§ 3.49 p.m.
§ Debate resumed.
§ Lord McNAIR
My Lords, like other speakers, I wish to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, on having initiated a fascinating debate. Although I think that probably I disagree with his conclusions, I would pay tribute to the extremely balanced way in which he stated the problem. I was particularly fascinated by his use of the word "robust" to describe the action of the voters in California in deciding to discount the dangers and to go "full speed ahead"."Robust" is just about the last word I would have chosen to describe their behaviour, and I was still intermittently musing over this word when up stood the noble Baroness, Lady White, and made a speech which epitomised exactly what I regard as a robust attitude towards this problem.
We are very fortunate in having so many noble Lords who can understand and explain the technicalities of this problem. My chief regret on that score is the absence from the speaker's list of the name of the noble Lord, Lord Roths-child, because it was his arresting article in The Times of 27th September which first persuaded me that I owed it to my grandchildren, if not to myself, to read 1393 the Flowers Report. I envy the noble Lord, Lord Tedder, who found it racy. I found it extremely heavy going, but I read every single word of it, though large chunks, particularly near the beginning, for all they meant to me might just have well have been written in Sanskrit. It would, I am sure, have been impeccable Sanskrit because the report is, if I may say so, outstandingly well-written.
I am acutely aware that against the galactic blaze of scientific and academic talent which we have I represent something of a black hole. Knowing just enough physics to enable me occasionally to boil an egg, I will keep, of necessity, to the broader political and human aspects of this problem. I should like to remind the House, though I am sure it is quite unnecessary, that the problem which faces the Government or some future Government of this country is only a small part, a very small part, of a global problem which confronts the whole of the endangered species to which we happen to belong. In its implications it is not a short-term problem of 50 or 100 years. The time-scale is geological rather than historical. To say that we have not very much experience of facing, let alone solving, problems of this order of magnitude is something of an understatement. We are not often asked, as it were, to construct a graph of which one axis represents time stretching for practical purposes into eternity, while the other has to embrace and allow for all the needs and greeds and hopes and fears of humanity.
Perhaps I should at this point assure the House that I shall soon be changing to a slightly more sanguine key. To make matters worse, mankind has to set out on this expedition into the unknown, untrodden territory of a possibly plutonium-based world economy from a highly insecure base and in a state of sorry disorganisation. We live, do we not, in a Balkanised world, with 150 separate sovereign States, each with its own Government, most of them tryannical and unconstrained by the brake of public opinion, and every single one of them ultimately prepared to take any action, no matter how insane, in what it conceives to be its national interest. In parenthesis, I wish someone could tell me the half-life of this inherently unstable element which 1394 we call "national sovereignty". It is a fairly recent phenomenom. It certainly will not last for ever. To use one of the thought provoking terms which I have learnt from the Flowers Report, I should dearly like to know what some of its decayed daughters are going to look like.
After that I hope not wholly irrelevant digression let us cluster round our parish pump and examine our own small fraction of the sum of this puzzle. We in these islands amount to just under 1½ per cent. of the human race. In that figure you may find fuel both for pride and for humility. There was a remarkable time when we were able, despite our numerical insignificance, to act as the world's policeman. From that role we have been decisively pensioned off by history. Perhaps sacked would be a better word since history does not award many pensions.
Either way our fairly honourable discharge from that role has obliged us to look for another. We are often told—and I am not qualified to dispute it even if I wished to—that in the field of technology and inventiveness we still have much to contribute. I hope that this is true. I hope that we shall make that contribution, but I do not think that it is enough. I do not think that it is enough, because it seems to me to ignore and possibly to aggravate what I suspect is one of the major defects in our human nature; namely, that our cleverness is very apt to outrun our wisdom. Like precocious children we give ourselves expensive toys which we are not really ready for. We start them up without having first carefully read the instructions, and then we are surprised when they go wrong, and very lucky if they do not blow up in our faces.
So should we not, therefore, in addition to any contributions we can make to the pool of the world's technology and invention, hope also to make a balancing contribution—I will not say to the world's conscience; that would be I think an insufferably pretentious way of putting it—to its overstrained reserves of judgment, foresight, and imagination. To put that in more concrete terms, it seems that we need to pit the skills and aspirations of the Department of Energy against the necessarily broader views of the Department of the Environment, and then to sum up the argument not as politicians, but as statesmen.
1395 One difficulty in speaking about this subject is that whatever one wants to say Sir Brian Flowers has said it better already. I therefore quote from Paragraph 524:The ultimate aim is clear; it is to enable decisions on major questions of nuclear development to take place by explicit political process.How can we make sure that we do make these decisions by explicit political process? I ask this question because I have, for a long time, been haunted—in fact I suspect I shall go to my grave still haunted—by the belief that at least on one occasion of supreme importance we may have failed our fellow men by missing a great and non-recurring opportunity.
Between 20 and 30 years ago there was a short period of years during which we alone in the world, apart from the United States and the USSR, had what the jargonauts called "nuclear capacity". What might the response have been if at that time we had said to the rest of the world, "We are prepared to divest our-selves of this capacity. We will throw all our stuff away—you can come and look to make sure we have—if you will bind yourselves with us in a solemn treaty never to make or acquire nuclear weapons. Let us leave them to the two super-Powers which we cannot influence." I have, of course, somewhat simplified the proposition, but what would the response have been? I believe—no man can prove me wrong, or right—that it might have been in the affirmative. We stood a little higher then in world esteem; they had not quite lost the habit of listening to what we said.
If we had met with such a response to that offer, will anyone dispute that we might today be living in a safer world, instead of having to make do with a non-proliferation treaty which half the relevant States have neither signed nor ratified and from which any one can quit by giving three months' notice? If the offer had been turned down we should have lost nothing, yet it was never made. Was it even considered? I have no idea. It was all shrouded—that could be a very appropriate word—in security and secrecy; in other words, there was no explicit, political process.
I introduce the topic of that last opportunity, now alas! purely hypothetical, because it is just possible that when this debate is over—I do not mean your Lordships' debate, but the wider one for 1396 which the Minister has so encouragingly called—we may find ourselves with a similar opportunity, a chance to invite mankind to stop and look ahead and think before plumping for plutonium.
It may not seem like it to your Lord-ships, but I have left out much of what I should have liked to say. I am sure that my noble friend Lord Avebury is right to challenge the whole concept of the energy gap. After all, it is based on long-range forecasts; and surely we need no reminding of our fallibility in that respect. I am sometimes reminded by our touching faith in the clairvoyance of economists of the ancient Greeks, consulting their Oracle at Delphi, except that in some ways they were more sensible because they usually waited for events to develop before endeavouring to interpret the Oracle which had foretold them.
My noble friend also questioned the desirability of growth for growth's sake, and I support him. This idea of indefinitely sustained economic growth seems most unlikely to be attainable, even if it is desirable, because we will run out of all sorts of things other than energy. This has often been said, and recently by the Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Ryle, in The Times on 14th December. But is it even desirable? It must, I suggest, lead to a future state of affairs in this country which I would call hyper-industrialisation, and let us consider this for a moment.
If those with long memories will compare the Britain of 50 years ago with Britain today, remembering all the urbanisation, rural depopulation, spoliation of so much of the country and the manifest lowering of the average level of contentment—not of affluence but of contentment—and will then project forward another 50 years of the exponential growth of these tendencies, they will have a glimpse of what I mean by hyper-industrialisation. I ask whether that is what we want, but it does not really matter, or it ought not to matter, what we want because we shall not be around to enjoy or endure it. These are long term trends and "in the long run we are all dead". But, when Maynard Keynes said that, he would not have forgotten, because he was a very humane man, that though we should all be dead, a lot of other people would be trying to live in whatever world we had left them. It is what they will want that matters.
1397 Perhaps the best we can do is to consult our children and grandchildren. We should ask the young. I believe that there is already a lot of evidence that this is not the way they want things to go. Throughout this discussion, I cannot forget that we are preparing to make decisions not for ourselves but for posterity. Poor old posterity! It has no votes. It belongs to no union. It has no lobby. It lies utterly defenceless, at our mercies. I can think of no nobler role for this noble House to fill than to feel itself in part the guardian of posterity.
To conclude, I have admitted and no doubt demonstrated that I am a scientific illiterate. I would therefore not presume to tell the Department of Energy what to do. It occurs to me that the Energy Minister may well have the most unenviable job any British Minister has ever been landed with. He deserves our sympathy and, certainly, he has mine. However, even from abysmal ignorance, I hope that I am entitled to make three brief pleas. I plead first for the maximum delay to give research time, if it can, to solve the problem of radioactive waste disposal, and I plead for absolutely no commitment to fast breeder reactors until that problem has been solved, if indeed then. Secondly, I plead for the closest possible attention to the cautionary conclusions of the Flowers Report. Finally, I plead that we should remember that it is not we who will pay the bill if we get this wrong. Therefore, when by that explicit political process we finally have to make up our mind, for pity's sake! let us give posterity the benefit of any doubt there is.
§ 4.10 p.m.
The Earl of HALSBURY
My Lords, in common with all other speakers in the debate, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, for giving us the opportunity to discuss the subject matter and to say that we are grateful to Sir Brian Flowers and the noble Baroness, Lady White, and their colleagues on the Royal Commission for a most interesting exposition. I thought it an excellent report, and such criticism as I have either read or heard seems only to embody the self-interest or hopes or fears of the critics. So far I have not listened to anybody saying what I would not suppose that he would say, anyway. My 1398 main anxiety when I read it is that it is such a wide ranging report. It covers so wide a field that by selective quotation from it one can substantiate almost any point of view at all. I think that this is what the noble Lord, Lord Zuckerman, meant when he quoted some of the Press comment as saying that it meant all things to all men.
