§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[MR.Goodlad.]3.37 pm
§ Mr. Merlyn Rees (Leeds, South)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I hope that the House will not think that I want the arrangement any other way, but the Opposition would like the position clarified. Is not it the normal practice for the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Havant and Waterloo (Mr. Lloyd), to introduce the report? It may not be. The Opposition simply wish to question it.
§ Mr. Speaker
It is not invariably the practice; sometimes it happens, but it is not an invariable custom. The hon. Member for Havant and Waterloo (Mr. Lloyd) does not often have such powerful allies pleading his case. What the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) said will not go unnoticed.
§ Mr. Lawson
I am sure that the House looks forward with great interest and appreciation to what the Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Havant and Waterloo (Mr. Lloyd), has to say on this important subject if he has the good fortune to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker.
This is the first occasion during the lifetime of this Parliament that the House has debated the important question of nuclear power. The opportunity for this debate has been provided by the report of the Select Committee on Energy on the Government's nuclear power programme, to which the Government replied in a White Paper some six months ago. The whole House will join me in saying how indebted we are to the Select Committee for the outstanding quality of its report, prepared under the tireless and dedicated chairmanship of my hon. Friend the member for Havant and Waterloo. One reason why this very important matter is not debated more frequently is that, despite all the controversy which surrounds it, there exists within the House a wide measure of agreement irrespective of party.
Thus, far example, it was my predecessor but one as Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn)—whom I am glad to see in his place—who told the House in 1978 that not only was there a need for nuclear power programme in this country, but:The Government also consider … that … we must develop the option of adopting the PWR system in the early 1980s. … The electricity supply industry has indicated that, to establish the PWR as a valid option, it wishes to declare an intention that … it will order a PWR station … This intention … is endorsed by the Government."—[Official Report, 25 January 1978; Vol. 942, c. 1392.]Of course the Select Committee, too, endorsed both the need for a nuclear power programme and the wisdom of establishing an alternative option to the AGR for future orders. I welcome this manifestation of consensus politics.
§ Mr. Lawson
It is a little early in my speech to give way. However, I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman.
§ Mr. English
I wish to ask the right hon. Gentleman a simple question. I presume that in "consensus" he includes the negative—he means the lack of mention of CANDU as a consensus as well. Is that right?
§ Mr. Lawson
The hon. Gentleman need have no fear. I shall mention CANDU later. Sometimes, premature interventions are a little unnecessary.
As the Government's response to the Energy Committee's report made clear, we see an increasingly important and necessary role for nuclear power in the years ahead. Nuclear power will enable us to make the best use of our limited reserves of fossil fuels, particularly North Sea oil and gas. By reducing our dependence on fossil fuels it offers the prospect of cheaper electricity supplies essential for maintaining United Kingdom competitiveness; and it will enable the fossil fuels to be used increasingly as a feedstock for the petrochemical industry. In other words, it is an essential component of a broadly based energy strategy, whose major objective is the availability of adequate and secure supplies of energy at the lowest practicable cost to the nation. The Government are therefore determined to provide a framework within which the full potential of nuclear power can be realised. We see the need for a strong nuclear industry able to meet the increasing demands which will be placed on it, building safe and reliable plant to time and cost.
This country, of course, was one of the pioneers of nuclear power, and Calder Hall, which started operating in 1956, was the first nuclear power station in the world. Since then we have had a quarter of a century of nuclear experience and development. In that period the generating boards have installed about 6,600 MW of nuclear capacity, so that some 12 per cent. of our electricity is now being generated by nuclear power.
We have come a long way from the original 200 MW Calder Hall station; through the early 250 MW to 300 MW Magnox stations, such as Bradwell and Berkeley, to the current 1,320 MW AGR stations. By now the United Kingdom has accumulated over 300 reactor years of experience in operating commercial nuclear stations; and some 475 billion kW hours of electricity have been generated in that way. All that has been achieved with a safety record that is second to none in any industry throughout the world. I am glad that both sides of the House appreciate and acknowledge that fact. Our nuclear generating capacity has provided a reliable base load of electricity more cheaply than any other source of electricity, apart from hydroelectric power.
Hinkley Point B last year produced electricity at 1.45p per kilowatt hour. That compares with the average cost of producing electricity from modern coal or oil-fired stations last year of 1.85p per kilowatt hour and 2.62p per kilowatt hour respectively. Those comparisons represent for all types of station the full historic cost of generation for that year, including capital, operating and interest charges; complete fuel cycle costs including waste disposal; annual sums estimated to be required to cover the net costs of decommissioning; and an allocation for research and training.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)
Either now, or later, will the right hon. Gentleman explain why the Government have changed their policy on burying waste?
§ Mr. Lawson
There has been no change of policy. It might be better for my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to 23 reply to that point at the end of the debate. The original project is no longer considered necessary for the policy that we have embarked on.
The AGRs under construction will make a further contribution to reducing operating costs. This year will see a further three nuclear power stations come on stream for the first time—Hartlepool, Heysham 1 and Dungeness B. When fully operational, each of them—I stress "each"—is expected to save about £100 million a year compared with the cost of coal-fired power generation.
So far as research and development are concerned, the Select Committee's report makes a number of comments on the role and activities of the Atomic Energy Authority. It is, I think, a measure of the esteem in which the authority and its current chairman are held, that the industry should have invited Dr. Walter Marshall to act as chairman of the task force that has developed the design of the proposed Sizewell PWR station.
Work in support of the thermal reactor programme—important though it is—is only one part of a wide-ranging programme carried out by the AEA. Other important work includes the development of fast reactor technology and work in fusion—notably the European Community's JET project, now under construction at Culham. The technical excellence of the work is undoubted and widely acknowledged, and is demonstrated by the eagerness with which a wide range of British industry turns to the authority for research and development support.
Quite rightly, the Select Committee devoted a great deal of its time to the vital question of the safety of nuclear power, which is of great concern to the House. Most people recognise the important benefits that nuclear power can bring, but many are naturally concerned at the risks they see as associated with it.
It is right that we should keep such risks in mind, and ensure that plant and processes are such that they are minimised. However—as I said just now—the safety record of the British nuclear industry is outstanding. During 25 years of commercial operation of nuclear power stations in the United Kingdom, no accidents have occurred that have given rise to significant public hazard. That is because of the way in which British nuclear power stations have been designed, licensed, constructed and operated, and is a measure of the policy of the electricity supply industry of defence in depth. Probably in no other industry has so much time, effort and money been devoted to the maintenance and supervision of safety. Every effort must be and will be made, to ensure that high standards of safety are maintained and, where appropriate, improved.
§ Mr. Arthur Palmer (Bristol, North-East)
Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that that effort has been made in the closest consultation, at every stage, with the trade unions
§ Mr. Lawson
I freely acknowledge that, because it is absolutely correct.
The Government fully endorse the Select Committee's view that continuing public acceptability of nuclear power will be very largely based on confidence in the organisation of safety in the industry, particularly in the role of the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, which is part 24 of the Health and Safety Executive. We agree that the independence and effectiveness of a strong inspectorate must be maintained.
In this context, the Select Committee drew attention to the NII's recruitment difficulties. The Government's response to the report stated that, in the light of this, we were reviewing the inspectorate's current salary levels and the ceiling on the reimbursement of expenses incurred by new recruits to the NII and other shortage grades on first appointment.
I can now inform the House that the review of NII pay has been completed and the Government are considering the findings. I hope that it will prove possible to reach a positive decision very shortly. The recruitment of nuclear installations inspectors has been improving gradually over the past year. The Health and Safety Executive is currently seeking to bring the strength of the NII up to 106 from the present level of 97 inspectors in post, which compares with 89 inspectors this time last year. I hope that the outcome of the salary review will assist that recruitment.
I am satisfied that the NII has the staff resources it needs to fulfil its many vital functions in the nuclear industry as a whole. Meanwhile, I assure hon. Members that the PWR work in particular, is not being held up by NII staffing. Although—as I mentioned earlier—this country was first in the field with nuclear power, there has been a frustrating loss of momentum since the early 1970s in the development of nuclear generating capacity. Many factors contributed to this, among them the difficulties encountered over the construction of the first generation of AGRs and the consequent escalation of costs; the subsequent hesitation, mistakes and near-paralysis over the choice of reactor; and the cumbersome structure of the nuclear power industry itself.
When the Government took office in 1979 it was clear to us that action was needed on a number of fronts to re-establish the momentum and sense of purpose of the industry and to ensure that the potential for cheap electricity which nuclear power offers could and would be realised. As my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the present Secretary of State for Transport pointed out, we needed to set about the task without delay. That is what he did. He confirmed the orders for the AGRs at Heysham and Torness and he confirmed the proposal made by the previous Government and announced by the right hon. Memmber for Bristol, South-East in January 1978—to which I have already alluded—that the CEGB and the industry should take steps to establish whether the PWR could be adopted as a safe and economic alternative to the AGR.
I now take up the intervention of the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English), who has now mysteriously disappeared from the Chamber. Apparently his interest in this subject is not all that great. However, other hon. Members have a greater interest. The Select Committee suggested that we should also have undertaken an in-depth study of the CANDU type of reactor as a further possible option. I believe that we were right not to pursue this avenue, particularly after our experience of the SGHWR blind alley. Quite apart from the extra time that would be required to bring CANDU to the same stage of development in relation to United Kingdom conditions and requirements as the PWR has now reached, it would make no sense to direct resources and effort to a parallel study of CANDU when all the indications are that it would be more expensive than either the PWR or the AGR. 25 Preliminary indications of the likely cost of the PWR design proposal for Sizewell confirm the wisdom of that decision.
However, the future of the CEGB's proposal to build a PWR at Sizewell will, of course, depend on the outcome of the inquiry. I have made it clear in the House and elsewhere that this will be a full and wide-ranging inquiry.
Last July my predecessor, who is now the Secretary of State for Transport, announced the issues which we regard as relevant to the inquiry. I have now given virtually a full year's notice of the start of the inquiry, which should allow between six and eight months to study the key information and documents which the CEGB and the NII plan to make available. This should ensure that we have a full, detailed and well-informed public debate. It is also fully consistent with the recommendations of the Select Committee on this matter save on one specific point. We do not agree with the Committee that it would be appropriate to set any time limit on the duration of the inquiry.
The participants must be given the opportunity fully to deploy their cases. The length of time that this requires should be left to the independent inspector, Sir Frank Layfield, to decide—as indeed he will on the conduct of the inquiry as a whole.
§ Mr. Dalyell
If it is unreasonable to ask for one now, may we have a clear statement when the Under-Secretary of State replies on whether the likely decommissioning costs are included in the estimates for the PWR?
§ Mr. John Evans (Newton)
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that one of the problems facing those who wish to object to the PWR is finance? Does he recognise that it is important that all the arguments are heard? Therefore, will the Government accept the necessity tc finance those who wish to object to the PWR?
§ Mr. Lawson
I do not accept that. However, I was about to deal with that issue. In response to some of the remarks that I have heard outside the House and which I have read, I see no prima facie reason to suppose that the Government will not be in a position to take a final decision one way or the other on the PWR during the lifetime of the present Parliament.
The hon. Member for Newton (Mr. Evans) mentioned financial aid. I realise that there are many on both sides of the House who feel that the Government should give financial avid to the Sizewell objectors. I shall listen carefully to what is said in the course of this debate and I shall read in Hansard tomorrow the contributions that I miss today, but so far I have yet to be convinced that we should take such a course, which would be without precedent in this country.
Not least among the difficulties is the fact that it would clearly be impossible for the Government to provide open-ended aid to all objectors. There would have to be a ceiling on the total amount of aid and the available cake would have to be allocated between the various objectors. This would be an invidious task and in my view one which it would be inappropriate for the Government, or indeed anyone else, to undertake.
We have a long tradition of planning inquiries in which eminent inspectors have ensured that justice is done. I am sure that the whole House will share my confidence in the 26 ability and fair-mindedness of Sir Frank Layfield, who has a great deal of experience of these matters and who stands four-square within that tradition.
The steps that we have taken since 1979 have put the nuclear power industry onto a much sounder footing, and in a position to make the most of its future opportunities.
Provided that the industry—this is an important proviso—can build safe nuclear power stations to cost and to time—and the CEGB has fully taken on board the criticisms recently made by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission in this context—I expect nuclear power to make an increasing contribution to electricity supplies. This will provide a welcome diversification and flexibility in our energy supplies.
The Select Committee was understandably exercised, however, about the likely need for additional generating capacity, and my Department is currently engaged in the preparation of new energy projections which will be available in time for the Sizewell inquiry. Inevitably, the range of uncertainty in a matter of this kind is formidable. However, preliminary work suggests that even in the most pessimistic of the alternative projections that we are considering there is a substantial growing need for new generating capacity through the 1990s and into the next century. Apart from the need to provide for rising electricity demand, generating capacity will be needed to replace obsolete and uneconomic generating capacity now in place. Thus, the rate of nuclear build through the 1990s is likely to be much faster than our experience in either the 1960s or the 1970s.
§ Mr. Gordon Wilson (Dundee, East)
In the regrettable absence of a Minister from the Scottish Office responsible for electricity generation in Scotland, will the right hon. Gentleman say whether his remarks about the need for new generating plant apply to Scotland, which has a huge over-capacity and existing plant which is far more modern than that owned by the CEGB?
§ Mr. Lawson
I have no responsibility for electricity generation in Scotland. However, I think that the answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is "Yes". Furthermore, the arguments for nuclear power are not based only on the total amount of capacity that is needed. The arguments extend to the cost of generating electricity by nuclear power and the need for a diversity of supply. Given the substantial margin of error which inevitably attaches to long-term projections of this sort—I concede that to the hon. Gentleman—it clearly makes no sense to adopt any rigid plan or programme. We therefore propose to adopt a flexible approach, keeping our long-term strategy under regular review, and authorising specific new orders as and when we are satisfied that each is justified. Some hon. Members, especially those who served on the Select Committee, may detect a similarity between this approach and the conclusion reached by the Select Committee in paragraph 72 of its report.
Peering still further into the future, we clearly want to keep open the option to introduce fast reactors as and when these become economic. The experience gained by the Atomic Energy Authority in the construction and operation of the prototype fast reactor and the associated fuel plant at Dounreay provide a valuable basis for this. The NNC and the AEA are working together on a design for a commercial scale demonstration reactor and the chairman of the Atomic Energy Authority has recently mace it clear that a very satisfactory design is emerging.
§ Dr. M. S. Miller (East Kilbride)
Will the Government's acceptance of PWR significantly decrease the lead time that is necessary before the construction of a nuclear power station takes place?
§ Mr. Lawson
The Government's decision on this PWR application depends onthe outcome of the Sizewell inquiry. It would not be right for me to prejudge that because of the position that I have as Secretary of State in relation to that inquiry and because the lead time will be part of the economics of the issue that will come before the inquiry. I take the hon. Gentleman's point.
§ Mr. Ted Leadbitter (Hartlepool)
I am following the Secretary of State's speech with great care. He has introduced the problem of the fast breeder reactor. Does he agree that there is a school of thought that the natural step from the AGR generation was through to the helium-cooled high temperature reactor and then to the fast breeder reactor? To what extent will a deviation to the PWR programme inhibit that objective?
§ Mr. Lawson
It is not a deviation. The view that the high temperature reactor had a part to play in the process was held always by a minority. The majority opinion was that there was a need for straightforward thermal nuclear reactors for some time to come. The main question was whether a PWR option should be included or whether we should stick to the AGR.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. There is a long list of hon. Members who hope to be called in the debate. Too many interruptions will mean that fewer hon. Members are called, especially if those interruptions are by the same hon. Member, who is developing the habit.
§ Mr. Lawson
I also say to the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Leadbitter) that the time scale for the introduction of the fast reactor as a competitive source of power now seems longer than it did only a few years ago, largely because of increased confidence in the long-term availability of uranium supplies. We shall need the thermal nuclear programme for a longer time even if we were to turn—no decision has been taken to the fast breeder reactor in due course. Before taking any major policy decisions on the fast reactor programme, the Government are carefully exploring a number of policy options, including the possibility and potential benefits of some form of international collaboration.
Meanwhile, the immediate issues confronting the Government and the industry concern the thermal reactor programme. I believe that the steps that the Government have now taken about the thermal reactor programme will help to safeguard the further security of our energy supplies, on which the well-being of our country so very heavily depends. I foresee, too, that, by the turn of the century, alongside our coal-firing generating stations, we shall have a large and well-established nuclear power programme, that our industry will be organised so as to cater for that programme and that we shall be able to supply nuclear goods and services to other countries which, like ourselves, have a growing need for nuclear power. On top of that, we shall be well placed to move into whatever forms of nuclear energy may follow the thermal reactor.
28 However, not the least important way in which the United Kingdom will have served the cause of peaceful nuclear development will be the way in which we have provided for full and well-informed public discussion of the nuclear business both in the House and outside it. The whole House, and indeed the whole nation, should be grateful to the Select Committee for its contribution to that discussion. We have nothing to hide about our nuclear power programme—quite the contrary. By making known the full facts, and our excellent record of safety and performance, I believe that we shall assist peaceful nuclear development everywhere for the good of mankind.
§ Mr. John Home Robertson (Berwick and East Lothian)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Secretary of State has admitted that he has no responsibility for electricity generation in Scotland. As we are now half an hour into the debate, and as the South of Scotland Electricity Board is scathingly criticised in the report, have you had any notification that a Scottish Office Minister will be present?
§ Mr. Speaker
I am never told which Minister will be present. I am told only the names of those who hope to catch my eye. I have not received such notice.
§ 4.3 pm
§ Mr. Merlyn Rees (Leeds, South)
The point that my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) has just raised is also under discussion in the Oil and Gas (Enterprise) Bill Standing Committee, because the report refers to Scotland, for which the Secretary of State is not responsible. As there are many problems in Scotland, it would have been better if a Minister from the Scottish Office had been present at today's debate.
The report of the Select Committee is valuable, not only for energy, but because it shows the value of the Select Committee procedure in general. I wish to congratulate the Chairman and the members of the Committee, not because I agree with every dot and comma of the report but because the arguments and the information contained therein at least enable us to discuss the problem of nuclear energy on the Floor of the House. That is the basic value of a Select Committee report that is based on evidence taken from experts in the industry.
I am not so sure of my ground when it comes to fitting the report into the perspective and determination of energy policy and decisions taken, whether in the House or in Government. In my view, no Government have dealt with the matter properly, although when my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore) were in Government we had most valuable debates on the Windscale inquiry, which were a necessary precursor to decisions by Ministers. That set a method of dealing with such difficult questions which I hope will not be lost.
The Secretary of State has come to such matters with a far greater background than I, but we are still both new boys. We shall consider the NNC and other matters mentioned in the report. However, I am not sure whether the Department of Energy has got it right. I visited the United States of America a few days ago, where they have gone to the other extreme of abolishing the State-run 29 corporation. They wish to leave the the matter to free market forces. I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree with that.
§ Mr. Rees
That is always a danger, but the Secretary of State would have known about it anyway.
I propose to use the occasion not to lay down details of Opposition policy that will be carried out by a future Government, because we do not know what the circumstances will be in a few years' time, but I take issue with the Secretary of State when he says that he sees no reason why the Government should not take a decision on the next sort of nuclear reactor. I question that proposition, and I would question it if the Labour Party were in Government. It would be most surprising if, within the next two years, any Government were in a position to take a decision on the report that will he published after the Sizewell inquiry.
§ Mr. Rees
It will be a year before the inquiry starts, which takes us into 1983. The right hon. Gentleman said that the inquiry would last for eight months, but I would be surprised if it finished in that time. It may well be that this Secretary of State will not take the final decision. I do not say that in a narrow political way, but I do not wish to prejudge the issue. I have read the report and I shall listen to what is said. Much information will be available from the Sizewell inquiry.
As to the inquiry, I was glad to hear the Secretary of State saying that any specific proposal must be justified on its merits. wish to be sure that that means that the case for the PWR in general, and not just the PWR at Sizewell, will he considered at the inquiry. I am sure that that is what the Secretary of State meant, but not all Conservative Members agree. Perhaps the Secretary of State can give us his view about that.
Secondly, I raise the safety factor of the PWR. All that I have to work on—I say that in no derogatory way—is paragraph 109 of the report. I am not an expert in such matters, so I accept what the report says. Paragraph 109 states:we would stress that it must be the duty of the NII to ensure that the appropriate requirements are met…Although the PWR has substantial world-wide operating experience, we have been struck by some of the evidence brought to our attention on the technical difficulties of analysing PWR safety".It goes on to justify that, and later states:Also according to TRA, if design changes were made to the PWR because of demands by the NII, the proving of an adequate safety case would be particularly difficult without a full knowledge of the underlying system technology 'which is not available in the United Kingdom'. It will be necessary for NII to acquire and display considerable skill in making the safety assessment…The evidence and opinions received by the Committee during this inquiry strongly suggest that, in order to achieve the necessary degree of safety, the PWR requires a very high standard of quality control, involving tests, inspections and analyses extending throughout its construction and operational life—a period of approximately 40 years. During this period inspections must be made and faults recognised, recorded and analysed in a well-nigh perfect manner if safety is to be assured.As a non-expert, I found those statements extremely worrying. Can we be assured that that aspect will be looked at most carefully by Sir Frank Layfield?
The story over the past 10 years of the choice of reactor is not a happy one. I am not making a narrow political 30 point, as the period covers Governments of both parties. The choice will be extremely difficult whichever Government are in power. The information that must be analysed cannot be dealt with merely by writing a position paper or taking a simple decision. Many points are endemic to the outcome. The problem cannot readily be overcome.
At paragraph 513 of the Government's reply the Secretary of State states that the Governmentre-affirms the view that, subject to the necessary consents and safety clearances being obtained the PWR is the appropriate alternative to the AGR.What happens if the consents and clearances are not obtained? There has necessarily been much commitment to the PWR. If, in 18 months or two years' time, the Sizewell inquiry says "No", what will the Government do?
My colleagues on the Committee have talked to me about CANDU. It appears that it may be too late, although I do not have the backing to take such a decision.
What about the AGR? I listened to the debates at the TUC annual conference and spoke to various members. It is concerned about the British power plant industry. It does not want it to disintegrate while decisions are pondered and reviewed and sometimes shelved. There is need for a steady production run that uses manufacturing resources carefully and is more economic than when there are stops and starts. Trade union representatives from the North-East coast, Clydeside the West Midlands and so on all tell me that a steady ordering programme is vital not only to provide jobs but for the necessary research and development. We must not rest on the assumption that the Sizewell inquiry will say "Yes".
Despite the proper advice about the need for a PWR, and athough we must have the inquiry's report before a final decision is made, given what has happened in the past five or 10 years, I believe that we should keep open the option of ordering at least one other AGR.
§ Mr. Rees
I am grateful for that, but the Government have a greater responsibility. If the report comes down against a PWR, the power plant industry will not want to wait for another year for a decision. We must consider the needs of the industry and the need for jobs in the North-East and Scotland.
Fast reactor technology is relevant to the decision on the type of reactor. The TUC conference approved a statement that the development of fast-breeder reactor technology is vital. I do not know from what the Secretary of State said how urgent the Government consider the matter. The production of a fast reactor cannot take place straight away. Is sufficient research and development being carried out, however, and is sufficient finance being provided for the reactor itself and for the fast reactor cycle? The managing director of the northern division of the UKAEA, Dr. Marsham, has written an interesting article in "Atom", which shows how important the matter is.
After dealing with how thermal reactors work, the TUC conference stated:Britain currently has 20,000 tonnes of depleted uranium from thermal reactors—unreleased energy equivalent to 40,000 million tonnes of coal if utilised in fast reactors. The TUC considers that the country cannot afford to squander such reserves of energy if they can be safely and efficiently harnessed. Accordingly, the Government should make an early decision to develop fast reactor technology—if necessary in collaboration with other countries—in order that all essential issues of safety, 31 economics and security can be fully and satisfactorily explored before a decision is taken on whether a commercial programme might be needed before the end of the century.The Secretary of State was a little bland about that matter. What is the Government's attitude to the urgency?
My hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) put down an early-day motion, which was signed by a number of my hon. Friends, about fusion. He picked up a point about which I wrote to the Secretary of State. I do not necessarily believe everything in the newspapers, but I was concerned to read a recent report in The Sunday Times about the RFX fusion project, which stated:Dr. Walter Marshall, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Authority, last week lashed out at the Government for forcing him to cancel Britain's only independent fusion power project.It quotes Dr. Marshall, stating one reason why he was in favour of RFX, and goes on:The other main reason is Marshall's 'gut feeling that this is ultimately a more promising route than the tokomak' (the experiment which now dominates world fusion budgets).When I wrote to the Secretary of State about the matter, he stated:It is true that the project did not take place because of public expenditure constraints. The Atomic Energy Authority accepted that attention should focus on…(JET)".He went on to give his view about the press story.
The project could solve many of the great problems of waste storage and disposal about which we are concerned. More money should certainly be provided for research.
