HL Deb 22 December 1976 vol 378 cc1308-55

11.26 a.m.

Lord SHERFIELD rose to call attention to the Sixth Report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution on Nuclear Power and the Environment (Cmnd.6618); and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. I should like, first, to say how grateful I am to so many noble Lords for coming to speak in, or listen to, this debate on the very edge of Christmas.

The Royal Commission on the Environment is composed of 16 people, eminent in a number of different fields. Under the chairmanship of Sir Brian Flowers, it took up the question of nuclear power and the environment, and published its findings on the 2nd November last as the Sixth Report of the Commission. The Report was signed by all 15 members of the Commission who took part in the inquiry. The noble Baroness, Lady White, is the only Member of this House on the Commission, and I am delighted that she is going to speak.

The report falls into three main parts, though they are not clearly separated. The first is descriptive, the second analytical and the third deals with a number of peripheral issues not directly connected with the environment, such as the dangers of sabotage and terrorism, and future energy patterns. It is clearly and lucidly written but, as your Lordships will have discovered, it needs very careful reading, because the issues are complex and highly controversial. The Commission gives full coverage to the wide variety of evidence it received, and one can find quotations in it to back up almost any point of view. For example, it has already been used—or misused—by the antinuclear lobbies in the United States to support their case.

The report also needs to be considered in relation to what has happened round the globe since it was published. In the United States, the Committee of Economic Development published in September a report on nuclear energy and national security by an authoritative sub-committee under the chairmanship of Mr. Franklin Lindsey. As the title indicates, it approaches the development of nuclear power from the point of view of proliferation of nuclear materials, but it moves over some of the same ground as the Royal Commission.

In Australia a Commission was set up under the chairmanship of Mr. Justice Fox to make recommendations about the development of the Ranger Uranium Mine in Australia, and it published its first report on the 28th October. This lengthy document again covers much of the same ground as the Royal Commission, and takes broadly the same line.

Also, on 28th October, again in the United States, President Ford published a long statement on nuclear policy. This again approaches the subject from the point of view of proliferation and, among other things, recorded a decision that the United States should no longer regard reprocessing of used nuclear fuel to produce plutonium as a necessary and inevitable step in the nuclear fuel cycle. This statement was doubtless made partly in the light of a German decision to export reactor and fuel cycle technology to Brazil, and partly in response to earlier speeches on the subject by Mr. Jimmy Carter, who, incidentally, served as an engineer on a nuclear submarine. In these speeches, Mr. Carter took a cautious attitude to nuclear power development, but of course his attitude when in office remains to be disclosed. In the Presidential Election, on 2nd November, six Western States, following an earlier poll in California, voted by better than two to one against proposals to restrict nuclear power development, and showed a robust attitude to nuclear energy which had not been predicted.

In Sweden, the new Prime Minister led his Party into the Election on an antinuclear platform, but nevertheless, on his assumption of office, approved the commissioning of the latest Swedish nuclear power station. Almost every day we read reports of developments in nuclear policies and practice, especially in the United States and Europe, and they all serve to remind us that the Royal Commission's report deals with matters of international dimension, consideration and concern. We in this country cannot run in blinkers, but must take account of these and other important developments abroad. Finally, at home, I draw your Lordships' attention to the important gloss which Sir Brian Flowers himself put on his report in his talk to the British Nuclear Energy Society on 2nd December last.

Now, my Lords, for a few remarks on the Report itself. They must, inevitably, be brief and therefore rather general. I hope that subsequent speakers will sharpen some of them up. We should all be grateful for the expository passages of the report. They make some very hard subjects extremely clear for lay readers. The ingenious Dr. Mole at Harwell claims to have detected a number of errors in the paragraphs on radiobiology, but the Report is not a scientific paper and a few minor mistakes do not vitiate the excellent descriptions which are given.

In their conclusions on this part of the report, the Commission give a general endorsement of the present limits and standards imposed by international and national agencies, and disposes of a number of misconceptions and exaggerations about existing nuclear hazards. It is an advantage to have these ghosts authoritatively laid. With the organisation, international and national, for the control of health and safety, the regulation of nuclear power construction, reactor safety and waste management and disposal, the Commission have relatively little fault to find. They make some recommendations for altering and improving the existing machinery, and for setting up new bodies. These are, I think, matters for the Government, and I assume that they are under consideration.

Here I want to make only three comments. First, the present organisation is complicated on paper, but perhaps works quite well in practice. Secondly, the officials and scientists involved are probably more objective than the Commission sometimes gave them credit for. Thirdly, the nuclear industry is already more heavily supervised than any other, there is a limit to the number of competent supervisors available, and nuclear development should not be strangled in red tape. It emerges, therefore, that the Commission, after exhaustive examination, find relatively little to criticise about the development of the nuclear industry in all its aspects up to the present time. This is not surprising, because compared with other industries—and I need only mention recent experiences in the chemical industry, at home and abroad—the nuclear has an extraordinary record on safety; not a single fatal accident, no damage to the public, minimal effects on the environment. The whole issue is about the future and, if I may use a jargon word, in futurology a man or woman may hold his or her opinion to be as good as another's.

So far, therefore, it is confirmed that the technology of safety in the nuclear industry has kept pace with the development of the technologies of the reactor and fuel cycle. Will it continue to do so? That is the crucial question. The proponents of nuclear energy say that it will. The opponents say that it will not, or ask that the proposition should be proved 100 per cent. before further work is undertaken, which is impossible. So it becomes a question of judgment, and the factors which enter into this judgment are the essence of this debate.

I make the point here, which is also made in the Commission's report, that judgment in these matters tends to be clouded by emotion. Nuclear energy has, owing to its early history, always been an emotional issue, and it has become the whipping boy for those who are in revolt against the consequences of high technology, in general, who wish to stop or set limits to growth, and so on. The proponents of nuclear energy are not, in general, emotional, but sometimes appear to be a little rattled by the sharpness of the attack upon them.

What, then, are some of the factors which enter into this judgment? First, obviously, come the world prospects for energy supply. The Commission have a chapter on this which is not, I think, one of their strongest. The world, even on modest assumptions of growth, will run short of fossil fuels in an uncomfortably short time. What are the alternatives, what are they worth, how can they be developed? That we shall need them all seems certain. Only extremists think that we should do without nuclear power. The controversy is about how much and how fast it should be developed. It has many advantages. It is cheap. The latest figures from the CEGB for 1975–67 in respect of power stations commissioned in the last 12 years are as follows: nuclear 0½ 67p, coal-fired 0½ 97p. and oil-fired 1½ 09p, the figures including interest and depreciation charges appropriate to the year in question.

As coal and oil prices continue to rise as a result of the demands of miners or producer cartels, this price advantage should increase. Nuclear power is efficient especially so in the breeder mode; it is clean and compact. Its demands on transportation and labour are small in comparison with other fuels. The objections raised to it are the possible future hazards arising from the production of plutonium and the disposal of nuclear waste. The former concern the dangers of proliferation and diversion and are largely political. The latter is largely a technological problem about which most scientists and engineers are confident and many laymen are not. In weighing up the pros and cons we should have in mind that the expansion of alternative sources of energy—for example, coal—will also have sharp repercussions on the environment and that, by comparison, the volume of highly active waste arising is very small.

There is a question here of two time-scales: the time-scale on which fossil fuels will run out and the time-scale on which adequate alternative sources can be developed. The proponents of nuclear power say that time is getting short because of the long lead time required for development. The opponents say that there is no hurry. The latter go on to raise what has quickly become an ogre; namely, that the opportunities for sabotage, terrorism and blackmail would be vastly increased by an increase in the production of plutonium for fast reactors. The Royal Commission have a chapter on this. The Fox Commission have gone exhaustively into the possibilities. It is not a new theory but one which has been run over the years, particularly in the United States.

I confess that I find great difficulty with the idea. Even the most lunatic terrorist would not, I think, try to make a nuclear weapon or steal a nuclear fuel element; and if these targets were not available, such a terrorist would have an easier task with other targets—for example, oil rigs, pipelines and refineries. I find a similar difficulty with the argument that the development of fast reactors would pose a threat to civil liberties. Would not these be even more likely to be infringed by the strains imposed by growing shortages of energy? But of course all these possibilities are conceivable, they are strongly advanced and they must be taken into account.

I think the main danger lies in the misuse of weapons or materials by governments or governmental factions. It is this that lies at the heart of the problem of proliferation. The Commission could not deal with the military aspects of nuclear energy, and this inevitable omission masks the extent to which the world is already involved in the so-called plutonium economy. So in any event it will be essential to improve the system of national and international safeguards. I suggest that a valid distinction can be made between developing nuclear power at home under proper safeguards and exporting the technology of the fuel cycle and the reactor to other countries, particularly to those which have not signed the non-proliferation treaty.

For the Government the immediate task is to decide on the programme of nuclear development, especially how quickly to proceed with the processing of nuclear waste and the development of the fast reactor, after whatever further discussion is considered to be necessary and taking into account the resources which are available. Much uncertainty has been created by recent events and the great debate cannot he allowed to drag on too long. I would ask the Government, as soon as possible, to make the commitment of this country to nuclear power unequivocally clear, so that the expertise that we have built up can be retained; so that planning and development can proceed; so that we can honour our contracts with the Japanese; so that the existing co-operation with our European partners, who are pressing ahead with their programmes, can become closer and more effective; and, lastly, so that our lead in this field which we are, alas! in great danger of losing, can once more be regained. I hope that our debate today will provide some help to the Government in formulating policy.