Because I approached it in a sympathetic spirit it seemed to me that it was avoiding the complacency that would occur by selective quotation. There are two types. One is the type which says: "Who's afraid of the big bad wolf? The Commission's report says that we are not going to need these power stations for a long time to come. We don't need to bother about the collapse of our fuel economy." It is going to collapse any-way, unless something is done about it. Just because we have a little more time that does not mean that time is on our side. It only means that the rate of running out would be slower.
The other type of complacency is to say "Oh, we will solve these problems as we go along. We do not need to have a solution to the disposal of high level wastes right here and now." Reading the report as a whole, it seems to avoid both of those forms of complacency, and to strike a realistic note. Fusion power if—I emphasise the "if"—it can be developed is clearly less dangerous than fission power, even if one accepts the tritium hazard. But can it be done? No one knows. Therefore it must be given a proper level of research priority. It must take its place in the queue, but it is not the only member of that queue.
If the European project finally collapses through the chauvinism of one member or another, the question of whether we could go it alone would of course be open. Culham is an international centre of excellence, respected everywhere. But the minimal Tokamak—I am quoting now from this week's or last week's New Scientist —has a thermal power level of 3,000 megawatts. So it is not going to cost less than a major nuclear power station. But whether we can go it alone I do not know—certainly not as long as we are living over our income on borrowed money. But if it fails, and it may, then the fast breeder is the fall-back, and there is nothing in the report which puts an 1399 embargo on the fast breeder. I really think that I must read this—recommendation 49:We do not oppose development of CFR 1 on environmental grounds … However, our views should be taken into account by the Government in reaching a decision.Then they refer to their views in paragraph 520 which contains (i) and (ii) which I do not need to read, and then (iii) which states:If CFR 1 development proceeds, it should be seen as being in the nature of an insurance policy, albeit an expensive one, justified by the importance of risks relating to the security of the nation's future energy supplies.It then goes on to refer to a type of public examination into these matters that it recommends.
So what are the priorities for the fast breeder reactor? We have priorities for the Tokamak and the fusion reactor, and we have priorities for the high level waste disposal. I do not think that one can assign these priorities in perpetuity. They change; knowledge advances; new difficulties are encountered. Priorities are always changing. They should be kept under a kind of running review. But I am perfectly certain that uprating the importance attached to fusion power and to high level waste disposal is quite correct as of today.
Here I must digress, if I may, to tell your Lordships a story of the late Sir Henry Tizard at a time when he was shattered by learning that the Russians had exploded a nuclear bomb years earlier than anybody had thought it possible. "I know", he said, "the cost in scientific effort of the joint AngloAmerican venture, and the enormous resources—100 Nobel Prize winners, and so on—that they had behind them. How can the Russians equal it?" Of course, the answer, we now know, was espionage on one side and treachery on the other. Dr. Perrin (later Sir Michael Perrin of the Wellcome Foundation), who was Tizard's assistant at the time, said, "Really? Do you think any local council in Russia can tell Joe Stalin, ' You cannot put that purification plant here, there or somewhere else'?" During the last war there was a song which said:You can't put that there 'ere. Anywhere else you can put that there, But you can't put that there 'ere".1400 If that is to be allowed to be a reason for not having a purification plant anywhere, then anybody will say it; and sooner or later you have to have a mechanism for overruling bad reasons for not putting down purification plants, and so on.
It is said that the safest place for plutonium is inside a fast breeder reactor, where nobody can get at it. Plutonium on site is always either in the reactor or it is in pond, or it is in the purification plant or it is part of the stockpile, reprocessed and ready to be fed back into the reactor. Most of the plutonium in a fast breeder reactor is inside the reactor, and it can be balanced so that you do not accumulate a large stockpile. Some of the hazards can be overcome by a willingness to spend money. The first CFR could be built below ground—it is only a matter of money—and you could run it much closer to the danger point underground, knowing that the thing could be contained, to gain experience on it. Then, if all went well and whatever happened was contained, you would know that it would be safe to run it at ground level at lower levels of activity.
Here I want to pause to make sure that I have correctly understood something said by the noble Lord, Lord Hinton. If I am misquoting him, of course I will withdraw, but as I understood it he said that a fast breeder reactor had an inherent stability about it. I am the last person in the world to disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Hinton, in a matter where he knows so much more than I do, but that is not what I have read elsewhere. It is not what I have read, I think, in the report, though I could not turn it up at short notice. It could have been in some textbooks that I have been reading lately. The statement in the report, I think, is that thermal reactors are intrinsically safe because under their working conditions they are at their most reactive, but a breeder reactor has the difficulty that it is not at its most reactive under its working conditions, and can run away. The report and the noble Lord, Lord Hinton, cannot both be right, and there must be some means of resolving it. Does the noble Lord wish to intervene?
§ Lord HINTON of BANKSIDE
Indeed, my Lords, if the noble Earl wishes me to. It is in fact wrong to say that most thermal reactors have inherent stability. The fast reactor with a mixed 1401 plutonium-uranium fuel has inherent stability because as the temperature rises the neutron cross-section increases and there is more neutron absorption. This gives it inherent stability if it has a plutonium-uranium fuel.
The Earl of HALSBURY
My Lords, I am greatly obliged to the noble Lord for telling me something that I have been trying to find out ever since I visited the Dounreay reactor and was told that the designers were in great difficulties in trying to build a negative temperature coefficient into it. Ever since, whenever I have come across fast breeder reactor people I have said, "Have you got a negative temperature coefficient yet?"—and at last I have got a straight answer from the noble Lord. They have, and I think they are to be congratulated on doing so.
I deal next with the transport. The word "pig" has many connotations. It can be a source of delicious roast pork; it can be an ingot of foundry-iron; it can be a male chauvinist. But the pig which I wish to introduce to your Lordships this afternoon is a device used in petroleum engineering and gasworks engineering. It is simply an egg-shaped object that you blow down a pipeline either to clear it or to separate two brands of petroleum fuel and it ends up in a "pig trap" where it can be launched on another journey if necessary. There is no reason why we should not have a submarine pipeline and blow the reactor elements through the pipeline to the processing plant. They go down into the earth—thence "sub-marine"—at one point and they come up at another. If a saboteur tried to cut the line, you could make a fall in the pressure at the downstream end and operate a relay cutting off the source of pressure and the "pigs" will stop.
It is not the responsibility of the Royal Commission on the Environment to find solutions to these problems but, being an enthusiastic technologist, whenever I come across these difficulties I always want to postulate a solution. If you are really afraid of plutonium being hijacked, then you must pay for the solution. Although a pipeline from, say, Bradwell to Windscale might be expensive, the contents could not be hijacked.
We come now to waste disposal. I do not mean long-term storage. I am talking 1402 about the words of "Tosti's Farewell": "Farewell forever; good-bye, good-bye! It must disappear from the human environment altogether. Before reading the report I had already disposed in my own mind of a number of suggestions which it took into consideration for the reasons that it had rejected them, but I did come up with an idea of my own which on investigation turned out to be a combination of two other ideas which had been tried separately but not in combination. It occurred to me that if an almost total stranger to this subject like myself could cook up something on the spur of the moment, something that was not in the report and has not been considered, apparently, by anyone, then the subject itself has not been fully explored in depth. Until we are agreed on how to get rid of this stuff finally, we must face the problem of storage; and vitrification is better than solution in a liquid. It must be so. Anybody would prefer storing solids rather than liquids. This brings me to the expansion at Windscale in a spirit of facing real dangers and not running away from imaginary ones.
During the 25 years while plutonium has been processed at Windscale, let us look at what has happened to the nation in terms of the accident rate quoted in the report: 625,000 people have died through accidents of all kinds; 62,500 from natural leukaemia, 40,000 in industrial accidents (that is part of the 625,000) and as many by drowning, usually through bathing in places where they are warned not to bathe; 625 have been struck by lightning. During the same period no certain death of any radiation worker from radiation can be agreed. Whether there is a small statistically significant increase in leukaemia by people who worked at Windscale is not known because the Commission criticises the methodology used. Until the records have been revamped we cannot know that for certain; but no certain death from radiation of any radiation worker has occurred during the period when all these thousands of other accidents happened. It can be made safe, evidently.
With regard to the famous leakage, I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, or the noble Baroness, Lady White, got a circular from British Nuclear Fuels Limited to all Members of 1403 Parliament headed, "Radioactive Contamination, Windscale". If they did, did they read it or did it go into the WPB, or did they not realise that it was a part of their essential homework or what? It gives a full account of the whole matter which really ends up in a not unprecedented bit of self-advertisement by the Minister. But it is difficult for your Lordships to take in a leakage of 1,000 curies, which is what has happened. I have made a calculation so that you may know just how much natural radioactivity that represents. It is the natural radioactivity, give or take a factor of two, depending upon the origins of the soil, distributed over 8,000 acres of farmland three feet deep. It is not a leakage that is large on the scale on which normal radioactivity is distributed over the earth if you wanted to dispose of it. Too much has been made of this.
I am told that the total storage of high level waste at Windscale—the volume of it—is about that of a suburban detached house, considerably smaller than the Jewel House at the Tower of London. There is no great difficulty in keeping it under watch and guard and monitoring what is going on. Obviously, Windscale is the proper place to process fuel. You have the knowledge, technique and people there. There are young people who are the children of those who were early workers at Windscale. They are joining the organisation now and there are a whole lot of natural skills in handling dangerous materials safely which arc building up exactly as the skills required to make lace at Nottingham and cutlery and alloy steels in Sheffield were built up. If they have this technique, I cannot see any reason why they should not export it.
The only way to get something done is to make it someone's whole-time responsibility to do it. The problem of fitting a waste disposal unit into the command structure of the national organisation is solved in the report by proposing that it should be given independent statutory responsibility. I see no reason not to accept this recommendation. The report would be unintelligible without the explanatory chapters on radioactivity, fission, fusion, reactor design, waste purification and so on. They constitute one of the best written expositions of the subject 1404 since the celebrated Smyth Report in 1945, which was the American Government's introduction to the American public on the whole subject of nuclear fission, the bomb and so on.