The report deals with many other matters, including the cost analysis of nuclear power and technical problems. I sometimes find the cost arguments difficult to accept, but I do not necessarily accept the counter arguments either, whether it be on historic costs or the factors taken into account. I have a slight suspicion about accountancy. It matters what is put into the pot. However, I understand that the job has to be done.
I must make clear the view that has been expressed by the Labour Party and the Trades Union Congress about nuclear power:A continuing programme of nuclear power station construction based on thermal reactors designed and built in the United Kingdom—along with the development of fast reactor technology—is essential in moving towards the TUC's energy objective of sustained self-sufficiency".That is a starting point. However, the speed with which that is done and what resources one puts into coal, gas and alternative fuels must be taken into account. So much for the supply side.
Not enough thought is given to the demand side of the equation. The future demand estimates are difficult to construct so they must be speculative. Throughout all the White Papers that have ever been written and the papers that predated the White Papers, the estimates have usually been wrong. There is nothing wrong in that, because it is impossible to be right when one is looking decades ahead. The factors change. The nature of industry is changing.
When I recall my city of Leeds when I first went there 20 years ago and the amount of energy, mainly from coal, absorbed in the engineering factories, brick making, glassmaking, in the clothing industry and so on, I see that big changes have taken place, particularly in engineering, which my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) knows about. New forms of industry use energy in different ways. None of us knows the form of industry 32 to which the demand side of the equation is geared. We cannot get that absolutely right. We must be sceptical about the figures that are given.
The position could be dramatically changed if more attention were given to energy conservation. The Government said in their reply to the Select Committee:The results indicate a large potential for investment in energy conservation, some of which is more cost effective from a national point of view than investment to increase energy supply. However the implications of this potential for either the energy supply industries' investment programmes or the resources which should be devoted to Government promotion of energy conservation are not straightforward.The other aspects are also not straightforward. There is nothing straightforward in the future analysis that all of us must make. Energy conservation is vital. The Prime Minister made a speech about it last week. All industrial countries are wasteful in the use of energy.
The 1979 Department of Energy projections assume a 20 per cent. reduction in primary energy demand resulting from increased conservation by the year 2000. That is an assumption, so it might be possible. The price of energy is a major factor in motivating industry and individuals to save energy. However, price alone will not lead to assumption being turned into reality.
At the world energy conference recently, a spokesman said that, while high fuel prices had virtually eliminated energy wastage in the community, further inprovements would depend on investment. He expressed concern that in many cases the resources to fund major investment would not be available.
An inter-departmental report by Government officials entitled "Energy Conservation: Scope for New Measures and Long-term Strategy"—energy paper No.33—concluded thatthere is evidence that both companies and householders are unlikely to take full advantage of cost effective investment opportunities unless they are given some inducements to do so. The prospect of higher prices and energy scarcity over one or two decades ahead is not a sufficient stimulus.The Government inherited from the Labour Government a major four-year programme of energy conservation to cover expenditure of £450 million. It was introduced at the end of 1977. The main features included the provision for industry, commerce and agriculture of grant schemes, energy audits, advice, tax allowances, improvements in standards such as building regulations, new energy-saving technology, and a further £20 million for information and advice. That programme, which was introduced at the end of 1977, has been virtually dismantled by the Government. Energy conservation is a major factor in the demand side of the equation.
§ Mr. Rees
It will be interesting to know how conservation has been increased and in what respects.
At its conference last year, the TUC proposed a £1 billion programme of expenditure, spread over four years, for industry, commerce and agriculture, including boiler conversion, for the non-housing public sector—defence, administration, health and education—for public and private sector housing insulation, for combined heat and power district heating, and for initial work on energy conservation research and development.
The TUC made a recommendation for an energy conservation agency, which should be considered. It would co-ordinate what is being done in industry and the domestic sector. Jobs are involved. In their reply to the 33 report, the Government were weakest on energy conservation. It is a vital factor and could vitally affect the demand side of the equation.
If I wanted, I could make a whole speech or an argument based on what people think of the National Nuclear Corporation. There seems to be an inordinate amount of chitchat and gossip about it. I forswear it because it is not a basis on which to come to a decision. People say that it is all the fault of X and Y and that, if it were not for so-and-so, all would be well. That may be so, but I have no knowledge of it. In their conclusion, the Government said:The Government does not consider major organisational changes necessary.As they say "major organisational changes", that means that they might consider organizational changes.
The Government consider that the NNCshould evolve into a strong and independent design and construction company. It is currently reviewing with both the Corporation and the Generating Boards how the Corporation's role in relation to the major financial risks involved in nuclear power station construction could be strengthened.So be it. I have heard about the problem for a long time. The NNC does not work well. The question that arises is: who is in charge and who is taking the lead? It seems that there are so many powerful interests involved that it is difficult for a decision to be taken at all, if not quickly enough, although speed is not of the essence.
The Government's conclusion is a little bland in the face of an organisation that does not work properly. The company is privatised, so it should do well. However, privatised or not, there is no firm decision taking. The Opposition should put their mind to that matter, because in a future Labour Government we shall have to do something about it quickly.
§ Mr. Peter Rost
I did not say that there was plenty of time. I intervened to say that the previous Government allowed matters to drift without taking any decisions.
§ Mr. Rees
I accept that. The NNC situation redounds to no one's credit. I was saying that it was time that we did something and that the response to the Select Committee was a little bland.
When the Secretary of State for Energy answered questions after his statement on 20 January, he talked, as he did today, about the wasted years. Whatever the Government said when they first came into office, they have not moved quickly. They have moved slowly and I believe that they are right to approach the problem in that way. The nature of events has led them to do that. When he gave a list of the orders for new power stations, it always confirmed the orders that had been made before rather than proposing new ones. Nuclear power has been a low priority. No more has been heard of building one reactor per year. Each year more is shaved off predicted energy requirements, and the major problem of the disposal of waste, which none of us can ignore, still remains.
The report gives us much to think about. It is certain that there is a role for nuclear power, but in terms of speed, 34 type of reactor energy conservation and alternative fuels we may be looking at different circumstances in five years' time. The Opposition must take all that into account and consider what to do about it. If it falls not to the present Government but to a Labour Government to act on the report, we should do as my right hon. Friend did in 1979. Before any final decision is taken, the report must be debated in the House so that the Government may have the approval of the House for the next steps. I regard the report as most valuable, but it is the beginning of a process and not the end. The Sizewell inquiry will be only one part of the process, and there is only one place where a final decision can be reached—the House of Commons.
§ Mr. Ian Lloyd (Havant and Waterloo)
After the remark which Mr. Speaker made in your absence, Mr. Deputy Speaker, about the undue solicitude shown for me this afternoon, it would be at best tactless and at worst careless were I not to acknowledge that I appreciate that very much. Had I found myself speaking first, I might have been dangerously tempted to conclude that I had arrived prematurely and that in that event my rhetorical power might have become critical. It is, perhaps, better that I speak now.
I should also like to acknowledge the warm and generous tribute that both the Secretary of State and the right hon. Members for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) have paid both to myself and to the Committee. If I may pass the whole of their tribute on to the Committee, I shall only be stating the facts of the case.
I should like to deal with one or two general matters concerning Select Committee reports of this nature, which I hope the House will have an opportunity to consider in more detail on more appropriate occasions.
First, my hon. Friends on the Committee, by which term I include in a rather special sense all of its members, are here today in force, not only because they seek an opportunity to place some individual conclusions before the House, as I shall do myself, but because they have confessed to me from time to time some disappointment at the opportunities that they are given to participate more generally in energy debates. I would argue on their behalf that this is a subject on which they are now formidably well informed. If I may say so without disrespect, they are better informed than the vast majority of right hon. Members who so often catch your eye. Mr. Deputy Speaker. Our debates are often the poorer as a result of that situation.
Secondly, it is a great pity that we have had to wait more than a year for this debate. Energy is a crucial issue and nuclear power lies at the crux of the debate. Though inevitably controversial and widely criticised, this was a major report that raised major issues. Such issues should be discussed when they are fresh not only in the minds of the Committee but in the public mind. A year later, much has changed and hon. Members have to refresh their memories about a policy scene which has immensely complex features. A year is also a long time in energy policy. For that reason I believe that we need a procedural innovation comparable to the Supply Day procedure enjoyed by the Opposition. If Select Committees are to serve some purpose other than the production of material for departmental pigeonholes, we should have a limited right to initiate debates on, say, 10 half days per year. That 35 would give every Committee at least one opportunity to persuade the House and the Government to "take note" or even, when appropriate, to respond to a motion.
I wish to reply briefly to some of the general criticisms of the report that appeared in the press and elsewhere and which varied, not surprisingly, from the eulogistic to the scathing. The Times described the report asa powerful attack on the nuclear industry",which it was certainly not intended to be, but believed that it created uncertainty, particularly as we revealed once again what might be described as the spectre of CANDU—the remarkably successful Canadian system which the nuclear establishment chooses strenuously to disregard. In this context, The Times argues that the industry needsthe assurance of stable policies".That is an understandable objective, and it is a solid argument, but it really means that the nuclear industry wants an assurance that there will be no change in the type of reactor built, certainty about the number to be built over a considerable period and, if possible, that the whole policy should be implemented on what is in effect a cost-plus basis.
Every industry would like similar guarantees. Every nationalised industry and every industrial pensioner in the public sector—and, alas, there are all too many—constantly proclaims how much easier life would be in a certain world, whether it be British Steel, British Leyland, ICL or De Lorean. Of course, there must be an element of continuity, especially when large investments have to be made—and the investments in this context are larger than most—but every time economic security, which is what is involved, is increased for this group, it is reduced for others, who have to pay for it through higher prices, higher taxation, higher energy costs or any of the other factors that expose them more directly to the winds of economic or technological change.
One of the reasons why our energy costs are so high and our nuclear performance so patchy is precisely that the industry has been insulated by policy and licensing or regulatory procedures from the need to respond more effectively to what is happening elsewhere.
The Financial Times, however, believed that we had allowed ourselves to be sidetracked into what it described asa myriad of lesser issuesand that we had not dealt withthe central question of how decision-making could be improved".It also accused us of "jumping to conclusions" unsupported by evidence. To the first criticism, I would merely reply that this subject was comprehensively dealt with in section VIII of our recommendations, in which we considered the structure of the Department, the Atomic Energy Authority, the National Nuclear Corporation and the power plant industry and the relationships between them. There were hundreds of pages of evidence and cross-examination on this subject, on which the Committee deliberated at great length. As to the conclusions not being based on evidence, I have with me the three vast volumes of evidence and I should be very surprised indeed if there is no link between any of our major conclusions and the content of those volumes.
The Central Electricity Generating Board deserves a special word. The board was much criticised by our 36 witnesses, and it would have been a dereliction of duty if the Committee had not reported and assessed the evidence. It is important, however, to make it clear that the Committee has absolutely no axe to grind either for or against the CEGB or any other organisation mentioned in the report.
In this context, I wish to dispose of one particularly damaging criticism, by Mr. Fishlock, that the Committee brought in advisersmerely to reinforce a personal view".That is the exact obverse of the truth. The hon. Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer) and I were wholly responsible for the selection of advisers, whose names were submitted by the Clerks, and at the time of selection it would be fair to say that not only did we have little knowledge of the advisers' views but we were concerned solely with their professional reputation. Indeed, at that point my own personal knowledge of the nuclear situation was extremely limited and supported no general conclusions of any kind. I would not have known how to be prejudiced.
I pay warm tribute not only to the objectivity and hard work of the Committee's advisers, but to the formidable work programme that every member of the Committee undertook. Inevitably, we developed strong and often conflicting views, but they were derived from the evidence. It is the evidence which, like the iceberg, gives weight and substance to the report. If it lacked a cutting edge, it was because the conclusions sometimes resulted from compromises that were reached only after the greatest difficulty. There is no demerit whatever in that. The Committee contained a broad spectrum of views and we looked at an even broader spectrum of issues. Mr. Justice Parker, in his Windscale inquiry, addressed a single but vital issue with singleminded directness and I often envied him his unfettered judgment.
We were all grateful to The Scotsman, which concluded that we had argued our case "cogently", and to the responsible journal, Nature, which very pertinently observed that we hadthrown a spanner in works that were not workingand that the commercial exploitation of nuclear power for the past quarter of a century had beena cross between a fairy story and a nightmare".I fully endorse that conclusion, which leads me to others. I fully accept Nature's further comment that the crux of this issuewith which even this loudspoken Committee has not come to grips is that there is no mechanism in the present arrangement for the sponsorship of nuclear or any other kind of power which will allow that the consumer of the electricity should be King".We discovered, particularly at the Isle of Grain and generally throughout the industry, that if our energy costs are too high—as they are—our poor national performance as power station constructors bears as great a responsibility as, if not greater than, the cost of fuel or the efficiency of generation for this consequence.
In this context, there have recently been two quite remarkable disclosures. First, the National Nuclear Corporation has recently announced that it has built, at a cost of £4½million—I give that figure with some scepticism—a model of the pressurised water reactor to be built at Sizewell, claiming, I believe correctly, that this will enable the builders to avoid costly full-scale errors.
The NNC claims that it was introduced to this amazing novelty by the architect engineers Bechtel. How astonishing! The Committee saw such a model at Three 37 Mile Island, where I gather it proved invaluable both before and after the event. However, the Yarrow Admiralty research department has been building full-scale mock-ups of ship engine and boiler rooms for at least 25 years to my personal knowledge. Why should our power station builders have to wait for Bechtel to describe the technique and its advantages?
The second disclosure, which brings me somewhat prematurely to the whole question of licensing and safety, is the statement by Dr. Marshall, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Authority—for whom I have the greatest respect—that it would cost £10 million to look at the CANDU reactor properly. Dealing with mega millions, as the CEGB does as a matter of routine, one sees how easy it is to overlook reality. Assuming that £5 million of that sum was spent on overheads, which is fairly generous, it would support 25 experts at £20,000 a year for 10 years. I cannot believe that those figures are anything but a reflection of the vast on-cost that we have allowed the safety establishment to impose on what by now is a straightforward, established and demonstrably safe engineering technology. In my humble view, it is a gravy train of quite staggering proportions, for we are now told that at least 20 per cent. of the cost of the British PWR represents the cost of additional safety features that a combination of interests has insisted shall be included in the British system if ever it is built here.
It was undoubtedly a great privilege to have had the opportunity of examining the nuclear power industry in the United Kingdom, the United States, France and West Germany and of meeting and questioning some of the world's foremost authorities on the subject. I shall not name them. At the end of such an inquiry, one inevitably reaches fairly firm conclusions. I have done so in seven areas in respect of which I was unable to carry the whole Committee with me. That is not surprising, but I would be failing in the duty that this privilege imposes on me were I not now to spell out my own conclusions as forcefully as I can.
First, I state quite categorically that I believe nuclear power to be the safest, most efficient, reliable and productive form of energy that the human race has so far devised, provided—and the provisos are formidable—that we do not allow the economics of construction and operation to be destroyed by technical pride or regulatory overkill.
We now begin to distinguish much more effectively between three related but distinctively separate objectives: first, the efficient building and operating of nuclear power stations; secondly, ensuring that they meet objective safety criteria; and, thirdly, ensuring that there is a close relationship between the achievement of safety and the public perception of that achievement.
Secondly, we have now reached the stage in which the overhead imposed on the industry—designers, builders and operators—by the regulatory process is in very real danger of killing it stone dead. I talk not only of the United Kingdom, but of the United States and West Germany where in certain cases reactors have been cocooned for more than a year.
That, indeed, is the stated objective of some groups. Let us be frank about it. They are much nearer their target than they think. No industry, whether financed in the public or private sectors, can endure when an investment of the order of £1,000 million per unit, which costs about 38 £500,000 a day in interest to finance, can be stymied for a year or even indefinitely by what are known as intervenor groups.
If we kill this industry because we have neither technical nor political courage, the energy consequences are such that no possible alternative investment will enable us to offset the energy consequences. The fringe" energies, about which we hear so much, cannot compensate for nuclear power in the next three decades. I have seen not one convincing memorandum—and I have seen a great many—that has disproved that assertion. In my judgment, coal cannot compensate—nor should it—for its cost in life and environmental damage is likely to be prodigiously greater than that of nuclear power.
Thirdly, I remain totally unimpressed by the repeated misdescription of established, proven and demonstrably safe nuclear systems—especially the PWR—as "prototypes". Here I disagree with the Committee. In that respect, I believe that it is ludicrously expensive and cumbersome so to redesign the Calloway PWR, of which there are five in operation and 43 under construction, that it should have been described recently as "an AGR with steam".
§ Mr. Reg Race (Wood Green)
Has not the hon. Gentleman read the report of the NII on the Marshall working party report that states:There are no firm grounds for stating that nuclear steel pressure vessels will have acceptable failure ratesand addsthe United Kingdom might have 150 pressure vessels in use at the end of 40 years if this programme goes ahead and…between four and 40 pressure vessels might fail"?
§ Mr. Lloyd
The hon. Gentleman brings me back to one of the important and fundamental technical minutiae that the Committee examined at great length. We have extremely interesting, powerful and directly conflicting evidence on this point. Having listened to all that evidence and conducted much of the cross-examination, I have not emerged with the conclusion that pressurised water reactor pressure vessels or their associated steam generators are inherently unsafe for these reasons. I speak in the full knowledge of Sir Alan Cottrell's evidence.
New Scientist has recently published a table showing that there is a massive increase in the tonnage of concrete in the reactor and turbine buildings, of structural concrete elsewhere, of large pipes and of wire and pipe in the United Kingdom PWR design. The AGR is much more lavish than the United Kingdom PWR, and the latter is much more lavish than the American, Japanese, German or French PWRs. As I do not for a moment accept that the latest American PWR reference design is unsafe, I do not for a moment believe that that is necessary or justified nor do I believe that it is necessary or justified simply because, for very similar reasons, the people of the United States have very nearly destroyed their own nuclear industry.
Fourthly, no one who has seen them can fail to be impressed by the United States, French or Canadian nuclear programmes and installations. If allowed to develop, all will produce low-cost electrical energy—and are doing so—on a scale that cannot be matched by any other present form of power. The industrial advantage that this will offer cannot be matched in any other way. If allowed to develop without unnecessary restrictions, this form of energy will create and stimulate the more optimistic forecasts, of which the Committee was rightly critical.
39 Fifthly, an economic PWR programme in the United Kingdom could not be achieved on the basis of a nuclear industry that is geared to the present scale and variety of output. In this respect we are now well behind the United States, Japan and France and I suspect that we are also falling behind countries such as Spain, Switzerland and Canada. Canada has more in store capacity than we have.
We have a clear choice. Either we supply ourselves with an efficient and economic PWR-based nuclear power generating system, building them without reference to the origin of components or expertise, or we can use the PWRs, which will have as limited a market as our AGRs, if any. The former policy will result in an effectively competitive electrical supply system that will doubtless offer considerable scope for supply from a reorganised and highly competitive British nuclear industry. The latter will achieve precisely the opposite effect. We shall develop an industry that is capable of superb, one-off, intensively over-engineered nuclear power stations that will produce high cost and uncompetitive nuclear power and will have no overseas market whatsoever.
Sixthly, I would like to say a word about CANDU, and this is where I profoundly disagree with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I remain—I could not be otherwise having been there and been the recipient of a remarkable presentation by the CANDU people in Ontario Electric—profoundly impressed by the many merits of the reactor system and equally unconvinced by the arguments that I have heard against it. The presentation was immensely persuasive. The Canadians have some of the cheapest, safest and most reliable nuclear power stations in the world. That does not permit of any disagreement. But we seem determined to ignore this achievement. Doubtless, it is now too late; I accept what my right hon. Friend has said. We are committed to both the AGR and the PWR and, I was delighted to hear the Secretary of State say, the fast breeder reactor.
However, I will make a confident prediction. The CANDU system, in the lifetime of its known competitors, with the sole exception of the fast breeder, will out-perform them. If we could start again I have no doubt what my preference would be.
§ Dr. J. Dickson Mabon (Greenock and Port Glasgow)
The hon. Gentleman is speaking extremely well, but I do not quite understand how he can say tht we are committed to the PWR and that we have missed the CANDU bus.
§ Mr. Lloyd
Although the commitment is often heavily qualified, and has been much more so in the last year than before the whole programme concept was examined, it seems that the CANDU option has been definitely dismissed by the Government. I do not think that there is any doubt about that. Therefore, we have the dismissal on the one side and a perhaps qualified commitment on the other, certainly to the AGR and probably to the PWR.
Seventhly, I address the question of safety and licensing. It is my firm belief that the world's nuclear industry has been reduced to a sorry state by two major factors. The first is the extraordinarily limited public perception of the remarkable safety record of nuclear power. Why this should be so is a subject of much discussion but that it is so does not permit of any doubt.
The second is the weakness of Governments who have allowed themselves to be manoeuvred by intervenor 40 groups into the position where the whole case for nuclear power and the whole safety performance of what is virtually a proven, standard nuclear steam supply system is re-examined virtually every time it is proposed to build or operate a new station.
The one doubtless causes the other, but the cost is prodigious. It is as if each time an aircraft operating licence was sought the whole safety case of the aircraft type, or of the aeroplane, had to be remade. The right hon. Member for Leeds, South said earlier that he wondered what would happen if consent were not given. At a guess, £150 million would go up in smoke. That is the sort of figure we are talking about.
It is clear to me, after seeing the superb production facilities in Pensacola in the United States and Chalons-sur-Saone in France, that the units are batch produced under the most rigorously controlled conditions and, in very large measure, are identical. If one is safe then within sensible limits, all are safe if built to the proper standards.
We must address the whole question at a much more fundamental level than we have so far. I wonder what the current cost is of the certification procedure of a British nuclear power station. It cannot be much less than £15 to £20 million. It is significant that the staff involved in the licensing of all new large civil aircraft in the United States is some 60 to 70 people. The safety considerations are just as serious, much more life is at risk and it has widespread implications for air transport safety throughout the world. It is most significant that the United States is now arguing that type certification should be extended to nuclear power, and I would argue that we should do the same.
It is the role of Parliament to answer to the nation on the amount, types and cost of energy supplied. It is the fundamental component and resource of any modern industrial system. It is inescapably a political question because it involves foreign affairs, investment and risk, to say nothing of industrial efficiency and employment. It is not Parliament's task to choose reactors, but it is Parliament's task to ensure that the choice is properly made and to ask questions when there is evidence, as there is, that the choice is not as effective as it might be.
Nuclear power is a key, if not the key, demonstration area of the validity of the recent report of the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology "Science and Government". It is, regrettably, a typical and tragic case where both the formulation and the execution of policy reveal, repeatedly and expensively, a grave and costly national deficiency of judgment and performance. We shall not eliminate this merely by altering the way in which power games are played on the existing 3D chessboard of the Government, the CEGB, and the nuclear construction industry, which is what I suspect we are doing. Everything that I have observed in pursuing this inquiry reinforces the conclusion of that Committee that we have a vacuum at our scientific and technological centre. We shall not get that answer right until that vacuum is filled.
§ Mr. Tony Benn (Bristol, South-East)
This is an important report, an important debate, and an important inquiry. All I would say to the hon. Member for Havant and Waterloo (Mr. Lloyd) is that he is a supporter of profitability as a criterion for development and that had that philosophy applied to nuclear power no nuclear power station would have been built in the world since the war. 41 The reason why this is a subject of public concern is not only because of the factors I will deal with, but because it has never been, in an ordinary sense, a commercial proposition and the hon. Gentleman would have to admit that.
I have held responsibility as the Minister responsible for energy, and for the nuclear industry for nine years, which must be longer than any other Minister of Energy. I pay tribute to these in the industry, the scientists, the workers, the people engaged in nuclear power up and down the country, and to their great sense of dedication, and I want now to emphasise the points which I made in evidence to the Select Committee, which are also based upon my experience.
First, I am and always have been entirely opposed to the pressurised water reactor and I can briefly summarise the reasons. There is an inherent safety defect in the design pointed out by Sir Alan Cottrell. It is no good saying, when Ministers are confronted with conflicting evidence, that in matters such as nuclear power there is any option but to go for the more cautious route. That is the view I took as Minister and. I take it still.
Secondly. the alleged cost of the PWR leaves out of the account the modifications that have to be made to conform to the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate's specifications. These costs would make it so expensive as to reduce their advantage for us. Thirdly, we are a smallish country. With Magnox stations and AGR stations in operation and the fast breeder and fusion under consideration it would be wrong to introduce a new system. I venture to predict that the PWR—[interruption.] Perhaps the Secretary of State wishes to intervene.
§ Mr. Lawson
Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why he has changed his mind since he was Secretary of State for Energy in 1978?
§ Mr. Benn
I have not changed my mind. The Cabinet decided that it was right to have available the option of the PWR. My view that it is wrong to build a PWR has never altered. I dc not think that the PWR will ever be built in this country
In our rare debates on nuclear power, it is wise to reconsider the old speeches and ask ourselves whether the great claims for nuclear power made in earlier debates—I have taken part in many of them since 1966—do not now merit reconsideration in the light of experience. We must ask ourselves whether the time has not now come to consider scaling down the role of nuclear power in our long-term energy plans.
