HL Deb 20 November 1979 vol 403 cc57-99

5.12 p.m.

Lord CAMPBELL of CROY rose to ask Her Majesty's Government when they expect to have obtained enough information about relevant nucle processes to be in a position to take the further decisions needed to ensure that the United Kingdom has an adequate and effective energy programme at the end of the twentieth century and an appropriate nuclear industry of its own. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. I am glad there is time for a debate on this subject today. It is gratifying that a number of noble Lords with knowledge of this industry have put themselves down to speak. My purpose is to draw attention to the need, as I see it, for much work to be done on this subject now if we are to be sure of reliable indigenous sources of energy in 20 years' time and thereafter into the next century. The present Government have been in office for six months and I believe that is time enough to have made an assessment.

The last Government issued the Green Paper named A Consultative Document on Energy Policy in February 1978. That is nearly two years ago, and I have some questions to ask arising from that, and particularly about this Government's attitude. I should like also to ask for how long they expect the consultative stage introduced by the Green Book to be continued on the question of energy from nuclear sources. Is it, for example, to be indefinite? In its foreword the last Secretary for Energy contemplated updating the document at regular intervals.

I would remind your Lordships' House that supplies of oil and natural gas from the United Kingdom Continental Shelf, which are going to be very helpful during the coming 20 years, are likely in 30 to 40 years' time to be running out. We hope we shall get supplies from elsewhere by then but they could be scarce and expensive. There is another point, which is that in time we should be using more and more of that oil and gas as feedstock for petrochemical industries, rather than burning them off as fuel. To use it for industry would be the most efficient use of a raw material which is not renewable.

Of coal, we have stocks which should last through the next century and beyond. Technical advances may make it less onerous for our coalminers to win that coal in future. For various reasons, however, largely difficulties of access, it is most unlikely that we could supply all our energy needs from that source—coal. At present, there are indeed difficulties about the prices of home-produced coal. None the less, the coal industry should remain a source which can make a very substantial constribution to meeting our energy needs well into the next century.

I turn to other possible alternative sources, and I believe that research should be pursued into the possibilities of solar energy, wind or energy from the tides on a considerable scale. One thing is quite clear about these, though, and that is that it will be 20 or 30 years before any significant contributions could be made from them. I am all in favour of such sources being harnessed, but in our own case we have worries about weather—they are all affected by that—the construction of plant, barriers in the sea and even satellites which may be required for solar energy. These are technical matters which will take time to master. So that these sources cannot themselves meet our estimated needs at the end of this century. There will be a gap, unless the nuclear element can be used. It is imperative, I suggest, that we examine the prospects for the expansion of nuclear sources and take decisions in good time.

Nuclear stations are now providing about 10 per cent. of the electricity in the United Kingdom, since Calder Hall first came into action in 1956 and Chapel Cross in Scotland two years later. Indeed, the United Kingdom was the first country in the world to introduce a large nuclear power station as part of its energy supply system, and both the stations which I have mentioned are still in operation today, although their life was expected to be only 20 years.

Where nuclear stations are concerned there are longer lead times. Indeed, I think that the lead time between the decision to build a nuclear power station and its completion is now running at almost twice the time required for coal, oil or gas fired stations. One of the difficulties too, is that there are important choices to be made as to the type of nuclear station to be built and with developing technology there are new types of nuclear station for commercial use. As regards thermal reactors now in commercial use, the last Government indicated a policy of ordering advanced gas cooled reactors, AGRs, while keeping the options open concerning the American pressurised water reactors, PWRs. I understand that the position is still much the same, but that there may be some statement from the Government within the next few weeks.

However, if we are to stay in this new industry and to benefit fully from the energy which it can produce, we have to be considering the next generation of power stations and this brings me to the fast breeder reactor. Here, again, the United Kingdom has been in the lead, though we may now be losing that lead. We started with the experimental fast breeder reactor at Dounreay in 1955. That was a success and it eventually fed electricity into the grid. Then there was the prototype fast reactor, also at Dounreay, which was decided upon in 1966; and I would remind nuclear scaremongers now agitating in Scotland that at that time, 1965–66, the prototype fast reactor was regarded in Scotland as a prize to be fought for. There was a Scottish campaign to get it and we were successful.

Now Britain is at the stage before a decision on whether we should embark upon a commercial version of the fast reactor. I would remind your Lordships that, if it were adopted and if it were successful, this would be a breakthrough. Fast reactors use about 50 times less uranium to produce the same amount of energy. They are also called breeders because they can produce more of the fuel which they use, although they do not have to do so. They use plutonium which is now produced, as a small proportion of spent fuel, from the thermal stations. They are, I believe, the nearest thing we have to perpetual motion. To have the prospect of something like this at a time when it is known that oil and gas supplies will run down during the next century poses, I suggest, particular decisions.

The Green Paper puts forward three options at paragraph 22 of Chapter 10. The first option is that we should build our own commercial fast reactor, based upon the success at Dounreay. The second is that we should join in an international scheme to build such commercial reactors, thus contributing to our knowledge. The third option is to do nothing and to leave it to others and then, if we need nuclear energy, to buy this technology from abroad.

Those options are still open, but the last Government committed themselves to holding a public inquiry before any final decision was taken on building a fast reactor for commercial use. They stated that it would be a special kind of inquiry—much wider than the inquiries which are held under the Town and Country Planning Acts of either England and Wales or Scotland. I would ask the Minister, my noble friend Lord Gowrie, who is to reply, whether he can tell us more about the present Government's attitude to such an inquiry and whether it would be allowed to range broadly across a whole lot of facts and arguments which would not be accepted at a normal planning inquiry. Some of the more contentious planning inquiries which affect particular areas of the country have taken up to two or three years from the first application to the final decision. This sort of inquiry might well take more time, and that would add to the lead time as regards a decision on a commercial fast breeder reactor. I should be glad to know what is the Government's forecast of the time scale of that inquiry.

I must make mention of nuclear fusion, but I only touch on this subject. Naturally I am delighted that the Joint European Torus is being established at Culham where the research on this has been undertaken for Britain. But it may be 50 years before a practical application of nuclear fusion is found. That is not surprising, as it is a similar process to the production of energy by the sun. But if successful, and if proved to be completely safe, it would mean that energy could be obtained from small quantities of water.

The Green Paper invited public debate. The well-informed in the community can of course contribute to that debate, but most of the general public find it difficult to inform themselves enough. I certainly sympathise with that feeling. Scare stories naturally catch the headlines and are inclined to register in people's minds. The Anti-Nuclear Energy Campaign is inclined to make more impact, even though only a small minority of activists are involved. Those who could correct mis-statements or argue the opposite case are not inclined to enter into public controversy, or are too busy getting on with their work.

As regards the British nuclear industry, this still appears to be in need of re- organisation. I shall not examine the present arrangements at the National Nuclear Corporation and the Nuclear Power Company. I would only add that the British industry ought to be given clear guidelines and the prospect of substantial activity, unless the United Kingdom takes a decision to drop out of the nuclear scene in the future. That would be a very serious decision. During the past 25 years, the United Kingdom has, as I have pointed out, at times been leading the world.

There are two factors—I think very important ones—which must be taken fully into account in considering opposition to going ahead in the nuclear field. The first is cost and the second is safety. On cost and availability—because I put them together—the initial capital costs where a nuclear power station is concerned are large in comparison with others, but once it is built the running costs are considerably less. Units of electricity are produced at lower rates from the nuclear power stations than from the others.

As regards availability, the Automic Energy Authority published very recently that Britain has stocks of 20,000 tons of U238 uranium. That is the equivalent of the total known resources of coal in this country; and one ton of that uranium produces the equivalent energy of 2 million tons of coal.

As regards safety, this I believe will be the vital factor in the decisions to be taken ahead. The Government themselves have to be certain about safety and the public must be convinced. I am not going to dwell on the environment and our heritage because I believe that nuclear power is kinder to them than other sources of energy which produce smoke, soot and ashes. Of course, there are some persons and organisations who are opposed to all nuclear activity of any kind. There are also others who are opposed to nuclear weapons—for example, Polaris bases. I am not addressing myself to either of those objections. My aim is to underline the matters which need careful investigation arising from the use of both the present thermal reactors now in commercial use and the fast breeder reactors as the next generation which could he in use.

