HC Deb 20 January 1982 vol 16 cc284-90 3.46 pm
The Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Nigel Lawson)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the public inquiry into the application by the Central Electricity Generating Board to build a pressurised water reactor at Sizewell in Suffolk. As the House will know, the Government are committed to holding a full and wide-ranging inquiry into the Sizewell application. In a written answer on 22 July last year, my predecessor set out the issues which the Government regard as relevant to consideration of this application. My right hon. Friend also announced the appointment of Sir Frank Layfield, QC, as inspector to the inquiry.

I wish to give interested parties the earliest notice of the date of the inquiry. I also wish members of the public and their representatives to have adequate opportunity to study the extensive information and documentation which will be provided. I therefore propose that the main hearing of the public inquiry should begin early in January 1983.

I have reached this view following recent consultations with those on whom the burden of preparing the principal documentation rests. The chairman of the CEGB has told me that the board expects to publish its pre-construction safety report at the end of April. Dr. Walter Marshall, as chairman of the PWR task force, will continue to co-ordinate the efforts of all the parties involved in the preparation of the report and will keep me informed of progress. The CEGB also intends to issue at the end of April a full statement in support of its application.

The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate of the Health and Safety Executive has told me that it expects to publish a report on safety issues by the end of June. There will, therefore, be an extended period for the study of both CEGB documentation and the NII report.

Earlier preliminary hearings will be held by the inspector at which those parties that wish to put their views before him on the general arrangements for the conduct of the inquiry and the scope of the evidence can do so at a time well before the main inquiry begins. The main hearing, and at least one of the preliminary hearings, will take place in Suffolk. I hope that arrangements can be made for the main hearing to be held within easy reach of the Sizewell area. An announcement on this will be made soon.

The Government are convinced that nuclear power has an increasingly important role to play in electricity generation in Britain. Nevertheless, any specific proposal has to be judged on its own merits. The arrangements for the Sizewell inquiry which I have just described will ensure that the CEGB's application is thoroughly and properly examined.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Leeds, South)

The House is aware that the Select Committee on Energy published a report nearly a year ago on the Government's statement on the new nuclear programme and that the Government's response was published six months ago. Given today's statement, is it not a pity that there has not been a debate on those documents, which are relevant, both in general and in particular to the inquiry into the proposed PWR at Sizewell? Whenever a debate takes place—and it should be soon—it will be in the context of today's statement, but it will be too late. For example, a section of the report deals with the public inquiry and we have not discussed it.

I note with satisfaction the right hon. Gentleman's concluding words that any specific proposal must be judged on its merits, for there is a strong case for having another AGR rather than a PWR. Does he not agree that American experience of the PWR is a cause for concern and that experience in the United States ought to be considered carefully during the inquiry?

Will cost factors be included in the inquiry, including environmental costs? Does the right hon. Gentleman regard the written answer of 22 July last year as carrying out the recommendation of the Select Committee—that he should publish the issues relevant to his consideration of the application? Is that what it was meant for? Does he accept that, because of the nature of nuclear power, with its horrific military antecedents and hazards that are intangible and invisible, the standard set should be far higher than for other industries? Will the CEGB statement include design details?

Mr. Lawson

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it would be desirable to have an early debate. I am sure that that is also the view of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. I disagree that this will be too late. Indeed, I believe that it will be more valuable because it will take place after the Government have made their statement. As a result, we shall be able to take into account both the Select Committee's report and my statement. In making my statement, I have taken into full account the views of the Select Committee in its report.

Cost factors, including environmental costs, will certainly be taken into account by the inquiry. My predecessor who replied on 22 July made it clear that the three main areas to be covered by the inquiry as he envisaged it would be safety, environmental and economic.

The right hon. Gentleman somewhat inappropriately linked the military nuclear question with nuclear power. They are separate issues. Indeed, it is significant that much of the early impetus behind the desire to have a peaceful nuclear power programme was the desire of those involved in the war to beat swords into ploughshares—a wholly commendable endeavour. Indeed, that is what nuclear power can promise this and many other countries.