The hon. Member for Havant and Waterloo said that America had ruined its nuclear industry. He forgot to say that the United States forecasts of installed capacity have been cut by two thirds. His speech could have been made in the early days of nuclear power.
I offer the House my opinions based on my experience. I do not purport to speak for the Labour Party or the TUC, whose policies are on record.
This is the first debate since that on Windscale, and certain factors should be discussed. On the question of safety, the hon. Member for Havant and Waterloo referred to a possible accident at a nuclear power station as though it were comparable with an aircraft accident. A moment's consideration would lead him to understand that there is a total difference between an aircraft crashing and a major nuclear accident. Therefore, the proposal for type 42 specification approval, without individual approval, would be wholly unacceptable. The hazards are more serious than is appreciated. Since I last spoke as the Secretary of State in the House there has been the Harrisburg incident. Those who have read the Brown's Ferry report, where a major tragedy was averted only by chance, will know of the hazards. Those two accidents concered PWRs.
I wish to make a more general point. One thing that has profoundly affected my view was the coming to light, in the spring of 1979, of a serious leak at Windscale, when 20 gallons of concentrated high toxic waste, which should have been buried or kept in glass, leaked from a sump. It now lies in several hundred cubic feet of contaminated soil, which is covered by only 10 ft of topsoil. I am not a scientist, and the figures that I give mean no more to me than to other hon. Members. However, the nuclear inspectors with whom I discussed the matter drew a comparison. They said that those who disturbed that contaminated soil would be exposed to a radiation hazard of 500 to 1,000 rads per hour—yet only 5 rads per year is the permissible level. That is a serious leak.
The Secretary of State, in a cavalier manner, dismissed the statement that we would keep high toxic waste on the surface. He appeared to suggest that the long-proclaimed, so-called "Harvist" solution, under which the waste would be put into glass blocks and buried underground, had been temporarily abandoned. I remind him that the leak at Windscale occurred from a surface sump.
§ Mr. Benn
I gave those figures in an earlier speech in the House, to which I refer the hon. Gentleman. However, he has made a fair point—that, until now, the nuclear safety record has been better. But, having served as Minister of Technology and later as Secretary of State, I said and I say again now that there is no comparison between a major nuclear accident and deaths in individual accidents.
I turn to the problem of cost. I know that the Secretary of State is most concerned about public expenditure. The costs of nuclear power compared with other sources of power are often misleading—especially for the PWR. I commissioned an inquiry on the subject, which is still in the Department. The right hon. Gentleman should examine it. It showed that a brand new coal-fired station and a brand new nuclear-fired station, of the same size and serving the same base load capacity, would reveal no difference in terms of cost. The research and development costs which have all been funded by public money are not fully charged against nuclear energy so as to refund all that expenditure. Nor can the operating performance be taken from one year at Hinkley. Hunterston B, when it was built, was delayed for a year because a little sea water penetrated the mechanism. It cost tens of millions of pounds to find alternative sources of energy. Heat and power is not possible with nuclear power except with the high temperature system, which has now been excluded.
One cannot say that the cost of shut down and storage has been included because a nuclear power station has never been shut down. There is no provision for the 43 storage of nuclear waste, so that cannot be calculated—and certainly not for a PWR that has never been used in Britain. As the years pass, the costings will alter profoundly between alternative sources of power. The Severn barrage is coming closer as work progresses. Energy saving is more economic.
The hon. Member for Havant and Waterloo spoke about the expenditure of £1 billion, but all we gain at the end of 10 years is a power station. However, £1 billion spent on conservation gives an energy saving tomorrow. The economics of energy saving appear different if looked at in that light.
The Secretary of State referred to my speech in 1978, yet he and the Government closed down the Energy Commission, which held examinations of forecasts in public. Transcripts were published so that people could follow the change in the figures. The right hon. Gentleman says today that he will publish the forecasts later. There has been a fundamental change since 1979 and all forecasts reflect the assumptions that are fed into them. No one knows that better than the right hon. Gentleman because the forecasts on energy demand came from the Treasury, which feeds in the forecasts for economic growth. There will not be much economic growth under this Government.
Another reason for doubt is that the nuclear lobby, without question, is the most powerful lobby that I have ever come across—especially that on the PWR. The international companies, such as Westinghouse, press very strongly for nuclear power stations. The Secretary of State said that he had reached a decision that should have been reached years ago. I question whether that decision should be reached now.
I gave evidence to the Committee about the occasion when Dr. Walter Marshall returned from Teheran saying that the Shah had offered to buy half our nuclear power industry if we agreed to abandon the AGR and adopt the PWR. What was the link? The right hon. Gentleman should be a little more sceptical of what he is told. There is heavy pressure in the Cabinet Office and Whitehall to adopt the PWR. The scientific community is strongly in favour of nuclear power and the unions representing workers in that industry are, understandably, also in favour. But the greatest pressure for nuclear power comes from the military because the plutonium required for our weapons programme comes from nuclear power.
The risk of proliferation has been much discussed. Most countries that want civil nuclear power want it for weapons purposes. Pakistan has developed the nuclear weapon. There was an irresponsible deal between Germany and Brazil. There are no enforceable nuclear safeguards. As a Minister I spoke often of the IAEA safeguards, but there are no enforceable safeguards in the control of fissionable material—there is only a rough and ready international monitoring system. We could only prevent Pakistan from making the bomb by major international pressure, which was applied only temporarily and was then withdrawn because of the Afghanistan position. Under Euratom, of which Britain is a member, we have lost control of our fissionable material. We have lost the power to buy uranium, which is now bought for us by Euratom.
Atomic power is a vulnerable system because it is centralised, subject to attack either in war or by terrorism and subject to accidents. Where there is a vulnerable 44 system, we are bound to introduce safeguards that in turn threaten civil liberties. I cite one example that has become public. Councillor Trevor Brown was a Liberal councillor at Aldermaston and was prematurely retired for making public comments about what happened at Aldermaston. I have knowledge of this because he consulted me at that stage. I do not want to stir that old controversy. All I want to tell the House is that the Ministry of Defence was very angry with Councillor Brown for bringing to public attention matters of prime concern in safety at Aldermaston. I had an interest because I had once been the Minister concerned.
For all these reasons, a thick curtain of secrecy surrounds all matters concerning nuclear power. It is hard to get the truth. Ministers are misled, and I have been myself. I asked the Secretary of State whether he would publish for the inquiry all the papers that he has in his Department relating to the PWR. He did not give me a wholly satisfactory answer. If there is to be confidence in nuclear power, the public must be told the facts and not merely fed with the propaganda and public relations activities of the nuclear industry.
Those are all powerful arguments for caution. I have summarised, as I had to do, six very serious considerations which the House, then the inquiry and then the House again, should consider. I believe they point inescapably to a scaling down of nuclear power in our long-term plans, to no pressurised water reactor, to no fast breeder reactor, and to an absolute minimum of ordering—if we have to order. That was the basis of the AGR decision that I announced. If we have to order—there is no conceivable need for it on the basis of our present need, though we have to look ahead—it should be the gas-cooled stations, of which we have had experience from the early days. The world has gone PWR and we have a duty to preserve the gas-cooled option lest, as I fear, the PWR turns out to be an unacceptable system.
We want a very wide inquiry into these matters. I am grateful for the year that has been left to prepare it. The Government should fund the objectors. The Minister will find in the records of his Department that I made preparations in my remaining months to fund low energy studies which would provide the basis on which the objectors would be able to question the advice. That is not so different from funding them because the objectors would have access to those studies. I would go further and say that, as with legal aid, where we even fund people to fight the Crown on matters of prosecutions, there should be funding available for people engaged in inquiries of this magnitude.
Whatever happens, this is too big an issue to be determined by the experts, the scientists or the Minister. It must, as my right hon. Friend said, come back to the House for decision. I very much hope that the inquiry under Sir Frank Layfield will open up all the matters to which I have referred, so that the public will have a chance to assess whether this expanded and advanced programme on a new system has any merit in Britain.
§ Mr. Robert Hicks (Bodmin)
I, too, believe that the Select Committee on Energy has made a most valuable contribution, for the benefit of this House and the nation 45 as a whole, in its report on the United Kingdom nuclear power programme. As a layman in these matters, I am most grateful.
In my short contribution I hope to be able to reflect, in purely layman's terms, some of the thoughts of people who share my misapprehension about the overall strategy. There is always a danger in debates of this kind that the views of the experts take over. As the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) has so rightly said, in a subject which is obviously very complex, we must not, as a House of Commons, allow the views of the experts to dominate.
As a non-expert on the subject, I am most apprehensive about many facets of our nuclear power programme. That has not always been the case, but, as I read the Select Committee's report and the subsequent comments, I was constantly reminded of the time when I was an undergraduate studying geography. In all our energy and economic geography lectures, the continually recurring theme of all the lecturers was that nuclear power was one of the country's major hopes. We were told that, although the capital cost of construction would be great, the subsequent cost of electricity would be significantly reduced. We were told that that would have desirable effects on the unit cost of electricity for industry and the domestic consumer. That was over 20 years ago.
The Select Committee's report substantiates the view that 1 have increasingly formed over the years, either that something has gone seriously wrong with the structure and organisation of the United Kingdom's nuclear power industry or that alternatively we have simply overestimated the economic potential of nuclear energy. It is clear that the development of nuclear power has been a sorry sequence of events, involving a number of wrong decisions, certainly missed opportunities, and inevitably wasted money. In making that assessment, one's own position on nuclear power is inherent. As I mentioned earlier, I am—and I remain—most apprehensive about its desirability as a source of power, not only on the economic basis that I mentioned briefly but in regard to security, the disposal of waste, and the process of decommissioning a reactor when that becomes necessary.
Even allowing for my own doubts on the issue, the Select Committee's report raises questions in my mind as to whether we should be proceeding with a programme to construct, on average, one nuclear power station a year in the decade from 1982. I base my reservations primarily on two questions—whether sufficient attention has been given, first, to alternative sources and energy conservation, and, secondly, to future energy demands. With regard to the latter, the Select Committee report was very critical of the basis and the consequential evaluation of future electricity demands.
As a layman, I find the 28 per cent. planning margin excessively high, even allowing for all the difficulties and the variables inherent in coming to any conclusions. As we all know, the Secretary of State's December 1979 statement was based on demand projections which have already been twice reduced subsequently. Therefore, it is all the more important for us to take into consideration the point made by the Select Committee in paragraph 27 of its report, on page 23, thatit is important that the additional or replacement capacity to be contributed by each proposed nuclear power station should be carefully evaluated on its own economic meritsand that any new power stations 46should not be ordered simply because they form part of a predetermined programme commitment.I confess that I was somewhat disappointed that the Secretary of State, in his speech at the beginning of the debate, did not clarify the Government's thinking in the light of that recommendation.
Complementary to this aspect is the need to assess the potential effect, in energy requirements, of a more vigorous energy conservation programme. As one who has constantly requested Ministers of all Governments to give a greater priority to energy conservation techniques—if only to reduce the total energy bills that hard-pressed consumers are obliged to pay or to give a stimulus to a part of the building and construction trade—I was again disappointed by the lack of commitment from the Secretary of State in respect of the recommendations outlined in paragraph 32 of the Select Committee report. That stated:we were dismayed to find that, seven years after the first major oil price increases, the Department of Energy has no clear idea of whether investing around £1,300 million in a single nuclear plant… is as cost effective as spending a similar sum to promote energy conservation.It went on to say:We therefore recommend that the Department of Energy should assess in future … the economics of public expenditure to promote energy conservation, with the same rigour"—that is important—as that required for the economic appraisal of new generating plant.Coupled with this subject is the whole issue of alternative sources of energy. I return to that phrase "the same rigour". When I ask Ministers of both Governments—I am not particularly criticising my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on this occasion—there seems to be a lack of commitment by the Department of Energy and related public bodies to carrying out a meaningful and sufficiently diverse investment programme into alternative sources of energy. For example, the figures for the amount of money ploughed into investment in alternative sources make a pitiful comparison with the resources devoted to nuclear energy.
Insufficient attention has been given to alternatives such as water and wind, tidal and solar energy. Numerous small examples of successful alternative energy sources already exist. There is some evidence that they could be developed on a more extensive scale. I should like some commitment from the Government far greater than hitherto. Perhaps such alternative sources, or the conservation of energy investment, are not so economic, but for as long as the powers that be demonstrate their obvious reluctance to investigate, and thus allow us laymen to evaluate the comparative costs of the various sources, they cannot complain if we remain sceptical of the figures that they provide.
I welcome the Secretary of State's announcement about widening the terms of reference of the Sizewell public inquiry. It was right that he should do so, but I wish to refer to the position of those who are opposed to the scheme and, in particular, to financing their ability to express a point of view. This subject was mentioned by the Minister in his recent announcement in the House and during the debate. I make no apology for this matter in the context of what might be a regional issue in the West country.
The CEGB is exploring five possible sites for a nuclear power station. One of them happens to be in Luxulyan in my constituency. The CEGB has already said that if it finds that none of the five sites is suitable for its 47 requirements, its reserve position is that it will return to a site at Millbrook, which also happens to be in my constituency, where a planning consent is outstanding for an oil-fired power station.
The Secretary of State for Energy in the previous Government, the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East, took a decision in 1976 or 1977. I do not quibble with that decision. He said that he would give no more loan sanction for the building of oil-fired power stations. That means that if the CEGB has to revert to the Millbrook site, it will require a further planning consent for a change of use to a coal-fired power station. Perhaps people will object to that.
My argument is that, for the second time in a decade, the people in that locality will have to go through the ritual of raising the necessary funds, and all that goes with it, to express their democratic view. I have had conversations with my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst), whose constituency includes the Stansted area—I realise that that does not involve a power station, but the principle is the same. Those of his constituents who are opposed to the extension of the airport facilities there are being subjected to the same exercise for the third time in 15 years. That puts a considerable strain on the local people, particularly when one remembers that Government Departments, public corporations or other agencies making proposals have vast resources to spend on maximising the effect of the evidence that they present, not only at the public inquiry but in their so-called education of the local electorate beforehand.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will not dismiss this point, about which I have expressed my concern. I hope that he will not regard my views generally as being subjective or populist. The Government, in the light of their response to the Select Committee's report today and before that, in their White Paper, still have much convincing to do to try to persuade those who are apprehensive that the further development of nuclear power is the most appropriate way of solving our future energy requirements. The Secretary of State's response today still leaves uneasy many of us who have reservations. I believe that he has to improve the quality and the merits of his case before he will convert a wide section of the population, which is apprehensive about a number of facets of the United Kingdom nuclear power programme.
§ Mr. David Penhaligon (Truro)
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Hicks) who said little with which I disagree. It is also a pleasure for once to follow the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) who also said very little with which I disagree. I had always thought that the right hon. Gentleman and I had little in common other that the fact that we are teetotal, which makes us a little unusual in the House of Commons.
I have attended a number of nuclear debates since my election in October 1976. There are probably three hurdles over which nuclear power has to jump before it becomes an acceptable method of generating power on a sizeable scale. I do not put these hurdles in order of preference, although the first is certainly the first preference. The supreme criterion is whether nuclear power is safe. Even if nuclear generation was discovered to cost one third less 48 than any other method of power production, but was demonstrably unsafe, few hon. Members would argue that it should become the mainstay of our productive capacity.
The second test must be whether it makes commercial sense to invest significant sums of money in this method of generating electricity. The third test, covered admirably by the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East, is whether the effect on civil liberties is acceptable when set against the claimed advantages of nuclear power.
It will be no surprise to hon. Members to learn that, on safety, I am among those who, to put it mildly, are not convinced. I have outlined the argument a dozen times since I was elected and I do not wish to make the matter the main thrust of my remarks, but it is worth simply putting it on record. On the disposal of nuclear material, the Government have given up. They do not even pretend any longer that a solution can be found in the medium term. Given the facts as I understand them, that is probably the rational decision to have made. I have never believed the problem to be immediately soluble even if various nuclear experts and Secretaries of State have argued otherwise.
The apparent scenario is that the matter is to be kept in storage for what will undoubtedly be the bulk of the remainder of my lifetime—I am younger than many hon. Members—and that there will be another Government attempt at the turn of the century to solve the problem of disposing of nuclear material. I must say, in view of the technical problems, that this is a realistic position.
One recalls the incident at Three Mile Island, leaks at Windscale, and cracks in the French PWRs. There has been virtually constant derating of the nuclear reactors that are built. Just one nuclear reactor in the United Kingdom has its design output. Most reactors have been derated. The percentages vary. Some have been derated by up to 30 per cent. for good engineering and technical reasons. The indication is, however, that the design has fallen significantly short of what was originally hoped.
It would be possible to expand the safety arguments if there were sufficient time. I hope that there will be further discussions of these matters during the debate. My colleagues and I on the Liberal Bench warmly welcome the inquiry into Sizewell. This is the only intelligent and realistic approach to a matter of enormous technical complexity. Even those who are technically qualified blanch before some of the problems. I should have thought that the Minister would be able to state, as a minimum position, that the inquiry would be wide ranging to the extent that there was no limit on what could be raised. I drew attention to this issue during the questions that followed last week's statement in the House when the Minister gave a blank "No" to a request that financial assistance be given to those presenting an argument at the inquiry.
If the Government really want the inquiry to satisfy some of those who have fundamental doubts about the whole philosophy of the expansion of nuclear power, they must not enable those who wish to protest to say that if only they had possessed the capacity to employ the best nuclear scientists to investigate the problems the argument would not have emerged as it did. I say that as someone who is not on the Government's side. They must not give my side of the argument that excuse if the public inquiry results in the PWR being approved.
The hon. Member for Bodmin compared the issue to an airport. I do not compare it to an airport. This is a 49 fundamental inquiry into an entire technology and the whole concept of whether the proposed development is safe. There have been previous inquiries about the merits of locating an airport in one place or another. There has never before been an inquiry into the technical merits of a nuclear reactor and system. The Government's position is untenable. If they do not respond to what I say, they will face enormous and increasing pressure over the next 12 months.
There must be a parliamentary debate at the end of the inquiry. To have no parliamentary debate would mean that the public inquiry is given a status in the decision making process of this country that I, as an elected Member of the House, am not prepared to give. In the final analysis, right or wrong, the decision must rest on the heads of elected Members of the House. There must not be the excuse in 15 or 20 years time that a public inquiry ruled that the situation was satisfactory without a parliamentary debate taking place.
I implied in my opening remarks that I wished to make some remarks about the economics of nuclear power. The sums under discussion are beyond the comprehension of most hon. Members. One estimate is that a PWR will cost £1 billion. Another estimate is £1.5 billion. I suspect that, when the crunch arrives, it will probably be even higher. Hon. Men fibers are throwing around pluses and minuses of astronomical proportions. The sum of £1 billion represents virtually £20 for every man, woman and child in the United Kingdom. It is an enormous sum. It must represent, if not the biggest, almost the biggest Government financial investment of all time in our country. It is an extremely large sum, especially if one enters upon a full programme of 10.
It has been argued over the years that nuclear power in France is much cheaper. If that is the case, the argument goes, the economy of France benefits, and the United Kingdom has been foolish not to follow along the same avenue. I see that the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet) nods in great approval. When this argument has been put to me on previous occasions, it has rocked me on my heels because I did not know the answer. I have now had the chance to make some inquiries. It appears that the French, who have fascinating methods of working out what is or is not profitable, have allocated no research and development costs to the nuclear programme. They have managed to achieve the not inconsiderable triumph of writing off these costs lock, stock and barrel. No one seems sure how the bill has been paid. The French are certain, however, that it is not the nuclear electricity generating, industry.
In the costings often given in the House, no allowance is provided for cost overruns in building the plant. The figures given to hon. Members assume that the nuclear power plants have been built to the original "guesstimate" which, as hon. Members know, in the construction of nuclear power stations, is a "guesstimate" indeed. There is no allowance in the costing for plant delays and—even more amusing—there is no allowance for the 20 per cent. average derating to which the average French stations have been subjected because of difficulty with cracking in some of the pipe circuits. Nor is there an allowance for the fall in the real value of the franc. All those items make it more expensive than most other sorts of power.
However, even more amazing, because the French are worried about assurance of supply from the nuclear system, they now feel that it is necessary to keep their 50 remarkable hydroelectric scheme at full potential. Every dam in France is full of water, virtually all the time; they are afraid to use their hydroelectric system as they used it previously, because if some of the nuclear stations deteriorated further they would have only hydroelectricity from which to get the power they need. No allowance is included in their costing of nuclear power.
The final argument that made me decide that I do not want nuclear power a la French Government is that they apparently operate a 15 per cent. discount for all those people who use electricity within 50 miles of each nuclear power station because it is said to be cheaper. That may be so, but I notice that they do not offer electricity 15 per cent. cheaper within the area of each of the hydroelectric dams. Whatever the merits of nuclear against coal or gas, no hon. Member pretends other than that the cheapest form of electricity generation, if the geographical structure allows it, is hydroelectricity. It is simply a discount to make nuclear generation popular.
The nuclear industry in Britain has previously committed itself to a massive expenditure which it feels compelled to justify. For example, the CEGB report for 1979–80—which I read with interest; indeed, some parts of it with fascination—concluded that the power produced from the Hinkley Point B AGR is cheaper than the power produced by the Drax A power station. Drax A was built on time and to cost, which was good. Hinkley Point B is a running joke. It was six years late in completion. It was derated by 20 per cent. relative to its original design specification, yet the CEGB still claims that the power produced is cheaper. If it is true that a six years' delay in coming on stream and a 20 per cent. derating can still produce electricity cheaper than a modern coal-fired station, why on earth are we looking into PWRs? If AGRs can be built on time and to rating specifications, electricity would be so cheap that people would be paid to take the power away.
The figures that were published for the year I read about gave Drax A 1.52p pence per kilowatt and Hinkley Point B 1.35p. Some friends of mine, who call themselves the Committee for the Study of the Economics of the Nuclear Industry, have produced a report, but tragically its publication date is tomorrow at 2.30. However, they have let me have a copy. It goes to show how much better informed the nuclear industry is than those who oppose it—all the propaganda about how safe the PWR is landed on our desk on Wednesday last—and how much at a disadvantage are those who argue for the alternative.
In this report, which I am sure the Minister will study with great interest, the eminent people who wrote it have analysed the costs. They believe that if allowance is made in the original investment in Hinkley Point B for inflation, for the overruns and delays that have taken place, if one corrects for fuel costs, bearing in mind that the fuel for the station was in store for many years because it was not required and if one estimates the real reprocessing costs that are likely and how much it will cost to take the station apart—largely guesswork, because to date no one has done that—the cost of power from Hinkley Point B is brought up to 2.44p per kW against Drax at 1.69p, if the same adjustments for inflation are made.
I find these reports compiled by eminent people extremely disturbing. Until we are given far better information than we have now, we should reject this tremendous investment in nuclear energy on the ground of cost alone.
51 What about the alternatives? The hon. Member for Bodmin talked about conservation. A big conservation programme would be politically popular. It might appeal to the Government for that reason at the moment, if for no other reason. It appears that various scenarios can make a return on capital within a period of two to seven years. The best evidence is when someone has done something. The Tennessee valley authority is offering to insulate 400,000 homes at a cost of $200 million. It believes that in that way it can avoid building a power station at a cost of $1.5 billion. I am a great believer in the man who puts his money where his mouth is. Why cannot similar arguments apply to the entire nuclear project that has been put to the House?
§ Mr. Palmer
Surely the real difficulty for American utilities is the high rate of interest that they have to pay as a result of their Government's policy.
§ Mr. Penhaligon
Interest rates are not exactly low in this country. On average over the past 10 years, our rates of interest have been higher than those in the United States. Many of the figures produced in favour of nuclear power stations look good because the figures used by the Central Electricity Generating Board, in compounding its interest on the original capital investment, are vastly less than those which anyone in commerce could have obtained. I respect very much the engineering knowledge of the hon. Gentleman, but I suspect that his argument operates in the other direction.
A number of scenarios have been put forward on energy conservation, many of which suggest that we could save energy more cheaply than we can produce it. Scenarios have been put forward in my region, the South-West, suggesting that we could save 5 per cent. of the South-West Electricity Board's supplies if we went over to gas for space heating—if the entire South-West went over to gas, the total use of that material in the United Kingdom would be unlikely to increase by more than about 1½ per cent.—and if we had a massive insulation scheme for roofs, walls, and draught proofing. That list of items should be the other way round: draught proofing should come first and the others follow. I recollect one village sub post office where most of the letters were pushed under the door, not through the letter boxes, and I often wondered how much heat was lost under the door. An insulation scheme of that size could save other energy sources of perhaps four times the value saved by the electricity board.
These questions have not been investigated, and the House has not been given enough information to quantify them. I hope that the Sizewell inquiry will provide the House with the facts and figures so that it can make a reasonable decision.
§ Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)
Does my hon. Friend agree that those figures should take more serious account of the fact that nuclear power stations, because of the insistence upon green field sites, cannot contribute significantly by way of district heating to the savings on the other side, whereas the development of many of the existing urban coal-fired power stations, such as the one at Blyth in Northumberland, can make that provision?
§ Mr. Penhaligon
I appreciate my hon. Friend's intervention greatly. As he knows, it is not uncommon for 52 such a statement to come from the Liberal Bench, and I am certain that it is valid. It is obvious that if coal-fired stations were put nearer to our large cities, they could provide the energy for district heating schemes. I can never understand why we have not spent large sums of money on district heating or, as I prefer to call them, waste heat schemes, before now.
My final argument relates to the South-West. The case for building a nuclear power station in my county is that the electricity that it produces will be cheaper than that produced by a coal-fired station. I have questioned that and I hope the Minister will be able to study the report on which my observations were based.
Even if the Government's figures are correct and even if the output of a PWR station is between 15 and 18 per cent. cheaper than that of the best British coal-fired power station, given the geography of the peninsula of my beloved county, if we built a coal-fired station and imported the coal from Poland, the United States of America, Australia or even South Africa—although for other reasons I would not go there to look for it—will not the Minister admit that that would represent the cheapest power generated by the thermal process anywhere in the United Kingdom? If that is so, why is it logical to build nuclear as opposed to British coal-fired stations when apparently it is not logical to consider running power stations on imported coal?
§ Mr. Geoffrey Johnson Smith (East Grinstead)
I hope that the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) will acquit me of any discourtesy if I do not take up in detail his interesting analysis of the comparative costs of nuclear energy and the power produced by conventional coal-fired stations. However, the hon. Gentleman quoted figures to show that the Central Electricity Generating Board found that even the AGR system, with all the complexities and problems to which he drew our attention, generated cheaper electricity than conventional coal-fired stations.
Apparently the hon. Gentleman felt that that was true. But if the CEGB wishes to consider the PWR system, which in other countries somehow produces electricity rather cheaper than we can, I do not see why the hon. Gentleman pours such scorn and scepticism on the proposal. Surely it is sensible to take up the views of those whose prime responsibility is to generate electricity, to put them to the test and to welcome the fact that they are trying to find ways of producing power at competitive prices for the well-being of the country. In my view, that alone does not justify the scorn with which the hon. Member for Truro approaches the subject.
§ Mr. Penhaligon
I do not really believe the CEGB's analysis. In any event, would the hon. Member for East Grinstead (Mr. Johnson Smith) describe as open and forthcoming the CEGB's attitude over the years to divulging its detailed calculations on the relative merits of the two types of station?
§ Mr. Johnson Smith
The hon. Member for Truro should be more forthcoming as a result of the CEGB's experience, the results of public inquiries, the report of the Select Committee, and so on. I am conscious of how much more forthcoming all of us will have to be. We shall have to dispel much of our prejudice and ignorance before the Sizewell inquiry is completed.
53 I congratulate the Government warmly, as I do previous Governments, who, on questions involving great public debate, scepticism and fear, have willingly conceded that the public inquiry system for the rigorous examination of this industry is in the public interest. The Windscale inquiry was a model, and I have little doubt that the inquiry to come will be another. The more that prejudice is generated along the lines that we have heard in the debate so far, the more I wish that the inquiry could be held sooner.
I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) has left the Chamber. I for one would not want to see the country's total energy needs solely dependent on nuclear power, for reasons that I shall go into in a moment, but when the right hon. Gentleman argues that it is the fear of nuclear proliferation which now prevents any warm welcome from him to some sort of dependence on nuclear power, and when he suggests that more people will have nuclear weapons as a result of building nuclear power stations, he knows as well as I do that that is not true. Countries can develop nuclear weapons without going through the expensive process of building nuclear power stations. What is more, if that argument prevails with him now, why did not the same argument prevail when he was Secretary of State for Energy?
§ Mr. David Ennals (Norwich, North)
I agree with all that the hon. Member for East Grinstead (Mr. Johnson Smith) says about the importance of the Sizewell inquiry. Does not that lead him to the conclusion that the proposals put forward from both sides of the House that there should be some financial support for the objectors to, as well as for the supporters of, the proposal would ensure a more balanced presentation of the case so that a more balanced judgment could be reached?
§ Mr. Johnson Smith
The respective cases were put forward powerfully at the Windscale inquiry despite the fact that anyone who wanted money was unable to obtain it from Government sources. However, if an inspector conducting a public inquiry of the importance of Sizewell felt that for any reason any significant body of opinion found it impossible to obtain funds and thereby was unable to present As case, I have no doubt that that would emerge very clearly and that support would be forthcoming. Equally, I am convinced that the Government will not run away from a full parliamentary debate leading to parliamentary approval or disapproval of any findings reached at a public inquiry.
I wish to concentrate mainly on the safety aspects of nuclear generation. Before doing that, however, I ought to declare my general position. I believe that some addition to our nuclear energy is necessary. That being so, I find the arguments for further investment extremely powerful. On the basis of the facts before the country at present, I believe that successive generations would accuse us of being short-sighted and pusillanimous and of acting immorally if we ran away from the need for nuclear power on the ground that there was in the immediately foreseeable future some alternative form of energy which would be an adequate and competitive substitute for existing sources of energy.
Whatever the risks associated with nuclear energy, in my judgment doing without nuclear energy would impose an even greater risk on the well-being of our people.
54 In this and previous debates tribute has been paid to the remarkable safety record of the nuclear industry but, paradoxically, the industry is a victim of its success, despite that record. At the heart of the paradox is the fact that the more that the nuclear industry emphasises the importance that it attaches to its safety procedures, the more it arouses doubts and suspicions about the safety of nuclear reactors. The public tend to ask "If they really are as safe as all that, why spend so much time on safety and on reassuring us that nuclear reactors are a viable risk?"
The reason is explained in what has been described as the "what if" factor—what if something goes wrong, what if there is a fault in the coolant system and it does not work? It does not take too much imagination to think of all kinds of horrors, including the melting of nuclear cores, the China syndrome, mass irradiation, explosions and so on.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House know that we do not apply the "what if" factor to anything like the same extent to other technologies where catastrophic accidents can and have occurred, especially in the chemical industry. If we applied the "what if" factor with the same scepticism to the aviation industry or to the aeroplane, for example, I doubt whether any of us would ever fly.
If we are to persuade public opinion that society can live with the nuclear reactor, it is worth speculating on the reason for this difference in attitude and what can be done about it. First, most hon. Members would probably agree that people are familiar with many of the technologies that can cause serious or catastrophic accidents. They are certainly familiar with aviation. Those techiologies, although dangerous, have been around for a long time. Secondly, it is probably more difficult to reassure the public and to explain about nuclear reactors, because they fear that an accident might be very serious and out of all proportion—in its environmental effects—to anything other than a natural hazard such as a serious earthquake or something worse than that.
The third factor has nothing directly to do with nuclear reactors, but reflects the general tone of the speech made by the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East. I refer to the point that the way in which nuclear reactors are perceived has much to do with the fact that people link atomic power with its military uses and the problems of nuclear proliferation and waste.
Opinions differ widely. It is vital to have the highest and most rigid standards, particularly for nuclear waste. Such standards cannot be dismissed. However, it is probably possible to confuse people by dwelling on such issues when the heart of the matter is the safety of nuclear reactors, particularly PWRs. There are probably people on the streets who tend to think that there is a pretty good chance that a nuclear power plant could explode like a bomb. It cannot, because the fissile material inside is not sufficiently concentrated.
More specifically, following the accident at Three Mile Island, fears have arisen about PWRs. I do not wish to minimise the problems that that accident created or the need to assure ourselves that we shall not impose an unnecessary risk on our population by building a PWR. However, if we are to make a sensible and rational choice it is essential—especially when dealing with technology that is unfamiliar to the public—to take every precaution 55 to get the facts right and to respect them, however unpalatable they may be. Three Mile Island can teach us a valuable lesson in that respect.
For example, we now know that the human factor played a key part in the accident and that that attracted the attention of President's commission. It emphasised not only the quality of design—although, rightly, we are considering that—but such matters as the training of operators, the enforcement of safety regulations and the adequacy of emergency reponse plans. We now know that no one was injured and that the frightening hydrogen bubble that we read so much about could not have exploded. The releases of the radioactive isotopes were monitored and the public's exposure to the accident has the potential of causing less than one death in the next 30 or 40 years.
In our concern with safety, it is only too easy to become victims of information that feeds prejudice, scares the public and turns out to be incorrect. As we all know, it is the assertion that attracts the headline and when the issue has died down the denials and the truth that then emerge are relegated to the back page or are conveniently forgotten by those who made the original charges. The handling of the information by the authorities involved in the Three Mile Island incident leaves much to be desired, and the fault does not lie wholly with the media.
If the public are to accept the further development of nuclear power, three points must be emphasised. First, the answers to the "what if" questions are virtually meaningless unless accompanied by reference to the probability of an accident. Many of the answers that the public receive for their fears and doubts do not carry conviction, because the risk is hardly ever assessed in quantitative terms. I hope that the Minister will assure us that where possible the Government will insist that answers are given in quantitative terms. In that way, they will make sense.
Secondly, much more needs to be done to demonstrate that much of the technology that goes into nuclear power plants is straightforward, tried and tested. We now know—although I doubt whether the wider public know—that nuclear technology shares, with other advanced technologies, the fact that the probability of an accident decreases with the accident's severity. A malfunction in a nuclear plant does not necessarily trigger a serious accident any more than the hundreds and thousands of malfunctions that take place every day in our aeroplanes lead to scores of even minor accidents.
Thirdly, there is a job that hon. Members can do. We are all conscious of the need to insist on having not only the proper institutional framework to ensure the public's protection—I include the needs of workers in such industries—but also sufficient people trained to analyse the problems posed by the nuclear power industry and to perform the task laid down by Parliament. In that respect I welcome the attention drawn by the Select Committee to the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate and the Minister's response.
However confused we may have been about the production of nuclear power, we have been single-minded in our pursuit of enforcing safety regulations. We have prided ourselves on being well served by our institutions, nuclear scientists and engineers. No country has stricter standards or people with greater integrity to uphold them.
56 I say that without chauvinism. If we are to go ahead with a modest nuclear programme—no one is talking about one every year, or whatever the CEGB's original suggestion was—and if the public are to be persuaded that that is the right policy, we must all, as a matter of prime importance, give those who work in the industry our confidence. By that, I do not mean blind confidence.
On the whole, democracies find it difficult to deal with technological problems that have a strong social content. We rightly insist that war is too important to be left to the generals and British generals have accepted that and operate under the civil power. Nevertheless, in military matters there is a line—not always easily definable, but nevertheless recognisable—at which Ministers and hon. Members depend on our military leaders for technical and professional advice, and information and guidance. We understand how important it is, for their morale and for public morale, to have confidence in the integrity of professional advisers.
If we want the debate to continue at the level to which we are entitled, we should be prepared to impart that confidence to those who have to make the decisions in the next few years. That must be done unless hon. Members have specific criticisms. Too often debates on nuclear power in other countries have sadly deteriorated through the use of public demonstrations, and inaccurate, emotional and superficial assertions and have destroyed the quality of authoritative advice, based on the most careful and dedicated research. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Wood Green (Mr. Race) may scoff. He should not scoff at specific advice.
Those who serve the industry have served us well. The reputation of those such as Dr. Marshall deserves something better than scoffing. Nothing is more likely to destroy the candour that can exist between scientists, professional people and ourselves than failing to take the trouble to understand the technical arguments and hiding our criticisms behind a cloak of ignorance. We should, therefore, take on that responsibility.
In a democracy such as ours, the public expect us—as their representatives—to explain the gains and risks. The job cannot be left to experts. Everything depends—in this matter, as in others—on the balance of risks. Whether we stay at home or go for a ride in the car is a balance of risk. Scientists and engineers do not ask us to take the risks of nuclear power while they remain immune, because they work in the plants where the need for vigilance is ever-present. President Carter is reported as having said that the energy crisis is the "moral equivalent of war". All wars involve risk, but to win the war of the energy crisis we shall, in my view, need nuclear power.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. Every right hon. and hon. Member now on the Back Benches, except the Parliamentary Private Secretary and the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon), who has already addressed the House, wishes to make a speech. Right hon. and hon. Members can help each other and I hope that they will.
§ Mr. David Ennals (Norwich, North)
I agree with hardly any of the conclusions reached by the hon. Member for East Grinstead (Mr. Johnson Smith). I congratulate the Select Committee, which took an approach different from 57 that taken by the hon. Gentleman, and I welcome its report. It has given the House the opportunity to consider a crucial issue. The Government's response did not do justice to the strength of the arguments contained in the Select Committee's report.
The Select Committee was critical of every forecast of the scale of the expansion of nuclear power capacity. Part of the Government's reply states:The electricity supply industry had advised that, even on cautious assumptions, they saw a need to order at least one new nuclear power station a year in the decade from 1982 or some 15 gigawatts over 10 years, and the Government accept that orders of this magnitude represented a reasonable prospect for planning purposes.It is clear that there is an ambitious and extensive programme, although it is true that the reply later states:at the present time it does not believe that developments since 1979 justify any major policy reappraisal, subject as before to flexibility over the precise timing of individual orders.The Government, on the advice of the Central Electricity Generating Board, seem to be planning a rate of growth of energy demand that goes well beyond any reasonable assessment. There is already massive overcapacity. Even allowing for a 20 per cent. margin and nuclear power closures, existing plant could meet electricity demand until 1996. The only demand argument for a new nuclear power programme is based on a rapid rise in annual peak demand for electricity, which seems to be wildly unlikely, or on the premature closure of several efficient and viable coal-fired power stations, which none of us would want to see.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Havant and Waterloo (Mr. Lloyd) on his role as Chairman of the Select Committee. However, when he stated his personal views he went outside the Select Committee's conclusions. In presenting the Committee's report, he observed that the most striking example of existing over-capacity is in Scotland, where in 1979–80 capacity was 74 per cent. above the winter peak demand. However, another nuclear power station is under construction in Scotland. In 1979–80 the economy was expanding. That was before the advent of the Government's approach to economic management began to have its impact.
The energy demand forecasts that formed the basis for massive investment decisions in the past, including the period of the previous Labour Government, turned Out to be unrealistic. Hundreds of millions of pounds of public money were committed to unnecessary power station construction. That expenditure may have seemed right at the time but I agree with the assessments and conclusions of the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon), my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) and the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Hicks).
Paragraph 96 of the Select Committee's report states:Enormous past nuclear investments have had exceptionally low productivity; great resources have been used with little direct return and a serious net loss.The report says:The various problems with the AGR programme so far … have imposed directly on the electricity consumer and indirectly on the taxpayer".These have amounted to a wholly avoidable burden. That is clear language and it was not taken up by the hon. Member for Havant and Waterloo.
The assumptions of the 1950s and 1960s that nuclear power would be cheap have proved to be wrong and we must learn from our experience. The CEGB found that electricity produced by Magnox, the first generation of 58 nuclear reactors, was nearly 50 per cent. more expensive than electricity produced by coal. The second generation of reactors, the AGR, proved also to be far more costly than had been estimated. By March 1981 only four out of the 10 British designed air-cooled reactors ordered between 1965 and 1970 had come into operation, and all at well below their designed output.
When the hon. Member for Havant and Waterloo presented the report of the Select Committee he likened the Government's massive PWR programme to what he called three of the Trident missile programmes. He said:it … represents a pre-emption of a large slice of the nation's resources which might otherwise be available for investments in other parts of the economy.We are taking decisions concerning massive sums which would be better used to boost housing, health, social service and education programmes apart from heating insulation and research into energy conservation.
The Government are committed to the PWR programme. However, after the Sizewell inquiry it may be that the programme cannot continue. We must ensure that the inquiry is properly conducted and that decisions are based on the evidence that is presented at the inquiry.
The most important arguments stem from the safety factors, which I think are dealt with rather inadequately in paragraphs 102 to 109 of the Select Committee's report. We are dealing with the same type of reactor as the one installed on Three Mile Island. I do not accept the argument of the hon. Member for East Grinstead that we do not have to consider the "what if" factors. What if things went really wrong? How could we forgive ourselves if we were to take decisions that caused great damage to humanity? The hon. Gentleman cannot compare these decisions with any others that have been taken.
The problems that have been experienced have not been confined to Three Mile Island. Cracks have appeared in the critical parts of PWR heavy steel pressure vessels in France, Sweden, the Soviet Union and Western Germany as well as in other reactors in the United States.
§ Mr. Johnson Smith
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman does not want to mislead himself or the House. I was arguing that the "what if" factor is an important issue and should be dealt with accordingly. Perhaps it could be dealt with more effectively if the answers quantified the possibility of an accident.
§ Mr. Ennals
I am glad of that reassurance. Safety factors will he fundamental at the Sizewell inquiry. They will be fundamental to the conclusion reached by the inspector, which will be accepted by the House. We dare not avoid safety factors. Sizewell is not in my constituency but Norwich is not so many miles away. The hon. Member for Eye (Mr. Gummer) also has a great interest. I agree with one of the points that he made in the questioning that took place on 20 January.
According to the British Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, the number of casualties in a possible PWR accident in the United Kingdom would be about 10 times greater than for a similar accident in America because of our greater population density. Therefore, the safety factor must concern all those who live within a 35-mile radius of Sizewell. Of course, the decision on Sizewell will set the pattern for PWRs in other parts of Britain. In addition, procedures for evacuating the total population, which are accepted in America, would probably not be practicable in the United Kingdom.
59 In a 10-mile radius of the Sizewell site, there are about 50 small settlements and villages. Within a 35-mile radius, there are several major population centres, including Ipswich and Norwich. Studies in America and Sweden suggest that 10 miles should be allowed for total evacuation in the event of an accident and 50 miles for radioactive contamination. If we limit the contamination area to 35 miles, we take in Norwich, Great Yarmouth, Lowestoft, Ipswich, Harwich, Stowmarket and many small towns and villages in East Anglia.
We must take the safety factor seriously. That is why I welcomed the decision announced by the Secretary of State on 20 January that the date of the Sizewell inquiry will be about 12 months from now. I especially welcomed the fact that he gave the dates of the safety studies. The CEGB will publish its safety report in April and the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate will publish its report in June. Those on all sides of the argument will have an opportunity to examine with great care the propositions that are put forward. There are many safety factors. I remember writing to the previous Secretary of State in March 1981 listing 14 safety factors about which we must satisfy ourselves before we proceed with the programme that the Government have outlined.
I welcome also the comments by the hon. Member for Sudbury and Woodbridge (Mr. Stainton) and the hon. Member for Eye. I welcome the points made by the hon. Member for Bodmin, the hon. Member for Truro and my hon. Friend the Member for Newton (Mr. Evans), who argued, as I have, that both sides should have financial support to ensure that there is a fair presentation. Some of those who challenge and criticise and who wish to extract the truth are voluntary organisations without the same resources at their disposal as the CEGB. I was glad that the Secretary of State, when questioned about the matter, said that he was willing to listen to what was said in the debate and that he would reconsider the matter. I hope that he does so.
§ Mr. Peter Rost (Derbyshire, South-East)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Havant and Waterloo (Mr. Lloyd) on his excellent contribution to the debate. I am sorry that you had to miss it, Mr. Speaker, but it gave an excellent example of the sort of leadership that we had in the Select Committee. The work that my hon. Friend has done in guiding us has been instrumental in the successes that we are achieving in some of our work.
Secondly, I refer to the help that we have had from our team of advisers. I am well aware that the response to the report in the media might lead some of us to believe that the expertise helped to confuse rather than to enlighten the Committee, but that is not my view. Without their advice, many of us would have found it difficult to have drawn conclusions from so much conflicting evidence.
The report has undoubtedly been gravely misunderstood in certain quarters. Some of that misrepresentation in the media has reflected upon the prejudices of some hon. Members, from one or two of whom we have heard today. One example is a headline in the The Daily Telegraph of 19 February, above an article written by Roland Gribben, which statedMPs seek cutback in 'too ambitious' atom power plants".Nothing in the report suggests a cutback. The headline is completely misleading. David Fishlock, in the Financial Times, said: 60It was not even clear to the journalists who gathered for the report's first public appearance whether this Committee was in favour of nuclear energy or against it.That is a most extraordinary comment from someone as respected and well informed as David Fishlock, who must have been fully aware that the members of the Committee are in favour of civil nuclear power and expressed that in no uncertain terms in the report.
We had some similar misrepresentation which, in my view, did nothing to enhance the prestige of the respectable press in Britain. We had other comments from the media that seemed to get the message. Perhaps those reporters read the report. Theirs appeared to be a more balanced judgment, as shown especially by Peter Rogers in The Sunday Times of 22 February.
I do not wish to attack the media. I never do so. I let them attack me, which is far more rewarding. The report was not anti-nuclear and should not have been interpreted as such, unless those who commented upon it were not prepared to read the report fully.
The Government's response to our report fully acknowledges the point that I make, because the Government support of our recommendations confirms that the report was not against the nuclear programme. The report was perhaps against the way in which we have messed up our nuclear programme during the past years. It tried to highlight a number of doubts about the way in which we have set about our nuclear programme. If we had not set out those doubts, we would have been failing in our duty to Parliament and to the public and we would have omitted the fundamental responsibility for which the Select Committee was established—that of drawing attention to areas that should be of public concern. Therefore, the main gist of our report was to cast doubt on the ability so far displayed in Britain to build nuclear power stations on time and to cost. We simply considered the evidence. If people do not like the evidence, no doubt they will come to a different conclusion. However, the evidence was that we have been lamentably inadequate in building nuclear power stations to time and to cost. We expressed the doubt that, unless we can get it right, there is not much point in going on. That is not being against the nuclear programme, although it may be critical of the way in which we have done it so far.
Secondly, we cast much doubt on the ability of our nuclear industry under the present system to build nuclear power stations cheaper than they are built and operated in other countries against whom we must compete in order to survive and maintain our living standards.
Although the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) seems to doubt the evidence, there is no question but that, allowing for all the contingencies and costings, nuclear power is cheaper than oil-fired or coal-fired power. But that is only half the problem. Unless our nuclear power is at least remotely competitive with nuclear power building programmes in France, Germany and Japan, we might as well pack up; we would continue to deprive ourselves of the vital competitive advantage that we need.
Because our electricity prices are higher than in other countries, industries have suffered, jobs have been lost and the whole economy has been handicapped. That is not good enough. The Committee pointed out that on the evidence presented to it it was not convinced that our nuclear power stations could be built at a price and on a 61 time scale to make them competitive with other countries, and unless they were we should lose out. That was the main conclusion.
The main issue in the report is not safety. Most of us took that aspect for granted on the evidence available. Nor is it whether nuclear power is cheaper than oil-fired or gas-fired power. The evidence on that could not be contradicted. The main issue is the price of electricity compared with our competitor countries. The damage to our economy and to industry is already too severe for us to embark on a major public investment that would not improve our competitiveness. That fact is accepted by the Government. Nor was the argument in Committee for or against a PWR programme. There, too, we accepted the Government's guidelines that we should build a PWR and see how we go.
One of our strongest recommendations is that we should make up our mind what system of reactors we are to have, instead of messing around as we have done for the past 20 years. We shall then at least have one system, with the benefits of duplication and the economies of scale and cost. If it is a PWR, so be it.
On the evidence presented to us the doubt was whether the PWR to be built in the United Kingdom would have the price advantage from which countries such as France and Germany are already benefiting. However, that is an argument not against the PWR but against carrying on as we have done so far. We must improve on the performance.
I believe that the mistake or tragedy in our British nuclear programme was made in the early 1970s, particularly in 1973 and 1974, when we had one of the soul-searching reviews which we have had from time to time about the sort of reactor that we should develop. We did not convincingly commit ourselves, as we should have done, to building a PWR as an alternative to the AGR. Had we gone ahead then with the decision that was taken by the Government in 1979 we should at least now have the first PWR. Presumably it would have gone through its public inquiry and would be nearing completion if not in operation. We would have been in a position to judge whether it was safer and more efficient. We would also have had a trial PWR. We would not have been in the position of having to order two more AGRs, despite their disappointing performance and costing, just to keep the British nuclear industry alive.
It is a disgrace that for 10 years there were no nuclear orders. The industry was desperate for them. That is why the Committee had to accept the fact that the industry needed an order quickly, and the only solution, therefore, was the AGR. We would not have been in that position. The country would have had the alternative of a PWR earlier, so that at least we could have measured one against the other, and a year ago have been able to decide whether to order more PWRs or AGRs. The decision would have been clear-cut on the evidence available. We now have to go through the process, and we shall not know for another two or three years at least whether the future will be for PWRs or more AGRs. I am convinced that it will be PWRs, bul we still have to prove that. It has been a great cost to our economy and competitive position that we are now so many years behind making the choice.
