work, if there is to be an order at the end of the year? Is he further aware that in respect of the SGHWR we accept the need to cancel that programme, but can he give an indication to those who work at Winfrith whether there will be an ongoing rôle for those workers in a future nuclear programme?

My final question relates to the implications of the design work involved in the AGR and also the PWR. What implication will this decision have for possible fast-breeder development? The House is aware of the unhappy decision-making process in the nuclear industry in the last four or five years. We on this side of the House hope that at last a nuclear policy will emerge on which the industry can plan for the future.

Mr. Benn

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments, and I shall try to deal with the issues he raised.

I welcome his endorsement of our decision that the gas-cooled technology on which we have been working for 20 or 30 years in this country should be continued in the way I have described. In regard to PWR, if he carefully examines my statement, which was written with great precision, he will see why I do not want to go beyond it. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] When people talk about ordering on the basis of PWR, what design have they in mind? We have reflected the view of the generating board, and it wants a valid option to be available, subject to the normal consent procedures which exist in Government and so on. But there must be design for any station, whether PWR or any other which is to go through the nuclear inspectorate and which must go on site and be approved. That is contained precisely in the paragraphs in question.

This is a genuine desire by the generating board that there should be an option available. In its judgment the site work cannot begin until 1982. It will be seen from my statement that the Government endorse that intention.

On the subject of Winfrith, that plant is operating and supplying power to the grid at the moment. [HON. MEMBERS: "What about research?"] There are research people working on this matter, and I shall provide a fuller answer to the hon. Gentleman. I did not feel it right to go into the implications for Winfrith in detail before I made my statement to the House. Therefore, I would be grateful if he would give me more time to reply on the fast-breeder reactor. This is the next decision that falls to be made.

In general those who have favoured PWR have inclined to the view that the fast breeder should come later so as not to impact on the PWR, whereas there are those in the advanced gas-cooled reactor school who favour an earlier start with the fast breeder. That is a decision that we shall have to consider in the light of my statement today. That is next on the agenda. I think I have dealt with all the hon. Gentleman's questions.

Mr. Palmer

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the first part of his statement, and I accept as inevitable the second part of it. Will he say a few words about the hitherto secret agreement entered into a year or so ago between the nuclear construction company in this country and the American Westinghouse Company for a licence to manufacture PWRs in this country? Will he release details of that agreement and say whether it includes any restrictive clauses that are against the interests of this country from the point of view of exports?

Mr. Benn

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments and I congratulate his Select Committee on the work which it has carried out on the difficult problems. I shall make clear that the arrangements reached between the NNC and Westinghouse are not arrangements to which the Government are party, but my hon. Friend will recall that in order to make it possible to give information about the pressure water reactor it was necessary for the safety aspect to be undertaken by Dr. Marshall and the inspectorate. It was necessary to enter into agreement with Westinghouse for that purpose.

However, it is too early to say what would flow from the decision which I have announced today on PWR because the NNC will now have to discuss with the generating board the necesary work for developing the PWR design. Westinghouse is not the only company working on PWR design. I have seen the Kraft Werke Union in connection with these consultations. It does not follow from what I have said today that the design will derive from past agreements. It might be necessary to reach future agreements.

Miss Harvie Anderson

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that his decision is welcome and will be likely to produce the additional energy within the necessary timescale? Will he reassure the House that by this means it will be possible to retain policy-making capacity in this country and also, I am glad to say, to employ the skills and provide badly needed employment for many of my constituents in Renfrewshire?

Mr. Benn

I am grateful for what the right hon. Lady has said and I congratulate her on being the first hon. Member to point out that this is not merely an arid technical decision but involves jobs for people of this country, including the right hon. Lady's constituents, some of whom I visited. It also provides for the British nuclear industry, which has been a leader in this sphere and still retains outstanding skills, a continuing basis for employment and exports. That industry will also fill a key rôle in meeting future energy needs. I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for her patience over this long-delayed decision.