Of course, it is vital that our own high standards of safety should be fully satisfied. As I said a moment ago, that will be one of the main matters at issue in the inquiry.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Edinburgh, South)

Many Conservative Members will welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement of the date of the inquiry. Does he not accept that, in the light of the tragic smelter closure at Invergordon, and the apparently disastrous miscalculations on the cost of AGR-produced power, there is now an urgency to look at safe and cheaper ways of producing power, both in the interests of domestic consumers and, perhaps more importantly, of industry?

Mr. Lawson

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. May I hark back briefly to a further point made by the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) which I did not answer? He asked "Why a PWR application rather than an AGR application?" In the context of what my hon. Friend has just said, we felt it sensible to develop the option of an economic and safe nuclear alternative to the existing gas-cooled reactor.

Mr. Tony Benn (Bristol, South-East)

Will the Secretary of State give a clear undertaking that before the inquiry takes place he will publish all the information available to him, some of which was available to me as Secretary of State, including serious doubts about the inherent safety of the PWR design? Will he make all that information available? Secondly, will the inquiry be broad enough to allow people to argue that the money involved would now be better spent on insulating homes which would create jobs, save lives and save more energy than a PWR—even if it worked, which I doubt—could generate in the programme that he has in mind?

Mr. Lawson

The right hon. Gentleman's prejudices are well known. I am delighted to see him in the Chamber, particularly as he was unfortunately unable to be present yesterday when we debated a matter close to his heart.

A massive amount of documentation will be available—the pre-construction safety report, the NII report and the CEGB's statement of case. I believe that together they will provide a greater weight of documentation than has ever been provided before. All the other matters the right hon. Gentleman mentioned will be part of the subject matter of the inquiry.

Mr. John Hannam (Exeter)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that one of the reasons why it is vitally important to preceed with nuclear power for electricity generation is the whole question of providing electricity at low cost to industry? Has not the French experience shown that they are able to undercut us because they have embarked on a nuclear power programme? Will he therefore ensure that there are no long delays in the inquiry and in any subsequent follow-up to the building of a PWR if it is shown to be safe and cheaper to construct?

Mr. Lawson

My hon. Friend is right. The world has more experience of operating PWRs than any other reactor type. We must see whether this technology can be harnessed to our own domestic requirements, including our own high safety standards. I do not know whether my hon. Friend meant that we should get the inquiry over as quickly as possible. If so, I understand his views, but I cannot share them. In any case, it is for the inspector to decide how long it is necessary to take in order to have a full and thorough inquiry. He will take as long as is necessary for that purpose and no longer. I cannot say what will happen thereafter, because that would prejudge the outcome of the inquiry.

Mr. David Penhaligon (Truro)

Will the Government give financial aid to those who will object in order to ensure that they do not lose their case through lack of funds?

Mr. Lawson

We have no plans to do so, and I know of no precedent for it. I am quite sure that there will be a full opportunity for those who object to make their case and have it fully and properly judged.

Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton)

I welcome the Government's deliberate and cautious approach to this matter. Will my right hon. Friend say more about the NII? Is he now satisfied that it has enough qualified manpower to fulfil the vital safety tasks involved in such a project?

Mr. Lawson

Yes, I am satisfied. My hon. Friend may like to know that I understand the NII will be making a statement later this afternoon.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Rother Valley)

Should not the right hon. Gentleman's statement have been made either during or after the House had debated the Select Committee's report? When can we have that debate? Either then or before, or even now if the Secretary of State is prepared for it, will he say what the surplus capacity of the CEGB is?

Mr. Lawson

I thought that I had answered the hon. Gentleman's first point when I replied to the right hon. Member for Leeds, South. Both I and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House recognise that there is a case for an early debate and that the House would welcome it.