Finally, a misunderstanding seems to have arisen over the arguments about over-capacity. The right hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Ennals) made a great deal of it, saying that we do not need more nuclear power 62 as we already have a surplus capacity of electricity. That is totally irrelevant. If we proceed properly nuclear power is far more efficient and cost-effective than coal or oil-fired power, so its provision is justified, regardless of the present excess capacity. It would allow us to phase out more costly and obsolete plants and so reduce the cost of electricity, which should be the primary objective. Moreover, by reducing the cost of electricity through an efficient nuclear power programme we could reverse the downward trend in demand and bring about growth which the French and other countries with efficient nuclear power programmes are experiencing.
The CEGB continuously has to downgrade its estimates of electricity demand not just because of the economic recession but primarily because electricity is in a recession. It has priced itself out of the energy market because its costs have been higher than they need have been or would be if we had an efficient nuclear power programme.
If we had more efficient nuclear power stations coming on stream or on the grid already, electricity would not he pricing itself out of the market. It would be fighting back and winning an increasing share of the energy market, in the same way that cheap North Sea gas has done—at the expense of electricity.
It can be argued that we should go ahead with a nuclear programme just because it will lead to an expansion in electricity demand and more competitive prices. The tremendous benefits to the British economy and to the consumer are highlighted in the report and in the Government's response.
The Government have responded to our report in a more constructive way than many of us dared hope. There is little difference between us on the fundamental issues. The problems facing the industry, which we have highlighted, and the doubts that we raised about the industry have been largely accepted by the Government. In particular, many of the criticisms that we made have been taken care of by the establishment of Dr. Walter Marshall's task force. That is an insurance policy and a move in the right direction that will ensure that our worst doubts, about the feasibility and economic viability of our first PWR and whether our industry's structure will be right at long last, will not prove to be justified. Therefore, that is an important constructive move that the Government have made in response to some of the doubts that we raised.
The damage to the nuclear industry that some critics say resulted from our report is unbelievably difficult to discover. Some of the newspapers said that we set back the future of the nuclear industry by making some critical comments. I entirely dismiss that criticism. Anyone studying the report in detail must dismiss it, toe.
The damage to the nuclear industry and to the economy will result not from a report by a Select Committee of Parliament but if we do not learn from our past errors. How can we learn from our past mistakes if we are not prepared to diagnose and analyse them and try to find sensible solutions? With that constructive approach adopted by our Select Committee, let us try to learn from the errors, indecision, shambles and squabbling and let us now go forward with a real commitment towards efficient and safe nuclear power.
§ Mr. Arthur Palmer (Bristol, North-East)
I join the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Rost), who 63 serves with me on the Select Committee, in paying tribute to our chairman, the hon. Member for Havant and Waterloo (Mr. Lloyd), who led the Committee with great impartiality and diligence of the highest order.
It is interesting that this should be the first report of the Select Committee on Energy, because 14 years ago there was another first report by the old Select Committee on Science and Technology, of which I was Chairman. It also dealt with the nuclear power industry. An outstanding difference between the two reports is that in the report of 1968 little attention was paid to any special safety problem connected with nuclear electricity production. It was simply another industrial process, even if it was novel.
That was also a time when the Aldermaston marchers were on the roads with the slogan on their banners "Atoms for peace and not for war." In those days, the ancestors of those who protest strongly today against the use of nuclear power for peaceful purposes were in favour of it.
The old Select Committee also looked at costs. In those days it was a question of the cost of unit output per power station. It was a matter of nuclear against coal against oil. That argument seems to have faded away.
There has been much argument tonight about the exact cost of nuclear power against alternative sources. The hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) confessed that he was a teetotaller. I hope that he never takes to drink. At times his figures seemed extraordinary and extravagant. I was surprised at my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Ennals) because normally he is a fairly balanced and rational Member, with a reputation as a Minister. I could not follow his figures.
From the point of view of the electricity supply authorities, nuclear power is the cheapest mode of production. I have the figures from the 1980–81 report. Electricity from the AGR at Hinkley Point costs 1.45p per kilowatt hour; Magnox is 1–65p; coal is 1.85p—not a great difference—and, as one expects, oil is 2.62p. That is not because there is any inherent merit in nuclear but because the cost of fossil fuels is rising all the time. Therefore, nuclear power, particularly when the stations were built a number of years ago, is cheaper. That fact cannot be denied.
Sometimes I become a little weary with the business of knocking experts. I like the remark of the late Bertrand Russell, that experts can always be wrong but those who have studied a subject and who have had experience in its application are more likely to be right than those who have not done so.
I want to look a little further into the question of cost in a more modern context than that of 1968. That is what the Select Committee did, no longer from the point of view of individual power stations, but looking at nuclear energy as a complementary source of electricity. When I refer to a complementary source of electricity I mean complementary to coal burning. That is of the greatest importance. The point should be well understood. For many years yet to come—well into the next century—the greater part of electricity will come from coal-fired power stations—the CEGB and the Scottish board.
Despite the different costs of station production—which are not much—such are the economics of electricity supply in an inter-connected national grid such as ours that the result comes out reasonably well.
64 Nuclear stations can be kept on a base load while the coal-fired power stations—in which I have worked—which are quicker to run up and down can be used to follow the peak periods more closely.
That is where the comparison with France tends to go wrong. It can be misleading because France has comparatively little coal and still depends enormously on imported oil. Therefore, it requires relatively more nuclear power to balance its hydrogeneration. Hydrogeneration in France fulfils to some extent the same role as coal-fired generation in this country.
In the Select Committee we attempted to answer the main question about the Government's nuclear programme: how much nuclear and how soon? We felt that it was foolish and unrealistic to talk of a programme of 15,000 Mw over 10 years without delving more deeply and critically into the background assumptions, such as capital costs, load forecasting, conservation, and other possible sources that may come along such as the Severn barrage. I served on the Committee on that subject and I am much in favour of it, not just because I am a Bristol Member. We also looked into construction years on site.
On Friday last I took the opportunity to visit that classic of power station delay, Dungeness B. It was some time since I had been in a power station of that size. I did not merely look at it from outside or study diagrams. I went down the ladder which reaches from the height of this Chamber into the very bowels of the reactor—it is not yet radioactive, I am glad to say—and I realised again what enormouss problems engineers and workmen face when constructing a nuclear power station. Thousands of welds have to be made in narrow spaces and great quantities of steel cladding must be put on. I suppose I have the prejudice of an engineer. I sometimes feel that not enough tribute is paid by hon. Members and others who work in comfortable surroundings to those at all levels of responsibility who build power stations and, indeed, any large construction of this type.
It is often asked "Why are there so many delays?" There have been technical problems. Mistakes were made in the past, including the first arrangement of having the same design made by three or four different companies. That was a great blunder, which was pointed out by the Select Committee on Science and Technology in its time and which was later put right. Dungeness B has also had its share of labour troubles, but that is not peculiar to nuclear power stations. The Isle of Grain which is an oilfired power station has had the same difficulties with delays caused by labour disputes. I believe that better systems of payment have now been worked out.
The Select Committee therefore decided that a programme of the size proposed in the statement by the former Secretary of State for Energy in December 1979 was not likely to be fulfilled and that it would be better to say so in the first place. Instead of talking so grandly about programmes, which is misleading, we should order each power station, as we always did, when it is required.
I admit that that conclusion brings us face to face with a manufacturing difficulty if construction is to be mainly by British firms, which is the assumption. Manufacturing concerns cannot easily or profitably collect the necessary able designers, skilled workers or heavy labour unless there is a reasonable certainty of future orders. The problem of how power stations can be built as nearly as possible to exact requirements in such a way that the 65 manufacturing capacity can still be retained will not be fully solved until the Government and industry make up their minds on which reactor type to use.
I blame the Secretary of State for many things, but I do not blame him too much for that. Like so many of his predecessors, he is just a passing phenomenon and will go in due course. As I have said before, there has been a lack of leadership on nuclear questions by Governments, as well as too much quarrelling and too many vested interests of one kind or another within the industry itself. That has been a bad feature of the British nuclear power industry.
A decade ago, I favoured the development of our own water-cooled system—the steam-generating heavy water reactor—and felt that this could be done in concert with the Canadian CANDU reactor, as the system was broadly similar. After an earlier Select Committee had considered the matter, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Varley), then Secretary of State for Energy, decided to be bold and a start was made on the steam-generating heavy water system. A couple of years later, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn), also a member of the same Labour Government, cancelled the programme, saying that it was not practicable and could not be done. In cancelling the steam-generating heavy water reactor, which was the only British water system, at the same time we destroyed all hope of collaboration with Canada.
We cannot go back to that road now, although it is perhaps a great pity that it was not taken at that time. Therefore, I do not agree with other members of the Select Committee that we should look again at CANDU. The question now is whether we continue along the painful but now much better understood route with gas-cooled systems, or move over to the American PWR as the French did some time ago.
The Secretary of State has announced the inquiry and it is right that there should be a delay of 12 months so that everyone can prepare evidence. But if it is to be a genuine inquiry, with no suggestion that the result is arranged or is to come about as the Government and the generating authorities want it in the end, one has to take the risk in the absolute that a pressurised water reactor system for this country may be rejected. In that case, there will be no alternative but to proceed with the AGR, which, in my judgment, will not be the loss that some people suppose.
Broadly, the case for the PWR has rested on the assumption that it is simpler and cheaper and can in part by factory-made. A PWR built to British safety standards, however, will have to work on the British grid at 50 cycles, rather than 60 cycles as in the United States, which makes a considerable difference to various dimensions in the generators. The cost may be significantly different. The Select Committee thought that it might be 34 per cent. more expensive, and the CEGB is prepared to admit an increase of 20 per cent.
As to factory construction of AGRs, I am glad to note that at long last the CEGB and the Scottish boards are being sensible and jointly meeting the cost of the brand new factories which will be needed to make the bits for the two new AGRs at Torness and Heysham. Mr. David Fishlock of the Financial Times, who has already been quoted in the debate, said on 16 November that more of the AGR may soon be made in factories than of the pressurised water reactors, with a further narrowing of the gap in the cost of the two systems.
66 For that reason, I believe that the instincts of those of us who divided the Select Committee—as the hon. Member for Havant and Waterloo knows, we sat until after midnight on one occasion—in favour of recommending further AGR construction at Torness and Heysham were right. In any case, with a Government who preside over the shutting down of factories, I see no strong objection to factories being started up. Developments at Torness and Heysham are critical to employment, particularly on the North-East coast.
What used to be called conservation is now known as demand management. That is perhaps slightly more scientific. The Select Committee is preparing a report on that. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East said at the time of the Secretary of State's announcement of the inquiry that if we all insulated our lofts we would not need a nuclear programme. Unfortunately, I was unable to be present in the House to hear my right hon. Friend, but that is what I read in the newspapers.
My right hon. Friend has had much experience in these matters, but I believe that that is something of a superficial view. It assumes that all space heating is powered by electricity, whereas more and more is served by natural gas. It also assumes that nuclear fission provides a fuel of last resort. Whether we obtain our electricity from coal, oil or nuclear generation or from sun grids, tides, waterfalls or windmills, it is important not to waste it. Therefore, the question of its origin is quite separate from the question of waste. Logically, the two should not be confused.
I intended to say something about safety, but. I shall spare the House those reflections. My union—the Electrical Power Engineers Association—is perhaps closer to the nuclear question than any other comparable body. To a great extent, its members design these stations and certainly supervise their construction and operate them. Therefore, we have every interest in nuclear safety; hon. Members cannot possibly be in the same position of risk if there be one.
In an earlier intervention I said that all the unions, particularly the EPEA, had worked closely with the boards. In fact, I represented my union on the original committee that drew up the safety rules for nuclear power stations.
We were therefore concerned about the Three Mile Island accident and sent a representative to the United States to investigate the matter. We were doubtful whether the operational mistakes made there would have been made under the system for the control of power stations that we have in Britain. We have a far higher level of supervisor on the shift than the Americans, who have tended to skimp.
I appreciate that there could be a nuclear power disaster, but such is the safety system surrounding nuclear power operation that it is highly unlikely. One stands a far greater risk of death on the roads than death from a nuclear accident. Indeed, the greatest single cause of death for young men under the age of 30 is now a road accident.
We must keep these risks in proportion. Life is a fairly dangerous business anyhow. I echo what was said earlier. Judged by experience so far, nuclear technology has proved to be one of the safest technologies ever brought in by mankind.
§ 7.5 pm
§ Mr. T. H. H. Skeet (Bedford)
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer), who is Deputy Chairman of the Select Committee. I pay tribute to the Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Havant and Waterloo (Mr. Lloyd), and the other members of the Committee for bringing some important points before Parliament.
Several years ago, I went to Canada and had a look at the CANDU system. I came to the conclusion that it would not be suitable for the United Kingdom. The heavy water process produces toxic effluent and we would require a heavy water plant to be located somewhere in the United Kingdom, otherwise we would have to import that essential material from Canada. That could lead to difficulties.
When I returned, I made some recommendations to the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Varley), but he took the rather strange course of going for the steam-generated heavy water reactor, which was subsequently abandoned. I urge the Government to continue on the PWR course, which I consider the most satisfactory, and not take the advice of the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) to run down the nuclear programme. The right hon. Gentleman authorised the PWR in 1978. If nuclear power was so fundamental to his philosophy, which I believe to be the case, why did he not resign from the Cabinet on that very date when it took the decision?
Let us compare coal and nuclear power. It is a tragedy that recently there were 40 casualties at the Cardowan colliery. On the other hand, we have not yet had a fatality at a United Kingdom nuclear power station. There is no question about the safety of nuclear plants.
I have three questions. How much nuclear capacity have our competitors? I take France, the United States and the United Kingdom as examples. In 1981, out of total electricity produced in France, 37.6 per cent. was nuclear-generated, 34.8 per cent. coal and oil-generated and 27.4 per cent. hydro-generated. In the United States, the nuclear figure was 11 per cent. and coal and oil 61.6 per cent. The United Kingdom figures for 1980 show that nuclear amounted to only 12.6 per cent., whereas coal and oil was 85.5 per cent.
The lesson to be learnt is that France is now intensely competitive. That threatens the standard of living likely to accrue to us in years ahead, because unless we can compete with our neighbours we shall face great trade problems.
Dr. Sigvard Eklund, the director-general of the IAEA, has indicated that the average lead time in Japan is 61 months, whereas it is 63 in France and 121 in the United States. He failed to calculate the figure for the United Kingdom. He came to the conclusion that it was not surprising that France could produce its electricity at a third the cost of oil-based generation and half the cost of coal plants.
What does it cost to generate power? The hon. Member for Bristol, North-East mentioned several figures about Magnox. At Heysham 1, the cost is 2.59p per kilowatt hour; at Hartlepool it is 2.58p and Hinkley Point B, 1.45p. At Drax 2, it is 3.84p.
Let us look at capital costs. The French have an enormous plan, and are now bringing six units into production every year. Accordingly they have low capital 68 costs that work out at £650 per kilowatt hour as opposed to between £800 and £900 for a PWR in the United Kingdom.
What charge is made to large industrial consumers, based on international electricity tariffs? The cost in France is 4.72 cents per kilowatt hour. These are the figures for April 1981. Those for the United Kingdom are way down at 7.09 cents. Unless we have a large block of nuclear power in the United Kingdom we stand a chance of being outbid by all our competitors, and placed in a dangerous economic situation. Nuclear power is essential to safeguard our future way of life.
The CEGB has not been particularly good at evaluating forecasts in demand, although I admit it has been rather difficult to do this in past years. It is for the Government to ensure that the country's future electricity supplies are available. Because of the long lead times required, a power station cannot be built overnight. If one is wrong in judgment a fundamental error has been made. We need to have competitive costs and we must choose the nuclear route. The ratio of coal and oil stations to nuclear stations in the United Kingdom is rather unfavourable. In 1980, 75.7 per cent. of Britain's electricity was produced from coal, but only 12.6 per cent. by nuclear and 9.8 per cent. by oil. That is too high for coal and the figures should be varied. We should have diversification of supplies.
The importance of the nuclear manufacturing industry probably outweighs all the other factors, as nearly every hon. Member will recognise. If the industry is to be impeded by lack of orders, as it has in the past years, it will go out of existence. We must decide now not what to build—a decision has been taken—but how to keep the stock of personnel together to build the power stations of the future. Many power stations, unfortunately, have not been ordered and therefore completions with not be commissioned until the 1990s. It may be that in the next two or three years there will be a further slump in building, and if the entire British nuclear industry were to go out of business through lack of orders on the home front and because the type of reactors it produced could not be exported it would be death to the industry.
We must have a substantial nuclear response and the development of the commercial uses of plutonium, of which we have 12 tonnes, and of depleted uranium, of which we have 20,000 tonnes. These are both indigenous fuels and are better incinerated in fast reactors than left, even in storage, where difficulties can arise.
We have a nuclear inspectorate that can look into size and safety of nuclear plant in the United Kingdom. I do not mind whether the inquiry takes nine or 10 months—all the issues will be thought out carefully and a decision will be reached. I was in the House when it decided on a Windscale inquiry under the previous Government and remember the speeches made on both sides. It was balanced, there was an inquiry, there were speeches in the House of Commons and the implementation of the policy. This is the right course for the Secretary of State to pursue. It may be that after the next general election we shall have the beginning of a PWR in the United Kingdom and of many more such stations. The adoption of this course would be to the advantage and credit of the United Kingdom.
§ Mr. Skeet
The right hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but he authorised the policy in 1978 for one PWR reactor 69 from 1982. He has reneged on his principles on this point. He may have changed for good reasons but on the other hand many people in the United Kingdom will be grateful that politicians have had the courage to take that decision in our long-term interests.
§ Mr. John Evans (Newton)
Like every other hon. Member tonight, I congratulate the Select Committee on producing a first class report, which I am sure will form part of many debates in the United Kingdom on the future of nuclear power. I note that in his excellent speech the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Havant and Waterloo (Mr. Lloyd), seemed to be disagreeing on some points with his Committee. I am not sure whether he was presenting the Select Committee's version or his own. However, he made one vitally important point when he pleaded that Select Committees should be given a number of days a year when their reports could be presented to the House and debated. I endorse that plea and hope that the Government's business managers will take note of it.
I record my constituency interest in the debate. Over 6,000 workers are employed in the atomic energy industry at Risley in my constituency. Some are working in the northern divisional headquarters of the United Kingdom AEA, some are working in the quarters of BNFL, and some in the part headquarters of the Nuclear Power Company. I hope that one day we can sort out where the headquarters of the Nuclear Power Company, or the NCC as it is to be called, should be established. It would be in the interests of the workers in the industry if someone could arrive at a decision. As long as the headquarters are based at Risley the Minister can rest assured of my support.
I hope that nobody in the House will think that I am advised and pressurised only by people employed in the nuclear power industry, because many hundreds of mineworkers constituents are unemployed in the colliery areas of Parkside, Golborne and Bold. I have plenty of advice from them on the future energy policy of the United Kingdom.
One of the largest coal-fired power stations in the country is at Fiddlers Ferry in my constituency. It is a pity that the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) has left the Chamber. He referred to building coal-fired power stations from which district heating can be supplied, but I shudder to think of the row that would break out if it were suggested that a coal-fired power station the size of Fiddlers Ferry should be built in an urban area. I can assure the House that the row that would arise from that sort of planning application would dwarf into insignificance any other planning inquiry we have ever had. I shall take up the point with the hon. Gentleman on another occasion.
The last time that the House debated the choice of nuclear reactor was in June 1974. I am sure that the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet) will recall that on that occasion the overwhelming majority of the House urged my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Varley) to forget about the PWR and to concentrate on the SGHWR. Nobody could accuse my right hon. Friend of not having listened to the House. The fact that SGHWR was dropped for a number of reasons is a matter of historical record.
70 That was why I was a little astonished to see that the Select Committee recommended that we should reexamine CANDU. I believe that the same arguments which told against the SGHWR would also prevail in the question of CANDU. I was also a little surprised by one or two of the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) in his excellent and powerful speech. As he rightly said, he has more experience than any other Member of the House because of his long experience as a Minister, when he was responsible for nuclear power. He will appreciate that some parts of his speech deviated from party policy. I never regarded Labour Party policies or annual conference decisions as being tablets of stone——
§ Mr. Race
Is my hon. Friend aware of the statement of the national executive committee in February 1980 that the Labour Party supported the warning of the Flowers report and agreed that there should not be a commitment to a major expansion, or even a minor expansion, of the nuclear programme until the significant problem of waste disposal had been dealt with?
§ Mr. Evans
I do not wish to provoke an argument about the structure of the Labour Party. Its annual conference is the supreme body, and on a number of occasions it has given a clear commitment to the continuation of the nuclear power programme. I do not quarrel with my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East for deviating from party policy. I welcome a full and complete debate on all the issues. I hope that my right hon. Friend and some of his friends outside the House will give the same freedom to other members of the Labour Party to debate and call into question some of the policy decisions—as he has rightly done today.
I was astonished to hear my right hon. Friend say that he disagreed with his statement from the Dispatch Box in 1978. I am sure that he will appreciate that Labour Members who were on the Back Benches at that time find that extraordinary. How far does the question of Cabinet responsibility go? Should a former Minister announce at a later date that he did not support the decisions of the Cabinet? I am sure that he will discuss that point with me on a later occasion.
Although today's debate is described as the new nuclear power programme—I question whether that is the right description as there is no nuclear programme—in reality, the House is debating future energy needs and requirements. It is a major mistake to discuss that important issue in a nuclear power versus coal versus oil versus anything else manner. To do so suggests that those areas are competing with each other, and nothing could be further from the truth. The real issue is how we ensure the efficient use of each element in the energy equation in each area of economic activity. How do we rationalise our choice of fuel in each area?
The need for energy conservation is beyond dispute between all political parties. Everything must be done to enhance that programme. I regret that the Government's record in that area is not good. I plead with them to reconsider a relaxation of the regulations on the installation of insulation in homes where there has been some past insulation. I know of many cases, especially those of elderly people, who cannot take advantage of the Government's grant to provide insulation as an effective form of energy conservation because they already have, perhaps, one inch of old, absolutely useless insulation.
71 Another matter beyond dispute is the necessity to continue research into alternative forms of energy such as wind, wave, sun and so on. It is right to examine the efficiency and effectiveness of any possible alternative. We all agree on the necessity to conserve energy and experiment with alternative forms, so we must now turn to the most compelling but often overlooked factor in the issue, namely, the ever diminishing reserves of oil. It is generally accepted that oil will begin to diminish in the 1990s, and disappear from about the 2020s. When I was studying the issue during the weekend, I realised that oil would disappear during the lifetime of my 14-year-old son. That is a frightening prospect for something that we have taken for granted throughout our lifetimes. Once that fact is grasped it follows that coal—of which there are substantial reserves both in Britain and throughout the world—should be regarded as a priceless asset, to be jealously guarded, conserved and used as a substitute for oil when that begins to diminish.
A nuclear power programme is an absolute necessity. It must be the essential and main provider of electricity from about the 1990s onwards, and especially from the turn of the century. The Government's programme envisages a steady and flexible build of nuclear power stations, and I support that. The Government have placed orders for two AGRs—at Heysham and Torness. I support and welcome that. However, the question of cost arises. I understand that the construction companies and suppliers of materials involved in those projects are advertising their costs for plant and machinery for the lifetime of the two AGRs. If we had a longer programme it would affect the write-down costs involved, which would then be reflected in the public costs of the AGR programme.
I part company with the Government in their decision to go ahead with the PWR at Sizewell. I accept that the Government are carrying out decisions taken by the Labour Government in 1978. I assure the Secretary of State that I disagreed violently with my Government in 1978, and in disagreeing with the Government now I am, at least, being consistent. Britain should not further disperse its energy expenditure of scarce resources in another element of nuclear power. We should concentrate on our designs and capabilities. I say that not from any narrow, chauvinistic sentiment, but because the hypercritical factor in the nuclear power debate is that safety is and must remain paramount. I trust that no one will attempt to argue against the fact that the AGR is inherently safer than the PWR.
The last thing that I or any other hon. Member wishes to see is the public losing confidence in the safety factors involved and the safety record of the British atomic energy industry. While I have no need to expand on the safety record, it is germaine for me to make the point that I lost my father in a mining accident. Three years ago, 10 miners at the Golborne colliery in my constituency were burnt to death. There have been no fatalities in the nuclear industry in my constituency. Those of us who work in an industry where death and serious injury are part of our daily life have a duty to underline the incredible safety record of the nuclear power industry. I worked in the shipbuilding and repair industry.
I do not wish nuclear safety and the choice of reactor to be a major issue in a general election, as it has been in other countries. I trust that we can maintain our proud 72 record of the issue not being a partisan affair in a general election. I ask the Secretary of State to reconsider his refusal to countenance Government funding for those who wish to place their objections before the Sizewell inquiry into the PWR. If he does not accept the necessity to provide reasonable funds for the objectors, he can rest assured that those who feel that they were denied the right to put their case because of lack of funds will ensure that it becomes a matter of public debate in a general election.
