HL Deb 09 February 1981 vol 417 cc6-8

2.49 p.m.

Lord Wolverton

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will announce their future policy towards fast breeder reactor power plants.

The Minister of State, Department of Employment (The Earl of Gowrie)

My Lords, fast reactor policy is under review in the light of advice that the Government have received from the Atomic Energy Authority and nuclear industry. No decisions have been taken; but a statement will be made as soon as Government policy has reached the appropriate stage.

Lord Wolverton

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Earl for that reply. I would say, arising out of that, that we debated this subject—

Noble Lords


Lord Wolverton

My Lords, I should like to put this question to my noble friend. May I ask him this on reply? It was debated in this House last December-year and we were promised a Statement early in 1980 and we still have not had that Statement. I think that it is unsatisfactory that we are told today that it is still under consideration.

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I have considerable sympathy with the frustration of my noble friend, as I am well aware of the interest throughout the House in nuclear policy. But the House and my noble friend will be aware of the complexity of this issue, the very great expense, the long lead time and the importance of getting policy absolutely right. I must ask him to bear with us a little longer.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, as there is likely to be a world uranium shortage early in the next century, would the Government agree that a fast breeder reactor policy is probably essential for our future energy requirements?

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, and I have debated this subject on many occasions and we have often found ourselves in agreement about it.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, no matter what is the outcome of the considerations that the noble Lord is seeking, may I ask what steps will the Government take to prevent the fast reactor becoming an example of so many praiseworthy British initiatives which have been heavily backed with public funds only to find themselves lost in the sands of governmental penuriousness until the day when we have to pay others for the know-how whose completion we have foregone —in this case probably the French?

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, we have no intention of being—I think the word is "penurious". We have every intention of trying to get a policy of this complexity and sophistication right.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, would my noble friend not agree that, given the uranium shortage expected at the end of the century, it is urgent to get a prototype fast reactor of the commercial scale going for at least 10 years and proved to be safe so that the programme can go ahead? Therefore delays on this matter are really very worrying to those who take the matter seriously. This is not a party issue at all; our views are the same on both sides of the House.

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I accept that this is not a party issue and I also have always registered that your Lordships' House takes a longer term view of energy policy, as is only right, than perhaps other parts of our economy. I shall bring what my noble friend has had to say to the attention of my right honourable friend.

Baroness Gaitskell

My Lords, may I ask the Minister this: If we can look forward to a uranium shortage, surely we can look forward too to a uranium famine and so perhaps have a more peaceful world?

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I am not quite clear as to the point that the noble Baroness is making. If she will look at the other answers to the supplementary questions, she will see that it is a grave prospect for nuclear energy if there is a uranium shortage. That is one of the reasons why the Government are considering fast breeder reactor policy.

Viscount Hanworth

My Lords, would the noble Earl agree that our present stocks of uranium and plutonium in this country, if used in a fast reactor, exceed the energy from known reserves of coal? Secondly, would he also agree that though there may not be a uranium famine worldwide until the beginning of the next century, one always has to consider a political situation when one examines the continuing supply of any mineral?

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I think that that is one of the very interesting features of the fast breeder reactor.

Viscount Thurso

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the Government's unwillingness to declare a policy regarding the future of a fast breeder reactor is already beginning to threaten the existence of the very teams who will be needed if the fast reactor is wanted? Will the noble Earl admit that the real reason why he is unable to give us an answer is that all of his research teams are currently engaged in examining the safety or otherwise of the pressure water reactor and therefore there is no spare capacity to do the reviews on the fast reactor? That is the real reason why he is unable to give us an answer about Government policy.

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I do not accept that interpretation. As my original Answer made plain, we have received advice from the Atomic Energy Authority. We have received advice on fast breeders from the nuclear industry and this is precisely the advice that we are considering.

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