§ 4.14 p.m.
§ Debate resumed.
§ Lord Tanlaw
My Lords, we now return to the most interesting debate which the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, has put before the House this afternoon. We on these Benches are very grateful that he has done so and that he has attracted, as he himself has said, an extraordinary list of most distinguished and articulate speakers. For my part, I am sad to see two names not on that list: names of speakers who in the past have contributed so much to these debates, Lord Wynne-Jones and Lord Ritchie-Calder. It is a disappointment that they are no longer here, but their words have always remained with me from the past debates that we have had on this subject. I think that it is also worth saying that the more technical a subject—and especially a subject like nuclear power—the more one has to seek advice from technical people; and the higher one goes the more difficult it is to comprehend the advice that one has been given. The noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, is an exception, in that his brilliance is also that of a communicator, as he has proved this afternoon. Other speakers on this list also have this same gift of communicating to the world at large what is a very technical subject about which many people have worried or enthused. I think that this debate today will help a lot in clearing the air as to what is a fast reactor and what may be its potential in the years to come.
The reasons for the Government's decision perhaps to put the fast reactor on the back burner have been given as the low price and the relative abundance of uranium supplies on the world market. These factors have undermined much of the economic and strategic advantage of the fast reactor over conventional uranium fuel reactors in the past three years. 199 Nevertheless, the economic principles contained in the development of the fast reactors continue to be sound. I am advised that, at present prices, £27,000 will buy one tonne of uranium for a thermal reactor to produce as much electricity as 25,000 tonnes of coal, which would cost £1 million, Like other fuels, however, supplies of uranium will not last for ever, and the commercial exploitation of the fast reactor could enable about 60 times as much energy to be extracted from uranium as the present types of thermal reactor achieve. Because the fast reactor needs so little uranium, the high price of the raw material would have little effect on the cost of the electricity it produces. As I understand that, this is the theory that will mean cheap electricity generation costs compared with thermal reactor generation costs in the first half of the next century. Therefore, the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority has been told to look more closely at the prospects of international collaboration for fast reactor development.
We welcome this and we welcome the fact that research and development teams can continue their work in the hope of proving—and no doubt they will—that the fast reactor will superseder the PWRs and thermal reactors and coal-fired power stations that we shall rely on between now and 20 years on. There are wider implications in this to which I will come later. If we compare the generating costs of, say, coal and the nuclear thermal power stations currently under construction, is there not a strong commercial case for proceeding with the conventional nuclear programme—without even PWRs, let alone fast reactors?
I ask this question because the figures are not yet available for the intended generating costs of a PWR and, obviously, as we heard earlier this afternoon, we do not know, and perhaps cannot even anticipate, what are to be the generating costs of a fast reactor. For instance, according to the CEGB's annual report, the generation costs of Heysham I nuclear power station are 2.59 pence per kilowatt hour, compared with 3.84 pence per kilowatt hour for Drax on completion, which is the most efficient of the new coal-fired stations that we shall have. Comparative generation costs for the PWR at Sizewell and the fast reactor at Dounreay will be most helpful in putting these different types of power generation in perspective.
I would hope that there would be the same differential in improvement in economy between the fast reactor and the current thermal reactors and the PWRs as there is between the present thermal reactors and coal that we have today. According to the Select Committee on Energy of another place, in France the delivered cost of electricity to an industrial consumer is less than 3 pence per kilowatt hour, while I understand that in the United Kingdom it can vary from approximately 2.7 pence to 4.5 pence per kilowatt hour. Therefore it would appear to me that the generation cost of the French nuclear programme is just over 1 penny per kilowatt hour—1.16 pence if the same gross margin is allowed between generation costs and the tariff charges used by the CEGB for Heysham I.
The reason I have dared to interpose these figures in this debate is that I am conscious of the fact that the 200 Invergordon smelter failed because it would appear that the Hunterston nuclear power station could not deliver electricity at an economic rate; that is, cheaply enough. The real test will be: what are to be the charges for electricity, whether it is for coal, thermal or a fast reactor? The failure of this first test of nuclear power would appear to have been—and the noble Earl will recall that the Government gave this reason in a Statement—because electricity costs were too expensive, in spite of the fact that there was a vast surplus of electricity from the board concerned. This is worrying, and I hope that the Government will look at this more carefully, because when we are talking about the fast reactor for the future we are talking about cheap electricity, which hopefully is going to replace gas in the form of space heating. The research and development studies on the fast reactor will have to match the margins I have just quoted if a commercial unit is to be constructed at the beginning of the next century.
The Government, in one form or another, will have to identify what role electricity will be playing in the energy equation by then. It is assumed that gas may be relatively expensive as the fields become depleted and more distant from the markets. But will it be expensive enough for electricity and, in particular, combined heat and power to compete in the space heating market which gas presently controls? We heard not so long ago in a debate in your Lordships' House that the gas reserves are somewhat larger than had been envisaged. It has been said also that the gas reserves may well be plentiful throughout the first half of the next century: certainly until 2030 and possibly until 2040. The question I would ask is: has this been taken into consideration when we are looking at the role of electricity, which is a wider role than that of the fast reactor but is relevant to this question? I am referring to the role of electricity in the first 25 years of the twenty-first century.
It has been said that to build a commercial fast reactor will take all the time that has already been laid down. Sir Walter Marshall, at a meeting of PARLIGAES on Monday night upstairs, indicated that it would be unlikely that the first commercial fast reactor could be commissioned until about 2020. That is a realistic timetable in order that all the safety and economic aspects of producing electricity at a rate which would be favourable compared with other fuels have been solved—that is, apart from the technical problems which will have to be overcome in addition.
I am left with two or three questions and I should be grateful if the noble Lord who is to wind up on behalf of the Government could reply to them. What is the anticipated generation cost for Sizewell "B" power station, for which the inquiry is due to begin? I understand from the CEGB that they do not have the figure at this stage. Will this figure emerge during the Sizewell inquiry?—because it is very relevant to what the future energy costs will be from the fast reactor. I find this slightly worrying because we do not know what the anticipated generation costs will be from Sizewell "B", which is very nearly upon us. Therefore, what are going to be the anticipated generation costs? What are the design team aiming for from the fast reactor when that comes on stream 30 years from now?
201 If Her Majesty's Government are not in a position to answer these questions, I am not sure how there can be enough evidence—here I am being the devil's advocate—on which to base decisions about PWRs before even we come to fast reactors. I believe there is a possibility that we may have concentrated too much on the technical problems and the cost-effectiveness problems regarding the capital construction of these programmes, and have completely forgotten what the cost of electricity will be to the consumer at the end of the day. Certainly these figures should be available for the PWR; and I think this could be an opportunity for the Government to give them to the House. Thereby everyone who is interested in these matters would benefit.
This leads me to another queston. Within the terms of the research and development team's work over the next years on the fast reactor, is there included in their reference a CHP application for the fast reactor? No mention has been made of this and, as I understand it, certainly from the Select Committee's report in another place, there will be a very major role for combined heat and power with district heating in the years to come if electricity is to replace gas as a space heater. It would be rather worrying if the research and development team has not been instructed to look at this application for fast reactors. I would come to the conclusion—maybe hastily and somewhat regretfully—that the fast reactor would not have the proper role it has been designed for at the beginning of the next century.
Finally, I should like to put this thought before the Government at this time. It is not an original thought but one that was put forward in the Marshall Report: that is, the suggestion of a Heat Board. We have every other form of board looking at our future energy requirements, but the point I am trying to get from the Government, through the noble Earl's debate today, is: what is the point of building efficient electricity generation if in fact there is to be no overall body which will manage the cost of raw energy for the country's needs? If gas is too cheap and too readily available at the time the fast reactors are to start delivering electricity, it may well be that the electricity they generate will become uneconomic, as indeed it is today for space heating. That is the reason given today why the CEGB are not very interested in combined heat and power, because they cannot compete with gas. The Gas Corporation are not very interested because it competes with gas.
I would say to the Government that if this kind of competition is to occur in the years to come, then it will be a sterile form of competition in which there will be high energy costs and everyone will be the loser—the power generation boards as well as the consumers. Would not this be the time for the Government to consider how they are going to manage the prices of gas, coal and electricity in order to make the maximum use of the very heavy capital installations that are being planned during the course of the next 20 to 30 years?
I know that is rather wider than the terms of the debate, but what is the point of having any form of reactor, including a fast reactor, to produce electricity if, at the end of the day, it cannot be sold commercially? I hope that, when the noble Lord 202 comes to reply, an answer to some of these questions can be given which would reassure me in continuing my support for the Government's position on the future of the fast reactor team at Dounreay.
§ 4.30 p.m.
§ Lord Hinton of Bankside
My Lords, we are all extremely grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, for giving us the opportunity of debating this subject tonight. It seems to me that the debate is, if anything, overdue and I was certainly pleased to see—as, I am sure, were other noble Lords—the Statement that was made by the Secretary of State in another place last week. It may be helpful, although it may involve my repeating very briefly some of the points which the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, made in his speech, and other points that were made by the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, if I run over the history of what went before and which, perhaps, led to that Statement by the Secretary of State.
When the Atomic Energy Authority was set up in the Ministry of Supply immediately after the last war, its first remit was to produce plutonium for defence purposes, but even then there were visions of nuclear power. At that time, the known reserves of plutonium were very small indeed and we were conscious of the fact that we could not have a viable industrial nuclear power programme until we learned how to use uranium more economically than it could be used in the thermal reactors, which were the only ones that we then knew, or, indeed, today know, how to build. Those thermal reactors burn, at the most, 0.7 per cent. of the uranium which is fed into them, whereas, if we could develop a fast reactor, we knew that—theoretically, at any rate—we could burn as much as 50 per cent. of the uranium.
Work on the fast reactor was, therefore, started in 1950 and the Dounreay fast reactor, to which reference has already been made, with a heat output of 60 mw, was built to provide the basic information that was required. It was commissioned in 1957. That first fast reactor was a large experimental facility and it provided the information on reactor control, on fuel element design and on the use of liquid metal coolants which was needed for the design of a prototype reactor.
The prototype reactor, which was designed to generate 250 mw of electrical power, was ready for commissioning in 1974. Construction had been quite seriously delayed and, shortly before it was due for commissioning, the Central Policy Review Office obtained a report on it, which said that, although the design of the reactor appeared to be entirely satisfactory, the design of the steam raising units gave ground for very serious anxiety. The reactor was commissioned shortly afterwards and, all too soon, those misgivings proved to be well founded. Within quite a short time, the steam raising units developed defects which made it necessary to shut down the whole plant.
The Central Policy Review Office called for another report on those failures and remedial measures were agreed upon in 1975. Those remedial modifications were aimed primarily at making the steam raising units sufficiently reliable to enable satisfactory operation of the reactor itself to be achieved. It was 203 thought that, although the basic design of those unsatisfactory steam raising units had been retained, the modifications might, possibly, lead to a design which could be used in a commercial fast reactor.
