HC Deb 15 May 1978 vol 950 cc111-82
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Oscar Murton)

Mr. Speaker has asked me to make the following statement before the debate begins.

As the House knows, this debate lasts for three hours only. This is the third time that this subject has been debated in the House, and therefore I feel that I have every right to ask hon. Members who have spoken previously on this subject to make very brief speeches if they are called. The subject arouses interest on a considerable scale, and it will be possible to call those hon. Members who have indicated a wish to be called to speak only if there is rigid self-discipline exercised all round.

7.0 p.m.

Mr. David Steel (Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles)

I beg to move, That the Town and Country Planning (Windscale and Calder Works) Special Development Order 1978 (S.I., 1978, No. 523), dated 3rd April 1978 a copy of which was laid before this House on 3rd April, be withdrawn. I intend to be mindful of your statement, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

This motion is in an updated form. The Prayer was signed by more than 50 hon. Members on both sides of the House earlier this year, and there is no doubt that some hon. Members who wish to take part in the debate will have more fundamentalist objections than I have to proceeding with the reprocessing plant at Windscale. Therefore, in my brief opening speech I do not propose to deal with either the financial or the technical arguments, which no doubt other hon. Members will wish to deploy and some of which were aired in the debate in March, although I have read the recent reports from the United States which cast doubt on the wisdom of proceeding on both the financial and the technical grounds.

In my view, the arguments on both sides are finely balanced and contain many uncertainties. It is because of that that I believe the burden of proof ought to lie quite firmly on the side of those who are pressing this order and who argue that we should now be taking this firm step into the plutonium economy.

In fact, I disagree entirely with the conclusion, although I agreed with many of the arguments, of this morning's leader in The Times which, rather surprisingly, concluded: The overwhelming importance of keeping the widest range of options open in the coming world shortage of power resources amply justifies going ahead at this stage. The relative novelty of the technology is itself a reason for pressing on, since success or failure will to a great extent define those options in future. But the project is a venture into political and technological waters that are very incompletely charted, and it is important that it should be kept under genuine and fundamental review as it develops, and that today's vote should not be seen as setting it on an inflexible and irrevocable course. My first argument is that, unhappily, in this Parliament we know that these matters too easily get set on an inflexible and irrevocable course. Perhaps I may take the mind of the House back to the discussions that we had on the Concorde project. I question seriously whether, if we knew in 1962 what we know today about the costs and the effects of the Concorde project, the House would ever have given approval for it. I have looked out the figures. In November 1962, the House was told that the project would cost us £150 million to £170 million. The latest figure, given earlier this month, was £1,137 million, not to mention the annual operating cost losses to British Airways of £8.5 million, none of which takes account of the small number of orders for the aircraft or the write-off of the capital costs.

I say that merely in passing because, if one is to take The Times argument that we should not regard this vote as irrevocable—

Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland)rose

Mr. Steel

I hope that I shall not be pressed to give way, because I know that a great many right hon. and hon. Members are waiting to speak.

Mr. Jopling

Will the right hon. Member give way on that point?

Mr. Steel

Other right hon. and hon. Members can counter my argument in the debate. I promised to curtail my remarks as much as possible. We have only three hours. The hon. Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling) knows that usually I give way in debate, but this is a debate of a rather special nature and I must proceed with my speech. If any hon. Member wishes to challenge my figures, he may do so later in the debate. However, I obtained the figures from the Library.

Mr. Jopling

They are wrong.

Mr. Steel

The first reason why I oppose this order is precisely that I think that it is not possible, once we are past this stage, easily for Parliament or future Governments to review it and draw back.

My second reason is that I think that public opinion is increasingly concerned about the way in which we push forward technology at the dictates of the expert without adequate thought of safeguards given by the layman. On occasion, that concern turns into outrage when matters go wrong. I give three examples. There was the accident at the Seveso plant in Italy. Afterwards, a great many articles were written about it in which people said how tragic it was and what precautions might have been taken there.

Then there was the crash landing of the Russian space satellite in Canada, which happened in an unpopulated part of Canada but which nevertheless caused concern about the release of radioactivity. Then, coming nearer home, we had the wreck of the "Amoco Cadiz". Leaving aside the effects on tourism, which are temporary and ephemeral, the destruction of a total environment in part of the world surely gives rise to considerable public concern. Increasingly, people are asking what it is that we are doing to a world of which we are simply temporary trustees. I believe that the magnitude of the decision that we are asked to take today is greater than any of the examples that I have given.

It must be said that the record of safety of our nuclear industry is excellent. In the course of my visit to the prototype fast-breeder reactor at Dounreay and when I was at Windscale, I was immensely impressed by the record of the nuclear industry, and it is right to resent implications that it is less safe and less scrupulous than other dangerous industries.

Having said that, however, we are lucky in that we have never had a major incident in our nuclear industry. No one can guarantee, no Government can, and no hon. Member can, that there might not be some incident in the future. The fact that 10,000 people were prepared to go to Trafalgar Square peacefully on a Sunday—[Interruption.]—and 3,000 to Torness on the South-East coast of Scotland—[Interruption.]—is an indication of growing public concern. I know that the groans coming from some of the Benches indicate precisely what alarms me, which is that these people are written off as cranks or political misfits. That is a wrong attitude to what is a genuine growth of public concern about these issues. A Parliament which is arrogant and sweeps these people aside is adopting entirely the wrong attitude.

That is my second reason for suggesting we should think again about going ahead with this project.

My third reason for opposing this order is that we still—and the evidence is in the Parker Report—require further investigation into the safety and security of nuclear materials both on site and in transit and of waste storage and that the information that we have so far on all these is inadequate.

It was accepted by the Secretary of State for the Environment in his speech during our debate in March—and it was accepted by Mr. Justice Parker in his report—that there is no case for domestic reasons related to a future fast-breeder reactor programme for pressing ahead now with the Windscale reprocessing plant. Indeed, in its evidence to the inquiry, BNFL said that it could withstand a further delay of up to five years without its affecting the CFR programme.

So we should not be pushed by arguments of urgency into agreeing to this order tonight. On the safety and security questions we should pause and consider what was said by the Flowers Commission. It said: The unquantifiable effects of the security measures that might become necessary in a plutonium economy should be a major consideration in decisions on substantial nuclear development. Security issues require wide public debate. In the debate in March there were many criticisms of the perfunctory manner in which the security question was dealt with by the Windscale inquiry and the Parker Report.

In the Written Answer which the Secretary of State for the Environment gave earlier this month in the Government's official reaction to Mr. Justice Parker's recommendations, the right hon. Gentleman said: The Government accept the principle that security measures at Windscale should be checked by an independent person not involved in their design or operation, and will examine how best to put the recommendation into effect (No. 1). There are, however, wider security implications which need further consideration before detailed arrangements can be worked out."—[Official Report, 8th May 1978; Vol. 949, col. 337.] Bearing in mind the perfunctory way in which security matters have been dealt with, and considering the statement that there is still quite a lot to be worked out, there is a case for examining the matter further. I suggest, whether we proceed with the order or not, that the Government should consider the appointment of a Select Committee to consider these matters, because I accept that we are limited in the degree of public debate that we can have on them.

If I may cite a precedent, the Select Committee on Services, of which I was a member a few years ago, which deals with security in the Palace of Westminster, is a model of how a delicate matter can be dealt with by private Committee. I believe that we would all be willing to trust our colleagues to look more deeply into these questions.

It is not simply a question of holding material on site. There is also the question of the transporting of nuclear material to and from Windscale. The Parker Report recommended that the majority of the transport should continue to be by rail. No doubt that will be the case. However, there was a report earlier this year that some material was being ferried by air from Windscale to Dounreay. I do not know whether the Secretary of State can confirm that. This gives rise to some anxiety.

When I visited Dounreay I was struck by the fact that if we are to have a commercial fast-breeder reactor in the future, and if it is to be at Dounreay, which appears to be the most favourable site, there is a case for examining again the Windscale project and for arguing that purely for domestic reasons the reprocessing should be carried out where the material is to be used. This casts doubt on whether Windscale is the right place if, in the future, for domestic reasons, we want to have a commercial fast-breeder reactor programme.

I suggest that we should have a Select Committee, whether or not we proceed with the order, to consider all the questions of security.

There is still doubt about the method and location of storage. The Flowers Report says: We are confident that an acceptable solution will be found and we attach great importance to the search; for we are agreed that it would be irresponsible and morally wrong to commit future generations to the consequences of fission power on a massive scale unless it has been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that at least one method exists for the safe isolation of these wastes for the indefinite future. I notice the very careful words used by the Secretary of State in March when he was interrupted by the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Blenkinsop). The Secretary of State replied on this point by saying: The vitrification process has been subject to a great deal of research and pilot demonstration. I believe, again, that the evidence is clear that it offers a promising solution to the problem."—[Official Report, 22nd March 1978; Vol. 946, c. 1544.] That does not strike me as being beyond reasonable doubt. We have yet to reach the stage at which we have on the necessary scale proved vitrification as a satisfactory process.

There is also the question of the location of storage. Here I am slightly critical of the Atomic Energy Authority. It has been seeking planning permission and in some cases engaging in the boring of test holes in places such as Cornwall, the Scottish borders, Northumberland, the Highlands and the Orkneys. It appears to have made a tour of Liberal constituencies for that purpose, omitting for some reason Rochdale—a much more likely candidate.

I believe that the authority has run slightly ahead of both Government decisions and public opinion and has needlessly stirred up much resentment and concern about the location of future storage, particularly when the method of storage has not yet been proved. I hope that this process will not be continued. The public require much greater reassurance about the safe handling of all these materials, both active and waste, before we press ahead with the project.

My fourth and last reason for opposing the order is that if we go ahead with it we shall be giving an international lead in the wrong direction. Even the Parker Report, which came out in favour of the project, said in paragraph 6.2: A nuclear bomb can be constructed with the grade of plutonium recovered by reprocessing. A country, which had in its hands such plutonium, could produce a bomb or bombs more rapidly, and with less risk of its actions being detected in time for international diplomatic pressure to be exerted, than if it had no such plutonium. Paragraph 6.6 says: At present the system for preventing the spread of nuclear weapons is founded on a number of agreements … and … the system of safeguards which they contain or for which they provide is essentially one of reporting and inspection. This system was acknowledged by everyone to be in need of strengthening and improvement. The reason why we ought not to proceed with the order now is because of the international evaluation programme being conducted on the initiative of the United States. It is interesting to note that this is a bi-partisan policy in the United States which runs directly counter to what appears to be a bipartisan approach in Britain. President Ford initiated the programme in October 1976, when he said The United States should no longer regard reprocessing of used nuclear fuel to produce plutonium as a necessary and inevitable step in the nuclear fuel cycle. He went on to say that the avoidance of proliferation must take precedence over economic interests. My hon. Friend the Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon), when speaking in the debate in March, quoted Mr. Justice Parker's version of President Carter's updating of that initiative of April 1977 when he talked about the indefinite deferment of commercial reprocessing and recycling of plutonium."—[Official Report, 22nd March 1978; Vol. 946, c. 1598.] President Carter said Increasing United States capacity to provide adequate and timely supplies of nuclear fuels to countries that needed them 'so that they will not be required or encouraged to reprocess their own materials'. He then announced that what he was wanting was an embargo on the export of equipment or technology that could permit uranium enrichment or chemical reprocessing. He said that he was pursuing discussions on a wide range of international approaches and frameworks that would permit all countries to achieve their own energy needs, while at the same time reducing the spread of the capabilities of nuclear explosive development. When the Government refer to the INFCE they do so in strange terms. The Secretary of State for the Environment in March told the House: We hope, however—and we shall work for it—that INFCE will recommend better safeguards with perhaps greater international participation, for sensitive nuclear plants and movements of nuclear materials."—[Official Report, 22nd March 1978; Vol. 946, c. 155.] The Foreign Secretary said that after INFCE he hoped to convert the Carter Administration to our view of reprocessing on non-proliferation grounds. In that speech he argued what I thought was a completely false piece of logic when he said: If we need to reprocess fuel irradiated in the United Kingdom on grounds of better use of our energy resources and better waste management, and there is a case to be made for that, it is only right that we should offer the use of the plant to other governments who share our view that reprocessing is a necessary part of the nuclear fuel cycle. In this way I believe that we shall reduce the need for other governments to build their own reprocessing plants. In offering our services to other governments we hope to satisfy their, and our, concern about the possible misuse of plutonium. The emphasis must be on the word "hope". That is a non-provable assertion and I should have thought it much more likely that, if we have an international evaluation programme involving 40 nation States, and if we decide to go ahead regardless of that programme. we shall simply encourage others to follow suit.

The House has a straight choice between looking at the longer term results of a decision that we take tonight against the undoubted economic value of the Japanese and other contracts which we could acquire. I believe that the onus must lie heavily on the Government, who have brought forward the order, to persuade us that we are wrong. If they do not persuade us beyond a reasonable doubt, it will be right to vote in favour of the order being withdrawn.

7.20 p.m.

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Peter Shore)

After the Wind-scale inquiry took place and I received the inspector's report I decided that it was essential that Parliament should debate the proposed development of the oxide fuel reprocessing plant at Wind-scale before any decision was reached. That debate, which ranged fully and freely over all the issues involved, took place on 22nd March, and although it was not my wish that any vote should take place at that stage, a Division was called and a substantial majority was recorded.

Since then, under the special procedure which I told the House I intended to follow, I have made a special development order giving planning permission for the development subject to certain conditions. The House will tonight decide by its vote whether the Windscale development will proceed. None of us has any doubt about the importance of this decision.

I shall comment on some of the remarks made by the Leader of the Liberal Party, the right hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel) during the course of his speech but I will say at once, because I do not think that he was with us when we last debated this matter, that many of the issues on which he had, inevitably, simply to touch during a short speech were thoroughly dealt with in the House during the full day's debate.

Let me assure the right hon. Gentleman that those of us who are taking a different view have no contempt for those who have objected to the Windscale order. On the contrary, we have taken their objections with the utmost serioussness and we are trying to treat the matter with the concentration and concern which I believe it deserves. I do not think it right to argue or assert that the people of this country are being put upon by technical expertise when the one thing that has preceded the whole of this parliamentary procedure and public discussion has been the longest and most thorough investigation that has ever taken place into any project. This public discussion was held openly before a disinterested inspector. It has been the most open discussion on such a subject in any country.