The first point to be made is that it is impossible for a nuclear explosion, like an atomic bomb explosion, to take place at any of these nuclear stations. The substances are simply not there which could cause such an explosion. That is not understood in the country as a whole. Secondly, the dangers that there are, other than those which exist at any factory or works, arise from the possibility of escapes of radiation. Those who work in nuclear installations and establishments are protected from exposure. Safeguards and discipline have meant that casualties in the nuclear energy field have been a smaller percentage of the work force than in any of the other fuel industries.

More important, I believe, are the fears of an accident which could cause a leak. This is the kind of fear which there is in the public mind. Besides the cladding and the shielding which there must be—more than adequate in order to protect the world, the people and the environment from radioactive substances—there must be more publicity for the triplication of the remedial measures which exist if a fault or human error arises. There is automatic shutting down of processes if any incorrect functioning occurs. That must be not only the rule; it must be more widely known.

Then there is the question of dealing with nuclear waste—nuclear waste still containing some radioactivity. That is another matter which is an anxiety in the public mind. The transport of such materials to centres for reprocessing happens now. It is a valuable part of the economics of the maximum use of the fuel. I am satisfied myself that the massive flasks which take such materials to Windscale have been tested—dropped from heights and roasted in very high temperatures for lengths of time—and that therefore they do provide the full safety required. But other members of the public have to be satisfied, too. The aspect of safety with which I am most concerned is the possibility of theft of fissile or highly dangerous material by terrorists or some irresponsible régime abroad; for example, an Idi Amin of the future. This would apply particularly to plutonium, which is a valuable part of the cycle which I have outlined. It must be in the national and international interest that we have systems which are perfected to guard against this and ensure that dangerous materials cannot get into the wrong hands.

With regard to the disposal of radioactive waste, we are told that the United Kingdom is pursuing vitrification, that is to say solidifying the waste into glass cylinders which are proof against earthquakes and anything else which could happen to them, since they are to be buried deep in the ground or in the depths of the ocean. The quantities are very small, and I do not think that is realised. For example, in the last 16 years of reprocessing at Windscale the total quantity of highly radioactive waste requiring special storage and disposal could be fitted into a building the size of a house with four bedrooms.

So it is not a volume problem; it is a problem of which are the most suitable places for these radioactive wastes to be deposited. Permission has been sought for test borings into the earth and rock for that purpose. Here, I must be a little critical. I believe that more should have been done to explain before the applications were made what they were about. Almost all the applications were to local authorities in Scotland and if anyone had asked me I could have predicted that most of them would be rejected—as they were—even though they were for testing and there was no commitment to do any actual burying. This is because there is a climate of suspicion and anxiety—and I would add also some hysteria.

The great exception, of course, is Caithness and I am delighted that the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, is to speak in this debate because he knows that the majority of people in Caithness, who have lived for nearly a quarter of a century beside nuclear energy, regard it as a friend and do not have these fears because they know more about it and would be very happy if more nuclear activity could take place in their area. I am also very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, is to speak as a former chairman of the Atomic Energy Authority because he may be able to advise us as to how best to proceed now in that situation.

I should like to give an example of the hysteria that I have mentioned. This is a recent item in my local newspaper the Northern Scot. The headline is: "Lethal danger to Scotland". The sub-headline is "SNP and nuclear waste". Then it reads: Scotland is rapidly becoming one of the most lethal places on earth". This claim was made by an SNP councillor. He said, … the Government had still not scotched rumours that foreign nuclear waste might be dumped in Scotland and added that the Common Market—with the blessing of the then Labour Government—had pinpointed 13 Scottish sites suitable for the dumping of nuclear waste materials. In addition, he stressed, Common Market money had been made available to enable a German firm to prospect for uranium in Orkney and the new Scottish Secretary was storming ahead with the Torness nuclear power station to supply English consumers with electricity … No British Government has the right to saddle Scotland with nuclear garbage which could endanger future generations. We … are totally against nuclear dumping anywhere in Scotland".

The House may find it difficult to believe that such ridiculous and misinformed nonsense could be uttered, but I have registered this because it shows the kind of hysteria that there is in some places. The public see that sort of headline and are worried. Of course the persons who utter that kind of thing do not want to know the facts; they do not want a complete assurance about safety. They welcome having a grievance; they welcome having something vaguely associated in the public mind with the atomic bomb and Hiroshima with which to carry out a scaremongering campaign.

I believe it was unfortunate that more preparation was not undertaken before the applications were made. As for Torness—because your Lordships will notice that all the nuclear subjects have been put into that statement, including Torness, which is an application for a power station—there are already four nuclear power stations in Scotland and this would be the fifth. In the past Scots have made the most of new engineering and technology. For example, where electricity was concerned—and that was very dangerous when it first started—Lord Kelvin, of whom the City of Glasgow are very proud, and rightly so, would never have been able to make the advances he did if such a scaremongering campaign had been effective against him and his colleagues.

So far, Scotland has had the benefit of being in the forefront, especially with Dounreay. I believe there must be and should be a rational weighing of the pros and cons when further nuclear energy decisions are taken. But Scotland will suffer unnecessarily if fear and prejudice prevail. In 20 or 30 years' time if nuclear power is established in the world (as seems likely) as a main source of energy in the first half of the 21st century, people in Scotland will look back and feel that they were let down if we have missed out, through misinformation, false alarms or apathy. This applies to the whole country, too.

I appeal for more courage in public life, as I did on another subject last week—not only in Parliament but also in local authorities and articulate bodies who are concerned with these subjects in the country. Safety must be paramount, but let us consider, coolly and rationally, the advantages and disadvantages. Let us remember the coming general shortage—the energy gap; let us concentrate on conservation of energy; let us ponder on the likely fuel bills in the future for the less fortunate in the community, including old-age pensioners dependent upon their pensions. Those bills will be less, the risks of hypothermia will recede, if nuclear generation can be employed. But the decisions, my Lords, cannot be put off indefinitely.

5.38 p.m.


My Lords, we on this side of the House are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for putting down this Unstarred Question. I agree with the noble Lord that it is important that the House should have some information from the Government about their policy in this field, especially as there has been a good deal of Press speculation lately. It is also of the utmost importance, as the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, said, that we should begin to have some idea of our national energy objectives and policy over the next two or three decades, otherwise standards of life as we know them will become increasingly difficult to maintain.

As the noble Lord said so rightly, we have no more than 30 or 40 years to find a replacement for oil. Indeed it might not be so long as that for Europe as a whole. I hear that certain of the OPEC oil-producing countries are now considering a new depletion policy which could result in more oil being left in the ground. The price of crude has certainly doubled this year over 1978, and of course the oil crisis has become even more pressing since the political troubles in Iran. Conservation and energy-saving will become increasingly important, but these (with the renewable sources which the noble Lord mentioned, such as tidal power which I think in particular is probably the most feasible of them) will not meet more than a very small proportion of our needs. Fusion, of course, is a new form of energy, but this is essentially long-term and it will involve a great deal of research of astounding complexity. As Dr. Guido Brunner put it so graphically when opening the JET project at Culham: The task of developing fusion is certainly technically more difficult than putting a man on the moon". He went on to add that it is clearly of more direct significance. It is not thought that fusion will be a feasible alternative source of energy before 2030 at the earliest, according to the 1978 Green Paper, and I have never seen that refuted.

So, my Lords, what alternatives have we left for the immediate future? We are left with coal and nuclear energy. Coal is tremendously important for our future. We are blessed in these islands with enormous deposits. We already know how to develop new uses for coal through the liquefaction and gasification processes. Here I should like to pay a tribute to Dr. Dainton and his team at the National Coal Board's research station at Stoke Orchard, who are doing outstanding reasearch work in this sector. Perhaps the noble Earl will tell us when he thinks these two processes will become commercially viable, and what is the timescale when they could be put into large-scale production. I hope that the Government are also going to help the coal industry to modernise further, because coal and nuclear energy should be our two options for the future: coal for oil and nuclear power for our electricity needs.

I hear all kinds of stories flying about that the Government are intending to run down our coal industry once again—a mistake that the two major parties have made at different periods since the war—and that they intend to rely to an increasing degree on imported coal. I do not mean just coking coal, which we have to import, but all types of coal. I hope these stories are not true, because even with nuclear power we shall still need a coal industry. Perhaps the noble Earl will comment on this when he comes to reply.