I only add one point. The report of the Commission and, indeed, the other reports I have mentioned, give the Government every encouragement to delay, linger and wait, and it is the habit of governments not to require much encouragement in this direction. There is an observation attributed, as most such observations are, to Sir Winston Churchill: If you bring together in counsel"—

he is supposed to have said— the bravest soldier, the most gallant sailor, and the most intrepid airman, their decisions will be the sum of their fears.

That is not the attitude, I suggest, my Lords, in which we can afford to approach the question of energy in general and the problem of nuclear energy in particular. I beg to move for Papers.

11.48 a.m.


My Lords, it makes one humble indeed to listen to such a speech as we have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, who omitted to remind us that in fact he is an expert in this field. It has become something of a Parliamentary cliché to say that the noble Lord has performed a valuable service in initiating this debate but I think I ought to say that the noble Lord has done rather more than that. He has in fact achieved the distinction of fielding for the debate today a formidable team—I should say present company excepted—which serves to demonstrate the value of this House. I doubt very much whether it would be possible to initiate a debate of this kind in any other forum in this country. I have to say that I feel honoured to play even a small and, I can assure your Lordships, a very modest part in it.

The noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, has also served a very useful purpose in the very broad sweep he has taken by reminding us of all the other reports which we should have read, although I suspect that in many cases we probably have not done so. However, the important point is that we must not view this matter through the eyes of "Little Englanders". We must at least take a European view of the problem. In so doing, let us remember that our situation is at least temporarily rather different from that of our EEC partners, in that from 1980 onwards we may have a 30-year period of energy independence. This does not apply to any of the other members of the European Economic Community.

Amid the galaxy of technical talent which is on the list of speakers this afternoon, it behoves those of us who are less well qualified to make only brief remarks and then to try to listen and learn from what the others tell us. I found that in preparing for this debate I was tempted to try to cover all the issues which I felt ought to be covered, but on this last day of term your Lordships will no doubt be relieved to know that I intend to resist the temptation to do anything of the kind and I hope to make a few relatively short comments because I believe that one of the things this House ought to be able to do, as the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, has already stated, is to express some of these highly complicated technical issues in terms which become meaningful to the ordinary lay members of the public.

Indeed, the Flowers Report itself has performed a useful service by taking a cool and authoritative view of a subject which has tended, and still tends, to he rather over emotive and expressed in rather over-emotive terms. As the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, has said, this report has been criticised on a number of technical grounds. That is probably good. I believe most people feel that if they are criticised on either side of an argument it probably means that they have the answer somewhere near the right level in between. But it has also been criticised for possibly fudging "some of the issues in an attempt —and it has proved to be a successful attempt—to arrive at an agreed conclusion which all the members of the Commission were able to sign. At the very least that in itself performs the useful function of trying to seek a consensus—a middle road —through all these very difficult problems rather than trying simply to identify the polarised disagreements which are inevitable in studying a problem of this kind.

However, it seems to me that there are certain fairly simple conclusions that we can draw from it. It is perfectly clear that the continued development of nuclear power creates special risks and these risks are bound to increase with the development of fast breeder reactors. In addition to the environmental risk, the report rightly calls attention to the questions of security which, again repeating the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, have to be answered.

It is worth emphasising again the point which has already been made and which I am sure will be made again this afternoon, that scientists have behaved with commendable responsibility throughout the development of this very difficult technology. They have foreseen and appreciated the risks to the extent that they have an unblemished record in taking the precautions which have prevented serious accidents. I hope that the discussion we shall have today will succeed in extracting some of the issues from the labyrinth of technical argument in which they can so easily get lost, so that we may sufficiently clarify the issues that we can recognise the political choices which are involved in deciding on this aspect at least of energy policy.

The Commission rightly extended its terms of reference to what at first sight might appear to have had nothing to do with environmental pollution. They addressed themselves to the very difficult question of the identification of the need for power, and this is perhaps the single most difficult area in which we are involved. There is a habit of suggesting that the world in general and this country in particular is inevitably going to increase its need for power at 3 per cent. compound interest; and if we extrapolate that kind of a curve, after a few years the energy demands it implies are alarming indeed. However, I think the first thing to be said about that is that for the first time this 3 per cent. growth rate faltered as a result of the price rises which took place following the activities of the OPEC cartel in 1973—or principally as a result of that. It has had unfortunate consequences to which our attention was drawn only the other day. It has upset all the calculations of the Central Electricity Generating Board and it has led to a crisis in the generator manufacturing industry. But even if one claims that that is a special situation which is not likely to recur, I think it is at least worth postulating the possibility that power demand can arrive at a position of saturation where the rate of increase can level off.

We in this country are already using more power per head of the population than the Germans are to produce a higher output, which indicates that if we wish to—and I shall return to this subject in a moment—there is something we can do about it. Some people point out the parallel between power consumption and the standard of living. I should have thought that that was a dangerous argument in so far as there is no inevitable connection between these two figures: even if there is, as it happens, a connection, it may be in the same way as there may be a connection between the number of people emigrating to Australia and the incidence of rabies in Norway. There may be a slightly more causative connection than that, but I do not think it is necessarily a causative connection.

The figures for the United States of America are also cited, but there again we have to bear in mind that a very large amount of the power used in the United States is used for transportation over a much bigger area than ours. I would suggest that the experience we recently had as a result of the price rise indicates that in fact we have the power (if we care to exercise it) to control or modify the rate at which power demand is increasing; and this is really a very important point.

The reason why this question of energy forecasting is so important is of course the long lead times in which we are involved in the energy industry. Even to bring in a new coalfield takes something like five years. Building a conventional power station is on the same kind of time-scale and we know very well that the development of a fast breeder reactor must take something like 20 years, so it is understandable that industries such as the Central Electricity Generating Board inevitably are trying to indulge in what the noble Lord has very properly called "futurology". It is something which unfortunately we have to do, and there is a great deal of argument as to what kind of answers we produce; and I have tried to indicate some of the reasons why these answers can diverge so much. We have somehow got to be sure that we can arrange to produce the power we are going to need at the time we are going to need it, and given these long lead times we have to make certain assumptions about what our power needs are going to be.

If we look ahead something like 50 years—and here we are indulging in the mort dangerous sort of futurology —I think we must assume that energy produced from nuclear fusion is going to be the solution. This is free from pollution and the dangers that the noble Lord has referred to and which are referred to in the report, which is the result of fission reactors. Furthermore, the power source is water, of which we have plenty. My information, such as it is, is that most scientists now believe that nuclear fusion will be possible, and I do not think that is in any way vitiated by the little exchange we had earlier on this morning. The fact is that we cannot prove it will be possible; it remains something of an act of faith. But I hope we shall be told by those who know more about this than I do that this is ultimately going to be possible, and that this ultimately will he the solution we are seeking to the energy problems of the world. I mention this principally to indicate that any kind of fission technology is essentially a stop-gap to bridge the awkward period of 50 years or thereabouts until such time as we get to the fusion age.

My Lords, in spite of that, or perhaps because of that, one can see a number of reasons why we should press ahead with nuclear power. As the noble Lord has already said, the most compelling reason is that it is already substantially cheaper than what one might call the conventional power sources. The existing nuclear reactors are producing power at something of the order of two-thirds the cost of thermal, fossil fuel-burning stations and, of course, nuclear reactors are much less vulnerable in the long run to the effects of inflation, although there has been alarming inflation in the costs of building the stations.

Secondly, this is a country which increasingly is going to have to live in a world where it earns its living with high technology exports. One would hope that this was perhaps a proper field for us to indulge in, but the record has not been terribly encouraging so far. Most of the power stations being exported round the world now are American designed pressurised water reactors and boiling water reactors, whereas we have gone through the gas-cooled route. That has not proved to be an attractive export proposition. Furthermore, a couple of other essays by this country into the world of high technology, such as both the Comet and the Concorde, have not been howling commercial successes, to put it mildly, magnificent technical achievement though they may be. Another reason for going into nuclear technology is that this will eventually save our import bill when we move again out of our energy independence. It will ensure our political freedom from interference by supplier of fuel, although here it is worth remembering that uranium is certainly a finite resource which could be subjected to just the same kind of cartel operations as has happened to the oil products.

Furthermore, one believes that in the long run, oil and coal should properly be regarded as sources of chemicals rather than being burned underneath boilers, polluting the atmosphere, in order to produce fuel. There are additional advantages, and the noble Lord once again very properly referred to these. There are advantages in terms of environmentalism, of going the nuclear route. There exists a book, published in the United States, of which so far I have been unable to get a copy. It is called, The Danger of Not Going Nuclear. I understand that this book points out that some of the environmental impact of the alternative to nuclear power is in fact more damaging to the environment than is nuclear power itself. But we have to face the fact that the existing fission reactors are profligate users of uranium. If we are to have an economy using uranium, there is going to be a great temptation to go to the fast breeder reactors which use uranium something like 70 to 100 times more efficiently than the ordinary fission reactor as we know it.