From the standpoint of the Royal Commission, it was a mere means to an end. It was only to make the rest of it intelligible to the lay reader. For this reason, it is not complete. There are many matters not contained in it because they were not necessary: for example, the control of criticality in processing plants. I hope that the noble Baroness will in her reply be sympathetic towards the suggestion that the Government should commission a work written by a first-class scientific journalist with access to all the sources of information in the Atomic Energy Authority as a vade-mecum for everybody in this field. Much more information could be released than is being released. Our enemies seem to have most of it by one means or another. It should be intelligent to the layman and also interesting to the unspecialist scientist like myself, who is not an expert in these matters.
I should like to reinforce what the noble Lord, Lord Aldington, said, possibly because, like him, I have a commercial interest in building nuclear power stations. The programme for nuclear power, which was shot down by Sir Brian Flowers and his colleagues, would have been a perfectly impossible programme for British industry to have achieved. It was totally unrealistic. My Lords, I think the noble Baroness, Lady White, said something.
§ Baroness WHITE
I beg your pardon; I was merely murmering to myself. Why was it then ever put forward?
The Earl of HALSBURY
I do not know, my Lords. I must ask the noble Baroness to be responsible for her source material. As to explosions, explosions have taken place inside concrete containers and have been contained. An explosion inside a vessel is very much worse than an explosion outside. If they can contain explosions inside themselves, surely they ought to be able to control explosions outside themselves. I have forgotten who made that point, but I would entirely agree with it. We must not get too oppressed with the idea of toxicity on very small scales. One of the most dangerous 1405 substances is one that you carry about in your petrol tanks every day, lead tetraethyl. It is oil soluble: one drop on your skin and it gets into the myelin sheath and into your principal nerves: it migrates up them into the brain and you can die of lead encephalitis—and that is from one drop on the skin. Botulinum toxin is lethal in doses of one microgramme per kilo of body weight, and so on.
I have one last point to add. We must legislate for the possible collapse of our civilisation. Civilisations have collapsed before. I have no very great optimism about the stability of ours. Egypt had three dark ages from the pyramids to the time when it was overwhelmed by the Persian Empire. Greece had a Dark Age between the end of the Mycenean and the beginning of the Classical civilisation —a couple of hundred years of anarchy. when Justinian shut down the Law Schools and the Academy in Athens, we had 500 years of barbarism in Western Europe to follow before the renascence of Western civilisation. I do not know how many Dark Ages they have had in China and I shall not try to enumerate them. But, my Lords, we must not leave rubbish around for posterity. because people will not know how to cope with it. If there is a leak of something stored at Windscale now we know how to cope with it, but once our civilisation has collapsed, all kinds of dangerous things could happen. Somebody might break open a pile, get at the fuel elements and start putting them into drinking water. We must get rid of it, and so I should like to say one final thing.
I believe that we are descended remotely from a migratory wandering species that just wandered about the face of the earth. It left its droppings and its food refuse, if one might mention this, lying about on its camp site and then moved on; and then nature took charge under aerobic conditions. The dung beetles, the ants and bacteria got together and cleaned up the mess. The result is that we, as a species, have evolved with no natural instinct for tidyness and cleanliness. But what we have not got by instinct we can induce as a matter of intellectual or aesthetic conviction. The old tendency to untidyness and dirt still continues: it continues within the sacrosanct periphery of the Atomic Energy Authority by the fact that waste disposal has not had as high a 1406 priority as more exciting things. If I may borrow a leaf from the electronic industry, when you are making something very complicated you have to have an equally complicated piece of test apparatus. In practice it has been found that if you have the same contractor doing both jobs, the apparatus for testing (which ought to be engineered to a higher standard than the apparatus which is going to he tested) never gets engineered to so good a standard, because the best draughtsmen want to go on to the more exciting projects and you are left with a pedestrian piece of work. So the answer is for one contractor to make the main device and another to make the testing device. For that reason, we have to set up this independent authority and make it responsible for clearing up the rubbish as we go along.
§ Baroness WHITE
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, as he expressed himself as much reassured by the information given by the noble Lord, Lord Hinton, might I ask whether he is in agreement that paragraph 302 of our report puts a somewhat different slant on the matter of the safety of the fast breeder reactors? Of course, what the noble Lord, Lord Hinton, had to say was absolutely correct, needless to say, but did not give perhaps the complete picture.
The Earl of HALSBURY
My Lords, that was broadly my understanding of the situation, before the reassurance of the noble Lord, Lord Hinton. I do not want to get into an argument with the noble Lord, because I know that I shall get the worst of it. But all I am saying is that this matter must be resolvable. There must be some authority to whom we can turn.
§ Lord HINTON of BANKSIDE
My Lords, perhaps I tried to be so brief that I was not completely clear. There are many modes of failure on all reactors. One of them—the one referred to in paragraph 302—is a loss of coolant failure. What I was talking about, and what I referred to in my speech, was the nuclear stability. In the fast reactor, with a mixed plutonium/uranium fuel you have nuclear stability, so that as the temperature rises you tend to slow down your reaction. This gives you a better opportunity of control. But still, with every type of reactor, there is a possibility 1407 of a loss of coolant failure. This generally can, and should, be dealt with by good engineering.
The Earl of HALSBURY
My Lords, I think I should leave the matter there and regard my speech as concluded.
§ 4.36 p.m.
§ Lord HANKEY
My Lords, I am not in any way an atomic engineer, but I have been much concerned with this question since 1953 when I was Ambassador in Sweden, and we had a great deal of technical co-operation between Great Britain and Sweden. A number of brilliant and most illuminating scientists and engineers, like my noble friend Lord Hinton, visited that country on a number of occasions and everybody found them very instructive. I was also much concerned with nuclear questions through the Nuclear Energy Agency in Paris, when I was at the OECD, and I have visited Dounreay three times and also Calder Hall in the early days.
Like others, I think that my noble friend Lord Sherfield started off this debate in a brilliant and most restrained and convincing way, and we are certainly very grateful to him. I wish that I could share the enthusiasm for the latter parts of the report which many Members of your Lordships' House have shown. I think that the explanatory parts are very valuable indeed; I entirely agree with my noble friend Lord Halsbury. But I think it is quite wrong to beat about the bush to the extent that the Royal Commission do in all the latter parts. They put in everything that everybody said on both sides, and I think that a report of this kind is liable to raise the maximum fears among people who cannot understand atomic energy, and who do not follow the very balanced and sensible statements on the other side of the ledger; notably, those in which the Royal Commission, quite rightly in my view, underline the tremendous attention which our authorities and scientists and engineers pay to safety.
I should like to say that from my visits to nuclear establishments in the United Kingdom I have been very greatly struck by the same thing. They are extremely careful. They have very good fail-safe 1408 mechanisms, and I think that they take tremendous care both for the public and for the environment.
Here we have worked for 18 years on the fast breeder reactor. I believe that I first went to see it in 1959. There remain only a few engineering points to remedy, notably the design of the heat exchangers, which certainly present special problems at the high temperatures and radiation levels—problems which have never been met before, because nobody has used irradiated liquid sodium in that quantity or at that temperature. But I am convinced that these problems are not insoluble. The scientists and the engineers all say that they will find a solution; and I believe that the Department of Energy have recently given a large amount of money so that the necessary research should be carried forward.
Clearly, the problem of nuclear waste disposal ought also to be studied and solved soon. It is quite right that attention should be drawn to it. But it is not confined to the waste from fast breeder reactors. There is waste from the thermal reactors, from Windscale, and, for that matter, from the military installations. There is no reason why the fast breeder reactor programme should be held up for that disposal problem. Certainly it is not insoluble; the problem has to be solved and we shall certainly solve it.
I am not at all impressed by the talk about terrorists. Of course, there are some terrorists in a society or a set of nations in the Western World so freely, or should I say so laxly organised as ours. However, 32 countries all over the world already have nuclear power reactors. The list grows longer every year. Many other countries also have research reactors, and they all produce some plutonium. It is clear from the report that we are extremely careful with our own plutonium. If there is any real danger, it is that terrorists will get plutonium elsewhere. I do not believe that that danger is affected at all by our going ahead and using our own plutonium in our fast breeder reactor programme—and incidentally producing more for our own use. We must provide better safeguards against terrorists generally. I do not believe that providing plutonium for terrorists is the major danger. There are many other 1409 products, mostly chemical ones, which present much greater dangers, although I do not want to expand on this point for fear of giving the terrorists ideas.
There are other dangers, too. If we do not have the fast breeder reactor programme, then we have to use more of our oil—or else, like the Americans, we have to import more. The result is that we shall be more vulnerable. We have tankers travelling about the world in ever increasing numbers. Today we have seen what a disaster there has been on the East coast of America. We shall become more and more dependent on the North Sea installations which I believe are a major risk so far as terrorists are concerned. One has only to think of the Flixborough disaster and of what might happen at huge refineries like Fawley. In my opinion, the plutonium danger is a minor one by comparison with those.
The fact is that the plutonium economy is with us already. Several noble Lords have already made this point, and it sticks out a mile. All the argument in the report about the danger of the plutonium economy, as if it depended on our fast breeder reactor programme, is totally out of date. It shows that the Commission had not fully appreciated what is going on in the rest of the world, although they gave the necessary statistics. So the plutonium economy is with us now.
I am not at all impressed by the Royal Commission's alternative proposals, although I agree with them—and here they have rendered a valuable service—that we ought to try much harder than we do to use our existing energy resources more economically. As one drives up the motorways one sees enormous cooling towers wasting vast quantities of heat, and it is incredible that this should happen. If you travel up and down Germany, Sweden and France you see some cooling towers, of course, but you do not see a large quantity because the heat is piped into the towns. I do not know why Sheffield is not heated by those enormous cooling towers. Every time a building estate goes up I should have thought that provision ought to be made for a central heating plant. The report is very good on this subject. However, if we were to use coal and oil on an increased scale, as the report 1410 suggests, then we should be producing much more carbon dioxide and much more sulphur dioxide. For the conservationists to press us to go without nuclear power which does not give off these gases which are a potential danger to the environment, is something which I cannot quite understand. It seems to me that they have been guided by their emotions more than by a proper scientific approach in that connection. Thank God nuclear power avoids that danger to the environment!