Mr. Skinner

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in the light of what was said a few years ago by his predecessor, it looks as though, in football parlance, we are facing another draw, and that extra time will have to be played between my right hon. Friend—it may not even be him—and whomever else it may be on the other side? Does he agree that employment could also have been created if these power stations had been coal-fired instead of nuclear-powered? Will he acknowledge that this is not a good day for the miners at a time when they are being urged to produce more coal and when there are more than 30 million tons of coal on the ground? Although a decision may be some years ahead, will my right hon. Friend give a guarantee that this decision will not create pit closures?

Mr. Benn

I do not know what football team my hon. Friend follows, but I recall the long campaign which he conducted on Drax B. That was a 1–0 victory for the mining industry. Drax B will provide a great deal of work and demand for coal. It was widely welcomed by the National Union of Mineworkers, the Coal Board and those who work in the industry.

My hon. Friend knows that the NUM has strongly registered its support for nuclear power. 'This is an indigenous fuel and it will mean more work for the people in industry, supplying boilers, turbines and other equipment. I regard the announcement as a good thing for the people working in the energy industries. It was strongly pressed upon me at the first meeting of the Energy Commission, which the NUM also welcomes.

Mr. Gordon Wilson

What commercial possibilities are involved in the statement on reactor choice? I understand that Britain has not exported a nuclear system as a whole since 1959 and that export orders would go a long way towards helping the electricity and boiler-making industries. Will the decision to go ahead with early AGRs effectively prevent a commercial fast-breeder reactor from being established at Dounreay, where it would be welcome, once the inquiry that the right hon. Gentleman has in mind is completed?

Mr. Benn

I have said that it would not be possible to reach a decision on the fast-breeder reactor until we had a clear decision of the sort that I have announced on the next reactor to be built. I shall come back to that matter when I am able to make a firmer statement. We are spending between £60 million and £70 million a year on the development of the fast-breeder reactor. The 250-megawatt electrical reactor operating at Dounreay is the most advanced and finest fast-breeder reactor to be found anywhere in the world. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will acquit us of having delayed work on the fast-breeder.

Exports are a factor that need to be taken into account. We have a substantial export business in nuclear fuel and, subject to the inquiry, which is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, we see prospects for that. My announcement means that we shall be generating electricity in Scotland and in England and Wales using a reactor which, in our judgment, is the right choice and which, according to the figures presented to me, will generate electricity very competitively compared with other fuels.

Mr. Rost

Why has the right hon. Gentleman not committed himself more positively to the important proposals put by Rolls-Royce Associates on the design and construction of PWRs based upon British technology and many years of experience in design and construction of PWRs in this country?

Instead of ducking the issue yet again, he should have shown a greater sense of urgency in giving us the PWR alternatives so that we could rebuild our nuclear energy with export potential.

Mr. Benn

I have met Rolls-Royce on a number of occasions to discuss these matters. I do not think that even the hon. Gentleman would suggest that power for this country should be generated on the basis of nuclear reactors that were built for submarines. Rolls-Royce has technology which is of value in the development of PWR work generally. That is widely recognised. However, I hope that hon. Members will not confuse high pressure commercial lobbying with the real arguments of merit and the practical questions of developing a reactor system in this country. That must entail discussions at great length with the customers, who agree with the statement, and with the industries that will play some part. Rolls-Royce represents 2 per cent. or 3 per cent. of the potential business, while the boiler industry accounts for 25 per cent. or 30 per cent. I am bound to take seriously the balance of interests in this matter.

As to upgrading the size of the submarine reactors, we saw at Winfrith that one cannot uprate a small reactor to operational size without running into extra problems.

Mr. Buchan

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there will be a great deal of pleasure in my constituency and in the West of Scotland and the North of England with the decision which has been made? Is he aware that he is correct to stress the importance of a continuing réle for the boiler-making industry? Many of us are pleased that he is going carefully on the fast-breeder reactor, because this raises a number of extremely important issues. Can he give us an idea of the timescale of the work on the ground in relation to the two AGRs?