I am glad to see that the case for nuclear power which was put so well by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, was supported by the TUC Congress at Blackpool and also by the recent CBI Conference. It is essential that we should press on with our nuclear programme now and also ensure that it is made as safe as possible. There is, of course, as the noble Lord said, no such thing as absolute safety. There is certainly not safety in coal mining, where since the war thousands of our miners have died from pit accidents and pneumoconiosis. I agreed with Mr. Mick McGahey when, in putting the case for nuclear power at Blackpool, he said that no generation is entitled to rob future generations of their inheritance. May I, therefore, ask the noble Earl this evening to give an account of the Government's nuclear policy.

According to Press reports, the Government are planning to invest in 10 new nuclear power stations over the next decade and a further 10 after that, making 20 in all by the end of the century. One hears that the type to be chosen will be the PWR, the pressurised water reactor, rather than the advanced gas cooled reactor which has been developed over here. I accept that the PWR has certain advantages. It can be assembled in half the time—five years compared to 10 years for the AGR, and it costs half as much. But the PWR is not thought to be as safe as the AGR, and it is certainly the PWR that was used at Three Mile Island, although this did not result in loss of life, happily. I must also ask the noble Earl whether the Government intend to proceed with a full-scale fast breeder reactor, which was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell. And will any decision be subject to a public inquiry? I understand that there is now increased confidence in the safety aspect of the prototype at Dounreay, and we shall certainly need to consider the fast reactor option in view of the impending uranium shortage, which could begin to restrict nuclear power station ordering by the 1990s.

May I add here that my noble friend Lord Bowden has asked me to say that he regrets that a long-standing engagement prevents him from taking part in this debate today. I remember that when we last debated energy on 23rd July last my noble friend described a Canadian type of reactor which could be developed to use thorium, which I understand is in plentiful supply. My noble friend asked during that debate whether the Government would give their view on this type of reactor and its possibilities. He received no reply from the noble Earl, perhaps because the noble Earl, who is always so courteous in trying to reply to every question, had not the time. My noble friend has asked me to raise it today, and if the noble Earl was able to give a reply this evening we should be grateful.

I must also ask the noble Earl about the future structure of the nuclear industry, and I should be grateful if the Government would give an indication about their long-term nuclear policy, as well as some indication of their nuclear policy in general and what role they consider nuclear power should play in supplying our future energy needs.

5.48 p.m.


My Lords, we, too, from these Benches are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for raising this Question at this time. For my part I really want to speak on the second part of the Question, about the further decisions needed to ensure that the United Kingdom has an adequate and effective energy programme at the end of the 20th century. I am not sure if the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, has not jumped the gun a bit in putting forward some basic assumptions regarding the need for a nuclear industry at all, and for how many and what type of reactors. It may be a little premature when, in my opinion, the Government have yet to prove their case for the need of nuclear energy. I think there is a real need for this because the gross energy demand figures have not been fully worked out. As we all know, the nuclear option in the energy equation can only contribute electricity.

The question we wish to ask from these Benches is, have Her Majesty's Government calculated the total anticipated load factors for electricity up to and beyond the year 2000 before estimating nuclear plant requirements? Therefore, I want to use the opportunity of this debate to sound out the Government's thinking in this area in order to obtain confirmation that there is a target demand, and that it has made full allowance for the substitution of oil-based fuel for electrical power, especially in the transport sector.

My Lords, it would appear from the information so far available that if present trends are extrapolated our society could, by the turn of the century, be moving towards an all-electric life style. To give an example of this, it appears to me that it will be far too costly for the general public to use either private or public transport powered by oil products 20 years from now. If the same freedom of movement is to be allowed as today there must be a massive substitution programme in the transport field which can, in my view, only be satisfied by electrical power. For me, the popular slogan "Power to the people" should mean the ability to turn on an electric light, yet two-thirds of humanity are without this capability.

That is the situation as it stands today; 20 years from now it could be much worse. With an exceptional oil-cost scenario as supplies become scarcer, the developing world will cease to develop unless there is a long-term electrical power generation programme capable of operating in the early part of the 21st century. I mention that because it is quite possible that the energy plight of the less developed countries may have political implications for the industrial world over the next 20 years, in that there could be serious interruptions of supply to the West due to political pressures from Third World countries who see that they may not be able to develop because there are no oil-based products for them to develop with. If that were to be the case, the energy shortage of 20 years hence could be brought forward by at least 10 years.

Therefore, we have a series of questions which the Government should be in a position to answer today regarding an adequate and effective energy programme at the end of this century. Until those questions can be fully answered, I cannot see on what basis Her Majesty's Government intend to order replacement plant for the Central Electricity Generating Board, whether it be nuclear or coal-fired plant.

I mentioned substitution earlier, and that is particularly relevant in the area of public transport. It is depressing to hear of rumours of projected closures of part of our rail system when, so far as I can see, it will possibly be the only means of satisfying the long-distance travel needs of the general public by the turn of the century. Therefore, will the Government categorically state that they do not intend to cut back railway investment, but intend to transfer more, not less, funds into the expansion and electrification of the entire system, so that the railways can be completely electrified by the year 2000? If the Government are not in a position to give that undertaking today, then we must first question their wisdom and then ask how the general public will be expected to move about the country as from the 1990s.

Secondly, can the noble Earl indicate whether he is putting aside any funds for a feasibility study of the electrification of the motorways by the year 2000? Again, we feel that this is an area that may need electrical power if the major road network system in this country is not to be fully utilised through a cutback in the volume of traffic for which it was originally designed.

Thirdly, can the Government indicate their plans for the electrification of urban transport systems? By the turn of the century diesel or petrol driven buses may be far too expensive to operate as a cheap method of public transport. Therefore, have Her Majesty's Government taken into consideration the extra power requirements needed to electrify all urban transport systems by the year 2000? At this stage I think it proper that I declare an interest, albeit a small one, in a specialist manufacturing company of current collection and electric traction equipment.

These are just a few examples in the transport section of where there appear to be no further plans for electrification at present, whereas if these policies are fully implemented, as I believe they must be sooner or later, there must occur before the end of the century a considerable increase in demand for electricity which has no connection with industrial or economic growth.

When the Government review their nuclear programme, will consideration perhaps be given to recommissioning some of the urban coal-fired power stations that are currently considered uneconomic by the CEGB? It occurs to me that the capital required to refurbish these stations in order to incorporate the new advances in the fluidised bed process of combustion, designed to burn urban rubbish as well as low grade coal, may be more economic for the country than investment in, say, one more nuclear power station. Would there not be an economic case for using these units to supply local towns or cities with domestic electrical power? In some cases these small urban power stations could be used effectively for combined heat and power systems, mainly because of their low transmission costs.

There could even be a case for these power stations, if they were so designed, to be run and operated separately from the CEGB, by the local authorities. For instance, I think that we have a test case as regards Battersea Power Station, which I understand is due to be shut down because it is considered uneconomic. But, based on what I said earlier, is it not possible to consider a new future for Battersea Power Station as being, say, managed by London Transport or the GLC in order to provide power to run an electrified urban transport system for London? Battersea Power Station also has—it may be inadequate but it does have it—a district heating system. That could equally well be refurbished and provide much benefit to the citizens of London for the future. It could also perhaps be refurbished with a fluidised bed system of combustion that could absorb a great deal of the rubbish that is collected from the streets of the inner city. I put that forward merely as a thought because I do not really want to see Battersea Power Station or other smaller urban power stations just left as monuments to an extinct power programme while we have to rely totally on a main centralised grid system with a nuclear or coal backup, it makes no difference which.

There is another point—and I think that this would be an opportunity for the noble Earl to clarify it—concerning the grid system. I understand that it is the policy of the CEGB to maintain a capacity margin in excess of 28 per cent. However, the Government must be aware that that is not being maintained, as was indicated in a statement by Mr. Alex Eadie, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Energy, on 8th February this year, where he admitted that the peak demand in January of this year was 44.1 gigawatts, which was 79 per cent. of the declared output capacity of 55.8 gigawatts. The plant available at the time of peak demand was only 46.1 gigawatts, thus reducing the actual capacity margin, according to my calculations, to a mere 3.5 per cent. We believe that this is far from adequate and, therefore, must ask Her Majesty's Government what will be the anticipated capacity margin percentage during the peak demand period of January/February next year, and whether they would be able to confirm that the view expressed from some quarters that there is an excess electricity supply situation as of now is incorrect. Furthermore, what is the capacity margin calculated for the next 20 years, and does it allow for the increased uses of electricity in the substitution of electrical power for systems currently burning oil products?

