HL Deb 13 November 1958 vol 212 cc503-23

3.18 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move that the Nuclear Installations (Licensing and Insurance) Bill be read a second time. As your Lordships may be aware, on February 10 last my honourable friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Power announced in another place that the Government intended to introduce by legislation a system of licensing and inspection in order to make nuclear reactors on land effectively subject to control in the interests of safety. This legislation would also place upon reactor owners a liability, similar to that of the Atomic Energy Authority, to pay compensation for personal injury or damage to property by radio-activity, even when due to unavoidable accident, but subject to a limit of £5 million for each occurrence. The owner was to be required to cover this liability by insurance or other means. The present Bill is the measure foreshadowed in that announcement.

As is well known to your Lordships, several nuclear power stations are under construction for the Electricity Boards, and others are at the planning stage. One research reactor in private industry —that of Associated Electrical Industries, Limited, at Aldermaston—has just begun to operate. Though the Atomic Energy Authority are acting as the consultants for each of these projects and are advising the owners about the requirements of safety, it is nevertheless in the interests of all that the ultimate liabilities and obligations of the owners should be defined without delay.

Let me now outline to your Lordships what the Bill is intended to do. Under Clause 1 no person other than the Atomic Energy Authority (whose position I shall discuss later) may use a site for building or operating a nuclear reactor unless the Minister (in Scotland the Secretary of State) has granted him a licence. The Minister is empowered to include in the licence such safety conditions as are appropriate. These may refer particularly to the design, siting and construction of the reactor, as well as to its operation and maintenance, and may require the licensee to maintain an efficient monitoring system for detecting and recording, the intensity of any radio-activity which it gives off. The disposal of radio-active waste from the reactor site which is necessary from time to time will be subject, as in the case of the Atomic Energy Authority, to authorisations issued by the Minister of Housing and Local Government and the Minister of Agriculture (in Scotland the Secretary of State), after consultation with the local bodies concerned.

For the present the only installations likely to be affected by the Bill are nuclear reactors, but with the advance of atomic science and its progressive application to industry it may become necessary to extend safety controls to other types of nuclear installation. The Bill enables this to be done by regulations jointly issued by the Minister of Power and the Secretary of State, subject to Negative Resolution by either House of Parliament. The Bill does not apply to reactors used as propulsion units in ships, vehicles or aircraft as these give rise to separate problems of their own.

I now come to the liability of every licensee under Clause 3 to compensate all, including the licensee's own work-people, who suffer personal injury or damage to property because of radio-activity given off from the reactor or from irradiated nuclear fuel being taken away by him for reprocessing. With an important difference, to which I shall be coming, this liability to third parties is to be of the same kind as that of the Atomic Energy Authority. In other words, the licensee alone will be liable and will have to pay compensation whether he has been negligent or not.

The object of these provisions is to facilitate the settlement of claims, first by ensuring that all claims are channelled to the licensee, thus avoiding a multiplicity of claims between, for example, injured persons and contractors or one contractor and another; and, secondly, by requiring the claimant to prove only that the cause of the injury or damage was radio-activity from the licensee's reactor. The claimant is thus spared the difficult, if not impossible, task of proving that the licensee was negligent in allowing the radio-activity to be given off. The ordinary law will, however, operate to reduce the licensee's liability to the extent that the claimant is shown to have been negligent himself. For any non-radio-active injury or damage caused by a nuclear occurrence persons such as contractors will continue to be liable for negligence under the common law.

The nature of the licensee's liability differs from that of the Atomic Energy Authority in that, without the special decision of Parliament in every case under Clause 4 (3), the liability is limited to £5 million for any one occurrence. The reason for setting a limit to a licensee's liability, as my honourable friend pointed out on February 10, is that the licensee is to be required to take out cover by insurance or otherwise, against this liability, whereas the Authority, which is almost entirely dependent on public funds, does not ordinarily insure.

The Government are advised that the figure of £5 million should he much more than adequate to cover any risk that may reasonably be expected. Claims arising out of the Windscale accident were, as a matter of fact, under £100,000. However, the Government have decided that in the highly unlikely event of claims exceeding £5 million Parliament should be required to determine how they shall be dealt with. The cover which the licensee takes out, whether by insurance or otherwise, must, under Clause 4 (1), be approved by the Minister with the consent of the Treasury. This approval is necessary in order that the Minister, after taking advice from the Treasury, may be satisfied that the cover is adequate to meet claims.

