HL Deb 14 December 1953 vol 185 cc14-22

3.22 p.m.

VISCOUNT FALMOUTH rose to draw attention to the proposals of Her Majesty's Government in regard to the future organisation of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Project as set out in Command Paper 8986; and to move for Papers. The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I am sure that many of your Lordships will have read with great interest the Report dealing with the proposed amendments of the Atomic Energy Project. We are pleased to learn that the political head of this important project is the noble Marquess the Leader of your Lordships' House, because I am certain there is nobody better qualified to deal with these most important problems than he. In passing, I would say how glad we are to see him back in his place, and we sincerely hope that he has recovered from his recent indisposition.

It is a sad commentary on mankind that, as soon as scientists had discovered the immense amount of energy, something like 200 million electron volts, released by a fissionary process, mankind at once saw in this a wonderful appliance for self-destruction. That is not the fault of the scientists, but the fault of mankind. However, fortunately there is another aspect of this problem, and it is to be hoped that, as time goes on, this immense source of energy may be applied sooner or later to man's advantage. The, whole discussion on this problem, of course, is rather bedevilled with the difficulty of military secrecy. I am an ordinary member of the public and know nothing whatever of what goes on behind the Iron Curtain, so that everything I say is clearly available to anybody who takes the trouble to read the necessary papers. In passing, it is interesting to note that the Government have decided to call this an Atomic Energy Project. Some of your Lordships will remember that not so long ago, when the noble Lord, Lord Cherwell, made an interesting speech on the subject, he said that he much regretted that he referred to these matters as "atomic" and not "nuclear." I believe that those of your Lordships who follow these problems will agree with him on this point. But evidently the noble Lord, who in those days occupied an important position in relation to this matter, was not able to convince his colleagues, and we now find that the Government have decided that it is to be called the Atomic Energy Project. That being so, we cannot cavil at it. Although it is wrong from the scientific point of view, yet we must accept their decision; and in saying what I have to say, I shall refer to "atomic energy," although in reality that term is wrong.

We have learned with great interest that the Government are about to establish a generating station of about 50,000 kilowatts, which is quite a large generating station. It is legitimate for us, the taxpayers, to ask how much a project of this kind is going to cost, and what are we going to get out of it. An ordinary, traditional station of this kind would cost £2,500,000. A great authority on nuclear physics has stated that it is estimated that the cost of a station activated by atomic energy would be double that of the ordinary type of station to which we are accustomed. A nuclear reactor does not function in the same way as an ordinary boiler. You do not just shovel on coal as the process continues. Before you start up, the reactor has to be fully charged with very expensive fuel. That means that you will have to spend approximately another £1 million of capital on getting your reactor going. In other words, a total sum of something like £6 million will have to be expended on this project. It is fair that we, the taxpayers, should ask what we are going to get out of a proposal of this kind.

We are told that the efficiency of this station will be from 20 to 25 per cent. There are a number of traditional steam stations working to-day with an efficiency of 30 per cent. Others are planned for the future with an efficiency of 35 per cent., and there is no doubt that they will attain that standard. In that event, we are going to spend £6 million on a very second-rate station; that is to say, one which, on the figures advanced even by the most enthusiastic advocates, can never hope to equal the efficiency of the existing steam plant. The reason for this low efficiency—I do not want to give detailed reasons—is that the uranium metal is put into the reactor in aluminium canisters, and they cannot stand high temperature. Therefore, the whole operation must be a low temperature operation, and that, as every engineer knows, means low efficiency of turbines, which is the final stage in the production of electricity. I feel that we are setting out on a project similar to that of the old "Great Eastern." The "Great Eastern" was a failure before she was launched. But you cannot blame Brunel, because he did not know the difficulties he was up against. We to-day do know of these problems, and I feel it is most unnecessary to spend all this money on a project when we know that the result cannot be of a really satisfactory nature.

I am the last person in the world to say that we should not carry out experiments of which the result will be negative. Some negative experiments are most important: they tell us all sorts of directions in which we should pursue our activities, and in many instances they are adopted with everybody's approval. But, surely, it should be possible to be less grandiose in our views in connection with this first station, and be satisfied with a 10,000 kilowatt plant. It is not long ago that a 10,000-kilowatt station was considered a very large generating station. But here we are proposing to set up a 50,000-kilowatt plant, costing, as I say, £6 million. That is a very grandiose proposal. Of course, when one has unlimited public money at one's disposal, as appears to be the case in this instance, one can do this kind of thing; but I hope the noble Marquess who has charge of this matter will examine the proposal carefully and see whether it is not possible to reduce the size of the plant, in the first instance. After all, we are very short of money. There are all sorts of schemes, such as for the roads and pensions, which are held up for reasons of expense. Anything which we can do to reduce public expenditure in any direction is wholly to be welcomed.

