HL Deb 18 December 1979 vol 403 cc1554-66

3.42 p.m.


My Lords, if it would be for the convenience of the House, I should like to repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Energy on the nuclear programme and the nuclear industry. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a Statement.

"Safe nuclear power and a strong nuclear industry are essential to this country's energy policy. On present prospects, supplies of North Sea oil and gas will he declining in the 1990s. Even with full exploitation of coal and conservation, and with great efforts on renewable energy sources, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to meet this country's long-term energy needs without a sizeable contribution from nuclear power.

"The British nuclear power programme has been in decline over the last decade and the structure of the nuclear industry has been under review for nearly two years. If we are to reverse this trend and ensure that the industry is on a sound footing we must act now.

"The Government have therefore held urgent consultations with those most directly concerned.

"We believe that there must be continuing nuclear power station orders if our long-term energy supplies are to be secured and current industrial uncertainties are to be resolved.

"The last Government authorised the Central Electricity Generating Board and the South of Scotland Electricity Board to begin work at once with a view to ordering one Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor station each as soon as possible. This is in hand.

"The last Government also endorsed the intention of the CEGB to establish the Pressurised Water Reactor as a valid option by ordering a PWR station provided—and I quote,

'design work is satisfactorily completed and all necessary Government and other consents and safety clearances have been obtained'.

The present Government agree that the nuclear and electricity supply industries should now proceed along these lines, and we have made clear to them our wish that, subject to the necessary consents and safety clearances, the PWR should be the next nuclear power station order, with the aim of starting construction in 1982. With the approval of the Government, the CEGB have endorsed the National Nuclear Corporation's selection of Westinghouse as licensor for the PWR, and will shortly issue a letter of intent to NNC to authorise the design and, subject to the necessary approvals, manufacture of a PWR. In consultation with the CEGB, the NNC will prepare the safety case for the board to consider and submit to the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate. Statutory consent actually to build the station will also be needed and an inquiry will be held in due course.

"We attach overriding importance to the safety of nuclear power and will want to ensure that the lessons of events at the Three Mile Island station in the United States have been learnt. I am today publishing preliminary assessments of the Kemeny Report on this incident provided to me by the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate and other authorities in the United Kingdom.

"Looking ahead, the electricity supply industry have advised that even on cautious assumptions they would need to order at least one new nuclear power station a year in the decade from 1982, or a programme of the order of 15000 megawatts over 10 years. The precise level of future ordering will depend upon the development of electricity demand and the performance of the industry, but we consider this a reasonable prospect against which the nuclear and power plant industries can plan. Decisions about the choice of reactor for later orders will be taken in due course.

"The Government attach importance to the steady build-up of the NNC into a strong and independent design and construction company, fully able to supply nuclear power stations at home and abroad efficiently.

"The boards of NNC and of its operating subsidiary, the Nuclear Power Company, will be brought together into a single-tier structure with full responsibility for the affairs of the company. The supervisory manage- ment agreement between the NNC and the General Electric Company will be terminated. The management of the NNC will be built up to suit the needs of our nuclear programme.

"Lord Aldington, chairman of the NNC, has told me that he wishes to retire shortly. I would like to pay tribute to the valuable and unstinted service which he has devoted to the nuclear industry over the last six years. I will be arranging for a successor to take over the chairmanship in due course.

"The immediate task of the NNC is to carry forward their work on the AGR programme, including early commissioning of the remainder of the first AGRs, and to complete work on a PWR design, ready for safety scrutiny. In addition, it is the Government's wish that the company should take on total project management responsibility for the first PWR, drawing on whatever resources it may need to support it in this role. The company may also wish to consider moving into some areas of manufacturing in due course.

"The future success of our nuclear programme is of great importance to the prosperity of this country. I ask all concerned to give their active support to the decisions which I have announced."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement of my right honourable friend.

3.49 p.m.


My Lords, we on this side of the House are grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Gowrie, for repeating that Statement. We agree with the general point made at the beginning of the Statement, that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to meet this country's long-term energy needs without a sizeable contribution from nuclear power. On the other hand, there is considerable public disquiet about nuclear installations, and I welcome the fact—as confirmed in the Statement—that the Government attach overriding importance to nuclear safety and that they want to ensure that the lessons of events at Three Mile Island have been learnt.