None of us has any doubt about the importance of this decision. When I spoke in the debate on the report of the inquiry on 22nd March I discussed very fully the three major considerations which had weighed with me in considering the recommendations of the report. They were whether the proposed development posed any unacceptable risk to the environment or to health, whether it presented security problems which would pose a new challenge to our democratic way of life and whether it would adversely affect our policy to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

On these three immensely important issues, which I think we all agree lie at the heart of the argument on whether British Nuclear Fuels' proposals should go ahead, I said why I found the inspector's conclusions persuasive. I do not intend to recapitulate all the reasons I then advanced. I would like to recall to the House how I summed up my own approach on two of the major issues involved. Whilst fully aware of the energy and the economic case for proceeding I said then that if I considered that reprocessing involved any significant radiological danger to the general public, to workers or to the environment, there would be no question of my giving outline planning permission for the proposals which BNFL has put forward.' There would be no question at all. On the reprocessing of foreign fuels I said: this raises issues that go far beyond the calculus of economic gain, and we should need to be fully satisfied that by doing so we would not be undermining our major interest in making effective the non-proliferation Treaty. If we were not so satisfied we could not, and should not, proceed."—[Official Report. 22nd March 1978; Vol. 946, c. 1541–7]. That was my stance then and now. It is against that background that I have studied the arguments put forward in the course of the March debate and the anxious and critical comments made by individuals and organisations outside the House.

Mr. John Mendelson (Penistone)

The Secretary of State is laying great emphasis on the assertion which he certainly made, that if he could conceivably come to the view that there were radiological dangers he would not give planning permission. Surely that is putting the question the wrong way. What the House and the country have to know is that, beyond any reasonable doubt, he is completely convinced that there can be no such danger before he commits himself.

Mr. Shore

Nothing is beyond any possible reasonable element of doubt. What we have to do, using all the knowledge and information that we have available to us, is to come to a judgment that will not imperil the interests and health of our people. To proceed in any other way would be wholly irresponsible.

Since I am the responsible Minister I shall turn first to the whole question of radioactive waste management policy. Let me start with one point that commands universal agreement. Within the next few years, up to 20 per cent. of all our electricity will be generated by nuclear power stations. These stations, as they burn their fuel, will produce radioactive spent fuel. Clearly, we must find means for dealing with this. The choice is between storage and reprocessing. I remain of the view that reprocessing is the better way. With our Magnox stations we have been reprocessing spent fuels for the past 20 years—and no one has suggested that we should store them. We believe that our new fuels from our advanced gas-cooled reactors should similarly be reprocessed in the proposed Windscale plant.

Against this two questions have been raised. First, if we do reprocess, can we be confident of safely disposing of the resultant highly active waste, solid and liquid? The solid wastes almost certainly present the lesser problem and if research now under way is successful, we may deal with them by separating out the highly radioactive content and putting it in with the liquid wastes. For the liquid wastes two steps are required.

The first is to put them into a form suitable for permanent disposal and the second is actual disposal. On the first, we must carry through to a conclusion the extensive work—I say this especially to the right hon. Memeber for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles—which has already been done on vitrification. This process has already been carried out successfully. A demonstration plant at Harwell vitrified high-level wastes from reprocessing 10 years ago. Work is now going on into a more advanced process.

Doubts are inevitable in high technology but the doubts which have been raised about the practicability of vitrification do not in my view match the facts and we have good reason to believe that the work will be brought to a successful conclusion.

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

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is an industrial plant operating in France which vitrifies high-level nuclear waste making use of borosilicate glass?

Mr. Shore

That is not the only country which has made progress in this technology.

Research into disposal by deep geological or ocean burial must take longer. But there is no reason to think that its feasibility will not have been adequately tested by the time the vitrified waste is ready for disposal. I know of no scientific opinion which basically disputes this view.

The second question is whether storage of spent fuel as opposed to reprocessing is a practicable alternative. The position can be simply put. The storage of unreprocessed spent fuel, whether in controlled water conditions or in gas and air, is surrounded by questions to which answers are certainly not now known. What is known—and this is based on the Atomic Energy Authority's study for the inquiry—is that it would be wise to assume some failures after five years' storage in water.

The strategy proposed by the objectors to reprocessing would involve some elements being in store for at least 20 years. To move from storing spent fuel elements in water to storing them in gas and/or air would again require much further study. There are too many doubts to make it reasonable to require British Nuclear Fuels Limited to jettison all its experience, perhaps greater than anyone else in the world, in favour of the alternative system. I do not consider that this constitutes "assymetrical criteria of soundness". It is simply prudence in matters of the utmost importance for the protection of man and the environment.

I realise that there are many people who may accept the case for reprocessing but are still unhappy about the routine discharges of low-level radioactivity that may result, people who are anxious whether our control limits are sufficiently stringent, particularly by comparison with those which apply in the United States. This was the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) on 22nd March and referred to by others.

In reply I have placed in the Library of the House a copy of a letter that I have sent to my hon. Friend on this subject. As the House will know, the National Radiological Protection Board has recently published an appreciation of environmental radiation protection standards, which also compares the limits of the United States and the United Kingdom. Both discuss the subject much more fully than I have time to do now, but I want to emphasise some salient points.

The first point is that both the United States approach and our own conform to the basic radiation protection standards recommended by the international Commission on Radiological Protection. Although our methods differ, in practice the end result is not materially different. Scondly, such comparisons need to have regard to major differences of circumstances in various countries. The American standards, for example, are based on the assumption that no liquid radioactive wastes will be discharged—they will presumably have to be converted to solids.

Britain, however, is not a continent but an island, and we therefore are able to discharge liquid effluents to the sea where the radioactivity so discharged, although nearly 100,000 times greater in one particular case stated by my hon. Friend than the United States discharges to the atmosphere, nevertheless results in only a small additional dose to the population. Nor should it be thought that we fail to monitor the seas. The marine pathways back to man are very closely monitored.

Finally, and this is most important, the comparison to which my hon. Friend drew attention is based on BNFL's proposals. These proposals will be subject to the most rigorous scrutiny by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and myself with a view to reducing them as far as is reasonably practicable.

Mr. Eric Moonman (Basildon)

My right hon. Friend's last remarks will probably cause concern among some of us. Will he enlarge on that point? Will he accept that at present Windscale is leaking? It does not require any further establishment to prove that.

Mr. Shore

The occasional leaks that occur, and other incidents in our nuclear establishments are made public as soon as they occur under the policies pursued by my right hon. Friends and myself. However, they have not been of a character or of a scale to cause the sort of apprehensions that I think are at present in my hon. Friend's mind.

Much has been heard about the distinction between what is medically safe and what is publicly and politically acceptable. This last is a matter for our decision, and we shall have that consideration fully in mind when the time comes to frame the discharge authorisations, which have to be separately issued under the Radioactive Substances Protection Act.

During the last debate the House stressed, and rightly in my view, the importance of the recommendations in chapter 17 of the inspector's report. And I was asked to indicate the Government's response to them before this debate. I have already announced that we have accepted 12 of the 15 recommendations outright. Together their implementation will still further tighten controls over radioactive discharges, will increase monitoring, and will strengthen safeguards. Particular interest may perhaps centre on the decision to press ahead with the development of a krypton arrestment plan for THORP, and also on the provision of whole-body monitoring facilities for local people. I believe that these are all welcome improvements in existing arrangements that will provide still further reassurance.

The three remaining recommendations are those calling for an independent check on security precautions at Windscale—there are difficulties there, as I am sure the right hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles understands—the inclusion of an independent person or body with environmental interests in the system for advising government on the fixing of radiological protection standards, and for a single inspectorate responsible for advising on the limits to be placed on all radioactive discharges.

The Government have accepted the underlying purpose of all three recommendations. They do, however, involve organisational changes and we have to consider how best we might achieve what the inspector had in mind. We shall be doing this as quickly as possible, and I hope that the House will accept that the Government have made a full response to hon. Members who expressed concern about all these matters during the previous debate.

The inclusion of independent advice on security precautions at Windscale and on the fixing of radiological protection standards is, of course, quite separate from the wider scientific advice that I aim to obtain on radioactive waste management policy from the radioactive waste management advisory committee recommended by the Flowers Report.

I am now happy to be able to announce the setting up of the committee. Its terms of reference will be to advise me and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Wales on major issues relating to the development and implementation of an overall policy for the management of civil radioactive wastes, including the waste management implications of nuclear policy, the design of nuclear systems, research and development, and including the environmental aspects of the handling and treatment of wastes.

We are fortunate to have as chairman of the committee Sir Denys Wilkinson, who is a Fellow of the Royal Society and Vice-Chancellor of Sussex University. I am sure that his previous background in nuclear physics—as head of that department at Oxford and chairman of the Science Research Council's nuclear physics board—will be invaluable. We are aiming to keep the committee to a reasonable size with, in addition to the chairman, a majority of nine or 10 independent members with relevant scientific knowledge and experience together with one member each from the UKAEA, the BNFL, the National Nuclear Corporation and the electricity generating industry, and some members from the nuclear industry trade unions. I shall be announcing the names of these members as soon as I can. And the House may care to be reminded that the committee will be asked to submit an annual report, which will be laid before Parliament.

As the Leader of the Liberal Party reminded us, non-proliferation is one of the issues at the heart of the matter. The Government's position was clearly stated by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs during our previous debate on these issues. It is our objective to establish a system of international management of plutonium under which plutonium produced—for example at Windscale—would be stored there and returned to its owner only under internationally agreed safeguards and supervision designed to prevent its diversion from civil use. This must be better than leaving those countries that have nuclear power, 27 with plants in operation or under construction now, and like us needing to reprocess their spent fuel, in a position that would induce them to embark on reprocessing themselves, thus multiplying the sources of plutonium supply.

Linked with this question, as the Leader of the Liberal Party put it, was the further question: why not wait for the results of the international nuclear fuel cycle evaluation programme—INFCEP—on which President Carter took the initiative a year ago?

First, as I have already shown, we must have a reprocessing plant for our own spent fuel. Secondly, even if when INFCEP was completed and the result was a decision that precluded overseas reprocessing, it would still be possible for the company to review its position and to consider how best in terms of plant size and timing to provide capacity to deal solely with United Kingdom fuels. Finally, to assume that INFCEP will result in a decision that would preclude reprocessing of overseas fuel seems to me to rest on a misconception. As my right hon. Friend said in the last debate, these studies are primarily a clearing house for ideas and the evaluation of technical alternatives. It just is not sensible to proceed on the assumption that a ban on reprocessing agreed by all 40 countries concerned will necessarily come out of INFCEP.

Finally, I want to say a word about the whole procedure which we have adopted for deciding the issue. The 100 days of the Windscale inquiry represent an event not just of national, but of international importance. No country in the world has had a more searching and serious inquiry into major nuclear issues than we have had during that long process of inquiry and cross-examination before Mr. Justice Parker and his two very able assessors. Of course, the inspector's finding and analysis have come under critical scrutiny and attack. Given the magnitude and complexity of the issues, it would indeed have been amazing if they had not. But I must reject the suggestion made by only a few opponents that the inquiry itself was a charade. I do not accept—nor do I believe will the House—that either he or his distinguished assessors discharged their duties other than honourably or faithfully.

The Government and, I believe, this House and the country at large accept that the process of public inquiry is an essential element in the public debate on major questions of nuclear development. Further, we have established that the House itself must play a decisive role. As the House knows, the Government have declared their intention of devising a special procedure for use on future occasions when proposals for nuclear development are put forward. I believe that the procedure that we followed, or something comparable, is the only rational way to deal with these questions. But if we can devise a better procedure, we shall.

I ask the House to reject the motion to withdraw the Windscale special development order.

7.43 p.m.

Mr. Michael Heseltine (Henley)

You have asked, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that we be brief. I very much take the point made by the Secretary of State that we have already had a wide-ranging debate at which many hon. Members who are in their places today were present on 22nd March and that many of the issues were ventilated extremely widely and fully on that occasion.

I understand the case pleaded by the leader of the Liberal Party that we should have more time and take another look at many of the questions that he put forward. But the fact is that there is no decision which has to be taken to which that kind of approach cannot be adopted. One can always argue that there should be more delay. No matter how detailed the investigation, the inquiry or the report which precedes the point at which we are to take the decision, there will always be those who are against the decision that they think we are about to take, who argue that we should have yet further delay or who call in aid some future event which we should await before reaching our decision.

I think that the House should approve the Windscale special development order. In doing so, we should remember what we are doing. We are not, as the leader of the Liberal Party suggested, taking an irrevocable decision to move into the plutonium age. We are taking a decision to give planning permission for certain consequences to flow.

The consequence that flows immediately is work on the storage ponds associated with the Windscale project, and there is no risk associated with the development of the storage ponds. It would only be if we moved into the full-scale work that follows from THORP that the kind of contingencies about which the House is rightly concerned would have to be anticipated. It is not conceivable that that kind of step would be taken for perhaps another four or five years at the earliest. Therefore, I believe that the House should ask questions about the way in which it is to be kept informed of the developments that will take place between the passage of the order tonight, if that is the will of the House, and the irreversible decision which the Leader of the Liberal Party assumed would be taken tonight, but which in practice will not be taken for four or five years.

I listened to what the Leader of the Liberal Party said about Concorde. I had certain experience of the problems connected with that project, together with many other former Ministers responsible for it. The fact of the matter is that practically no high technological decision which has to be taken by modern Governments would be taken today if we argued that some of the decisions taken in the past proved more expensive than people expected. The problem with the state of the art of high technology in which virtually all modern Governments are becoming deeply immersed, is that we cannot predict exactly what it will cost or how long it will take. The fact is that, for political or economic reasons, we decide that it is right that Governments should move forward in those areas. I and, I am sure, the Secretary of State would not want to put a price tag on the Windscale development and claim that in 10 years we shall come back to this House and say that we got the figures 100 per cent. right.

Mr. John Mendelson

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Heseltine

No. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me. We are short of time. I am sure that he will want to make his own contribution.

I was told of the reason why the Americans got their space budget so accurate. It was because, when all the experts had made their calculations, the President multiplied them by 10, and he turned out to be pretty close to the mark.

We are deciding whether to grant planning permission, a consequence of which would be that certain work could take place. The work which is of concern to the House is connected with planning and design. In consequence, it should not be put in a position where it equates with it. As a consequence of the planning and design work, I believe that we keep open certain very large commercial options which are considered to be of importance to this country.

If we were to decide not to proceed, I believe that one consequence would be that the commercial options which are open to us at the moment would diminish. We might find that by the time we wish to reconsider the matter in two years, the countries which at the moment are prepared to enter into commercial relationships with us for reprocessing would have developed their own facilities or gone to other parts of the world to seek the contracts which are conceivably on offer to us.