To give another instance of what I consider to be a grandiose outlook on many of these problems, I should like to mention a statement made about two years ago by the First Lord of the Admiralty, when he said that we were about to build a submarine activated by atomic energy. Can anybody conceive a more difficult problem in marine propulsion upon which to start than a submarine? Think of the difficulties of shielding your crew from the intense radiation in a submarine. Think of the weight of the shield, which in many cases will be extremely heavy. Think of the difficulties of servicing a reactor in the confined space, and not only a reactor but the steam generator and the turbine. Think again of the difficulty of controlling a reactor under marine conditions. Could there be anything more unpleasant than to have a runaway reactor as a shipmate in a submarine? Surely the right way to tackle an extremely difficult problem like this is to deal with it slowly. First of all test out your land plant—and we have not a land plant ready yet—and then, having got your land plant going, try a small propulsion plant and subsequently, if successful, put that into your oldest cruiser with the largest engine, so that you can go round and tinker with the beastly thing, instead of going baldheaded at the most difficult, most complicated, vessel it is possible to conceive.

When Sir Charles Parsons developed the steam turbine, he did not tackle the problem in that way. First he satisfied himself that he had his land plants running satisfactorily and then, when he had gone as far as that, he built a small yacht and tried out the turbine in it. Bit by bit, clearing one difficulty after another, he was finally able to achieve his great triumph, and as a result all the large ships to-day and all the great power stations are operated by steam turbines. No great expenditure of public money was involved. It was brilliant genius, learning, from one development to another, until eventually, little by little, he was able to solve the whole problem and overcome the immense difficulties. What is the cost of this submarine project? We do not know, arid we probably never shall know. It was interesting to read in the papers a few days ago that the Americans had just launched a submarine to be propelled by atomic energy. The project was to cost £12,500,000. I should have thought a whole fleet of submarines could be built for £12,500,000. That just gives us an idea of the immense cost of these developments, and it shows what can be done when people have unlimited public funds at their disposal, poured out, as it appears to me, without due consideration of the matters at stake; poured out at our expense, and about which there is no criticism, because owing to this secrecy shield, nobody knows what is going on behind it.

Those are two examples which make me welcome the proposal put forward by the Government to institute an Atomic Energy Corporation to deal with these difficult matters. At present we know that atomic energy falls within the scope of the Ministry of Supply. Now the Ministry of Supply is an immensely complicated Ministry. It is possible to find out very little of its activities, but if one chooses to read the printed Vote of the Ministry of Supply presented to another place one sees that every conceivable kind of scientific activity is carried on under that Ministry, one, of course, being the Atomic Energy Project. It is impossible for any one scientist, no matter how brilliant he is, to be able to follow the immensely complicated and difficult problems which are being dealt with by that Ministry. I think it is high time that some of those projects were taken away and put under boards of their own, where they can receive much more careful supervision than can be given them by a very harassed Minister of Supply, who cannot possibly pay the detailed attention which should be paid in examining carefully the research programmes of the various organisations under his special charge.

Whilst welcoming, then, the decision of the Government to institute a separate Corporation, one turns to the White Paper and is perhaps not quite so happy with the proposals as with the general suggestion. First, one sees that the Corporation is to be managed by a board, consisting of a chairman and managing director—who evidently is one person—four executives and two outsiders. This is exactly the type of board that we had in the Railway Executive, which might be called an executive board. A great many of your Lordships felt that that type of executive board was a mistake, and many of us were glad to see that the Government decided to do away with it and set up another organisation in its place. Here the Government are adopting exactly the same type of body which has failed in the case of the Railway Executive, and are hoping that it will be successful in dealing with one of the most difficult and intricate problems that has ever been tackled by a scientific body.

There is another aspect which fills one with anxiety, and that is the decision that the head man of this board should be not a scientist or an engineer but an administrator. Surely, if ever there was a post in this country which required the highest technical qualifications it is the post of chairman of this board. Of course, there are administrative problems connected with it, but the whole object of the undertaking is scientific. You do not have an administrator as the captain of a ship, for the good reason that you want the man in charge to be a man who knows something about the job. There is another reason: you want the man in charge to be able to encourage the crew. Here you are fighting nature and forcing her to expose some of her most cherished secrets. How can you expect people to tackle that intensely difficult job unless you are able to fire them with enthusiasm? How can an administrator fire scientists with enthusiasm when he is not able to speak their language? He will have to deal with physicists, chemists, metallurgists and engineers, and he must deal with them on equal terms. It seems to me that a profound mistake is being made in paying no attention to these facts and in considering that administration is the only thing that really matters in a business of this kind. I am sorry to see this decision, and I am afraid that it cannot help forward these great projects in the way we all hope to see.