The way in which the licensee's cover is to be related to particular occurrences, or reinstated after an occurrence likely to give rise to a substantial volume of claims, calls for some explanation, and I will try to show, as briefly as possible, how this Part of the Bill is intended to work.

Normally, for each site, the amount of cover is to be a total of £5 million spread over the whole period of the licensee's responsibility—that is to say, the period, as defined in Clause 2 (3), beginning with the grant of the licence and ending either when the Minister considers the site to be free from dangerous radio-activity or when a licence for the site is granted to someone else. If, on the other hand, there is a dangerous occurrence the Minister may issue a direction under Clause 5 (6) requiring the licensee to take out fresh cover. Thereafter the licensee's former £5 million cover is regarded as earmarked to meet claims arising out of that occurrence, or out of any other minor escape of radio-activity attributable to the site before that occurrence.

The new cover will relate to claims arising from incidents during the period beginning with the date specified in the ministerial direction and ending either when the Minister issues another such direction, because of another dangerous occurrence, or when the licensee's responsibility is at an end. Each period for which separate cover is required is referred to in the Bill as a "cover period". Under existing English and Scottish law, claims for personal injury must be presented within three years. For damage to property the period is six years, in English law, and, in Scottish law, twenty years.

Having regard to all the features of the scheme which the Bill provides, to the time which diseases like leukæmia might take to develop after exposure to radiation, and to the difficulty of estimating what claims on account of radioactive injury or damage originating now might cost to settle twenty years hence, the Government decided that the fairest period to fix within which all such claims must be made is ten years from the date of the occurrence. In order that persons may establish prima facie evidence of their presence in the vicinity of a reactor when an accident occurs, and so assist the settlement of claims, Clause 5 (5) empowers the Minister to arrange for them to be voluntarily registered as having been there at the time. This provision is the more important in view of the ten-year period which, as I have just explained, the Bill provides for the presentation of claims.

So much then for the two main purposes of the Bill—safety control by licence and absolute liability on licensees up to £5 million for injury or damage by radio-activity, with an obligation to take out proper cover. I now invite your Lordships' attention to some of the Bill's more important ancillary provisions. Clause 6 enables the Minister or the Secretary of State to appoint properly qualified persons as inspectors to assist him in the administration of the Bill. As your Lordships will have already gathered, it will rest on the Minister to decide the conditions to be imposed under licences. These will involve decisions on the safety of the site, the design of the reactor, its construction, operation and maintenance. It will be for the Minister to determine whether an occurrence at the reactor is such as to necessitate new cover on the part of the licensee.

Obviously, the Minister cannot discharge technical functions of this kind without expert advice. The question of how inspectors are to be appointed is engaging the attention of my Department, the Treasury and the Atomic Energy Authority. So long as the Atomic Energy Authority continue to be the leading United Kingdom organisation in the field of nuclear research, there will always be types of work relating to nuclear safety which they alone will be equipped to do. In any event, therefore, close contact between the Authority and the Minister's inspectors will be imperative.

Apart, however, from the staff required for the day-to-day working of the Bill, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and I have decided to appoint a Nuclear Safety Advisory Committee, consisting of nuclear safety experts of the highest standing. We regard such a committee as necessary for the time being, because nuclear science and engineering are making rapid strides and the attendant problems of safety are continually evolving with them. The responsible Minister must therefore be in touch all the time with the latest ideas about nuclear safety, so that, when necessary, he can put them into effect through the inspectorate. In making appointments to the advisory committee, we intend to consult, among others, the Atomic Energy Authority, the manufacturers of nuclear plant, insurers, the owners and operators of major nuclear installations (this means for some years, of course, the Electricity Boards) and organised labour.

My right honourable friend and I wish to establish this committee administratively rather than by Statute, because developments in the industry are hard to foresee, and might eventually necessitate fundamental changes in the constitution of the committee or of their terms of reference. It is desirable to be able to make such changes without recourse to Parliament each time. Our intention, however, is that the composition of the committee shall be such that in matters of nuclear safety its views will be acknowledged as carrying the greatest weight.