I am in considerable doubt whether fusion can possibly come about at any early period to be an effective aid to the economy unless there is some very great breakthrough—perhaps with the enormous toroid at Culham. I personally find it difficult to understand how one can contain or make use of 50 million degrees Centigrade in a toroid without melting all the magnets necessary to concentrate the plasma. There is talk of a laser system but I believe that is miles away. I do not believe it will be with us this century and I shall certainly never see it in my lifetime, so I doubt if we should talk any more about that.
I cannot imagine that wind power would not arouse enormous objections from people when all our South Downs and North Downs and the hills round the country were covered with windmills. I should think there would be over-whelming objections—much more than to the power network necessary, about which so much is said in the report.
With regard to solar power I did not quite understand the point made by my noble friend Lord Tedder. There would certainly be a great many complications about removing algae from the sea in the quantity which he mentioned because a lot of living creatures feed on it and I think the fishing industry would have several things to say. Also I do not see how, if we had enormous power installations in the Sahara, we could get the power into this country. It would be a very expensive process.
The fact is that we must have more power. There is no possible doubt about that, even if one does not agree with the extrapolations in the report which, speaking as an economist, I did not personally find very convincing. Not only do we have 1411 to have more power but we have to use relatively more power in this country. If we take the OECD statistics issued in 1975 this country was ninth in the amount of per capita energy consumption and if we take the figures for 1976 (which were based on what happened in 1974) we are twelfth. So in this field, as in so many others, this country is sinking slowly. As soon as our economy recovers—and it will recover—we must get the better of this. It is a reflection of our very poor rate of investment and there has to be more power as the result.
I was very sorry to hear the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham suggest that advanced technology and technological industries are in some way damaging or even unchristian. The most damaging thing that could happen to this country would be to allow it to go on sinking into a state where it would be one big slum; and we are at present going that way. We have to look at the statistics, not just as they are today but over the years, and we have to look at them in a dynamic way. It is necessary to look forward and to see what is going to happen in 10 or 20 years' time. If we do not pull our socks up—and a lot of people are beginning to agree with this—that is where we and our children are going.
So here we have offered to us the fast breeding reactor which is a remarkable way of using up the uranium 238 which is the principal by-product from our first and second generations of reactors. That will increase the usefulness of our limited supplies of natural uranium sixty-fold. I do not see how else we can get the power. I agree with everything that noble Lords have said on this subject and as an economist I believe it is overwhelmingly important. I think that the fast breeder reactor programme—and I hope there will be more than two before this century is out—will alter the whole economic aspect of nuclear power production, and of the power available to our workers. At present they are under-paid because they are under-powered. It is interesting that America and Canada use two and a half times as much power per head as we do. For 20 years or more we have worked on this reactor. We still lead the world, and surely this is not the time to lose heart.
1412 What do the Royal Commission really want us to do? They specifically deny that they want us to scrap the fast breeder reactor programme. After all their pages and pages of beating round the bush, they want more talk, more public controversy and more reports. I really think it is quite ridiculous. In my opinion, the Government should go ahead as soon as possible to solve the outstanding difficulties. They should then order at once the first commercial fast breeder reactor to be built. The further reactor programme should be based on a standard design so far as possible, and not altered all the time, as happened with the Magnox and advanced gas-cooled reactors. It is essential that production engineers be included in the design teams to avoid our being landed with designs too costly or impractical to execute, and simultaneously —and I underline that word—we must settle the atomic waste problem, financing the necessary research as soon as possible. My Lords, this is a field where we now need firm leadership. I believe the Ministers for Energy and the Environment are eminently capable of giving this firm leadership. I hope the debate today will give them further support and encouragement.
§ 4.53 p.m.
§ Lord HALE
My Lords, knowing nothing about the subject, I intervene simply to try to talk on something about which I know, and on which I have some experience. I spent 50 years of my life in the study of industrial diseases and accidents, sometimes participating in them. There are one or two things I want to say at once, even about the admirable report of the Royal Commission, where Sir Brian Flowers has given all the information that can be made available on the mathematics of the matter, although everyone knows that accidents are unpredictable, and there are no mathematics of the unpredictable. It is no doubt useful to say that this looks like one accident in 300 years, but it might be tomorrow.
My Lords, the causes of accidents are even less easy to evaluate or state. One of the real causes of accidents is the self-confident expert. The noble Lord, Lord Zuckerman, was rather bemoaning the fate of the scientists of today, and saying, 1413 "We never get thanked for what we do. We take all the chances and nobody pats us on the back". I should have thought by now he was slightly wounded by pats on the back. The noble Lord is recognised as a man of outstanding genius; he is recognised for his services during the war; he is recognised as a perfectly de-lightful personality, and he is recognised as a very happy and able controversialist. But when one gets all the scientists al-together, it is an intellectual treat but often a moral dilemma. There are always the mathematics of the unpredictable.
The noble Lord, Lord Zuckerman, spoke about prototype experience. Let us for a moment consider why in this area of advancing science, in this area of great expertise, in this world in which everyone knows more than the next man and a lot more, we are having more accidents than we have ever had. Graver accidents than we have ever before had are occurring; more serious accidents are occurring than when we chucked men down the pit with no rescue apparatus, no services, no way of getting them out, no way of sending anyone to see them if a flame broke out and there was a gas explosion. These are the sort of things we ought perhaps to have foreseen. Those were the days—and I assure your Lordships I have not even tried to make a list of them—when the biggest ever air disaster occurred. Certainly 300 people were killed because of the way the door was fastened. Is that unforeseeable? It cannot be unforeseeable because it happened before. The Douglas people had had a precisely similar type of accident in America. Have not Douglas got prototype experience, the thing to which Lord Zuckerman referred?
What about Aberfan. Was it really true that you could go on piling up muck near a housing estate until it was visibly shifting slightly and yet it did not occur to people that it might fall? What about the tube disaster? Have not the London Underground got prototype experience? Is there anyone who in his heart can say that this was not an outrage? Is there anyone who does not know that the question of whether the driver was ill or was drunk, or was not feeling very well, has nothing to do with it? The question is, where was the necessary secondary safety precaution that all experience 1414 requires in enterprises of that kind and that all of us thought existed?
The question of safety precautions is, of course, a matter of some importance in this matter. On the great journey across Canada there are long stretches of railway line where trains come up, interlock one with another, and pass. If a train stops, which it does not do very often, some signal has to be given to the train behind. There are not signals every hundred yards on lines which stretch over several thousand miles. So they have a rule—they explained it to me when I was there—that the man at the back of the train, an attendant who has a special name, but I forget what it is—
§ Lord HALE
"Brakeman" will do; it is as good as the one I wanted. He gets out at the back the moment the train stops, and he walks 100 yards up the line and lights a fire. Once the fire is going the driver of the train coming behind can see it and he slows up. Trying not to sound patronising, I said: "It is a bit primitive, is it not?" They said, "Well, we have been working that system since the railway started, and we have never had a complaint. We have never had an accident, and our safety record is the best in the world". It was just my luck that next morning was not one of their best, and I was on the train. I woke up at half past eight on that next morning to see the engine poking straight up into the air, rather like a prancing horse, and (one of those sights you only go to see in the Royal Academy now) a wagonload of salmon lying spread about in the snow, and, unfortunately, the brakeman was no more. One or two other men went. But, fortunately, the restaurant car, which was smashed to smithereens, was completely empty although it had been full a few minutes before. This, of course, is experience. This of course is preparation and care.
The first accident I recall in my young life was the sinking of the "Titanic". There was an expert in England who happened to be on that ship. This was the unsinkable ship. The reason they did not have boat drill was because it was silly on a ship that could not sink. Why should you 1415 go through all the trouble of boat drill? Indeed, why should you carry too many boats, because no possible emergency could arise? It sailed from London with the blessing of all the shipwrights, the navigators and so on, and three days later it was sunk with about 1,500 passengers.
That was not the first disaster because 60 years before the outstanding ship in Her Majesty's Navy was the one that was built to go under sail or steam, HMS "Captain". It was on its first full exercises off Finisterre one day, and congratulatory messages were going out on its performance all over England. It got dark, and when the Admiral woke up next morning, he could not find it. Nobody ever did find it. It lasted one day. He had to wire to the Admiralty, "Regret to say HMS ' Captain' appears to have foundered with all its complement." In point of fact, one small boatload did arrive on the French coast in the end. They were all on deck at the time and they were chucked off by the boat capsizing. Of course, the court of inquiry said that no one was really to blame, just as they did about Albert and the lion. But everybody knew that they had got the centre of gravity wrong, and that is rather a serious mistake when you are under sail.
There is the third one, in which I was professionally engaged. I had the good fortune not only to have the services of my right honourable and learned friend the Member for Northampton in the conduct of the inquiry, but even the rarer fortune of seeing him here on the day before the Christmas holidays and persuaded him to stay for a moment. So far as anybody knew, there were no obvious faults with the submarine "Thetis". It left Liverpool under dual control, and was sailing somewhere off Llandudno. In an operation it tilted up so that half the submarine was out of the water—an over-loaded submarine at that; it had a complement of about 100—and half under water.
At this stage the Admiralty communication was by telegram. The news of the disaster was handed to a telegraph boy down on the South Coast, who stopped to have his tea before cycling uphill to deliver the message. It was that kind of thing. The deep-sea divers in Britain were at Scapa Flow. Immediately a 1416 message was sent to say that they were entirely at the disposal of the rescue team. They got a message back, "No need to come; nobody worry". When the inquiry came on, after 95 per cent. of the lives had been sacrificed and the sub-marine had gone, my right honourable friend asked one question of the diver who had been turned back—"What was the equipment you would have needed to save the lives of these men, " and his answer was, "One oxyacetylene blowpipe". Speaking from recollection, about 90 lives were lost.