To safeguard the operation of the prototype reactor, not merely were agreed modifications to be made to the existing steam raising units, but, also, spare steam raising units were to be ordered. That work was planned and a programme for its completion within a period of two years was prepared. But after seven years, which is the time which has passed since then, the spares have not yet been delivered, nor have the agreed modifications, or alternative modifications, been made to the original steam raising units. Failures to them have continued and they are occurring at an ever-increasing rate. According to figures published in the technical press, the plant has operated for about 10 per cent. of the time that has passed since 1975. I am trying to be as brief as possible, but I ought at this point to emphasise that the failures to which I have referred cause no hazard whatever, either to the operators or to the district surrounding the plant. No nuclear activity was involved. In the interests of brevity, I am not going to explain why that is the case.
A closed fast reactor cycle has five components and, when thinking of the fast reactor, it is necessary to think of it as a complex made up of those five components, which are, first, the plant for the manufacture of fuel elements; secondly, the fast reactor itself; thirdly, the steam raising units; fourthly, the turbo-alternator and, fifthly, the chemical plant for treatment of the irradiated fuel elements.
The first, second and fifth of those five components are all of a pioneering nature, but, within the restrictions imposed on their operation by the third and fourth parts, they have worked brilliantly, and they reflect great credit on the men who, in the face of continued discouragement arising mainly from troubles with the steam raising units, have worked so devotedly.
It is a tragedy that, while achieving such notable success on those pioneering sectors of the plant, overall success has been denied to them by the failure of a section of the plant which, although it presented, and presents, formidable difficulties, has something in common with established practice in power raising plants. But the fact remains that the present steam raising units are not satisfactory. I understand that a completely different design is being considered for a proposed demonstration commercial reactor, but that no agreed design is yet available. Looking back over the period of eight years to the initial troubles with the steam raising units, I find it easy to believe that it will take at least seven more years to fabricate, install and prove steam raising units of a satisfactory design.
To embark on the construction of a large, industrial fast reactor before satisfactory steam raising units have been proved on the existing prototype plant would be about as wise as it would have been to build Concorde when the best proven aircraft engine was the one that was successfully used in the Viscount 25 years earlier. Remembering that the unassailable need for fast reactors arises when reasonably priced uranium resources are exhausted, we must see whether that 204 delay can be tolerated. Large reserves of uranium have now been discovered, but they will not last indefinitely if they are burned only in thermal reactors. Past experience shows that it takes many years to extrapolate from experimental prototypes to a successful commercial reactor design.
The history of the pressurised water reactor which is being considered for Sizewell gives an indication of the time that is required. The proposal to consider the use of a pressurised water reactor in Britain was announced in 1974. The Government decision to investigate the PWR was made in 1978. A public inquiry is due to start in January 1983 and it will probably present its report about the end of that year. A decision might then be made by the end of 1984, so that commissioning of a PWR could be expected about 1992, a period of gestation of 18 years for a reactor which has been widely, although not always successfully, used elsewhere.
The periods of gestation for other types of reactors have had a similar time-scale. From the sanctioning of Calder Hall to the commissioning of Oldbury, which was the first Magnox reactor which could profitably have been replicated, 15 years passed. From the sanctioning of the Windscale AGR to the commissioning of the first satisfactory commercial AGRs at Hunterston and Hinkley Point, 19 years passed.
Remembering all this, let us try to deduce the period of gestation for a fast reactor of commercial size. I think it would be unwise for the Government to do more than indicate their continuing interest in the building of fast reactors until reliable steam raising units have been developed. As I have suggested, that would be seven or eight years from now. By the time that is done, our knowledge of fast reactor complexes will be similar to the knowledge that we had of the PWR when, in 1978, the Government took a decision on that reactor.
At that date it would be reasonable to state a firm intention to build a demonstration commercial fast reactor. The public will wish to be assured about the safety of fast reactors, the environmental bodies will need a year in which to prepare a case, a public inquiry will be necessary and approval and consent cannot be expected in less than two to three years. A construction and commissioning period of nine years would be reasonable and it would be wise to have two years of satisfactory operating experience with this "demonstration" commercial reactor before sequence ordering of fast reactors commences. Assuming satisfactory performance from the outset, a rather optimistic estimate of the period of gestation will then have been no better than 19 years.
We must now, I believe, ask ourselves when fast reactors are really needed to relieve the pressure on the dwindling reserves of virgin uranium. Within the last six years, four separate estimates of those reserves have been made by four separate bodies of international experts. Their studies have been global and the position has got to be considered globally, because the prosperity of every country depends on global energy resources. It can, for example, profit a single country only to a limited extent if it has ample energy supplies while there is a global energy shortage.
205 Because present conditions make low global growth appear to be probable, we will look only at the uranium reserve and demand figures in the low growth scenarios which have been prepared by those four groups of experts. We will assume that there is no recycling of fuel in thermal reactors and that only thermal reactors are used. In date order, the forecasts which were published are as follows. Carroll Wilson in 1977 estimated that demand for uranium will be greater than the reasonably assured reserves before 2010 AD. The World Energy Conference estimated in 1978 that the demand will exceed assured supplies before mid-1995. The International Nuclear Fuel Evaluation Committee estimated in 1980 that requirements can be met up to 2000 AD, provided that sufficient exploration and development work is done but that only the inclusion of speculative resources would enable the 2025 AD demand to be met. We will not worry about the figures prepared by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis because they give us little help.
One thing is quite certain: that all of those forecasts are wrong. But at the time that they published their estimates three or four years ago, all of the world's best informed experts came to the conclusion that fast reactors would be needed by around 2000 AD.
Since those experts wrote their reports there have been major changes. The low scenario figures used by the experts are reasonably consistent with the global recession which is being experienced, but the Three Mile Island incident, which has led to growing opposition from environmentalists and, even more importantly, to opposition from financiers, has probably set back their estimates of demand by something like 15 or perhaps 20 years, to a date of 2015 or 2020. It is only then that plutonium will be needed as a fuel for nuclear power plants.
Even allowing for a rising price of virgin uranium it would be unrealistic to assume that a first generation of fast reactors would produce electricity more cheaply than it could be generated in thermal reactors built concurrently. Electricity from the first generation of Magnox reactors cost nearly twice as much as electricity generated in the best fossil fuel fired plants which were built and commissioned concurrently. In no way can I find justification for suggesting that the Government need to do anything more than encourage development before 1995. I emphasise once more that in my view it would be most unwise to give approval in principle for the construction of a commercial scale fast reactor before satisfactory steam raising units have been built and proved. We must therefore ask ourselves what should be done in the next 13 years.
The annual report of the Atomic Energy Authority appears to show that they are spending something like £100 million a year on fast reactor development. If today we had a completely reliable fast reactor power plant complex which could be offered for sale overseas, there might be justification for continuing expenditure at that rate. But having regard to the postponement of the date when there is an inescapable need for a fast reactor and having regard also to the unsolved problem in one single section of that reactor complex, I cannot convince myself that there is commercial wisdom in continuing work on that scale.
206 There is no doubt that fast reactors will ultimately be needed. Other nuclear countries beside ourselves are developing them; by following an unwavering political policy, the French can reasonably claim to be in the lead—they are to some extent collaborating with the Germans. Limited information suggests that the Russians are not very far behind and that Japan, whose ability to make rapid progress has been demonstrated in other fields, is very active. In the United States development has been retarded by political wavering.
I do not believe that any of those countries can offer a tried, commercial fast reactor complex; they all have something to learn. Our expenditure of nearly £100 million a year is the price of unilateral development. It would be a grave mistake for us to abandon work on the development of fast reactor complexes. Indeed, the Dounreay prototype must be operated if we are to have a satisfactory facility for testing steam raising units but I myself could not justify the cost of continuing to "go it alone" for so long a period. I suggest that we should concentrate on the design of steam raising units, perhaps of two different types, and install those to replace the unsatisfactory steam raising units in the Dounreay prototype plant. The Dounreay reactor must be operated to supply high temperature sodium to test new designs of steam raising units. But while other development may be done at Dounreay the primary purpose of Dounreay in the immediate future must be to deveop satisfactory steam raising units. Expenditure should be limited to what is necessary for that purpose.
While doing this, we should seek a partner or partners with whom we can collaborate as equals. I emphasise "as equals" because there is no reason why we should go to anyone cap in hand. With our successful fuel manufacturing plant, our very satisfactory reactor and our chemical separation plant, we have a great deal to offer such a partner. If we can add a proven steam raising unit we could offer even more, and we could expect a similar contribution from a willing partner.
If your Lordships imagine that it has given me any pleasure to make this speech, you are wrong. Some 26 years ago we led the world in thermal reactor power plant technology. We lost that lead. Some 15 years ago we led the world in fast reactor technology. We are no longer in that position. I do not suggest that we are laggards, but we no longer lead. Surely in dealing with fast reactors we should put our pride in our pockets and seek collaboration. If we do not, we may find that the fast reactor has given us nothing much else to put in our pockets.
§ 4.55 p.m.
Lord Campbell of Croy
My Lords, I would like to congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, on the admirable way in which he introduced this debate. He has in a rare degree the facility for clearly explaining complex scientific matters to laymen, and he demonstrated this facility again today. His timing is also excellent; this debate coming just a week after a Statement by the Government on this subject. The Government said that they would continue a substantial development programme based on Dounreay. This is welcome as a general declaration of intention, 207 but already it has been interpreted in different ways—including one interpretation that it means a considerable slowing down of activity.
Today's debate gives the Government an opportunity to say more about their intentions. In this country, we shall continue to need nuclear power stations. We have supplies of indigenous oil, but before the end of this century annual production will be diminishing year by year. Gas is more uncertain, but it seems likely that unless large new reserves are discovered, gas from indigenous sources will also be diminishing in the early years of the next century. As for energy from renewable resources—for example, from wave power, tides, the wind and the sun—it is clear that the contribution which could be made from those sources in 20 years' time can only be small. So there is a gap which can be filled by energy from the nuclear source—and that is an efficient source.
As a country we have made a good start. The first group of operational reactors—the Magnox reactors—have done well. For example, Chapel Cross started in 1958 and is still operating today. It has given little trouble. Then there is Hunterston "A", and I remember attending the inauguration of that power station in 1964 because I was one of the Ministers concerned at that time. Again, that power station has done well. We have also led the world in the technology of fast reactors. As other speakers have already stated, this work has been concentrated since 1955 at Dounreay, with the experimental fast reactor there and then the prototype fast reactor.
The Government appear to be telling us now that the time when the first commercial reactor needs to be in operation is still far enough away not to require early consideration of a building project. Questions arise from this. First, is this a prudent assessment? Secondly, will all the technical resources and skills required be maintained and developed? Thirdly, will all the necessary preparations be complete when the time comes for a particular project to be initiated? I shall return to these questions shortly.
One of the great advantages of fast reactors is that they use as fuel the highly radioactive material produced as a by-product of thermal power stations. Quantities have already been collected in this country and are gradually accumulating. Fast reactors would dispense with the need to dispose of that highly radioactive material deep in the earth or deep in the ocean. That is good housekeeping on a national scale. It is also good practice in energy conservation. Furthermore, a fast breeder reactor produces more fuel during its operation than it uses.