My Lords, I mentioned at the beginning of these remarks that the Atomic Energy Authority is not to be subject to licensing under the Bill. The Authority's work is mainly experimental. To assess the hazards to which it gives rise would mean that the Government inspectors would have to be in far closer day-to-day contact with the work in progress than would in the ordinary way be necessary for commercial installations. If the Authority's installations were subject to the inspection provisions of the Bill, the size of the inspectorate would have to be a good deal larger. Otherwise, there would be delays and the work of the Authority would be hampered. The inspectors would also have to be as expert in advanced research as the scientists of the Authority itself—a requirement which the Government consider to be unnecessary, if not impracticable.

Since Section 5 (3) of the Atomic Energy Authority Act, 1954, places on the Authority an absolute duty to prevent the occurrence of injury or damage by radio-activity from their installations, and since they are carrying out the Fleck Committee's recommendations for the improvement of their safety organisation, the Government decided that in the case of the Authority's installations licensing was not called for. It is proposed, however, that a direction should be issued by the Prime Minister to the Authority, under Section 3 (2) of the Atomic Energy Authority Act, 1954, requiring them to observe, so far as practicable, the codes of practice laid down by the licensing department and to keep the licensing department fully informed of their activities from the safety point of view.

A Government Department which operates a reactor will not be subject to licensing, because it is not the practice for one Department to license another. The intention, however, is that Departments should follow the safety principles evolved between the Minister, the Atomic Energy Authority, and the Nuclear Safety Advisory Committee. A Department will be under the same liability to third parties for injury or damage by radioativity given off from its reactor as the Atomic Energy Authority—that is to say, the liability will be absolute and without limit of amount.

Unlike licensees, the Authority and Government Departments will be liable even where the injury or damage is attributable to enemy action. On the other hand, they will have a right to sue a contractor whose negligence has given rise to third-party claims against them. It has been necessary to extinguish this right in the case of a licensee in order to avoid litigation which would arise if insurers or other financial guarantors of a licensee tried to exercise any rights they might have against contractors or subcontractors responsible for building reactors or supplying parts. But the Authority or a Government Department does not normally insure, and, seeing that the taxpayers' money is involved, it is considered proper that in their case the right to sue a negligent contractor should he preserved.

The Bill includes provisions for enforcement, for reporting occurrences, and for inquiries into accidents. It will come into force on such date as may be fixed by Order in Council, so that the persons affected may have time to apply for licences and take out cover against their liabilities. The Government of Northern Ireland wish the Bill to extend to the six counties, subject to the adaptations set out in Clause 11. The responsible Minister will be the Minister of Commerce for Northern Ireland. The Bill, when it becomes law, can also be extended by Order in Council, with or without modifications, to the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.

My Lords, I hope that I have said enough to apprise your Lordships of the main purposes and implications of this Bill. The nuclear power industry is in its infancy. It is in these formative years that we have the opportunity to establish a sound tradition of practice and experience in nuclear safety which will stand the industry and the country in good stead as this form of power becomes more and more widely used. I believe that this Bill will enable us to reduce risks to the minimum, without unduly impeding the industry, and will, at the same time, ensure that any who do sustain injury or damage are fairly compensated. It is in this belief that I now commend the Bill to your Lordships' House. I beg to move.

Moved, That this Bill be now read 2a.(Lord Mills.)

3.49 p.m.


My Lords, my noble friends on this side of the House and myself are very glad to note that the Government are giving this matter serious thought, and although I am not sure that we can welcome the Bill the fact that this thought has gone into it, and that the purposes are very much in mind, is a very desirable thing. I should like to thank the noble Lord, the Minister of Power, for his clear explanation of the Bill as it stands, but, reading the Bill as a layman, I think it makes some surprising assumptions and is open to grave objections at this stage. This afternoon I wish only to indicate broadly the nature of these misgivings, which I think must be scrutinised carefully between now and Committee stage.

This is an important matter the scope of which it is impossible to envisage at this time. As I understood the noble Lord, so far as he can see into the future this Bill is going to apply to reactors only, and the owners of reactors are to be limited to the electricity boards, who have constructed or are constructing them, to the Atomic Energy Authority and possibly to other Government Departments, with one exception—although this is news to me—the private enterprise research station at Aldermaston. Leaving the last one out, because it may be a special case to be dealt with apart from this Bill, it seems to me that the regulations for providing the necessary safety at all these public installations could have been dealt with under the 1954 Act. If I remember that Act, it made provision for the Atomic Energy Authority (which is exempt from this new Bill) to enable other organisations to do work of a like character; and if that is so (I think the power is in Section 2 (2) (e)), this Bill is not an extension of the provisions for public safety but a curtailment of them, because under the present Act the electricity authority and any body working under their wing are subject to no limitations in liability.