We are deciding the degree of probability of developing certain reprocessing facilities. The Secretary of State rightly made the point that, whatever we do, none of us can be certain that the risks are totally eliminated. Indeed, the shattering statistic produced in the House not long ago was that in the coal mining industry some 53,000 people have died in this century. That indicates the scale of difficulties which beset anyone trying to forecast what is likely to happen.

The fact is that at this time—no one can be sure that it will be so in future—the nuclear industry has a good record of safety. It is obviously of prime concern in the decision that we take tonight to remember that and to maintain the high standards that have brought it about.

In the debate in March the Secretary of State made the point that if, as the process and the investigation continue, he is not satisfied—I shall want to ask what information the House will get about his tack of satisfaction—he has every power to refuse to allow the procedures to go on. Therefore, it is vital for the House to remember that we are not saying that from this moment on this matter moves out of the control of the politicians. It does not. It remains totally within the power of the Secretary of State of the day. Indeed, on 22nd May—column 1542 of Hansard—the Secretary of State made it absolutely clear that he had all the powers that he needed to exercise the degree of control that everybody in the House would wish to see.

I have examined the Secretary of State's reply to the Parker inquiry and I wish to ask about the number of organisations and public bodies that will be involved in the next few years. I have made a list. I do not claim that it is exhaustive but it is sufficiently long to raise a number of questions. Those organisations involved include British Nuclear Fuels, the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, the Health and Safety Executive, the local liaison committees, the Industrial Pollution Inspectorate in Scotland, the National Radiological Protection Board, the Fisheries Radiobiological Laboratory, the Radiochemical Inspectorate of the Department of the Environment and some independent person to check the security situation. There are also the Department of the Environment, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Scottish Office and the Department of Energy.

All those organisations have some specific role to play in the evolution of the Windscale project. What is the degree of co-ordination of all those organisations? For example, will there be—as I suggest that there should—either an annual statement to Parliament or perhaps a statement in two years' time on the progress that is being made in all the spheres for which these organisations are responsible? If there were we should not have to wait for one report after another nor have to try to piece them all together. It should be the responsibility of the Secretary of State to see that there is co-ordination of all the monitoring, checking and processing of information for which those bodies are responsible to the House.

With the best will in the world and without wishing to indulge in the scare-mongering techniques which are so easy—the Friends of the Earth could not conceivably be accused of that—it is necessary for the wide number of bodies to be drawn together so that a co-ordinated view of their findings can be put before us.

Can the Secretary of State explain which hurdles he thinks that this project will now have to jump before the final decisions are taken in four or five years' time? The leader of the Liberal Party asked for a general review. This is not the time for that because we have reviewed the relevant issues thoroughly in what the Secretary of State rightly described as one of the most far-ranging public processes that any country has devised.

But there is a case for a review before a final decision is taken. It would be helpful if the Secretary of State explained exactly what that will be and the way in which Parliament will be involved in that process. I hope that during that review we shall hear about the quest for alternative sources of energy, which must be an important factor in the decisions that we have to take. But I take the view that we shall come to the conclusion that nuclear power has a significant role to play in our industrial future.

I praise the Secretary of State for his determined attempt to meet the conditions laid down by the Parker inquiry. In his written reply to the hon. Member for Derby, South (Mr. Johnson) he dealt with all the points raised. He has tried to find answers which indicate a great concern for the issues involved and do not lapse behind the phraseology of further reviews and more reports, which is an easy method of trying to escape from taking decisions.

The leader of the Liberal Party raised the question of security. The Parker inquiry recommended an independent person. It has also been suggested that there should be a Select Committee to deal with the House's anxiety about security. I thought about this in the earlier debate and again today. I see no way in which this House can become involved directly in the security provisions at Windscale. I do not believe that it will be possible to divorce the security of the nation from the considerations and techniques that will apply at Windscale. I am convinced that one cannot meaningfully have a process whereby a Select Committee—however well-meaning its members—probes and checks security. Argument on the Floor of the House is not necessary to make the majority of hon. Members understand the vulnerability of a technique of that kind.

The leader of the Liberal Party is naive to believe that one can expose the nation's security to semi-public inquiry. Ministers of the Crown do not all have access to the security provisions of the nation. Only a small number of members of the Government have that in any Government. It would be wrong to extend it to the 80 members of the Government and impracticable to extend it to a Select Committee. I understand the need for independent scrutiny but in practice it would be difficult to go as far as has been suggested.

The Secretary of State in his announcement dealt with the question of the independent commitment of environmentally minded people to the surveillance of radiation standards. It is not always possible to pick up the full details of an announcement, but I understand that the Secretary of State is to appoint to the advisory body representatives from all the main energy institutions and that there will be a majority of non-experts from outside. That is a satisfactory outcome and I am glad that the Secretary of State has made that decision.

Any reasonable forecasts of energy requirements must assume a nuclear capability for this country. If we are to take a decision to move along that road, decisions will have to be made about the disposal of waste material, even if we pursue a nuclear commitment only for our own energy requirements. The moment that we take a decision of that sort, which was taken many years ago, we are faced with the choice of either storing or reprocessing waste. I accept the view of the Parker inquiry and of the Secretary of State that it is unlikely that one can conceive for all time that we should want to go for storage. Reprocessing seems to be a safer and more efficient method of coping with the problems. It is right to move towards that decision as quickly as safety conditions allow.

I ask the Secretary of State to consider my argument seriously. We should recognise that we are not taking an irreversible decision tonight. The Secretary of State should come forward with an argument that will satisfy the House and those who have legitimate doubts that there will be a final moment at which the House has another opportunity to look at the whole matter. He should take into account not only the promises and the optimism upon which British Nuclear Fuels' submission is made but the facts and what has happened in the three or four years that separate us from that irreversible decision.

7.59 p.m.

Mr. Frank Tomney (Hammersmith, North)

The hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) has dealt adequately with the suggestion that a Select Committee should be appointed. I proposed to deal with that issue. The hon. Member dealt with it in a manner which absolves me from any future or present responsibility for such a crazy idea.

The moral indignation that the Liberal Party has tacked upon this is another indication of how bankrupt it is in real politics. The right hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel) started with an analogy about proceeding on uncharted seas. The very act of proceeding on them is to chart them. That is what all this is about. The Secretary of State made that admirably clear tonight.

This matter is 95 per cent. conclusive, at least, but with a shadow of doubt. The shadow of doubt regarding this process and this industry is on everyone's mind. However, it does not stick that one should remain impassive and should not progress.

By the end of this century, Britain, in particular, will need as much nuclear power as it can generate and as much capital export-related industry as it can derive from the nuclear power industry, unless we want to keep men permanently in the coal mines of Britain for centuries to come, which is not a nice prospect.

The development of this project, with all the safeguards—it has had wide public debate in both Flowers and Parker—is an indication that Britain will have to find new industries as quickly as it can, industries of varying character, to maintain even our third or fourth place in capital export-related industries in the world. From the point of view of industrial history and responsibility, no country is better placed than Great Britain to carry out this project of reprocessing and storage.

My union, which has many members employed in this industry, was one of the principal movers in finding out the dangers and consequences of asbestosis. We pushed the matter through the TUC and our union journalists with the utmost vigour. These types of people and scientists are prepared to make the decisions upon which we have to depend for the future jobs and prosperity of our country. There is now an acceptance of a figure of 1½ million unemployed, which even a few years ago would have raised hell. Now apparently it is an accepted fact. But it will not stop there.

I have recently been to America to look at the American aerospace industry. When one sees the power, the enormous capital involved, the techniques, the old technology of their moon shot and new technologies that it will throw up and what they involve, one can say conclusively that in terms of material reward expensive moon aerospace projects show a net deficit on the United States Exchequer. However, in this case, the United States does not object technically and scientifically to what Great Britain is trying to do in regard to reprocessing. The Americans are scared that other nations having processed material will be able to manufacture the H-bomb.

We remember the saga. I remember the H-bomb marches. Suddenly, either Pontecorvo or Klaus Fuchs, people such as they, put it at the disposal of the Russians, and we lost sight of the marches overnight. The same agitations are taking place about the neutron bomb. If some American scientist defects or becomes a traitor and that gets into Russian hands, that subject, too, will be dropped overnight. However, it is similar people who are advancing exactly the same arguments about this scheme.

This is an industrial process wedded to a future technology. We would be foolish to deny ourselves any time by not going ahead with it, for whatever reason. After reading all the reports and having been employed in a companion industry for years, I believe that the people undertaking this project are of the highest quality and greatest responsibility.

There are times when one has to trust to judgment. If we cannot trust the judgment of these people with a full democratic system of Government inquiry, which spared no one, was exhaustive and came to conclusions, we are on the point of stagnating industrially.

We shall just have to go into other techniques and processes and probably wider fields of technology not yet known if Britain is to fight its way through. We must project ourselves 20 or 30 years ahead, and if we cannot do that we ought not to be here, because that is what all this is about. It is about men having the courage to think the matter out scientifically and technically. It is about politicians having the courage to take the decisions.

The Government and the Secretary of State for the Environment have obviously taken this decision. It is the right decision. There is no time to be lost. There are quite big export markets to be won. There is new and large technology to be developed. There is a whole new scientific world to be opened up. We cannot afford to deny ourselves this opportunity.

The hon. Member for Henley mentioned President Kennedy and the moon shot and that the factor could be multiplied by 10. That is nearly right. The scientists who presented Kennedy with a total bill for the moon landing themselves multiplied it by 10 in the hope that Kennedy would back down. However, Kennedy took one look at the figures and said "Get on with it. We shall find the money." Look at what has resulted. [HON. MEMBERS: "What?"] I shall say what has resulted. A completely new technology has resulted.

Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton)

The non-stick frying pan.

Mr. Tomney

I do not know about non-stick frying pans, but that is a nonstick joke. A new technology has opened up. The way in which we shall progress is by having the courage to do these things. The Rip Van Winkles scattered around these Benches should be paid no regard. They have been asleep for years. Let them remain that way. Then we shall all be happier and we shall progress faster.

Ms Maureen Colquhoun (Northampton, North)

What families are on the moon?

Mr. Tomney

Perhaps we shall send my hon. Friend there.

We come to a decision tonight. I hope that the House will back the Minister.

8.7 p.m.

Mrs. Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

I am very glad at having been called to speak in this debate because the subject is of substantial interest in my constituency, which adjoins a nuclear plant and is very close to Windscale.

Getting information from the Secretary of State for the Environment about the Government's attitude to the Parker safety recommendations up to the eleventh and three quarter hour made getting blood out of a stone seem by comparison a relatively simple matter.

Six weeks ago, on 5th April, my hon. Friends the Members for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling) and Morecambe and Lonsdale (Mr. Hall-Davis) and others, and myself, put down Early-Day Motion No. 354 asking the Government to make a statement—I repeat, a statement—on the Government's intentions with regard to the safety recommendations contained in the Parker Report in sufficient time for us to consider them before debating this order, as we are doing now. Every week since then we have pressed the Leader of the House to ensure that such a statement was made. What did we get? We got a miserable Written Answer last week, on which the Minister could not be questioned.

Much of the information that the Secretary of State has given us this evening could have been given to us then, had it been in the form of a statement on which we could question him. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) had to pin the Secretary of State down on various points which were by no means clear due to the speed at which the right hon. Gentleman read his speech. All these could have been given to us clearly in time for us to have digested them thoroughly last week.

I also find it completely unacceptable that the Government failed to find time to debate this order until the days for praying against it had expired, as they did on Friday 12th May. I accept that the Secretary of State will take the decision of the House, but it seems a very odd way of arranging the business of the House. When the Government wish to find time for debating some nefarious schemes that they fancy, they can always find the time. They should have done so in this matter, which is a legitimate cause of concern to many people.

I regard the Parker Report as a thorough and painstaking document—hardly light bedtime reading, but, as the Secretary of State said, the most thorough report which has ever been known anywhere in the world, and one which, provided that all its recommendations are carried fully into effect, as the right hon. Gentleman has today promised they will be, will still the fears of all but the most ardent anti-nuclear lobbyists. There are one or two tiny points which still need to be cleared up, but I shall come to those later.

Far and away the greatest danger that we could face would be an accumulation of unprocessed spent fuel stored in a variety of ways, none of which is yet wholly satisfactory. If, on the other hand, we go ahead with this processing plant now, we shall avoid both that accumulation and the danger of being forced into a crash programme later.

The leader of the Liberal Party wondered why people were drilling holes, mainly in Liberal constituencies. The simple answer is that the EEC has embarked on an extensive nuclear safety research programme on radioactive waste and storage and each of its members was given a certain geological formation to explore. The United Kingdom was given granite. Since the Liberals have been driven into the granite fastnesses where alone they can survive, that explains why the holes are in their constituencies.

Since spent fuel passes through my constituency, I am particularly interested in the safety of fuel in transit. Fears have been expressed on two scores: the danger of terrorist attack, and the danger of an accident causing a leak. Fuel going to Windscale is transported in heavy loads, of 60 to 100 tons, under stringent supervision and in massive flasks. I understand that those containers have been tested under the most severe conditions, including dropping them from aircraft 2,000 feet on to concrete, to make certain that even if an accident occurred, there would be no leak. I should appreciate an assurance from the Minister that that is so.

The right hon. Gentleman has told us that strict safety regulations for flasks and vehicles, governing design and construction, labelling and the protection of operators and the public, are laid down by the Secretary of State for Transport, but I should like more information on the stringency of the tests used.

On its return, the reprocessed fuel would be transported after being diluted with uranium and would never be sent neat, so any terrorist would have to dismantle the fuel element and treat the plutonium before he could even begin to make a bomb. I understand that it is also possible to pre-irradiate it or leave fission products in the reprocessed fuel, which would make matters even more complicated and dangerous for any would-be terrorist. I believe that eventually, all plutonium should be stored under international control and returned to its country of origin only when the need is clearly demonstrated.

No country would go to the lengths of building a fast-breeder reactor merely to get its hands on plutonium for warlike purposes, if only for the perfectly simple reason that it would be cheaper for it to make a small-scale reprocessing plant of its own. Indeed, unless there is some system among the more advanced nuclear Powers for reprocessing fuel for smaller countries and returning it to them as required, there is a grave danger that many small reprocessing plants will be established at all sorts of places including relatively under-developed countries, which would be infinitely more vulnerable to terrorist attack than one well-guarded installation such as that proposed at Windscale.