It is, therefore, a question of looking very carefully at what action is required and, in these circumstances, recalling the accident at Windscale—I am anxious to be fair about this—I come down strongly to the view that we must provide fair working conditions and full insurance against every risk, having taken every precaution with every rescue facility. It must be open-ended insurance for anybody who can be damaged in this sort of operation. And I apply that very particularly to the increasing use of toxic poisons, of which we have been hearing, in industry.
There is a touch of cynicism in every politician, despite the admonition by the noble Lord, Lord Zuckerman, of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. When I read of the comparatively minor but threatening disaster I refreshed my memory from the invaluable Keatings and I found the sequence of events something like this: 11 th October, rumour of a slight leak: 12th October, slight accident confirmed—no flames but glow; 12th October also, I think, milk found to be poisoned ail round and being poured down the drain as unfit for consumption; 13th October, special Cabinet meeting held. Perhaps I should withdraw the use of the word "special" because it may have been an ordinary Cabinet meeting. At any rate, the Cabinet considered the matter and almost immediately, certainly in the same week, there was an announcement that there would be a full inquiry but that it would never be published.
I can understand their desire to keep their secrets from the CIA; I would not trust the CIA with any secrets. However, that was rather unbelievably special treatment, and what I now read is that in fact what happened was that the wind changed and blew the poison over to 1417 Copenhagen, London and Cornwall—and blew it quite extensively—and fortunately diverted it from nearby Wind-scale, which might have suffered very greatly. That is the story. If one then has a secret inquiry, one must ask people to speculate and enquire.
I made reference in a Question the other day to the explosion at Seveso, but I will not go into that. In this charming place, eight days passed before an accident was announced or publicised at all. Seveso is in that lovely angle which Manjoni described so beautifully in I Promessi Sposi, but it is now very close to the large industrial city of Milan. It was a disaster pregnant with possibilities. We have not yet been told what they are, but there followed the programme on television in which we were told that this was the sixth country in which there had been this type of accident. Bolsina we knew of. The Bolsina accident was thought sufficiently serious to destroy the whole plant and say that they would never use it again. In another country, no news was given for 10 years. In another, they knew that every rescue worker was tainted with cancer. We are waiting now for information.
I shall conclude by telling as briefly as I can a story that I think particularly relevant to the points made by the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury. I speak of what has been happening in Michigan. One factory there makes a product called Firemaster, which I think is polybrominated biphenyl. It is not made anywhere else in the world, so far as we know. PBB is really not known. PCB—polychlorinated byphenyl —is known and it is known to be a poison which lodges in the tissues, which is extremely dangerous and which does not respond to the ordinary bodily process of metabolism. It is one of the most dangerous of all poisons and is much stronger than thalidomide. The same firm also produces a product that it calls Neutromaster, which is a magnesium salt mixture which is used to strengthen animal feed. It is quite harmless and possibly helpful and it is supplied mainly to the Michigan Farm Bureau. They mix it with all the grain they are sending out as an additive for health.
This went very well. Nobody knew whether Firemaster stopped fire. Quite possibly it does not. I would not know, but a lot of people thought that it might 1418 and they bought it. The firm sold about 12 million lb. of Firemaster. Then the firm ran out of bags. This is what is called the unforeseeable and unpreventable accident. For the time being, therefore, instead of using different coloured bags, they used brown paper bags with the name stencilled on. Then they sent out a lorry driver with instructions to deliver a load of Neutromaster to the Farm Bureau. As the driver could not read or write, he delivered a load of Firemaster which was duly mixed up with the grain by the Farm Bureau and was sent to nearly every farm in Michigan. It killed animals to the tune of 30 million dollars-worth of compensation which has now been paid.
The hens ceased to lay, as they did when armour was refused to Joan of Arc, and then there was on the face of it a major disaster. It went on for months. Cattle had to be destroyed on the scale of a cattle disease. The slaughtered animals were chopped up and served as food to the other animals, so that all the healthy animals in Michigan had got it, and the hens were still not laying and men began to find themselves showing symptoms. Years have gone by; the matter has been investigated, postponed and thought over. But according to the figures we have seen 1,040 human beings, almost certain to be infected, have been examined. The report is in the hands of the medical officers who are looking at it. I do not quote this —it may be sensational—but I think it is the Observer which says that 9 million lives are in danger. This is a matter of wide concern. I am grateful to your Lordships for your indulgence. I am grateful to you for listening with such care, and I hope that you have a happy Christmas. I do not think that I ought in your interests to withhold the information that the diseased hens were disposed of by being sold to an international soup manufacturer, presumably for the best chicken soup.
§ 5.16 p.m.
§ Lord KINGS NORTON
My Lords, to my very great regret I was prevented by circumstances beyond my control from attending the middle part of this debate, but I had the pleasure of listening to the opening speech by the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, which seemed to be a most admirable introduction to a report 1419 for which I had already developed considerable admiration. I thought that it was a splendid report and one which we can study in detail with profit for a long time to come. I was also delighted to hear many of the speeches just following that of the noble Lord, Lord Zuckerman, particularly the speech of the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, who I think was able to comfort us about the safety of ourselves but was doubtful about the safety of our barbarian posterity, and we should all be indebted to him for the splendid but somewhat claustrophobic vision of standstill pigs in a submarine pipeline.
One of the most interesting diagrams in the report of the Royal Commission is Figure 25, which helps to quantify the sources of our energy, and among other things it illustrates what qualitatively is indeed known to us, that we have large reserves of coal and oil and that we could, by exploiting these hydrocarbon fuels, continue for many years without the need of nuclear energy. If all the nations of the world were in the same fortunate position, it would perhaps be possible to postpone the development of nuclear energy for some years to come, or else to develop other sources of power so effectively as to make unnecessary recourse to nuclear energy, with what are still to me, despite the statistics of the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, its terrifying safety problems. Unfortunately, this is not the situation, and while we could on our own pursue a purely coal-plus-oil policy for some years, we cannot afford to drop out of the highly competitive nuclear development field, and I certainly recommend that we should push ahead as determinedly as ever, not only looking for export opportunities, but applying to the waste problem the great skills which we undoubtedly have in the development of the highest safety standards. But, my Lords, it seems to me evident that nuclear energy policy cannot be allowed to continue ad lib, here or anywhere else, on the basis of unlimited and unrestricted proliferation. In other words, while for some time to come current developments, which are so much more important to the satisfying of the future middle-term needs of other countries than they are to the satisfying of our own, must be allowed to proceed, we must, if the world of our great-grandchildren is to be safe to live in, develop an alternative. 1420 My Lords, there is one inexhaustible source of energy which we must use—the sun. I fear that, having missed some of the earlier speeches in this debate, I may have been anticipated in what I have to say, and, indeed, from what the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, said, I rather think the noble Lord, Lord Tedder, must have been dealing with this theme; but if your Lordships will allow me, I should like to mention it again because I believe that we—and, here, I do not mean just the United Kingdom, but the leading nations of the world—have time to develop its use in such a way that nuclear power can, if we wish, be run down and, if we wish, abandoned. Some would say that that is a consummation devoutly to be desired. I am not sure; but, at least, it would be well if we were in a position to decide how much we wanted.
The energy of the sun is available to us in a number of ways. I think I can mention six. First, from the wind; second, from the waves—not the tide, my Lords; I do not suppose your Lordships thought it was, but that, indeed, is the moon—third, from direct absorption of the sun's heat by flat plate collectors; fourth, by photo-voltaic cells; fifth, by photo-biological means; and, sixth, by photo-chemical means. Forty years ago the nuclear power station was at the "gleam in the eye" stage. In 40 years, from a position of theory and laboratory experiment we have reached the highly sophisticated, immensely practical and economic nuclear power station of today —and, sadly, the horribly dangerous nuclear weapon. My Lords, can we not in the next 40 years develop the conversion of the sun's energy, bestowed so generously on this miserable world, to a similar or even greater stage of progress? This, in my view, should be the policy of all the nations of the world, and we should be prepared to show the way ourselves.
I do not think this is the time or the place to go into details. I do not think, any more than did the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, that the wind will ever be a great source of power. Too much wind-mill is needed for too little output. But it should be developed to the utmost, and could undoubtedly help less advanced countries than our own. The waves, while not much good to, say, Switzerland or Liechtenstein, could possibly make 1421 quite an appreciable contribution here. I am glad to know that work is proceeding on what I would believe to be a satisfactory scale. Optimists tell us that the whole current energy demand of this country could be met by about 300 miles of coast-located apparatus. Pessimists, and Dr. Musgrove in particular, tell us it would be 16 years before the energy output equalled the energy expended in making the apparatus. These are two different points of view; but, of course, by the time the apparatus had paid for itself it might well be worn out or covered in barnacles, and clearly the situation is one which must be investigated very carefully because it might have considerable possibilities.
But when we come to flat plate collectors we come to a different order of magnitude. For space heating and domestic purposes these have a tremendous future. Indeed, in some countries—and Israel is one of them—they are widely used already. I think that in Israel about one house in five depends for its domestic purposes on this kind of equipment. But the photo-voltaic cell, which we think of today as the silicone cell, is the most thrilling possibility with, I believe, a higher probability of success than nuclear fusion. It is at something about the stage at which nuclear energy was 40 years ago with the same sort of potential. Here is something to which I believe we should apply our maximum intellectual effort with all the necessary finance. The possibilities are tremendous.
In a speech that I made in November 1973, I told your Lordships that it had been estimated that the probable global energy demand in the year 2000 could be produced by taking up about 400 miles square of the earth's surface—0. 1 per cent. of the earth's surface, solid or liquid—by the appropriate installations. It is a gigantic concept but surely not daunting to a world which has brought nuclear energy so far and so fast.
