HC Deb 19 November 1992 vol 214 cc411-6 3.30 pm
Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland), (by private notice)

To ask the President of the Board of Trade and Secretary of State for Trade and Industry if he will make a statement on the future of the European fast breeder nuclear research programme.

The Minister for Energy (Mr. Tim Eggar)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government decided in 1988 that the Dounreay prototype fast reactor would close in 1994. In August we confirmed that decision.

In its report of 1990 on the fast reactor, the then Energy Select Committee recommended that the Government review their expenditure on fast reactor research and development once the design validation stage of the European fast reactor was completed in March 1993. In their response, the Government said that they would keep their position on EFR under review in the light of future developments.

The Government also said that once the design validation stage had been completed they would expect the nuclear industry to accept the responsibility for further work, should there be sufficient interest in the project.

The Government have now reviewed their position and concluded that funding of fast reactor R and D beyond March 1993 is not a priority, since there is general agreement that the commercial deployment of the fast reactor will not be justified until well into the next century. The Government asked the nuclear industry what priority it attached to this PFR research. The industry decided that it could not justify continuing this programme alone. The programme will therefore now be wound down.

The Government will discuss with AEA Technology, which carries out the R and D work in the United Kingdom, what contribution we might make to consequential restructuring costs, within existing constraints on public expenditure.

The Government will continue to fund the operation of the prototype fast reactor at Dounreay until its closure in 1994, together with its subsequent decommissioning and the reprocessing of its spent fuel. This work is likely to provide information of value to the development of fast reactors. The Government are also prepared to consider funding a small programme of experiments at the PFR at Dounreay as it closes. The knowledge gained from these experiments and the decommissioning work will be made available to our European fast reactor partners as our contribution to European collaboration.

Mr. Maclennan

Is the Minister aware that the Government's announcement will be treated with dismay by all the scientists in Britain, and especially by my constituents at Dounreay and in Risley, who have worked for almost two generations to put Britain at the head of this technology? The consequence of his decision will be to pass the work to the Japanese working in collaboration with the French and once again the Government's failure to support industry at the pre-competitive stage will lead to our losing a national lead.

Is it not extraordinary and unacceptable that the hon. Gentleman should have made that announcement before the conclusion of the 1994 review on nuclear policy, which the Government commissioned from the industry, and in the face of the advice of the nuclear and energy supply industries that fast breeder reactors should be backed and that they would be prepared to make a proper contribution to the funds, given the Government's commitment?

Mr. Eggar

My announcement does not affect the 1994 nuclear review, which relates to commercial nuclear reactors and not to the PFR, as the hon. Gentleman knows. On his comments about scientific consensus, I remind him that the Select Committee on Energy recommended that we should examine the position as we approach March 1993, when—as the hon. Gentleman will realise—the design validation stage will have been completed. My Department's advisory group on research and development has recommended that we consider seriously whether it makes sense to go ahead with PFR funding.

During the past 40 years, we have spent about £4 billion in today's money on that research, and we have managed to come up with a basic design which will enable us to proceed to a prototype commercial development, should it ever be economic to do so. Given the likely cost of uranium and energy demand, the industry has decided not to give priority to PFR research, and the Government and the nuclear industry have decided that further expenditure is not justified.

Sir Trevor Skeet (Bedfordshire, North)

Surely the Minister will recognise that we should exploit our achievements, and that, as we have a lead, we should carry it further forward? Is it not odd that the Europeans, the Japanese and the Americans are going ahead with fast breeder reactors and that in the United Kingdom we are beginning to abdicate that responsibility?

Mr. Eggar

The Germans have taken almost exactly the same decision as we have. The German Government have decided to transfer responsibility for most R and D and design work to the nuclear industry. The French Superphénix project is not operating and is not likely to in the foreseeable future.

Mr. Doug Hoyle (Warrington, North)

Does the Minister not realise that his decision will be a grave disappointment to those of my constituents who will lose their jobs because of it? Is that not more evidence of the Government's short-termism? Surely, if the PFR were developed, it would overcome one of the problems that has always been associated with the nuclear industry—the storage of nuclear waste—because it would recreate its own fuel. Obviously, that is the way in which the industry of the future will go, yet the Government are backing out. That is another sign that they are concerned with market economics instead of looking to the future.