Although all the recommendations of the Parker Report are important, those to which I attach particular weight are Nos. 1, 5, 11 and 15. It is vital that some independent person or body should have the continuing task of vetting security precautions at all stages, both in transit to and from the plant and at the plant itself, and also for reviewing the adequacy of such precautions regularly. There should be some wholly independent body to advise the Government on the security standards and the members of that body should be changed from time to time to prevent complacency.

The right hon. Gentleman's Written Answer to this recommendation was less than satisfactory, and he did not entirely clear up the matter today. Possibly we shall have more elucidation later. However, what he said today was a vast improvement on what he said in that reply. I had worried until then, but now I am considerably reassured. Only minor matters are still niggling at the back of my mind.

The same applies to recommendation No. 5, on the inclusion of a wholly independent body or person to advise the Government. Again, the Written Answer merely said that the review from the Radiological Protection Board would be extended to cover that recommendation as well, but gave no further information. The further information that the right hon. Gentleman gave today was helpful, particularly the fact elicited by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley that a majority of the non-experts would be from outside the power industries. Had that information been given in a statement last week, these points would have been cleared up earlier and rather more clearly than could be done in an opening ministerial speech.

By comparison with the Government's evasive treatment, until a late hour, of some of the recommendations, the response of British Nuclear Fuels has been prompt and efficient. The company accepts the need for recommendation No. 11, that safety precautions and operating procedures at Windscale should be sufficient for all eventualities and for the strict observance and frequent rehearsal of safety precautions and operating procedures. It has given a firm commitment to keep them constantly under review and to institute whatever improvements may prove necessary. Of course, all the safety regulations are subject to approval and surveillance by the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate.

The company has also agreed to design the oxide reprocessing plant so that a krypton removal plant can be incorporated in it and to pursue the necessary research and development to this end. It has also agreed to install a third whole body scanner for monitoring employees and will be able to offer a full monitoring service to the general public well before THORP comes into operation.

Bearing all this in mind, and providing that the Secretary of State can clear up the small points that I have mentioned, I am perfectly satisfied that the establishment of the reprocessing plant will not threaten public safety but in fact enhance it. Accordingly, I shall give it my support.

8.19 p.m.

Mr. Robin F. Cook (Edinburgh, Central)

I shall be brief, because I was one of those Members fortunate enough to be called in the debate when we last discussed this matter. At the start of my speech in that debate I referred to the number of witnesses who, in the comparatively short time since the publication of his report, had stated their dissent about the way in which their evidence had been treated by Mr. Justice Parker.

In the two months since our last debate that trickle of speakers has become a veritable cascade. Many hon. Members will have seen the letter in The Times three weeks ago signed by 17 witnesses for the objectors, in which they said: We each consider that our evidence has been either misunderstood, misrepresented, distorted or ignored. We are all aware that people who lose at planning inquiries sometimes take umbrage at the fact. Possibly the soothing of constituents who have failed somewhere in the planning procedure is part of our normal surgery service.

I invite the House, however, to note the status of the people who signed that letter. They include Professor Peter Odell, who has since been appointed as a consultant to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy. One assumes that this indicates that my right hon. Friend places greater value on Professor Odell's contribution to this subject than did apparently Mr. Justice Parker. The list also includes Professor Radford. He is not only a distinguished member of the United States National Academy of Sciences, but chairman of the committee on the biological effects of ionising radiation. So furious was Professor Radford at the treatment of his submission to Mr. Justice Parker that he visited Britain only last month and challenged Sir Edward Pochin, one of the two assessors, to public debate on the evidence.

I draw the attention of the House and particularly of my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Tomney), who is no longer here, to the name of Professor Rotblat, which is also attached to the letter. He was one of the scientists who worked on the original Manhattan Project and has since served as a consultant to Harwell and Aldermaston. I do not know whether he was one of the people whom my hon. Friend had in mind when he put all the objectors in the same boat as Klaus Fuchs, but I suspect that my hon. Friend would be very unwise to repeat such a suggestion outside the privileged confines of this House.

Professor Rotblat has written at greater length elsewhere about the way in which his evidence was treated. He is quoted only once by Mr. Justice Parker and then on a matter upon which he did not purport to give evidence and in a way which ran contrary to the evidence submitted by another witness from the same organisation. Having quoted in such a convenient fashion, Mr. Justice Parker added: Such a view, coming from such a person, appears to me of considerable significance. Professor Rotblat rather dryly adds that his other views supported by a mass of evidence, do not appear to be of any significance to Mr. Parker. Other hon. Members have made the point that it will be four or five years before this plant begins construction, and 10 years before it begins operation. I very much doubt whether the report that is before the House will stand the test of that time, given the way in which it has already been undermined in the last few months. In the meantime, we must make a decision on it, but we are asked to decide upon a report which is a collection of paradoxes.

It is suggested that uranium and plutonium in the spent fuel are too valuable to throw away. Yet Mr. Justice Parker, elsewhere in the report, says that as a production plant THORP is very unattractive because the uranium that comes out at the end will be more expensive to reprocess than it would be to buy on the open market. Any substance that costs more than its price on the market cannot be regarded as valuable.

The argument is advanced in the report that we should go through with reprocessing because it would be a useful technique in waste management. Yet reprocessing is notoriously the most messy part of the nuclear cycle which will release a stream of additional isotopes into the environment.

Let me refer here to the letter which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment sent me in reference to points I had made in our previous debate. That letter has since been deposited in the Library. My right hon. Friend will be aware that I received the letter last week, and I do not therefore wish to reply to it in detail without the opportunity to take advice.

I shall, however, make one observation about the letter and about my right hon. Friend's opening remarks to the House this evening. Is it suggested that the most significant difference between Wind-scale and the three American plants is that Windscale is situated on the coast and that because of that enormous difference and the great convenience of putting discharges into the sea we can thereby increase Windscale's discharge in one case by a factor of 100,000 and in other cases by factors of several orders of magnitude? Is it suggested that that makes such a difference? If it is, I am surprised that the Americans, with two very long coastlines, have not hit upon the simple expedient of siting one of the three reprocessing plants on one of those coastlines.

I shall try to deal with my right hon. Friend's letter in greater detail when I have had the opportunity of considering it further.

Let me move on to the third and greatest paradox in the Parker Report, a paradox that was advanced from the Dispatch Box with superb elegance in both the debates. It is that by building a plant to separate plutonium and by building it on such a scale that we can take orders from other parts of the world, particularly an order of enormous magnitude from Japan, and ship that plutonium round the world, somehow we are reducing the chances of proliferation rather than giving them additional impetus.

Let me refer to the speech by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs when he addressed the House at the end of our last debate. He put considerable emphasis on the fact that we were not prepared to export reprocessing plants. He said: We have never made such a sale, nor do we intend to do so."—[Official Report, 22nd March 1978 Vol. 946, c. 1667.] But it is plainly absurd to make a point of not exporting reprocessing plants, but to have no objections to the export of plutonium itself. Our anxiety about the sale of a reprocessing plant to Brazil or Pakistan, which is presumably what the Foreign Secretary was referring to, is not that these countries will load the factory on to a jumbo jet and drop it on one of their neighbouring countries but that they would use the plant to produce plutonium which they could then drop on their neighbours. We are concerned that by this contract we shall be supplying plutonium to the Japanese in a way which, if they so wished to do that to their neighbours, they could do it more easily, cheaply and quickly than the Brazilians and Pakistanis would be able to do as a result of contracts to build reprocessing plants.

We have been told, as we shall no doubt be told again, that the Japanese have no present intention to develop nuclear weapons. That is certainly the case. We are dealing with a contract which will not come to fruition for another decade. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith, North suggested that if any of us could not see 20 or 30 years ahead we had no right to be here. I am bound to say with greater humility than he that I would be most dubious about predicting the political position in Britain 10 years from now. I should be even more reticent about making any prediction of what Japanese politics will be like 10 years from now.

In my previous speech I referred to Press reports of a CIA memorandum on Japan's intentions for nuclear weapons. I have now obtained, for the avoidance of doubt, a copy of that memorandum. So that the House knows what it is doing, I should like to repeat what the CIA says in quoting the intelligence elements of the United States air force and the intelligence department of its navy. Both see a strong chance that Japan's leaders will conclude that they must have nuclear weapons if they are to achieve their national objective in the developing Asian power balance. Such a decision could come in the early 1980s. That is, in other words, at exactly the time that we expect the plant to start coming on stream.

Hon. Members should be aware that in January this year there was some controversy in Japan because Mr. Ito, director-general of the defence agency in Japan, speculated that possibly the possession of tactical nuclear weapons would not be contrary to the Japanese constitution. Mr. Ito was very summarily made to eat his words the next week by the Japanese Government and he announced that he had not meant that at all. Quite clearly, the director-general of the defence agency in Japan no more makes policy than does the Chief of Defence Staff in the United Kingdom. Clearly, no particular view should be attached to the statements of either gentleman: both are merely musing aloud and not in any way representing Government policy. Nevertheless, we are bound to be somewhat concerned that the speculation even exists.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

Is it not the case that the Japanese already have a store of plutonium from their research reprocessing facility, and the idea that the new facility that we are offering will put something into their hands that they do not already have is not correct?

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman is correct. The Japanese have a small reprocessing plant. If they wished to produce one or two clandestine weapons, they could certainly do so. However, the question to which the House must address itself is what action on our part is likely to make that path seem more tempting and to seem more approved of by the rest of the world community.

I shall seek to rub home the point by quoting the next sentence from the CIA document which I did not previously read into the record but which I think I should in response to the hon. Gentleman's intervention. The document continues with these words: It would likely be made"— that is, a decision to acquire nuclear weapons— even sooner if there is any further proliferation of nuclear weapons, or global permissiveness regarding such activity". I cannot conceive of greater global permissiveness than precisely the type of contract we are seeking to promulgate with the Japanese which will give them a much greater store of plutonium than they could ever acquire through the reprocessing plant that they possess at present.

However, our concern about the proposal and our concern about its connection with proliferation does not depend entirely on the connection with Japan and does not turn solely on the question of whether Japan itself seeks to become a nuclear weapon State. Our concern would remain even if the proposed plant at Windscale was purely for domestic purposes. If we in Britain choose to have a reprocessing plant as an integral part of our fuel cycle, how can we object if anybody else—Brazilians or Pakistanis—chooses to go down the same path?

I was one of a number of Members of Parliament who went to visit the German embassy in London to complain about the Germans' proposed sale of a reprocessing plant to the Brazilians. One of the points that we made at the time was that all the evidence in our possession suggested that reprocessing was not a necessary part of the cycle and certainly made no economic advantage as part of the cycle. I was rather disarmed by the German diplomat who greeted us. He greeted us with great courtesy and frankness. He said that that precise point had been made to the Brazilians but that their response had been that they see a reaction in the West—the United States then attempting to build three reprocessing plants, and Britain developing Wind-scale into its own reprocessing plant, and Germany with a long-term ambition in the 1990s to open a reprocessing plant; and the Brazilians refused to believe, on seeing this activity in the West, that such activity could not be of economic advantage. If we ourselves choose that particular fuel cycle, we cannot complain it other nations follow us.

That is why I think that President Ford and President Carter were right in seeking to call a halt until the world can achieve a different type of energy resource to a fuel cycle which depends on reprocessing.

I draw some comfort from the fact that the Foreign Secretary himself clearly has some sympathy with that view. I quote from the speech he made on 19th May 1977—nearly a year ago—when he said this: There have been men of vision, there have been important achievements, but, judged overall politicians have allowed the urgency and dangers to be swamped by commercial interest and bureaucratic indifference. President Carter is absolutely right to give this issue high priority … I think that the Foreign Secretary was absolutely right.

It is very unusual for leading politicians to stand up against commercial and bureaucratic pressures. That is why President Carter's stand requires recognition and support. Equally, it is precisely because when we are put to the test we look like succumbing to commercial pressures rather than standing by strategic policy which might assist in achieving a halt to global nuclear proliferation that I am deeply concerned about this contract, and that is why I shall be joining those who will be voting for the withdrawal of the order.

8.33 p.m.

Mr. Richard Page (Workington)

In this very natural follow-on to the debate on 22nd March, when some hon. Members have been able to present their views, a few of them with considerable emotion, in view of the short time available and the fact that I was lucky enough to be called in the last debate on this issue, I do not intend to spend hours talking about the problems of nuclear proliferation. I believe firmly that if a nation wants to have nuclear weaponry or nuclear power it will have it in time whether or not Windscale is developed. I believe that the question of proliferation should be dealt with in a completely different debate and at a completely different time.

The point which is of importance to me is a purely local one. It is that of safety and I shall concentrate on this point this evening. The first issue is the safety in transport of the spent and reprocessed fuel in the specially constructed containers which have been called by some "nuclear coffins". This has very naturaly caused worry to local residents. Not only has this matter been examined and dismissed as a negligible risk in the Parker Report, but I have seen some of these containers under construction. I was impressed by the qality of the engineering. I can conceive of only the most unlikely event causing any damage or accident which would split a container and thus expose the contents. An example of such an unlikely event would be a transport lorry being hit by a crashing aircraft. Even if such an unlikely event were to occur, the contents, if spilled, need—owing to their constitution at that time—cause very little concern to nearby residents.

I turn to the highly active waste which is to be stored in silos on the site and is to remain there until it has lost sufficient of its heat so that it can be vitrified into glass blocks. That surely must be an improvement on the present position, and offers a far better option to the environment than the rather uneasy alternative of long-term storage and keeping our spent fuel untreated. As the Secretary of State said on 22nd March, there are two possible ways of dealing with our fuel. We can keep it and store it for eventual disposal, or we can reprocess it and vitrify the highly active waste. If we do not authorise this vitrification process, we shall have to design and develop new facilities for long-term storage and the subsequent waste of unused uranium in the spent fuel rods, and I believe that the disposal of this highly active waste in glass blocks is safer than the establishment of long-term storage areas.

My last safety point relates to the disposal of the low grade waste into the sea and into the air. This, to me, represents the area of the greatest concern, because it concerns more of an unknown. The majority of the other aspects are really of a mechanical nature. If one is worried that a container can burst open, the thickness of the metal can be doubled. If one is worried about security, one can raise the fence a little or double the guards. But with low grade discharge we have to ascertain the effect on the environment and just what will happen to the environment in the long term and what effect that will have on the people living in Cumbria. On that aspect I had a great deal of sympathy with BNF at the inquiry, because it was rather in the position of a motorist driving down the M1 at 30 miles per hour and being stopped by the police and asked to justify his going too fast, not his going too slowly.