Then, my Lords, there are the photo-biological routes—which I again gather from the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, were mentioned by Lord Tedder—such as growing plants and fermenting the crops to methane. Finally, and most remote of the possibilities that I have mentioned there are photochemical means in which the basis would be the CO2 of the atmosphere and water, both plentiful and 1422 recyclable, to get our hydrogen or methane or methanol by processes which have not yet been developed.
My Lords, none of the methods of producing energy that I have mentioned have dangerous side effects. Unfortunately, even if we pursued them successfully, we have still got the wretched nuclear weapons with us. I only hope that if nuclear power were restricted we should at the same time be hampering weapon development. I feel strongly that we should put a great effort into cultivation of the sun. I think that is the way of salvation and that we shall be wise to follow it.
§ 5.27 p.m.
§ Lord TODD
My Lords, I must first crave the indulgence of the House for the fact that I was unable to be present at the opening of this debate. I should have been but, alas! I had to assist today at the funeral of a friend, Sir David Martin, Executive Secretary of the Royal Society, who has done almost more than anyone else I know to promote international scientific progress and to maintain the reputation of this country in that field. I am quite sure that in some of the earlier speeches, and certainly in some that I have heard this afternoon, many of the points that I might have made have been covered; so that I think that I shall confine myself to some general remarks in this field in order that, at any rate, my general views shall be known.
My Lords, I think that the report that we are discussing today is a very interesting one. It gives a very full review of the possible impact of nuclear power development on the environment. It also discusses the mechanism for control, construction, and setting of safety standards. For these reasons 1, like all other noble Lords, would certainly welcome the report. Unfortunately, I think the impression gained by general readers, although this is certainly not the intention of the Commission, is that it concentrates really on the fast breeder reactor and on whether or not we should carry on the pioneering work done at Dounreay on this type of reactor a stage further by setting up the design and construction of one commercial reactor, the so-called CFR 1.
1423 It is perhaps even more unfortunate that the report in that connection does not advise either to proceed or not to proceed. What it does is to postpone a decision, in my opinion unnecessarily. We have not much time to spare. There has been a lot of argument about likely demands for energy, and the ways in which we are going to meet them. Certainly from what I have read on the subject, it would appear that although there is some variation in the matter of dates, it would be not unreasonable to say on the basis of our present power sources, coal, oil, gas, water power and the current level of nuclear power supplies, that we are going to be hard put to it to meet our needs beyond about the year 2000. We simply cannot afford to neglect any new or improved sources.
There has been a lot of speculation about new or hitherto untapped sources of energy. Such speculation is, in the present context, very largely irrelevant. With great respect to my noble friend Lord Tedder, none of these speculative sources, including solar energy, has yet been taken to a stage which would justify any real reliance on them for closing an energy gap which will develop in the next 25 years or so. Remember, too, that we ought to be reserving our oil and coal resources for other purposes: for use as our main sources of carbon compounds on which depend most of our chemical industry and the satisfaction of almost the whole of our material needs. This is something that most people seem to forget. Oil and coal are not just fossil fuels; they are the only practical sources that we have of the hydrocarbons on which the organic chemical industry depends to produce the dyes, explosives, drugs, fibres, plastics, detergents, insulating materials, and so on, that are required. Without these, our daily lives would be very different and much less pleasant than they are today. More of these things are going to be needed in the future.
To me at least trying to close an energy gap by burning more and more of these fossil fuels is a kind of lunacy. We produce energy from these fuels by oxidising—that is burning—the hydro-carbons in them, producing at the same time masses of carbon dioxide which we usually liberate into the atmosphere. The 1424 long term effects of liberating more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere could well be just as serious for the environment and for the human race as anything which could happen through the use of nuclear reactors, yet nobody seems to worry very much about this. Of course, we could argue that one does not need the hydrocarbons, that given unlimited energy, it would be possible to reduce carbon dioxide back to the hydrocarbon level and so make raw materials for industry in that way. This is true because it is what the vegetable kingdom is doing every day, using energy provided by the sun.
From our point of view the only conceivable source of energy on this kind of scale is nuclear fusion; that is to say, the controlled operation of the reaction used in the so-called hydrogen bomb and, if you like, the reaction by which the sun itself generates its heat and light. Research is going on in many places into the control of thermonuclear fusion. It should be pressed on with even more vigour than it is being pressed just now. Even an optimist like myself would consider that under the most favourable circumstances we are not likely to see a full-scale thermo-nuclear power station for 50 years or more—that is to say, until long after we are in trouble.
The need for us to conserve oil and coal to meet the needs of future generations for materials makes it all the more urgent that we consider every other potential energy source and, particularly from the standpoint of this country and Europe, nuclear energy is certainly one we ought to consider with a high priority. At present, as you know, our nuclear power stations depend on the fission of uranium 235. They depend therefore on the availability of uranium, of which rich and easily workable deposits are limited. If we stick to this kind of reactor, it seems to me that the fuel for such reactors must become more scarce and more expensive and, of course, it is here that the fast reactor comes in. Since it produces plutonium as well as burns it, the fast reactor offers us power which could without doubt be on a scale far in excess of that available from all the coal, oil and gas resources so far discovered.
Our own scientists and engineers are in the forefront of work in the fast reactor 1425 field. They have already demonstrated its potential in the prototype reactor which is now operating at Dounreay. The next logical step is to design and build one reactor on a commercial scale. Remember, my Lords, if we do that we are not committed to building more and more power plants on that principle, but if in fact the energy gap—which seems to be almost universally predicted—occurs before we can fill it with thermonuclear energy, we shall at least be ready to go ahead if we have done the pilot work on the fast reactor. What is more, our industry will be well placed to provide the power plants which will then be required in other countries. If we do not do it, we shall have to import the technology and equipment from overseas, with all that that would entail in cost and further industrial decline.
Of course, there are hazards about any new type of power plant, nuclear or otherwise. It seems to me that the report does not make it clear enough that the problems of radioactive waste and of plutonium getting into the wrong hands are not peculiar to the fast reactor. They are there now with present nuclear plants and with the very substantial stocks of plutonium already in military arsenals. But, as my noble friend Lord Zuckerman has already remarked, these dangers seem to have been contained pretty comfortably so far, and surely one prototype plant using a fast reactor is not going to make all that difference.
No advances are ever made in power generation or indeed in anything else, without some risk. What we have to decide is the degree of risk that is acceptable. In my view, the answer is simple: the risk in going ahead to build a CFRE reactor alone or preferably, as is suggested in the report, in concert with our EEC partners, is acceptable. I can see no reason at all for delay but I can see many reasons against it. It seems to me that in the days when Britain was in the van of industrial progress we did not worry or fuss too much about hypothetical dangers. We built very large gasometers in the middle of very densely populated areas, which one could argue was a very dangerous thing to do should there be an accident.
I am accustomed, as many of us must be, to hearing continual talk about 1426 Britain's ability and about new scientific discoveries and new discoveries in technology; but we are told that this is coupled with an apparent failure to exploit them on a commercial scale, so that our industry keeps on losing out to foreign competition. When I look at the recent agitation about the nuclear programme and the fumbling hesitation we have seen about the reprocessing plant at Windscale, I somehow begin to wonder: Is, perhaps, the so-called "British disease" some of us talk about not just indecision and timidity in the face of things that are new?
§ 5.40 p.m.
§ Viscount THURSO
My Lords, although I am speaking from these Benches, I do not speak for these Benches. I have asked that I may come in in the gap, as it were, to speak in this debate in your Lordships' House, because I come from Thurso and therefore live in the home town of Dounreay. In fact, this debate this day has taken me back over 20 years to when Dounreay first came up into our midst in Caithness, when we had the same kind of apprehensions as have been voiced on various sides of your Lordships' House, and when we sought information on and clarification of the problems that we would face in having this highly advanced scientific, technological neighbour about whom so little was known.
I remember a talk that was given in the town hall in Thurso—I perhaps thought that I could get in quite easily, but, in fact, I had to listen from outside the main door, because the hall was packed—which was given by the then Sir Christopher, now Lord, Hinton to whom we have listened with such interest today. In that one talk—it was a slightly longer talk than his speech in your Lordships' House—he explained in clear terms to the people of Thurso what they would have to face, what the Atomic Energy Authority hoped to do in their midst and how it would affect them, and, I think, 21 years later I am able to say that he did not let us down. My experience is that we were told the truth about Dounreay, what it would be like and how it would affect our lives, and the progress of it has been more or less to schedule, affected only by the whims of government in giving more or less money and encouragement at different stages.
1427 I have, in fact, stood inside the core—before they were active, of course—of each of the three reactors on the site. I have watched them in construction, I have watched them running and I have a tremendous confidence built from knowing the people who work in the industry, from knowing their sense of responsibility to the human race as well as to their profession and their sciences. It is upon that that I found my confidence in atomic energy as something which we should hang on to in this country, something that is very precious to us, something that is very valuable to us and something which we can usefully and wisely use; and my confidence in our ability to use it wisely, also.
One of the main reasons why the critics of atomic energy criticise the so-called fast reactor programme is that they say they do not see the demand for larger quantities of power spelled out. But during this debate people have spelled out the reasons why we shall need a further supply of power, and the biggest reason, to my mind, is that even if we do not increase our demand man for man in the industrialised world, we shall need this power if we are to give to citizens of the Third World a standard of living equivalent to the one which we enjoy; and, indeed, to the third-rate citizens in our own country. I defy anybody to tell me that we do not need more power and cheaper power, when it is possible for people to die of hypothermia in our midst. Certainly we need supplies of power which are cheap enough and plentiful enough for all our citizens to enjoy. Also we need supplies of power which are cheap enough and plentiful enough for all the citizens of the world to enjoy.
Another point which is made, and which again has been dealt with in the debate in your Lordships' House, concerns terrorists getting hold of plutonium and the dangers of nuclear proliferation. I am not going to take up your Lordships' time, as I promised to be brief. However, on the evidence that is available to me I am satisfied that if countries wish to acquire atomic weapons they can do so without having a fast reactor. Furthermore, the progress of a fast reactor programme in this country would not increase the danger of proliferation but would decrease it 1428 because, apart from anything else, the type of plutonium within a fast breeder reactor is less readily fissile than the type within other reactors.