We accept the need for the AGR. Indeed, the last Government envisaged a steady ordering programme of AGRs. But we have reservations on the wisdom of a change to the PWR, and the onus of proof for this must surely rest with the CEGB, particularly since the Three Mile Island accident and the cracks reported to have appeared in the French PWR. I must ask the Government whether there will be a full-ranging inquiry, with terms of reference to discuss comparative safety, costs between the two types, suitable sites and other relevant factors. I must also ask the Government if they will publish all the documents provided by the nuclear inspectorate and other authorities in the United Kingdom, and not confine themselves to publishing only a preliminary assessment of the Kemeny Report, as the Statement implies.

Are the Government planning also to keep open the option for the fast-breeder reactor? They have committed themselves to setting up a full public inquiry. May I ask the noble Earl when this will take place and what kind of inquiry it will be? With regard to the proposed reorganisation of the nuclear power industry, we note that a single-tier structure is proposed, and there will no doubt be an opportunity for this to be debated in your Lordships' House in due course. I must associate my noble friends on this side of the House with the tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Aldington. I note that the name of his successor is to be announced in due course. Will the Government confirm that whoever is chosen as the new head will be acceptable generally to the shareholders of the various supplying companies involved?

3.52 p.m.


My Lords, we too from these Benches wish to thank the noble Earl for giving us the Government's Statement on the nuclear programme and the nuclear industry for the next ten or twelve years. Our position is also quite clear. We believe it is necessary that a nuclear element does exist in the energy policy for this country. We are also pleased to recognise in the noble Earl's Statement that there are some issues here which will revitalise the nuclear industry in this country. There is one point on which I must disagree with the noble Earl, when he said: "The Government have therefore held urgent consultations with those most directly concerned." We accept that this may be the case with regard to the technical and commercial interests involved in this nuclear programme, but by far the largest interests concerned are those of the general public, and we believe that there has not been the fullest public discussion with regard to this programme.

It is pleasing to note that the noble Earl has said that there will be a public inquiry. We sincerely hope that during the course of that public inquiry a number of the outstanding issues of safety will be raised and some reassurances given to the public on the general disquiet that there has been over the safety record of the nuclear programme, especially in the United States. I see from this Statement, if my addition is correct, that it is the Government's intention to order 12 nuclear power stations between now and 1992. If the lessons have been learnt from the events that took place on Three Mile Island, will the Government first of all say today that the 100 safety issues that were unresolved at the time of licensing of the Three Mile Island station and which appear to be still unresolved will be clearly answered and clearly resolved before licensing is given to the new corporation for the manufacture of PWR reactors in this country?

While these technical issues remain to be discussed, and discussed publicly, we should like to support the Government, but we will give the Government our fullest support only when a public inquiry has resolved the issues so that my noble friends and I on these Benches and also any member of the general public can understand them.

The Earl of GOWRIE

My Lords, I am grateful for the general response of noble Lords for the official Opposition and for the Liberal Party. May I take first the broad issue of public confidence which the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, raised, and then the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, followed on? Obviously public confidence in nuclear power depends on a general sense that safety issues are being treated openly, so it is the policy of the Government and all concerned with the industry to make available as much information on nuclear safety as is reasonably possible. In that connection I have here an excellent brief on nuclear energy and the nuclear industry, issued by the Department of Energy, which does not duck these sensitive issues, and which I am arranging to have put in the Printed Paper Office for any noble Lords who may be interested.

The Health and Safety Executive published a summary of their assessment of the generic safety issues of pressurised water reactors in July 1977. A more detailed report of this work has recently been made available. A lengthy version of the Marshall Report on the integrity of PWR pressure vessels—one of the inputs into the Health and Safety Executive's exercise—has also been released. I understand that it is not possible to envisage the release of safety documentation prepared for existing stations, which was not written with a view to general release. However, the CEGB do intend to publish next year a substantial document on AGR safety, and that will cover administrative and procedural aspects of safety as well as safety analysis, and principles and emergency plans. In relation to subsequent stations, including the first pressurised water reactor, I have been assured that the appropriate safety documentation supporting the initial licensing will be published as well. I will keep the House informed about that.

The noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, while broadly welcoming our Statement, said that he had some reservations about the PWR as against the AGR. I think it would be foolish for this country not to recognise that pressurised water reactors are now a considerable growth industry in the world's reactor technology, and it would be extremely difficult for us not to play our part, or participate, in a programme which is heading in this direction. The PWR is a well established and proven system with substantial operating experience behind it, and of course it is substantially cheaper than the AGR. But I did make clear our commitment to a mixed energy system; and indeed what we are talking about, even if this programme goes ahead or develops as fast as we should like, is about 30 per cent. or less of our total energy needs by the end of this century.

The noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, asked me whether decisions had been reached on the fast reactor. The answer to that is, not yet. The United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, in consultation with the others mainly concerned, have been considering the option for developing the fast reactor in this country, including possibilities for international co-operation. I expect to receive their report soon. Future policy in this area will be considered early in the New Year, and the House will of course be informed. Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, asked me whether I would publish more information on PWR safety. As I think I indicated at the beginning of my remarks, a lot has been published already. The NII published a summary of their assessment in 1977, but we will see that continuing publications are made available.

3.59 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Earl, in giving us the Government's Statement about their reactor policy, has answered only one question, and that is whether the Government have made up their mind. With regard to the rest, the whole position is left in very grave doubt. I should like to ask the noble Earl one or two questions on this matter. First, what is going to be the impact of the proposals of the Government upon the coal industry? It was previously stated that we would have a substantial need for coal throughout the 1980s. But the Statement of the Government implies that in effect there is to be a replacement of coal stations by nuclear stations, because there is no necessity for 12 15-gigawatt stations in addition to what is already being produced, and therefore some of these must be replacing coal stations. What will happen to declared Government policy on the coal industry? Does the noble Earl mean that in effect there will be a reduction in the development of the coal mining industry, which will have grave repercussions?

These stations are described as nuclear stations, but every station demands turbo generators. What will be the position with regard to the supply of turbo generators in this country when our capacity for supplying these has been run down over the years? Is the industry in a position to supply the necessary turbo generators for operating with these nuclear stations? Are the Government assured of an adequate supply of uranium? All the evidence is that there will be a shortage of uranium in the 1990s, and unless the Government have a guaranteed supply of uranium, it is madness to go in for a programme of this type, especially when we know perfectly well that the French have already embarked on what is, in my opinion, an over-ambitious programme, for the supply of nuclear stations. That leads inevitably to the question: why are the Government not giving high priority to the development of the fast reactor, which is the only one which can operate satisfactorily and safely when there is not a guaranteed supply of uranium?

The Earl of GOWRIE

My Lords, I think there is a general tendency, when Governments announce a programme in an area which affects every aspect of our daily and economic life, to assume that what they are talking about and what they are planning will in some way be at the expense of something else, and I would like to correct that impression. I hope I have made it clear in some of the supplementary remarks to the Statement as well as in some recent Unstarred Question debates in this House that the Government are committed to a mixed economy where energy is concerned.

The noble Lord, Lord Wynne-Jones, raised the question of coal. As he knows, coal is providing about 70 per cent. of current electricity generating needs. I would not imagine that that figure would necessarily alter very much, particularly in view of the fact that as North Sea gas tends to run out we will need more and more coal to provide sources of gas, which is a useful and fairly inexpensive fuel. So I do not think there are grave implications for the coal industry here; and the Government, as the noble Lord is aware, are committed to a programme of development in the coal industry, though we have always in connection with that industry offered the warning, as the last Government offered a warning, that of course if wage costs exceed the economic relevance of coal then obviously other or cheaper forms of energy could fill the gap.

I would also point out to the noble Lord that nuclear power stations now planned will be coming into operation only in the late 'eighties and 'nineties, and before the end of the century we will, as I said, be using coal to make substitute natural gas and we will be looking for nuclear power to fill the gap. The noble Lord also raised the issue of uranium. My information is that we have secure supplies of uranium until the end of the century, but it is exactly because of uncertainty about further supplies that my right honourable friend is investigating the fast breeder reactor, and I said that an announcement of the result of his investigations would be made early in the new year.

4.5 p.m.


My Lords, while the Minister's reply to my noble friend Lord Wynne-Jones on the question of coal is satisfactory as far as it goes, may I ask him to accept that if we are now to see the closure of quite a number of pits in South Wales consequent on the run-down of the steel industry, there will be great resistance to the idea of more nuclear development because the miners will not believe that there will be the same demand for coal? In the Statement the noble Lord said the PWR was more economic than the AGR. My recollection is that when we agreed on the AGR we knew that it would be more expensive to install but that the economic performance would be cheaper. Was the noble Lord referring, then, to the installation when he said the PWR would be cheaper than the AGR, or was he saying that the economic performance would be cheaper?