Mr. Benn

I do not order the reactors or the power stations. That falls on the customer to determine. The Government consider the advice of various bodies concerned in the light of requests from the customers—the generating board and the Scottish board. I must refer my hon. Friend to that fact. I am grateful for what he said. This argument has involved a greater use of pressure on me than I have seen in almost any other issue that I have had anything to do with and it has included a systematic attack upon British technology. There was an example on the BBC's "Nationwide" programme last night which was an outrageously unfair comment.

I hope that the House will recognise that there is real value in all the experience that we have in gas-cooled technology and that for us to write off that, as some have urged, and order a system that we have never developed to British safety standards would be highly irresponsible. I hope that the House and the country will appreciate the importance of handling this matter with care.

Mr. Hugh Fraser

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on taking the first decision in this area for seven years. The question remains whether he has got the answer right. I hope that the decision will be fully debated by the House, especially in the light of the long-term export interests of this country.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there are grave doubts about the AGR for export purposes and that there is an enormous potential in the fast-breeder reactor with which the right hon. Gentleman is playing? We need a firm decision about the PWR, and the right hon. Gentleman should be more forthcoming about the fast-breeder reactor.

Mr. Benn

I think that I have dealt with the fast-breeder reactor. There is a general view, with which I am sympathetic, that this might be suitable for international collaboration. We should have to get the framework right.

Exports are an important factor. We already export components for PWRs, particularly heat exchangers and so on, and the House will be aware that in the last three or four years the forecast of installed capacity for PWRs worldwide has been cut by about half while the installed industrial capacity to meet those orders has perhaps as much as doubled.

We have to be realistic about the export possibilities, and the House should be aware that the gas-cooled technology has considerable potential and possibilities. For example, high temperature reactors may turn out to be the choice of the world. Other countries may decide to double bank on their reactor systems, as we shall be doing. It is important that we do not snuff out our experience of gas-cooled technology. These are the factors which led to my announcement.

Mr. Mike Thomas

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his statement will be welcomed by the whole turbine generating industry? Can he explain how it is that the CEGB has been fighting to get these two power stations while demanding that it should be compensated for ordering Drax B on the ground that it does not need any more power stations?

Mr. Benn

It is partly a question of timescale, but my hon. Friend has put a good question. The AGRs which have been announced are to meet the load in 1987. The coal-fired station at Drax will take some time to build, though it will be quicker to complete. There is on the agenda consideration of further coal-fired stations which I know the National Coal Board and the NUM would be interested to see.

Mr. Maurice Macmillan

Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us about the timing of the fast breeder reactor, given that the PWR will not be on site until 1982 and not generating electricity until five years later? As it will take about 12 years from the time the order was given to get a commercial demonstration reactor in action at Dounreay, does the Secretary of State not think that there is a danger of our lead in the fast-breeder business being lost through a failure to take firm decisions early enough in the light of the difficulties that we are facing with the thermal reactors?

Mr. Benn

I think that one of the arguments which have to be gone into with great care is the extent to which the resources are available to have simultaneously a wide range of reactor systems. Taking the date of 1990, the Magnox stations will still be there, although some of them will be moving towards the end of their operational life. The AGRs will be in the middle of their life. If the PWR proposals that I have announced today go along their expected path, there could be a PWR operating. Then the question is, what about the fast-breeder's relationship with that?

It is for these reasons that we have tried to take each decision in due time and not to accelerate those where further thought is required. In any case, we have announced that there will be and, in my judgment, should be a proper inquiry into the fast-breeder before a decision is made to construct a commercial fast-breeder.


How much reliance can we place on the advice of generating boards which fell over themselves to declare that Drax B was not necessary and not wanted and demanded massive subsidies to build it at all and which now fall over themselves to go along the nuclear road? Can my right hon. Friend say whether this decision will pre-empt serious attempts to develop alternative energy resources because the money will be swallowed up by this perennial demand for nuclear reactors?

Mr. Benn

On that latter point, I do not think that my hon. Friend need fear that. The work which will flow from my announcement today will be building power stations needed for electricity purposes. The money which would be, will be or is going into alternative sources will come from different funds and will not therefore be strictly competed for.