I think that this matter should be cleared up explicitly and early. At the moment the noble Lord admits that he sees no applicants for licences other than the public Departments, the Authority and the electricity boards, which, after all, are public authorities. Therefore, I would ask why this Bill is brought forward at this time when the future of atomic energy and its practical application is still very obscure and the form of installations and their risk is still a subject of much conjecture, as is shown by the reports made by the United Nations Scientific Committee and the Medical Research Council's investigations and observations. There is so little that is known, so much that has to be found out. Enough, then, to know that the risks are almost limitless, and these must be known and limited. I would ask the noble Lord, if he does not see the possibility of private operators coming forward and asking for licences, why introduce a Bill for that very purpose long before we really know what the Bill ought to contain?

The noble Lord said that the Bill applies only to reactors, but in Clause 1 (b) it goes rather wider than that. It says: any other installation of such class or description as may be prescribed, being an installation designed or adapted for, or for the carrying out of any process preparatory or ancillary to, the production or use of atomic energy or for the storage, treatment or disposal of nuclear fuel or other radio-active matter, Is this going to apply to hospitals which are using radio-active pharmaceutical materials? Are the protections herein to apply to hospital patients and staffs, to their neighbours and to the public generally? Are they going to apply to the manufacture of radio-active pharmaceutical ingredients, which are being used on an increasing scale, and to all those directly or indirectly concerned with them? Are they going to apply to research stations set up by technical colleges and universities embodying some radio-active production or material? It is difficult to come to any judgment on this Bill before we know the answers to these questions. I understand that it is going to apply to radio-active materials in transit in certain circumstances, but not in foreign ships. I think that the Minister ought to say more about that, and no doubt he will at a later stage.

After these preliminary matters have been looked into, the first question that arises is: Are we really going to contemplate widescale production of atomic energy by private enterprise in this country? I had thought that the Atomic Energy Act, 1954, envisaged that this production of power was of a nature that required it to be undertaken by public authority.

The second question is about liability. I had been waiting eagerly to hear what the Minister would say about liability, because it seemed to me, as a layman, that the Bill was rather obscure on this point. In reading the words in the Bill, I thought that liability was unlimited, and it was only when I came to the insurance provisions that I found that there was a £5 million limit. Whatever be the answer to that, it seems to me most undesirable that a £5 million limit should be arbitrarily chosen and written into the Bill when it is impossible to tell what is the range of liability. We know from the Windscale disaster of last year that there was an increase in radioactivity even in London as a result of that event, not, it is said, to any dangerous extent; but the Minister in another place did say that even so far as London the increase in radio-activity was observed and measured. We cannot possibly conceive what are the limits of damage in an accident of this character in the future, in developments which we cannot foresee. Therefore, to pick on a limit of so many millions of pounds is completely unrealistic.

It seems to me to be foolish to apply the same limit by rule of thumb to every site, no matter what its location or nature. Some sites may be so remote from habitation and so placed in relation to wind or tide as to be comparatively free from real risk. In that case, the £5 million insurance cover would be a burdensome and unnecessary thing. On other sites—and we know of some—where there is a growing surrounding population and where industry is being attracted to the area by the very presence of the energy plants, there are risks immeasurably greater in extent than this figure of £5 million.

The provisions for dealing with excess in this Bill seem to us to be clumsy, obscure and difficult to understand. What does it mean when it says that nothing can be done until Parliament has considered the matter? That is in the clause dealing with the Minister's powers to direct that further cover be undertaken, and I should like the Minister to tell us what it means. I think it is dangerous to lump together three sites if they happen to be the property of one owner and to say that they can be regarded as one for the purpose of insurance cover. That again seems to me to be a most unnecessary and dangerous provision.