I turn now to the costs of nuclear energy. There have been arguments about this, usually because different people attach more weight to different forms of expenditure—the capital costs, running costs, and decommissioning costs. Having myself examined fairly closely these arguments, I am convinced that taking all such costs into account, over a period of at least 20 years or more, nuclear generation has been among the cheapest methods of generating electricity and supplying energy.
France has adopted nuclear power stations in a big way. France's programme, a large one, appears 208 already to be making electricity less expensive in that country than it would otherwise be. France, of course, has a more immediate need for nuclear power stations. The French do not have the resources of indigenous oil which, for a period, we have available to us. But we shall need a further nuclear programme as our supplies of oil and gas run out.
The public, I suggest, should not in the meantime be misled or bamboozled by pressure groups opposing nuclear energy. It is easy to frighten people about the unknown or the unfamiliar, but this could be the most abysmal folly for us as a nation if that were to happen widely over nuclear reactors. What are the fears that some people harbour? First, accidents. During the life of the nuclear generating industry in this country, its safety record in life and injury has been better than any other energy industry. The second fear is of escape or emission of radioactivity from reactors. The radioactive material produced in a reactor is retained, shielded, and removed eventually, by controlled procedures. The amount of radioactivity being dispersed into the air or into the surrounding countryside during the operation of a nuclear reactor is less than from many a coal mine; that is to say, from the colliery workings above a mine.
Assurances are nonetheless, of course, necessary about measures and safeguards to prevent, or to deal instantly and correctly with, accidents which might cause radioactivity to escape. But scaremongering about nuclear reactors is completely misplaced. Similar protests could have been directed at electricity in its early days, in the times of Faraday and Kelvin, on the very real grounds of dangers of fire and electrocution of individuals. That would seriously have delayed us in industrial development and in raising our standards of living.
The fast reactor programme has been based in one area of the United Kingdom, Caithness. A headline in a Scottish newspaper a few days ago read, "Action group at Dounreay". Was this a demonstration or a protest at the site of the prototype fast reactor? No, my Lords, the report below indicated that it was a group formed in that area in favour of Britain developing a fast reactor programme. They had already collected for their cause, the report went on, several thousand signatures in Caithness. I recall a group giving evidence recently to your Lordships' Sub-Committee which deals with energy, of which I was a member. The group was opposed to nuclear power stations. It suggested in its evidence that there should be polls over large areas as to whether the individuals living there would want a fast reactor built in their areas. Well, I consider that is quite the wrong approach. They would not really know what it was and could easily be frightened. What is much more to the point is that there should be a poll in the area where there has been a fast reactor, first the experimental one and then the prototype one, for at least 20 years, namely Caithness and Sutherland. There they have lived with it, they know it and they appear to be in favour of it.
My Lords, I would like to ask the Minister who is to reply whether he would say more about the lead times required. My figure, from the moment of a decision to the commissioning of a fast reactor, is the same as that given by the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury; namely, 10 years. In a reply to a debate which I initiated in your 209 Lordships' House three years ago, on 20th November 1979, the Minister indicated that the Government would wish to institute a very special form of public inquiry before the first commercial fast reactor was decided upon, and I understand that that also covered a demonstration fast reactor, if it were proposed. The kind of inquiry, which is something which the previous Government had also suggested, would go far beyond that conducted under the Town and Country Planning Acts. It would be much more complicated and likely to last a good deal longer than the usual run of inquiries of that kind. My own assessment is that such an inquiry might take between three and five years, between the initiation of it and the report being submitted and then decided upon by the Government of the day. So that it appears as though there might be up to 15 years' notice required before a fast reactor could be built.
This seems to be a chicken and egg situation. Those who would oppose at an inquiry the building of any kind of fast reactor would no doubt be calling for evidence to show that it was fully justified, that there was a need for it. And if the need was at least 15 years ahead, it would not be very easy to make it clear. On the other hand, by the time the need has become obvious it could well be too late to get started. I suggest that this needs a good deal of thinking out, and I would be grateful for any information which my noble friend can give me later today.
Some people in this country are worried about radiation from nuclear reactors. They are worried, for example, that there may be radiation from power station programmes which will adversely affect the environment for their grandchildren. I entirely sympathise with those feelings, but I do suggest that those grandchildren, many of them not yet born, will regard energy supplied by fast reactors during their adult lives as a standard form of supply, something essential in their way of living. They will not look back kindly upon our part in this if we have been responsible for delay and inadequate provision for the future.
§ 5.9 p.m.
§ Lord Kearton
My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to support the Motion moved by my noble friend Lord Halsbury. I cannot hope to match his eloquence, but then I think very few of us can. In addition, my Lords, I pray for your indulgence for what I have to say; I am speaking as one who has had some 40 years' association with atomic matters, and in fact an active association until 18 months ago. At various times I have had the privilage of serving under my noble friend Lord Plowden and my noble friend Lord Sherfield, when they were chairmen of the Atomic Energy Authority, and I think the House needs no reminding of what a vitally important and valuable contribution Lord Plowden and Lord Sherfield made in the early development of atomic energy in this country, a development to whose success the noble Lord, Lord Hinton of Bankside, has paid tribute.
To recapitulate briefly, consideration of the fast reactor goes back 30 years. The first small experimental reactor was built at Harwell in 1954, with a second following in 1955. These were of negligible power and were used to check the basic physics. To 210 explore the engineering aspects a power generating unit was built at Dounreay and brought into operation in 1959. This built up to its designed electrical power of 15 megawatts and operated until 1977 providing, as the noble Lord, Lord Hinton, reminded us, with valuable information. Before it was shut down, a series of quite spectacular experiments proved the robustness and safety of the fuel element design and also gave indications that the burn up—that is, the efficiency utilisation of the fuel in the elements—could be greatly increased over original expectations.
Using information from this Dounreay fast reactor and from the new reactor Zebra at Winfrith, a prototype fast reactor—the PFR—was established at Dounreay. I think it is fair to say that it was put at Dounreay because I advised the then Minister responsible for technology that that was a better site for it than Winfrith. This PFR had a thermal output equivalent to 600 megawatts and a matching electrical output of 250 megawatts. It was sized to give experience of component design directly applicable to a fully commercial fast reactor. The PFR was completed in 1974 and, reached full thermal power in 1977. Operation of the PFR in the past few years has fully justified the original design concepts. In many areas, design expectations are exceeded, especially in regard to safety and ease of control. I think it is absolutely indubitable that the fast reactor is the safest of all nuclear reactors and the easiest one to control.
In the work to date, problems relating to fuel life have been solved. It is true that the conventional generating plant gave rise to delays but these have been overcome. Most importantly, the reprocessing plant associated with the reactor has been operated very satisfactorily. Plutonium efficiency has been higher i than expected and recycling of plutonium has been established. As the noble Lord, Lord Hinton, said, the chief problem that remains is in the field of mechanical engineering. Some welds in the secondary sodium circuit serving the steam generating units have leaked. I differ from the noble Lord, Lord Hinton, in feeling that the causes and cures for the leaks have been identified. In fact, one of the generators which has been modified has been operating satisfactorily for almost 12 months. New steam generator tubes, which are expected to solve the difficulty completely, are being manufactured. Of course, more than one solution is being adopted as it is just as well to have more than one solution to a difficult problem.
It follows that the next logical step is to proceed with the construction of a 1,200 megawatt electrical demonstration reactor which could be the precursor of a standard commercial design. Considerable work on the design of such a reactor by contracts with industry has already been done. The design work has been progressing, incorporating all the PFR construction and operation experience, together with relevant experience from the AGR reactors. Further work on the PFR and its fuel plants will most usefully be directed towards optimisation of the design details, providing additional data on the excellent safety characteristics and in establishing performance data on components and fuel burn up beyond those used in current economic assessments. The aim would be, of course, to reduce the capital and operational costs for a demonstration fast reactor.
211 I emphasise that fast reactor work must be focused. I think that part of the delays to which the noble Lord, Lord Hinton, referred has been due to a lack of urgency among the team in the past three or four years. They have not known what their future is to be. They have not known where they were going and whether any Government will give a commitment to a fast reactor. In such circumstances things slow down. I repeat, fast reactor work must be focused. As the noble Lord, Lord Hinton, said, the current cost of the work in the AEA is about £100 million a year and I agree that this cannot be justified without having any firm prospect of a DFR to be built in the next few years.
The strategic importance of the fast reactor is not in question. Everyone has referred to it and the Government have accepted it. It is 50 times more efficient in its use of uranium than the thermal reactors currently in use. This country already has in stock 20,000 tonnes of non-fissile depleted uranium. Used in fuel reactors, this stock has a fuel equivalent for electricity generation of some 40 billion tonnes of coal—300 years at the present rate of coal production—without the traumas of coal production.
The question is, as many noble Lords have already pointed out: When will we need to realise the potential of the fast reactor? Twenty years ago the electricity supply industry was still extrapolating future demand on the basis of fast growth and assuming a doubling of demand every 8 to 10 years. I well remember the noble Lord, Lord Hinton, pointing out the obvious fallacy of this approach at an annual conference of the industry as long ago as 1962, and being met with incredulity and indignation from some of the delegates. In the event, growth of demand slowed down in the 1960s and came to an abrupt halt in 1974. It has remained on something of a plateau ever since. Six years of progressive forecasting after 1975 have in every case proved to be too optimistic.
The supply industry now foresees only a very modest shift from the present plateau until the end of the present decade, and generating capacity already exists to meet such a demand. Moreover, we currently have new oil-fired stations in mothballs. We have three long delayed AGR stations due to come into operation in the next few months. There are two new AGR stations in the course of being built, and a major coal-fired extension at Drax is under construction. Incidentally, and encouragingly, the Drax extension and the new ARG station are being built to time and within budget. This is a dramatic improvement on the experience of the 1970s and is a great tribute to the engineers of the generating board.
A PWR station, as we all know, is under inquiry and if approved will add still further to our energy base. The batch of coal-fired stations built in the 1960s, under the stimulus of the noble Lord, Lord Hinton, have a performance and reliability record which is now, after several years of effort, very satisfactory—I repeat, very satisfactory—and are expected to have a useful life of 40 years or more. It is clear that we have adequate power generating resources in being for some time ahead, even allowing for a conceivable growth in demand—in fact, enough to meet our needs to the end of the century.
212 No one can foresee what growth in electricity demand will take place in the early years of the next century, but it seems likely to be quite gentle. The need for new power stations in the next 20 years or so will be largely one of progressive replacement of today's stations. On present cost estimates, these new stations are most likely to be PWRs and availability of natural fissile uranium is likely to be adequate on a world basis for several decades. It is undoubtedly true that on a narrow view we can go slow on further development work on the fast reactor. I repeat, that is on a narrow view.
The fast reactor has certain special advantages. It is capable of acting as an incinerator both for plutonium and for long-life radioactive actinides. But it is still only relevant in the context of an accompanying thermal reactor programme. Until recently, it was thought unlikely to be competitive on a cost basis with a PWR. However, to some extent the cost conclusion is based on the uncertainty which is naturally associated with the first commercial realisation of a new technology, and the memory of past cost overruns in the nuclear industry and other high technology ventures. The pessimism, put forward as realism, could well be overstated. I, for one, believe this to be true. I also believe that if we could have had two or three people such as the noble Lord, Lord Hinton, 35 years ago, and put them on the fast reactor programme, then all his own doubts would have been quickly resolved. Then he showed an incredible capacity for overcoming the most formidable problems, and a capacity for inspiration and leadership which led to results being obtained. With similar leadership and inspiration, we could repeat the success of 25 years ago.
