HL Deb 20 January 1982 vol 426 cc626-9

4 p.m.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (The Earl of Mansfield)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to repeat a Statement which is now being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Energy. The Statement runs as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a Statement about the public inquiry into the application by the Central Electricity Generating Board to build a pressurised water reactor at Sizewell in Suffolk.

"As the House will know, the Government are committed to holding a full and wide-ranging inquiry into the Sizewell application.

"In a Written Answer on 22nd July last year, my predecessor set out the issues which the Government regard as relevant to consideration of this application. My right honourable friend also announced the appointment of Sir Frank Layfield, QC, as inspector to the inquiry.

"I wish to give interested parties the earliest notice of the date of the inquiry. I also wish members of the public and their representatives to have adequate opportunity to study the extensive information and documentation which will be provided. I therefore propose that the main hearing of the public inquiry should begin early in January 1983.

"I have reached this view following recent consultations with those on whom the burden of preparing the principal documentation rests. The chairman of the CEGB has told me that the board expect to publish their Pre-Construction Safety Report at the end of April.

"Dr. Walter Marshall, as chairman of the PWR Task Force, will continue to co-ordinate the efforts of all the parties involved in the preparation of this report and will keep me informed of progress. The CEGB also intend to issue at the end of April a full statement in support of their application.

"The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate of the Health and Safety Executive have told me that they expect to publish a report on safety issues by the end of June.

"There will therefore be an extended period for the study of both CEGB documentation and the NII report.

"Earlier preliminary hearings will be held by the inspector at which those parties that wish to put their views before him on the general arrangements for the conduct of the inquiry and the scope of the evidence can do so at a time well before the main inquiry begins. The main hearing (and at least one of the preliminary hearings) will take place in Suffolk. I hope that arrangements can be made for the main hearing to be held within easy reach of the Sizewell area; an announcement on this will be made soon.

"The Government are convinced that nuclear power has an increasingly important role to play in electricity generation in Britain. Nevertheless, any specific proposal has to be judged on its own merits. The arrangements for the Sizewell inquiry which I have just described will ensure that the CEGB application is thoroughly and properly examined."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, for repeating that Statement which has been made in another place. We welcome on this side of the House the appointment of Sir Frank Layfield, QC, as inspector to the inquiry. The policy of the last Labour Government on nuclear energy was to have a continuous programme of nuclear power construction together with the development of the fast breeder reactor, which is essential for self-sufficiency in energy on a long-term basis. But the need for safety is crucial. That cannot be stressed enough.

We welcome the part of the Statement that says: any specific proposal has to be judged on its own merits". On the other hand, there is a strong case for moving to another AGR rather than the PWR. I note that the Select Committee of another place, in their most valuable report for last Session, in paragraph 118 said that the Government should decide to adopt a single thermal reactor type. The committee of another place was also dubious on the claim that the cost advantage of the PWR can be translated to United Kingdom conditions. I must ask the noble Earl whether these matters have been taken into consideration by the Government. Finally, is cost in United Kingdom conditions to be considered in this inquiry as well as the environmental matters?

Lord Tanlaw

My Lords, we, too, wish to thank the noble Earl for repeating the Statement given in another place. We also appreciate the delay that is built into moving the inquiry back to January 1983. Can the noble Earl say whether, as the Statement says that it will be a full and wide-ranging inquiry, if it so happens that it appears that the PWR is not a suitable reactor and indeed is not necessary by the time the inquiry is finished, it will not be pursued or continued with?

Secondly, when the Statement goes on to say that the Chairman of the CEGB has told the Minister that the board expect to publish their Pre-construction Safety Report, can the noble Earl define what is meant by that? As I understand it, the CEGB engage or commission consultants to make such a report. If the noble Earl could clarify this it would be very helpful. At the same time, can he say that the consultants' report will be available to the Department of Energy and will be printed in full and available to the general public at the inquiry?

I wonder whether the noble Earl would agree with me that this sentence in the last paragraph of the Statement is a little controversial: The Government are convinced that nuclear power has an increasingly important role to play in electricity generation in Britain". I do not think they are in a position to say this to begin with. The noble Earl will recall that it was only on Monday in this House, when repeating another Statement which concerned the unemployment of 900 families in Invergordon, that he said it was the very cost of nuclear generation that apparently brought the end of the Invergordon complex. I feel the State- ment could be enhanced by removing this rather controversial point at least until the inquiry has been fully completed to the satisfaction of the public and indeed industry as a whole.

4.8 p.m.

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, I should like to thank both noble Lords for their welcome to this Statement and the comments they have made upon it. If I may reply to the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, first, there is a great measure of agreement between the two major parties on this matter. The attitude of the Government is this. We want and think it is sensible to develop the option of an economic, safe alternative to our existing gas cooled reactors. The world has more experience of operating the PWR than of operating any other reactor type. It makes sense to ascertain whether we can harness this technology to meet our own requirements. Of course, I am very conscious of the noble Lord's point that that must include safety standards. However, the Government's case is perfectly clear. Each application to build a nuclear power station, wherever it may be, will be treated strictly on its merits. That goes for all these applications. I think the answer to the noble Lord's question is, Yes.

The noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, asked me in effect about the CEGB safety case which, as I told the House when I read the Statement, will be a document which will be produced in April, in plenty of time for the various parties and objectors to consider it before the main part of the inquiry starts in January 1983. This safety case will be a most comprehensive document which will be specifically prepared for the inquiry. It will be the work of a number of consultants and experts who will be engaged for the purpose. As a document in the inquiry it will therefore be available to all interested parties and will, as I have said, be published in full. Therefore, it will be open to objectors —or anybody else for that matter—to make what they like of it.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, I have a couple of specific questions about the inquiry. Can the Government yet tell us whether there will be expert assessors on the engineering and nuclear side sitting with Sir Frank Layfield? If so, are the Government in a position to announce who they will be? That question is not of course intended to be in any way derogatory to the inspector of the inquiry. My second question is about the admissibility of evidence at the inquiry. Will it be permitted to raise the question whether a pressurised water reactor is in fact the best type to use as opposed to an advanced gas-cooled reactor? Thirdly, will evidence based on matters concerning the accident at Three Mile island in the United States be admitted, bearing in mind that this is the only major accident which has ever happened to a pressurised water reactor and therefore the only one relevant to the inquiry?

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, the answer to the noble Lord's questions, basically speaking, is "yes". The arrangements for the inquiry are primarily for the inspector. I am not in a position to announce any names this afternoon, but those kinds of details will be released as soon as possible. Regarding the rules under which the inquiry will conduct itself and the admissibility of evidence, the rules have in fact been made by my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor, after consultation with the Council on Tribunals, and were laid before Parliament on 6th January; so this is what you might call a fresh matter.

Lord Noel-Baker

My Lords, will the Government consider, as my noble friend on the Front Bench said, that safety considerations must be pre-eminent? Will they recall that in the last three years in the United States there have been two accidents each of which might have resulted in 50,000 deaths and that, according to the most authoritative evidence, those disasters were avoided only by pure good fortune and human skill could do nothing more to avert them? Will the Government consider that the problem of disposing of nuclear waste is yet entirely unresolved?

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, the Government entirely agree with the noble Lord that safety and everything that goes with it is a matter which commands and deserves the greatest attention, and I have no doubt that, when my right honourable friend is guided by the report of the inspector before he makes any final determinations upon this matter, he will pay such regard. I think I must remind the noble Lord that, whatever our fears—and I think they are, as persons, justifiable fears—may be so far as the nuclear industry is concerned, at any rate in this country, the industry has a safety record second to none.