My Lords, the other point which comes through very clearly in this report is that the whole argument about safety is largely a statistical argument. I suspect I am not alone among noble Lords in very rapidly acquiring a glazed look when statistics begin to be bought in. But the point was made very simply and effectively by Dr. Teller recently in a lecture at the American Embassy. He quoted the Rasmussen Report in the United States which said that the danger from a major nuclear accident or, indeed, a minor nuclear accident, could be roughly considered to be equivalent to the dangers from a falling meteorite. If a large meteorite happened to fall on a city like New York, there is no doubt it would do a great deal of damage. I cannot recall an incident of this kind having taken place in recent years. There may have been minor incidents; I would not know. Dr. Teller went on to say that the statement had been attacked and analysed by all the appropriate authorities in the United States, and they have been unable to blow down this assertion. It struck me as a telling expression which I could find reasonably easy to understand.


My Lords, would the noble Lord, Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal, not agree that we have not got a large industry adding to the number of meteorites?


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, because I was just coming to that very point. If you begin to erode the basis of your nuclear calculations and you multiply by 100 the possibilities of proliferating stations and if, of course, those stations are of a nature which are inherently more dangerous by another factor, you are clearly spreading the risks. I am not sufficient of a statistician to know where that leads us.

My Lords, the other question we ought to raise if we are talking about the fast breeder reactor is whether this is a sensible way in fact to spend that amount of money, £500 million for example. If we spent such a figure on 200,000 houses and saved, perhaps, two kilowatts per house, we could end up in fact by having saved the need for more power than the fast breeder reactor will generate. I would have preferred to have seen our efforts directed to reducing the demand for energy rather than going too quickly into attempts to increase the supply. I believe it is technically easier and more likely to produce quick results, and more certain that these results will continue. I would go further, and say that by contributing to the development of some of the non-conventional sources of supply, these could really be regarded—because they will be small contributions in small packets—as additions to the effort to reduce the demand. I suspect that a really serious campaign in this direction would be more fruitful more quickly than rushing into fast breeder developments.

However, the fact is that this kind of a policy does not show any sign of occurring. Therefore, one has reluctantly to accept that we shall have to go on supplying energy for the kind of increasing demand which has been the pattern heretofore. Given these circumstances, we have no option but to continue a steady, but I hope not headlong, development of the kind of technology we are engaged on at present. What I feel the Flowers Report has indicated to us is that those who wish to go on with this kind of technology clearly have an obligation to establish the need and the safety of what they are going to do. If we put the question that way round, the Flowers Report has performed a very useful service indeed.

12.10 p.m.


My Lords, I should also like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, for giving us the opportunity of debating this matter today, even though I shall have to disagree with some of his conclusions. I can at least agree with him that the whole topic of nuclear energy excites passionate emotions, not only on the side of the antinuclear lobby; equally some of the proponents tend to use extravagant language. The noble Lord himself spoke of persons who say that we can do without nuclear power as being extremists. I do not accept that; I think there is a perfectly respectable case to be made out for not having any nuclear power whatsoever, although it is not a case that I am intending to develop today. To use that kind of language in respect of persons who have perfectly respectable arguments is not going to assist us in our debate. Apart from that, I thought the noble Lord made a very valuable contribution to the debate which we shall be having from now on concerning the Flowers Report and its recommendations.

I would begin by paying a tribute to Sir Brian and his colleagues for the very valuable contribution they have made to this subject. I think their report at least provides us with some of the materials upon which to base judgments concerning this important question of the long-term dependence of the United Kingdom on nuclear energy for its energy supplies, and on the fast reactor in particular. My Lords, the Royal Commission's report does not pretend to examine thoroughly some of the matters which were outside the Commission's terms of reference and which may exercise a critical influence on the decisions, including such matters as the risks and possible consequences of reactor accidents, safeguards against diversion of nuclear materials into weapon-making, nuclear theft and sabotage and the possible implications of the plutonium economy for civil liberties, which the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, tended to dismiss, but which I shall examine in some detail later on.

Neither did the report of the Royal Commission examine a wide enough spread of energy strategies to cover all the possible nuclear options. Some of these matters have been dealt with in greater detail in the Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry, which Sir Brian has suggested should be read in conjunction with his own report. I would point out that neither Sir Brian nor Chief Justice Fox have attempted to substitute themselves for the democratic process. What we have to do now, I suggest, armed with these reports, is to find ways of conveying the information that they contain to the people as a whole and creating opportunities for extensive discussion. I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, that it is time we brought this great debate to an end; I think it is only just beginning and our debate here today is part of that process.


My Lords, if the noble Lord will forgive me, I did not say that it was time it was brought to an end. I said it should not go on too long.


Well, my Lords, these are nuances. I got the impression from the noble Lord's speech that he did not think we had very much more to say on this subject. But if he listens to the rest of what I have to say and agrees with the time-scale I am proposing for the great debate, then I shall be only too delighted. Sir Brian himself argued that we have a decade before we are irretievably committed to nuclear power as a major component of our electricity supply. There is, therefore, in my submission, plenty of scope for the process, and I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, would agree with that. There is also time for the demonstration beyond reasonable doubt, which Sir Brian said is required, that a method exists for the safe isolation of radioactive wastes for the indefinite future, a question which has arisen in the last few weeks in connection with the proposed extension of the Windscale new processing plant. These two questions are linked, in that it is only through public discussion that doubts on these matters can be dispelled. I must say frankly that I do not think British Nuclear Fuels have assisted their own case by concealing the leak of radioactive material which took place while their planning application was under consideration.


My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Lord. Is he correct in saying that British Nuclear Fuels denied the information?


My Lords, the fact is that the leak took place some time ago; the trade unions had no knowledge of it, although it is arguable that they should have been notified under the Health and Safety at Work Act.


My Lords, may I again interrupt the noble Lord, to inform him and your Lordships' House that a statement has been issued showing that the facts were released straight away, and to the trade union individuals concerned.


Well, my Lords, I read a statement, which was made by one of the trade unionists locally, who said that in his opinion it was not necessary for the workers to be notified. Perhaps there are conflicts of evidence on this which we can resolve on some other occasion. I think all I need to say is that the Cumbria County Council, who were responsible for granting this planning application, appeared to be unaware of what had taken place. We understand from the papers this morning that the Secretary of State for the Environment is about to call in that application and initiate what I understand to be some form of extra-statutory inquiry about it. I think it is most unfortunate, if this decision really has been taken, that it could not have been announced in another place yesterday, so that not only could there have been an adequate opportunity for honourable Members to put questions when there was a full attendance on a three-line whip, but also the information would then have been available to us from the start of today's debate.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Lord, to save him from perhaps going on at some length about this, to tell him that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment is still hopeful that he may be able to make a Statement before Christmas.


My Lords, I know, but if he was going to make a Statement why could not he have made it in another place yesterday afternoon, when everybody was there and could have put questions to him. The information in the Statement could then have been available to your Lordships so that we could have discussed it thoroughly when he had the opportunity. If the Secretary of State is going to make the Statement this afternoon, it is too late so far as we are concerned. I am going to assume that the Statement will be made that the application is going to be called in and that this extrastatutory inquiry is going to be instituted by the Secretary of State.

We on these Benches welcome the calling in of the application, but we believe that it is of such major importance that the planning inquiry commission procedure of Section 47 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971 should be invoked. The criteria under Section 48 of that Act are, first, that the application has been called in, as this one has; secondly, that there are considerations of national or regional importance which are relevant and can be determined only by means of special inquiry. Nobody, I think, would deny that there are aspects of this application which are of national and indeed international importance.

There are some doubts, according to an article in The Times, as to whether the Non-Proliferation Treaty allows us to reprocess Japanese fuel which is of American origin. Although the Americans have graciously allowed one shipment of Japanese spent fuel elements to be taken to Windscale, which was due there on 26th December, any future deliveries under the terms of the contract—which was supposed to earn us £500 million and which was used as the justification for the extension of Windscale—are suspended pending clarification of the interpretation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. So we are dealing with a matter of not only national but international importance. I am not altogether sure that these are matters which the Planning Committee of the Cumbria County Council was competent to resolve.

Thirdly, the criterion is that the technical or scientific aspect of the proposed development is so unfamiliar in character as to jeopardise proper determination about a special inquiry. The technology of reprocessing high burn-up fuels has never been successfully applied on a commercial scale. There is an article in this month's Scientific American which says: Nineteen years after the first American nuclear power station went into service at Shippingport, Pennsylvania, the US still has no commercial facility licensed to recover plutonium and unburned uranium 235 from the spent fuel of nuclear power reactors. One such plant which had been licensed was forced to close down permanently because of insuperable technical difficulties in its operation, and another one costing 500 million dollars, which was completed a year ago, is still awaiting a licence to operate. This may have something to do with the recent announcement by the United States authorities mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, that the United States no longer regards reprocessing as an inevitable part of the fuel cycle Obviously, if they are not capable of carrying it out themselves, it would suit them to prevent anyone else from doing so.

To avoid the kind of commercial and technical disaster in the United Kingdom to which I have referred from American experience, I think we should apply the planning inquiry commission procedure not only to the Windscale application but to every single major step forward in nuclear technology. If as a result of using that procedure there are delays, then it would still be a great deal cheaper than writing off plant costing upwards of half a billion dollars.