The key consideration for Britain must be that we remain well advanced in a technology which is absolutely crucial to our longer term future and to the world's longer term future. We have built up teams with an expertise which is second to none. The teams need refreshment by a steady injection of new blood and new enthusiasms. They are really getting tired: they have had a great deal of discouragement and they have not known where they are going. They need new blood and new enthusiasms, otherwise they will disintegrate. I really do not think that it is feasible to carry on as the noble Lord, Lord Hinton, suggests. No good people will go along and devote the best years of their lives just to treading water; they want to get somewhere.
While we should collaborate with other nations active in this field, they are currently only a handful and I do not accept that they are very far ahead. The only one which has got further in commercial realisation of the fast reactor is France with its Super-Phénix. Super-Phénix has many, many problems still to overcome which will become evident when the French continue operation. Some of the problems which have been experienced as regards the Super-Phénix we have already solved ourselves in the PFR
There is every prospect, given sufficient commitment by Governments—and I mean Governments in the plural—over a period of 20 years, that we could be the world leader in fast reactors. The chance that fusion reactors will take the place of fission reactors in any meaningful sense and in any meaningful timescale 213 is remote. I have kept in touch with work on JET at Culham and seen it very recently. It is some of the most complex and exciting work imaginable, but has served to emphasise the truly gigantic gap in this technology between experiment and commerciality.
However, a British fast reactor could be initiated now. I think that there is some confusion about what "initiating now" implies. A decision in principle to go ahead now would still mean 20 years or more of work before series ordering could begin. It would be towards the end of this decade before firm ordering of a demonstration fast reactor could actually take place. There is more engineering work to do; there is the appropriate safety case to be made; and there are the appropriate approvals to be obtained. But it would give the team an objective and a timetable and fill them with a new determination.
Once we started ordering—and a decision to go ahead today would mean that we would not start ordering much before 1990—it would take eight years or so to build and we would need several years of operating experience before replication. To meet the Government's own timescale, to meet Lord Hinton's own timescale, a firm decision to proceed is necessary now. The cost over 20 years could well be £3 billion to £4 billion—an average of £150 million to £200 million a year. This country currently spends about £25 billion a year on energy, and the Government tax take is approaching £10 billion. In this context £150 million to £200 million a year is a very small premium for the strategic prize which is there for the grasping. It is a premium which is absolutely justifiable. In supporting the Motion of the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, I urge that we do not shilly-shally. Let us press upon the Government to be bold, to press ahead now and pray that their successors will be equally resolute.
§ 5.24 p.m.
§ Lord Flowers
My Lords, anyone who has visited the prototype fast reactor at Dounreay will regard that reactor as an outstanding example of modern technology. Until February of last year I was, like the noble Lord, Lord Kearton, a part-time member of the Atomic Energy Authority, and I should like to say that the staff of Dounreay never fail to impress by their competence and dedication. They have been ably supported by many other colleagues in the nuclear industry from Harwell, Risley and elsewhere, who between them have had to solve a bewildering variety of technical problems. We can have nothing but admiration for them all.
We are, therefore, grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, for offering us this debate and we are very lucky to be able so promptly to comment on the recent Government Statement. Perhaps I can best help this afternoon if I speak from the point of view of someone who was chairman of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution at the time of its Sixth Report, Nuclear Power and the Environment. The report was not primarily about fast reactors but it raised a number of questions that were certainly relevant to fast reactor development as considered at the time of writing—that is to say, in 1976. Things have changed since then in several respects and I should like, so to speak, to update my views in so far as they are relevant to this debate. Of course, I speak 214 only for myself—since 1976 the Royal Commission has been busy with other matters under two successive chairmen and has not yet returned to nuclear power.
Let me preface my remarks by saying that the report accepted the importance of nuclear power to this country. The argument was about the way in which the nuclear power programme was being conducted and monitored, more particularly about the desirable extent of it, but especially about the way in which it was being presented to the public. We wanted to see it presented in such a way that, in almost the final words of the report:The ultimate aim is clear; it is to enable decisions on major questions of nuclear development to take place by explicit political process".Shortly after that was written we had the Windscale Inquiry into the reprocessing of nuclear fuel. This led directly to a very considerable degree of public awareness of what was involved, and to a remarkable decision taken by the House of Commons itself to go ahead with the new reprocessing plant. I have never doubted that the House took the right decision.
Next month there will begin another public inquiry into the pressurised water reactor system proposed for Sizewell. We do not know what that inquiry will reveal, but I shall expect it to contribute significantly to further public awareness of the issues of nuclear power. There are examples of the type of thing the commission had in mind when we spoke of "explicit political process".
As far as the commercial demonstration fast reactor is concerned, we have been assured by successive Governments that there will be a public inquiry before it is approved, and I hope that the Minister when he replies will confirm that that would still be his Government's intention.
I should like to comment, to update myself, on three particular points: first, the safety of fast reactors; secondly, the need for them; and thirdly, the question of radioactive waste dispoal. Regarding safety, our 1976 report described in detail what might happen in a serious fast reactor accident. We concluded that commercial fast reactors:could scarcely be contemplated … unless … reactivity accidents can be controlled so as to prevent gross fuel vapourisation. It is generally considered that present research programmes will lead to substantially increased knowledge of these effects within the next five years".More than five years have now passed, and before I left the Atomic Energy Authority I took particular pains to acquaint myself with the state of play on fast reactor safety. There is no doubt that great progress has been made. It is based on a number of distinct features: the accumulated operating experience of the Dounreay prototype and comparable plants abroad; the behaviour of fuel elements forced into failure modes in test rigs and reactors; and the development of powerful computer methods for predicting the behaviour of whole reactors as well as their component parts. Those are just a few of the factors that have entered into the business.
Fast reactors are in any case exceedingly stable in normal operation, as the noble Lord, Lord Kearton, has already said, and in some respects they are safer than the more usual water or graphite thermal reactors. For example, it has been shown that in some 215 fast reactor designs switching off the main coolant pumps at full power results only a slow rise of power which would have to continue unchecked for some 20 minutes before it could endanger the plant. That is only one circumstance; many others can be envisaged and no doubt will be at the promised public inquiry.
Therefore, let me say quite simply that I now believe that in principle a fast reactor can be shown to be at least as safe as the usual kinds of thermal reactor. In the last analysis, it is only in the design, construction and operation of the actual plant that the final safety assessment can be made; but that is common to all devices made by man.
So the fast reactor is safe: but, do we need it and, if so, when? That is really what this debate is about. In its 1976 report, the Royal Commission was not against the introduction of fast reactors as such, except on the safety score, which has now been settled. What concerned us were the wider implications in the long-term of a world becoming dependent for its energy supply upon international trade in fissile materials, because these materials can also be used for the production of weapons. We believe that insufficient attention had been devoted to this by Government and by public alike. That is why we recommended that:There should be no commitment to a large nuclear programme including fast reactors until the issues have been fully appreciated and weighed in the light of public understanding.These issues were central to the Windscale inquiry and I imagine that they would be raised again at Sizewell. In between there has been the massive International Nuclear Fuel Cycle Evaluation Report conducted by the International Atomic Energy and published by them in Vienna in 1980. This contains an exhaustive study of the link between civil nuclear power and the proliferation of nuclear weapons capability. The matter demands constant vigilance, but it is now in the public arena, and it is being taken into account in decision-taking by Governments.
We are also concerned that so much was being spent on research and development for the nuclear industry—especially on fast reactors—and so little in comparison on energy conservation and the development of alternative sources and uses of energy. I have to say that if we were meeting today I think we should still be concerned about that. It sometimes seems as though the Government are doing the least they decently can, especially on energy conservation.
Fast reactors are required only when the amount of uranium—if burnt in thermal reactors—is unable to sustain the electricity production demanded of it. But for reasons that have already been given so clearly and, if I may say so, so movingly by the noble Lord, Lord Hinton of Bankside, it may take as much as 20 years until we can contemplate serial ordering. It will take 20 years beyond that before the uranium requirement for the nuclear programme as a whole drops significantly. It will not happen overnight. Until then, the plutonium fuel required by the fast reactors has largely still to come from the reprocessing of spent fuel from thermal reactors. A commercial programme of fast reactors therefore has to be built up gradually and does not really make sense except in the context of a large nuclear programme, much larger than we currently envisage for this country.
216 Let me say, however—and here I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury—that I think it would be very unwise in 1982 to assume that we definitely shall not need to begin the commercial ordering of fast reactor stations early in the next century. In the past 10 years we have seen the price of oil soar for reasons beyond our control. We have seen a troubled coal industry in danger of pricing itself out of the market. We have seen political interference with supplies of enriched uranium to certain countries, and it has warned us of the dangers of a uranium equivalent of OPEC. There may appear over the next 10 years reasons for a fast reactor programme that a mere projection of economic forecasts will not disclose.
On balance, I support the Government's Statement as far as it goes. They wish to continue the development programme at Dounreay and they wish to explore the potential for collaborating with other countries. To wish to share with other countries the burdens of such a project is absolutely right, but it is a bit late still merely to be talking about it. We have been talking about it for quite a long time, but our possible partners in Europe in the meanwhile have moved somewhat ahead.
It seems to me that there are three possible courses of action. As a result of the programme that is now to be drawn up, the Government can make an early decision on the commercial scale demonstration, with or without international support; or they can decide that to develop fast reactors any further in the present economic climate is unjustifiable; or they can continue the practice of the last several years and simply take no decision at all. The last, in my view, would be very much the worst of the three. It would at the very least J be an insult to a splendid team of technologists who should not be left hanging about any longer. I hope that the nuclear industry will soon succeed in finding a meaningful project with a willing partner abroad. If they fail to do so within a reasonable time, I hope that; we shall have a chance to examine in this House what choices then remain.
Finally, and briefly, I should like to say a few words about radioactive waste disposal. In the 1976 report we said:There should be no commitment to a large programme of nuclear fission power until it has been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that a method exists to ensure the safe containment of long-lived, highly radioactive waste for the indefinite future.We were talking not about short-term safe storage of these dangerous wastes, but about their eventual removal from the accessible environment by disposal into geological formations. Because we saw the fast reactor as something that would only be needed as part of a large nuclear programme, this recommendation on waste naturally became attached to the development of fast reactors.
We hoped that we could spur the Government into much needed action on various aspects of waste disposal. Both the present Government and their predecessors met us on many points, but between them we have now got into a ludicrous position where it is largely the environmentalists themselves who have prevented research into the properties of suitable geological formations deep below the surface of the earth. That research would have involved a drilling programme and would have taken 10 or 20 years 217 before a choice of disposal site could have been made and the building of a facility begun. That would have been in time to cope with the waste from the expansion of the nuclear programme which many envisage early in the next century.