As noble Lords are aware, there are a number of vested interests concerning the Government's choice of the type of power generation. Some of those are commercial, others are political and trade union interests, and some are environmental. I do not believe that, in the short time available for an Unstarred Question, there is time to go into the details. But, the concern from these Benches is that the basic arithmetic regarding the supply of electricity to this country allows for the anticipated substitution to which I have referred.

With regard to some of the other points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, I am sure that noble Lords will have seen Energy Commission Paper No. 6 produced by the Department of Energy and entitled Coal and Nuclear Power Station Costs. It is clear from the details given in that paper that there is a definite requirement for both coal and nuclear stations to produce electricity. The comparative costs, as shown in tables of profiles 1–4, indicate that there is not an excessive difference in cost per unit of electricity generated once the anticipated increased prices of coal and oil by the year 2000 have been properly costed. Therefore, I feel that at this stage, whatever type of nuclear power station is finally incorporated into future energy programmes, it must first be proven to be safe both for the workers in it and for those who live near it. The safety factor should be considered before all other economic considerations of power generation with which this debate is concerned. Perhaps the Government can confirm when the noble Earl gives his reply, that the safety priority is being given the place it should have in the reorganisation of the nuclear industry and the Government's purchasing programme.

Finally—I raised this point on another occasion—can the noble Earl confirm that the possible dangers of the CO2, problem that I have raised on previous occasions in the House are being taken into consideration in the forming of future energy policies and in the choice of type of power stations? Have there been any further developments in this area? This has recently been referred to in the Press by the West German Government and Cabinet, who have expressed public concern about the amount of fossil fuel burning that may occur over the next 30 years and also concern about for the possible changes that could result in the weather. I hope that the noble Earl will forgive me for asking a whole series of questions, but the point of this intervention is to ask the Government whether they themselves have asked these questions in the first place.

6 p.m.


My Lords, first, I must apologise to the House for missing the first few minutes of this debate. I was sitting in a Committee in another place in a room which had inadequate information about what was going on in this House. I wish to take the occasion of the timely Question of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, to raise just two points arising on it. Therefore, I shall not add greatly to the number of questions which have already been thrown at the noble Earl who is to reply to the debate.

As the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, said, there have been smoke signals which seem to herald an announcement of a new or fresh British nuclear programme. I hope that they are well-founded, because a great deal of time has been lost and firm decisions are overdue, But I submit that an essential prerequisite of a successful programme is that the nuclear industry should have the organisation and capacity to undertake it. In the past—and it has been a sorry tale—the nuclear industry has either been overstretched or starved of work and has been kept in a continual state of uncertainty by shifts in Government policy or the absence of any policy at all.

My mind goes back to the 1950s when the nuclear programme was stepped up from two to five stations, and when five consortia were put into a competition which was wasteful of resources and, in effect, of doubtful value. The task of building five different designs with five different fuel elements was eventually successfully accomplished, but it took up the total available capacity and there was nothing to spare for marketing or for building prototypes other than the experimental fast reactor.

When the Magnox programme was completed there was a long period of dither during which the two—and there were then only two—American firms virtually collared the world market. When the advanced gas-cooled reactor system was finally selected no lessons had really been learned. There was again a competition and, again, three different designs were chosen. Meanwhile, the Atomic Energy Authority had been authorised to build the steam-generating heavy water reactor prototype. After this had been commissioned, the South of Scotland Electricity Board proposed to build a power station to this design, but although I believe—and the recollection of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, is probably better than mine on this case—that they received authority to proceed, in the end they did not obtain the resources to do so. In the event, the steam-generating heavy water reactor has, as a power station, been eliminated. It is a rather melancholy reflection that, had the South of Scotland Electricity Board been enabled to go ahead, we should now have a water reactor well on its way in construction.

Meanwhile, the nuclear industry was reorganised in 1974 on lines which do not seem to have worked out particularly well. Subsequently, two advanced gas-cooled reactors have been projected, again, I understand of rather different designs. In practice, therefore, it is not, I think, much of an exaggeration to say that every single reactor in the British nuclear programme has been a one-off reactor. Meanwhile, the Americans, the Canadians and now the French have effectively standardised on one design.

It is also relevant to observe that in general the nuclear components of the stations and the fuel elements have given relatively little trouble, but the non-nuclear components—the blowers, the turbines, the heat exchangers and even the civil engineering—have at one time or another caused unacceptable difficulties and delays. Tonight I do not intend to debate the merits of different types of reactors. My concern is that the Government should satisfy themselves, before deciding on a programme, that the industry is organised so as to be able to carry it out, and especially that if they proceed with two reactor types rather than one, they should ensure that there are adequate design and engineering resources to cope with both of them. I hope, too, that they will bear in mind, when drawing up this programme, the resources required for a commercial fast reactor in the reasonably near future, because I agree with other noble Lords who have already spoken that there is an urgent need to press on with this project.

My second point is a different one, which has also been referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, but it is just as important for the success of a nuclear programme as a well-organised industry. I refer to the activities of the various bodies which constitute the antinuclear lobby—though it sometimes looks more like a crusade—and the need to react to them. I do not want to discuss the domestic aspects of this question, which should properly include some analysis of the many strands of thought and opinion within this movement. But there is a European dimension to it, for it is one of the reasons for which the European nuclear programme is falling so far behind the target necessary to achieve the nuclear energy objectives set by the European Economic Commission for 1990. There is, indeed, a global dimension to it, for the lobbies in the United States have—admittedly with some assistance from the White House—temporarily brought the nuclear building programme there almost to a halt.

Inevitably, the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island has had an important impact in encouraging the anti-nuclear forces to redoubled effort. So it is worth pausing for a moment to consider this. I have only read summaries of the Kemeny Report on the incident which was recently delivered to President Carter. But the reports in the responsible Press may, I think, be taken as reliable. One from the Economist reads: The health effects were negligible. Nobody died or was seriously injured. The small doses of radiation vented as steam will not even add to the cancer risk of those affected, but there was anxiety and stress amongst the local population. This incident was caused by an amazing concatenation of human errors, which one expects will he obviated in future by better operating procedures, but which nevertheless the reactor design was adequate to resist. In this country, I think one can he sure that the competence and vigilance of the Nuclear Inspectorate would prevent a similar situation arising. The incident has added fuel to the anti-nuclear campaign, but this is only one facet of the environmentalist obstruction of the development of all forms of energy production, which, in my judgment, is becoming an increasingly serious threat to an adequate supply of energy in 20 years' time.

On the nuclear aspect, I draw your Lordships' attention to the French case. The French organisation for the production of nuclear power is a simple one. The French Government is committed to a policy of generating 50 per cent. of the country's electricity supply from nuclear stations by 1985. The responsibility for the programme rests with the French Atomic Energy Commission: there is one customer, Electricité de France; there is one construction company called Framatome; and one reactor design. The French nation has, it seems, accepted the logic of a large nuclear power programme to cushion them against the lean years of the 1990s. What a contrast to this and other countries! It would be a Pollyanna who supposed that such a situation could now be brought about in this country or indeed in the United States. I need only refer to the objections in the United Kingdom to the opening up of new coalfields, or, in the United States, to oil prospecting off the Californian coast.

Tonight I only really want to make one point. It is that only a government can give the lead and respond effectively to movements of this kind—strong, well-financed, emotionally committed, not in many cases well-informed, and not too ready to listen to argument. Sir Hermann Bondi, the Chief Scientist to the Department of Energy, in a recent symposium on this general subject, is quoted as having said: … with reference to the psychological roots of the difficult situation in which we find ourselves, the education of people in probability and statistics is totally insufficient. It is because of this that astrology is such a popular subject, and equally that it is very difficult to make our arguments heard. One has only to enumerate the number of coal mining, chemical plant and similar disasters, with heavy loss of life, which have occurred in the world during and since the Three Mile Island accident, to illustrate the truth of that remark.

Sir Hermann went on to say that there seemed to be two areas where the public does not want probabilities, however small, but wants safety—in medicine and nuclear power. He was reminded of a remark about the Royal Commission on the Safety of Medicines; that its name was absurd. For either a substance was biologically inactive, in which case it would be safe but would not be a medicine, or it was biologically active, in which case it might be a medicine and assuredly not safe.