Then there is the question of the limitation of claims in point of time. The Minister claimed some credit for extending the normal statutory limit from three years to ten years; but ten years in this new hazard is a very short time. If he will look at the Report of the Medical Research Council—we do not want to exaggerate these things, but we must take note of them—he will see that the evil effects of over-radiation caused by some accident or mishap in such plants may be made manifest only after perhaps twenty years. The gravest effects of these accidents are the very long-distance ones, and to limit the liability to a period which medical science, even at this date, can show is completely inadequate is something which I feel your Lordships will have to scrutinise closely. The same is true of property damage. The nature of property damage likely to arise from these mishaps may well be a long time in some cases in manifesting itself. Then I do not like the wording of the provision for the voluntary registration of persons in the vicinity of an accident. I should like to be sure that the failure to register will not be a handicap in making a claim; and I should have thought that there were much better ways of dealing with this matter.

There is also the question of work-people in these installations and their ancillaries. The Minister told us that they were included in the provisions made for the public at large. I should like to ask him whether that is so in every case, and whether in every case and in every way workpeople are in no worse a position under this Bill than they would be if the Factories Acts, workmen's compensation and the general Common Law provisions applied. I do not wish to detain your Lordships upon the Second Reading of this Bill, because the general purpose of it is certainly one which we must consider and the Bill demands a Second Reading. But I feel that we all lime a great duty not only to scrutinise these provisions in their minutiæ, but to ask ourselves whether this is the time to lay down a code of law for something which is in its absolute infancy, in which private enterprise has not emerged, and in circumstances which we cannot yet foresee.

4.5 p.m.


My Lords, I hesitate to address your Lordships to-day on such a complex and highly technical subject, and I feel rather like the proverbial fool who rushed in where wise men feared to tread. The sole reason for my taking part in this debate is that I feel that, as the Minister has said, this new form of power is in its infancy, and it is right that younger Members of your Lordships' House should take part in debates which deal with it. The Minister has covered in great detail the main objects of the Bill, and I want to refer to only two aspects of it—namely, the building and control of reactors and nuclear power stations. I should first like to pay my tribute to the scientists and technicians who have throughout the years developed what is now known as the Calder Hall type of reactor; that is to say, a gas-cooled, graphite-morderated reactor. That this policy was a wise one may be borne out by the fact that recently the United States Atomic Energy Commission have asked for proposals to be made for the provision of a similar type of reactor, and I believe they intend to build a prototype. I feel, therefore, that we may have a lead in the world in that respect.

Another field in which we certainly have a lead is in the manufacture and exports of radio isotopes which are being used to an ever-increasing degree in industry, agriculture, research and the medical sphere. At the moment the figures are small: we are producing radio isotopes only to the value of £600,000, and approximately two-thirds of that is being exported. However, that amount is greater than all the exports of similar radio isotopes of all other countries put together, which would seem to indicate that we have a definite lead in that respect.

On the question of reactors, the attitude of the Euratom countries is quite different from our own. I believe I am right in saying that they are considering and providing other types of reactors—in other words, the pressurised water reactor and the boiling water reactor; and I might mention that the "Nautilus" submarine is fitted with a pressurised water reactor. The attitude of this country would appear to have been governed by the fact that the object of our reactors is to produce electricity. In the case of a gas-cooled, graphite-moderated reactor it is not necessary to close down the plant should a defect be detected in any of the fuel elements; they can be changed while the power station is on full pressure and full temperature. I believe I am right in saying that that is the only type of reactor where one can do that—in other words, one does not have to close down for several days.

The lessons learned through the Wind-scale accident have certainly proved of great assistance to the designers of the four power stations which are at present being built. These are Bradwell, Berkeley, Hunterston and Hinkley Point. I believe Hinkley Point is considered to be one of our foremost atomic power stations. I am not going into any technical details, but I believe that a saving of 20 per cent. in capital cost of the reactor has been achieved compared with the cost of the Calder Hall reactor. I should imagine, and perhaps the Minister would be able to confirm, that the advances made in the Hinkley Point type of reactor have been incorporated in the A.G.R. project, or advanced gas-cooled reactor project, which I believe is due to he completed in 1961.