Mr. Eggar

There is no doubt about the Government's commitment to the PFR—we have spent about .1 billion on research since 1979. We have now reached the stage when the Select Committee on Energy recommended, in 1990, that we should examine whether we want to spend more money on the PFR. We are following the advice of the Select Committee. After analysis, we have decided that, from the Government's point of view, further expenditure in not justified.

We have asked the nuclear industry whether it wishes to invest in further R and D in the PFR, and it has given us a clear sign that it does not attach sufficient priority to it to allocate additional funds from its resources. We now have the basic competence to move forward to a prototype commercial PFR, and that would seem to be the right stage at which to cease to provide Government funding, additional to that that I have already announced.

Dr. Michael Clark (Rochford)

Is my hon. Friend aware that many hon. Members in all parts of the House saw the fast breeder programme as a source of abundant energy in the next century, particularly as we could get about 60 times more energy from uranium than through the conventional nuclear programme? Does his announcement mean that we have now abandoned for the foreseeable future the interest we had in the fast breeder programme, or will steps be taken to conserve the technology so that, in perhaps 20 or 30 years, we might be able to look at the project again?

Mr. Eggar

My hon. Friend makes the point. He was Chairman of the Select Committee at the time. It was recognised that, once we had reached the design validation stage, we would have reached the point when, if at some stage in the future it made sense to move forward to a commercial PFR, we would have done the basic research. I said that we shall be putting in hand additional research concerned with the decommissioning of PFR, and we shall make the information available as part of the Europewide collaboration. I am confident that we shall continue to keep a close watch on what is happening, particularly in other countries, should other countries decide to continue with additional research, which is by no means certain, particularly on the part of our European partners.

Mr. Adam Ingram (East Kilbride)

Is the Minister aware that the whole of the scientific community in Britain will be stunned by his decision and the way in which it has been announced? Is he further aware that this is another example of Britain withdrawing from a major research and development and demonstration programme and handing it over to our major industrial competitors, the French, Germans and Japanese, and ignoring the interest that the Russians are expressing in the programme?

Mr. Eggar

No, I do not accept that. Britain has spent .4 billion in today's money on research going back over 40 years. That has been a considerable investment. Having done that, we have reached the point at which we have a basic design which we shall be able to develop should it make economic and scientific sense to do so in the future. It is widely accepted that further work would not get us another stage further and would not be justified as against other scientific research priorities.

Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South)

While the Minister's announcement is sad, may I ask him to accept that the real leader in nuclear technology in this country is Rolls-Royce and Associates of Derby, which for 40 years has been putting nuclear power packs—units that are small, robust and tremendously safe—into submarines, including conventional submarines? Perhaps that is the direction in which we should be going forward into the next century. Does my hon. Friend think that it might make sense to put some public money into that type of research instead of leaving Rolls-Royce to do it all?

Mr. Eggar

I am sure that my hon. Friend is right about the technological lead that Rolls-Royce has developed in the area in which it is operating. But there is a considerable difference between what Rolls-Royce is engaged in and the fast breeder reactor programme.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Does the Minister realise that in the next century there will be the most bitter recrimination about his announcement today? Nuclear physics cannot be mothballed. The Japanese and others will take advantage of all that we have achieved.

The hon. Gentleman talks about there having been consultation with the nuclear industry. Neither my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) nor I, nor many others who have followed these matters, know to whom he is referring. Many people—apart from Clifford Bloomfield and those who have been doing the work—including the chairmen of the generating boards and members of the British Nuclear Forum, whom hon. Members on both sides of the House have met, are absolutely against any such decision. It is a quite different matter to say that they would not fund it. At issue is a Government responsibility, and the Government are shirking it.