We are confronted here with a very complex and difficult situation. The environmentalist, in his well-meant efforts to make this world entirely safe for future generations, is only too likely to ensure for them a miserable life. The problem has been posed, much better than I can express it, in a recent publication, Thinking Through the Energy Problem, put out by the influential Committee for Economic Development in the United States. The report says inter alia: Environmental protection is often treated, officially as well as popularly, as an absolute—not as an economic choice, not as a correction applied to the price system, not even as part of the cost of our energy, but as a matter of regulatory standards and prohibitions to be judged and administered without compromise, sometimes as a kind of militant opposition to economic improvement and growth. A little later on they say: … misconceiving the nature of environmental problems, mismanaging the regulatory process, failing to recognise that objectives have to be compared with costs and that environmental values compete with other values, could double or more than double the environmental costs associated with energy. Policy errors of that magnitude should not be accepted as inevitable". These pungent observations are directed at the situation in the United States, which is rather different from that in this country. But in this country we have analogous problems of environmentalism which, I believe, can only effectively be tackled at governmental level. These involve some difficult and probably unpopular decisions. Previous Governments have a rather poor track record in this respect, mainly, I suppose, for electoral reasons. The present Government have so far shown an unusual capacity for taking unpopular decisions, and I hope they will find it in them to apply the same determination to energy policy.

6.17 p.m.

The Earl of KINTORE

My Lords, I wish to talk really about only one aspect of this problem, the nuclear energy side of the question, and in that regard the fast reactor and the safety angle. I said a few words on this not very long ago. I should like to say now that I think there are 20,000 tons of uranium 238 lying in stock. The only way you can use that is in a fast reactor. It is fertile, and it is not fissile. Unless you put it into a fast reactor, how are you going to use it?

The other thing is this. Not only have you got that lying about, but you presumably have a certain amount of plutonium lying about. Whatever kind of reactor you use, a thermal reactor, you produce plutonium. You cannot help it. It is a by-product of the process. That is lying about or, I hope, locked up somewhere or other. However, it is available. Unless we are going to burn it up and use it in making electricity, it seems difficult to know what to do with it other than use it in nuclear weapons and the likes of that, which maybe is not all that possible or feasible.

When you come to the safety angle, it is recognised generally that the nuclear industry is the safest industry in the world. How much safer can you get than that? I do not really understand the difficulties that are in the way. I can say a little about that. I think it is the way it is put over. May I give an illustration of that. I attended a protest meeting—I was not a protester; I was on the other side—where there was potential prospecting for uranium mining, in Banchory in Scotland, near where I live. One of the protesters said to the chap who was in charge and speaking for the electricity board, "Will you give me a written guarantee that, living 10 miles away from where you may or may not mine, if we let you go ahead, my son's chances of getting cancer will be no greater than they are already?" This chap gave an enormous number of figures and scientific explanations, which nobody understood, when all he had to say was, "I will willingly give you here and now a written guarantee, and I will sign it, that your son is much more likely to be struck by lightning than have an increased risk of getting cancer". The trouble is that the scientific people will not explain it in simple language. There is no point in having an enormous amount of science if people do not understand it. Obviously the scientists must deal with design and so on, but in putting it over to the public we have fallen down because it is hopeless to try to put the situation over to the public in a scientific manner.

It has not been stressed that apparently one requires a fuel processing plant in conjunction with a fast reactor and we are apparently now commissioning the first in the world, at Dounreay, of a size large enough to cope with the prototype fast reactor. The design may be the same, but it requires scaling up to about a 1,300 Mw size of station because that is the kind of station which will have to take over. If we do not do that, France, Italy, Germany, Holland and Belgium are all likely to show us a clean pair of heels. France started a 1,200 Mw station in 1977. I do not know how late they are or if they are late at all, but they reckon that in three years' time that station will be complete. It is essential to have operating experience with a station of that size; problems always arise when something is scaled up; and to imagine that it will be all right because all the experimental work has been done, so that all one needs to do is suddenly have a crash programme when one finds oneself in a jam and build five or six fast reactors, is just not "on".

In connection with safety, the American Three Mile Island type of accident would not upset a fast reactor of the Dounreay type because they experimentally cut off the cooling circuit and it operated safely on 13 occasions without any circulating pumps running. Thus, even if it were left alone one would have this safety factor, and in some ways it is safer than an ordinary thermal reactor which, as I have said, has a magnificent safety record.

The necessity is to take the decision. Let us take the plunge and utilise what we have in hand—what we have in stock, one might say—which we cannot use in any other way, and perhaps let the argument rage as to which type of reactor one should develop—I hope it does not because we have now been at it for long enough. I could not agree more with the idea that one should back one's design and have not one-off but ten-off in series. That is the logical way of carrying out big engineering projects if one can, and that is what we should do. It is essential to take the decision and get on with it because the more difficult the technology the longer the lead-in times, and when the public inquiries and the rest have taken place the time is added to, and before the plants can be got running one finds oneself in a frightful hurry and then one is apt to cut corners, which must not happen in the nuclear energy field. All this is really caused by people in the environmental lobby and others who have some sort of horror of anything they do not understand. We must make a real endeavour to convince people that this is not the extreme danger they fear it is.

I live near Aberdeen and the background radiation from which we all suffer is double the value there compared to elsewhere in this country. Perhaps I am doubly stupid as anybody else, but I live there and it has had no effect on me. Around Aberdeen the radiation is double that around London. That is the sort of thing of which people should be made aware: the fact that infinitesimal additions are being talked about. The nuclear energy programme produces no CO2 because it is not burnt in that way and the amount of undesirable waste products produced by an ordinary oil or coal-fired power station is terrific by comparison; and that is another big point in favour of a nuclear programme.

Oil will be in short supply despite our North Sea oil. The price is going up and coal is also getting more expensive, though certainly it is there. The availability of fossil fuels are subject to the hazards of democracy, something we should not ignore. I believe the case for getting on with the full-scale advanced fast reactor is so apparent that I hope and believe Her Majesty's Government will see it.

6.30 p.m.

Viscount THURSO

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for raising this Question. I am also very grateful to all other noble Lords who have spoken in the debate for the way in which they seem to have agreed that the important task which lies before the Government is to get on with both a nuclear programme in order to meet our electricity needs for the future, and with educating the public at large as to the safety and the usefulness of this form of energy. I would submit that there has been a remarkable unanimity from all sides of the House on the need for nuclear energy to fill the energy gap which we all know is going to exist, and which is very nearly existing already. I think that it is accepted by everybody that some nuclear energy will he needed. Therefore if we are to embark upon a programme of nuclear power stations, it has to be a properly integrated programme for nuclear energy. In saying that, I would stress the importance of the fast reactor to any programme of nuclear energy embarked upon. The fact is that it is the water-moderated reactors, the magnox reactors, and the advanced gas-cooled reactors which produce the radioactive waste which has to be dealt with. It is the fast reactors which can deal with this waste. In fact the amount of radioactive waste produced by a fast breeder reactor over a period of time is so small that, if fully distilled down to its minimum size, it would probably amount to only a couple of breakfast cups full of undisposable waste in a year from a full-sized power station.

The amounts produced by other forms of nuclear reactor are quite large, and these large quantities of radioactive material, which cannot be burned in the existing types of nuclear reactor, can form the fuel for the fast breeder reactor and can then be further burnt up almost 10 destruction within it. This is a very important point which I feel the Government must teach the country at large about.

We have heard a great deal about safety. Nearly all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate have stressed how safe nuclear energy is, what a high standard of safety exists within the nuclear industry. What they have perhaps not stressed is the very low standard of safety which exists in many other of our power industries. I travelled down today by car from Edinburgh. It was a beautiful day for a run down the A1. The whole countryside was clear, there was hardly a cloud in the sky. But there were a number of very curious clouds to be seen on every side, particularly as one drove through Yorkshire. These clouds seemed to be arising from a root in the soil. They were mushroom shaped, and they had thin stratus clouds spreading out from them at a thousand or two thousand feet up in the sky. Each one of them was arising from a coal-fired power station. As I travelled down the A1 I could see Ferrybridge for miles ahead, but as I got to Ferrybridge the sun was obscured; the sky was darkened; the light became yellow; the smell assailed my nostrils, even though I was inside a motor car, and I could see the moisture arising from the cooling towers and the coal chimneys, which were like enormous hypodermic syringes injecting pollution into the atmosphere.