It is in the interests of British industry, the nuclear industry and the construction industry, and in the interests of British public life, that every objector should have the absolute right to ensure that his case is heard. Where necessary, skilled legal advice should be available to him and to his group to present their case.
I believe that we should concentrate our resources in an AGR programme and at the same time continue our development into the fast-breeder reactor to take over at the turn of the century. Too often in the past Britain has made the wrong decisions in nuclear power, often to the despair of the many thousands of men and women who work in the industry. I submit that the PWR would be another wrong decision. That is why I support all those hon. Members who have stressed how essential it is that, once Sir Frank Layfield has concluded his report on the investigation into the PWR, it should then be brought before this House for debate and final decision.
§ Mr. John Watson (Skipton)
I understand that there is in Leeds a magistrate who recently peered over his glasses at one unfortunate accused in the dock and uttered the immortal words "I do not know whether you are guilty or not. There is an element of doubt in your case but you are not getting the benefit of it. I am sending you to prison for six months. If you are guilty you have got off lightly; if you are innocent, let it be a lesson to you."
The whole of the nuclear debate seems to be one of polarity in just such a sense. It is very difficult to take a middle view in the nuclear debate. Once we start telling people that we are in favour of nuclear power but we are not exactly in favour of a £15 billion investment programme over the next 10 years, people in the industry say that we do not completely understand the economics, that we have not the courage of our convictions, that we have been nobbled by the environmentalists, and so on.
If, on the other hand, we have one or two reservations about the concept of nuclear power, but those reservations are not related to questions of safety or waste, people who might broadly be called environmentalists say that we are in the pocket of the industry and that we have been listening too long to vested interests.
As so often in life, it is a lonely life to pursue a centre course. Incidentally, I think that we all regret that there has not been an opportunity in the debate to have the pleasure of hearing the official energy spokesman of the Social Democratic Party, the right hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Mahon). It would have been illuminating to hear the official views of that party on nuclear power. In the right hon. Member's absence I think we can safely assume that they will be consanguineous with those of the Liberal Party, whose views were so graphically expressed earlier in this debate.
I was a member of the Select Committee and I should like to mention one or two of the thoughts that went through my mind as the evidence was being presented.
73 Many people presented evidence to us that was simply against the concept of nuclear power. I confess that I found such evidence difficult to digest. Some people said that nuclear power was endemically unsafe. Frankly, I was not able to accept that view. I was sure that nuclear power could be unsafe, but I was similarly sure that, given a moderate amount of investment, nuclear power could be made adequately safe for all our normal generating needs. It would add some cost and I suppose that the point could arise where the additional cost of safety would put the competitiveness of nuclear power into doubt. However, I think that we are a long way short of that mark.
When I compare the environmental hazards of generating electricity through the continued burning of hydrocarbons, I cannot understand why there is not a powerful environmental lobby campaigning in favour of nuclear power. We should remember the stuff that a coal-fired power station emits, not just in the form of soot and other particulates, but in the form of sulphur dioxide, causing acid rain in Scandinavia. We have doubled the amount of carbon dioxide in the world's atmosphere in the past 100 years and still have no clear understanding as to what the effect of that will be. Moreover, many existing coal-fired power stations that are fired by hydrocarbons produce so much radioactive discharge that, if they were now to apply for an operating licence as a nuclear power station, they probably would not get one, on the basis of the existing radioactive discharge.
For those reasons, I did not find that the safety argument, so frequently and so loudly expressed, had much depth Others had anxieties on the grounds of waste, waste disposal and the transport of waste. I must acknowledge that that is a continuing problem, but having investigated—at least in a constituency sense—the problems of transporting nuclear waste and spent fuel rods, I did not find that to be an insuperable problem. I believe that the technology of waste disposal, as it currently exists, is already sufficient to satisfy that problem.
More important were those who criticised the nuclear power programme on the grounds that there was already an excess of supply of electricity generating capacity over the demand for it. They certainly had a case, for there is a large degree of surplus capacity in the English and Welsh electricity generating industry—a degree of overcapacity that is exceeded in Scotland. That may not be a magnificent testament for the investment judgments of the past, but I found myself wondering about the relevance of that argument to the economics of nuclear power.
The essential thrust of the evidence given to the Select Committee was that we needed nuclear power stations not because of their additional capacity but because that kind of electricity was potentially cheaper. There was a great deal of evidence on that question. We were able to knead that evidence for meaning and I found it to be genuine. It is a similar argument to that which now prevails in the aircraft industry.
Many airline operators throughout the world are flying jumbo jets with jet engines that are perfectly efficient and perfectly modern but so hungry for aircraft fuel that it is now worth while taking those engines off the wings—even though there is apparently plenty of life left in them—and replacing them with more modern engines that are so much more efficient that the fuel savings enable the whole deal 74 to be worth while financially. I thought that that same argument, applied to the electricity industry, was of considerable weight.
Some people who gave evidence to us felt that nuclear power would not prove to be cheaper. Mr. Charles Komanoff gave plausible evidence to that effect, but once we examined the figures upon which his case was based it did not seem to have much reason behind it.
My conclusion was that there were no barriers to investment in nuclear power on the grounds of safety anxieties, waste, present surplus capacity, or even that it was not cheaper. I was cheerfully prepared to allow that investment in nuclear power is likely to be a good investment, but the question is not whether it is a good investment. The question is whether in all the circumstances it is the best investment; and not just best in comparison with other forms of electricity generation, but whether £15,000 million of British money spent over the next 10 years on electricity generation is likely to be the wisest form of arrogation of a rather scarce capital resource. That was where I began to have my doubts.
Some investment in nuclear power can be justified on the basis of the net systems saving argument that I have mentioned, but whether £15 billion can thereby be justified is far more questionable. It is a massive sum. Many hon. Members express anxieties in this House about the investment of £80 million of taxpayers' money in the De Lorean car project. We are talking here about 190 times as much as the money that is currently being invested, on behalf of the British taxpayer, in the De Lorean company.
For those reasons, we have to ask whether there are any other candidates available—possibly quite apart from electricity generation—which might be better candidates for that kind of investment. There probably are.
The first that springs to mind, which is again related to energy, is that of conservation. Just 10 per cent. of the so-called nuclear power programme of £15 billion, amounts to £1½billion. That works out at £70 per household in the United Kingdom. I have little doubt that if every householder in the United Kingdom were told "Here is a voucher worth £70; you must spend it on insulating your home to a higher standard" we could thereby save more electricity consumption than through the investment of £ 1½billion in extra capacity. To a limited degree, that should take first priority as a candidate for investment cash.
Secondly, what about the needs of industry? Many people have said during the debate and before that, to be competitive, British industry must pay competitive prices for its energy. But are we to give British industry an open-ended cheque for its energy needs? Some industries are energy intensive, but they are relatively rare. The majority of British industries have an energy bill that is less than 4 per cent. of their added value. Perhaps a major power programme on these lines would significantly reduce electricity costs in Britain. If it does so, I suppose that it is safe to assume that industry's electricity bills could fall from 4 per cent. of added value to 3 per cent. of added value. But if that is the only benefit, if we are giving to British industry only 1 per cent. of added value, we must ask whether it is worth while since the total amount of money is £15 billion. That can be examined in two ways.
First, if that £15 billion were taken out of the economy to invest in nuclear power generating capacity, it is difficult to imagine that the arrogation of that cash could have anything other than an upward effect on interest rates over the next 10 years. The cost to industry of the higher 75 interest rates could be greater than the benefits to industry of the lower electricity costs. Secondly, if we were to say that all the benefits of this nuclear investment programme were to fall upon industry, the cost of the programme would come to £1,300 per employee in manufacturing industry in Britain. Most managers who were offered the choice of either a reduction in energy bills or £1,300 per employee to invest in conservation or new machinery would have a superior home for that investment cash and would not wish the energy investment programme to go ahead on such a scale.
What about other opportunities that are unrelated to industry and energy? According to the Treasury computer, we know that if we were to invest £500 million on an infrastructure programme of sewers and roads that would immediately produce 30,000 jobs and, indirectly, 40,000 jobs. The gross cost of £500 million would feed through to the public sector borrowing requirement with a net cost of only £150 million. The volume of our expenditure on sewers and roads is now 38 per cent. of what it was 10 years ago. The maintenance cost of the antiquated sewers in the North would produce a saving at least as great as the net system savings projected by investment in the nuclear power programme. That is another possible candidate.
If we decide to invest extremely heavily in nuclear power—and I believe that 15,000 MW over the next 10 years represents a heavy investment—we shall expose ourselves to some risk that the costs may escalate. I give as an example Washington State in America. Ten years ago it was decided that five nuclear power stations were needed. At that time the cost was estimated at $4 billion. The estimated cost now of those five nuclear power stations is $100 billion. That is 10 times the total cost of the American space shuttle programme. The cost has escalated because of increasing environmental pressures, increasing safety requirements, bad industrial relations and bad structural workmanship on the five stations. We cannot say with certainty that we would be completely immune from such problems in the United Kingdom.
In the State of Oregon, there is a village with the appropriate name of Drain. There are 623 power users in that village. Their commitment now to nuclear power is so great that the village is $4½ million in debt because of its commitment to the Washington nuclear power programme. That means that each of the power users has incurred a debt of $7,500. That programme has got out of control. I am reasonably certain that that could not happen in the United Kingdom but we must concede that it is a risk.
My conclusion from those examples is that we need some nuclear power. Perhaps between now and the end of the century we shall need, to start, 15,000 MW of nuclear power. I doubt whether we are likely to need the scale of programme envisaged in the Secretary of State's statement to the House two years ago. My guess—it is no more than that—is that we may need 7,000 MW or 8,000 MW of additional capacity provided by nuclear means rather than the 15,000 MW referred to.
As to the consequence of reactor choice, if over the next 10 years we are no longer talking about 12 or 15 nuclear power stations but about five or six, that cannot form a realistic basis for a United Kingdom manufacturing base for a nuclear power programme. That means that the nuclear steam supply system would have to be of the PWR 76 variety. The option of the advanced gas cooled reactor that we have so slavishly kept open is perhaps an option we can no longer afford.
For all those reasons, I hope that the report can be welcomed. It sounds a cautious note, but I think that it is wise to do that. At the very worst, we shall be able to look back on the report and say that it is a report that has made us examine our sums to ensure that our general direction is right. At best, in 20 years' time, we may be able to look back at the report and thank the Lord for it because it may have saved us from investing on a scale that would be a financial embarrassment in the years to come.
§ Mr. David Stoddart (Swindon)
Like the hon. Member for Skipton (Mr. Watson), I was a member of the Select Committee. I pay tribute to the leadership of the hon. Member for Havant and Waterloo (Mr. Lloyd), although I do not necessarily agree with some of the private views that he expressed today. Nevertheless, he gave good leadership to the Committee in a difficult task involving a very technical investigation of a subject that has exercised people's minds for a long time.
Like the hon. Member for Skipton, I heard people whom he described as "endemically against nuclear power." It is only fair to say that I also heard people who were endemically for nuclear power and were quite prepared to brush aside cost aspects and, in some cases, safety aspects in pursuit of their particular line of thought. I found the experience of serving on the Select Committee of great interest. The Select Committee has done a service to the House and to the country. Its report was reasonable, well documented and well researched. We saw a good many witnesses and we produced a balanced and reasonable report. Unfortunately, some commentators and some people who should know better and who, perhaps, had not even read the report did not appear to think so. I regretted particularly the reactions of the chairman of the Central Electricity Generating Board.
I am glad that the Secretary of State made clear in his opening remarks that he did not share the views of the chairman of the CEGB. Mr. England, who is normally a pleasant and reasonable fellow, became most arrogant when the report was published. He launched a scurrilous attack on the Select Committee, accusing it of failing, after a year's work, to understand the nation's nuclear strategy, of misrepresenting the nuclear debate and of doing a great disservice to Select Committees in general. Any reasonable, detached person reading our report could hardly make such an accusation. Throughout this debate, and also in many parts of the press and the country, the Select Committee report has been welcomed as a balanced report. That is not what Mr. England says. He believes that we have misrepresented and misunderstood the situation. Indeed, he has gone further. In a recent letter to the Select Committee, he has accused its members of giving comfort to the anti-nuclear lobby.
There is nothing anti-nuclear in the report. I am a great sceptic about nuclear power, but I am not anti-nuclear. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, I took part in the Aldermaston marches under a banner that proclaimed "Atoms for peace". I have not forgotten that aim. If we can have atoms for peace that are efficient and safe, we must invest in them. Those two points, especially the latter, must be borne very much in mind. Until we have satisfied ourselves that we can transport and store safely, over a 77 long period, high level atomic wastes, it is right for the Select Committee and for the House to draw attention to the dangers that exist.
We are aware that some of the long-term wastes will take thousands of years to degenerate to a level where they are no longer a danger to the public. Can anyone be certain that this country will still have the same sort of civilisation in 500 years. let alone 1,000 years? The Secretary of State and the Department do not yet know how they will store long-term wastes. They do not know whether the wastes will be stored underground or above ground. They have recently said so. Hon. Members serving on the Select Committee were informed that there was no problem. There would: be vitrification. The wastes would be stored in safe terrain underground. However, ideas have changed in the time between publication of the report and our debate today. No one can therefore say that we are antinuclear. We are not. We want, however, to be sure, before embarking on any further large-scale nuclear development, about costs and safety.
I have one further remark to make to Mr. England and to the Government, as the Government already know. The Secretary of State is to be commended for the mention he has made of the Select Committee. It is not, however, the Select Committee's job either to rubber stamp Government policy or to provide a whitewash to cover the incompetence of the CEGB. The task of hon. Members is to draw the attention of the public to relevant matters. That is what we have done.
§ Mr. Leadbitter
My hon. Friend has referred to the CEGB and its chairman's comments. Will he confirm that I am correct in saying that, in the first session of our examination of the nuclear programme, Mr. England and certain CEGB witnesses refrained from, or omitted, reporting to us that there had been a change in the demand energy projections and the lower base and that even at that time they were downgrading the lowest based calculations and they therefore seriously misled the Select Committee?
§ Mr. Stoddart
My hon. Friend anticipates my next remark. The Select Committee was entitled to be angry over its treatment, in the first instance, by the CEGB. The estimates of demand given to us by the CEGB in the first place were downgraded by 7 per cent. within three weeks. That might not sound a large figure to hon. Members. But the 7 per cent. downgrading in the demand estimates is equivalent to three 1,200 MW power stations costing £1,400 million each.
The 7 per cent. downgrading was therefore very relevant. It involved a capital expenditure of about £4,000 million. Mr. England properly made the point that construction timetables make forward forecasts difficult. But the CEGB had not moved fast enough to revise its demand estimates in the light of new circumstances which should have been known to that body. It is the CEGB's duty to know that. It must have known that by 1973 power investment in industry had literally been completed.
The CEGB must have realised, following the oil crisis of 1973, that activity in our economy would tend to decline. It has declined very quickly. The board should therefore have been in a good position to revise its demand estimates. That it did not do so is a condemnation of itself and the methods it used for estimating future demand. I hope that the CEGB, as a result of the Select Committee's report, will look again at the methods it uses for estimating future demand.
78 Another matter investigated was the issue of spare capacity. My guess is that most hon. Members before entering upon that inquiry did not have much idea how much capacity the board had at its disposal, let alone the amount of spare capacity. I had worked previously in the electricity supply industry and therefore had some notion. However, when I learnt that the CEGB had a planning margin of 28 per cent., I became very worried. In my view, that was far too much and represented a waste of the country's resources.
I was concerned about that, but when we examined the South of Scotland Electricity Board we found that. before Invercape was even completed, the board had spare capacity of 73 per cent. I was horrified and concerned about the waste of resources that was taking place in the whole of the electricity supply industry. Indeed, the Committee rocked back on its heels when it heard those figures, and rightly so. It was its duty to draw the matter to the attention of the House, and that it has done in the report.
Mr. David Fishlock was mentioned this afternoon. He wrote an odious article in the Financial Times in which he accused the highly qualified and sincere people of high integrity whom the Committee was fortunate enough to have as advisers of being "bought". That was a disgraceful allegation. The Chairman of the Select Committee has already dealt with that allegation, and I agree with him that our advisers were people of the highest integrity and gave the Committee a great deal of help. I myself am most grateful to them. Mr. Fishlock made the breath-taking claim in his article that planning margins must be a matter for fine engineering judgment and are no concern of politicians. Nevertheless, in 1977, when demand was roughly equivalent to 1980, the planning margin was only 20 per cent. However, Mr. Fishlock says that that is no concern of politicians.
The difference between 28 per cent. and 20 per cent. represents £6,000 million, because the difference between 20 per cent. and 28 per cent. is five nuclear power stations. Nevertheless, he says that politicians are not to be concerned about that. If we are not to be concerned with the expenditure of public money on this scale, what on earth are we here for? It is just the sort of matter that should concern us, and I am glad and proud that the Committee did concern itself and brought the matter to the House's attention in its report.
In considering this nuclear power programme of 15 GW, we should bear in mind that, between now and 1985, a further 11,000 MW of generating capacity will be added to the 56,000 MW that we already have. The planning margin will go on escalating. Certainly, if we go on with this programme, we shall have so much power that we shall not know what to do with it.
The Chairman said that nuclear reactor choice was not a matter for the Committee, and we made no choice. However, I shall say a few words about the reactors that we saw and that have been under discussion today. We examined the AGR, the PWR and the CANDU. The Committee visited the United States, France, Germany and Canada. While we were in the United States, we looked at a PWR that was under construction, one that was in operation, and one that had gone wrong. The PWR had gone wrong in circumstances that the citizens of Harrisburg had been assured by the authority could not happen. The accident that the authorities told the residents could not happen did happen. That, of course, is the great 79 danger. While we were at Harrisburg, we learnt that many people had left the area never to return because they were too frightened. We learnt of people who were desperate to get out of the area because they feared another Three Mile Island accident. We heard of the decrease in property values following the accident. I was concerned about the accident at Three Mile Island which, in my view, was more serious—not less serious—than was originally thought. That reactor is still closed down. Let us not forget that. Since then, two further reactors have been closed down because of safety problems.
In talking about the PWR, I wonder whether we have been taken for a ride by the vested interests. It is interesting that there have been no reactor orders in the United States for about five years, and—even more serious—reactor orders for the PWR are being cancelled all over the place. In Washington State, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Skipton (Mr. Watson), orders have been cancelled because costs escalated four times above the original estimate. So we are right to have doubts about the PWR, and we are right to have doubts about safety and cost.
I am amazed that only four days ago the CEGB sent to each Member of Parliament—certainly to me—a huge document, which must have been extremely costly to produce, justifying the AGR on the ground of safety and saying what a wonderful reactor it was. Yet it wants to go for a PWR that has not been proved to be the safest, and certainly is not proving to be the cheapest. Apart from that, we learnt about the possible cracks in the pressure vessels—the brittling of the pressure vessels over a long period due to radioactivity—and what would happen if they were suddenly drenched with cold water. Certainly, I was convinced that it was not the sort of reactor that we should introduce into this country.
Now I shall say a word about my own reservations about the reactor. I sincerely hope that the Government will think long and hard on the matter, although of course the inquiry is to take place before a decision is made.
The report that we are discussing is a long one. I should like to have spoken longer, but I realise that many other hon. Members wish to speak, so I shall be brief in my concluding comments. First, I want to refer to the CANDU reactor, and confirm what the Chairman said. We found that Ontario Hydro and the Canadian authorities were absolutely superb. The CANDU reactor is the most efficient, and also very safe. Moreover, it has a flexibility which neither the PWR nor the AGR possesses. The CANDU is capable of burning unenriched fuel. It is capable of onload refueling. The pressure tubes can be replaced while the reactor continues to work. It can burn thorium rather than uranium. What is more, it can be a near breeder reactor. The CANDU has virtually everything that we want, and we cannot understand why the Government have not taken on board the Select Committee's suggestion that they should make a further in-depth evaluation of the CANDU.
If the Government really want to diversify and to get away from the AGR, why do not they, even at this late stage, accept the Committee's advice and consider the CANDU reactor? If they did, I am sure that they would be as impressed as the Committee was.
With the nuclear power programme that the Government have in mind they are completely on the 80 wrong track. We have a surplus of generating capacity for a long period ahead. There is no imminent urgency about the decision to go ahead with further nuclear reactors. The Government should use this time to re-evaluate their energy and power policy. Instead of spending huge sums of money on large power stations, they should use the money for conservation and for building smaller power stations in conjunction with combined heat and power schemes. If they really want to save energy and to go ahead with a modern forward-looking energy saving policy, that is the route that they will take. They will use public money far more wisely and to much greater effect. What is more, they will not only cheapen the cost of electricity, they will cheapen the cost of energy and heat generally to the people. I hope sincerely that the Government will take those matters aboard.
§ Mr. John Home Robertson (Berwick and East Lothian)
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Swindon (Mr. Stoddart), I intend to refer to the over-capacity of generating in the south of Scotland. I also want to discuss the Torness AGR station which is at present under construction in my constituency.
All those hon. Members who would like to refer to the substantial parts of the Select Committee's report relating to the south of Scotland and to the Scottish Office are at a considerable disadvantage because neither the Secretary of State for Scotland, his junior Ministers, nor any Scottish Tory Back Bencher has seen fit to put in an appearance in the debate. I appreciate that it is not the fault of the Under-Secretary of State for Energy that his colleagues in the Scottish Office are so incompetent, but I shall be grateful if the hon. Gentleman will let the House know how the Scottish Office is to be appraised of the views expressed in the debate, because it ought to be.
There have been endless arguments about the safety, the economics and the planning of the Torness AGR project. The scaremongering of the anti-nuclear lobby has been aptly matched by the complacency of successive Governments and of the South of Scotland Electricity Board about patently over-optimistic electricity consumption projections in the south of Scotland.
Having alienated both lobbies with those few words, perhaps I may proceed to express my own feelings fearlessly and regardless of the consequences.
Our public decision-making process with respect to nuclear power stations—and, for that matter, other power stations—leaves a great deal to be desired. It seems impossible for the general public, local authorities or Members of Parliament to form an intelligent opinion about whether to build a nuclear power station when the only information available to them comes from highly motivated pressure groups in the electricity supply industry, which appears to be heavily influenced by plant manufacturers on one hand, and from the extreme antinuclear lobby, which sometimes exaggerates nuclear dangers while overlooking the far greater perils of coal mining, on the other hand. Hon. Members have referred already to the way that we were reminded of the perils of coal mining only last week with the serious accident at Cardowan colliery in Lanarkshire.
I was elected to the House at a by-election in 1978. Both then and at the subsequent general election I came under enormous pressure from both sides of the nuclear argument on the subject of Torness. Having obtained such 81 information as I could get from official sources, I assumed that no responsible public agency could be sufficiently perverse as to want to spend £1,100 on generating capacity that was not yet needed. Therefore, since a new station was to be built It in the south of Scotland area, I welcomed the jobs that would be created by going ahead with the Torness power station in the eastern area of East Lothian. At the same time, in view of the fact that there was such widespread public concern in the area, especially about safety and the disposal and transportation of nuclear waste, I also called for a full-scale inquiry by Members of Parliament into the Government's nuclear programme. Both I and my constituents are greatly indebted to the Select Committee on Energy for conducting its investigation and for publishing its report.
In view of our experiences at Torness, I welcome the Committee's recommendation that there should be far more wide-reaching official public scrutiny of future nuclear projects. There seems to be no case to support the Government's proposal to build eight PWRs between now and 1990 on grounds of either reactor safety or economic need. But if the programme is to go ahead, there should at least be far more public scrutiny and a more effective and acceptable form of public inquiry than we had in East Lothian in respect of Torness.
We are still left with the AGR stations already under construction at Torness and at Heysham. The Select Committee's report says in paragraph 117 that there was undoubtedly a case for not ordering the two AGR stations at Heysham and Torness, and I see from the proceedings of the Select Committee that the Committee came within one vote of phrasing that paragraph far more harshly. So, clearly, there are problems that ought to have been taken more fully into account in that respect.
The report seems to confirm the impression that the safety risks of AGRs have been overstated by the opponents of nuclear power. But it also confirms everyone's worst fears about the excessive margin of generating capacity over reasonable projections of power consumption.
In passing, I should stress that the excessive plant margin has been exaggerated and distorted by the fact that the disastrous economic policies of the present Government have aggravated the effects of the world slump to such an extent that there was a reduction of 4.1 per cent. in sales of electricity by the SSEB in 1981 compared with an increase of 4 per cent. that was projected only a few years ago.
It stands to reason that the commissioning of new generating plant and falling demand must pose very serious questions for the electricity supply industry. I have a very strong constituency interest in the industry, as there is in my constituency a 1,200 MW coal-burning power station at Cockenzie which burns virtually the whole output of two coal mines at Monktonhall and Bilston Glen, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie), as well as coal from a nearby opencast site at Blindwells.
