HL Deb 02 February 1961 vol 228 cc265-75

2.48 p.m.

Order of the Day for the House to be put into Committee read.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee—(Lord Mills.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The LORD MERTHYR in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [Extension of powers of Central Electricity Generating Board]:

LORD SHACKLETON moved, in subsection (I), after "have power to" to insert "process and". The noble Lord said: I have on the Paper two Amendments, the second of which is, in fact, directly consequential to the first. In moving this Amendment, I think I should repeat that my noble friends welcome this Bill, and the fact that I am moving an Amendment to it in no way reflects any dislike of the purpose of the Bill. The purpose of this Amendment is simply to allow the Central Electricity Generating Board, if it should wish, not only to manufacture radio-isotopes, the power to do which it is given in the Bill, but also to process them and to market them—but primarily to process them. This appears to be only a very minor and rather theoretical proposition, but I think it raises quite an important issue.

Your Lordships will remember that the Electricity Act. 1957, restricted the then Central Electricity Authority (now the Central Electricity Generating Board) from carrying out functions other than those which were strictly related in one way or another to the production of electricity. In order, therefore, to enable the Central Electricity Generating Board to manufacture radioisotopes, the Government had to come to Parliament to get a new Act of Parliament. The noble Lord, the Paymaster General, gave us a very clear account on Second Reading of the use of radioactive isotopes, and I would not attempt to go too deeply into it again. We know that there is a growing demand for radio-isotopes, and that they are an important new development and can be of very great value to the community in a number of ways.

Perhaps it is worth reminding your Lordships that an isotope is an atom of the same chemical nature as another atom, but having a different weight, or mass; and that though it is chemically the same, it is significantly different in this respect. Because of the surplus capacity of the Generating Board's atomic power stations, they cannot help irradiating material of one kind or another. At this point I should like to be a little technical, because my Amendment depends on it.

As I understand it, in order to retain an even neutron flux in the reactor it is necessary to have certain absorbent materials, and I understand (though I may be wrong) that these absorbent materials are not necessarily the same as the control rods, which I have always understood to be made of cadium and which are part of the controlling machinery of the pile. There are these materials, maybe iron or stainless steel, which are irradiated, and it is now proposed to make use of these neutrons by irradiating some particular useful materials. I do not know whether they are proposing to do this to what I might call the more esoteric isotopes, or whether it will be confined to simpler materials, like cobalt. But I do not wish to take that any further.

The point is that when the bars of irradiated material emerge from the pile they then have to be processed. And this is the point where my Amendment comes in, because this processing, which at the moment is done, and properly done, at the Radio-chemical Centre belonging to the Atomic Energy Authority, involves breaking down these materials, encapsulating them, or incorporating them into whatever form is required by industry, research, or the medical profession; and, above all, providing complete protection so that the dangerous radiations cannot get outside and do damage.

There is no proposal at present to suggest that any body other than the Atomic Energy Authority should do this. What we do not understand is why, in fact, this power to process should be denied to the Central Electricity Generating Board, while, as the noble Lord said on Second Reading, there is nothing to prevent private firms from doing it. What can be argued should be properly done, certainly by the Atomic Energy Authority, might one day require to be done by the Central Electricity Generating Board. Under the Bill as it stands, that will not be possible, yet private firms will be allowed to do it when the time comes.

The time has not come, and probably it will be quite a long way off before it is done. The Minister has said on this question that, if necessary, he would come to Parliament to obtain these powers. I would suggest that this situation is an absurdity, and that it is part and parcel of a certain prejudice which was shown in the 1957 Act in restricting a very successful nationalised authority. I would not accuse the noble Lord himself for one moment of this sort of prejudice. We know that he is deeply interested in the success of industry, whether it be nationally owned or privately owned. But I would urge him to consider what the position of the privately owned company is.