The pollution that they were injecting into the atmosphere was highly radioactive. It was more radioactive than a full-scale fast breeder reactor would be allowed to be. It was pouring uranium out into the atmosphere. It was pouring out into the atmosphere radon, which is a highly toxic radioactive gas, at double the rate that would be allowed from any form of nuclear reactor. I ask Her Majesty's Government that, when they are considering the power programme for the future, they should also consider safety in regard to all other forms of power production and impose upon those forms standards of safety and cleanliness that are at least as good as those employed within the nuclear industry.

I do not think that there is going to be any dissent about the importance of the nuclear option to this country in meeting our power needs in the future. But I believe that it is essential that we all also agree on the importance to this country of having our own strong nuclear industry and our own strong nuclear research. We must not leave the nuclear industry standing around undeveloped for so long that it becomes a lame duck through stiffness of the legs because it has simply been standing still. We must make sure that we press on and try to recapture the position in atomic research which we once held. We must make certain that we use our standards of safety and excellence, and not put ourselves in the position where we simply have to buy abroad because we have not developed any of our equipment to the point at which it can be used.

The last part of the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, is perhaps the most important part to which to get an answer. We should press the Government to tell us precisely what decisions they are going to make to ensure that the United Kingdom has an … effective energy programme at the end of the twentieth century and an appropriate nuclear industry of its own". This is vitally important. As your Lordships know, I live in a part of the world where the nuclear industry is very important to us, so naturally I have an interest in it. I also have a knowledge that it is a good industry both to work in and to live beside. I do not actually work in it. I work at many matters that are close to the industry but none of them is necessarily connected with the Atomic Energy Authority. I know that it is a good neighbour and that it is being run by people with high scientific and ethical standards. I should like to ensure that the nuclear industry that we develop and use in this country is our own nuclear industry, one which is continuing these high standards of safety and ethics and the high standards of research which I have seen in Dounreay, my neighbour.

6.40 p.m.


My Lords, I must begin by apologising profoundly for intervening in this debate, during the earlier stages of which, owing to circumstances over which I had no control, I was not able to be present. I must also apologise for my most discourteous attempt to intervene in the debate at a moment when I should not have done so. I can only apologise to your Lordships by saying that the handicaps of being deaf, blind and crippled are very considerable, and I ask for indulgence as well as forgiveness.

I rise, my Lords, because I have the gravest doubts about the wisdom of developing the nuclear power industry in this country or elsewhere, and I should like to reinforce with all my ability what my noble friend said from the Opposition Front Bench about the necessity for the Government to put safety first. There are three unresolved safety problems. The power plants are not yet certainly safe from leaks of radioactivity. I was staying in the Valley of Buttermere when the big Windscale accident happened a number of years ago. In Buttermere we were safe because there were two lines of hills in between us and Windscale; but the danger in Windscale itself, and around there, was very considerable indeed. And assertions about the amount of radioactivity which escaped make it appear a very grave danger. Much later, only two years ago if I remember rightly, there was a leak of radioactivity from Windscale in an emission of water—an accident which the authorities there in fact did not report to the Government for a very considerable time. That is risk number one.

The second risk is the disposal of nuclear waste, and, with great respect to the noble Lord who spoke of it just now, I believe the risks and the future danger arising out of the problem of the disposal of nuclear waste are very considerable indeed. I consort a good deal with physicists who have been concerned with the production of nuclear weapons and nuclear power, and they believe that this problem is as yet unsolved; and that, if it is solved, it may be extremely costly. No one has yet devised a method which will certainly guarantee future generations from the risks which nuclear waste may involve.

But, of course, by a great margin the risks of the explosion of a nuclear power plant are by far the greatest. Noble Lords have spoken of Harrisburg, of the Three Mile Island plant. What happened there was that for a long period of days there was a very real risk that an explosion would happen which would destroy the plant and would involve the loss, as was officially declared by the nuclear power authorities of the United States, of 50,000 lives. Harrisburg does not stand alone. Two years before there was a near accident at Brown's Ferry plant in the United States, and when the emergency was over the managing director of Brown's Ferry declared that it was only by pure good fortune, by sheer luck, that there had not been a disaster in which, as in Harrisburg, 50,000 lives might have been lost.

It is all very well to talk of the risks and dangers of other forms of industry. In a debate in which I took part a year or two ago an authority who was in favour of nuclear power compared the risk of the loss of life with that of miners' lives in the coalmines. I used to have to deal with the loss of life in coalmines. Before the war it was very serious indeed, with the roof falling in on the miner in the gallery—a thousand lives a year; three deaths per working day. When the mines were nationalised it was still 600 a year—two lives a working day. The number of miners underground is now less than half what it was when the mines were nationalised. The loss of life per annum is now under 50; that is to say, a reduction of nearly 14 times compared to the reduction in manpower by a half. I submit to your Lordships that the risks of no other industry compare in any significant way with the risks of explosion, which can cause the enormous loss of life that might have happened at Harrisburg and Brown's Ferry.

The major point about those stories is that both near accidents were due to human errors. The noble Lord said that the human error which happens in the United States would not happen here. But why do we make such an assumption? The United States operators are very highly educated people. They are disciplined and drilled in all that is required to make the plant safe; and yet, within a period of two years, both in Harrisburg and at Brown's Ferry, the human error happened. I think this is the more significant and the more important because it is the plan of the nuclear industry to export nuclear plants to many other countries in the world, and particularly to Third World countries. But, surely, the chance that you could get personnel to work the nuclear plants in Third World countries sufficiently educated and sufficiently well-drilled to avoid human error is very much less good than it is in the United States; and I submit that this factor of human error is one which should make the Government hesitate very much indeed.

Last week I was in Paris at a UNESCO "Roundtable" on nuclear problems. There were present two great physicists: Professor Isidor Rabi, who was one of the principal figures behind Oppenheimer when the first atomic bomb was made; and Professor Alfred Kastler of France, who is regarded as perhaps the leading physicist of his country. Both were extremely alarmed about the proliferation of nuclear power plants and the danger that that would mean the proliferation of nuclear weapons in a number of countries which do not now possess them. You cannot have a nuclear power plant without the risk that someone will misuse the product to make nuclear weapons. If there were no other reasons against the proliferation of nuclear power plants, I should regard the risk of proliferation of weapons as absolutely decisive.

I conclude what I have to say by quoting Alfred Kastler who said that he believes that the power of the future is not from nuclear plants; "the energy of the future is solar energy, unpolluting and inexhaustible". I believe that the Government would do well greatly to step up the research that we are now carrying out with solar energy. Three physicists to whom I attach the greatest importance, Professor Bernard Feld of MIT, Professor Joseph Rotblat and Alfred Kastler, are all agreed that the right plan for energy today is a crash programme on solar energy research.

6.51 p.m.


My Lords, I wish to apologise for intervening in this debate. I did not intend to do so but, having listened to a number of extremely able speeches, I feel that some aspects of the problem have been strangely neglected—except for some allusions by the last speaker the noble Lord, Lord Noel-Baker, who has not, however, developed them. I am speaking now of only one type of reactor, the fast breeder reactor. One aspect which has not been mentioned is that the future must belong to the fast breeder reactor for one simple reason: that any other type of reactor requires uranium ores of such richness that the supply of them will last for only a very few years. If we want nuclear power to play a big role in power generation, we must use fast breeder reactors sooner or later because they are the only ones which are able to use low-grade uranium ores, the supply of which is ample and which lasts for thousands or tens of thousands of years.

Many speakers, among them the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, emphasised that fast breeder reactors have the advantage that they do not create much nuclear waste. That is true. But what was not mentioned is that they have the extreme disadvantage of producing as a by-product the material out of which nuclear bombs are made. I am not referring to the danger that there may be a nuclear explosion—

Viscount THURSO

My Lords, I do not think that the noble Lord got it right. They consume plutonium. They may be made to produce some sort of plutonium; but it is not bomb-quality plutonium.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount and readily defer to him. I would not claim to have any sort of technical expertise in that field. I have heard various scientists speaking on the subject who urged that we should go into fast breeder reactors despite the very serious danger (which they recognise that they create) that the plutonium manufactured by these reactors could fall into unauthorised hands and that, with that aid, a nuclear bomb can be manufactured very easily in a back yard, so to speak. Once these reactors are available, it will be almost inevitable, as the noble Lord, Lord Noel-Baker, has just said, that nuclear weapons can be manufactured by all sorts of Governments.