Here I should like to ask the Minister if he could give us any information as to whether it is considered a feasible proposition in this country to use enriched uranium. It is quite true that in the United States the supply position is different, but uranium is manufactured in this country at Capenhurst and plutonium is manufactured at Windscale, Calder Hall and Chapelcross, not forgetting the fissile materials that will be made available by the breeder reactor at Dounreay in Caithness. It is interesting to remember the remarks that were made by the "Three Wise Men" last year when they visited this country and the United States: that to achieve their programme of 15,000 megawatts by 1967 their requirements in fuel would be annually 6,000 tons of natural uranium, but only 18 tons of enriched uranium. That is why I should like to take this opportunity to ask the Minister what are the Government's intentions with regard to the use of enriched uranium in this country.

This brings me to the question of the safety aspect in these up-and-coming nuclear power stations. I am advised that the cost of complete safety in these stations by reactor instrumentation is 2 per cent. of the total cost of the station. That might seem a fairly high cost, but certainly not too high for complete safety. I fear that accidents may still occur. Clause 1 (3) states: the Minister may at any time by instrument in writing— (a) attach to the licence such conditions as he may in the interests of safety think fit, including, in particular, conditions— (i) for securing the maintenance of an efficient system for detecting and recording the presence and intensity of any ionising radiations from time to time emitted from anything on the site or from anything discharged on or from the site. That is why I should like to ask the Minister whether it is his intention that radiation exposure records should be kept for the workers individually at these nuclear power stations, and also whether it is intended that radiation exposure records should be kept of the results of site monitoring. I think it is interesting to recall the concluding remarks of the Medical Research Council's publication The Hazards to Man of Nuclear and Allied Radiations. These remarks endorsed the 1954 recommendations of the International Commission on Radiological Protection—namely, that the dose received by any individual should not exceed 3 roentgens weekly, averaged over a period of thirteen consecutive weeks. I hope the Minister will be able to answer some of my questions.

4.17 p.m.


My Lords, before the noble Lord, Lord Mills, replies, I wonder whether he would be good enough to inform us a little more as to how this £5 million figure was arrived at? That is by no means an excessive figure for any kind of disaster insurance, which any large undertaking is liable to take out in any case. If the only probable risk is going to be under £5 million, a reasonable increase, up to, say, £50 million, would be a negligible insurance cost and would be readily accepted, I understand, by the ordinary underwriting procedures. It would be of some interest to your Lordships, I am sure, to know how it is that this £5 million figure has been regarded as an adequate one for all possible purposes in the future.


My Lords, some of us are very puzzled about this Bill. We do not understand at all in what circumstances this Bill is going to come into operation. What kind of private undertakings is it proposed to license? If the noble Lord has no private undertakings in mind, what is the purpose of the Bill at all? We are completely in the dark as to what this Bill is all about, and what the noble Lord intends to achieve by it.


My Lords, I asked the Minister a question, and I did not give him the reference. I should like to remedy that omission now. I want him to tell us what Paragraph 6 of the Memorandum means. That says: If the Minister considers that the licensee's liability for hurt or damage by radiation from any occurrence is likely to exceed five million pounds, he is required to certify accordingly by statutory instrument … Before anything happens, he has to take a view of what is likely. If he thinks it is likely that any accident could cause a liability of more than £5 million he is requited to certify by statutory instrument. The note goes on: and thereafter no claims in respect of that occurrence are to be dealt with until Parliament so determines. It seems to me that that is obscurity.

4.20 p.m.


My Lords, may I also express my own little bewilderment about the purposes of this Bill? It seems to me that we who are laymen cannot express any worth-while opinion upon this Bill because we wonder what its purpose really is. For example, in to-day's New Scientist there appears a profile of Sir Christopher Hinton, in which there is a reference to the discussion about the site. I should like your Lordships to bear with me while I read it. In talking about the use of atomic energy, Hinton, who was interviewed by Sir Oliver Franks, said that he would take the job only if peaceful uses could be exploited also. Then the article goes on to say: The original plan was for a graphite-moderated, water-cooled reactor. There was inherent in this the possibility that if the water supply failed the reactor could become supercritical. There was some disagreement on the safety distances that should be kept. Hinton was insistent that no conceivable risk should be incurred. The result of this was that the only site in Britain which appeared suitable was on the beautiful stretch of coastline in the Western Highlands between Arisaig and Morar. To Hinton the idea of spoiling one of the finest pieces of country in Britain was almost intolerable. That is the point of view of one very eminent man in the nuclear reactor profession. What I ask myself, therefore, is this: in the case of sites, who is to determine where the site is to be; what is to be the function of the inspector in determining where the site should be, and is his word final?