The power station employs 600 people. The two collieries employ more than 4,000 miners. It follows, therefore, that Cockenzie power station accounts directly for the employment of nearly 5,000 people and is of enormous economic importance to the north-west corner of my constituency. As well as Cockenzie, there is a 1,300 MW AGR station under construction at Torness, which is supposed to be commissioned in 1987. In the long term, 82 Torness should employ 600 people, but at present 1,000 local people are employed on construction at Torness, as well as 1,700 outsiders. I warn those hon. Members who foresee the construction of nuclear power stations in their constituencies that the electricity generating boards are inclined to make bland promises about the enormous benefits of employment on construction work. My constituents are far from satisfied, because a low proportion of the work force has been recruited locally and many people have been brought in from outside. This comes at a time when East Lothian has a high proportion of unemployed construction workers.
Cockenzie contributes 1,200 MW to the South of Scotland Electricity Board's total generating capacity of 7,826 MW. The eventual commissioning of Torness will bring our local generating capacity to 2,500 MW, which is more than 27 per cent. of the SSEB's total capacity. It follows that many of my constituents—miners, power station employees and construction workers—depend heavily on the use of that electricity generating capacity in East Lothian.
This year, three major threats hang over the use of that generating capacity. First, I refer to the dead hand of the Government on our industrial economy. A further drop in electricity consumption must be on the cards, not least because of the over-pricing of electricity. Secondly, East Lothian is affected by the recent calamity at Invergordon, where the Government have allowed the aluminium smelter to close. Apart from the disastrous social consequences for Easter Ross, about 260 MW of capacity at Hunterston B—which was earmarked for the smelter—are going spare. Thirdly, electricity generation in East Lothian is threatened by the commissioning of a 300 MW unit at Peterhead, which will burn cheap waste gas from North Sea oil production for the next two or three years until the Moss Morran gas plant is completed.
I have explained that the SSEB has a generating capacity in excess of 9,000 MW. However, last month we were told that it had just recorded an all-time record in peak demand during the arctic conditions of the first fortnight this year. That peak was 4,717 MW. On that basis, it looks as if the commissioning of Torness will give us more than 100 per cent. excess capacity over maximum imaginable peak demand. That is far more than the 28 percent. safety margin thought acceptable by the generating boards and which, in itself, is far more than the Select Committee regarded as reasonable.
That figure becomes even more disturbing if the Invergordon and Peterhead factors are taken into account, with 260 MW of lost sales at Invergordon and 300 MW of new capacity at Peterhead. Under those circumstances, the SSEB's overcapacity could become intolerable. Power stations come under threat, not to mention the coal mines that supply them.
It did nothing for my confidence to learn that the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, who is supposed to be responsible for industry, met the chairman of the SSEB last Friday. The Under-Secretary the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North (Mr. Fletcher) has come to be known as the death-watch beetle of Scottish industry. Many of us fear that that meeting could forebode much for coal-burning power stations in Scotland.
I hope that I am wrong about the situation. However, it seems to be the only way of interpreting the Government's policy on electricity supplies in Scotland. If the Government intend to commission more and more 83 nuclear power stations and to discourage industry from using that generating potential, only one conclusion can be drawn—that conventional coal-burning power stations, such as Cockenzie, will have to be sacrificed.
That state of affairs is tragic for three reasons. First, it is tragic for industry, which should be encouraged to use power and to create goods, wealth and jobs. Secondly, it is tragic for domestic consumers, who need heat, but too often cannot afford to use it. There was dramatic evidence of that only last month, during the cold weather, when we were told that 700 people—mostly old people, or pensioners—were dying every day from hypothermia. Thirdly, it is tragic for the power industry, because its enormous potential is being wasted and its future may be threatened.
Obviously, I shall not join those who wish to halt the construction of Torness, because the contract is irreversible and there are 2,700 jobs in my constituency that I should not want to lose. However, it will be hard to justify the commissioning of Torness when it has been completed unless the Government decide to close coal-burning units. If that is the Government's intention, I tell them here and now that any such proposal would be a criminal waste of our human and natural resources and would be fiercely resisted in the House and in the coalfields of Scotland.
The extremely valuable Select Committee report must be seen against the background of the Government's depressingly negative attitude to our industrial prospects. They seem to regard our major industries and services as liabilities, which should be written off as soon as the opportunity arises. There is an endless list of the casualties that Scotland has experienced—the pulp mill at Corpach, the smelter at Invergordon and now tractor manufacturing is threatened at Bathgate, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell). So the list continues. Too much of our human, natural and industrial resources are being allowed to go to waste by this disastrous Government, A responsible Government should look at those industries and at our electricity generating capacity not as liabilities, but as potential wealth-creating assets.
§ Mr. Home Robertson
As long as my hon. Friend is fighting battles, they are unlikely to be lost, as many of us discovered—to our cost—on the devolution issue. We should encourage industrialists to use our electricity resources, if necessary by subsidising electricity. No Government would be daft enough to run down the agriculture industry if consumers could not afford to buy food. That is the type of policy advocated in Poland. Just as we are prepared to subsidise food, we should be prepared to subsidise energy more to encourage its use where this desirable.
For example, if there is a short-term bonus of cheap gas-generated power at Peterhead, we should offer that power as an incentive for potential operators of the Invergordon smelter instead of playing havoc with coal burning in the south of Scotland. That would give us the best of both worlds. It would save jobs at Invergordon and keep Cockenzie power station in my constituency busy.
We could work our way out of the recession by taking advantage of our energy resources and by encouraging the 84 use of electric power in the creation of jobs. Such a positive strategy of energy exploitation could make the best of a balanced energy policy, which should combine coal, gas, oil, nuclear power and energy conservation. Failure to adopt such constructive policies will be disastrous for the country and, particularly, for my constituency.
§ Mr. Gordon Wilson (Dundee, East)
I share the concern of the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) about the absence of Scottish Office Ministers. No doubt they will be able to read the text of the debate and study the remarks of individual hon. Members, but unfortunately we shall not have the advantage of any advice that they might have been able to give the Under-Secretary of State, who is to reply, in response to the trenchant and scathing criticisms set out in the Select Committee's report.
I welcome the Select Committee's report. It is interesting and it blows substantial holes in the case for the nuclear power industry. Some of the speeches that we have heard from hon. Members who were members of the Select Committee do not represent the report as I read it. The report concentrated on the economic aspects of nuclear power and did not advance any convincing arguments in favour of that form of energy.
There is substantial criticism of the two Scottish electricity boards. The way in which they have conducted their estimates over the years shows that they have been on a course of disaster. The Government adopted the 15 GW policy and they are now to take it on board in a more flexible manner. They would do well to consider the way in which electricity generation in Scotland has developed a huge over-capacity.
The Select Committee criticised the CEGB for its 28 per cent. margin. In 1979–80 the South of Scotland Electricity Board had an over-capacity of 73 per cent. On 26 May 1978 I received a letter from the chairman of the board in which he stated that the board's intention was to go for a 25 per cent. margin. It seems that the board's planning has gone sadly awry in the four years since 1978. If the Government exercise no control over the boards and the mania that they seem to have for nuclear power, the same scale of over-capacity, or something like it, could develop in England as well.
This winter demand surged to 6,354 MW compared with a peak of 4,717 in 1981. However, the over-capacity in the Scottish system was still about 40 per cent. That was on the coldest day of the winter so far, and probably the coldest day for many a decade. That over-capacity has to be paid for by consumers. The Carolina Port B power station in Dundee, which is oil fired, is under sentence of death and two out of the three generation sets at Inverkip power station are not in use.
In page 21 of its report the Select Committee sets out the likely demand for power and the trends seem to be pessimistic. Price increases, the depressed state of the economy and many other factors seem to be putting a brake on demand. The Committee says that investment in conservation could be similarly attractive. In view of the high capital cost, the economic case for new generating capacity, especially nuclear plants, must be persuasive if it is to justify the dedication of national resources on such a large scale.
85 The evidence suggests that it is a fallacy that the electricity market will turn up. As the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian said, electricity is an expensive fuel. Many people cannot afford to buy it, and with the unemployment and poverty that unfortunately are growing in our communities there is little sign that people will be able in the near future to change their patterns of consumption. There is no sign of industrial growth in Scotland—if anything, the trend is otherwise.
If the analyses of the Select Committee are correct, the two Scottish electricity boards will have to face a severe problem. It appears that 84 per cent. of the South of Scotland Electricity Board's thermal capacity is only 15 years old or less. That means that any power stations that are closed now will involve writing off huge sums of public capital which would have been better devoted to other purposes. It is a great pity that the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North (Mr. Fletcher), is not in his place.
§ Mr. Wilson
In Committee the hon. Gentleman drew attention to the over-capacity that is developing in Scotland. It is a pity that he is not in the Chamber to impress upon the Government the folly of their nuclear strategy.
I have found a blindness among the electricity boards about the nuclear option. There has been a lack of independent analysis of the position and the problem that could develop in Scotland is a huge over-capacity that cannot easily be wiped out except at the expense, I suspect, of the coal-fired power stations, which in turn will mean fewer jobs for miners.
It is a matter for shame that a Scottish Office representative is not here. I was present at the hearing at which the Scottish Office and the SSEB gave evidence to the Select Committee, although I was not a member of that Committee. As a Scot, I believe that the very poor way in which the case was presented by both bodies was a disgrace. Further, 1 cannot understand, given the facts that have emerged during the past three or four years, why the Government have gone ahead with the Torness power station. There has been over-confidence, muddle and negligence. When I heard the evidence that had been given, I added the word "incompetence" to my description of the way in which the Scottish Office had approached the matter.
If one studies pages 23 and 24 of the report and some other paragraphs on pages 40 and 55, one can see the sound reason, why the Torness power plant should not have been built. A few months ago, it was clear that the SSEB had jumped the gun in order to place the contracts for generating equipment. The idea had formed in my mind that perhaps nothing very much could be done at that stage. However, having now seen the effect of Torness going on stream in the 1990s and the effect of the fall in consumption because of the loss of the Invergordon smelter, I am beginning to wonder whether the Government, even at this late stage, might not find it economically advisable to mothball the power station under construction at Torness in order to keep some of the other plants open. If not, we shall be heading for an expenditure of £1.2 billion on a power station for which there will be no need.
The cost of hydroelectricity now is about 0.7p per unit. If one considers an article in the Review of Potential 86 Hydroelectric Development in the Scottish Highlands, an article in Electronics and Power of May 1979, and the Mackenzie report of 1962, it would appear that about 400 MW of hydroelectric power will be available if certain programmes are to go ahead. That sort of power development would be a help to the smelter at Invergordon. It would add cheap power to the cost of electricity instead of nuclear power, which is extremely expensive.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)
Order. I understand that the wind-up speeches will begin at 9 o'clock. Three hon. Members have been waiting all afternoon and evening hoping to take part in the debate. If they keep their speeches to about seven minutes each, all will be able to speak.
§ Mr. Robin F. Cook (Edinburgh, Central)
I shall endeavour to meet the timetable that you have imposed upon me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, although it is difficult to do so, having sat through the debate and having heard many speeches that tempt me to go on for much longer than seven minutes.
I am happy to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) and the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson). I shall round off the brief Scots corner of the debate. I also wish to address my remarks to the paragraph in the report that points out that there was a case for not ordering two AGRs at the end of the 1970s. Some of us argued that case at the time. It must be said that, with the passage of time, our case against Torness has become even more self-evident. A measure of how irrefutable was the case against going ahead with Torness is the fact that no Back Bencher representing a Scottish constituency has bothered to turn up to argue to the contrary.
My hon. Friend the Member for Berwick and East Lothian registered the consequences of cancellation at this late stage. I opposed the decision to go ahead with Torness from the start, but I recognise that it would now be difficult to halt the project, partly because the SSEB is so steeped in contracts that it would be as tedious to go back as to go forward, and partly because Scotland has been reduced to such industrial dereliction that I should be fearful of winning a battle that resulted in the loss of one of our few major industrial contracts. However, it is now clear that there was no energy supply basis for ordering the station and that there will be no necessity for it when it comes on stream—resuming that it does—1980s.
I argue that for two reasons. The first relates to the forecast of demand. The hon. Member for Skipton (Mr. Watson) suggested that the forecast was irrelevant Given the egregious overcapacity in the Scottish supply system, one cannot argue that the electricity boards' failure to get forecasts correct is irrelevant to the case for a further nuclear or other plant. When the station was first proposed in 1974 it was justified on the basis of energy demand. I well remember the public inquiry of 1974, when the SSEB claimed that the station was needed in the 1980s because there would be a 6 per cent. per annum growth in electricity demand in the intervening period. In practice, when Labour was in office, demand grew by 1 per cent. and since then it has fallen.
87 However, despite the modest nature of the rise in demand, which should have been predictable, in 1974 the SSEB sought planning permission not for a single station of 1.3 GW but for a nuclear park of four separate stations, each of 1.3 GW. Indeed, in 1974 it was applying for planning permission for a nuclear park which would have a combined output greater than the peak demand in Scotland this past winter. Given that soaring ambition, one is bound to question the rationality of the forecasts on which the proposal was put forward.
I recognise the extreme difficulty of predicting electricity demand 10 years in advance, but, if there are to be such constant errors between forecast and reality, is it prudent to adopt an electricity strategy that requires demand to be spotted 10 years in advance? The table in the report shows that in 10 years from 1970 to 1980 the total increase in peak demand in the CEGB area was less than 5 GW. As long as we insist on adding to the grid large lumps of power stations each of1–13 GW output we cannot have an equal and even ordering programme of power stations which matches that modest increase in demand of 5 GW and so gives security to and sustains the supply industry.
If we insist on such an energy strategy, we shall be left with one of two consequences. Either the intervals between ordering power stations will be so long that the supply industry will run into difficulties, as has happened in the past decade, or power stations will be ordered at intervals that give sufficient work to sustain the supply industry but there will then be a problem of chronic over-capacity of generating plant. One or other is bound to flow if a medium sized country with a comparatively modest increase in electricity demand insists on large additions to the generating system at any one go. We must revise the practice. We cannot continue with the errors that have flowed from our policies in the past 20 years and which necessarily arise in a system that requires demand to be forecast 10 years in advance.
§ Mr. Ian Lloyd
Is not the hon. Gentleman making a powerful case for the integration of the two grids?
§ Mr. Cook
If the hon. Gentleman is referring to the integration of the planning of the SSEB and the CEGB, I would not wish to resist that. However, all three generating boards—the CEGB, the SSEB and the North of Scotland Hydroelectric Board—have a large surplus of capacity, particularly the SSEB, but still visible in the other two boards. It would not solve the problems for any one of the three if it were integrated with the others.
The other reason why the case for Torness is no longer sustainable is that over the years, as the case for building Torness to meet demand has evaporated with the collapse of that demand, the emphasis on the justification for Torness has switched to economic grounds—to the net effective costs argument.
As someone who has attended many debates on public expenditure over the past three years, I have yet to find another area of the public sector to which the Government are prepared to apply the same test of net effective costs. As hon. Members will know, I have a relationship with the rail industry. We have made a profound case for going ahead with electrification of the railway industry. We have shown that there could be a 14 per cent. return on investment in electrification. Does any Minister come to 88 the Dispatch Box and argue that that should go ahead on the basis of net effective costs? No. He simply tells us that that cannot be permitted as it cannot be achieved within the EFL and public expenditure limits. We were told that the North Sea gas pipeline could not go ahead because of public expenditure restraints. Who did the net effective costings on that?
When one looks at the sums involved, the assumptions are difficult to sustain. I shall name only one. An assumption that the SSEB has built into its case on net effective costs for Torness is that in the next five years between now and 1986 the real cost of coal will increase by 5 per cent. per annum. Since 1975 the real cost of coal has increased by 1 per cent. per annum. To assume that over the next five years the real cost of coal will go up at five times the rate of the past five years is questionable and inevitably will weigh the balance of the argument in favour of nuclear power.
The net effective costs argument did not cut much ice with the Select Committee nor with the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, which reported at the same time and in similar terms on the assumptions that the SSEB and the CEGB built into their net effective costs.
In their White Paper even the Government are carefully distancing themselves from the economic case. They say that the boards tell them that there will be an economic case for nuclear power. I am bound to say to the Government that that is not good enough. A spirit of scientific detachment is all very well if one is an impartial outside observer, but the Government are not. They are the banker of the scheme. They must justify why they are prepared to put money into nuclear developments while they resist investment in every other sort of public sector development. If they cannot justify it, as I suspect, they should seriously reconsider their future commitments.
§ Mr. Reg Race (Wood Green)
It is incumbent on us to put on the record the real reasons for the Government's decision to go ahead with the PWR. As we are aware, there was a leak from the Cabinet on the matter. The minutes of the Cabinet meeting have been revealed and printed in the press. It is important to know what was said in the Cabinet on 23 October 1979. The two quotations to which I wish to refer are:The nuclear programme would not reduce the long-term requirement for coal because of the likely decline of world oil prices towards the end of the century …but a nuclear programme would have the advantages of removing a substantial portion of electricity production from the dangers of disruption by industrial action by coal miners or transport workers.It continues:Opposition to nuclear power may well provide a focus for protest groups over the next decade and the Government may make more rapid progress towards …its objective by a low profile approach …But there will be a problem in maintaining a low profile once a decision is made to proceed with a PWR.We have there two clear reasons why the Government wanted to go for an expanded nuclear programme. They wished, as they saw it, to protect the electricity suppy industry from the disruption which might be caused by miners. The policy of expanding the 15 gigawatts capacity and installing PWRs is an attempt to remove the bargaining power of a section of workers and to protect the supply industry from that problem.
The other significant point which has been referred to by many hon. Members is the problem of PWR engineering. I made that point in an intervention in the 89 speech of the hon. Member for Havant and Waterloo (Mr. Lloyd). the Chairman of the Select Committee. We should remember what Sir Alan Cottrell said about the dangers of PWR design and what the NII itself said about the inherent dangers of PWR design.
According to Sir Alan Cottrell, PWRs suffer from two major design deficiencies. First, there is a problem about the integrity of the pressure vessels. Secondly, a loss of coolant accident, in which the reactor safety systems fail to prevent the pressure from falling, is highly probable.
There is a great deal of detailed technical evidence to support both those criticisms. I am not convinced that the designs proposed for Sizewell will be any safer than those which have proved so disastrously wrong in the United States and in France. One has only to look at the experience of France where, in reactors based on the Westinghouse design, cracks have been found in the interface between steel and inconel in the heat exchanger plates. Each of the plates has been shown to have between 30 and 200 cracks, and £13.8 million has had to be spent in one financial year to repair the deficiencies. The technical problems of PWR design are substantial and, in my view, they should make the Government pause in their commitment to choosing this form of reactor.
There are other reasons for opposing this development. The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate has produced its own report on the Marshall report and has stated plainly:There are no firm grounds for stating that nuclear steel pressure vessels will have acceptable failure rates".It went on to show that the calculations in the Marshall report on the critical size of cracks in the pressure vessels ignored the peak stresses maintained in the system. As has already been said, according to the NII the United Kingdom might have 150 pressure vessels in use at the end of 40 years, that of such a number between four and 40 might fail, and that failure in four of them would lead to catastrophe. That is the view not of Friends of the Earth or of nutty conservation groups that the Conservative Party might oppose, but of the NII, making a perfectly rational and reasonable point about the choice of reactor design. I therefore foresee great problems if the Government go ahead with that design.
The Government have not produced any real estimates of the cost of decommissioning nuclear power plants or of disposing of the high level waste generated by them. Indeed. there have been some disgraceful exchanges in the House on this. The Minister may recall the exchanges we had on 23 November that appear in column 603 of the Official Report. The difficulty now faced is that the only cost estimates for the disposal of waste—which presumably are built into the CEGB's cost estimates for decommissioning and waste disposal—is the green document produced by Beale from Harwell dated July 1981. The costs are set out there in a way that makes them difficult to understand. It is about time that we had a clear statement from both the Government and the CEGB about the way in which those costs are fed into the assumptions about the relative cost of nuclear power production and the relative cost of electricity from coal production. I am not at all convinced that the CEGB has got that equation right, nor do I believe that it has done its sums properly.
We know that the CEGB shielded from the Select Committee important information about its decision-making processes in regards to loads. On 10 occasions in its conclusions, the Select Committee report criticised the 90 CEGB. I just do not believe the CEGB's estimates of the relative cost of nuclear-powered electricity production and coal-generated electricity production.
Because of the assumptions about cost, the problems of disposal, the costing of the disposal of waste, the failure to understand the engineering problems of the PWR and the reasons behind this programme, the Government ought to think again about this commitment to the PWR. I hope that the inquiry will expose the fallacies behind this policy.
§ Mr. Ted Leadbitter (Hartlepool)
A great deal has already been said about this report, and it is unlikely that anyone will be sufficiently ingenious at this stage to say something particularly new. Perhaps we can end the debate by emphasising several important matters relating to the future prospects of the nuclear power industry.
It must be borne in mind that it takes at least a decade to carry out the planning authorisations, construction and commissioning of plant. It should also be borne in mind that the life of a power station is about 30 years. We must acknowledge that the rate of change in plant composition may be unfortunately slow. Those and other factors make it essential that planning should take place years ahead.
Any systematic approach or strategy must evaluate developing trends in the economy in addition to the problems that I have already mentioned. It must take a view about the uncertainties of the future, fuel resources, the costs of generation, security of supply and the impact of world energy policies. It follows that investment decisions will have to be taken when a number of uncertainties and variables are consistently at play. when supply and demand forecasting can be confounded and when employment and world pressures have some leverage.
Recent history has shown that during the oil crisis new attention was paid to the conversion of plant equipment, less dependence on oil and the provision of alternative power plant construction. The types of plant and balance between coal-fired and nuclear stations add to the complexity of any investment decision.
I have no hesitation in expressing my admiration for the CEGB, for the understanding of the Department of Energy and for the fortitude of the construction industry, and my belief in the importance of the Atomic Energy Authority. There is no lack of professionalism and it has been my pleasure to meet excellent men from all these Government Departments and agencies.
In addition. to the problems that I have mentioned, the type of plant to be used has been influenced by a dependence on the abundance of fossil fuel supplies. 13ut three or four decades ahead that position may alter, although perhaps on price grounds alone.
I have already stressed the planning time scale so it is the decision making now, and in the recent past, which is of crucial importance. That is the significance of the Select Committee's report. Any criticism that I may make does not lessen the regard I have just expressed, but I would add that there is a need for the Department of Energy, the CEGB and other Government agencies to respond more wholeheartedly to the observations and recommendations of the report.
The report lists 75 appendices, outlining visits, memoranda and correspondence. There were 25 Committee sittings with specialist witnesses and highly competent advisers and excellent Committee clerks and 91 officials from Government Departments. The evidence from these sources has led to the recommendations. That collected opinion deserved a better response than that given to it by some of the prompted and sponsored commentaries in the press, following its publication. The response brought no credit to the professionalism I have described to the House, and showed a lapse of professional integrity. The comments I have already made are plain in their significance in the light of the decision making to which we must address ourselves in the next 10 years.
In the 10 years preceding 1980 no power station was ordered. Thirty years have passed since the United Kingdom led the world with the first industrial scale nuclear power station at Calder Hall. There have been no export orders and, as the report shows, this is compounded by the absence, after 15 years of the AGR programme, of a tried and tested reactor type with a separate design and cost-benefits that would enable orders to be made confidently. What else could have been the outcome when Governments, the CEGB, the AEA, the South of Scotland Electricity Board, other agencies and the industry have been arguing about different kinds and design of reactor?
The steam generating heavy water reactor was wanted for the south of Scotland but denied by other forces. The advocates of the American light water reactors were as busy as little bees, delightfully employing patience and persistence with a guile that makes politicians in the House look veritable simpletons. Other views sought to protect British technology, taking the next step from the AGR to the high temperature reactor and the fast breeder. That seemed to be common sense. Time brought about the casualty of the steam generating heavy water reactor and the AEA had, as a consequence, come in 1976 to the interesting view that the SGHWR was less attractive than it had been two years before.
That is a thumbnail sketch of a tragedy in the decade before 1980. I am afraid we are looking forward to another decade where great question marks lie across the decisions that have been made. I have opposed the PWR and have told the House of the influence of Sir Arnold Weinstock, the chairman of the AEA and the past chairman of the CEGB—the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. It is a conspiracy to override common sense. We face an inquiry that will take a long time, with the promise of a 15 GW programme following that exercise. But that will not materialise by the end of the decade because, in reality, there is no programme.
The great danger is that unless we turn away from the PWR construction programme and return to what we thought of 10 years ago—the natural route from AGR to HTR to fast breeder—Britain will find itself wanting in its power programme and supply provision. Indeed, Britain is the only country in the world that has meddled with many generations of nuclear power. That has dissipated our resources and deprived us of a valuable export market. We must have the foresight and will to think consistently.
I hope that during the next few months the matter will be thought about further. Whatever the outcome of the PWR inquiry, a decision should be made—I hope that the House will have influence in it—to turn our backs on the PWR with its questionable safety aspects and the risks involved.