Now, however, the research programme has been halted in spite of the strongest advice to the contrary from the Government's own Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee. Apparently the Government are content to rely upon the research programmes of other countries. Unfortunately, it is the properties of actual British rock formations that we need to investigate and, for this, foreign research does not help. I beg the Government to consider whether some way could not be found to allow the Natural Environment Research Council to continue its programme of research into the properties of suitable geological formations. It will have to be done before we can responsibly contemplate a greatly expanded nuclear power programme, whether or not it includes fast reactors.
§ 5.40 p.m.
§ Lord Bowden
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Kings Norton, who was to have spoken next, has most unexpectedly had to leave the Chamber and has asked me to speak in his stead. First, I should like to thank the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, for initiating this debate which has led to the profoundly important speeches which have already been made in this House. I was tremendously impressed by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Hinton of Bankside, if he will allow me to say so, under whose lash the best reactors in this country were built. Nothing to compare with the achievements of the noble Lord, Lord Hinton, can be found anywhere in this country. We owe him a great deal, and it is wonderful to see him restored to health and contributing once more to a debate on this theme.
I have been profoundly impressed by much that I have heard, but there are one or two points I should like to make. The first is on this vexatious question of the safety of nuclear power. It is notoriously true to say that it has been very safe so far. Nevertheless, in America when the nuclear power programme was started the Congress of the United States felt it incumbent upon itself to pass the so-called Price/Anderson Act which, as I understand it, deprives the ordinary citizens of the United States of their normal common law rights to sue for damage in case of a nuclear accident. Instead of being able to sue the people who own, or build, the station which has caused the accident, they are obliged to seek recompense from a fund of 550 million dollars, established jointly by the Government and by the industry. Out of that the whole of the damages must be paid however great they may be, however culpable the owner, or builder, of the plant may have been, and however grievous the damages which may have been suffered by individuals.
This Act was passed before the nuclear power programme in America could start. It was renewed a couple of years ago because they still feel that without it they dare not proceed to build nuclear power stations. This astonished me when I discovered it. I was even more astonished when I read the Energy Bill 218 now before the House of Commons which seems—and this is the point I should like the Minister to explain—to insist that we have a similar limit, which was being raised by the new Bill from £2 million under the old Act to £5 million now for the total damages which may be awarded after any nuclear accident, however grievous it may have been and however much it may have been the fault of some individual or contractor.
If this is so, arguments about the safety of nuclear power ring rather hollow. The Americans passed most complicated legislation, and when I came to read through the Bill before the House of Commons I was baffled by the fact that much of it is derivative and cannot be understood without looking at all the previous legislation on the subject, and this I have not had the time to do. Perhaps the Minister could help us, because I believe it is important. If in fact we are so alarmed at the possible consequences of nuclear accident, the public ought to know it because it would have considerable influence on the course of the inquiry to be held shortly in Sizewell.
My next point is that all pronouncements on the Government's policy, and all pronouncements made by the CEGB about its programme, seem to have been made without any understanding on the part of those who made them of the fact that some types of reactor always work well and others always work badly. When I say work well or work badly I mean that those which work well are available when they should be, when power is required they deliver the power, and they do so without any trouble. On the other hand, some of the other types are not habitually available and do not work when they are expected to.
The nucleonics magazines publish tables every year of what they call the availability of the reactors of the world. In the last table I have, dated last March, there were 131 reactors altogether which range all the way from the very good to those in Three Mile Island which have not worked at all. The first six on the list were Canadian. The best the Americans could produce was 10th. It turns out that our own reactors are very near the bottom of the list, with the one exception of the Hunterston reactor which is a much smaller one that the big ones in the table, which are all of 500 megawatts and above. One single good Canadian reactor will, in the course of a year, generate twice as much power as one of the gas-cooled reactors we have in this country, even if they are supposedly of the same size. This of course has a dramatic effect on the cost of the power they produce.
The next question we have to ask is: how reliable are these new fast breeder reactors that we are considering? The noble Lord, Lord Hinton, has told us that over the last year or so the best that we have been able to do is about 10 per cent. of total time. Any reactor working at that rate is a very doubtful asset value to anybody. I would plead with the Government that they should consider in their future policy the basic question: how well do the reactors they are proposing to build work, or how well have they worked in the past, and how well can they be expected to work in the future?
The best of all the reactors in the world worked—I think that the noble Lord, Lord Hinton, if he were 219 here, would be surprised by this figure—for 97 per cent. of total time. This is much better than any coal-fired station in the world. It suggests that the best of the Canadian nuclear furnaces, if I can so describe them, are far more reliable than any coal fire that has ever yet been built in the history of the world. This is an unbelievable achievement, and it reflects tremendously well on the great care that the Canadians have taken over the perfection of the detail on which the success of their reactors depends.
At this point I have to diverge slightly because I come on to the question of the requirement for the fast breeder in terms of the exhaustion of the uranium supplies of the world. There is one alternative policy which I think we should consider seriously, and it is this: we do not have to stick with uranium. We can in fact use thorium. There are vast supplies of thorium in the world. It can be used in a reactor in much the same sort of way as uranium, although I shall have to describe slight differences in a moment. If it were so used, the total available power which can be produced using thorium and uranium would increase manyfold, probably hundreds of times in fact, and this is a possibility which has not yet seriously been considered.
We say that there is vast potential for power in the tonnes of uranium we have in this country. This is quite true. But then, if it really came to the point, we could take the granite on which half of Scotland is built and grind it up and produce uranium supplies. The energy in a tonne of granite in the form of uranium is often bigger than the energy in a tonne of coal. There is more uranium to be had than we think there is if we are prepared to take not very good ores; but there is an enormous and almost unlimited amount of power to be had by the use of thorium which can be burned in appropriately designed reactors.
Now I must come to the duality of my theme, which is that these Canadian reactors—the so-called CANDU, of which I have spoken to your Lordships before—can be adapted relatively easily to the use of a mixture of thorium and uranium. This has been established in principle and would be done were it not for the fact that for the moment their reactors are so good that they see no reason for diverting from their present policy, which is to use ordinary unenriched uranium. But if uranium became very expensive, they know how to take their present design of reactor and adapt it to use a mixture of thorium and uranium, which would then provide the world with all the power it would need for many hundreds of years.
I have been so impressed by this that I have talked, among other people—I hope I shall be forgiven for saying this—to the BBC, who sent a delegation to Canada (they arrived back the day before yesterday) and they are to produce a programme in the "Horizon" series, of which your Lordships may be aware, on these reactors and their potential. I urge your Lordships to make a point of looking at that programme—I think it is to go out in January—because they have a great many pictures and have had some interesting conversations with the Canadian engineers who have been responsible for the development of these extraordinarily successful 220 reactors, along with the possible development of the same reactors, using a mixture of thorium and uranium, should uranium become in short supply.
It is not possible to discuss the matter in detail, but I wish to stress that there is an alternative to the fast breeder, and I feel that I must briefly mention the history of the fast breeder. It was first suggested by Enrico Fermi soon after he had made the first pile in the squash courts at Chicago. He remarked in 1946 that the first country to develop a really successful fast breeder would establish an enormously important economic advantage. The very first power ever generated by nuclear fuel was from a small fast breeder reactor in about 1949, which, as far as I remember, produced enough power to light four 25-watt lamps; trivial, but it was the very first time that nuclear power was ever used to generate electricity.
People have been struggling with the problem of the fast breeder ever since, but progress has been disappointingly slow because the techniques have proved to be extremely difficult to master, most particularly because of the associated problem of processing the fuel, which has been expensive and often impractical. The details may be confidential, but I would ask the Minister to give what figures he has of the actual cost of reprocessing the fuel that comes out of Dounreay before it can be put back in. Is that cost normally added in to the total cost of the power which it generates and, if so, how does the bill then come out?
It is known that the capital cost will be excessive, but will the cost of providing the fuel also become excessive? Sir Walter Marshall's last paper on the use of the fast breeder suggested that it was not to be used for breeding at all but merely for burning up surplus plutonium in order to get rid of it. The fear is that we may have a plutonium dominated economy—that plutonium may be available by the tonne—though there will have to be about twice as much undergoing processing as will be in the breeder at any given moment. The total amount of plutonium needed to supply one fast breeder is probably more than our whole nuclear plant programme is now capable of producing.
For that reason, I feel it most important that we work out the total economics of the situation, including the cost of the plutonium, the cost of keeping the plutonium reprocessed and the very large capital cost of the fast breeder, which, of course, cannot now be assessed. I would only say that that is a very difficult calculation. It has been under consideration for years, and nobody has done it.
We could use an entirely new source of fuel to produce much more power than could ever be produced by the fast breeder. We could adapt a reactor which now exists, one which we could copy, and which has proved more reliable than any other reactor in the history of the world. I beg the Government to contemplate the idea, and they might be prepared to collaborate with the Canadians in developing and producing this alternative system.
§ 5.56 p.m.
§ Lord Sherfield
My Lords, first I wish to join other noble Lords who preceded me in thanking the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, for his initiative in moving this 221 Motion. Since the Government announced their policy about fast reactors in another place last week there must inevitably be some feeling that the debate is taking place in a stable from which the horse has bolted. But the terms of the Statement are such that a good deal of clarification would be welcomed, and it is possible to infer that the horse has not finally and irretrievably disappeared over the horizon. If I cover some points which have already been raised, I shall at least try to be brief.
As many noble Lords have pointed out, this country was first in the field with a fast reactor. I well remember my first visit to Dounreay, in 1960, to visit the experimental DFR. With my inexpert eye, I wondered whether such a complicated box of tricks would ever be got to work satisfactorily. There were indeed many teething troubles, but it did work and provided a most valuable test facility. Indeed, the decision to build the DFR in 1955 was an act of courage, both technological and political, and, as the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, said, the noble Lord, Lord Hinton, has a large share of the credit. Since then, the fast reactor and attendant fuel cycle programmes have been outstanding examples of successful technical development, and a corpus of experience in every aspect of fast reactor technology, second to none, has been built at Dounreay. Since then, too, decision-making in the civil nuclear power programme has, more often than not, been indecisive.
The prototype fast reactor, designed and built in the light of experience with the DFR, and with the object of testing at full scale some of the key components of the fast reactor, has provided most useful operating experience. It is true that there has been trouble with the steam generators. The noble Lord, Lord Hinton, dealt with that point in his usual masterly fashion. But why is it, I ask as a layman, that the main troubles with nuclear power stations seem to occur in the steam raising rather than in the nuclear side of the plant?
The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, stressed that this work is situated in Caithness, an area where nuclear energy and the presence of nuclear facilities have been, and evidently still are, positively welcomed and highly regarded. This, in my opinion, shows a practical good sense rare in other areas of the country. In Dounreay, therefore, a national asset of unique value has been created, and it is of the greatest importance that this asset should be put to use and not dissipated. The Government's statement leaves the question of which of these alternatives will be selected, to use an American idiom, "hanging".
Energy and resource forecasts are notoriously unreliable, and the nuclear industry has suffered from this unreliability more than most. Twenty years ago there was serious talk of commercial fast reactors being in operation in the 'eighties. Well, the economics of energy demand, and the course which the development of civil nuclear power has taken, have undoubtedly put off by a couple of decades the optimistic—though perhaps in the surrounding circumstances, not wildly optimistic—predictions of the early 'sixties.