Reference has been made by the noble Lord, Lord Mills, to the Windscale incident. In a lecture which had nothing whatever to do with the production of nuclear energy, but in which the speaker was dealing with the mental health aspects of problems involved in the peaceful uses of atomic energy, the lecturer, Dr. Soddy, said this: … perhaps the most frightening is that of a tremendous power that may get out of control at any moment, as the public outcry following the ' Windscale ' reactor incident showed, with its incredible confusion of abandonment of milk supplies and the dramatic taking of safety precautions that the Authority itself repeatedly stated were quite unnecessary because there really was no danger at all. There is an indication that the public at the moment are so ignorant, so alarmed at possibilities which may or may not exist, that one would like some kind of assurance that what we are doing to-day is really aimed at coping with a situation about which we are on the whole completely ignorant. It seems to me that this allaying of anxiety about possibilities of danger is a matter that the Government ought to take into consideration before embodying any proposals in the kind of Bill we are presented with to-day. It is that kind of bewilderment upon which I should like some assurance from the noble Lord.

4.25 p.m.


My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wilmot of Selmeston, for his questions in regard to this matter, and I will do my best to answer them, as well as the questions raised by other noble Lords. The main theme of the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Wilmot of Selmeston, was: why is this Bill necessary, and to what end is it directed? I should have thought he would know quite well, because he took part in the nationalisation Act in relation to our great electricity undertaking. I have always regarded it that the purpose of that Act was not to make Government Departments of the electricity undertakings, and of the other industrial activities which were nationalised, but to give them a charter to bring the different units together and to get them, within the terms of the Act, to operate as businesses. I should find it exceedingly difficult to follow that thought, if it is correct, if these businesses are to have an unlimited liability on them.

The Atomic Energy Act of 1954 made the Atomic Energy Authority completely and absolutely liable to an unlimited extent for the result of any of its operations and for any period of time. I do not think that one can expect a business which has to balance its accounts, taking one year with another, to operate under such conditions, and we considered it necessary to introduce this Bill in order that the nationalised authorities and private industry, if and when they come to build reactors for any purposes (and there is already one small one), should be able to insure their risk, and that we should define what that risk should be so far as the limit of their liability is concerned.

This Bill does not cover the question of hospitals or the manufacture of pharmaceuticals, and I was very glad to hear the reference made by the noble Lord, Lord Merrivale, to what is being done by this country in the export of radio-active isotopes. All I can say in regard to that matter is that, if and when the manufacture of such pharmaceuticals, calls for special measures, I have no doubt proposals will be laid before your Lordships' House. But the purpose of this Bill is two-fold. It is to prescribe the conditions under which reactors, and installations of that type, which might give rise to radio-activity, can be constructed and operated. We thought it well to set a limit to the liability on any one occurrence. The liability has been discussed with the insurance world; advice has been taken from all those who are competent to give advice. It has been discussed internationally, and the con- census of opinion is that £5 million should be adequate to cover any occurrence that is likely to happen. Whether the proper figure is £5 million, or any other figure of that order, is a matter of opinion; but that is the best advice that we can get on the subject.


It is the general idea of limiting the liability to any figure that we are worried about. We have no means of saying whether £5 million, if that is going to be the limit, is a right figure or not. Why limit the amount at all?


May I remind the noble Lord that private enterprise carries full responsibility to an unlimited extent for damage or hurt that it may do. The noble Lord is lifting the liability.


I understand the position well. But this is an unusual and a new kind of liability, and it is necessary to require cover in order that compensation can be paid. I have no reason to think that we should anticipate such a thing, but if we are thinking of something like a national disaster, then the fact remains that the Bill provides for the matter to come before Parliament, which will decide what shall be done. I suggest that that is a wise provision.

The noble Lord, Lord Wilmot of Selmeston, also raised the question of foreign ships. When we get into that realm we are in the realm of international convention, and we cannot for ourselves decide what shall happen, except for ships plying between British ports. That matter will have to be, and will be in due course, the subject of international discussion and convention. The noble Lord was also, I think, under some misapprehension because the Bill excludes, rather than includes, the Atomic Energy Authority and other Government Departments where the liability is unlimited, and where there is no question of insurance, because that is not ordinary practice. But in the case of the Generating Board and any private installations, the Bill provides that there shall be either insurance or some form of cover—no doubt setting aside liquid assets—sufficient to cover this liability of £5 million.