There is another aspect of the White Paper which gives me some anxiety, and that is the section dealing with finance. It is stated there that the Government are insisting that the finance shall be voted for only one year, and that at the end of that time the money, if it is not spent, will revert to the Treasury. Why is that? Grants for scientific and industrial research are made for a period of five years. The University Grants Committee make their grants for a period of five years. How can the Government hope to deal with this great problem on a year-to-year basis such as is proposed in the White Paper? You must give the people concerned a chance to know where they stand; you must give them sufficient money to carry on. Many of these processes take years to reach a decision on. It takes a very long time indeed if you wish to reach a satisfactory conclusion on the effects of the bombardment of the crystalline structure of special alloys by high-speed neutrons; and we know what a long time it took to reach a satisfactory decision about the behaviour of steel at high temperatures. Some of these researches had to go on for years before a correct decision was arrived at. Here is an infinitely more complex problem, and the White Paper talks of reaching a decision in a year. I think it is a profound mistake, and I hope sincerely that it may be reconsidered before the Bill finally comes before Parliament.

There is just one other point, and that is the very important matter of secrecy. Of course there are many aspects of this question which are highly secret. The question of, say, the annual output of plutonium, or of where plutonium is hidden, must certainly be a highly secret matter. The question of the fusing of the atom bomb, again, is an intensely secret matter. Nevertheless, there is an enormous amount of this information which should be disclosed much more freely than it is at present. Why is it, I wonder, that the only books one can buy dealing with these subjects are American? Some are good and some are not so good. But in view of the attitude of Her Majesty's Government on this matter one begins to wonder why they allow these books to be imported at all, so anxious do they appear to be not to let any of Her Majesty's subjects have the least idea of these problems. It is an extraordinary point of view. Occasionally a distinguished scientist on the staff of one of the Government's establishments reads a paper on some of these matters; but if you examine the paper carefully you will see that a great many references in it are nothing but references to statements that have been made in the United States.

Surely, in view of the ability and the international recognition of our own scientists, they should be allowed to express their own views on some of these problems and not express views brought across the Atlantic which are known more or less to everybody who is interested in these matters. There is one serious point on this subject, and that is the question of overseas trade. Already inquiries are coming from overseas about atomic energy plants. The Hydro Board of Ontario, one of the greatest electricity supply undertakings in the world, have publicly stated that their next plants will be powered by atomic energy. How can any firm in this country tender for these plants if we do not let them know the details of our atomic energy position? It is the Government's unnecessarily restrictive policy in these matters which is very seriously affecting our prestige I hope the noble Marquess will give the most careful attention to this matter, to see whether a great deal more information cannot be given to the technical world of the knowledge and experience which is already available to Government circles. After all, it cannot be said that all science and all knowledge lie exclusively within Government circles. Brilliant scientists all over the country, engineers and others, ought to be roped in to help in dealing with these most important matters. It is interesting to note that quite recently in the United States a project was proposed for a 60,000-kilowatt generating station. Two outside firms were asked to submit plans for this station as an exercise. The Government there gave these firms all the information they required for the design of this plant; the plans were drawn up, and were published, so that anybody who chose could see them. That is the way to do it; that is the way to spread this information around.

I would ask the noble Marquess whether he will consider a suggestion of this kind. Could he not form two groups, each composed of, say, a couple of firms of consulting engineers and two or three firms of manufacturing engineers, and give them a project? He might ask them to design a 60,000-kilowatt plant. Let him give them all the requisite information. They do not want to know anything about the atomic bomb: all they want to know about is the behaviour of metals under neutron bombardment, and so forth, and the difficulties of control. There is nothing secret about it. Give these two teams all this information and ask them to go ahead, give them a couple of years to produce a design and when you have that see what you will be able to do with it. It is going to cost money; but we have been discussing schemes of £6 million and £12 million, and it does not seem to me, therefore, that we need cavil about £50,000 or something of that order for a proposal of this sort. It will put our technicians and scientists on the map and greatly enhance the prestige of this country. I hope the Government will be able to do something of the kind. I do not, of course, expect the noble Marquess to give a definite answer this afternoon, but I hope he will give it careful consideration, because I am sure that, apart from other things it will help enormously in our export drive. I am sorry to have taken up so much of your Lordships' time, but this is a very complicated question. Now that it is coming within the purview of Parliament it is a good thing to raise some of these difficult and interesting subjects. I beg to move for Papers.