The case for accelerating the development of nuclear power rests on two assumptions which have been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield. The first is the cost of nuclear electricity being lower than the cost of electricity generated from burning fossil fuels, as indeed it has been, as he pointed out, with the accounting conventions that have been applied. The CEGB pays a levy to the Atomic Energy Authority of . 007p a unit of nuclear electricity, an amount which was fixed as long ago as 1967 and which has no built-in escalation to take account of the fall in the value of the pound. I do not know by how much the levy would have to be raised in order to cover the full cost of the reactor development programme. Perhaps the noble Baroness could try to give us that information when she speaks later on. It is at least possible that the relative economics of nuclear and conventional electricity would be radically changed if the full costs of the reactor development programme had to be recovered by a levy on the consumers of electricity. Now that the advanced gas-cooled reactors are being commissioned, I suggest quite seriously that those levy arrangements be reviewed with a view to having the full cost recovered.

The second assumption mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, is that electricity demand will grow at some arbitrary rate over the next 50 years. Even if one postulates only a very small percentage growth rate, as the noble Lord, Lord Strathcona, pointed out, if one compounds it over such a long period as half a century it gives one a most impressive rise in generating capacity, and you then find that even on the most optimistic projections of oil, coal, and gas the only way of producing that electricity is nuclear; and with the likely shortages also of uranium you must go then to fast reactors.

The trouble with these imaginary 50 year projections is that very soon the deductions which arc made from them assume the importance of Holy Writ. Sir John Hill, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Authority, for whom I have the highest regard, has committed himself to estimates which show that the installed generating capacity will reach 555 gigawatts by the year 2030. Since growth on that scale throughout the whole of the industralised world would obviously not be feasible without fast reactors, the inevitability of the fast reactor becomes unquestionable. For Sir John Hill it is not a case of if; it is a question of when.

Up to the year 2000 these projections of the Atomic Energy Authority were corroborated by the estimates given to the Royal Commission by the Department of Energy. The Royal Commission, on the basis of different assumptions regarding market penetration of electricity, offered a scenario in which the installed capacity by the year 2025 is only one-third as much as in the official version. That would still give a very substantial nuclear component. It would give you 80 gigawatts compared with between 304 and 426 in the AEA scenario.

If we start to argue the rival merits of the two sets of figures, however, we are overlooking this questionable feature that they both have in common, that a 2 per cent. growth per annum in primary electricity consumption will take place over this very long period. The errors which result from extrapolating previous growth rates even over a period as short as six years have been absolutely staggering, as the CEGB has found. If one looks at the CPRS Study published last week, it shows how disastrous these errors have been from the point of view of the wretched suppliers. On page 3 it says that orders for turbo-generators have varied from a peak of 16.3 gigawatts in 1964 down to zero in the last three years. It is absolutely impossible to carry on any kind of business, I would suggest, with fluctuations as large as that. While I do not go all the way with the CPRS in their recommendations, I suggest that we should seriously consider in 1977 placing one order for a twin 660 megawatt station, because if one looks at the longer term the level of orders would have to be larger than 1,320 megawatt a year if one is simply going to replace existing plant as it reaches the end of its useful life.

The CEGB in its accounting assumptions suggests that the useful life of generating plant is 30 years, so that something slightly over 2,000 megawatts a year should be ordered even if there is no growth at all in simultaneous maximum demand. But if that is the order of magnitude of the need, then we certainly should not be thinking of taking the billion pound gamble of CFRI, and the size of the thermonuclear programme would be the minimum consistent with retaining a nuclear reactor design capability. I believe that this is by no means an impossible scenario, as we can see by looking at the last few years. Since 1973 the consumption of primary fuels has in fact declined, but simultaneous maximum demand is not a quantity which is given. It can be varied, as the noble Lord, Lord Strathcona, has pointed out, within limits, by Government policies such as insulation standards, the cost yardsticks for local authority housing, or the degree of self-financing that is required of the nationalised industries. So that simultaneous maximum demand is a dependent variable and not an independent one as it is so frequently treated by the forecasters. Even if one looks at the Department of Energy's seven different scenarios given in the discussion document, Energy R & D in the United Kingdom, while recognising that external factors may influence the cost of primary fuels, and hence of electricity, these scenarios make energy consumption very largely a function of gross domestic product, which comes to the same thing as saying that they are hardly influenced at all by variations in our domestic policies.

My good friend Dr. Walter Marshall, the chief scientist of the Department of Energy, offered to recalculate these projections to incorporate some normative factors which I suggested to the Royal Society of Art Symposium on 19th June this year. I suggested taking his low growth scenario but with the energy conservation effects taken from the high energy cost model, and the coal and renewable resources contribution taken from the non-nuclear model. I still think it would be useful if this particular scenario were to be examined, as Dr. Marshall had promised, and the figures made publicly available. Indeed, anybody reading the document is invited to suggest possible alternatives which, the Department say, they will examine.

I suggest that a large nuclear programme and the development of fast reactors is unnecessary in the sense that, if we want to do so, we can plan for a much lower energy future. Nobody has actually asked people if they want continued economic growth or, if so, what kinds of growth they would prefer. It is certainly by no means obvious to me that people would be happier if much large quantities of energy were available to them. But if they were disposed to think, as they are encouraged to do by big business, trade unions, politicians and the media, that a policy of maximising economic growth is desirable, I think they would still require to be satisfied that undesirable side-effects of growth can be properly dealt with.

They might not be prepared to agree with Professor Beckerman that when any dis-benefits of growth appear to be intolerable to the community, the problem is simply one of misallocation of resources; the alternative consideration which people might bear in mind is whether the potential risks of a large nuclear programme are such that they cannot be corrected simply by a mere reallocation of resources.

Earlier this year, when we were discussing the Atomic Energy Authority (Special Constables) Bill, we tried to point out some of the implications fo civil liberties of the measures that might have to be taken against nuclear theft and sabotage, which the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, curtly dismissed. These considerations were also at the time brushed aside by the Government. However, they have now been given quite powerful reinforcement by the Sir Brian Flowers Commission and by the Fox Report.

What is the threat? There is the threat of sabotage of nuclear installations leading to substantial damage and release of radioactivity, and there is the threat of the theft of plutonium and its use by criminals or terrorists in explosive devices. The Flowers Report discusses sabotage without trying to assess the vulnerability of nuclear plant, and as the Commission admit that they do not know the details of the security arrangements which have been made or are in operation, the risk must be a matter of conjecture. The public can never be given this information because it would make life easier for the terrorists and therefore we must take it on trust that the precautions are satisfactory. However, the Fox Report says: It seems doubtful whether, as the number of facilities increases, it will be possible to provide sufficient defences to render every installation safe against attack by even small numbers of well-armed trained men. If it is asked, as Lord Sherfield asked, why the terrorists should pick on nuclear targets rather than, say, a chemical plant or an oil rig the answer is that in addition to causing damage amounting to tens of millions of pounds, an attack on a nuclear facility would be treated as a far more spectacular coup by the public at large and the media, which is what terrorism is all about. Another answer, of course, is that we do not as yet consider it necessary to place armed guards on chemical plants.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord is he wants to encourage, and give new ideas to, terrorists?


My Lords, I am doing no more than using the information that is provided in the Flowers and Fox Reports, and if the noble Lord will look at those reports he will find that the discussion which I am suggesting we should have is largely based on the material which is available in published form.

With regard to the theft of plutonium, the Flowers Reports says that if we have to deal with the possibility of groups consisting of about a dozen terrorists, helped by insiders … the security arrangements required would be extensive and their implications for society should be considered. Fox believes that an attacking force consisting of as few as three well-armed trained men would be difficult to thwart. These are not my opinions; they are taken from the reports. It goes on to say that if such a group managed to steal a few kilogrames of reactor grade plutonium, they would be able to construct a bomb with the yield of perhaps 100 tons of TNT which could be transported in a small vehicle. Fox goes a little further and says that terrorists could use reactor grade plotonium to make a bomb with good prospects of giving a yield of several hundred tons of TNT, and he goes on to point out that if there is some uncertainty over the yield. that would be of very little concern to the terrorist.

If the authorities are convinced that such a device exists with the potential of killing a few thousand people—somewhere between 2,000 and 50,000 according to Willrich and Taylor—in a densely crowded city centre where immense property damage would occur as well, the threats which were made by the terrorists would have to be considered very seriously. The Flowers Report says: We are by no means convinced that the British Government have realised the full implications of this issue. To begin with, the authorities would have to monitor employees in plants where fissile materials are held and members of the public with whom they were or might be in contact as well as members of organisations thought to be of a subversive nature. The Flowers Report regards the use of informers, infiltrators, wire-tapping, checks on bank accounts and the opening of mail as highly likely, indeed inevitable, to catch members or suspected members of extremist or terrorist groups, and if there is supposed to be a large number of individuals or factions prepared to use plutonium, widespread surveillance, he says, could scarcely be avoided. Fox says that witnesses expressed concern that measures designed to minimise the chances of the diversion of plutonium might constitute an infringement of civil rights.