That brings me to the point raised by the noble Lord: that where three or more sites are held, we should be content with sufficient cover for two sites. That does not apply to insurance. Where it is decided to take out an insurance policy then, however many sites are held, every one must be covered. But I think it would not be very wise to compel a licensee to set aside sufficient money to cover the liability for each reactor, because the Minister has power to require further cover—as he undoubtedly would as soon as an accident occurred. As regards the question of time, that matter also has been the subject of careful inquiry, both by experts in this country and in international discussion, and it was felt that ten years was a fair time. There again, another view may be held, but expert opinion has enabled us to put in the Bill the period of ten years from the date of the occurrence.

The noble Lord, Lord Wilmot of Selmeston, raised the question of work-people in installations. They are covered completely, just like any other member of the public, and they retain all their rights in everything for which they are covered. This cover, however, is confined to damage through radio-activity. The question of voluntary registration was also raised by the noble Lord. That is intended only as an administrative convenience and as something in favour of the public. Failure to register would have no effect whatever. The man or woman, if they could prove their case, would still have a good claim, even if they had not registered.

The noble Lord, Lord Merrivale, raised the question about enriched uranium and the breeder reactor at Dounreay. I do not think that has anything to do with this particular Bill, but I should be most happy to give the noble Lord, such information as I can. The noble Lord, Lord Greenhill, raised questions about the siting of reactors. Again, that is a matter that has nothing to do with this Bill. This Bill has to do with safety, and merely enables the Minister to say that a particular site is not suitable from a safety point of view. The other conditions in regard to amenity and so on, can all be determined at the public inquiry held under the Electricity Acts.


Is the noble Lord going to answer my question as to what sort of undertakings it is proposed to license here? He has referred to statutory undertakings. But will the Bill apply also to private concerns?


My Lords, it will apply to industrial undertakings where nuclear energy is used—generators operated by the Generating Board, research stations put up by industry, and the like. It is not intended to cover the manufacture of pharmaceuticals, or ordinary university research or anything of that sort. If and when those activities require cover fresh measures will be put before Parliament.


My Lords, do not certain pharmaceutical products fall within the definition in Clause 1 (1) (b) relating to the words "radio-active matter"?


My Lords, I am quite aware of what is said in Clause 1 (b). It may be necessary to alter that wording in Committee, but it is not intended to cover pharmaceutical and similar matters.


thank the noble Lord.


My Lords, we came to the conclusion that such a Bill was necessary to define the liabilities of operators, to enable the Minister to prescribe safety conditions and see that they were carried out, and to provide for compensation in the event of untoward occurrences. I commend the Bill to your Lordships.

4.41 p.m.


My Lords, we are very much obliged to the noble Lord the Minister for the manner in which he has dealt with this very complicated Bill. Far from conforming to the general idea that this was to be largely a technical Bill, concerned only with licensing and the like, it is obviously one which may affect wide public policy and may concern a vast number of people. We on this side will follow the usual practice which, I believe, has been adopted over late years in your Lordships' House of not dividing against the Second Reading of a Government measure. Nevertheless, between now and the Committee stage we shall have to examine this Bill, its usage and its possible effects, under a microscope.

I believe that the more we study the Bill and the speech which the Minister has made, the more we shall be concerned to see that such limitations are not laid down in the Statute as would leave any considerable part of the population insufficiently covered by insurance. If limits are to be laid down in respect of periods, will a person have to prove, for example, that he contracted a particular form of radio-active disease within a given period in a particular place before he is to be given any effective cover? All kinds of questions arise upon which we ourselves may be regarded as completely hazy at the moment—but surely not more hazy than has been the general presentation of the case in these matters to the House to-day.

Therefore, although I do not want to delay your Lordships, because I am particularly anxious that the noble and gallant Lord who is to undertake the next Motion on the Paper should not be unduly restricted, I want to say to the Minister that while we admire, as always, his great courtesy and attention to detail in his reply, we are not satisfied and we shall have to look at this measure very carefully; and perhaps because of the great general public interest that may be involved in this Bill, the noble Lord, the Minister, would not mind if we asked to have some interim consultation with him or his Department.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.