The international limits for discharges via the authority of various Government bodies are given to BNF and it operates within those limits but, even so, that alone must not satisfy us, and I was very pleased to see the recommendations in the report for specific discharge limits for significant radio nucleids and the continuous monitoring of discharges into the environment, and I must underline that word continuous. As such I happily welcome the Secretary of State's acceptance of these recommendations because I know that they will bring reassurance to many people in Cumbria that a build-up of radioactivity cannot occur unnoticed.

Much play has been made of the limits and what is and what is not safe. The media have run several programmes on this aspect, and one on television started with the obligatory clip of an atomic explosion even though the Windscale operation is a chemical one and a nuclear explosion from the reprocessing plant is just not possible. Various fears about increasing cancer cases have been mentioned without any hard evidence at all being produced, and it is very pleasing to notice that, from statistics supplied to me today by the Secretary of State for Social Services, one finds that if one looks at the cases of cancer in Cumbria one finds that per 100,000 there were 252 cases per year over the past five years, whereas the national average was 246. If one goes deeper into the matter and looks at the cases of leukaemia per year one finds that in Cumbria they numbered 6.5 whereas the national average was 6.3. When one looks at these figures and evaluates them one finds that there is virtually no difference.

If one were to go still deeper into the matter and look into the make-up of the population in Cumbria, and take into account the migration of young people that has occurred out of Cumbria and the immigration into Cumbria of people going into retirement, it would not surprise me to find that the number of cases in Cumbria was below the national average. I know that that is information which will allay the fears and misgivings of many people, especially in Cumbria, and especially of those 12 people in total who, in all the time that this inquiry and debate has been going on, have written to me expressing concern.

Much emotive language has been used both within and outside the House about the inquiry and the application. Phrases such as "nuclear dustbins" and "pimps peddling a diseased harlotry" have been used. But I firmly believe that, in the absence of alternative energy supplies—another matter which should have even more Government encouragement and support—if we do not proceed with this energy programme, at the very best our descendants will condemn us bitterly for burning valuable oil and coal for heat instead of using them as chemicals, and at the worst they will curse us as they huddle together in caves, rubbing sticks together to keep warm.

That, in turn, is emotive language, but can we imagine what our community would be like with our fossil fuels burnt and with no alternative form of energy? Until we develop a commercial alternative to the nuclear power programme, we should be very foolish to abandon our one certain source of power.

I believe that, with the recommendations on monitoring and discharges, and with the assurances given by the Secretary of State this evening and in the reply which he so kindly sent to us, the operation of this plant will in fact be a lot safer, and in my view it ought to proceed.

8.42 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Blenkinsop (South Shields)

We shall, I believe, make a great mistake if we give the impression that the decision of the House tonight on this Prayer is not of the first importance. It has seemed to me that too many of those who have spoken thus far have tried to give the impression that this is a matter of limited significance and that, after all is said and done, the main decisions remain to be taken later.

Technically, there is some truth in that, but in real political terms we are, I am sure, all aware that the decision we make tonight is one which will inevitably have a great influence on a whole succession of later decisions, and it is precisely for that reason that I issue an appeal to all my colleagues in the House, to right hon. and hon. Members on both sides, to think very carefully about what they are doing.

I shall be as brief as I can, but I wish to revert to an issue which I raised earlier. Although I share the anxieties on the safety issue, on the wider issues of proliferation and, above all, on the issue of civil liberties, which is of enormous importance—I do not think that we have begun to understand the kind of society into which we may be moving—there is another issue which affects me greatly.

What reality is there in the claim that we are seeking to preserve options for different forms of energy resource in this country? I share that objective to the full, but it seems to me that in taking this step and, I believe, the almost automatic successor steps which will be taken, we are, in effect, whatever our intentions may be, denying that option for the future. This is the issue about which I am most deeply concerned.

It seems to me that we are here talking about commitments in capital, in research, in expertise and so on of an almost unimaginable scale. For the Wind-scale plant, we are, I believe, talking of sums around £600 million, but, as I say, I do not believe that that is meaningful if we do not take into account the automatic successor plants for which the figures will run into thousands of millions of pounds.

I do not believe that we can afford that kind of commitment ahead if we want to preserve the opportunity of commitment in other fields. We are just beginning to move into experimental examinations of prospects in wave power and in other areas. We welcome the announcements made about some of the modest inquiries which have so far been made in these areas. We are not yet in a position to commit large sums. The possibility of their commitment will come at just about the time when we are at our maximum commitment to nuclear development.

I believe, therefore, that those who wish to preserve in real terms the options of other forms of energy development, as well as preserving an option in the nuclear field—I am not an automatic opponent of nuclear development—should vote for the Prayer tonight as the way of ensuring that those options are a reality.

At the Parker inquiry there was evidence from men of great eminence, and I believe that they were very badly treated. They were men who have made great contributions in this field and have great knowledge, and who have expressed their deep anxiety about the position if we go beyond a certain point in nuclear development. I think we should listen to their warnings.

In addition to the anxieties which have been made clear in the past from each side of the House on the questions of safety and of civil liberties, the issue of the reality of the option is one of the outstanding issues of which the House should be thinking tonight.

8.47 p.m.

Mr. George Thompson (Galloway)

The House knows that my interest in these matters stemmed originally from my concern that no repository for vitrified high-level radioactive wastes should be constructed in the hills of South-West Scotland. My interest has since radiated far and wide, but I want to concentrate on the wastes issue, because I believe, with the Flowers Report, that There should be no commitment to a large programme of nuclear fission power until it has been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that a method exists to ensure the safe containment of long-lived, highly radioactive waste for the indefinite future. In my view, THORP, on the scale proposed, is one step towards just such a commitment—not a direct step, perhaps, but an indirect step all the same. I had hoped to have advice from my friend Professor Tolstoy, who gave evidence to the Parker inquiry. I wrote to him in America, and under separate cover sent him a copy of the Windscale Report. He received my letter but has not yet received the Wind-scale Report. I suppose that Colonel B must have taken some time off from court to interfere with it—or perhaps his opposite number in America did so.

However, British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. has spared no pains to plead its case. I had a letter from Mr. Bolter, the director of information services, with which he enclosed a summary of the proposed Japanese contract. He specifically drew my attention to a section in the summary which says: BNFL has the option to return any waste which is in a form suitable for safe transportation and storage. Therefore, BNFL has an option, but will BNFL exercise that option in every case? Can the Minister assure us that it will be so exercised—even, if necessary, on Government instructions?

But what if one of our customers for THORP comes to the Government or to BNFL and says "Our country is subject to earthquakes. We have no stable geological formations to hold our vitrified waste. Our people, because of their history, will not accept nuclear waste at all. How about a repository for our waste somewhere near Wind-scale? We shall make it very much worth your while." I think it was the Emperor Napoleon who had a bon mot about the "nation of shopkeepers". Judging by what we are dealing with here tonight, where the rush is due to the Japanese contract, I have every reason to believe that if this sort of proposition were to be made to the Government in London they would be sorely tempted. Indeed, on present showing, they would probably take it up. In any case, it occurs to me that in the course of time, far from waiting to be lured by the offer of filthy lucre, they might well be out touting the world for trade. A firm of wine merchants has the slogan "Ali the world's wine". Is "All the world's waste" to become BNFL's slogan?

Would there be customers? Yes, of course. In an article in Science on 2nd December 1977, the professor of geology and civil engineering at the University of Kansas wrote: Because high-level radioactive wastes will require burial in areas of low seismic activity and high structural stability, countries such as Japan, Indonesia, and Peru, and islands such as New Caledonia will have to export their wastes to other countries or seek other means of disposal.". He wisely observes that: Those countries with a stable geological environment may not be willing to accept for burial large amounts of nuclear waste generated in other countries. If these possibilities are possibilities—I am almost inclined to think that they will become probabilities—the alarm bells begin to ring in my mind. Just by chance, it surely could not be more than that, the site where proposals for test boring has gone furthest is in the South-West of Scotland. The hon. Member for Lancaster (Mrs. Kellett-Bowman) reminded us that this was an EEC project. But no one will convince me that the British Government did not have a fair idea in the negotiations about where they would want to do their bit in the project.

The periphery of the United Kingdom in the granite areas was the place. Of course, if the Scots are not prepared to be treated in this way, they have their own remedy by taking charge of their own land and resources so as to protect their own people from the dangers that I foresee. It is up to them to choose. My party gives them the chance of choosing the way of full self-government.

To sum up, in the interests of my own country, in the interests of this island, of England, Wales and Ireland—indeed, in the interests of mankind—I shall oppose the order.

8.53 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Palmer (Bristol, North-East)

We have had a very good debate tonight, although it is a pity that we did not have more time. However, no one can seriously suggest that in the last six months this issue has not been fully debated in the House. In fact, apart from ministerial statements, there have been no fewer than three debates on the issue.

Obviously, I am not against all this scrutiny of one potential industrial risk. But it is a pity that on occasion we cannot devote as much time to other and proved industrial risks—for instance, the risks to the environment and the way we live from oil pollution on beaches from giant tankers. That is an obvious industrial risk, unlike the one we are talking about today, which is potential and possibly nothing more.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment made a very good speech tonight. He also made a very good speech on the previous occasion on 22nd March. I should like to quote one passage from that speech. He said: In the 100 days of inquiry that took place last summer"— he was referring to the Parker inquiry— more than 4 million words of evidence were heard and every aspect of the matter was raised and made subject to cross-examination before the inspector. The scope of the inquiry was exceptionally wide-ranging and I have heard of only one of the parties who thought that the inquiry arrangements were inadequate."—[Official Report, 22nd March 1978; Vol. 946, c. 1540.] Experience is showing that my right hon. Friend's view on that occasion was a trifle premature. It is obvious now that the anti-nuclear forces—and I do not complain about it—have regrouped themselves and, having been defeated on the facts at the inquiry, are falling back on the timeworn device of challenging the scope and fairness of the inquiry.

I read a great deal of the anti-nuclear literature. One or two of the nuclear opponents of an anarchic turn of mind go even further. I do not, of course, include the distinguished company of dissatisfied writers in The Times. But there are some of a rather different turn of mind. They go even further in their arguments and contend that there is no such thing as objectivity, that all opinions are subjective, and that one opinion is as good as another, irrespective of the supporting evidence. That argument is being seriously used in one or two antinuclear quarters.

If that is truly the case, there was no point in having the inquiry at all, which could have been held only on the normal, rational basis of taking evidence, written and oral, cross-examining witnesses and, at the end, drawing conclusions and making recommendations to the Minister as required. I do not see that it could have been done in any other way. It was done most conscientiously by Mr. Justice Parker and, had he decided on the evidence that the development should not proceed, I suspect that Friends of the Earth and the others who now accuse him of bias would have applauded his upright judgment.

I think that the House knows that I have supported the development of nuclear energy as essential for the industrial progress of the country over many years. Had Mr. Justice Parker given the thumbs down to the Windscale expansion, I should have regretted it and regretted the loss to the country of valuable overseas processing contracts. But then I should have advised the industry, if it had been prepared to listen to me, to look again at the possibilities of the "once through" cycle and permanent pond storage, which is difficult but not impossible. It has many technical problems. But most certainly I would not have accused the umpire in retrospect of aiming from the start to ensure a win for one case against the other.

In his inquiry, Mr. Justice Parker had three main issues to determine. The first was whether the proposed expansion of BNFL at Windscale posed an unacceptable risk to the environment and to the health and safety of the public. There is always some risk, of course, as there is with every industrial process. But was it acceptable? He concluded that it was an acceptable risk both in terms of normal radioactivity from the plant and in the event of an accident of something going wrong.

The second issue which Mr. Justice Parker was asked to determine was whether the installation when expanded would mean such security checks against, say, the theft of plutonium that it should not be tolerated in a free democratic society. Here he was up against the difficulty that to explain in detail the security measures was to lessen their effectiveness. Nevertheless, he concluded that the risk was well understood by those responsible for the plant and that the counter-measures would be on the laid-down international guidelines and supervised independently.

The third conclusion was on whether reprocessing would adversely affect our British contribution to non-proliferation in nuclear weapons. The good judge concluded in effect that it would have no negative effect but would have the positive advantage of concentrating plutonium production and reducing the need for non-nuclear States to set up their own plants. These seem to me to be three extremely rational conclusions.

Therefore, the House should give the order a passage tonight. As one connected with the trade unions in the industry, may I add that the unions are much in favour of the order going through?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)

May I acquaint the House of the fact that if speeches are confined to about five minutes each, I shall probably be able to accommodate all those who wish to speak?

9.1 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Johnson Smith (East Grinstead)

I confine my remarks to public opinion and the manner in which we in the House arrive at decisions of the kind that we are being asked to make tonight.

When the Minister announced his decision to hold a public inquiry, he was rightly and justifiably praised. It was a good exercise in open government. When the inquiry was completed that was also highly praised by all that took part in it. The report also received good commendation from both sides of the House and from the public at large. It was not highly praised, but at least it was praised.

As the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) rightly said, as time went by, however, the trickle of criticism developed into a flood. I concentrate my remarks on why it came to a flood. There is a lesson for the future. It is vitally important that we must carry public opinion with us. There will always be people who do not care very much about it. They will be guided by all kinds of other people, including ourselves and many of the groups which have been referred to tonight.

One of the witnesses for the Friends of the Earth said that he was shaken by the report. He said that he did not realise how fundamentally Parker was inclined to reject their line. There was criticism from the Town and Country Planning Association: Whatever view one may have of Mr. Parker's judgment of the evidence, the tone is inappropriately subjective and personal to him and couched in terms as though British Nuclear Fuels Limited were innocent unless proved guilty and, even vice versa, that objectors were guilty unless they could prove themselves innocent. The letter written on 25th April to the Secretary of State for the Environment by the Council for the Protection of Rural England said: However, we consider that the report as a whole presents a misleading—because incomplete—account of the arguments more generally deployed at the inquiry and we find it disturbing that your view of the merits of the application will have been shaped almost entirely by such a document. … Mr. Justice Parker has set out no detailed account of the arguments deployed on both sides, thus depriving you of the opportunity to appraise for yourself their strengths and weaknesses and if necessary to dissent from his recommendations. I am sure that the Minister, with his sincerity and his powers of application, and his advisers, will have gone into the matter in great detail. He has shown himself to be competent to deal with many of the criticisms that have been made, and we trust his integrity in the matter. However, it is difficult for many other people, without the benefit of a report more simply set out and set out in the manner described by the CPRE, to follow it with the understanding that we should expect.