It would be necessary, for instance, to investigate the personal attitudes of employees and applicants for jobs. Some suggested that if the use and transport of plutonium became a regular feature of the nuclear industry, the degree of investigation and surveillance would be unacceptable in a democratic society". Sir Brian, in his lecture to the British Nuclear Energy Society on 2nd December, said: On the issue of the possible effects of illicit activities directed towards the nuclear programme and the threat to civil liberties of security arrangements, the Royal Commission was given very little help by official bodies". One suspects that this may be because the Department of Energy and the Atomic Energy Authority have not applied their minds to this problem. It has been discussed in some depth, however, by Robin Grove-White of CPRE and Dr. Michael Flood of Friends of the Earth in their paper Nuclear Prospects, A Comment On The Individual, The State And Nuclear Power. Sir Brian said of that document that it was a little dramatic for his taste but that it deserved to be studied as it was the best we had to go on at present.

We are here dealing with a very dramatic threat and it is therefore hard to avoid being dramatic in its treatment. The possibility of nuclear malevolence has to be taken seriously, and the Government in some ways take it seriously, otherwise, as I have said, they would not have taken powers to arm 400 special constables in the AEA. But having taken every possible precaution against the diversion of nuclear materials, we then have to consider what would be the appropriate response if, nevertheless, criminals succeeded in penetrating the defences or if it is thought possible that they may have penetrated the defences. The consequences of the malevolent use of plutonium are so serious and devastating that every possible means of recovery of the material would be justifiable, including for example powers of general search without a warrant.

However, as it is impossible to predict in advance when such an incident might occur, the enabling legislation to conduct such general searches would have to be passed in normal times, and as Flood and Grove-White point out, the public would have to be made aware of the purposes for which such a Bill was intended in the debates on it; when the powers came to be invoked it would be profoundly alarming to public opinion, and even if the threat turned out to be a false one, it might subsequently generate a demand for even tighter security measures. It might be argued that general search powers should be a feature of the normal law so that there would be no interval for the obtaining of Parliamentary approval; if the authorities had reasonable, or indeed any, grounds for believing that members of a certain organisation had stolen a quantity of plutonium, it is hard to imagine that the Judges' Rules would be strictly followed in questioning the members of the suspected organisation.


My Lords, might we invite the noble Lord to explain his thoughts a little? Is he seriously suggesting that it is wrong for a democracy to defend itself against the people who want to destroy it?


Certainly not. I am explaining that much stronger measures would have to be taken by society to defend itself against the possibility of illicit use of plutonium than we should like to contemplate in a democratic society, and it is the development of nuclear power, particularly the reliance on plutonium, that would cause these security measures to become necessary. I was about to say that we used forms of torture in Northern Ireland against suspected terrorists, and when we had an inquiry into those circumstances a former Lord Chief Justice and a very distinguished Parliamentarian declared the procedures adopted to he justified. But even if one disagreed with that, like the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, one can understand the concern of the forces of law and order—and I think that this is an answer to the noble Lord—whose interest it was to protect the ordinary citizens of Northern Ireland against the activities of these terrorists who were killing and maiming so many of their fellow citizens. But how much stronger would the argument of the former Lord Chief Justice and that distinguished Parliamentarian have been if, instead of being armed with a few kilogrammes of gelignite, those concerned had come into possession of a few kilogrammes of plutonium?

My Lords, I am afraid that I have spoken for too long, but that is partly because I have been interrupted. In conclusion, how are we to come to grips with issues like these which are so far outside the boundaries of the Department of Energy'? Flowers strongly supports the idea of a high-level, independent body to provide advice on energy strategy, taking account of economic, social, technical and environmental considerations; a body for which we on these Benches have argued in numerous debates over recent years—and we are not alone in that. We understand that the Secretary of State has been moving in this direction, too, but in his scheme the advisory body would be dominated by managers and union leaders from within the energy industries with a token consumer and perhaps even a token conservationist. We would say that such a composition would not promote the "freedom and originality of thought", the independence from institutional pressures and from the need to justify existing arrangements and policies which Sir Brian rightly says ought to be the aim. If war is too dangerous to be left to the Generals, energy policy is too important to be left to the British Nuclear Forum.

Sir Brian has identified the strength of the vested interests and the pressures which make it impossible to say that the world need not be dependent on nuclear power beyond the end of this century. We are being driven inexorably towards confirming the Faustian bargain of plentiful energy supplies in exchange for the commitment to a material which could be used ultimately to transform and even destroy society. I hope that this debate today will help to slow down and halt that trend.

12.45 p.m.

Baroness WHITE

My Lords, as one of the very few lay Members on the list of speakers in the debate I should probably not have had the temerity to intervene had I not had the benefit of two and a half years' education as a Member of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. Most of the noble Lords who have indicated that they wish to take part have a distinguished record in science or in engineering, or even in both, and I understand that even the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham has a scientific background. We have with us more particularly the noble Lord, Lord Hinton of Bankside, who was such a notable pioneer in the civil use of nuclear energy in this country, admittedly some years ago in the period of bright confident morning which I doubt will ever recur.

As a member of the Royal Commission I should like to pay my own tribute to the chairman, Sir Brian Flowers, to whom I think all of us who worked with him would acknowledge much of the merit of the sixth Report which we are debating is due. His own knowledge of the subject and his continuing membership of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority gave him an unrivalled advantage in directing our inquiries. The widespread, indeed world-wide interest, which the report has commanded has, as he himself publicly admitted, set him at odds with certain of his colleagues. Since the report has appeared I myself have been astonished at how unscientific the reactions of scientists can be. They are indeed all too human. So we have witnessed in the correspondence columns of The Times and elsewhere a very sharp polorisation between what in shorthand we may call the nuclear lobby and the rest. I hope that one of the aims of the debate today will be to reach a better understanding between the two sides.

The Royal Commission itself tried very hard indeed to take an objective view, siding neither with the more extreme environmentalists who are basically I think in revolt against modern technological society as a whole, and who find nuclear proliferation, military or civil, their most rewarding target, nor with those who because their life's work has been involved with the nuclear programme feel compelled to defend it at all costs, too often regardless of the misgivings of people who may be quite as sincere, and even possibly as intelligent, as they are, but who pose long-term difficult questions which demand an answer.

One cannot emphasise too much—the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, who introduced the debate drew attention to this—that the Royal Commission was particularly concerned with the long-term aspects of the nuclear programme; much more concerned with that than with the present position, or with what may happen even in the next decade. As we have said more than once in our report, we are trying to look ahead at what could happen in, say, 50 years from now, and most of what we say has to be considered in that context. That does not mean of course that we did not pay attention to what is the current situation, and we commented on it as seemed required; for example, our criticism of the standard of housekeeping to be observed at Windscale at the time of a visit which took place in 1974.

But we were equally at pains to emphasise that even such deficiencies must be kept in perspective, and that it helped no one if the Press ran scare stories over incidents which had done, or were likely to do, very little actual damage. I should like to get Windscale out of the way early in my speech because I should expect that the noble Baroness who is to reply for the Government will probably wish to refer to it. The Royal Commission considered the proposals for the reprocessing of nuclear fuel at Windscale and came to the conclusion that on balance if such reprocessing was to take place, it was better that it should take place in as few areas as possible and at installations such as Windscale where, by and large at least, they know what they are doing and are geared to stringent precautions. Since then we have been overtaken by events, and as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, mentioned, the United States, and now I think France, are themselves coming into the field and putting forward claims to a copyright, as it were, in nuclear fuel supplied originally by themselves.

We were more concerned, frankly, about the possible dangers involved in the transportation over vast distances of such materials, and we were not able to accept what we took to be the view of the Secretary of State for Energy that the return to the country of origin of such materials was a desirable option. Of course, as a Royal Commission we were not in any way involved with the subsequent controversy which arose over the planning application, but I would join cordially with the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, in hoping that my noble friend will be able to say something about this before the end of this debate, because I think it will be grossly discourteous to this House if she does not. The Secretary of State has indicated that he is going to say something before Christmas, which gives only the possibility of one more Parliamentary day in the other place; and if he is going to say something, then I think we ought to be told about it.

This is not the occasion for going into the whole question of the planing procedures in this country, but I must emphasise my own view that it is not appropriate, in a situation such as Windscale, for a final decision to be taken by the county council, although obviously their views are very important; and I would very much hope that the Department of the Environment will seize this nettle and apply their minds to a definition of categories of installations which are really too hazardous or too important to he subject to the ordinary planning procedures. This definition should enable us to take action at a much earlier stage than can at present he clone, when one has to wait to see whether or not the Secretary of State will call in the planning application and he can then take his time in deciding whether to set up a special inquiry. I feel that we have a very considerable hiatus in our planning arrangements in this country in dealing with nuclear installations, in particular, or with other major hazardous establishments, such as some of the great chemical works. I cannot believe that it is beyond the wits of the Department to find a more satisfactory way of dealing with such situations. I have considerable sympathy with the management and the workers at BNFL, who have been kept on tenterhooks for a considerable time now and who have to look forward to another period of uncertainty as to whether or not they can go ahead with the project which they wish to embark upon.

As to the way in which the information was handled about the silo leakage, on which the noble Lord, Lord Zuckerman, I suspect, will wish to enlighten us, frankly I think it was done in the most fumbling way imaginable, whatever the details may have been, and showed an insensitivity of judgment as to how the public, not to mention the Minister responsible, would react. This is the gravamen of much of the implied criticism in the Report of the Royal Commission: that we felt that the attitude of those concerned with the administration of our nuclear endeavours in this country was simply not geared to the quite understandable apprehensions of the general public. I found this the most disappointing aspect of our investigations; and, my Lords, one does not have to he a nuclear physicist to judge the quality and attitude of mind of some of those who are in charge of our nuclear activities.