However, my hon. Friend's point is a fair one. In 1973–74, it was strongly urged upon the then Secretary of State for Energy that 18 PWRs would be needed between 1974 and 1983, and here we are, four years later, without having had one ordered, and still the position looks quite different from that in 1974. Therefore, I think it right—and that is why the Energy Commission has been set up—that we should review our forecasts in the light of experience and not commit resources firmly until we are sure that identified need can be confirmed. That is the basis upon which I am proceeding.

Mr. Evelyn King

The Secretary of State has announced a decision which will give the gravest disappointment in Dorset, but he has not been specific about its effects, which may have grave economic repercussions. Is it not at least unfortunate that, his Ministry having a year or two ago announced one decision in respect of Winfrith which was encouraging to it, he has now reversed that decision? Can he say how many millions of pounds the Government have put into Winfrith and how many of those millions, as a result of this decision, will be prove to have been wasted? Can he say whether there are to be redundancies in this area among highly skilled people, what is likely to be the size and effect of those redundancies, and what compensation is likely to be paid?

Mr. Benn

I said something about Winfrith a moment ago. It was not and would not have been right for me to discuss with the Atomic Energy Authority or with the people at Win- frith the Government's decision that I have announced today in advance of telling the House. Therefore, there was bound to be very limited scope for discussion about matters which concern the hon. Gentleman and his constituency. However, the overwhelming part of the sum spent on the SGHWR was spent on building the Winfrith reactor, which I was present in his constituency to open 10 years ago. It is producing power there.

There is other work going on at Winfrith, and the one part of my statement which should not have surprised the hon. Gentleman was the reference to the decision that we would not proceed with the SGHWR. It became known 18 months ago that Sir John Hill and the Atomic Energy Authority Board were recommending that it should not be continued. I do not think that anyone in the House or even in Winfrith expected me to announce today that the SGHWR would continue. So there was plenty of time for this decision to have been absorbed in that sense by the hon. Gentleman's constituency.

Dr. M. S. Miller

The House has indicated its gratitude to my right hon. Friend for at least making the decision which he has announced today, although I am sure that the South of Scotland Electricity Board will be very disappointed by the decision not to go ahead with the SGHWR. However, I appreciate that my right hon. Friend is dealing with the total energy requirements of the United Kingdom. But although it is correct that he should be indicating that the AGR should go ahead, why is he dealing with the PWR? Does he not realise that there are enough energy resources in the country, with oil and coal, to cut out the PWR and go straight to the other sources of energy which we can have much later, including the fast-breeder reactor?

Mr. Benn

I think that my hon. Friend is wrong in saying that the South of Scotland Board will be disappointed by my statement. It is what it has been pressing very strongly on me. It is true that the South of Scotland Board, when Frank Tombs was the chairman—he has now come to the Electricity Council—advocated the SGHWR. But the South of Scotland Board would not wish to proceed with the SGHWR in the circumstances of the present review.

I also recognise that there are in this country a number of resources. There is oil. There is gas. There is coal aplenty. Therefore, the pace, rôle and speed will be different from those in countries where these resources are not available. But all the forward forecasts, which go to the first quarter of the twenty-first century, indicate a growing rôle for nuclear power. With such a very big dependence on it—we shall shortly be 20 per cent. dependent on nuclear power—there is a case for having this valid option that I have announced today available to us, because the generating boards have a responsibility to see that electricity is available.

Mr. Emery

Everyone realises that these decisions are very difficult. However, will the right hon. Gentleman now say what has been the cost to the nation of the cancellation of the SGHWR programme? Will he also say what is the cost overrun of the existing AGR programme? As we are going into AGRs, I think that we ought to know that. Will the right hon. Gentleman also say by how much that programme is behind schedule? Finally, will he be quite frank with us? Although exports are immensely important, there is next to no chance of Britain exporting AGR reactors.