The Friends of the Earth, in its document, complained In no way does it convey the substance of the Inquiry deliberations, nor the balance of arguments there presented. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the New Scientist, on 9th March, referring to the need to reflect the detail and character of the arguments put forward by the objectors, said: One need not be on their side to note that the report fails to do this and, more seriously, misrepresents views and obfuscates or distorts the context in which those views were tendered to the inquiry. Those are serious allegations. Perhaps, on reflection, we had that debate too soon before opinion of the kind that I have just described began to coalesce.

Whether the debate came too soon, that debate, plus this truncated debate—at one time I was told that we were to be allowed an hour and a half for it—is not an adequate way in which the House can make up its mind on the matter. I am not calling for delay, but I do not think that a matter as complicated as this should be discussed in this way. When we are considering complicated legislation such as the Finance Bill we have our general debate and our Second Reading and then a Committee of the whole House, considers it. I am not suggesting a Committee of the whole House in this case. I suggest that we use the Select Committee procedure much more strenuously than we have for such a matter.

I recognise that among the objectors there are many who object to the application of nuclear energy in principle. I should be totally out of sympathy with the criticisms of the report did I not believe that they contained criticisms of substance. Some of the criticisms and doubts expressed have been answered today and in the previous debate. Other reservations and doubts may not be refuted with such a degree of alacrity. Some of the doubts expressed about the report and how it came to make certain recommendations may be cleared up only on the basis of experience.

If some of us—I include myself in this group—let this order go through tonight it will not be because we are totally convinced that the course the right hon. Gentleman has embarked upon is the right one. There are too many disagreements over matters of substance to have that degree of confidence. There are disagreements over Mr. Justice Parker's interpretation of the nuclear proliferation treaty and disagreements over storage and disposal. Too easily did the right hon. Gentleman as the Friends of the Earth say, discard the possibility of long-term storage of spent AGR fuel as an alternative to early reprocessing. There were other comments made on matters concerning the experience of the Canadians with the long-term storage of spent oxide fuel. There is also the the question of the effect on civil liberties for workers—the issue of employees' rights. That is a subject in itself.

We have also to bear in mind the manner in which some witnesses have complained that their evidence was dismissed or not taken sufficiently into account. Professor Radford, the eminent American authority, claims to have been treated in such a way that he could write a letter to The Times saying that the whole inquiry was a piece of window-dressing. I do not agree with him about that. There are, however, men if distinction who have written such words and who command considerable support outside this House. They took the trouble to appear before the inquiry yet have written scathing comments on the report. They carry considerable weight with public opinion.

There is a balance of risk on either side of the argument. It is essential that the Government, of whatever political complexion, should, as experience yields its evidence, have he courage and honesty to change the pace of any decision they have taken or, if necessary, change the decision altogether. It may ultimately prove to be the right decision to set up the reprocessing plant at Wind-scale. The balance of risk may favour the Government taking the decision now to start work at least on the preliminary stages. I recognise that no plutonium will be produced for 10 years and that the preliminary stages do not involve the taking of irrevocable steps.

I cannot emphasise too strongly that if the Government are to keep faith with the public and those who sincerely hold doubts based on scientific criteria about the wisdom of the Government's decision each stage of the development should be monitored. I understand from what the right hon. Gentleman has said that he has promised the House that this will be the case and that the results of such monitoring will be openly published.

I come now to the system of public inquiry. On reflection I do not think that we should have another such inquiry to look at this whole question of fast-breeder reactors. I hope that we do not think that we have got it right now. I do not believe that we have. We have managed to proceed on non-party political lines and we want to keep it that way. We have been able to maintain within the public at large a fairly balanced and rational approach both on environmental and social-economic grounds. People have been willing to work within the law, which is more than can be said of some other countries. We must preserve this tone in our argument.

The lessons to be learnt are twofold. We have to be a little more generous when it comes to helping those who have to put forward their case at great cost in terms of time and money.

I think there is a need for criteria to be laid down to give financial help to organisations of the sort that have been mentioned. That should be forthcoming. They have managed so far, but I doubt whether many of them will be able to manage when a further inquiry comes our way. Secondly, it would help them enormously, as Sir Colin Buchanan wrote in The Times, that when it comes to the burden of proof the onus should be put on the initiator of a project. In other words, the initiator should be asked to undertake and pay for the research that is required to answer the criticisms.

We should consider the inquiries in two stages. First, I think that we placed too great a burden on Mr. Justice Parker and his two technical assessors. For example, one of the assessors had an especially important role in the whole question of radiology. There was the development of an argument between him and one of the expert witnesses who was brought in from outside. If we are to avoid placing too great a burden on the judge, it might be that we should have a wider range of experts' views with the purpose of producing a report that would provide the essential technical background for a local planning inquiry as well as for the House of Commons, and not charging the tribunal with the responsibility of producing a report to justify a particular decision, which I think is what happend with the Parker Report.

Such a procedure would involve two distinct stages. One stage would be scientific and technical, and possibly inconclusive. The other stage would be a matter of judgment for a layman with technical advice. It is at that stage that I hope that the House would be invited to play a more profound and informed role.

That role could best be played through the Select Committee system. We have shown ourselves capable of dealing with the matter so far on a non-partisan basis. I hope that we shall continue to do so. We have had some detailed and highly informed contributions today and in previous debates, but it is no reflection on hon. Members on either side of the House when I say that in such debates there are bound to be elements of superficiality and for hon. Members to employ the broad brush of debate. After all, that is the way in which we tend to discuss our affairs—in what I call Second Reading-type debates. Therefore, we miss the opportunity of bringing to bear in a different environment the considered and detailed views of hon. Members on both sides of the House.

That is why I hope that in future the Government will give serious consideration to using the Select Committee system as the instrument that will enable Parliament to probe more deeply and confidently into the complex issues involved in the development and application of nuclear energy.

9.13 p.m.

Mr. Leo Abse (Pontypool)

Of necessity the brevity of our contributions must make them didactic, although I much doubt whether any contribution that I or others make this evening will exceed the dogmatism of the asymmetrical judgments of the Parker Report.

I begin by stating baldly my conclusion. In my judgment, there is no nuclear categorical imperative that compels us to accept reprocessing at this stage. The necessity to give the go-ahead immediately to Windscale arises, in my judgment, only if we accept as inevitable the ultimate creation of a large-scale programme of fast-breeder reactors. No rationale exists behind the immediate acceptance of such expansion unless we have accepted that we must plunge into a plutonium economy, an economy utterly incompatible with a democratic way of life as we know it, and an economy where in pursuit of wealth we shall be putting at risk the whole future of mankind.

It is an affectation that the decision to have fast-breeder reactors is being postponed, is to be decided by some future inquiry in some undetermined form, and is simply irrelevant to what we are now discussing. That view is either deliberately or unwittingly an act of deception. Two major ploys are being used to lull us and deceive us, to distract our attention from the genuine motivation—the preparation for a fast-breeder plutonium economy.

As we have heard from the Secretary of State, the Windscale expansion is needed for waste management—

Mr. Skeetrose

Mr. Abse

No, I am not giving way. Our time is too short.

The clamour is for an immediate Windscale expansion on the grounds that it is needed for waste management and that, by going ahead now without delay, we can make huge profits by becoming Japan's dustbin.

The first ploy—that Windscale is urgently needed for waste management—is of comparatively recent origin. It flies in the face of the Royal Commission report, which emphasised, as those who have read it know, that fuel clad in stainless steel or zircaloy could be stored for a few decades in ponds. Until the Windscale inquiry, the nuclear industry always asserted that spent oxide fuel presented no safety or environmental hazard and could be stored indefinitely without causing concern. It was only when, that being the case, British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. was challenged why straightforward storage would not be a satisfactory method of interim management of spent oxide fuel that BNFL, as the inquiry evidence reveals, as those who have read it will know, shifted its ground and suddenly began to express reservations about the environmental problems of the storage of spent oxide fuels.

In the light of American experience, British Nuclear Fuels, as the inquiry evidence shows, retreated. How could it do otherwise in the light of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the American Physical Society and the United States Department of Energy, all of which concluded that intact spent fuel may be at least as satisfactory a basis for ultimate disposal as the various wastes arising from reprocessing? Indeed, how could BNFL's belated position be maintained when President Carter, recognising the appalling malignant side effect of nuclear proliferation arising from reprocessing, readily accepted the expert evidence before him of the alternative methods to reprocessing and halted reprocessing in the United States of America?

Then, during the inquiry, British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. retreated to the last ditch available to it to justify reprocessing on waste management grounds. It was reluctantly compelled to concede that zircaloy fuel may be stored for some decades, but that, unlike the Americans, we also had British stainless steel AGR fuel, and British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. claimed to lack the confidence that this could be stored safely for some decades. I find this sudden burst of modesty on the part of British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. highly suspect.

Inquiries of the Central Electricity Generating Board are on record. They disclosed that three United States electricity utilities storing stainless steel clad fuel had advised that they were not experiencing any difficulties. Knowing the eagerness of British Nuclear Fuels Limited to get THORP at all costs, I find utterly unpersuasive—we have had it again today from the Secretary of State with corroboration from the Opposition Front Bench—the manner in which every effort is made to avoid meeting the view that spent AGR fuel could be stored safely within steel bottles within which the water chemistry could be controlled, or, indeed, not in water filled ponds at all, but in gas cooled facilities—a dry storage technique of which we in Wales nave already had much experience.

Indeed, to insist that we now place all our eggs in the untried basket of Windscale, excluding, in effect, all work on prolonged storage, is to close our options and to increase the likelihood that if THORP at Windscale does not work satisfactorily, like its forerunners have not, there will be no feasible alternative of secure storage of spent fuel open to us.

Perhaps it is because British Nuclear Fuels Limited knows that to rest its request for an immediate right to proceed at Windscale on the basis of waste management needs is unconvincing that, in courteously communicating to many hon. Members and to myself last week, it has rather stressed that, if it cannot sign its contracts now with Japan and others, there would be a considerable loss of business. Even if it were true, that would be no reason to be hustled into such a decision. Should we barter away the liberties and perhaps the lives of our children so that we should live balance-of-payments-free for a few more years? Should our future be so clouded in order to meet the needs of Japanese industrialists? In any event, the tale of loss of contracts is a fable. Who would rush in to take them if we had the wisdom to pause?

Already in France recent events show that public opinion has become increasingly resistant. Everything points to the prerequisite that before France has the needed, extended reprocessing capability which she lacks, there will be even longer and more tumultuous public debate than has taken place here. The loss of contracts story, like the waste management tale, is a colossal bluff which is aimed to stampede the nation into taking the penultimate step into the plutonium economy.

Windscale has one overriding purpose—to produce plutonium for fast-breeder reactors. In passing this order we are walking into a trap. Soothed by the claptrap of the claimed safe waste disposal technique, lured by the prospect of big money from Japan, we shall be moving towards the police State that must accompany any economy resting upon the fuelling, reprocessing and transportation of plutonium. We shall be shaping an economy which is tailor-made for the intelligent but psychopathic terrorists of the Red Brigades' ilk. For them we shall be providing the full facility to hold, by theft or seizure of small parcels of plutonium, the whole of our society to nuclear blackmail.

To defend ourselves against such destructiveness we shall be forced—so terrified will be the community—to grant powers of vigilance and surveillance that will erode massively our civil liberties, even as meantime our exports of plutonium mean that the capability of making crude but awesome nuclear weapons inevitably will fall into the hands of the Amins and Gadaffis of this world.

The decision tonight will not be the end of the debate. It might be two or three years before a brick is laid on the ground at Windscale. Those will be years when those of us who oppose this order will have the opportunity further to alert public opinion to the self-destructive folly epitomised by Wind-scale. I hope that there will be sufficient hon. Members saying "No" to Wind-scale tonight to give hope to all outside, and particularly to the committed intelligent young, who rightly believe, as I believe, that Windscale is a staging point on the road to Armageddon.

9.23 p.m.

Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton)

I shall not try to emulate the tone of the hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) although I share some of his fundamental reservations. I have undertaken to end my contribution at 9.30 p.m. at the latest in order to leave time for the Front Benches.

The three questions which Mr. Justice Parker put at the beginning of his report, with which hon. Members are familiar, were the wrong questions. I have a version of what I believe to be the right questions.

First, should BNFL be allowed to build the THORP plant on a so-called economic basis with foreign contracts? Secondly, should it be allowed to build THORP on an uneconomic basis without foreign contracts? Thirdly, are there such strong objections to reprocessing on any basis that it should not be done at all or that it should be delayed until further investigation has taken place?

I shall deal briefly with those three questions. If one examines the possibility of an economic THORP one sees that the idea is based upon BNFL's expectation that it will have about £600 million of foreign business which it should be able to exploit on a cost-plus-25 per cent. basis. It is also dependent upon BNFL continuing to get a flow of foreign orders on a comparable basis from 1990 onwards—the earliest date at which I understand the plant is expected to start on a fully operational basis.

This means that the economic attraction, so-called, of THORP can be summarised as follows: first, getting the Japanese and other foreign customers to subsidise our capital costs; secondly, securing some hard foreign currency over a period when we should not need it quite as much as we have needed it in recent years; thirdly, spreading the overall costs of our own reprocessing over a larger throughput up to a planned maximum capacity of 1,200 tonnes a year, so that we may have lower unit costs and hence less of a burden from this source on electricity prices.

On the assumption that these economic assumptions are reliable—and we should bear in mind that it was BNFL that argued that they are—the main question for us in the House is whether these economic benefits are sufficiently reliable and attractive to outweigh the non-economic costs and disadvantages. My own view and that of Mr. Justice Parker, as stated in paragraph 9.17 of his report, is that—I quote from his remarks— it is as yet too early to reach any final conclusions on the economic position. In short, the real verdict on the economic advantages is the Scottish one of "not proven". That is something that is borne out also by the MITRE study.

The second question is whether BNFL should be allowed to build an uneconomic THORP. After all, we in this House often sanction developments in technology and other things which are palpably uneconomic, and we seem to do it quite readily. The argument for building an uneconomic plant is based on the contention that we have to reprocess the spent fuel from our own Magnox reactors and AGRs, that reprocessing is the best available technique of waste management, and that doing it under controlled high-standard conditions at Windscale would reduce rather than increase the risks of nuclear proliferation in the world.