We are to-day almost like a company meeting (if I may go back to a useful analogy) which is called to consider a change in the articles. Practically any company, public or private, has almost infinite powers in its articles to do almost anything, yet we are quite unnecessarily restricting a publicly owned authority from undertaking a natural, and possibly useful and profitable development. I do not see why this should be so: all the more so since the Minister, on Second Reading in another place said that he was aware that the Bill referring to the sale to other persons "opens the door". He said— and rightly so—that that door is not likely quickly to be opened. because the Radio-chemical Centre at Amersham is rather a complicated place. But he went on to say that he hoped that eventually others would come in, because other benefits would be conferred.

I do not see why we should have to face this situation. Why, in due course, should not the Central Electricity Generating Board, because the Atomic Energy Authority's resources are fully occupied, be permitted to go into this processing? As the noble Lord knows, all firms look for an opportunity of diversifying their activities. At the same time, one also realises that, if they are wise, they do not try to diversify into fields about which they know little. But the Central Electricity Generating Board will have great knowledge and will have been handling these radio-isotopes, in their primary form as they come from the reactor. What the Board is doing, in fact, is precisely what the Coal Board now does when it makes bricks from ashes. The Central Electricity Generating Board is here making bricks from its own ashes—making radio-isotopes from the materials which, in one form or another, it puts into the reactor.

We have—and this is acknowledged—a highly successful electricity industry. Prices have scarcely increased, so far as I can ascertain, since before the war. The purpose of this Amendment is to do what the Paymaster General went out of his way to say the Central Electricity Generating Board would not be enabled to do. He said that they would not be able to process. I think he also said that they would not be able to market; but, so far as I can see, under the Bill that would be possible. But they should be allowed to process and be given some sort of freedom, and thereby, I hope, save the time of both the Minister, or his successors, and Parliament at a later date. I beg 'to move.

Amendment moved— Page 1, line 13, after ("to") insert ("process and").—(Lord Shackleton.)

2.58 p.m.


I am glad to acknowledge the forward-looking aspect of this matter on the part of the noble Lord, and also the fact that he recognises that I personally should not be concerned whether a nationally owned or a private industry were involved here. I should like to explain the position as I see it. Perhaps I ought to say, although I think the noble Lord has made it clear, that the effect of this Amendment, and of the proposed Amendment in line 13, on page 3, which is consequential, would be to empower the Generating Board to process commercially radioactive material produced in their reactors. In other words, it would empower them to set up a factory like the Atomic Energy Authority's Radio-chemical Centre at Amersham, where practically all the processing of radio-isotopes in this country is now done. They would have power not only to fashion from the radioactive materials produced in their reactors a variety of radioactive sources, now in demand for radiography and radiotherapy, but also to manufacture the even wider range of radio 'chemicals into which such materials can be compounded for all manner of medical, industrial and research purposes. The range of products may be expected to increase. As the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, said on Second Reading, the uses for these products are infinite and we are only at their beginning as a research tool.

The principal job of the Generating Board is to generate electricity. When the Board's powers were last under discussion in Parliament, during the passage of the Electricity Act, 1957, my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor quoted what my right honourable friend the then Paymaster General had recently said in another place, namely, that if nationalised Boards were to carry out their purpose—in this case the generation and supply of electricity—they ought not to wander into wider fields of activity. In the Government's view, that principle must be maintained unless there are exceptional reasons for departing from it.

We believe that there are exceptional reasons for permitting the Generating Board to irradiate material in their reactors as a commercial venture. The capacity for irradiation in the Board's nuclear power stations will be on a scale comparable with anywhere else in the world. It will be made available at little cost and with little, if any, extra staff at a time when the country's other irradiation capacity—that is, the capacity of the Atomic Energy Authority—is near- ing its limit and when demand for radioactive isotopes at home and abroad is expanding. If the Board are not allowed to use their irradiation capacity for the production of radioactive isotopes. it will the wasted and the United Kingdom will lose the business. Consequently, we consider that an extension of their manufacturing powers in the form proposed in the Bill is fully justified. I am just putting this on record, although I know that noble Lords opposite are fully in support of this proposal.