In our recent history there are some awful warnings of costly technical projects undertaken primarily for political or prestige reasons, which have been 222 subsequently found to be disappointing, to say the least. So there is a prima facie case for the decision to postpone the construction of a demonstration commercial fast reactor.
Nor is this country alone in coming to that kind of conclusion. I returned yesterday from the United States, where the decision to proceed with the Clinch River plant in Tennessee is balanced on a political knife edge. The changed economic climate for nuclear power, and the escalating cost caused the appropriation for the reactor to be approved in the Congress last September by only a single vote. Now the issue is coming up once more in the Congress. There are, of course, other factors beside cost at work in this case: environmental pressures, technical reservations about the design, and so on. Incidentally, if the project is halted by lack of funds, the Americans may be more willing to entertain proposals for collaboration on fast reactor trechnology in the near future. But essentially, it is the energy demand outlook as much as environmental pressure that is holding up, or is likely to hold up, nuclear projects all over the United States, and in other countries.
Yet I have a nagging feeling that, even if the reasons are respectable, we may once more be following the wrong path in civil power development. I have thought myself for a long time that instead of spending so much time, energy, and human resources in trying to introduce a pressurised water reactor into our system, it might have been a shrewder move to press on with the fast reactor programme and make sure of maintaining and improving our position as the main repository of that technology. It is far too late to suggest going back on that decision; it is water over the dam. But the concern remains about the degree to which the fast reactor programme will suffer.
Much is made—and it has been made again in this debate—with good reason, of the view that commercial fast reactors will not be required in series until the next century. But there will not be any ordering of a CFR, singly or in series, until a demonstration reactor has been built and tested; the noble Lord, Lord Hinton of Bankside, said for two years, though it might well be three or four. The lead time for this kind of project is lengthening year by year. This point has been made two or three times in this debate, and I make absolutely no apology for making it again.
Public inquiries, choice of site, the jumping up and down of anti-nuclear lobbies, stretch out time into what must appear like eternity to those who are working on a project. So maybe there is not so much leeway before a decision to proceed with the CFR should be taken. Much work has already been done on a reference design of a CFR, and the impact on the nuclear industry is an important factor. There is some doubt in my mind about how long an effective and worthwhile development programme can be carried forward without actually ordering a new plant in this, or in some collaborating, country. A year or two may not matter much, but how much longer can a substantive decision be postponed? The problem has been thrown back to the Atomic Energy Authority. I hope that the recommendations that it comes up with will be made known and be the subject of debate before any final decisions are taken.
223 The question of collaboration with other countries in this technology has already been raised in this debate. It is an important one and involves decisions of considerable political difficulty. I for one will understand if in his reply the Minister may not be able to say much more about this matter.
§ 6.6 p.m.
§ Lord Hankey
My Lords, we have heard a remarkable variety of expertise in this debate. I find it difficult to believe that any legislative Chamber in the world can equal it. It is just under a quarter of a century since I first visited Dounreay, and the world's first fast breeder reactor was finished and went critical not so long afterwards. As we have heard, it successfully fed electricity into the grid, and was most valuable for scientific experiments. Later I visited Dounreay to see the 250 megawatt prototype reactor, and I have been there again since. Dounreay is an installation of extraordinary interest, when one takes into account the reprocessing facilities and engineering and research facilities that are connected with it.
When the price of oil went up dramatically in the 1970s and inflation hit the coal industry, the North of Scotland continued to enjoy cheap electricity for some time, because the nuclear plants at Dounreay were such efficient producers. That underlines one of my main points. The fast breeder reactor consumes the by-products of our Magnox and advanced gas-cooled reactors; namely, Uranium 238 and plutonium.
We have heard much about the dangers of moving into the plutonium era. We are in it already; do not make any mistake about it. But the plutonium produced in the fast breeder reactor is not weapon grade plutonium 239, but is mostly plutonium 240, and is not open to the same dangers. It is certainly a colossal bonus that our brilliant scientists and engineers—and I especially want to mention my noble friend Lord Hinton of Bankside in this connection—have invented a way of burning up our large stock of these by-products, which are now seen to have an immense potential for power production. I am so very glad that Mr. Lawson's statement of 29th November made much of this aspect of the matter.
So here we have a huge potential bonus for United Kingdom industry, whose productivity and ability to compete depend so largely on cheap power. I do not think that we are justified in being sure about the movements of oil prices or even coal prices in the future. I think it a very good thing that we now have invented this alternative source of power, and I consider that it would be very unwise to fail to develop it. But we must carry the work forward now and finish the job.
First, we must solve the remaining engineering difficulties in the steam generating side at Dounreay. This country has some of the best expertise in the world on generating steam. When one starts to probe the difficulties one finds that they appear to come mostly from leaks in welds. I cannot believe that if we make some effort to devise a new steam generating plant that is less difficult to weld, and with which more trouble is taken, we shall on our engineering side be unable to solve the difficulties. This is not the time 224 when we should lose confidence and fail to complete what we have already built up with such an immense amount of genius, time and, for that matter, money.
I have heard mention of the figures of £23 million and two years for doing this job. I do not think that is very much when you look at the enormous sums of money the Government are spending; and in the light of the long lead times which have been mentioned, two years will be very well spent doing this. I urge the Government to make sure that orders are given for this to be done forthwith, and to get on with it.
I cannot possibly hide my really burning resentment that successive Governments have let this wonderful, successful project at Dounreay drag on for so long. We have heard some evidence in this debate that the people there have not received the necessary support, encouragement, motivation and target-timing which would have kept this project moving, and I think that is very unfortunate. Every businessman knows that if you delay for years finishing a projected building or factory, the cost mounts alarmingly. Indeed, it mounts at compound rates of interest, and at the rates of interest we have experienced recently that is quite something.
At Dounreay, I think that our failure to press on has greatly discouraged the brilliant staff we have there; and according to my information some of them have already drifted away to our competitors. From all I hear, I do not believe we can hold the remaining staffs together to carry this great work forward if the real intention behind the Government's Statement in another place on 29th November is to put off without any precise date construction of a real commercial prototype fast reactor. Incidentally, I think we need one of at least 1300 or 1500 megawatts; I will say why presently.
I do not think we ought to lose time while we negotiate with our competitors. Our competitors are being quite active. They have every interest to keep us dithering about while they get on with the job. I do not like the last part of Mr. Lawson's statement. I have been a civil servant too long. It is that sort of statement which usually smells of dithering about. I really do not believe we shall get other countries to pay for Dounreay, and I therefore think there is no alternative but for us to get on with it.
This brings me to my next point, which is that, unless we do get on with it, British industry is going to lose what remaining edge it has on its competitors in this field. The French are very busy. Their first fast breeder reactor, Rhapsodie, at Caderache in southern France, started in 1967. It has been stopped down. Their second, called Phénix—158 megawatts, at Marcoule in the Rhone Valley—has had trouble in the heat exchangers (where did we hear that before?) but is due to resume full power at the end of this year. It has been pretty successful. The French are already well advanced with their third stage, which is a commercial prototype, the Super-Phénix. That is going to be 1200 megawatts at Creys Malville in the Rhone Valley. It is expected to start full operation in 1986,but the first section may very well go critical in 1984.
The French are very interested in nuclear power, and I happen to know that it was the hope of making a "killing" in this field which was one of the supporting 225 reasons why they joined the Common Market at its inception. They are rather closely associated with the Germans, whose fast breeder reactor, the SRN-300, near Karlsruhe, with Belgian and Dutch participation, has taken much longer and cost more to construct than was expected. The Japanese have had an experimental fast breeder reactor operating succesfully at Ibaraki, north of Tokyo, since 1978. They are well experienced already with nuclear power; and, indeed, they bought a power reactor from us about 20 years ago which I believe has been very successful and is still operating. The Japanese have also recently approved a plan to build a protoype FBR of 285 megawatts at Tsuruga, in western Japan, and I understand they have been in touch with us about that.
My noble friend Lord Sherfield, who knows so much about this, having been head of the AEA and also Ambassador in Washington, has mentioned the United States project at Clinch River for a 375 megawatt fast breeder reactor. For some reason this was held up by President Carter, but it is now to go ahead in spite of the small majority in Congress. The Americans will put enormous energy and money into this if they are not stopped by Congress, and I do not think they are going to be left behind for long. President Reagan, according to my information, has "made its expeditious completion a major policy objective".
The Russians, who do not do things by halves, have a fast breeder reactor operating at Beloyarsk, in the Urals, at a power of 600 megawatts—more than any of us, your Lordships will notice—and they already have a project for one of 1600 megawatts. I am told the Russians are having difficulties but I do not know the nature of them.
So, to conclude this part of my remarks, I say to the Government: are you going to let all these other people overtake us? We were first in the field a quarter of a century ago; and we still have some of the best technicians and engineers in this field. Will Mrs. Thatcher's Government let them down, like some of the previous Governments have, by not pressing forward? For goodness' sake—and I say this as an experienced diplomat—do not lose time on account of international co-operation at this stage, in hopes of getting someone else to pay. Use the smallest proportion of our huge income from oil to press Dounreay forward.
The Government Statement of 29th November looks forward to a series development of commercial fast breeder reactors in the earlier part of the next century. I want to say that this is exactly why I think we should get on with the next stage at Dounreay now. This has been mentioned already by a number of speakers. The lead times for these very advanced installations are really very long, 10 to 15 years, allowing for constructional and other technological problems that are sure to need solving as we go ahead. It is not just a matter of multiplying dimensions by 5 or 10. If we are to have any hope of being in the lead at the end of the century, I am sure we must go ahead now with a commercial prototype of at least 1250 or 1300 megawatts, as soon as we have cleared up the remaining steam generation difficulty in our existing installations—and I refuse to believe that our engineering industry cannot make better steam 226 generating plants to overcome this difficulty. Then, if there is to be any international co-operation, which I should certainly like to see, we shall be moving forward into the lead, where I think we ought to be.
Finally, I want to say a word about export potential. I quite see that doubts have been expressed about the probable need for electricity in the last part of his century. I have often found that economists tend to look at the present situation and to extrapolate from that. I do not think that, starting from the incredibly low stage to which all our economies have been reduced, this is a very good moment to go extrapolating anything. I find it impossible to believe that Governments will be able to tolerate continued unemployment and waste of resources on this scale, and I am sure that with international co-operation they will be able to find a way of moving the economy of the world forward. Indeed, I really think they have to do that; and if they do it, then it is quite certain that there will be a larger need for electricity. So I personally, very humbly as an economist, do not accept the extrapolations which have been mentioned, and I think we should be cautious about them.
This bring me to my last point. The best and, perhaps, only hope for this country's prosperity, I believe, is now to build up the new industries where we have the edge on some other nations. No one believes more than I do in international co-operation in economic matters. I was the last official chairman of OEEC and British delegate at OECD altogether for over five years. But it is no good letting other nations overtake us in industrial technology. Industry needs a steady lead and encouragement from Government; and successive Governments have to-ed and fro-ed and dithered about over our nuclear power programme. They have been worried by the ecologists and the environmentalists, who seem to me to prefer spoiling the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, a thing which none of the reactors is going to do. Governments have been afraid of offending the miners although Mr. Scargill does not mind whom he offends, so far as I can see. They have been backtracking on investment money and playing yo-yo with interest rates.