§ 9.1 pm
§ Mr. Alex Eadie (Midlothian)
I do not think that the House will regret the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Leadbitter). His experience and knowledge always enhance and enrich any debate. The hon. Member for Havant and Waterloo (Mr. Lloyd), the Chairman of the Select Committee, made a good speech, which was appreciated by the House. That is not to say that we agree with all that he said.
When considering the issue, we must ask about the Government's announced programme. I am sure that hon. Members will have read pages 14 and 15, paragraphs 7 and 8, dealing with the Government's statement about one nuclear power station of 15 GW per year during the decade beginning 1982. The Select Committee was correct to draw our attention to the statement and the wordsthe precise level of future ordering will depend upon the development of (projected) electricity demand and the performance of the industry".The House must be aware that the Select Committee said, in bold print:This means, taken at face value, that there is no irrevocable commitment to an ordering programme of 15 GW (and indeed that is not strictly accurate to describe the announcement as constituting a 'programme')".Whatever we think of that view, and despite the huffing and puffing of the Government about nuclear power, it is the best description that I have read about what is currently happening. In reality, we are being told about a step-by-step approach to the building of new nuclear power stations—yet the Government criticise others who tried to argue that same case. We heard some hon. Members do that during the debate.
Incidentally, I would suggest that in paragraphs 7 and 8 the Select Committee makes an overwhelming case for this debate, particularly in the light of the Government's announcement about the public inquiry into the building of the PWR at Sizewell. Britain's loss of capacity to build power stations was mentioned during the course of the debate. One can translate the kind of arguments that have been advanced, and that have to be faced in Britain, into the influence that the 3 million unemployed will have on the reduction of energy demand and the need for new generating capacity. The tenor of the the debate was that we have a responsibility to keep alive our capacity to build power stations in Britain in time of recession. If we allow that capacity to go, how do we measure the damage it does to Britain's industrial base? The argument that I have taken from the debate is that this industrial capacity must be retained. If it is not retained in some shape or form, when we eventually have more economic activity we shall be confronted with the de-industrialisation of this part of our indigenous capacity.
Before I deal with what I would describe as the impact of the PWR, I must respond to the three contributions made by hon. Members from Scottish constituencies, regrettably only from the Opposition Benches. There is at present an argument developing in Scotland suggesting that we may be compelled to mothball power stations because of the over-capacity that we have in Scotland. It is ridiculous that we should be talking along those lines when, in Scotland as in other areas of the United Kingdom, the elderly and the disadvantaged are unable to buy energy. That is a crisis. If we are considering a policy of mothballing power stations, it must be after some arrangement is made to provide heat to the elderly or the 93 disadvantaged, Furthermore—and I regret that there is no Scottish Minister present—industry in Scotland has to be considered on the basis of more advantageous costs in order to keep what industry we have. I want to make it perfectly clear to the Government that any mothballing must be applied to nuclear-powered stations and oil-fired stations but certainly not to coal-fired stations. There is a determination in Scotland that that will not take place.
I said that we would have to look at the PWR and the cost factor. The Secretary of State for Energy told Parliament that a joint task force would be established combining the resources of the National Nuclear Corporation, the Central Electricity Generating Board and the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority to ensure that firm designs for the PWR would be constructed consistent with United Kingdom safety requirements. I have the greatest respect for some of the people involved in this exercise, since I know some of them personally.
I ask the Government and the House to consider whether it has been wise to make announcements from time to time—sometimes in rather jazzy, startling headlines in the press—to the effect that the PWR system can or will be very much cheaper. It leads to suspicions in people's minds. It certainly diverts attention from the other scientific or technical appraisals that may be made. There have been problems associated with the pressurised water reactor in America, and many people believe that those problems will spread to Europe. They have happened because corners have been cut during the construction phase, in the interests of cost. A price is to some extent being paid for that and will be paid in the future.
It is a false assumption that we shall have available to us the sort of off-the-shelf type of American Westinghouse or Bechtel PWR. Indeed, all the documentation that hon. Members have at their disposal, and the information contained in the Select Committee report, demonstrates that there will be a British PWR; in fact, I believe that it will be a new or virgin-type reactor. I have mentioned the people involved in the task force, and it is my bet that we shall see a different type of PWR, even if my prediction of a virgin-type reactor is not correct. I also assert that it will be more costly than the previous designs of PWR.
All the experience with different types of nuclear reactors shows that they face difficulties in their initial running-in period. There are always problems initially for new or virgin-type reactors. Even if the results of the inquiry are favourable, it is difficult to believe that a PWR will be started in the lifetime of this Parliament. I noticed that the Secretary of State for Energy, in the course of his speech, also doubted whether it would be possible.
I should like to give a timetable to substantiate what I am saying. If what I am saying is correct, a future Government would be required to examine the matter before making a decision. Delay would appear to be inevitable. The Vale of Belvoir planning inquiry has been going on for three or four years already, at a cost of over £2 million. We hear how expeditious the Government are, but we have not yet had a decision on that matter. There would certainly seem to be doubts concerning the time scale for the PWR.
The Government have tried to argue that there is a need for nuclear power, but they could lay themselves to open to the charge that they are indulging in a very expensive delay in the development of nuclear power. Whether one is in favour of nuclear power or an opponent of it, if the 94 decision is for a PWR, or what the environmental lobby calls the "American type reactor," the activities of the environmental groups will be fuelled.
One of the arguments is that it is in Britain's interests to have the PWR because that will give us an export potential. That line of reasoning is strengthened because we were first to develop thermal nuclear power stations. The argument is that we have not been successful in exporting our stations, but that when we are involved in building a pressurised water reactor we shall be able to break through into the world market.
There must be some doubts about that, if that is the declared aim of Government advisers who are trying to persuade the Government to build the PWR. If we build that PWR it will be started in about 1984, if we are lucky. If it is running by about 1991 the world will still want to know whether it has had a successful running-in period. That might take another two years. Therefore, we are talking in terms of 1993, if all goes well.
Is it really suggested by Government advisers that even if two PWRs are operating successfully in the 1990s that will push us into the export market, when our competitors will have had years of experience—many more than we will have had? They will have a grip on the market. The argument is not strong. It is unlikely that we would have the capacity to break through a market that already is pretty well sewn up.
It is ironic that on the day that we are dealing with safety and other aspects we should all receive booklets dealing with the safety of the AGR. The booklet is impressive by any standards. Whatever one might say about the British AGR, it has not been tainted by safely and environmental considerations to the same extent as the PWR. The CEGB booklet contains the captionWhy Britain needs the option of the pressurised water reactor.The booklet is more concerned with denigrating the AGR than it is with arguing the case for the pressurised water reactor. We are entitled to remind the CEGB that its record in power station choice leaves much to be desired.
It is not yet proven that the pressurised water reactor, when and if it is built and commissioned, will be cheaper than the AGR. We may be indulging in a very costly gamble at the expense of our own indigenous technology. Some costings are given on page 407 of the first report of the Select Committee. These will have been perused by hon. Members. It is argued that the pressurised water reactor will be easier to construct because it lends itself to prefabrication. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer) has, however, argued that it is likely that the AGR could be subject to some prefabrication. If that is true, it introduces a new aspect to the debate.
Under the headingInvestment in UK manufacturing facilitiesparagraph 8 on page 407 states:The necessary investment in manufacuring facilities would amount to £16 million for the AGR and £12 million for the PWR. This assumes that the PWR pressure vessel, associated internals and parts of the steam generators would be imported for the 4-station programme".I wish now to turn to the issue of the import bill. Paragraph 9, under the heading, "Likely import bill" states:For the AGR, the only significant import is the pitch coke for graphite production which would amount to £1.6 million per 95 station. The size of the import bill for the PWR would depend on the extent to which UK industry decides to participate in the production of components.Those arguing in favour of the pressurised water reactor have endeavoured to show that there would be only minimal export or import involvement, whichever way one views the matter, in PWR. The statement is qualified. It seeks to argue that the import part of the PWR is not clear. Hon. Members need to consider these matters. There is an import content apart from lost technology. We are entitled to ask the Government what this means in terms of job losses. This country is already job hungry. The figures I have read to the House are dated. The likely import bill will still stand.
Another important matter is dealt with in the evidence on page 413 given by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn), the Secretary of State for Energy in the Labour Government, who said thatthe Kraftwerk Union people came to see me and said: 'We can give you a better reactor than Westinghouse'".That important matter was raised in evidence that was submitted to the House of Commons, and I wonder whether it was ever pursued. Can the Government give us any information about that? I was at the meeting with the Kraftwerk Union. It said that, in its opinion, it could do a PWR cheaper, and that it was concerned to keep the AGR alive because if something were to happen and the PWRs ran into difficulty the world was surely entitled to an option on another nuclear power station. I therefore hope that the Government will tell us the position.
The Chairman of the Select Committee, in introducing his report, and other hon. Members, made great play of CANDU as a reactor choice. So I shall say a word about CANDU. The Government's response to a request for an in-depth independent assessment of CANDU can be found in the White Paper of July 1981 on pages 14, 15 and 16. The Government argue there that they rejected the recommendation contained in the report of the Select Committee on Energy of 13 February 1981. The history of the SGHWR was brought into the argument in rejecting an independent assessment. I am not sure how powerful that argument was, because that reactor never became a reality, in a commercial sense, apart from the prototype at Winfrith. There are some people who still say that opposition within the industry to building the SGHWR, particularly the opposition of the CEGB, meant that it never had a chance. Frank Tombs, the former chairman, told me that when the decision was made in favour of the SGHWR.
The Government rejected CANDU, but we should examine booklet No. 4, published by the CEGB. It gives the arguments against CANDU. It concedes, incidentally, that the reactor is working well. However, I am not sure how powerful the case is, when it says that even the self-confident Canadians have sold only six reactors mostly to the Third world, and that there is a world total of only 13 working with operational experience. That is not a valid argument, because it is well known that the argument in favour of the PWRs is based on the industrial size and the commercial entrepreneurial ability of America. So the argument is not strong.
It is said, for example, that one of the difficulties about the CANDU is that it is necessary to have a heavy water plant. It is quite extraordinary for the CEGB to make this an environmental argument against the CANDU. Indeed, 96 it is ridiculous bearing in mind the environmental arguments against the PWR all over the world. I think that it is a bit rich of the CEGB to take that line.
We are all very grateful for the contributions to the debate. Later, the Opposition will take up some of the issues raised about the public inquiry. We think that it is right to have a public inquiry, and we endorse the attitude that has emerged from the debate, that at the end of the day, after the public inquiry, the House must be given an opportunity to reach a decision about whether to go for the pressurised water reactor.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. John Moore)
We have had a very wide-ranging debate, and I have missed only one contribution.
I add my congratulations to those already offered to the Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Havant and Waterloo (Mr. Lloyd), and to all the members of the Committee on their very hard work. I have not heard a speech of the quality of my hon. Friend's for a long time in the House, and I am sure that all of us interested in nuclear power benefited from it.
I shall try to respond to the main areas of the debate. However, an inordinate number of legitimate issues have been raised, and I shall seek to write publicly to all the hon. Members who dealt with matters to which I cannot address myself in the limited time available to me.
Apart from some specific areas, the debate followed five main themes. It touched on the nuclear need, on conservation perhaps as an alternative, on the Sizewell inquiry, on specific questions relating to waste and on safety.
I go first to the issue relating to nuclear need. Right hon. and hon. Members covered almost all approaches—from that of the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees), who talked essentially in terms of "steady as she goes", to the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Havant and Waterloo, my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Rost), my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet) and the hon. Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer), who all seemed essentially to argue in a very pro nuclear way in terms of electricity generation. My hon. Friend the Member for Havant and Waterloo spoke about the safest, most efficient and most productive form of energy, although among other matters he brought up the crucial need to build to time and to cost.
Then we went to the other side of the equation. The right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) seemed to argue that nuclear power should be scaled down. He was joined in that assumption, I thought, by the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon). I am not quite sure which party the hon. Gentleman was representing. In the absence of the SDP throughout the debate, I assumed that he was embracing in his anti-nuclear attitudes, although I respect the consistency with which he has always argued them, the views of the Liberal and Social Democratic Parties. But the absence of the SDP makes it difficult for me to judge.
Dr. J. Dickson Mahon (Greenock and Port Glasgow)
At least two members of my party have been present during the debate. Certainly I have been here—[Interruption.] I have been in the House all this time— 97 [Interruption.] Let me make the position clear. The two parties do not necessarily identify themselves with what was said by the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon).
§ Mr. Moore
As always in these matters, now we know what the SDP do not agree about as opposed to its consistency in policy.
I was saying that we went right to that extraordinary extreme, and I must tell the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East that I had considerable difficulty in trying to establish his views.
In constitutional practice, it is a quite extraordinary new departure when those of us who seek to analyse past judgments, and who come to the Dispatch Box with a sense of responsibility for present decisions, are categorically told that the Labour Government's decision—announced at this Dispatch Box on 25 January 1978 and which sought to validate the PWR option—was not supported by the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East. The right hon. Gentleman, who was Secretary of State at that time, said that he had no views in support of that issue, but had simply reiterated Cabinet policy. That is interesting. Most hon. Members would seek to disconnect themselves from Governments with whose policies they radically disagree.
§ Mr. Benn
In case the hon. Gentleman should be thought to have made a valid point, I should stress that I spoke today in the same sense as the evidence that I gave to the Select Committee on 18 June 1980. My view is well known, and was at the time. It would be ludicrous if the minority in every Cabinet discussion resigned when they were shown to be so, and if one was tied for ever to a majority view.
§ Mr. Moore
The House will not want me to belabour the point, but those of us concerned with Government and responsibility are always more interested in what hon. Members say and do in office than in what they say when they do not have the responsibility of power. The words of the hon. Member for Newton (Mr. Evans) were extremely appropriate in that regard and I took them seriously—[Interruption.] I am trying to discuss the Opposition's views and those of the Government on a serious issue, for which all of us would like to take responsible decisions. Many hon. Members—with the exception of the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Leadbitter), who made a brief speech—missed one fundamental point on nuclear need. I refer to the time frame behind which so many decisions are made on energy supply. That time frame puts in doubt the judgment of those who, like the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East, said that there was no conceivable need on present policy.
One understands the time frame of decision making. No doubt all hon. Members will have had an opportunity to study carefully the White Paper presented to the House in July. Within that context, the limited comments made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State were clear. We consider not only supply capacity, new capacity, capacity related to growth—and limited expectations of 98 growth—but the need to replace obsolete and uneconomic capacity. As the hon. Member for Newton said in his excellent speech, we must value the flexible fossil fuels, which are such a rare resource in Britain's energy economy. It is those factors—drawn together by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—that make me draw attention to the statement in the White Paper that the Department will produce revised projections of energy demand in time for the PWR inquiry.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State clearly referred to the substantial margin of error. We humbly recognise that that factor attaches to such long-term projections. It makes no sense, to adopt a rigid plan or programme. We therefore propose to adopt a flexible approach, keeping our longer-term strategy under regular review and authorising specific new orders as and when we are satisfied that it is justified. The debate about the particulars of the Sizewell inquiry is relevant to the validating of the PWR option. I draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Member for Bodmin (Mr. Hicks), the right hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Ennals) and the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) to the fact that the Government are net in the business of a 15 GW, 10-year programme. We have made it clear that we are not committed to such a programme of new stations. Each will be considered on its merits. We are not debating a specific programme.
I draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Member for Bodmin and of many others who are legitimately concerned but who have not had the experience of the hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. Stoddart) in the electricity supply industry to the nature of planning margins and planning capacity. Very few concern themselves with the problem of peak capacity and peak demand. My example is not germane to Scotland, but I remind all those who have directed attention to Scotland that my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Scottish Office are members of the Government that I represent.
At one stage in the cold spell in January, the CEGB faced a maximum demand in England and Wales of 42,616 MW. The plant available at that time produced a spare capacity of only 1,045 MW. Those who have experience in these matters, such as the hon. Member for Bristol, North-East, will be aware of the difference between peak capacity and overall long-term demand.
There has been much debate on energy conservation and I beg the House to concern itself more seriously with the subject. I am not talking about the "soft embrace" between the extreme anti-nuclearists and those who legitimately want to see the promotion of good insulation activities because of all the job attractions in insulation projects. It might be useful to have a rational debate on electricity supply and conservation.
The right hon. Members for Leeds, South and Bristol, South-East, my hon. Friend the Member for Bodmin, the hon. Members for Truro and Newton, my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton (Mr. Watson) and the hon. Member for Swindon fell into the trap of failing to take account of the extremely limited amount of electricity used for space heating in the domestic market. About 65 per cent. of all energy consumed in the domestic market is used for space heating. Electricity provides only 7 per cent. of domestic space heating. Even if all domestic homes using electricity were able successfully to save 20 per cent. or 25 per cent. of the electricity now consumed, we might save about 2 per cent. of the gross energy requirement. That applies to 99 the whole of the United Kingdom. We must get that fact clearly into our minds. I do not deny the importance of conservation and insulation but we must understand the difference between electricity supply—especially peaking supply—and the realities of conservation.
When the then Energy Conservation Bill was passing through Parliament, I stood at the Bar in another place to listen to erudite speeches from some noble Members of the Liberal Party, who drew attention to the likely change in electricity demand over the next 20 years. They claimed that additional demand within the domestic sector would come from additional purchases by individuals of electrical equipment.
That was in no way connected with domestic space heating. They saw that the demand for electricity was rising, so they cannot have it both ways. They must begin to draw their party together in this crucial conservation debate.
§ Mr. Penhaligon
Does the hon. Gentleman recollect that I specifically said that insulation and conservation would be viable only if we had a further swing to space heating by gas? I made particular reference to what may or may not happen in the South-West peninsula.
§ Mr. Moore
I did not wish to be so rude as to develop the potentials of gas supply in the South-West and the under-capacity in that area. I thought that that would bring the point too much home to roost. I will deal with the point only in general, because a close examination of the realities as opposed to the desire for domestic insulation, alongside the distaste for nuclear power and the inability of people to understand the irreconcilability of those two features, is a fundamental flaw that those who are concerned with populist arguing for votes as opposed to arguing about decision-making on energy supply would do well to get to grips with.
I turn to the nature of the comments about the Sizewell inquiry. Most of those hon. Members who are seriously involved in the subject have welcomed the ways in which the Government have tried to establish the ground rules for that inquiry. That has met with about almost universal support. There must always be one or two points where one does not have universal support. The first relates to what happens beyond the Sizewell inquiry—I am assuming that the inquiry is positive and that it recommends to the Secretary of State that there is a desire to go ahead. Many hon. Members expressed the view that it would be useful, preferable, right or proper—whatever the word used—to have a debate in the House at that stage in order to validate, confirm or discuss the Secretary of State's decision. My right hon. Friend was sympathetic to that view when it was expressed earlier today. I have heard the views from both sides of the House. At the time, the matter will be in the hands of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. However, I understand the feelings of the House, as does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.
§ Mr. Home Robertson
If there is ever a proposal for a PWR to be built in Scotland, will the Minister undertake that there will be a full public inquiry similar to the one at Sizewell?
§ Mr. Moore
I am used to dealing with practical comments from Scottish Members. I prefer to deal with the practical and not the hypothetical in the limited time that I have.
Many hon. Members mentioned aid to objectors at any public inquiry. My right hon. Friend made it quite clear that he would listen carefully to the debate. I cannot speak for him on the matter, but I know that he has listened and that he will read the debate with care. However, I must draw the attention of hon. Members on both sides of the House not only to the fact that there is no precedent but that the inquiry at Windscale, which took place when the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East was Secretary of State for Energy, did not provide such aid, and did not seem, to those who argued, to be lacking because of the absence of aid. I shall not labour the point, but I remind the House that a public inquiry is not a court of justice. The responsibility of the inspector, who is an independent and respected person, is to ensure that objectors' views are properly brought to the attention of my right hon. Friend.
The right hon. Member for Leeds, South asked specific questions about the inquiry at Sizewell. The inquiry will be site specific beyond all the details shown in the statement of 22 July, which we have reconfirmed, and will consider the safety, environmental and economic implications of the PWR proposals. However, the board's application cannot be assessed in practice without the question of PWR technology being put under the microscope. I trust that that will answer the legitimate points of the right hon. Member for Leeds, South.
The right hon. Gentleman also asked legitimate questions, as did many hon. Members, about waste. About 25 per cent. of BNFL's investment programme is for nuclear waste management. In addition, the Department of the Environment provides considerable sums for research into waste management projects.
The right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East implied that the Government have shelved the vitrification programme and that a high level of liquid waste will be stored on the surface at Windscale for a long time, with the risk of another serious leak. That is not true. The vitrification programme is going ahead and the first line is expected to be in operation by 1987. Vitrification waste does not leak. It is because vitrified waste is safer to store than liquid waste that the Government have approved BNFL's vitrification programme. In answer to many other questions on similar points, the Government attach great importance to the safe and effective management of nuclear waste.
It is the responsibility of the environment Ministers to ensure that adequate attention is paid to that aspect of the nuclear industry. The problems involved have been more thoroughly studied than those posed by any other kind of waste. The allegation sometimes thrown about by anti-nuclear groups that the problems are insoluble is quite unfounded. What is needed is the systematic application of known technology and sound common sense and a determined progress towards the provision of additional facilities where early disposal is the appropriate course of action. The Government have promised a White Paper on the matter, so I shall not go into further detail.
Additional specific questions were asked by the hon. Members for Truro and for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) and by my hon. Friend the Member for East Grinstead (Mr. Johnson Smith) concerning the programme of test 101 drilling and its discontinuance in connection with high-level nuclear waste. The Government believe that the feasibility of disposing of that waste in geological formations has been established in principle. We have reached that view in the light of a review of overseas work on high-level waste disposal. Nothing has emerged to show that such disposal would be unacceptable. The test drilling programme carried out by the Institute of Geological Sciences under contract to the Department of the Environment was not seeking sites for waste disposal. It was investigating properties of rock in different types of formation in the British Isles.
The urgency for the disposal of high-level waste is also much reduced. Following advice from the radioactive waste management advisory committee, the waste is now expected to be stored at the surface in solid form for 50 years and possibly much longer. That will allow us to take advantage of the fall in both heat output and radioactivity before disposal. Research into the feasibility of disposal on or under the ocean bed will continue.
Let me touch on one last major area before concluding. The right hon. Members for Leeds, South and for Bristol, South-East, the hon. Member for Newton and my hon. Friends the Members for East Grinstead and for Skipton all said that safety must be the most important single view that the Government take when looking at the development. Let us put nuclear safety in perspective. Let us compare it with industrial safety and environmental protection in other industries. Let us judge the nuclear industry on its track record and not by talking about potential hazards or unacceptable risks.
By their very nature some industries are more hazardous to work in than others. Deep sea fishing, agriculture and quarrying all have a high incidence of accidents and injuries. The nuclear industry does not. The risks of death or injury are a good deal lower than in most manufacturing industries. There has not been one accident at a nuclear power station resulting in the death of an employee through exposure to radiation. In no other industry is the health and safety of employees so closely supervised by the management and monitored and regulated by the Government.
The good industrial relations in the nuclear industry are also a pointer to the way in which health and safety are managed and the way in which the unions are involved in maintaining good safety practices. If anyone has a right to be critical of the safety standards in the industry it is the unions and their members who work in it; but it is notable that it is rather those not involved in the industry who are some of its most vociferous critics.
Before the Sizewell inquiry is begun one cannot forecast what its findings on safety will be, but one can say that a vast volume of material, far more detailed and comprehensive than for any previous British nuclear 102 power project, will be submitted by the CEGB, published and carefully examined by Sir Frank Layfield and his assessors. Furthermore, even supposing that the inquiry's findings on safety are favourable, the CEGB will still need to satisfy the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate not only about the design of the reactor but on a continuing basis about its operation.
Nor should we forget the great experience of the PWR which has by now been accumulated worldwide on the mass of research that has been done and the thousands of reactor years of operation. In submitting its proposals the CEGB will have drawn on that experience and incorporated whatever changes it believes may be necessary to meet the high standards of safety required in this country.
I should like to deal with other points, but time is running out. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of Slate said in opening, not the least important way in which the United Kingdom will have served the cause of nuclear development will be in providing for full and well-informed public discussion. This debate has contributed richly to that discussion.
I compliment all right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part in the crucial exercise of widening understanding of our nuclear programme. The objective of the programme, which we should never lose sight o in the mass of technicalities, is to ensure a secure, continuing and reasonably priced supply of safe electricity to the homes and industries of this country. That is what the nuclear programme is about and in essence it is what the debate has been about.
I shall sum up the Government's present position. All objective energy observers recognise that our supplies of fossil fuels are decreasing while the cost of extracting there is increasing. Moreover, all energy analysts agree that the fossil fuels are extraordinarily valuable, with uses beyond mere electricity generation. Therefore, straightforward common sense underlines the Government's commitment to the development of nuclear power as a source of electricity.
It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.