My Lords, I think that the noble Lord was here when I spoke at the beginning of this debate, and therefore he should remember that I myself said that I thought the greatest danger of all was the possible use of plutonium by terrorists or some irresponsible powers. But I may point out to him, first, that the present system, the AGR and Magnox, produces a small quantity of plutonium now; and, secondly, that the fast breeder reactor (which uses plutonium as a fuel) can either use it all up or produce some more. It can do either; so that, from the point of view to which the noble Lord referred, it has an advantage over the present generation.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. I must admit that perhaps my attention was wandering or I was not here when he made these remarks. I did not know that he covered these points.

Noble Lords may remember that some time ago—quite some time before the accident at Three Mile Island occurred—the American Government brought the utmost pressure on the German Government to prevent the German Government from selling to Brazil the "Turnkey" system, meaning a fully equipped fast breeder reactor. The American Government at that time was extremely anxious that there should be international agreements on the subject of whether fast breeder reactors should or should not be produced and on what sort of safeguards should be introduced before individual countries go ahead with them. One conclusion that I would draw from that is that if it is true, as some speakers have said, that the French Government is having the whole of France studded with sufficient fast breeder reactors to cover 50 per cent. of its energy needs by 1985, and if the Germans and various other countries are to do the same, I cannot see the fact that we are also doing it or not doing it will make any substantial difference.

I do not see that the danger lies in the existence of these plants as such. I do not think the danger that quasi-legal, paramilitary organisations intent on upsetting the normal order will have power to overun these plants, get hold of the material and use it for blackmail by creating a nuclear bomb, is any greater, or as great, here compared to a number of countries in continental Europe—not to speak of Latin American countries and various other places. I do not feel that from that point of view it should weigh more heavily on our decision than on the decisions of other countries. But I feel that we ought to strive more strongly for an international agreement on these matters and that we should not indulge separately, by way of international competition, in forms of development of energy which make the world altogether too risky a place to live in. That is not because of any explosions or dangers of the sort which most noble Lords have been speaking about, but simply because of the danger that they make the spread of manufacture of atomic weapons and their possession by untrustworthy groups of powers (I do not want to put it more precisely than that) so much greater than it now is. That is the point that I should be grateful for the noble Earl to cover in his speech.

7 p.m.


My Lords, I think that this has been a most valuable debate on a subject that is of the first importance for the economic future of this country. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy for putting down his Question, and for his lucid exposition of the issue. I congratulate him on the quality of the speeches that he has attracted. It is my general rule to try to wind up Unstarred Questions in something like 12 minutes. If I go a little over that tonight, it is because your Lordships have put very many and quite detailed points to me which I must try to answer as best I can. I am also grateful for the largely constructive and co-operative approach of the noble Lords from the two Front Benches opposite: the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, for the Opposition, and the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, for the Liberals.

The United Kingdom is an industrial trading nation that, despite a relatively deep-seated and problematic decline, still maintains living standards far higher than most of the world's. The Government want to see these standards maintained and improved. Without this the process through which economic benefits once the prerogative of a few, are becoming available to the many, would halt once and for all. The opportunities and limits of economic growth are inextricably linked to the supply of energy. We operate a mixed economy with regard to energy, and we have done so for years. We have coal, gas, oil and nuclear energy in principle. For the foreseeable future we shall be able to dispense with none of these. In a world faced with energy shortages or blockages of supply, nuclear power is vital. The United Kingdom's present and unlooked-for period of self-sufficiency in energy is not expected to last beyond the 1980s. That is barely 10 more years. By the 1990s, our oil and gas supplies from the North Sea are expected to be declining sharply and we shall be facing a rapidly changing energy outlook. We are investing heavily in the coal industry—a point which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, and others—to provide new and modern capacity for the 1990s, by which time many existing pits will be exhausted. If manpower considerations (which is really perhaps a polite way of saying "if pay demands") allow, we shall continue and accelerate that progress. I would also say to the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, that the same manpower points apply to the necessary development and progress in the transport industries.

We have given energy conservation a central place in our energy policy. The projections recently published by the Department of Energy assume that around 20 per cent. of final energy demand can be saved by the year 2000. This will in itself require a considerable effort, not to say some pain. In the present state of knowledge, it would be very risky to plan on the assumption that higher conservation savings will be completely achieved, though we must of course continue to try. Nor would it be sensible to assume that we are going to be saved by conservation alone. Alternative energy sources such as the wind, waves and sun —and the noble Lord, Lord Noel-Baker, laid great stress on the latter—are being explored. Our spending in these areas has increased year by year, but progress in research of this kind depends less on the amount being spent than on the state of the technology itself, and these renewable energy sources are not expected to make a significant contribution before the end of the century.

Again, the end of the century is not so far away and we do not discount this contribution and we shall continue to try. The Department of Energy's projections for the year 2000 suggest that there will be a substantial gap between energy demand and indigenous supplies. That is after making allowances for substantial savings from conservation and for the full exploitation of our coal resources as well as a major expansion of nuclear power. It implies an energy import requirement that could be over 100 million tonnes of coal equivalent at a time when oil supplies are expected to be becoming increasingly scarce and expensive on international markets. The cost to the balance of payments of meeting this requirement through imports could be between £2½ and £8½ billion. Of course, projections are just that, they are projections. Prudence and common sense suggest that they are unlikely to be very far wrong. At the Tokyo Summit the leaders of the West agreed that without the expansion of nuclear power, generating capacity, economic growth and higher employment would be hard to achieve. It would be entirely wrong to imagine that because of our present oil and gas resources this conclusion at Tokyo somehow did not apply to us.

As I have said, nuclear power is not a new development in this country. Our first full-scale nuclear power station, which as my noble friend pointed out, was also the first in the world, was opened in 1956, and since then we have commissioned 9 Magnox and 2 advanced gas-cooled (AGR) stations. Between them they already supply 12 per cent. of our electricity, the equivalent of consuming 7 million tonnes of oil at conventional power stations. Three stations from our first AGR programme are still under construction and they are due to come into operation in the early 1980s. Nuclear power will then be accounting for about 20 per cent. of our electricity, equivalent to burning some 14 million tonnes of oil at power stations, or about the output of a large North Sea field such as the Piper field.

The noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, and others, have referred to the recently published Kemeny Report on the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island (also referred to as Harrisburg) in the United States. It is understandable that this event has aroused great public concern. The Secretary of State for Energy has asked the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate to provide an assessment of the implications of this report for the United Kingdom, and I understand that my right honourable friend will wish to publish this.

The safety record of our civil nuclear industry has been quite outstanding, and I agree on this point with my noble friend Lord Kintore. During 22 years of operation no accidents have occurred at commercial nuclear power stations that have given rise to significant public hazard and we have no evidence that any injury has been caused by radiation from a nuclear power station in the United Kingdom.

In fact, the consequences of radiation were fairly well understood even 20 years ago, and there is probably no other area of industrial activity in which such a wealth of time, expertise and resources have been devoted to safety issues. I take the point of the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, that perhaps we may have emphasised nuclear safety even at the expense of other and quantifiably more urgent safety standards.

Our nuclear industry has not always received the full credit for its safety achievements. I think it is particularly important, now that the critics of nuclear power are searching for and receiving widespread publicity, that this safety record in this country and elsewhere should be fully recognised. In a dissenting view shared by the noble Lord, Lord Kaldor (though on another point that I shall come to), the noble Lord, Lord Noel-Baker, mentioned Windscale. That raises a slightly different issue to the main thrust of the debate, which is not about the disposal of nuclear waste—I am prepared to deal with that if noble Lords wish—but the question of nuclear energy generation.

What is alarming is that the United Kingdom's nuclear industry, in spite of this record and in spite of our early lead in this area, has suffered from an absence of orders during most of the 1970s and from a long period of uncertainty about its organisation. The Government believe that it is crucial for the long-term health of our nuclear industry and our economy that the organisational issue should be resolved very soon. We have also confirmed the two AGR orders that were announced by the previous Government last year, and work has now started on both the Torness and Heysham sites.

In addition, the Central Electricity Generating Board and the Nuclear Power Company are now actively exploring licensing arrangements for the construction of a pressurised water reactor in the United Kingdom. No arrangements have been made on licensing and of course the eventual construction of a pressurised water reactor here would be unthinkable unless the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate were fully satisfied about its safety. I would much rather put it that way than simply say "unless the Government were fully satisfied"—though of course the Government likewise would have to be fully satisfied.