Finally, the third point that is made against the fast reactor programme is that it involves a massive increase in the invasion of civil liberties. However, may I assure noble Lords that nobody in Thurso feels that his civil liberties are being invaded by virtue of the fact that he works at Dounreay. People would be horrified if they thought themselves to be more spied on or less free than any other citizen in Britain. I assure noble Lords that that is not how people feel.
The Atomic Energy Authority is accused of being Micawberish in thinking about fast reactors as the only way out of the problems created by the energy gap. I would counter that accusation by saying that I think it is Micawberish to hope that something else will turn up to fill the gap which has been demonstrated by speakers on all sides of the House. In our fast breeder reactor programme already we have not only one of the leading reactors in the world but one of the best, one of the safest and one that has gone the whole hog in experiment and has tried things out at the right scale to prove whether or not they will work.
If we stop that programme and hope that in some way this will save us from some danger, we are deluding ourselves because we shall merely be opening up the field for other fast reactors in other countries. We shall be doing ourselves out of the fast reactor technology know-how. We shall be putting ourselves in a position where it will be extremely difficult to buy into somebody else's fast reactor if, in fact, we need to do so, because we shall probably have dispersed the brains and the trained technicians to other countries where fast reactor programmes are going on. Also we shall have nothing to sell in the way of knowledge about how fast reactor systems can be made to work and about how the technology of harnessing a fast reactor to electricity production can be made to work. Therefore, people will not be very interested in us joining in at a later stage if we have no programme of our own. Therefore I plead with the Government to take this decision as reasonably rapidly as it can be taken, principally so as not to jeopardise the fast reactor system 1429 which we already have and which we already could use. By all means do not let us rush it; by all means let us examine all the facets of it that need to be examined—the safety precautions, and so on. These are well set out in the report of the Royal Commission. But do not let us delay unnecessarily because delay will only lose us further valuable lead in know-how; it will only lose us further valuable people from the industry and it will only put us in a more difficult position if and when we need to use the system.
I should like to end by saying that it may be a bad thing to do wrong but it is equally a bad thing not to do right when one can. I think it is right that we should take our fast breeder reactor programme to the stage of CFR I. I am not suggesting that we necessarily want to go in for the whole programme of the Atomic Energy Authority, but I think we do want to go to CFR1, so that if the time comes that we need it, we can have it and use it.
§ 5.51 p.m.
§ Viscount HANWORTH
My Lords, I removed my name from the list because what I wanted to say had been said previously and I thought that particularly on the last day noble Lords would be grateful if one speaker scratched. However, there is one point that I should like to make now and it can be made in about two minutes. The point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Hinton of Bankside, but I should like to emphasise it. It is that we must look at this problem worldwide, because I believe that in the future the developing countries will demand a great deal more energy. As they are at the moment they are on the bottom of an exponential curve. One may reasonably suppose that in 20 years or so they will hit the steeper portion and the worldwide demands for energy at the time when we are hitting that gap will be far larger than we might suppose they would be, looking at our own situation. It may be possible here even to stabilise our demand; it will not be possible to do it for the developing countries.
The conclusion I arrive at is that it is even more important, therefore, and in fact essential, that we should have a nuclear programme to fill the gap. I am not in favour of nuclear fission as a means of providing energy but it is the 1430 only one which can fulfil the demands, so far as one can see, in the gap before something like the fusion process arrives.
§ 5.52 p.m.
§ Baroness BIRK
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, for initiating this debate, and when I say "I", I am speaking not only on behalf of the Government but because I personally have found this a most fascinating intellectual exercise during this rather long debate today. I am also extremely grateful to Sir Brian Flowers and his colleagues on the Royal Commission for providing the occasion by producing a report that is not only interesting and mind stirring but rightly, as we have heard today, creates controversy and poses the uncomfortable questions with which the Government must grapple.
When my right honourable friend gave the Government's initial reaction to certain aspects of the report he emphasised then that far greater consideration was needed before a comprehensive answer could be given. Consideration still continues and I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, felt that in tabling his Motion noble Lords would welcome the opportunity to express their views before the Government declare themselves. Certainly the Government will be grateful for this because as was said by the noble Lord opposite, seldom can there be any other place in which a debate of this sort, with the number of distinguished speakers who have taken part today, could take place. Also, the views are valuable not only as individual views but because they reveal a great diversity, and I think this was polarised by the views of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, on the one hand and the noble Lord, Lord Zuckerman, on the other, and in between we have had points of information.
At this hour I do not intend to attempt to discuss the report in detail, nor to follow the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, into the financial and accounting arrangements on the details of supply and demand of energy. If I may, I will write to the noble Lord about that. Rather, I want to indicate the approach of the Government, and the considerations which have to be balanced. The noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, said that he hoped the Government would 1431 make a commitment which was unequivocally clear. This sounds all to the good, and probably is possible at some stage, but if I can sketch the problems en route, I think the noble Lord will appreciate why-and I am sure he knows already—it is impossible, beyond a certain point, to hurry this along without in fact going a long way.
My Lords, my starting point is the present standards of safety, on which many noble Lords have spoken. Briefly, the Royal Commission consider that the arrangements for the control of radio-active discharges have worked satisfactorily. They consider that the risk of serious accident in any single reactor is small; that existing or planned security measures render the risks from current nuclear development few, and that the disposal, at least of low-level solid waste, is satisfactory. Generally, the Royal Commission believe that at present the nuclear industry has a clean bill of health, with the important provisos contained in their recommendations on organisation and research. So even in this area any feeling of complacency would be misplaced, and quite rightly so.
The real burden of the argument of the Royal Commission is that future risks have to be guarded against by present planning. This was most cogently expressed by my noble friend Lady White who, as a member of the Royal Commission, had a particular contribution to make, because she was able to give voice to the printed word of this report, and to give also the whole flavour of the Commission. Personally, I found hers an invaluable contribution. This means we must find solutions to the problems arising from a vastly increased programme of nuclear power before we commit ourselves to extending the present programme. There have been differing views expressed on this from all sides of the House, and these I will note carefully when I read Hansard. From the differences one thing emerges, namely, that there is nothing easy about these crucial decisions, either for individuals to debate or for the Government to decide.
Listening to some of the distinguished contributions which have been made to this debate, I felt that we really had to learn from some of our history. We should remember that, even today, we 1432 are feeling the effects of the Industrial Revolution, which "just growed and growed" without any proper planning. Even today, we can see the effects of the unplanned industrial revolution in the country. It is this that any Government must try to avoid when trying to balance the various criteria on which to base their decisions.
My Lords, many people think that nuclear power should be abandoned altogether, since they consider that the risks it presents are quite unacceptable. There are people on that side of the spectrum. However, the Royal Commission did not take this view. The Royal Commission said it would be neither wise nor justified to abandon the option of nuclear fission power. Having taken this stand, their central theme is the extent to which we use nuclear power in the final years of this century and beyond.
This raises two major issues. The first major issue is whether we should adopt the fast reactor which makes full use of uranium reserves and, secondly, the extent to which we can commit ourselves to a major programme—given the awesome problem of disposing safely of high-activity, long-lived waste. This is the crunch. What must be the approach of the Government? The noble Lord, Lord Hinton of Bankside, put forward the economic and industrial factors em-phatically, succinctly, and with great conviction. The Government are aware that issues of national wealth creation have to he balanced with the social and environmental factors. This is imperative in our economy. My noble friend Lord Wynne-Jones reminded us that we are determining the standard of living of future generations, and the right reverend Prelate went rather further and said that what we are talking about is the kind of society we hope for in the future. So the problem does not contract but grows as one discusses it and looks at it.
The problems of nuclear energy have also extended the environmental horizons. The nuclear power business can no longer he judge and advocate in its own cause. I was interested, when the noble Lord, Lord McNair, was speaking, I thought in a very sympathetic and interesting way, about the human aspects of this problem, that he referred all the time to the Minister of Energy and the Department of Energy.
1433 There is no competition in what I have to say about this, because here we must work together, but I would think that today the relative hazards to the public at large, when we are discussing fossil fuel versus nuclear fuel, is as much a matter for the Department of the Environment and the Department of Health and Social Security as for the Department of Energy and the Department of Industry. It is essential that we should this as a trans-Governmental exercise.
In the absence of adequate safeguards nuclear power can present dangers to the generation using it. Discharges of radio-activity to the environment, unless they are controlled very strictly, can result in people most exposed receiving more than the maximum permissible dose of radiation, either as a result of direct contamination or through the food chain. An accidental release of radioactivity might spread the danger more widely. Noble Lords have referred to this, but I think it is important that I put it in the context of governmental thinking, because at the end of the day it is the Government which has to take the responsibility. It is, I think, this aspect which feeds many of our doubts about the use of nuclear power. There may be a risk of irreversible biological consequences for future generations.
I was very interested to listen to the noble Lord. Lord Aldington, who made an extremely vigorous and interesting speech on the need to go ahead with nuclear power; he also referred to our having to take care in this area. The noble Lord, Lord McNair, referred to us as being the guardians of posterity. The noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, stressed the interesting point about leaving waste around that future generations may not know how to deal with, or they may not even know what they are, so to speak, stumbling on.
In a context of this magnitude international dialogue and co-operation are essential. I think the noble Lord, Lord Strathcona, was absolutely correct when he spoke about the European view. Other noble Lords—I think the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and the noble Lord, Lord Zuckerman—spoke about the global view. If we do not get this sort of dialogue and co-operation going, the risks of dissemination of nuclear capacity leading to the proliferation of nuclear weapons can be highly dangerous. There is no guarantee, 1434 as we all know, even if we do get a maximum of co-operation, but without positive international effort the outlook could be grim.
