HL Deb 15 February 1955 vol 191 cc4-7

2.42 p.m.


My Lords, I feel that the House will wish to have the latest news regarding the peaceful uses of atomic energy in this country. As your Lordships are aware, much progress has been made in developing these uses. Already research, medicine and industry have made great and growing use of the isotopes manufactured at Harwell and substantial quantities have been sold to overseas customers. I can to-day in addition announce that our knowledge of the means of producing electricity from atomic power on a large scale has, thanks to the efforts of the Atomic Energy Authority and its predecessors, now reached the stage when it has become possible for Her Majesty's Government to decide to embark on a programme of big nuclear power stations comparable in output to modern coal-fired stations. In our view the successful use of atomic energy to generate electrical power on a commercial basis is of crucial importance to the future of the national economy.

Her Majesty's Government also look forward to the time when the United Kingdom will be able to assist other countries, not only, as now, with their research and development programmes and with training their scientists and engineers, but also by exporting nuclear power stations for the generation of electricity, especially in areas where generation by other means may be difficult or more expensive. Copies of the White Paper describing the provisional programme drawn up by the Government for the construction and development of nuclear power reactors over the next ten years or so will be available in the Printed Paper Office at 3.30 p.m.

2.44 p.m.


My Lords, we have missed the noble Marquess for the last few days, and the reason for his absence we can understand only too well. We welcome him back, and we welcome him with all the more enthusiasm because he has made this statement. I doubt whether this House has ever, in its long history, listened to a statement of greater significance than that which we have just heard. This is indeed a matter of crucial importance to the future of our national economy. I should like to think that the money which in hard days we put aside for research is thus, in a very short space of years, already showing signs of returning a dividend which looks to be immense.

I should like to ask the noble Marquess three questions. He may tell me that if I restrain my curiosity until 3.30 I shall have answers to all of them. None the less, I should like to ask them, in case they are not answered in the White Paper. The first question concerns cost. The noble Marquess spoke about the output being comparable to that of modern coal-fired stations. I realise that costs will probably come down as technique develops, but is the noble Marquess able to say at the present time that the cost is also likely to be comparable with that of the coal-fired stations? My second question concerns pollution. It is sometimes said that to-day the electricity stations are themselves a potent source of pollution. Am I right in assuming that that pollution will be avoided if and when the time comes when we can switch over to nuclear stations? Thirdly, I should like to ask a question about raw materials. I am not going to expose my ignorance about this matter, but I would ask the Government to be quite sure that we have available, and continue to have available, sufficient reserves of the raw material to work these stations, so that we may continue to work them even if trouble should arise in other parts of the world. It may be, as I have said, that at 3.30 I shall know the answers to these questions, but I should be grateful if the noble Marquess could say a word or two on those topics.


My Lords, with regard to the first question which the noble and learned Earl has asked, the view of the experts is that the present price—that is to say, the price when the first electricity is fed into the grid—should be comparable with the existing price of electricity produced by what we must now call conventional means—that is, by coal-fired stations. So far as pollution is concerned, of course, any pollution there may be is in a rather different form from that which one might expect from a coal-fired station. I would rather not go into details without notice, because it is an extremely delicate and technical subject. All I can tell the noble and learned Earl to-day is that I have consulted all my experts on the subject, and they are absolutely convinced that there is no danger to the public in any pollution from such sources. As I say, I do not want to go any further into this question: I know that it is one upon which public opinion is very sensitive. But if the noble and learned Earl cares to put down a Question, I shall be glad to answer it.

With regard to raw materials, the view is that there is not likely to be a shortage of raw material; that is, of uranium. After all, uranium was not very much required before, and therefore was not very much exploited; but the more it is required, the more uranium, it appears, is likely to be found, and, in fact, is already being found. Apart from the United States and Canada, other main sources of supply are South Africa and Portugal, where we get a certain amount, and we hope also to get some from Australia. Generally, I think the view is that there is no need to worry about supplies of uranium for the purpose of this programme.


I am much obliged.


My Lords, would the Lord President say whether he is quite satisfied about safety precautions, particularly as some of these new stations will, I imagine, be set up near sizable centres of population? Sir Christopher Hinton made a speech in New York last spring, in which he said that nobody quite knew what would happen if one of the fast breeder reactors "got away"; and he appealed to the American scientists and workers on this subject to provide a desert where an experiment of this kind could be made. Few things would be more helpful to the progress of the practical development of atomic energy, he said, than to let a station "go" and see what would happen if an explosion occurred. He suggested to the Americans that we might co-operate in finding a place where such an experiment could be undertaken. So far as I know, no such experiment has been undertaken. Could the Lord President say whether he is now satisfied that, as the result of further experiment, the fears which Sir Christopher Hinton expressed in New York have proved to be groundless?


My Lords, I am quite certain Sir Christopher Hinton would be the last person to suggest that any nuclear power station, whether a fast breeder or otherwise, should be put up until we have overcome all these dangers. The fast breeder reactor, which I think the noble Viscount has particularly in mind, and which it is proposed, as he knows, to put up in the north of Scotland, is at present the subject of extensive experiments of every kind. I can assure him that there is no intention of running any risk in this matter, and that this question of security is one which is being studied in connection with the setting up of all other such stations.

So far as the setting up of these stations in highly populated districts is concerned, which the noble Viscount also mentioned, the siting of the stations will, of course, be primarily a matter for the British Electricity Authority, because they are responsible for the electricity supply of the country. No doubt they will place the stations in various situations where they will be of most use. But until it is clearly demonstrated to the public that there is no danger in these stations, it would not, I think, be wise to put them in the centre of highly populated areas, not because they are dangerous, but because people might be nervous.


My Lords, as one who lives in the shadow of a reactor in a very under-populated area, I should like to express to the noble Marquess the thanks of those who are similarly placed for his reassurance.