It is not for me to prejudge the economic case. That is one of the matters to be discussed in the inquiry. We are looking some way ahead and a number of existing power stations will be coming to the end of their lives by that time.

Dr. J. Dickson Mabon (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

Is the Secretary of State aware that the announcement of the date is fair, in view of the timetable prior to the inquiry, for all the representations to be made, not only by the governmental agencies but by other bodies, some voluntary and some private?

The Government, if they are still in office, will presumably follow the precedent set by the Labour Government and have a debate—with, I trust, a free vote—after the publication of the report and before a final decision is made. As that will be some time ahead—perhaps as long as two years or 18 months—will the Secretary of State reconsider the question of the House having a debate on the report of the Select Committee? It is important to have clarification.

Mr. Lawson

I think that there has been a slight misunderstanding. I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's endorsement of the timetable that I have announced. He speaks with some knowledge and expertise in these matters. Although it is not a matter for me, I shall bear in mind the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion of a debate. I have already told the right hon. Member for Leeds, South that we shall have a debate on the Select Committee report as soon as possible.

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

As the Secretary of State is aware, there will be an open-ended inquiry, possibly followed by a debate in the House of Commons, followed by a seven-year construction period, which will bring us into the 1990s. Will the Secretary of State bear in mind the urgency for nuclear power? We shall have to move on to compete with France, as my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam) pointed out.

Mr. Lawson

I am keenly aware of the urgency of the matter. A sad element of all this is the years wasted by the Labour Government. Nevertheless, however great the urgency, I am not prepared to foreshorten the time needed for the consideration of the papers that will be published, nor am I prepared to rush the inquiry, which must be full, fair and thorough.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. If hon. Members will be brief, I shall try to call all those who have risen.

Mr. Arthur Lewis (Newham, North-West)

The Minister announced the chairman but not the members of the committee of inquiry. Will he let us know who the members will be? Will he consider Mr. Joe Gormley as one of them?

In addition to the safety of the establishment itself, will the inquiry consider the question of danger from terrorism, in view of what has happened in France in the last couple of days? It is important that we realise that an installation such as this is a sitting duck for terrorists.

Mr. Lawson

It is up to the inspector to decide whether a detailed examination of the issue of terrorism would be appropriate to the inquiry. He may or may not so decide; it is up to him. The hon. Member will be aware that there have been no such terrorist incidents in the United Kingdom.

As to whether Mr. Joe Gormley should be a member of the inquiry, there is one difficulty: there is no committee of inquiry and therefore there are no members of it. There is an inspector—Sir Frank Layfield—who has a secretariat.

Mr. Keith Stainton (Sudbury and Woodbridge)

As the Member for the constituency immediately adjacent to the proposed site, I feel obliged to press the Minister for a firm commitment to a parliamentary debate before he reaches any conclusion on the matter. A clear precedent for that is the Windscale inquiry. My understanding, as a result of correspondence that I have been having almost continuously for the past 12 months with his Department, is that such a debate will ensue, but the Minister has rather avoided the specific obligation this afternoon.

I am disappointed and concerned at the lack of funding for objectors. I well understand that there is no precedent for this, but I put it to the Minister that his ingenuity is such that it might be possible to find a way of funding via the CEGB, perhaps through a board of trustees. Not only must justice be seen to be done, and not only will this be a long, complicated and highly technical inquiry, but unless the matter is disposed of with some certainty at Sir Frank Layfield's hearing it will raise its head on each successive occasion that other PWRs are proposed.

Mr. Lawson

I fully recognise my hon. Friend's concern for his constituency. I have had representations not only from him but from my hon. Friend the Member for Eye (Mr. Gummer), who has been deeply concerned with the issue.

I shall bear in mind my hon. Friend's request for a debate before the final decision is taken, although, as I said earlier, it is not a matter for me. I appreciate the force of my hon. Friend's case.