Mr. Benn

I cannot see what purpose is achieved by making a bland statement to the effect that there is no future worldwide demand for the system that we have worked on for 22 years. I am fed up with reading in the papers that our own technology, upon which we have worked and which has produced electricity for us reliably and ahead of time of any other country has no export value. The Magnox stations and the new AGRs coming on give this country a world lead in technology. The hon. Gentleman is assuming that other countries will want to be dependent for ever on a single system and that there will be no further developments of gas-cooled technology.

The figures asked for by the hon. Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery) are as follows. About £145 million has been spent on the SGHWR, most of it in connection with the building of the Winfrith Station, and about £50 million has been spent since 1974 on the SGHWR. I cannot give figures in relation to the cancellation charges. They will involve commercial negotiations which I am not able to anticipate. But the hon. Gentleman should also know that worldwide there have been practical difficulties, not confined to the AGR stations, in the development of nuclear power. It would be wrong to suppose that the only problems have been those in this country. There are problems worldwide. British safety standards are probably the highest in the world, and we intend to keep them that way.

Mr. Walter Johnson

Rolls-Royce has acquired skills and expertise which should be used and developed, and the possibility of worldwide orders for this expertise could mean increased employment in the industry. Surely we must take advantage of this.

Mr. Benn

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. As I said earlier, I have visited Rolls-Royce on a number of occasions. The company was a partner in putting in a bid in 1965. In answering an earlier supplementary question I was making it clear that no one was suggesting that it was possible simply to uprate a submarine reactor. The development of a commercial reactor for the purpose of generating electricity would use the expertise of Rolls-Royce, but it would not simply be built on its present experience. It would have to be utilised, and I have no doubt that it will be.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

May I make an appeal to the House? I shall call those hon. Members who have been rising—so they need not look sad—but I have a lot of business before we come to the timetable motion, and I shall be grateful if hon. Members could now move a little faster with questions and answers.

Mr. Skeet

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, if this country's industrial strategy is to succeed, we require the cheapest electricity in Western Europe? Is he certain that the AGRs will produce that? Why did he not make a direct offer for a European model under a British-German consortium involving Kraft Werke Union for one of its PWRs? This would help out if the right hon. Gentleman has any antipathy to Westinghouse reactors. Does he not concede that by granting two more AGRs now he has let the cat out of the bag about the Wind-scale report?

Mr. Benn

The hon. Gentleman has asked many quesions. First, he says that cheap power matters, and that is right, but safety matters, too—

Mr. Skeet

Ours is the best in Europe.

Mr. Benn

Simply to confine the comment to the cheapest, without regard to safety interests, would be unreal.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman pinpointed the reason why it should not be possible to order a PWR or issue a letter of intent now. It is that there are a number of designs—the Westinghouse design and the Kraft Werke Union design. It would be the task of the NNC to discuss design alternatives with the customers and put them before the nuclear inspectorate.

As to the industrial strategy, which I agree is important in this context, it is building upon our own industrial strength, so that we have a nuclear industry for the future. The importation of reactors from abroad, without regard to our domestic industry, could be absolutely fatal to this country's long-term interests.

Mr. Ian Lloyd

I am sure that everyone wishes the AGR programme well, but would the right hon. Gentleman care to comment on the fact that within the past few days the Canadians have announced a major programme in collaboration with the Italian nuclear industry to build two large SGHWR stations in Italy and develop a joint programme for exporting SGHW and CANDU reactor technology all over the world? Is not this significant in the light of the kind of unanimity that the right hon. Gentleman implied?

In view of what the right hon. Gentleman said about the understandable postponement of the fast breeder technology, as this implies a 60-to-1 greater dependence on the supply of uranium, is he absolutely certain and happy about the prospects of uranium supply to the conventional nuclear industry?

Mr. Benn

It is true that fast-breeders, by burning fuel produced in thermal reactors, produce for the fuel they burn a 60-to-1 factor of advantage. But in order to secure the advantage of that over the whole utilisation of uranium in this country one would have to have a balance of thermal and fast-breeder programmes that, even on the most rapid development, could not be available until the middle of the next century. Therefore, some of the writing about the FBR is misleading, in giving people the impression that we could multiply present uranium stocks by a factor of 60 by going on with the FBR in Dounreay, or wherever it is to be built.