Such an argument is also based upon a number of pretty questionable assumptions. These are assumptions such as the fact that BNFL needs a new plant of the capacity of THORP to deal with, the spent fuel arising from our own Magnox programme. There is the assumption that it is necessarily preferable to reprocess rather than to store the spent fuel from our first five AGRs when they are fully on stream. There is the assumption that we know for sure that closing the nuclear fuel cycle by reprocessing is environmentally preferable to a stowaway fuel cycle in which the spent fuel is stored but retrievable, or, indeed, preferable to other more radical alternatives such as the linear accelerator breeder, for example, which would not involve either enrichment or reprocessing. There is the assumption that the demonstration effect, to which hon. Members have already referred, of going ahead with THORP would discourage rather than encourage others to do likewise elsewhere in the world.

The House will be aware that there is as yet no international expert consensus on these vital issues upon which I have touched. For example, studies recently completed in Sweden suggest that spent nuclear fuel could be stored safely underground for at least 5,000 years in specially designed ceramic containers. Hon. Members will be familiar with the report in The Observer to that effect. Contrast this with the evidence given by BNFL and the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, reported in paragraph 8.14 of the Parker Report. Yet would hon. Members expect one of the parties to the case to come up with anything other than a vindication of its own practice and its own position? It is hardly likely.

I myself suspect that there is a whole range of technical possibilities and that much depends on the strategic choices first made, in many cases way back in history, and in our case in favour of reprocessing to extract plutonium in the early days for our own nuclear weapons programme.

Then, of course, there is the legitimate doubt concerning the vitrification process with which Mr. Justice Parker said he was satisfied and predicted that it would succeed because it had to succeed. That was what he said, as reported in paragraph 8.30. What a curious but unfortunate judicial syllogism.

Then there is the general doubt surrounding the preferred method for final disposal for the highly active wastes, on which Mr. Justice Parker's simple but bland comment was that a final solution to the problems of disposal has yet to be found.

I could go on, but I do not have the time to go into the other details. The case is not clearly established and there is very considerable doubt surrounding this whole issue, rested, as it is, upon very dubious assumptions about energy forecasts and so on.

I should like to drop a lengthy letter to the Ministers concerned so that I may put my concerns and my positive contributions and conditions to them. I warn them now that I intend to vote against the order because I think that the argument for delay is persuasive. However, I hope that, even though it may go through tonight, they will give serious and detailed consideration to the conditions which I should like to see attached to the order.

9.30 p.m.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton (Mr. Forman) did not have more time to develop his arguments. We all respect the concerned and informed way in which he approaches this subject. This perhaps draws attention to some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Grinstead (Mr. Johnson Smith) about the format of our discussion of this matter.

It might be helpful at the start to set the debate in perspective. It is, of course, in the whole context of nuclear power. If we had proof now that there was available to us a more economic energy source, with a proven lower environmental hazard, there would be no need to be discussing nuclear power or this Windscale expansion. But the fact is that, as we look at energy supplies at the moment, with all the uncertainties over the future of energy demand, we are faced with finite oil and gas reserves. We have more substantial coal reserves, certainly, but we are uncertain how far that coal can fill the gap in possible energy demand at the time when the oil and gas reserves may start to diminish.

There is in any case the argument that it is extremely wasteful to continue to use coal in power stations when, in the words of the Secretary of State for Energy, it may have become too valuable to burn and may be needed as a feedstock for petroleum and gas and as a petrochemical feedstock. I shall return to some of the ways in which we may overcome that problem, but that is a true statement of the present position. It is against that background that we see a use for nuclear power.

As the Secretary of State said, we are, or shortly will be, generating 20 per cent. of our energy by nuclear power. The byproduct, of course, is the production of nuclear waste. We have already been reprocessing nuclear waste for 25 years and we now face the new generation of advanced gas-cooled reactors for the oxide waste of which we have at the moment no reprocessing facility.

It is against that background that we come to the application, which we must determine tonight, by British Nuclear Fuels Ltd., for the expansion of its Wind-scale reprocessing facility for the treatment of the oxide fuel. Looking at the way in which this application has been handled, I should like to pay tribute to the way in which the Parker inquiry was set up by the Secretary of State and to the way in which, in the main, it was conducted.

There have been criticisms of certain aspects of the report and we all accept that that was perhaps inevitable. There was bound to be one disappointed party and many criticisms have been made, but at the end of the inquiry, counsel representing the Friends of the Earth said: We accept without limitation or hesitation the total integrity and independence of the tribunal from any outside influence. That was a generous tribute and it was indicative to those of us who followed the inquiry closely of the general tributes which were being paid to Mr. Justice Parker during that inquiry.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) complained about selective quotations by Mr. Justice Parker and then proceeded to dip into the Foreign Secretary's speech—a speech very critical of President Carter's approach to this problem—for a comment in support of his case. That seemed to me "Parkerism", as he would describe it, at its worst. I was interested that he himself fell victim to that.

The Parker Report was certainly in no sense a whitewash of BNF. No fewer than 12 important recommendations were made, which we are pleased to see have since been accepted by the Government, for considerable tightening up of some of the control procedures around Windscale. BNF would recognise, I think, that some of the past controls operated on that site, particularly in its early stages were not of the standard that we would now expect.

We hope that the process will continue. We also welcome the Parker inquiry because it marks a very important development in the history of nuclear power development in this country. It has been said that in the past it was too much confined to the language of the laboratory. It was a subject to be discussed only by experts privately behind closed doors. This report is a landmark—I do not pretend that it is a perfect landmark—in the process of opening this issue up for much wider discussion.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

A minute or two ago I believe that the hon. Gentleman used the word "tribunal". Even if he did not, would it not have been better if it had been possible for this sort of inquiry to be conducted before a tribunal, not before one judge with assessors?

Mr. King

I hope that we may learn from the process of this inquiry. There is scope for discussing possible alternative ways of approaching the problem of ensuring that public concern is recognised and that these matters are fully aired before as impartial and trustworthy a forum as we can devise. This is a difficult matter of judgment. I believe that the Parker inquiry was the right way to start, and in all the circumstances we support the conclusions that were drawn from it.

We are now faced in this House with a decision. I accept entirely that there has been a statement that this is not an irrevocable step. It could be stopped. Nothing is to be built for another four years except for a few storage ponds, and they will be needed in any case. None the less, it would be wrong to suggest that this is not an important decision tonight. One of the criticisms of Mr. Justice Parker seemed to imply that he was actually taking a political decision. He made it clear throughout that he was not. He reported to the Secretary of State for the Environment who, with the Secretary of State for Energy, had the responsibility of reporting to the House. It is this House which will take the political decision now. This is an important decision and it would be wrong to pretend otherwise.

I and the majority of my colleagues, although we respect the contrary views that exist, believe that Mr. Justice Parker was right in his conclusion that the construction of this expanded reprocessing plant would actually be helpful in minimising nuclear proliferation, rather than in encouraging it. The Secretary of State said that 27 countries were now embarking upon nuclear power programmes, and that gives some indication of the risks in this area. Those who are a little more technically informed than certain hon. Members are on the ways in which nuclear weapon fuel might be produced by alternative methods will know that this is not a desirable approach in any case. If one wants to encourage people to produce this material themselves the best way is to deny them the facilities elsewhere for it to be done.

The other aspect which the House must recognise—and I endorse what the Secretary of State said on this—is that whatever the commercial, strategic and security of supply arguments, none of these is acceptable if the basic safety and environmental arguments cannot be met. On that basis I accept that on the report that we have, subject to continuing and improved controls in the certain cases specified, the degree of safety is likely to be adequate. I say "likely to be" because I know that many people are concerned that there should be an absolute guarantee of total safety at all times. But consider the whole sphere of energy, including oil and gas. Do not let us forget the "Amoco Cadiz" and the oil tanker at present wrecked off the East Coast. Consider the hazards and environmental problems of oil. Consider the coal industry and the staggering figure quoted by one of my hon. Friends of 53,000 deaths of miners this century in the course of finding and extracting coal. Consider that we are at this moment with our coal-fired power stations, and on the Government's figures, dropping no less than 100,000 tonnes of sulphur on Norway and Sweden, that being merely the balance remaining out of the 2.5 million tonnes of sulphur annually that emit from our coal-fired power stations.

In those circumstances we cannot pretend that nuclear power represents the sole issue of environmental concern and health hazard on energy. This is not to criticise any of these methods. None of them is without its hazards. They must be seen fairly in the balance.

Two further matters require the attention of the House. Against the background of the uncertainty about future energy supplies and the important part that nuclear power can play, I hope that the Parker Report and these debates have been helpful. I hone that they can help protect Britain from the polarisation of view that is affecting the nuclear debate in certain other countries.

There might at one time have been a feeling that, on the one side, there were some power-crazed Dr. Strangeloves mad on blowing up the world and, on the other, some nature freaks wandering around, as the Secretary of State said, wearing sandals and eating brown bread, and never the twain should meet. There is now a much more serious understanding by each side of the other's position. Merely the immersion in Whitehaven has perhaps been helpful in this respect. On both sides there are serious, informed people.

The nuclear industry has not answered all the questions. There are problems of waste disposal which are as yet totally unresolved and there has been a lack of urgency in seeking to resolve them. However, it is not realistic to believe that nuclear power can be abandoned because there is an easy solution to all the problems. For many environmental reasons, many would maintain that nuclear power is a much safer and a much healthier source of power than some of the present sources of power. This and other serious arguments need to be seriously discussed, and not in the emotional and totally polarised atmosphere created by one hon. Member today.

The point which must be answered is that raised at the beginning of the debate by the Leader of the Liberal Party. I accept that there is a concern amongst many people that we are embarking on an inflexible and irrevocable course from which there is no turning. The Flowers Report, amongst others, made the point very strongly that if we are, as we feel necessary at present, to depend to a certain extent on nuclear power and to make the necessary provisions for its continuance, it would be wrong at the same time to condemn future generations to having no alternative solution available.

That is why we on this side attach such great importance to pressing on much more vigorously with research into alternative sources of energy. We are not yet able to say how great a contribution could be made by solar power, wind poder, and tidal power. We respect all these concepts and would like to see them implemented. However, the plain fact is that at present nobody in the world can state with certainty just how substantial a source of power they would prove to be.

For that reason, it would be grossly irresponsible at this stage to abandon the nuclear option. Also, it is vital, so that we do not have a single choice at a later stage, to pursue much more actively the research into these resources. If we are also insistent on having the maximum time before being faced with certain choices that we might wish to postpone, we make no apology for putting absolutely at the top of our list the importance of conservation. We are wasting energy conspicuously in every activity of our lives—in industry and in the home. We owe it to those concerned about the development represented in this activity to ensure that we waste no energy and that we give a much greater incentive for conservation for the future.

On those conditions, we shall support the Government in the Lobby tonight.

9.45 p.m.

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

Perhaps in winding up this debate I may take up the broader vision and the broader issues which the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) raised because I, too, feel, and I suspect that most of the House does, that this debate which has been going on at Windscale alone for nearly three years and which, clearly, will continue on nuclear power for a much longer period has been conducted at a very high level, with a degree of mutual respect not to be found in many countries, and with disagreements which clearly cut right across party lines. Reference was made to the possibility that other decisions might have been taken this way. I think I am right in saying that this is the first time that, as distinct from legislation or the voting of money, the House of Commons has been asked to take a decision on a project itself in a vote, and I regard that as very important.

Perhaps I might try to analyse the choice that has to be made in the Division Lobbies in 15 minutes' time. Let me deal first with what this debate is not about. It is not a theological dispute about the intrinsic merit of nuclear power. We are talking about electricity and how we can get it. I agree very strongly with the hon. Member for Bridgwater. If alternatives were available, many people might take a different view about nuclear power. We are talking about electricity that we think we need, and we are not engaged in an argument between "goodies" and "baddies" because, in my opinion, both sides of this argument have contributed greatly to the debate and the decision that we now have to take.

Can anybody object to environmentalists who have insistently brought to the attention of Parliament factors of safety, problems of accidents, problems of terrorism, problems of civil liberties, problems of proliferation and, indeed, have said that we have a responsibility as stewards of the planet? Can anyone really object to nuclear scientists who, as young men may have seen Hiroshima and Nagasaki deciding to devote their lives to Atoms for Peace, and for whom the whole operation of civil nuclear power is the classic case of swords into ploughshares or spears into pruning hooks? I have heard in some of the debate—I merely mention this, not in complaint—a discussion as though we were considering the neutron bomb, and not the use of nuclear power for civil purposes.

What we are being asked to do tonight is to take a balanced political judgment between two known risks. One is the risk of reprocessing, which nobody in his senses could deny exists, and the other is the risk of energy shortage by relying solely on non-nuclear means. The case for Windscale is solely an energy case, and any energy Minister looking at the possibilities of meeting our demand by supply is bound to be afflicted more and more by the uncertainty over all fuels. How long will the oil last? Will it be interfered with by an embargo? How long will the gas last? What about the coal? Can it be obtained? Hew quickly can we rely upon the alternatives—and I share the view of the hon. Member for Bridgwater about the need to develop alternative energy—to meet our need? How much will conservation give, because it is a long programme? How easy will uranium be to get when countries that have it may well lay down conditions for its supply, as the Americans have done, and as Namibia and Australia have done? There are many political hazards there.

With a 10-year lead time—as the hon. Member for Bridgwater said, there are environmental hazards with all fuels as anyone who knows about the Vale of Belvoir or the Ekofisk blow-out will remember—all the forecasts point to a nuclear component, and this has emerged from analysis and from consultation not only in the United Kingdom; this is the view of the United States, of the Soviet Union, of the International Atomic Energy Agency and of the EEC.

If we look ahead at the mix of fuels which we think we shall need in this country in the year 2000, it is not possible to abstract the nuclear component without running a serious risk which no energy Minister could recommend to the House. That is the argument which has to be presented.

I believe that if, for the best of reasons in the world—I make no complaint even about the language used by those who argue the other case—that other case were to prevail, our energy policy as it has developed by general agreement would have to be completely recast. British industry would be greatly affected, the self-sufficiency upon which we rest so much would no longer be assured, and the economic consequences of seeking to import energy to replace the nuclear power would transform our long-term economic prospects.

That is the argument in its simplest form, and I should be failing in my duty if I did not put it forward. I am putting forward the argument. I listened to the right hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel) very carefully, and I hope that he will listen to me.

Mr. David Penhaligon (Truro)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Benn

No. There is very little time, and I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me; I agreed to a curtailment.

But, all that being said, there is no reason why, as we advance the energy case, the House, the Government and the country should not examine in detail, as we have done, the environmental arguments, and to those I now come.