It is time that Governments put industry first. Industry needs steady conditions, steady encouragement, certainty that they will get help when they need it and to have a firm look into the future. Without the income from prosperous industry, we will never really cure inflation; we shall get only a low rate of inflation due to depression. It is important to keep the monetary equations under control, as the Government do, but there will be no real cure of inflation without development of the supply side of our economy.
Now here we have a new industry with very high, advanced technology, even now not far from having a lead over other countries. Fast breeder reactors will completely transform the economics of nuclear power production in this country. We do not need to order any more uranium for them. It does not matter, in my opinion, what the price of uranium does; although it will matter to other parts of the industry. A commercial prototype at Dounreay will, if developed now—and, I repeat, now—help us very much in the late 1990s, as oil production in the North Sea begins to decline and to become more expensive. I am sure that 227 it is right on all grounds to press the Government to go ahead as soon as possible with the next stage for the fast breeder reactor programme.
§ 6.23 p.m.
§ Viscount Thurso
My Lords, like every other noble Lord who has spoken today, I should like to start by thanking the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, for bringing this extremely important subject before us at such an important moment in the history of atomic energy in this country and allowing us this opportunity of discussing it in your Lordships' House. It is giving all of us in your Lordships' House a chance of hearing what has amounted to a symposium on the fast reactor system by some of the finest and best-informed scientific brains in the country and, I would venture to say, in the whole world. We must be grateful for that as well as for the opportunity which is given to mere laymen like myself to have our two-pen'orth in the same important discussion.
I should like if I may to note one or two points which have already been brought up in the debate and comment upon them, and in particular from the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield's speech. He noted that capital costs of fast reactors were higher than those of thermal reactors. He used the phrase "much higher". I draw the attention of the Government to a very recent report by Westinghouse, the makers of the pressurised water reactor, who have come to the conclusion that fast reactors are only likely to cost from between 6 per cent. and 8 per cent. more than pressure water reactors. I think that this is an important report because it shows that its competitors at least regard the fast reactor system as being a very viable system and one which is not nearly so prone to high capital cost as people originally thought it was.
I am delighted that this debate brought into our midst the noble Lord, Lord Hinton of Bankside. I regard him as my mentor and tutor in everything that has to do with atomic energy ever since I attended his famous lecture in the Town Hall at Thurso. I should like to give him the credit for the fact that, as has been noted by two noble Lords, the noble Lords, Lord Campbell and Lord Sherfield, Caithness does like Dounreay and the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority—because he it was who set the stamp upon how Dounreay established itself in our midst. He it was who by being open with the people, by telling them exactly what to expect and then by giving them exactly what he predicted, won our confidence not only in the industry but in the people who worked in it. I should like to give him that credit and my thanks and the thanks of the people of Caithness for what he did.
I thought important this call by the noble Lord, Lord Kearton, speaking as someone with wide experience in industry as well as an intimate knowledge of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, to focus and give a sense of urgency to the fast reactor project. I think that this is extremely important. He said that we must refesh our development teams and give the CDFR the go ahead now. I feel after hearing other speakers reassuring us on the safety and agreeing with the Government on the advantages of the fast 228 reactor system that we really are arriving at a consensus which asks for this type of action.
On 15th July this year I asked Her Majesty's Government whether they had reached any conclusion as a result of a review that they had been conducting into fast reactors. The noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, replied that his right honourable friend would make a Statement after the Summer Recess. This, indeed, I assume is the Statement which was made by the Secretary of State for Energy in answer to a Question in another place. The Statement, I am afraid, appeared to me as though it had been drafted for him by the script team of "Yes, Minister". I am therefore again very grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, for giving me an opportunity to try to probe below the surface of the carefully chosen phrases of the Minister's Statement. First, I should like to draw your Lordships' attention to the beginning of the Statement where it says:The Government has completed its review of the fast reactor"—Good! This must surely mean now that the Government require no further probes, no further facts, no further questions to be asked, in order to be able to make up their mind, evolve a policy and act. They may, of course, require some urging from us, but that is another point.
The Statement then goes on to reiterate the salient features of the fast reactor system which make it such an important and desirable energy producing system. These are facts which many noble Lords who have taken part in the debate today had frequently brought to the Government's attention and some of them have felt it necessary even to draw the Government's attention to them again today to underline them. I am delighted that Her Majesty's Government now accept these facts and even espouse them. I am pleased, too, that at last Her Majesty's Government have noticed that we in this country are in the world forefront of development and technology through the work being done at Dounreay. There in the PFR we have demonstrated the feasibility of potential of the fast reactor system and shown how to handle its associated fuel cycle. Then—hooray!—the Government have noticed that as a result we are in an excellent position to carry the programme forward and to prepare for the introduction of the commercial fast breeder reactors. Alas! there then follows a piece of pure "Yes, Minister". Failing completely to comprehend what they have said in their opening eulogy, they make the Minister say:when these are needed to augment our thermal reactor programme.It is not a question of using the fast reactor system to augment the thermal reactor system that we should be considering. It is a question of using it to complement and then supersede thermal reactors. It is a question of using fast reactors to supersede obsolete, ancient and polluting fossil fuel plants, and providing the new electricity generating plants which will be needed to put the people back to work when finally the world climbs out of recession.
I have explained all this many times to your Lordships and possibly at the greatest length on 28th February 1980, during the debate on fast reactors which was initiated by the noble Lord, Lord 229 Northfield. Nothing in the Minister's Statement shows me to have been wrong. Indeed, it seems that after a lapse of nearly three years the Minister is now able to swallow what I said. At this point in the Statement the "Yes, Minister" scriptwriters seem to have taken over completely. They go on to suggest a piece of pure Parkinson's Law. They make the unfortunate Government decide to instruct Sir Peter Hirsh, British Nuclear Fuels Limited and the National Nuclear Corporation to put their not inconsiderable heads together on how to make the work expand to fill the time available for its completion. They do this on a totally false premise contained in a following paragraph of the Statement. They assume that there is lots of time because the series ordering phase will not begin until the earlier part of the next century and that therefore there is more time, as they put it, for development work.
I wish to question this whole premise, especially in the light of the last paragraph of the Statement. That last paragraph tells us that the Government are having exploratory discussions with other countries to establish whether a satisfactory basis for international co-operation can be worked out. Indeed, the Government enjoined the UKAEA to take into account the possibility of international co-operation in formulating their advice and their plans. What they do not seem to realise is that such discussions will be totally meaningless unless we can show that this country has made a real commitment to developing a fast reactor system and is not merely paying lip service to it. We cannot rely in this matter—as, tragically, we have relied too often in other fields—on our past glories and successes. In the matter of power generation from fast reactors, it is what we are doing today and what we have before our design teams for tomorrow that counts.
It is a sinister fact that nowhere in the Statement can the Government bring themselves to make any specific mention of CDFR. There is only talk of the series ordering phase. Yet CDFR has to be built and run for 10 successful years before a series ordering phase can be confidently undertaken. Or am I wrong? Have the Government decided that PFR is so successful that they can jump straight from PFR to series ordering without any full-scale tests at all? I doubt it. I think that the Government are hoping that we may not have noticed in our relief that some sort of future has been guaranteed to Dounreay, even though it only appears to be the administration of Parkinson's Law. Other countries will notice, though, and if we come to the discussion table without a commitment to CDFR we shall cut little ice, obtain little co-operation and slip further and further behind the French and indeed the other European countries with which they are co-operating already.
The time-scale to be ready for series ordering has been set out variously by other speakers. I am afraid I am going to give your Lordships my own version of it. First, there is the "marriage" phase: here we enter into active and meaningful discussions with a country or countries with which we seek to collaborate. To be meaningful this phase has to be marked by at least a commitment to design and then to build CDFR. That 230 phase would occupy a minimum of one year, but more probably two years, before the next phase could begin.
The second phase, I call the "development" phase, the first half of which would be spent on the design of CDFR and on the necessary public inquiries. This half would take a minimum of five years and more likely seven years. Then would follow the second half of the design phase—the actual building of CDFR. That would take a minimum of eight years but, as experience has sadly shown us, it is more likely to take 10 years to complete. Then would follow the final phase, before series ordering could begin. That I would call the "testing" phase, which requires at least five years, even if all goes well, but more realistically ten years.
My Lords, if you add up all these phases you will find an absolute minimum time-scale of 19 years, but a more realistic time-scale of 29 years, before series ordering can be contemplated even if we start with a full commitment tomorrow. If you add 19 or 29 to 1983, you get 2002 or 2012. The first date is in the early part of the 21 st century and the second date is in the middle of the first quarter of the 21st century. Surely this is the "earlier part" referred to in the Statement.
Finally, I want to say a quick word about design teams, about our technological know-how and how these are affected by Government decisions, or the lack of them. Not all technological know-how either is, or can be, written down and recorded. Much of it is contained in the minds of people and is brought out and used in design discussions where there is continuity of design progress and of operation. This is where the French have been so lucky or so clever—however you care to look at it—because as a result of a clear Government commitment, they have moved smooothly through the phases of design, development and operation, first of Rapsodie, then of Phenix and then into Super-Phénix. That is why they have now caught and perhaps have passed us.
However, in spite of the doubts which the Government have allowed to accumulate around the fast reactor, there still exist at Dounreay scientists, technicians and others who worked on the design of the original DFR, who then had a hand in its operation and went on to work on the design of PFR and are still working on the operation of PFR. These people are nearing the end of their careers and are available now to pass on their invaluable experience to a design team working on CDFR. It is not the big problems which will be covered by their know-how: these will have been well documented and recorded. It is the mass of little problems which arise during design and construction that their know-how could help to avoid. Their know-how could thus help to avoid the unnecessary delays and setbacks, which are what cost money.
If we do not use these people soon, it will be too late. Much of our technological lead will just vanish and we shall slip a whole rung down the ladder in comparison with our rivals. Without these people and the continuity of development using their knowledge, we shall become less and less attractive as partners in a fast reactor development, and the value of our work and research will simply melt away like snow under the rays of the rising sun. Therefore, I ask Her Majesty's Government to give us a real Statement, not 231 a clever script. I ask the Minister, and through him the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, to give us a commitment to CDFR, and the continuity of development without which our so-called lead in fast reactor technology is merely a mirage. In short, I ask him to put his money where his mouth is, and to have the courage to believe in his own eulogy of the fast reactor system.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, before the noble Viscount sits down, may I ask whether he meant my noble friend Lord Trefgarne or my noble friend Lord Mansfield?
§ Viscount Thurso
My Lords, I assumed that the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, would actually speak. But I beg the noble Lord's pardon and I thank him very much for putting me right. I did not mean the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne.
§ 6.41 p.m.
§ Lord Ross of Marnock
My Lords, the House and, indeed, the country, are indebted to the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, for initiating this debate, not only for recognising the timely need for it, but for his ability for, at once, enlightening and entertaining, so that even simple minds like mine can take in some of the abstruse technical matters which have been concerning us today.