There is also the danger of radioactive material getting into the hands of terrorists and being used to blackmail society. I am not going to linger on that question because a great deal has been said about it by other noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and my noble friend Lord Ritchie-Calder felt very strongly that there was great danger here, whereas the noble Lord, Lord Zuckerman, and the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, were not impressed by this argument. The fact that there can be these very strongly differing views does again make it imperative that it is some-thing that Government have to look at and take into consideration in their future plans, as well as the implications of the safeguards themselves.
The Commission expressed fears about both the implications for our society, the security measures necessary, and also the efficacy of these measures in an era of nuclear expansion. I think the Commission got a certain amount of battering about this. Nevertheless, whether they are right or wrong—and indeed these things are not incompatible, since conventional security measures are not the only means of preventing illicit acquisition of plutonium, and I do not think I had better go into that any further because I feel that there have been enough seminars for would-be terrorists going on this afternoon—it is absolutely right that these things should be thrown into the debating arena in order that the Government can also take note of them and also see how they can put their own house in order, if necessary, in this field.
This picture cannot be completed without looking at the possibility of doing without a major nuclear programme. There are two options, both of which have been brought out fully this afternoon. Either we cut our demand for energy altogether, or rely on other energy resources. If the other resource is coal, then although automation improves mining conditions, mining will still continue to be more dangerous than many other occupations. Nor can we dismiss the potential effect on the countryside of the opening of new mines, or the possibility of air pollution through increased burning 1435 of coal. The hazards have to be compared whichever we do. So far there has been no serious study of this comparison. As the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, reminded us, we cannot forget the oil situation. Even with the arrival of North Sea oil the dependence of the West on oil is again something where a great many political judgments have to come in.
There were a number of interesting contributions on the renewable sources of energy such as wave and solar power. The noble Lord, Lord Tedder, came out wholly in favour of solar power, as did the noble Lord, Lord Kings Norton. This was also discussed in the report, but at this stage it is neither certain whether we can rely on them—and this again was shown clearly by the differences of opinon expressed this afternoon—nor how far they would themselves carry social and environmental problems in their trail. The Royal Commission also suggested—and this was supported by the noble Lord, Lord Strathcona—that we should try to ease the problem by reducing our demand for energy. I am sure we are energy wasting in many areas in this country. But the Commission did not suggest, and I do not believe that the Government would either, that conservation could provide the solution. It might reduce some of our energy demands, but only minimally.
If we go too far along this road, then we have to be prepared for a lower standard of living. With the increased comfort and mobility which a high use of energy makes possible, it is not going to be easy to dismiss people's natural aspirations. When we look on the cosmic level, then we see that a low energy economy precludes a betterment of living standards in the Third and Fourth World. Though we are discussing this in somewhat national terms, we cannot ignore the international implications and must take the discussion into the realms of the underdeveloped countries of the world. The world population has a tremendous need for energy. In the really poor Fourth World, either we have to decide to go nuclear or restrict population.
The Government are in the unfortunate and difficult position of having to balance all these considerations. They have to 1436 balance them in a democratic society. This means that not only the views of the scientists and experts but the views of everyone else should be taken into account. The Government cannot and should not be wholly environmentalist or wholly materialist, with their eye just on the economy. They have to aim at the total national interest, but within the international context.
In this great debate—I say "great" advisedly in that I am referring not only to the debate of considerable calibre in your Lordships' House today but the debate which started some time ago, long before the report arrived, which is continuing and to which the Royal Commission has made such a substantial and lively contribution—it is difficult for the layman (perhaps I should now say, lay person) to cope with the complexities of scientific technicalities. The time scale within which it requires us to think is so colossal and the interactions we have to comprehend so complicated that it is hard for even the most fertile imagination to grasp. It is hard, as we have heard, to keep the arguments rational, and the emotional content is great. I think that in these areas—I say this speaking among scientists—a dash of emotion is not a bad thing, because we are talking not only about science but about humanity and human behaviour.
The time is, I think, more opportune now than previously in the last 20 years to attempt to strengthen safeguards by utilising international power; and, whether this is based on mutual fear or mutual good will, one hopes that the end result may turn out for the benefit of mankind. Some of the most fruitful suggestions that have come out of this debate have been on the issue of the debate being based on adequate information, as was recommended by the Royal Commission, and that the debate should be widespread, and a number of very helpful and useful suggestions have been made. The noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, explained, I thought with great clarity, the reaction of the people of Thurso, and the noble Lord, Lord Hinton of Bankside, explained exactly what the situation was and what the dangers and advantages were.
My noble friend Lady White rightly said that people had the right to have the 1437 risks explained to them; the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, rightly said that the myths should he exploded and the noble Lord, Lord Zuckerman, said it was far easier to generate fear than confidence. Is that not another way of saying that ignorance is a very good breeding ground for fear? It is really sheer ignorance of something which to many of the speakers this after-noon is child's play—at any rate to discuss, because they understand the subject so completely—and this is the problem with which the Government are faced and with which I am sure we shall find a way of coping. It is a question of getting the debate properly off the ground so that it can be discussed in terms which are understandable to the lay person who does not have a specialised scientific basis.
The noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, said the Government should commission a work which, as I understood his suggestion, would be a compilation of scientific material which would be intelligible to the layman—a good idea which I will certainly put forward. I think that that is a very good idea and I shall certainly put it forward, as I will the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Zuckerman, for a bureau of scientific information attached to Government Departments.
My noble friend Lord Ritchie-Calder thought that Government Departments should do more to equip themselves to give a scientific background to their thinking and policies. That, again, is worth very careful consideration. The Government are well aware of the extent of the problems but they are also very well aware that they are not easy to solve. Indeed, although I share in general terms the strictures of the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, against encouragement of "delay, linger and wait"—I have been writing "urgent" on all the papers that I have sent out, but I found that it debased the currency so I had to stop—the Royal Commission has set out the issues and its report forms a very good starting point, and I really believe that this debate has taken the matter a good deal further. I believe that we shall all find when we come to read Hansard that there has been a great deal of hard comment and information on the report. I do not mean "hard" in the sense of "critical", though naturally some contributions have been critical: the Commission would 1438 hardly have done a job worth doing if everybody had agreed with it.
Luckily, for once, time is on our side, not, I know, in the long-term cycles in which it has been discussed by some noble Lords but in the sense that we have time to think about it and to try to get a reaction from people and to get their views. Also, it is essential in a democracy for the Government to carry the people with them. This, again, means information, education and complete understanding of what is involved. A totalitarian State does not have this problem, but this is part of our democratic society and it is something for which we are very grateful but which we have to harness in order to get the under-standing and lessen the very real fears of a great many people. Although. as I said, time is on our side, I also agree that we must not let it slip away before taking what may be one of the most profound and important decisions of our generation.
§ 6.18 p.m.
§ Lord SHERFIELD
My Lords, I should like to express my thanks to noble Lords for their contributions to this debate, and perhaps especially to the noble Lord, Lord Hinton, for curing himself of laryngitis just in time to make a powerful speech; to the noble Lord, Lord Aldington, who overcame jet lag to come here today, and to other noble Lords who have no doubt conquered similar inconveniences. I should like particularly to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, for her Statement earlier and her very full and interesting reply to this debate. I am sorry to have been the unwitting cause of putting a heavy burden on her in mid-December—a time which, if I remember correctly, is one of heavy pressure on Ministers. I was glad to hear that the noble Baroness had not found the after-noon a waste of time.
It is no surprise to me that a very wide spectrum of opinions has been expressed in this debate. I shall take up only one or two points. In introducing the debate, tried in the interests of brevity to compress my remarks and that may have led to some misunderstanding. I did not say, as the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, suggested, that the Royal Commission was wrong in involving itself in nuclear sabotage and terrorism. I did not question its decision to do so. Nor did I, as 1439 the noble Lord, Lord Avehury, suggested, dismiss the subject. I merely voiced a little scepticism which has been echoed by a number of subsequent speakers. I was challenged by the noble Lord, Lord McNair, about the use of the word "robust" in relation to the result of the polls in California and six other American States. I used the word because the population had been exposed to heavy propaganda by the anti-nuclear lobby and yet it voted—13½ million people—two to one to brave the dangers with which it was confronted. I would also apply the same adjective to the noble Baroness, Lady White, who shows the same quality under equal, if opposite, pressures.
As regards the great debate, I did not say that it should be brought to an end. As the noble Lord, Lord Aldington, observed, it has a long way to run yet, and of course I agree with what the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, said at the end of her remarks. But there are problems about this debate in relation to the requirements of the time scale, because the need for discussion can be used almost ad infinitum to delay decisions, although I am sure that that is not the intention of the Government.
Furthermore. such a debate thrives on sensation and tends to create sensation-alism and embattled lobbies, and Sir Brian Flowers himself has referred to the low level at which some of it has been conducted. On the sensational side, the recent small leak at Windscale has been blown up out of all proportion, and it shows how completely different criteria are applied to nuclear operations as opposed to other operations. In a large industrial organisation the managing director does not expect to be informed of every fire in a paint shop, which is a comparable incident.
I rather regret the decision to call in the planning approval of the oxide plant at Windscale. It seems to me rather like putting up a lot of new hoops in a game of croquet when you are approaching the stick. But now that the decision has been taken I hope that the inquiry will be expedited. Contracts worth half a billion pounds and a number of jobs hang on the decision. I should just like to repeat what I said earlier, that in my view reprocessing at home under adequate safeguards can and should be separated 1440 from the wider problems of international proliferation.
In asking the Government to make a general commitment to nuclear power I was thinking of all those engaged in the nuclear business at home and overseas. But of course such a commitment has to be implemented by a succession of decisions taken, as I said earlier, after what-ever public discussion and debate the Governmeut consider to be necessary. I will not prolong the debate further, and with renewed expression of thanks to all who have taken part in it and to Sir Brian Flowers and his colleagues for producing such a profoundly interesting report, I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.
§ Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.