Of course, the risk of accident cannot be brushed aside. Of course, the risk of terrorism cannot be put out of mind, or, if the risk of terrorism is to be minimised, the impact upon civil liberties which that would involve cannot be put out of mind. In my view, the most powerful argument is the argument about proliferation, and I shall return to that.

As regards waste disposal, my right hon. Friend made the point that the problem is technically soluble but has not been solved on a commercial scale adequate to meet the demands. That is a perfectly proper question to bring forward.

Where I disagree is when it is said that we do not need the energy at all. I think that there are some who are too optimistic—I do not refer to hon. Members—about the forecasts or are taking account of the impact of a permanent slump which might solve our energy problem in ways which would be quite unacceptable to me.

The question is not whether these are valid points because, of course, they are valid points. The question is whether they are so decisive as to justify overturning the basic energy policy, with all the risks which I have described. I believe that it is to that question that our judgment tonight will have to be directed.

How should the question be decided? Some would say that it is a matter for the experts. I do not accept that. Others say that it is for officials. I do not accept that, either. Others say that it is for the Cabinet, where decisions of this kind have always been made in the past, behind the closed curtains of the Official Secrets Act.

What we have decided is that we want the House of Commons to decide this matter because it is essentially a matter of political judgment. Everyone voting in the Lobbies tonight is accountable for the decision he takes. There is no certainty. It is a matter of judgment.

Since the Government have been involved in handling this matter over a long period, I think it only fair to set its chronology upon the record for the consideration of the House. The proposal came to me first in September 1975. The Cabinet discussed it. British Nuclear Fuels had two meetings, one in Cumbria and one in London, in order to ensure that the case was understood. I went to Tokyo to discuss with the Japanese Government arrangements under which the waste would be returned.

In March 1976 the Government's decision was announced by me, that in their view it was all right. Then, in December, after a great deal of public discussion and after the responsibility for waste management had been transferred, with my 100 per cent. support, to my right hon. Friend, the inquiry was set up. The inquiry went on from June to November, the report came out in January, we had our debate in March, the recommendations were accepted, and tonight comes the decision which has to be made.

No one in his senses could describe that as a charade. Of course, it was not a charade. It was an absolutely genuine examination of the issue. We have had the Flowers Report on the question of pollution. The Department of the Environment has taken responsibility. The Foreign Office is playing its part in the international discussions on nonproliferation, and here I join most sincerely in praising President Carter for seeking to bring nuclear matters back under political control in the United States. We have, out of all this, agreed that the fast-breeder reactor will be subjected to a similarly independent scrutiny before the House has to decide the matter.

I do not honestly believe that even the sternest critics of what we are proposing tonight in the order could deny that we have opened it up, that we have encouraged discussion, and that many other bodies besides the House of Commons—the churches, the institutions, political parties, trade unions and so on—have all joined in the debate. We have provided an opportunity for the arguments to be put. We have sought independent advice from the Parker Commission, we have joined in the international talks, and deferred the decision for two years. If it did not seem real to some hon. Members, it certainly did to the Japanese, who were waiting to know where they were—and I saw them on many occasions. Finally, it has been put to the House of Commons.

It would be quite unjust to describe that as a fraud, a charade or a deception. It is not. I can fully understand the disappointment of the environmentalists that their view did not prevail with BNFL, with Mr. Justice Parker or with the Government. But BNFL, the Parker inquiry and the Government are not deciding the matter. The decision will be made in a few moments in this Chamber. The issues which have been raised by the environmentalists will, in my judgment, always be upon the agenda.

I believe that it is something that we are able to conduct an argument in this House and in this country on nuclear power that is quite different from the way in which it has been conducted in other countries—I take up what the hon. Member for Bridgwater said. I believe that that is a very important factor, and one justifying the open government that we have undertaken.

I certainly contrasted in my own mind some of the television pictures of nuclear demonstrations in other countries with the orderly and quiet discussions and public meeting which took place in Trafalgar Square not so long ago. At any rate, the environmentalists are not lumped as chaotics or subversives or people whose arguments are absolutely destined to be hopeless and ineffective, for they have been and will remain, I hope—since all of us are environmentalists with a similar concern—valued participants in the discussion.

That is the Government's case. After three years of discussion, the Government believe that the nuclear component is necessary for the energy policy of the United Kingdom; that a Windscale expansion of the kind proposed is necessary for that nuclear component to develop properly and that the objections raised, important as they are, do not justify the rejection of the order as has been proposed by the leader of the Liberal Party tonight.

I therefore invite the House to vote against the Prayer, to let the special development order proceed, and to ensure that in the years that lie ahead we learn from what we have achieved, and in future permit these discussions to go forward in the same open spirit that we have had in the last two years.

Questions were raised—I think by the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine)—about what further stages there will be in this process. There will be a large number of stages when the House can review the progress of this plant at Wind-scale. There will be many other opportunities for further projects to be examined with the same detailed scrutiny as the one that we have applied to the Windscale project itself.

I believe that those who put their arguments forward can at least be satisfied that they have been taken into account. I invite the House, therefore, to reject the Prayer and to let the order issue.

Question put, That the Town and Country Planning (Windscale and Calder Works) Special Development Order 1978 (S.I., 1978, No. 523), dated 3rd April 1978, a copy of which was laid before this House on 3rd April, be withdrawn.

The House proceeded to a Division

Mr. Clement Freud (Isle of Ely)

(seated and covered): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it in order for an hon. Member who has gone through the Division Lobby and realised that he has made a mistake to ask the Clerk to delete his name from the voting record and then to go back and vote in the other Lobby?

Mr. Speaker

Had he passed the Tellers? That is what I should like to know.

Mr. Freud

He has passed the Tellers and his name has been marked off.

Mr. Speaker

All he can do is go through the other Lobby and cancel it.

Mr. Spencer Le Marchani (High Peak)

(seated and covered): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am the hon. Member involved in this matter. I went into the Lobby. I gave my name and then realised that I was in the wrong Lobby. I did not pass the Tellers. I came out in the correct manner and went into the correct Lobby.

Mr. Speaker

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman. That ought to settle everything.

The House having divided: Ayes 80, Noes 224.

Division No. 208] AYES [9.59 p.m.
Abse, Leo Hayman, Mrs Helene Richardson, Miss Jo
Bidwell, Sydney Henderson, Douglas Rodgers, George (Chorley)
Biffen, John Hicks, Robert Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
Blenkinsop, Arthur Hooson, Emlyn Shaw, Arnold (Ilford South)
Body, Richard Howells, Geraint (Cardigan) Sillars, James
Bowden, A. (Brighton, Kemptown) Hunt, David (Wirral) Skinner, Dennis
Buchan, Norman Irving, Charles (Cheltenham) Smith, Cyril (Rochdale)
Butler, Mrs Joyce (Wood Green) Jenkins, Hugh (Putney) Smith, Dudley (Warwick)
Canavan, Dennis Johnston, Russell (Inverness) Spearing, Nigel
Castle, Rt Hon Barbara Kilroy-Silk, Robert Stanbrook, Ivor
Clemitson, Ivor Langford-Holt, Sir John Steel, Rt Hon David
Colquhoun, Ms Maureen Latham, Arthur (paddington) Stewart, Rt Hon Donald
Cook, Robin F. (Edin C) Lee, John Thomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)
Corbett, Robin Litterick, Tom Thomas, Ron (Bristol NW)
Dean, Joseph (Leeds West) Madden, Max Thompson, George
Edge, Geoff Maynard, Miss Joan Thorne, Stan (Preston S)
Ellis, John (Brigg & Scun) Mendelson, John Thorpe, Rt Hon Jeremy) (N Devon)
Evans, Gwynfor (Carmarthen) Mikardo, Ian Tilley, John (Lambeth, Central)
Flannery, Martin Mills, Peter Torney, Tom
Fletcher, Ted (Darlington) Moonman, Eric Whitehead, Philip
Fookes, Miss Janet Morris, Michael (Northampton S) Whitlock, William
Forman, Nigel Mudd, David Wigley, Dafydd
Freud, Clement Newton, Tony Willey, Rt Hon Frederick
Garrett, John (Norwich S) Pardoe, John Wise, Mrs Audrey
Gould, Bryan Parry, Robert
Gow, Ian (Eastbourne) Pavitt, Laurie TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Grist, Ian Price, C. (Lewisham W) Mr. A. J. Beith and
Grocott, Bruce Rhodes, James R. Mr. David Penhaligon.
Anderson, Donald Cunningham, Dr J. (Whiteh) Harrison, Rt Hon Walter
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Davidson, Arthur Hayhoe, Barney
Armstrong, Ernest Davies, Denzil (Lianelli) Healey, Rt Hon Denis
Arnold, Tom Davis, Clinton (Hackney C) Heseltine, Michael
Bagier, Gordon A. T. Deakins, Eric Higgins, Terence L.
Banks, Robert de Freitas, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Horam, John
Barnett, Guy (Greenwich) Dell, Rt Hon Edmund Howell, David (Guildford)
Barnett, Rt Hon Joel (Heywood) Dewar, Donald Howell, Rt Hon Denis (B'ham, Sm H)
Bates, Alf Doig, Peter Howell, Ralph (North Norfolk)
Benn, Rt Hon Anthony Wedgwood Dormand, J. D. Huckfield, Les
Benyon, W. Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James Hughes, Mark (Durham)
Berry, Hon Anthony Drayson, Burnaby Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Bishop, Rt Hon Edward Duffy, A. E. P. Hunter, Adam
Boardman, H. Dunnett, Jack Jay, Rt Hon Douglas
Booth, Rt Hon Albert Eadie, Alx Jenkin, Rt Hon P. (Wanst'd & W'df'd)
Bottomley, Rt Hon Arthur Ellis, Tom (Wrexham) John, Brynmor
Brooke, Peter Emery, Peter Johnson Smith, G. (E Grinstead)
Brown, Hugh D. Provan) Ennals, Rt Hon David Jones, Alec (Rhondda)
Brown, Robert C. (Newcastle W) Evans, Fred (Caerphilly) Jones, Arthur (Daventry)
Brown, Ronald (Hackney S) Evans, John (Newton) Jones, Barry (East Flint)
Buchanan, Richard Ewing, Harry (Stirling) Jopling, Michael
Butler, Adam (Bosworth) Fell, Anthony Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Campbell, Ian Fitch, Alan (Wigan) Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine
Carlisle, Mark Foot, Rt Hon Michael Kershaw, Anthony
Cartwright, John Ford, Ben King, Tom (Bridgwater)
Chalker, Mrs Lynda Forrester, John Kitson, Sir Timothy
Churchill, W. S. Fowler, Gerald (The Wrekin) Knox, David
Clark, Alan (Plymouth, Sutton) Fraser, John (Lambeth, N'w'd) Lambie, David
Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe) Freeson, Rt Hon Reginald Lamborn, Harry
Clegg, Waiter Garrett, W. E. (Wallsend) Lamond, James
Cocks, Rt Hon Michael (Bristol S) Gilbert, Dr John Lawson, Nigel
Cohen, Stanley Ginsburg, David Leadbitter, Ted
Coleman, Donald Glyn, Dr Alan Le Marchant, Spencer
Conlan, Bernard Golding, John Lester, Jim (Beeston)
Cope, John Goodhart, Philip Lever, Rt Hon Harold
Costain, A. P. Grant, George (Morpeth) Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)
Cowans, Harry Grant, John (Islington C) Luard, Evan
Cox, Thomas (Tooting) Gray, Hamish Mabon, Rt Hon Dr J. Dickson
Craigen, Jim (Maryhill) Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury) McCartney, Hugh
Crawshaw, Richard Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife) McCrindle, Robert
Critchley, Julian Hannam, John McElhone, Frank
Crouch, David Hardy, Peter MacFarquhar, Roderick
Crowther, Stan (Rotherham) Harper, Joseph McGuire, Michael (Ince)
MacKenzie, Rt Hon Gregor Pym, Rt Hon Francis Steen, Anthony (Wavertree)
Maclennan, Robert Radice, Giles Stewart, Rt Hon M. (Fulham)
Marks, Kenneth Rathbone, Tim Stoddart, David
Marshall, Dr Edmund (Goole) Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn (Leeds S) Stradling Thomas. J.
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S) Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon Strang, Gavin
Mather, Carol Ridley, Hon Nicholas Summerskill, Hon Dr Shirley
Mawby, Ray Robinson, Geoffrey Taylor, Teddy (Cathcart)
Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin Rodgers, Rt Hon William (Stockton) Tebbit, Norman
Meyer, Sir Anthony Roper, John Temple-Morris, Peter
Millan, Rt Hon Bruce Ross, Rt Hon W. (Kilmarnock) Thomas, Mike (Newcastle E)
Miller, Hal (Bromsgrove) Ross, William (Londonderry) Tinn, James
Moate, Roger Rowlands, Ted Tomlinson, John
Monro, Hector Ryman, John Viggers, Peter
Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe) Sandelson, Neville Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne V)
Morris, Charles R. (Openshaw) Sedgemore, Brian Walker, Terry (Kingswood)
Morrison, Hon Peter (Chester) Sever, John Wall, Patrick
Moyle, Rt. Hon. Roland Shaw, Giles (Pudsey) Watkins, David
Mulley, Rt Hon Frederick Shaw, Michael (Scarborough) Weatherill, Bernard
Neubert, Michael Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert Wellbeloved, James
Newens, Stanley Shepherd, Colin Wells, John
Normanton, Tom Shersby, Michael White, Frank R. (Bury)
Oakes, Gordon Shore, Rt Hon Peter White, James (Pollock)
O'Halloran, Michael Silkin, Rt Hon John (Deptford) Whitelaw, Rt Hon William
Orme, Rt Hon Stanley Silkin, Rt Hon S. C. (Dulwich) Williams, Alan Lee (Hornch'ch)
Osborn, John Silverman, Julius Wilson, William (Coventry SE)
Page, Rt Hon R. Graham (Crosby) Sims, Roger Winterton, Nicholas
Page, Richard (Workington) Skeet, T. H. H. Woodall, Alec
Palmer, Arthur Smith, Rt. Hon. John (N Lanarkshire) Wrigglesworth, Ian
Park, George Smith, Timothy John (Ashfield) Younger, Hon George
Parker, John Snape, Peter
Pattie, Geoffrey Spicer, Jim (W Dorset) TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Perry, Ernest Spicer, Michael (S Worcester) Mr. James Hamilton and
Price, William (Rugby) Spriggs, Leslie Mr. Ted Graham.

Question accordingly negatived.