We have had a number of discussions with the Canadians about CANDU. It is not correct to describe it as a steam-generating heavy water reactor. It is a different design. The Canadians are pushing it as hard as they can, and good luck to them. But it would involve building a big heavy water plant in this country.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, who follows these matters carefully, will know that none of the solutions advocated in an exchange across the Floor of the House has quite the simplicity that might appear from reading Hansard. We have examined the matter carefully but do not believe that CANDU would represent the right solution to our problems.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

The Government must have made certain assumptions about lead times for the various systems before coming to the conclusions they have announced today. What lead times from ordering to coming on stream have been assumed for the three principal types discussed today—the fast-breeder reactor, the PWR and the advanced gas-cooled reactor?

Mr. Benn

That is a fair question, but it cannot be answered, because lead times depend on clearance through the nuclear inspectorate. I have spoken to it in the past two days about the modifications that it might be likely to seek for the AGR or the PWR. In the case of the fast-breeder reactor the Government are committed to a full public inquiry, which will be under by right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. In the event, these could be big factors in determining the lead times.

In general, it is quicker to build what one knows best. It takes longer to build what one has not built before and longest to build what has never been built before. I hope that that helps the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Michael Latham

Are not the House and the taxpayer entitled to a rather better explanation of the disastrous decision taken by the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor in 1974, and of its cost to the public, than "changed circumstances", as the right hon. Gentleman said today? How can we be sure that he has the matter right this time?

Mr. Benn

The party that the hon. Gentleman supports can proudly claim that it remained without a decision of any kind from 1970 to 1974. I do not know whether that was the right decision. It may well be that decisions taken during that period would have been based on forecasts of matters that have so radically changed that now one would look back and say that they were wrong. There has been a complete transformation of the energy scene, largely as a result of the OPEC oil price increases over the past four or five years.

I set up the committee to look at reactor choice in 1970, when I left office, and no decision had been announced when we returned to office in 1974. I should be very surprised if the previous Government did not take the same interest in the steam-generating heavy water reactor as we took when we came back into power, because there was a widespread view then that the SGHWR had a great deal to offer. I think that the decision taken then, in the light of all the circumstances, would not be hard to justify.

Mr. Churchill

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his vacillation in this matter, and now his failure to press ahead with the PWR, will effectively ensure that Britain's nuclear industry will have no marketable export commodity in the short and medium term? Is not that to be regretted?

Mr. Benn

The hon. Gentleman is an expert at abuse in lieu of argument or any serious consideration of the facts. If he had devoted two minutes' time to the matter, he would know very well that if we had ordered PWRs now there would have been no industry capable of building them, for the reason already given, that no design for a PWR has been cleared by the nuclear inspectorate. Therefore, such a decision would have had a disastrous effect on the industry in this country. It was the unanimous view of the industry that two AGRs should be ordered. It is time the hon. Gentleman did some homework instead of merely shouting abuse.

Mr. Tom King

May I press the Secretary of State on one point that he did not make clear? He rightly said that the wording of the commitment to a PWR is extremely carefully prepared. Will he tell the House quite clearly whether, subject to the various safety clearances and other necessary provisions, he genuinely accepts the commitment to building a PWR in this country?

Mr. Benn

This is the central question of the paragraph, and I shall answer it in the way I answered it before. The customers in this case genuinely want a valid option open to them to build a PWR. They have indicated that and the Government have endorsed it. However, the customers do not wish—nor do the possible partners in the case of Westinghouse and Kraft Werke Union seek—either a firm order now or a letter of intent. That is the basis upon which the work will proceed in the spirit that I have indicated.

But it is right, particularly with the timescale of 1982 that the generating board gave me, that there should be added the words: all necessary Government and other consents and safety clearances". I understand the hon. Gentleman's wanting to press this point, but, if he were suggesting that there was some deviousness in the form of words, he will find that we have reflected faithfully what any Government are open to reflect, given the time scale and the necessary uncertainty of the clearance through the inspectorate until it has actually been achieved. That is the basis upon which we have made the statement.

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