Those of your Lordships who have read our report must have observed the expressions of disquiet to be found on so many of its pages. These criticisms were clothed in the most restrained language. The Royal Commission was not, by temperament or training, an alarmist body—quite the contrary—and we all recognised and paid tribute to the dedicated work of those in charge of so much of our nuclear development. But at the same time some of us, at least, were often depressed by what we felt was the blinkered outlook which could preclude adequate consideration of matters not directly in the line of vision. We were depressed by a certain rigidity of mind, and in some cases by what I have called the impenetrable complacency of those in high places. A Micawberish attitude does not go well with a substance as potentially risky as plutonium.

Perhaps I may illustrate my point by reference to a few quotations from the Report. For example, in our discussion of the need to safeguard plutonium from possible illegal diversion, we were obliged to conclude: We are by no means convinced that the British government has realised the full implications of this issue". This was after we had received a bromide from the Cabinet Office and after our chairman and two of our members had discussed the matter confidentially at the highest level—and nothing that Sir John Hill, chairman of the Atomic Energy Authority, has since written in The Times has caused me nor, I would suppose, my fellow Commissioners to change our view. Bland assertions are the least convincing of all, and they usually indicate that the respondent has not adequately understood the question.

I have been concerned, also, to have seen a letter—a very good letter; a very persuasive letter—from the Prime Minister to one of his constituents, who sent it to me. I quote one paragraph: On the questions of security against sabotage and acts of terrorism, the Government have recently carried out a wide-ranging survey of the risks and problems involved". I should say that this letter was dated the 8th November. In the light of this survey, security measures have been strengthened. We are confident that these are adequate—a view shared by the Royal Commission". My comment on that, of course, is that it entirely misses the point.

The Royal Commission is gratified that possibly its observations have caused a review of the current security measures—a little strengthening of the fences here and there; a few more guards put on, possibly, here and there—but, of course, this is not what we were worrying about. We were worrying about what the situation could be if one had the proliferation of fast-breeder reactors on the kind of scale which is contemplated in the estimates and scenarios provided for us by the Department and by the Atomic Energy Authority. That is the situation we were concerned about, and the fact that nobody seemed to be thinking about it. That is what was worrying us; and, of course, this kind of assurance gets one absolutely nowhere in the light of what was really troubling the Royal Commission. The fact that, even now, that should not be recognised at the highest quarters is, I think, considerably disturbing.

My second quotation refers to the management of radioactive waste. Here, the Royal Commission said in paragraph 427: The picture that emerges from our review of radioactive waste management is in many ways a disquieting one, indicating insufficient appreciation of long-term requirements either by government departments or by organisations concerned … a much more urgent approach is needed.". Again, in our report we tried to spell out the circumstances which led us to that conclusion. Again, what concerned us most was the impression—and, as a lay person, I can speak only in such terms—that one received from our witnesses that they were not sufficiently concerned at what legacy we might be leaving for posterity.

My third quotation is from the chapter in which we discuss at some length energy strategy, to which reference has been made already several times in this debate. Again we have to conclude in paragraph 479: … we regard the approach to future energy supplies that forms the basis of official strategy as unconvincing". The noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, said that you could quote us in any direction; but the three passages that I have quoted give a fairly conclusive indication of what the Royal Commission felt in three major areas of concern in this whole matter: in the fields of security, of waste management and energy strategy. Our witnesses in these three fields failed to convince us. I would respectfully suggest that this fact should cause some disquiet in all quarters of the House, even if on various matters of detail you may fault us, criticise us or disagree with us.

Furthermore, we were far from content with the way in which it seemed to us that energy supplies, or potential energy supplies, and specific user requirements are matched, or fail to be matched. If, as Mr. Benn has recently suggested, energy should be regarded as a form of currency —a view which I, for one, would be inclined to support—then it seems to me obvious that the accounting procedure should be radically overhauled and stripped of the historic impedimenta which each separate energy-producing industry has acquired over the years. It was one of our strongest impressions that each of the different energy-producing industries in this country has naturally grown up within its own context, with its own history and its own problems and that there is no one at a high enough level yet to be able to disregard some of these historical incrustations in reaching a national fuel policy, using our resources in the most intelligent and most economic way.

We concluded among other points that the official strategy would be unnecessarily wasteful of primary energy resources. We were not particularly favourably impressed by the efforts so far to ensure adequate conservation of energy. We know that there has been an advertising campaign; but how much more have we really done in practical terms to ensure that we make the very best and most economic use of all the energy resources at our disposal? We were not impressed by the proportion of our research and development resources which had been devoted hitherto to alternative methods of meeting our needs. I am aware that some increase has been made—and I think a little more is in prospect—in the research and development of alternative sources of energy; but again there was no conviction about this, no real sense of urgency. One felt that those in authority were entering into such matters with great reluctance and really only in response to popular and largely lay pressures.

We made it quite clear that we did not reject the nuclear option, as such. It would be quite irresponsible to do so. We accepted that some ongoing work is essential, particularly in order to keep our own scientists abreast of developments and able to take a full part in future programmes. I, myself, was much disappointed at the announcement made yesterday in Brussels that yet again European work on the fusion project has been deferred because we cannot agree among ourselves on where it is to be sited. One must not be too romantic about the possibility of fusion. Plainly the technological problems are immense before it can be brought to practical use. Nevertheless, it is an alternative which offers many advantages over the fission process and therefore one wants to feel that there is a sense of urgency about making progress in this direction, a sense of urgency which I found conspicuously lacking in a number of the official witnesses who appeared before us.

We summarise in paragraph 512 what, for the lay members of the Commission at least, was our major difficulty. What we simply could not swallow was the attitude we described in that paragraph; namely, the basic belief of the Department of Energy and the Atomic Energy Authority that nuclear fission, using the fast breeder reactor, is the only real option for meeting our future energy needs. Once you take that as a starting point, in effect you disregard every other possibility and you do not pay sufficient attention to dealing with the inevitable hazards which such a programme would bring in its train. The minds of too many of the official witnesses who appeared before us seemed, to some of us at least, to be virtually closed to anything other than the fast breeder reactor programme. This, I think, was what made them so reluctant to pay adequate attention to the long-term problems, which the Royal Commission tried to bring before them.

As we pointed out in the concluding section of the report, this attitude could lead to the recognition of dangers when it would then be too late to avoid them. We came to the view that the only way to cure this one-sidedness was to extend the area of operation in Government so that these overwhelmingly important issues should receive the continuing examination that they deserve by persons, independent of the Executive agencies, either in the various energy-producing industries themselves or in the Departments.

As the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has indicated, Mr. Benn is reported to be considering rather a different type of body, representing various interests, which would debate the issue of public policy. I suggest that we need both. The first, a standing energy commission, requires people able for a period to give a great deal of their time to the matter and to have a very high level of competence. The amount of work which we, as members of the Royal Commission, had to devote to our own study—which was, after all, in a sense a superficial one and was primarily concerned with principles—convinces me that no coming together of a representative group involved mainly in other fields of interest could possibly undertake the examination in depth which is required if we are to produce and to monitor a satisfactory energy policy. The representative group could function properly only after the examination in depth had been accomplished and results made available.

We refer in paragraph 514 to the possible widening of the responsibilities of the Atomic Energy Authority itself to include responsibility for research and development in renewable energy as well as in the nuclear field. This could be a useful corrective to the excessive partisanship which now prevails and which is probably unavoidable when the sole remit, as at present. is the production of power by nuclear means. We also make proposals for a specific agency to take over the disposal of nuclear waste. I am sure that Members of all parts of the House would agree that we have no right to leave to posterity a hazardous legacy which we have not done our utmost to dispose of safely. Under the present unified responsibility for energy production and waste disposal, it seems quite clear that the latter takes second place. Therefore we felt that a body concerned only with the problems of waste disposal would be more likely to reach satisfactory methods of dealing with it.

Overshadowing our deliberations was the consciousness that we could not in any way examine the military side of this problem. We felt nevertheless that the fast breeder programme would make it easier to proliferate both materials and skills which could be used for weapons purposes; and not only that, but that if in this country and other parts of the world we relied on this proliferation of nuclear installations, there would be added a further dimension to any possible nuclear war by providing so many nuclear targets. These would obviously be the prime objective of enemy action, with devastating consequences.

We may decide, my Lords, that, in order to sustain or improve our standard of living, it is worth taking these more or less calculated risks. Nevertheless, people have the right to have these risks explained to them so far as one possibly can. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, was content with the way in which we had endeavoured to explain in intelligible language what some of the problems really are. In many cases where we expressed disquiet it was not intended to convey that we lacked faith in the ability of scientists to solve some of these problems ultimately; but you cannot take it for granted. Even if the "Micawberish" attitude, which some of us found so distasteful, proved correct, and a solution to all the technical and scientific problems turned up, there is one problem which no scientist can solve: the problem of human nature. You may find all the answers, but you cannot ensure that they will be applied. You cannot ensure that they will be applied even in the next few decades, let alone for a period of time which our imagination can scarcely encompass.

Since our report appeared, other reports have also appeared to which reference has been made, in particular the Fox Report in Australia. It is entirely coincidental that this came to much the same conclusions as we did. It justifies both the choice by the Royal Commission of this subject for its investigations, and the general tenor of our report. If in our Sixth Report we have made people stop and think, we shall have achieved a worthwhile objective.