But when it comes to extending the Board's powers still further, to include the processing of radioactive isotopes after irradiation, as the Amendment seeks to do, these arguments do not apply. The Atomic Energy Authority, who by virtue of Section 2 (2) of the Atomic Energy Authority Act, 1954, have power to manufacture and sell radioactive isotopes, already have manufacturing capacity for this purpose in Amersham. This capacity has recently been expanded. The Authority have at Amersham a highly qualified and experienced staff and excellent equipment. They also have an efficient organisation for marketing and distribution. In due course, private firms may wish to make their own contribution, in resources and ideas, to the advancement of the industry, but at present there is nothing to suggest that the United Kingdom's trade in radioactive isotopes, either at home or abroad, would be better served by empowering the Generating Board to duplicate the Authority's Amersham facilities, with the prospect of additional capital expenditure by the Board and the recruitment of rare specialised staff.

As I said on Second Reading, the Government consider that if circumstances should change and the position needed to be reviewed, then Parliament should be consulted again; but at the present time there is no need for this Amendment. I think it would be wrong to encourage the Generating Board at this time to spend their time looking forward to doing what another public authority is doing well and efficiently, and I would suggest to your Lordships that the Amendment should not be accepted.


It is interesting to hear the Minister advocating monopoly socialism. There are cases when competitive socialism is desirable, and I should have thought that this was one of them and that it would be an excellent thing to empower the Central Electricity Generating Board to do what may ultimately be done by private industry and is certainly now very well done by another socialised organisation, the Atomic Energy Authority. These isotopes are the by-product of the work of the Authority and that the by-product should be processed by the producer seems a most reasonable proposition. Even if it is not going to occur now, it may well be— as I believe that the Minister himself previously said—that it would be desirable to do this at some time in the future. Why not give permissive legislation now, and thus save the time of Parliament?

It is inconceivable that the Electricity Generating Board would wish to produce isotopes in competition with Amersham and to draw off the scarce supply of scientists, but it may well be that in future the demand for isotopes will grow and it may become convenient to have a processing plant near to a producing plant, or even part of a producing plant. Especially if a plant were producing only one kind of isotope, that would seem the most economic and sensible thing for us to do. I hope that the Government will have another look at this Amendment, because I think that it is a valuable one.


From the Paymaster General's reply, I understand that the only reason why the Central Electricity Generating Board are allowed to manufacture radioactive isotopes is the very exceptional one that they cannot help manufacturing them and will go on doing it, whether we like it or not. Judging from what the noble Lord said, if the Government could find a way to stop them from manufacturing isotopes, they would do so.

It seems to me to be extraordinary to say that we ought not to encourage the Board to do anything other than generate electricity. They are a responsible body. The last thing they will do is to indulge in expensive, time-absorbing and distracting activities unless they regard them as necessary, and I cannot understand why the Government want them to go in one direction and not in another. If they proposed to confine manufacture purely to the Atomic Energy Authority's plant at Amersham, that would be understandable; but apparently they are perfectly prepared to let others move into this field and, if there is a profitable opportunity, use up some o f the nation's resources of scientists. This is a simple and easy Amendment for the Government to accept. It makes no immediate change, but it would be an indication, if I may say so, of a rather purer intention in the matter and might well save the time of Parliament on another occasion.


I thought that I had made myself quite clear: but apparently I had not. The point is that at Amersham the Atomic Energy Authority have all the resources and scientific skill to deal with this problem. We are anxious that the Generating Board should not be empowered to dissipate their energies to look for staff to do the thing which the Atomic Energy Authority are well qualified to do.

Then I come to private enterprise. Private enterprise possesses many skills and many technical staffs which might in some direction or another contribute to the national benefit in this particular field; and if so, we do not intend to exclude them. The Generating Board are concerned, and very efficiently concerned, with the generation of electricity. As the noble Lord has said, with the possession of these reactors they are in a position to use them to the benefit of this country in the production of radio-isotopes; and this Bill would empower them to do that. I see no case made out for empowering the Generating Board at this stage to embark on something that is not required and is, in fact, unnecessary. I ask your Lordships to agree to the rejection of this Amendment.


We always listen to the noble Lord with great respect because he comes here at all times with a knowledge of the case he has to defend or advocate, and on this occasion I have listened carefully to the case which he has so understandably put up. But what I cannot get through my mind is this.

