HL Deb 20 May 1974 vol 351 cc1240-4

2.51 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the second Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government, now that they have to face the crucial decision about the next generation of nuclear power stations, whether they will carefully sift the conflicting economic and scientific opinions before giving way to pressures within the Nuclear Power Corporation to build or license the American pressurised water reactor.


Yes, my Lords, the Government are carefully examining all the relevant information before taking a decision on reactor choice.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that that is a sultry Answer? I expected that. Is he also aware that one cannot understand why, in 1972, the Central Electricity Generating Board said we would need only four reactors and yet now, suddenly, after a rethink, there is a demand for 18 specialised water reactors of a size which has never been tried—namely, 1,200 to 1,300 megawatts—which will need steel to withstand the pressure of one ton per square inch, as compared with the Magnox, which withstands a pressure of 400 lbs. per square inch? Is he further aware that the estimate for this was made at £5,000 million and that, ultimately, another 18 reactors is asked for? The 36, if we had them, would make the price of the Concorde look like a Boy Scouts' jumble sale. What is going wrong with the country, and when will Parliament assert its authority to stop this mad race without research in depth?


My Lords, I am not quite sure what my noble friend is asking me. I did say that all the relevant information was being taken into account. If my noble friend is saying that the estimates of electricity generation have been too optimistic or too exaggerated, I am afraid that information suggests that this is not so, and although the C.E.G.B. estimates were probably a little on the high side we shall need the sort of electricity to which the forthcoming decision will be directed.


My Lords, would my noble friend agree that the confusion which has arisen over the nuclear reactors shows how important it would be to set up an independent advisory commission to advise the Government on energy matters? Would he further agree that at the present time the Central Electricity Generating Board say one thing; that highly distinguished scientists, like Sir Alan Cottrell, say something different; and that we are at the moment in no position to reach a proper decision on these matters? Does this not mean that there should be a proper Energy Commission set up immediately?


My Lords, I think that probably my noble friend has overlooked the fact that there has been established the Nuclear Power Advisory Board, on which are represented the C.E.G.B., the S.S.E.B., the Electricity Council, the Atomic Energy Authority and the National Nuclear Corporation, as well as three independent members. I assure him that there is no confusion although there are, of course, different views as to what should be our next choice. But all these matters are now being considered by the Nuclear Power Advisory Board.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the C.E.G.B. have gone stark raving mad so far as nuclear energy in this country is concerned? They have been doing this for the last 15 years. We from the mining industry, when we were Members of the other place, met the Chairman of the Electricity Board in regard to the development of nuclear energy, and the answer was always on the side of nuclear energy to replace coal and oil-fired power stations. I think it is about time the Government had a further look at this matter in view of what has been said by my noble friend Lord Wynne-Jones on this particular issue. He is more qualified to speak on these particular matters than I, but I have my personal opinion so far as—




My Lords, it is perfectly true the C.E.G.B. have a view different from that of other authorities, but I do not really believe that this merits calling them stark staring mad.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord when it is likely that the Government will come to a conclusion about this? Anxious as I always am to help the Government, I would suggest to him that the sooner they come to a conclusion the less he will get of all this.


My Lords, it is hoped that there will be an announcement in the next few weeks.


My Lords, could my noble friend give any indication to the House as to whether it is the intention of Her Majesty's Government ultimately to publish the evidence upon which the final decision is based?


My Lords, the report of the Nuclear Power Advisory Board will be confidential, but the essential information in that report will be published.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend finally how many informed laymen will have the opportunity, like Sir Walter Citrine had when we first set up the Atomic Energy Board in 1946, to sit in on these discussions? Or is there a pompous assumption by Atomic Energy so-called experts that no layman can follow the arguments even if he is presented with them by an expert?


My Lords, judging by the amount of correspondence that has gone through my hands—and I have nothing at all to do with it—I think there are many laymen who are interested and whose views are being considered by the appropriate authorities, which I have already detailed.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether he has observed that the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, has offered to help the Government? Could we ascertain in which direction?


My Lords, may I ask the question to which we all want the answer? Are the Government aiming in the direction of placing this contract for a British reactor or for an American one?


My Lords, the decision will take into account balance-of-payments requirements, safety factors, the cost of installation, the cost of operation, the question of helping British industry and a number of other matters. These are by no means simple, and they are all being reconciled. I note the impatience of the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, but I think he will probably agree that if we come to the right answer the delay will have been worth while.


My Lords, would the noble Lord agree that we are at a crossroads where every short-term alternative is, at best, a pis aller and, at worst, arguably mistaken? And that the only arguably right solution is the fast-breeder reactor? Will he give an undertaking that the terms of reference of the learned body which he quoted to us will include the requisite priority for the fast-breeder reactor so that, given that priority, we shall have it available in the 1980s but otherwise not till the 1990s or the Greek Kallends?


My Lords, there are claims being put forward on behalf of the fast-breeder reactor but there are certain other considerations that have been advanced on behalf of the other systems.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, on the question of timing, a similar question was put to the late Government and that we were told that a decision on these water reactors would be reached in the very near future? But we do not seem any nearer a decision now than we were then.


My Lords, I hope that we are considerably nearer a decision. These are complicated matters. There are important issues involved, and I have said it is hoped that the present Government will announce a decision within the next few weeks.


My Lords, we were doing very well until we came to this Question. We have been on it now for twenty-three minutes and, despite the importance of the subject, I hope the House will think that we should now move to the next Business.