1.14 p.m.


My Lords, the Flowers Report has attracted a great deal of publicity. There is an obvious need to discuss it, and I am sure that we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, for giving us an opportunity of debating it today. It is worth while to remind ourselves of the terms of reference of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. They were: To advise on matters, both national and international"— I should like to underline the word "international"— concerning the pollution of the environment; on the adequacy of research in this field; and the future possibilities of danger to the environment". I should like to suggest that both the Royal Commission, which is now re constituted, and we in this House should he careful that we do not take too narrow a view when we talk about the environment. There are some environmentalists who give the impression that the only environment that they think about is the one which they can judge in visual and ecological terms. But there is another environment, a much more material one, which provides amenities and environmental benefits of a different kind which are at least equally valuable and, indeed, are thought by some people to be more valuable than the visual and ecological amenities.

I have in mind such amenities as roads, the supply of electric power, gas, of reliable piped water supplies and even food. All those amenities are too often taken for granted. It is only when we are denied their use by an act of God or man that we realise how much they mean in our lives. Who is there who would wish to go back to the standard of material amenity which I used to think quite normal when a small boy? At that time in the average household the bedrooms were perhaps heated only in time of illness. They were lit by oil lamps or candles. There was running water only in the scullery and, except in large towns, there was no electricity—indeed, I clearly remember the first time that I ever saw electric light.

The provision of those material amenities has demanded the sacrifice of some visual and ecological amenities; and, moreover, it has demanded the acceptance of risk. In the early days of power plants many boilers exploded. I remember this in the early days of my own engineering career. It is interesting to remember that James Watt said that Trevithick should be hanged for building power plants which used steam at above atmospheric pressure. Trevithick was using steam at 30 lb per square inch. It is today used almost universally at pressures over 2,000 lb per square inch.

In the early days—and still even today—many high dams failed, often with heavy loss of life. There were people killed by electrocution or gas explosions. That still happens today. But those risks have been accepted because the public felt that the material amenities that were provided outweighed not only the sacrifice of visual and ecological amenity, but also the risks that have had to be taken. Over many years the balance was too heavily weighted in favour of material amenity. I think that that balance is better adjusted now, but we must be careful that it does not swing too far in the other direction.

Like every other development that seeks to provide higher standards of material amenity, the development of nuclear power involves risks. How slowly and cautiously those risks ought to be faced depends on the urgency of the need, and that urgency depends on the demand for and availability of energy supplies. I suggest that the availability of energy is a problem which cannot be considered on a national basis. We are part of the European Economic Community and we and that Community are part of a world community. A criticism that might possibly be made of the Royal Commission is that it approached the problem a little narrowly. This ought not to be done. The problem of energy supplies is a global one and it must be considered globally. It is perhaps surprising that a problem of such importance should have received so little and such poor consideration in the past. It is now being thought about more carefully. There is an international committee sitting under the chairmanship of Professor Carroll Wilson at MIT. It has already produced its first report and I believe that its final report is to be available in March next year. At the same time, the World Energy Conference which, with its membership of over 60 nations, has extremely good access to information from the developing world. It is doing a similar study which will extend further into the future. The Carroll Wilson study extends only to the year 2000, but the World Energy Conference study goes as far as the year 2020.

The Royal Commission report of course considers this question of energy availability, but I feel that it has considered it a little narrowly. The report does very little to quantify the problem. I have already said that the information that would enable quantification to be done is scarce and shaky, but such figures as exist suggest that the world's supply of oil will peak during the 1990s and that, after that decade, the supplies of oil will gradually diminish so that oil supplies will fall seriously short of unconstrained demand. The position in regard to gas is perhaps a little better, though not much better. Oil and gas provide between 60 and 70 per cent. of the world's energy, so, unless our present best guess figures are wildly wrong, the sources of two-thirds of the world's energy supply will be diminishing before the end of this century. That is a prospect which contrasts fairly harshly with what we have been used to over the last two or three decades when world energy consumption has been increasing at the rate of 5 per cent. per year. That is the rate of increase to which the world has become accustomed.

I am bound to say that I find it quite impossible to feel, as some people appear lightheartedly to feel, that the energy gap can be bridged by the use of renewable energy resources. I believe that it is worthwhile to spend a few minutes looking at those renewable resources. Hydropower is expected to supply about 6 per cent. of world needs by the end of this century. Tidal power, which is so often talked about, can only supply a tiny fraction of the world's requirements. There are probably less than a dozen sites in the world where the tidal range is sufficient to make tidal power economic. One of those is in our own Severn estuary, and if that was developed it would give us less than 2½ per cent. of the energy requirements of this country.

If one counts on wind power, we can perhaps get a picture by remembering that, in order to supply the electricity requirements of this country alone, one would need to build windmills with a sweptwing area of 200 square miles and that, in order to be effective, those windmills would have to be built upon open stretches of coastline or of uplands which are valuable as open spaces.

Solar energy is of course already used and has been used for many years in order to supply domestic heating. I am quite certain that this use will increase but, when we think about solar energy as a source of electric power, we should remember that before it becomes economic the capital cost must be reduced by at least one order of magnitude. In fact, on the basis of present-day figures,. it would have to be reduced by two orders of magnitude; that is, it would have to come down by a factor of 100.


My Lords, surely no one in this country is thinking of solar energy as a source of electrical power. Rather, they are thinking of it as a source of low grade heat for domestic heating, for example.


My Lords, I am not certain that the noble Lord is right in saying that nobody is thinking of it in that way. I myself would certainly think of it in that way and should do so for one good reason: the incidence of solar power in this country is about 40 per cent. of the incidence of solar power in countries with a clearer atmosphere and more sun. The inference is that electricity generated by solar power would cost at least twice as much in this country as it would in countries with a more favourable climate. Remembering that the prosperity of this country was built largely on cheap power, I very much doubt whether that prosperity can be rebuilt on energy developed from solar cells. I think that, with increasing fuel costs, the use of solar energy for domestic heating will increase but I believe that we should remember that this will only provide a comparatively small percentage of the total energy that is used in this country.

There are of course a few places in the world where geothermal energy can be used. In this country, the prospects are limited. It is true that from hot rocks in Cornwall one could get water at a temperature of 100/200 degrees Centigrade, but I do not know what one could do with water at that temperature except to warm the houses in Newquay, Penzance, Redruth and Camborne. I think that at present one ought to regard wave power as being only a sparkle in the eyes of the scientists and engineers. I would guess that, if by chance it proved practical in the future, it would then be as violently opposed by environmentalists as is nuclear power today. It would materially change the characteristics of a number of the most attractive coastlines.

So, within the critical period that we have to consider, I find it impossible to believe that renewable energy resources will give more than marginal relief. In addition, I cannot help feeling—and I say this with some regret—that conservation of energy will not avert the energy gap my fear is that conservation will be taken seriously only when real shortages start to hurt, and that will be too late for effective action to be taken.

I should like once more to emphasise the fact that we must consider the question of energy resources and demands globally. We cannot consider only the position in the industrialised countries of Europe and North America. We ought, I suggest, to remember that while Europe consumes about 3.5 tons of energy per capita per year in terms of oil equivalent—and the consumption in the United States of America is double that figure—the consumption in the developing countries is only about one-tenth of our consumption.

Having made all reasonable allowances, I think the difference between the energy consumption in the industrialised countries and in the Third World represents a difference in standards of living which I do not believe ought to be tolerated indefinitely and which I do not think will he tolerated indefinitely. On top of that, we ought to remember that the population of the Third World is increasing much more quickly than the population of industrialised countries; so, having taken all these things into consideration, I am hound to believe that a global energy gap at about the end of this century is inevitable. That gap can he alleviated—I do not think it can be avoided—by the conservation of fuel and the vigorous development of all new and renewable sources of energy, including nuclear power.

Within our time-scale, the availability of virgin uranium is so limited that in order to have nuclear power the world must have both thermal and fast breeder reactors. It is no use persuading our-selves that we can wait for the fusion reactor. That will not be ready to alleviate the gap of which I am speaking, and those environmentalists who persuade themselves that the fusion reactor is going to be free from nuclear risks ought to remember that although, with luck, it will not give rise to long-lived fission products, it may very well give rise to a tritium hazard.

The Royal Commission is right in saying that hazards can arise from nuclear power. Hazards arise from almost every one of those activities which aim to provide material amenities. What we should do is to weigh the risk of accident against the risk of a sudden decline in the standard of economic material amenity. Far be it from me to express any opinion which might be considered to be political, but I should have thought there were political as well as material risks arising from a sudden decline in living standards.

I feel that the report of the Royal Commission has failed to take as broad and global a view as it should have done, and that it has perhaps failed to strike a realistic balance between the risks which the world has to face. The Commission is right in criticising atomic energy organisations for being dilatory in devising safe methods of disposing of fission products. It is right in suggesting that great care is necessary in developing and building nuclear power plants; but it seems to me it is wrong—I feel inclined to say surprisingly wrong—in suggesting that it is the fast reactor which takes us into a plutonium economy. The world is already in a plutonium economy. Per unit of electricity generated, the thermal reactors already in use all over the world produce as much, if not more, plutonium as fast reactors with the same generating capacity would do.