It is true that the Central Electricity Board have as their prime function the generation of electricity. But it is frankly admitted by the Minister that after they have done their generating of electricity they will have an abundant waste of their materials which could be profitably used. The Government have recognised that fact by producing a Bill to enable the electricity stations to go into this production of radio-isotopes. In the process beyond that, they are fully contemplating, if I understand the Minister aright, that when the capacity of Amersham is fully absorbed in the further processes which might be entered into, there is private enterprise which can do it. The quotation made by the Minister of what was said by one of his ministerial colleagues three years ago is used against the Amendment on this occasion to show that it is a quite unnecessary function. and it is claimed that it is restricting the undue development of a nationalised body by dealing with the matter in this way. I therefore do not accept the argument, and I should be quite prepared to divide on the Amendment.


May I reply to the noble Viscount? The capacity of the Generating Board to irradiate materials will be used to the full. We are already approaching the limit of what the Atomic Energy Authority can do there. But the Atomic Energy Authority possess the means of processing, and they have added to their capacity at Amersham. They have the staffs and the marketing techniques, and they have studied and developed the whole of this process. I suggest that it would be reasonable, if we wanted a still further capacity to do that, to look first and see

whether it would not be wise and proper, and economic, to develop Amersham and what is being done there, rather than start a new body, that does not exist for this purpose, for this new business, when new staffs would have to be created, the techniques learned and so on. They do not in the course of their duties acquire, or need to acquire, these techniques; but it may be that some industry concerned with the use of radioisotopes might have some ideas and might think that they can be processed in another form. That is why I say that this Amendment is unnecessary. If it ever becomes necessary, we will put it forward again. I must persist in saying that I advise your Lordships to reject this Amendment.


Could the noble Lord say whether private enterprise can be prevented from processing this radioactive material?


There are certain regulations in force, under other Acts, where they have to get authority to deal with these materials—the restoring of them and so forth. But I do not think we seek to prevent private enterprise from contributing anything that they can properly contribute.


But not a nationalised undertaking?


The whole processing. handling and marketing is now under the control of a nationalised undertaking.

On Question, Whether the said Amendment shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 26; Not-Contents, 55.

Airedale, L. Henderson, L. Shackleton, L.
Alexander of Hillsborough, V. Latham. L. Shepherd, L.
Amwell, L. Lawson, L. Stonham, L.
Brand, L. Listowel, E. Taylor, L.
Burden, L. [Teller.] Lucan, E. [Teller.] Uvedale of North End, L.
Chorley, L. Meston, L. Williams, L.
Dalton, L. Ogmore, L. Wise, L.
Furness, V. Pethick-Lawrence, L. Wootton of Abinger, B.
Hall, V. Rea, L.
Albemarle, E. Bathurst, E. Derwent, L.
Ampthill, L. Buckinghamshire, E. Dowding, L.
Arran, E. Conesford, L. Dundee, E.
Atholl, D. Cottesloe, L. Elliot of Harwood, B.
Auckland, L. Davidson, V. Ferrier, L.
Fortescue, E. Lothian, M. Saltoun, L.
Freyberg, L. Manoroft, L. Sinclair, L.
Gage, V. Massereene and Ferrard, V. Sinclair of Cleeve, L.
Gifford, L. Merrivale, L. Soulbury, V.
Goschen, V. Mills. L. Spens, L.
Hacking, L. Mowbray and Stourton, L. Strathcarron, L.
Hastings, L. Newall, L. Strathclyde, L.
Hawke, L. Newton, L. [Teller.] Stratheden and Campbeli, L
Horsbrugh, B. Rathcavan, L. Swansea, L.
Howe, E. Ravensdale of Kedleston, B. Swinton, E.
Jessel, L. Rugby, L. Teviot, L.
Killearn, L. St. Aldwyn, E. [Teller.] Waldegrave, E.
Kilmuir, V. (L. Chancellor.) St. Oswald, L. Wolverton, L.
Long, V.

On Question. Amendment agreed to.

Clause 1 agreed to.

Remaining clause and Schedule agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported without amendment.