No further orders for nuclear power stations have been announced and recent Press reports on this point have been speculative. But let there be no doubt that it is the Government's view that nuclear orders will need to continue if we are to have a realistic long-term policy for meeting our energy needs. Our oil bonanza would prove a curse, not a blessing, if we used its relative easing of energy supply difficulties to put off a process that others like France are not postponing. Without the prospect of the widespread adoption of the fast reactor, shortages of natural uranium could begin to constrain nuclear power station ordering beyond the end of the next decade. The case for the fast reactor rests on its ability to make use of plutonium and depleted uranium, which are the byproducts of thermal reactors.

The prototype fast reactor which has been operating at Dounreay since 1975 means that the United Kingdom has an important international position in fast reactor technology. The last Government invited the Atomic Energy Authority and the nuclear and electricity supply industries to consider the options for fast reactor policy and to make proposals to Ministers. The main issues are whether we should go ahead with the construction of a full-scale commercial demonstration fast reactor and the scope for possible international collaboration. We will need to consider the next steps when this report has been made, but any decision to build a CDFR in the United Kingdom would be subject to a full and thorough public inquiry. The United Kingdom is also the host to the Joint European Torus, the large-scale European Community research project on nuclear fusion. This is, of course, a project which looks even further into the future, and probably well into the next century, at any rate so far as commercial development is concerned.

Let me deal as concisely as I can with some of the individual points that have been put to me. My noble friend Lord Campbell asked about the fast reactor and the need for a public inquiry and I think I have answered that in the substance of my speech. We have made it clear that any decisions in this area would be subject to a full public inquiry.

I am glad, too, that my noble friend raised the role of nuclear power in Scotland. That was something of a theme in this debate, with contributions from Scotland made by the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, and my noble friend Lord Kintore. Whether one is looking at the technological frontiers that I have mentioned or at commercial and economic aspects, Scotland has some of the most important nuclear installations in the Kingdom. I have in mind, of course, the prototype fast reactor at Dounreay which I have mentioned, where the Prime Minister in September reopened a reprocessing plant that is the first of its kind in the world. But probably no less significant than the developments at Dounreay has been the performance of the Hunterston A Magnox station, built in 1964, which was cited in Nuclear Engineering earlier this year as having achieved an 85 per cent. life-time load factor—higher than any other station in the Western world. This station, together with the much larger Hunterston B Advanced Gas Reactor and British Nuclear Fuels plant at Chapelcross, generated over 20 per cent. of the electricity consumed in Scotland in 1978 and 1979.

I do want to get across that we are not talking about a future nuclear industry in this country: we have one at the moment. We are talking about its development. A start has now been made on the new AGR at Torness, announced by the previous Government last year, which is a thoroughly topical issue.

The noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, asked about the role of the coal industry and I have had something to say about that already. Nuclear power stations that are being considered now will not of course be operating until close to the next decade; so, by the 1990s, as oil and gas become increasingly scarce and expensive, we expect new markets to be opening for coal in certain uses—such as in industrial boilers—where in our view it will become increasingly competitive. In addition, coal may well be needed for the manu- facture of substitute natural gas. That point was also raised although I cannot without notice say exactly what level the research on that has reached at the moment. The general picture is that less coal will be available for electricity generation, and nuclear power will be needed, in our view, to fill the gap.

The noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, also asked about the use of reactors of the Canadian type in the United Kingdom. Of course the steam-generating heavy-water reactor—a type in some ways similar to the Canadian reactor—was considered for the United Kingdom. But in January 1978 the previous Government announced that on the unanimous advice of all concerned it should not be adopted for the next power station orders. The then Government also decided to discontinue work on it; and that remains our position.

The noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, argued persuasively that by the year 2000 there would be increased demand for electricity and he laid particular stress on the transport industries. Yet, in spite of this emphasis, he felt that the Government still needed to prove the case for the nuclear industry. He also raised some rather detailed points. I will deal with them as best I can, but, if I do not pick up all of them, perhaps I may read through Hansard tomorrow, pick them out and write to the noble Lord. As I have said, he referred to the electrification of transport. I would need notice in order to reply in detail to him, but I can say that the Central Electricity Generating Board believe that the nuclear capacity now under construction that was announced last year is needed to meet electricity demands by the late 1980s, without envisaging any change in their planning margin.

The noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, treated us to a very clear analysis of the lessons of the past and where we have gone wrong. I certainly agree with him that we have got to get the right organisational structure, and get it soon. I know that my right honourable friend is working with great speed to this end. He mentioned the Kemeny Report, and I have had something already to say about that. I would myself welcome the noble Lord's testimonies to the quality of the Nuclear Inspectorate and I should like to echo them. He said there would be difficult and unpopular decisions for Government in this area. I personally believe that if inflation is the great issue of the 'seventies. So if we get that under control, the question of the expansion of nuclear energy may be the leading political concern of the 1980s.

The noble Lord, Lord Noel-Baker, referred to the problems of disposal of highly active nuclear waste. It is a detailed subject and I cannot spend long on it, but perhaps I can give him some consolation by these remarks. A large scale research programme is in progress to find an acceptable way to dispose of highly active nuclear wastes. A method of converting highly active waste in glass blocks—called vitrification—has been developed and proven on a pilot scale, and a demonstration vitrification plant is planned to be in operation by the late 'eighties. The Government consider that there are three feasible options for the disposal of the containers of this vitrified waste—in stable formations on land, on the bed of the deep ocean and under the seabed. Our view is that none of these options should be ruled out at this stage.

Several noble Lords, notably the noble Lord, Lord Kaldor, raised the question of the possible proliferation of nuclear weapons, arising from the generation of nuclear power. My own instinct is that certain limited nuclear weapons are well within the capacity of even quite minor industrial countries at the moment. But since the earliest days of nuclear power, the danger that the spread of civil nuclear programmes might increase the possibilities for other countries to obtain weapons has been recognised, and I cannot pretend that the risks can be completely eliminated. Our aim is, and must remain, to reduce them to a minimum and they have to be balanced against the benefits of the peaceful use of nuclear power.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Kaldor, about the importance of considerable international effort here. It has been, and continues to be, devoted to minimising the risks of proliferation and the United Kingdom continues to play a full part in them. We have signed the non-proliferation treaty and agreed to detailed inspection of our civil nuclear activities, as part of the International Atomic Energy Agency's system of safe guards. The United Kingdom also plays a full part in the international fuel cycle evaluation, which was launched in October 1977, to find ways of reconciling the widespread development of nuclear power with the proliferation risks. The United Kingdom chairs the Nuclear Supplies Group, which has established guidelines on the conditions to be attached to the export of all nuclear materials and technology, and we have agreed on restraints in the transfer of highly sensitive technology. In the final analysis, the decision to build nuclear weapons is political and the best way of reducing the risk of proliferation is to work for stability in international relations. But I acknowledge that technical and institutional barriers can make an important contribution.

As many noble Lords have said, the nuclear industry has come under increasingly intense scrutiny from the Press and from anti-nuclear groups in recent years, and of course it is right that the issue should be fully and publicly debated. But I wholeheartedly agree with my noble friend, that those whom he graphically called nuclear scaremongers must not be encouraged to develop a vested interest—an industry, so to speak—out of the kinds of public fear and anxiety which, in my view, are psychologically located not in nuclear power stations, but in nuclear bombs and the tragic dawn of our nuclear age in 1945. The Government believe that we must take a positive attitude towards the future development of nuclear power, and ensure that its inevitable links with growth in the economy give it the priority which it deserves.

I hope that what I have said this evening will give the House a distinct view of the Government's commitment to the continued development of nuclear energy. Your Lordships will not expect me this evening to itemise a programme of development in anticipation of any announcement by the Secretary of State for Energy in another place. For the moment, as the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, said, we shall have to watch patiently the smoke signals as they arise. But I did, yesterday, have a long and detailed conversation with the Secretary of State about this debate, and I can guarantee that what has been said will be studied by my right honourable friend himself. I myself shall, of course, tackle the industrial and employment-manpower implications of the debate within my own department.


My Lords, before the noble Earl sits down, can he say a word about research on solar energy?

The Earl of GOWRIE

My Lords, I did make some remarks about solar energy, so may I refer the noble Lord, Lord Noel-Baker, to the text? I agree that there should be an expansion of research, and this has continued. But our advice is that even if we are luckier than we dare hope, we shall still need a nuclear programme.