I think that the Commission is wrong in suggesting that fast reactors are inherently more dangerous than thermal reactors. Fast reactors with a mixed plutonium and uranium fuel have an inbuilt nuclear stability; I suggest that the Commission is wrong if it thinks that a district hazard would arise from fire in the inactive sodium circuit. I believe the world must have nuclear power and that fast reactors must be a part of the world's nuclear programme because only a wisely integrated programme of thermal and fast reactors will enable us to use the world's supply of uranium economically. We ought not to squander those resources in the same way that the world's resources of fossil fuels have been squandered. Construction of fast and thermal reactors ought to go steadily forward. Only a steady, determined and continuous development of reactors by competent and uncomplicated organisations will ensure that the risks, to which the Commission rightly draws attention, are tolerable.

I found, I am afraid, that the report was not so much cautious—in matters such as this, proper caution is a virtue—but that it was perhaps rather lacking in balance, and that some of its paragraphs seems to he so over-cautious as to be timid and almost contradictory. But, having said all that, I think that the development of fast reactors will go ahead to supply the needs of the world. Other countries are perhaps accepting a different, possibly a better, balance of risks and, undeterred by this report, will go on to make fast reactors a commercial success, because they know that nuclear power is essential to the world.

I can only hope that the report will not be sadly damaging to the British nuclear industry. At one time we led the world in the development of fast reactors, just as at one time we led the world in the development of thermal reactors. In spite of recent setbacks to the prototype fast reactor at Dounreay, I believe that energetic action could again give us a world lead and that this lead would enable us to exercise a useful influence on safe reactor design throughout the world—a useful influence which I think we can claim to have exercised in the past. It would also help British industry. In Britain, where in recent years decision-making in the field of nuclear power has not been notably firm or unhesitating, I can only hope that the hesitancy of the Royal Commission's report will not so delay progress as to rob us of the success which is still within our reach.

1.38 p.m.


My Lords, it is a fearsome task to speak from these Benches after such a powerful speech delivered by someone who has unrivalled authority to speak on these matters. I am sure the whole House would wish me to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hinton, on what he has said and on the way in which he has said it. I should like particularly to thank him for expanding the debate beyond the limits of the particular context of environmental pollution, with which inevitably the Royal Commission has to concern itself and about which I feel it is a little unhappy because it has to concern itself with that.

As I see it, the debate in which we are engaged this afternoon is of fundamental importance concerning the kind of society which we hope for in the future.

One passage in the report which has been indirectly referred to more than once, recognises a danger that the debate will he distorted. If I may, I will quote from it briefly, because Sir Brian Flowers, in his address to the Nuclear Energy Society, picked out this passage and then said that those who quoted him usually omitted the punch line, which is the last sentence. The report says in paragraph 499: It is important that the discussion should be well-informed and as far as possible dispassionate…. Nuclear power provides a dramatic focus for opposition in some countries to technological development and we have no doubt that some who attack it are primarily motivated by antipathy to the basic nature of industrial society, and see in nuclear power an opportunity to attack that society where it seems likely to be most vulnerable, in energy supply…. The environmentalist tends to see those in the industry as being so committed to furtherance of their technology as to be wilfully blind to its dangers to the world. Those within the industry … tend to see environmentalists as people opposed to all technology who are prepared to denigrate their work on the basis of drummed-up and nebulous fears of future catastrophes. Then comes the punch line: The arguments of both deserve to he heard with greater mutual understanding. And I would add that the general public also needs to be made aware that this is not just a technical debate about the balance of energy needs and environmental risks. Unless it is acknowledged to have ramifications for the whole of our social and political life, the temptation might be to hand it over to those with technical expertise to evaluate what are still, in many spheres, uncertain quantities.

I suspect that any evaluation of risks in this field is bound to be inconclusive. It is always possible, as has already been done, to play down the element of risk in nuclear technology by claiming that future advances in handling them will keep pace with nuclear expansion. Fifteen years is a long time in nuclear technology, as Windscale has recently reminded us. On the other side, it is equally possible to claim that it is always yesterday's hazards which have been mastered, never today's or tomorrow's. If the argument about future advances is pressed, I would urge those who press it to remember that it may apply just as forcibly to those alternative forms of energy which the noble Lord, Lord Hinton, has dismisssed so eloquently.

The blunt fact is that the resources have simply not been put into the investigation of those alternative forms that have already been put into the investigation of nuclear energy, and all that may be needed is a massive enough investment to enable those alternative forms to be looked at on a level with what the nuclear lobby advocates. The answer in this field, it seems to me, is that we simply do not know. But I believe that the people who are worried about nuclear risks have grounds for being more worried than those who watch steam engines exploding, simply because of the long-term nature of these risks. An explosion in a steam engine may he fearful and may be destructive, but its effects do not last for thousands of years. I would commend to your Lordships a safe working rule on the subject of accidents resulting from human fallibility. The rule states: Whatever is not impossible is, in the end, inevitable. The wider debate, both on environmental risks and on long-term social implications, has already been taken up by the Churches, notably by the World Council of Churches, and I thought it might be of interest to your Lordships to say a brief word on what has been happening. The World Council of Churches commissioned a major study on nuclear energy in 1974, and sponsored an international hearing in Sweden in June 1975. This brought together nuclear and other scientists of many nationalities, together with politicians, theologians and Church leaders, and produced a balanced survey of the whole subject which has been widely commended, and which I am sorry not to see referred to in the Royal Commission's report. A selection of the preliminary papers and of the discussion has just been republished in Scotland under the title Facing up to Nuclear Power. The general conclusions of this hearing in Sweden were very cautious: Our group cannot put forward categorical recommendations. It would not feel justified in either entirely rejecting, nor in wholeheartedly recommending, large-scale use of nuclear energy. If that does not seem very helpful, at least it reflects the fact, as the noble Lord, Lord Hinton, has reminded us, that this is a world problem and that on a world scale there is not likely to be a consensus. The problems in this respect of Sweden, as compared with, say, Latin America, are totally different. Indeed, it is notable in this World Council report how strongly the representatives of Latin American countries emphasise their need for nuclear independence. The key word there, I believe, is "independence". They want to develop their own, even at the cost of making mistakes. It is also worth reminding ourselves that India began its nuclear programme as early as 1948, as one of its first gestures of scientific freedom.

The Churches in a number of individual countries have followed the lead given by the World Council of Churches. At the beginning of this year, the National Council of Churches in the United States suggested a moratorium on the develop-ment of the fast breeder reactor, but they then subsequently modified their position, saying that they were putting this forward as a stimulus for discussion rather than as a firm recommendation. The Church of Scotland has adopted broadly the same view. An influential group of theologians and scientists in West Germany has produced a nine-point programme, in which they set out the terms of a suggested moratorium on the development of the fast breeder reactor. Churches have been responsible for initiating public debates in New Zealand, in Denmark and in Argentina, and last week the British Council of Churches arranged a two-day public hearing in London. I mention this to illustrate my point that public debate on the broad social and ethical issues is both possible and desirable, and, at least in the Churches, there is a growing awareness that the whole subject ought not to be left to the professionals.

I think we can see part of the reason for this in the words of an Indian scientist: Scratch any piece of technology and you will find the values and aims of a society it was designed to serve. For technology is like genetic material. It carries with it the code of the society which conceived it. This is why the choice of technology is such a crucial decision in the developing countries today. The kind of society and the kind of environment which they will create, depend to a large extent on what technology they choose for the job of development. What is true of technology as a whole is surely even more true of nuclear technology, because ultimately it concerns not a fringe benefit but the resource on which the whole of an industrial society depends. The point is that if this resource in turn depends upon a highly advanced technology, then the implications for this are felt right down the technological ladder.

A society which is dependent upon nuclear energy—I am not speaking now simply of Britain but of the developing countries which are looking for their way forward into the kind of life which we enjoy—must inevitably be an advanced technological society, with all that that entails in terms of social organisation, the use of other resources, besides those of energy, and the whole gamut of pollution problems: not just those directly resulting from the use of nuclear energy. When this is viewed on a world scale, the implications, certainly to some, are (I think rightly) alarming. Admittedly, the economic implications of not pressing ahead with nuclear development are also alarming, and our difficulties are compounded by the fact that whatever is decided in the next few years is going to have immensely long-term consequences.

My own belief is that despite all the risks, we ought to delay and make quite sure that we know what the alternatives are before committing ourselves further to an expanded nuclear programme. Once we enter upon that programme, the logic of events is that it will gradually accumulate uncontrollable momentum. I must admit that, influencing this belief that we ought to delay, is a general feeling that the developed nations must begin to think in terms of technological restraint. This is not a question of going back to the Dark Ages or throwing away all the things which we possess. It is a question of taking our foot off the accelerator, in that we simply cannot go on with our present accelerating technological expansion.

I take the point made by the Royal Commission, that opposition to nuclear energy can provide a dramatic focus for opposition to technological development, but I have in mind something much less extreme than have some of the environmental lobbyists. I am not what the Americans now rather nicely call a "tawny pipiteer", but there is a time to say, No. Christian concern, as expressed through the Churches in many nations, seems to he pointing to the hope of the possibility—I put it no more firmly than that—that the "No" can be taken seriously. If it were taken seriously on this particular issue, it could set in motion a process of thinking about the style and basis of our society which could in the long run lead to a saner kind of World.

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