Mr. Eggar

I wrote to the chairmen of the relevant nuclear bodies at the end of July of this year telling them of the Government's position, which was that, having examined the matter, we were not ourselves prepared to make funds available and asking whether they regarded it as of sufficient priority for them to allocate their funds so as to take the R and D forward. The answer that I got from them at the end of October was that they felt, having examined all their priorities across all the R and D, that they could not give enough priority to fast breeder reactor research. That was a clear decision. The priority that the nuclear industry gave to the matter brought it to exactly the same decision as the Government.

Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre)

Will my hon. Friend take it from me that the decision will not be welcomed in the north-west? How many jobs, directly or indirectly, will be lost as a result of the decision? Why have we decided not to go ahead with the research, whereas the Japanese and the French will continue to do so? Finally, what use will be made of the money saved? Will it be used for research into other sources of energy?

Mr. Eggar

There will be about 270 redundancies as a direct result of the decision, of which about 160 are expected at Risley and about 40 at Dounreay. I apologise for not giving that information to the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan). Obviously, the funds will be redeployed within my Department's budget.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Is it not strangely ironic that, while the Labour party is attacked for being anti-nuclear, the Conservative party and the Government have systematically undermined the nuclear industry in recent years? Have not the Government threatened the privatisation of the nuclear industry; are they not threatening its future through privatisation; and have they not terminated the fast breeder reactor programme, with the loss, over the years, of potentially thousands of jobs? They are now questioning the future of the THORP project in West Cumbria. Is it not time that we had some proper decisions taken on a national economic energy strategy?

Mr. Eggar

I know that the hon. Gentleman is a strong supporter of nuclear power. The Government continue to believe that economic nuclear power can make a useful contribution to the United Kingdom's energy supply. As he knows, the Government will review the prospects for nuclear power in 1994. With regard to the point that is of particular interest to him—the THORP project—he will be aware that a public consultation process commenced at the beginning of this week, to which he and his constituents will wish to contribute.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

Will the decision have implications for employment at Winfrith in my constituency? Will Winfrith be in line to pick up a contract for the decommissioning research which my hon. Friend has announced? Will the funds that will now be released allow funding to go into the small integrated reactor that was designed and outlined in my constituency? Furthermore, does my hon. Friend welcome the enormous support that he is getting from the Opposition for nuclear electricity?

Mr. Eggar

I have noted with interest the Opposition Members who have been on their feet and how they have phrased their questions.

I am informed that, unfortunately, some 40 people are likely to be made redundant at Winfrith. I suggest that my hon. Friend takes up the other matters that he raised with AEA Technology.

Mr. Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan)

How much money is involved in the next phase of investment and research funding? How much was requested from the nuclear industry, and how much did it offer? Will the Minister bear in mind the fact that many of us are watching him and noting the attention that he has given to Select Committees' recommendations, and that we shall look to his attention being directed towards other Select Committees' recommendations in the near future?

How does he propose to deal with the number of people whose jobs and livelihood have been affected? Although only a comparatively small number may be involved, given the welter of unemployment that is emerging at present, does the Minister accept that those people are among the most highly qualified and skilled in the United Kingdom? Such teams will not be reassembled again with ease or with the possibility of success in future. To return to such a programme in 10, 15 or 20 years would need an educational programme on a scale beyond people's conception.

Mr. Eggar

Few people believe that a fast breeder reactor is likely to reach commercial viability until the year 2030 at the earliest. Those people currently working in the industry are unlikely to see a commercial reactor in place during their working lives.

On the issue of funds, the nuclear industry was asked if it wished to carry forward and fund aspects of future research and development. It made it clear that it did not wish to give priority to providing funds on the basis suggested. As for the individuals involved, I have already said that the Government will work together with AEA, particularly AEA Technology, to consider redeployment costs within the constraints of public expenditure.

I should have thought that Opposition Members would have welcomed the fact that the Government have responded to the Select Committee's recommendations in 1990. The Committee recommended, and the Government accepted, that it was now time to make decisions on whether to continue to fund as, by March 1993—when the decision comes into effect—we would have reached the end of the design validation stage and would have a basic design ready to be carried forward if that was considered appropriate.