I could not help thinking as the debate has gone on, and as one authoritative scientist or ex-civil servant succeeded another, that I was listening to people who used to advise us as to what we should do. I began to wonder about the advice we had, because there has been a different emphasis. But there have been two clear points of agreement: first, about the vital importance of fast reactor technology and the need to go on with it; and, secondly, about the value of what has been done at Dounreay.
It is amazing how that place gathers so much loyalty to itself. When it was first selected in, I think, the mid-1950s as the site for the FDR, there was no great competition for it—"Take it away, as far as possible from London. Get it out of the way." But there it was welcomed, there it put down roots and there it has built up what is probably one of the most unique communities in the whole country. Locals there referred to the people at Dounreay as the "atomics", but it is incredible how that sturdy native population has knitted in with the incoming scientists. One lot is as proud as the other, and all are loyal to that part of the country. They have every reason for pride, for by 1962 they were supplying electricity into the grid.
Then came the question of the fast breeder prototype, and that is where I came into the story. First, the decision was taken that we should go ahead with it, and then there was a question about the site. After all that had been done at Dounreay, with a perfect safety record, there were one or two other places which thought that they should have the site. I was interested to hear the noble Lord, Lord Kearton, say that he advised somebody or other that it should be Dounreay. I remember the battles that we had in the Cabinet before we decided that it should not be Winfrith, but should be Dounreay. But there is no doubt that the right choice was made. With the same enthusiasm and skill, they went on with it.
232 I was interested when the noble Lord, Lord Flowers, said that there were difficulties. Of course there were difficulties and, strangely enough, the pioneering aspects of the fast breeder prototype were the ones that were more easily solved. When he instanced the SRUs I was very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Kearton, took him up and pointed out that that difficulty, too, had been overcome. These things happened at Dounreay. They faced and isolated the problems, they tackled the problems and they solved the problems.
I read in the Government's Statement, or script, that was produced for Mr. Nigel Lawson in another place that,The United Kingdom is among the world's leaders in the development of this technology."—[Official Report, Commons, 29.11.82; Col 2.]There was a time when we were the world's leaders, when scientists from all over the world trooped up to Dounreay to see what was going on. How have we slipped? And are we going to slip further? That is what I am concerned about. I am concerned about what, to my mind, is an unjustifiable delay in relation to Britain's needs and the world's needs, in respect of this technology.
The Government state that.In common with most other leading fast reactor nations"—that is a new one to me, but there you are—we now believe that the series ordering phase will begin in the earlier part of the next century, and thus on a longer timescale than we have previously envisaged.What other nations have made this same decision; and are they slowing down their research and development and their start in relation to a commercial fast reactor? I do not think this is true. This is why I tend to agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, in respect of this script, as he called it. I begin to wonder whether this is just a holding statement for something that may be even more pessimistic later on—perhaps after an election, but I hope not.
I hope the Government believe what they are saying, that:The fast reactor is of major strategic significance for the United Kingdom's and the world's future energy supplies.I think that every scientist who has spoken here today has underlined that fact. There may be a question about the lead time, but I shall come to that later. However, there is no doubt that this must go on. As regards the strategic reserve of energy in the world, we do not know what will happen in 10 or 20 years' time, but we are lucky in that we have a reserve. But a strategic reserve is no good unless you can draw upon it, and until we are in a position to draw upon it those words mean nothing.
So I should like the Government to tell us, first who were the nations that agreed with them that we should do this kind of thing; and, secondly, how long they expect it will be before we actually have this reserve which they say is of vital importance. The noble Lords, Lord Campbell of Croy, Lord Hankey, and others have given us their estimates of the lead times in respect of this, but they do not fit in with the kind of statements that we have here.
The other point that worries me is the Government's statement that they are going to hand this over. There is going to be a substantial development, yet 233 they cannot tell us what the substantial development will be, because the matter has been handed over to the Atomic Energy Authority, British Nuclear Fuels, the generating boards and the National Nuclear Corporation,…to draw up a future programme which makes the best use of our resources and experience.We know about the experience and the resources of qualified manpower, which are unequalled anywhere in the world. But what does the word "resources" mean here? Will they be determined by the Treasury? We know that the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority is spending about £100 million a year in fast reactor research and development.
I was very worried indeed by the statement which tells the Atomic Energy Authority that, in this discussion of a future development programme, they must take in the question of collaboration. Does it mean that development to the extent that is taking place now will be dependent upon that collaboration or upon what the Treasury is now prepared to give them by way of financial resources? If there is to be only a ticking over for a decade at Dounreay—I doubt whether it would last so long upon that kind of basis—the people of quality there will be bled away to other countries. That must not happen.
I turn now to collaboration. I was very glad that the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, mentioned the question he asked, because I had a letter from the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, about a supplementary question which I asked concerning collaboration. There has already been successful collaboration in respect of certain individual problems. Now, however, we are told that exploratory work with a view to seeking collaboration must go on, at a time when we are also told that those in the field are less interested in pushing on because of the time-scale. If this is true, are we likely to get collaboration on that basis? And have we not already missed the boat in respect of collaboration with certain nations? There is already collaboration between France and Germany and between the Netherlands and Germany. And there is collaboration elsewhere. Where are we to look for collaboration? I shall not get an answer. If, however, the scale of development and the speed of deciding on the commercial fast reactor is dependent upon that collaboration—and it may well be in respect of cost—we may have missed the boat.
The very considerable argument of the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, was that if necessary we must go it alone. We cannot wait for too long if we are to obtain this strategic reserve. Therefore I want to know how near we are to obtaining it. How long shall we have to wait for this future programme which is being determined by the Atomic Energy Authority? Today I read in the press that they could come along with proposals in about three months. The Government will then have to approve the proposals. Can we be told how long it will be before we have an answer? I think that the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, suggested that we should debate the matter to find out whether the proposals are adequate in relation to what we believe is needed. I hope that the Government will give answers to some of the points which have been raised in the debate.
234 The decision to keep Dounreay going is welcome. It would have been a tragedy had it been otherwise. But this must not be just a holding statement. We want advanced research and development, but research and development is one of the most vulnerable items when a Government want to save money. We know that to be so from past experience. I want to know exactly the extent and the quality of the programme which is to be continued at Dounreay. We have something invaluable at Dounreay. It must have been a Scotsman who wrote the first two paragraphs about Dounreay. They are so lyrical. It is said that as a result of the successful programme of research and development undertaken by the Atomic Energy Authority at Dounreay we have demonstrated the feasibility and potential of this technology. Having done so, we must not wait for 20 years before we make the first real step forward. Our engineering and scientific future in this field, in terms of world needs, depends upon a much earlier advance than the Government have given us notice of in this statement.
§ 6.55 p.m.
§ Viscount Hanworth
My Lords, very late in the debate it is always difficult to make any new points. However, my appproach will be slightly different, although it will reinforce a very great deal of what has been said. The history of atomic energy in Britain is a sad one. We were the first in the field, using atomic energy to produce electricity. Harwell was well ahead with examining and trying out on a small scale different types of reactor. But we have gained little commercially fom our pioneering efforts. We are now trying to adopt the pressurised water reactor which has been developed elsewhere. Surely we should have foreseen that this type of reactor would be required in submarines. We were also the leaders in fast reactors and produced a 250 megawatt prototype at Dounreay, unfortunately delayed, because of mechanical problems, by a year to 18 months before it became critical.
Many people believe that if we do not now go on to construct a 1,200 megawatt demonstration reactor—I underline "demonstration" because it is different from a commercial reactor—within the next four or five years, we shall have lost the opportunity. Though I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Hinton of Bankside, said about the problems they are now experiencing with the secondary heat exchangers, I do not think that this need delay the period any further, because there will be an inquiry and it is perfectly possible to get on with the design during that period. Moreover, with the French doing what they are doing and producing a full-scale reactor which we hope will go critical within the next 18 months, we should be able to learn something from them.
Even if we do this in time, all useful experience from a demonstration reactor will have to be gained until well into the next century. Experience with advanced gas cooled reactors shows how unwise it is to try to shorten the time-scale too much. A commercial reactor should not be ordered until the necessary experience has been gained. This means that such a reactor would not come on stream until the second decade or so of the next century. There has been general agreement, within a few years, about that 235 statement but it underlines once again that if we are going to go on in this way we should go on very soon.
It might be useful very simply to state what are the differences between a thermal and a fast reactor. I am not sure whether any speaker has done this. Certainly I have not heard anybody do so while I have been in the Chamber. I shall try to do this very briefly. Natural uranium has very little of the easily fissionable uranium isotope 235. To make the chances of fission greater, the speed of the neutrons from the 235 have to be slowed down by a moderator which may be graphite, water or heavy water. With a fast reactor, a greater amount of readily fissionable material is used—about 25 per cent. of plutonium. There is then no need for a moderator. Both types of reactor convert uranium into plutonium, but with a fast reactor it is possible to produce as much plutonium as is used up, or more. In the latter case it is called a breeder reactor.
As has been said, a fast reactor is at least 50 to 60 times more efficient in its overall use of uranium. Spent uranium from thermal reactors can give energy at least equivalent to an estimated 300 years of Britain's coal reserves if it is used with plutonium in a fast reactor. Again, I am afraid that I am repeating a point which has been made before. Such a reactor is therefore an insurance against probable energy shortages in the future, and both France and Russia have full scale reactors nearing completion.
The CEGB, who are governed by their remit of producing cheap electricity, are in favour of a full-scale demonstration reactor being ordered very soon but do not anticipate that the potentially more expensive fast reactor will become commercially worth while until well into the next century—as only then will the price of natural uranium rise sufficiently to make the higher cost of a fast reactor justifiable. All this is rather hypothetical because the cost of borrowed capital and that of uranium cannot be foreseen with any accuracy. Nor can the political availability of uranium be forecast—certainly supplies are not unlimited, as has been said.
It is true that uranium can be obtained from sea water but at probably some 10 times the cost of mining it. Furthermore, Britain is not a good site for this type of operation. In whatever way one looks at it, there is a strong case for pushing ahead with fast reactors.
What are the arguments against the fast reactor—because I have not heard them expressed this evening? First, safety. In fact, the fast reactor is potentially safer than the existing thermal type because as the temperature rises the nuclear reactivity decreases and the sodium coolant can do without pump assistance to look after the situation; not something that was possible with the pressurised reactor. However, we must face the fact that fast reactors have about 25 per cent. of plutonium mixed with uranium as their fuel. This will mean that when they are used commercially, terrorists will have a greater chance of getting hold of plutonium. At the moment, this is a negligible risk because the plutonium is locked up in highly radioactive spent fuel elements. It would be almost impossible for terrorists to make an efficient nuclear bomb, but they might just 236 make a "fizzle" bomb or, much more likely, distribute the very toxic plutonium in a vital place by using high explosives.
This possibility would be very unpleasant, and expensive to decontaminate. But this threat pales into insignificance, in my view, compared with the threat from developing nations who have, or will have, real nuclear capability. For example, what would have happened if Amin or Gaddafi had this potential? There is or will be an energy shortage in the future and it would be sensible that the West, with its more stable Governments, should exploit nuclear energy, leaving declining oil reserves to the developing countries. The use of oil requires much less technical capability and is much more suited to their needs.