The Earl of GOWRIE

My Lords, to take first the point about coal, South Wales and steel, I do not think, with respect to the noble Lord, Lord Lee of Newton, that that is really relevant to the case that we are discussing now about nuclear energy for electricity supply. The reason there is trouble in the South Wales pits is of course the failure of demand from the steel industry, but we do not expect there to be failure of demand generally for coal for electricity or power generation. He asked me about the AGR versus the PWR. As I said, at the moment our idea is to operate both; we are looking to a mixed economy here. There are advantages in both systems, but we do not feel that we can remain out on a limb, if I may put it that way, by restricting ourselves to the AGR, which is fundamentally a British device, when the world energy industry is moving towards PWR and where we would lose out in technical know-how as well as in cost considerations if we did not develop in this area as well. But we are not looking for areas of mutual exclusivity; we are trying to run a number of systems to make a sensible overall programme.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that he is much to be congratulated, as is my right honourable friend in another place, on taking this immensely difficult technical decision which other Governments have not found easy to take in the past, and we certainly wish him well with the outcome of it? However, is he aware how disappointing it is that after our very long experience in nuclear generation with the Magnox, where we were pioneers, which has been most satisfactory from the point of view of safety and the commercial factors involved, we should have had to turn to overseas technology for the solution of our next move? How does my noble friend see the capacity of our research facilities in this matter? Why is it that we have failed to build on the excellent experience we had in the past to find our own solution and continue to lead the field?

The Earl of GOWRIE

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for those comments. He pointed out, and it is indeed ironic, that we have been developing gas-cooled reactors in this country for 25 years, starting, as he said, with the Magnox stations. I believe that all is not lost, because what we are doing under the terms of the Statement is effectively to buy the latest recipe, if I may put it that way, for development of the PWR. We would expect that that purchase and the development of that technology, allied with our own expertise, would mean that increasingly the PWRs that came out of that system would be developed and made here, with all the implications for our own research and development and for the employment that that would imply.


My Lords, I wonder whether I misheard the noble Lord, because I understood that his noble friend congratulated him and the Minister in another place for taking decisions that no other Government would take. It may be that I am a bit dense, but I understood that the Minister said that basically he had accepted the decisions of the previous Administration. So while in this season of the year I would not deprive him of the congratulations, at least let us get the matter clear.

The Earl of GOWRIE

My Lords, I think that there is a certain continuity of energy policy, and that is what we should have. However, I am not a politician for nothing, and I must point out to the noble Lord, Lord Wigg, that some of these rather tricky decisions were anyhow temporarily postponed by the last Ad ministration.


My Lords, I am sure that the House is very grateful for the Statement by Her Majesty's Government on this very important matter of atomic energy, but I am very disappointed, and so is the noble Lord, Lord Wynne-Jones, that there is no statement about the fast breeder reactor, because nearly all countries in Western Europe are going in for the pressurised water system. I am quite certain that there will be a shortage of uranium before the end of the century, and in my humble opinion the fast breeder reactor is the answer. We were the pioneers of that system, as we were the pioneers of the Magnox system. I am disappointed that Her Majesty's Government have not made an announcement today that, subject to a proper inquiry, they are intending to build one experimental commercial station on the very successful Dounreay system, which has been going now for about 10 years.

On the AGR system, it is very disappointing that it has taken so long to develop. The Dungeness system, good as it may be, has taken 10 years and the first station is not in operation yet. So I think that there is a great deal to be said for the pressurised water system, provided, naturally, that it passes all its proper tests, and we are assured that it will not be embarked upon unless it passes the proper tests of the inspectorate. It is cheaper to construct and to run, and the main point is that much of the system can be manufactured in factories and sent to the site, while the AGR has to be built entirely on site; and there seems to be great difficulty with strikes, lock-outs and that kind of thing on the sites. I think that we ought to consider building one station if the inspectorate agree that it is safe.


My Lords, I am glad that towards the end of his remarks my noble friend welcomed what we said about the development of the pressurised water reactor. But I would reassure him, as I tried to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Wynne-Jones, that there is no question of the issue of the fast breeder reactor being shelved. No system which depends on uranium is anything other than finite in our view, and, as I said, we shall be coming to conclusions about that and we shall inform the House when we do so, which I understand will be early in the new year. However, while the shortages to which both noble Lords have drawn attention may indeed become acute, they are not acute at the moment. There is certainly a lot of life ahead for the pressure water reactor, and in our view there is no reason not to investigate the possibilities of developing it here.


My Lords, we have been dealing with this Statement for about 30 minutes and I wonder whether it is the feeling of the House that it is probably time for us to move to the next Statement.