With regard to funding, my hon. Friend mentioned the CEGB. It is for the CEGB to say whether it is prepared to do it. I was asked earlier whether the Government were prepared to do so. We have no such plans.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

Is not the inquiry to be started because of the CEGB's application? Knowing that the Government are extremely sympathetic towards a Three Mile Island type PWR, is it not absurd to embark on this path when the CEGB has a vast over-capacity for electricity generation, when it is closing down plant after plant which are coal-fired, and when we have between 300 and 400 years of coal supply? Is it not nonsensical for the Government even to contemplate embarking on a further programme of nuclear electricity generation, with all the potential dangers which this involves? Is it not really a first step in carrying out the Government's nuclear policy?

Mr. Lawson

The Government are interested in seeking to provide the cheapest possible electricity for our people. I am sorry that that is not an objective shared by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Norman Atkinson (Tottenham)

Has not the CEGB already decided to fund people attending the inquiry? Therefore, will the Minister reconsider his answer about the objectors who will be going to the inquiry? He is incorrect in suggesting that there are no precedents. There are precedents for funding objectors at public inquiries. It was suggested by an overwhelming majority of the participants in the debate in this House that that funding should be available. As I understand the position, the Minister's predecessors have also made recommendations about financial assistance being given to some of those who will be attending the inquiry as objectors.

Does the Minister agree that if the Government are to establish confidence in their nuclear programme they should be seen to be holding inquiries of this kind with the widest possible base, and that such inquiries need funding?

Mr. Lawson

I am not persuaded by the hon. Gentleman's argument but. as I have already said, it is my hope that there will be an early debate. I am sure that this question will be much discussed during that debate.

Mr. John Ryman (Blyth)

Does the Minister contemplate that this will be one of a series of inquiries? He will be well aware that the CEGB is contemplating an application to build a similar power station at Druridge Bay, Northumberland? Does he envisage a situation in which no final decision will be made by him and the Government, as a result of the recommendation by the inspector in the Sizewell inquiry, before other inquiries relating to applications in other parts of the country have been completed?

Mr. Lawson

As I see it—I hope that this will reassure the hon. Gentleman—the first step will be to conduct a thorough inquiry into the Sizewell application. Only after the outcome of that inquiry will further decisions fall to be taken.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is the Minister aware that, in addition to the points that have been made so well by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) and other hon. Members, there is a large and rapidly growing body of opinion—not confined to the mining industry, in which I have a deep and abiding interest—in favour of running down our dependence on nuclear power rather than uprating it, as would happen if the proposed PWR were to go ahead? Would it not be more sensible, when we have more than 3 million unemployed, to concentrate on those areas where we have plenty of energy, especially in the pits, where there are vast reserves of coal and where more people could be employed provided that subsidies were on a par with those in West Germany and Belgium? If that were so, we could produce energy more cheaply for industry and therefore help in the fight against inflation. If that sort of attitude were adopted by the Government, it would be more welcome to the country at large and would reduce our dependence on nuclear power.

Mr. Lawson

The Government are satisfied that a safe and economic nuclear power programme is in the interests of the people of Britain and in the interests of employment. That is also the view of the trade union movement—even though the hon. Member is characteristically idiosyncratic.

Mr. Cryer

How can the right hon. Gentleman know? He has not had the inquiry. He is prejudiced.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth (Mr. Ryman), the Secretary of State said that this would be the first step and that various events would follow. What is the time scale envisaged? The Secretary of State must know very clearly that the nuclear manufacturing industry has a great problem in relation to time for orders. This affects not only the construction industry but many of our technological and science-based industries.

Mr. Lawson

The nuclear industry is not in as healthy a state as it might be, largely due to what happened in the wasted years under the Opposition, to which I referred earlier. Indeed, the announcement I made today will be welcomed by the nuclear power industry.

Mr. Dalyell

What is meant by "first step"?

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