HL Deb 15 July 1982 vol 433 cc462-4

3.19 p.m.

Viscount Thurso

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are aware of the key importance to the northern Highlands of Scotland of the Dounreay Nuclear Establishment and if so what projects, both in the long and in the short term, they intend this establishment to undertake to keep its teams of scientists intact and retain its place in the economy of the region.

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, the Dounreay Nuclear Establishment currently has a full programme of work in support of the United Kingdom fast reactor programme. The importance of the establishment to the economy of the Highland region is well recognised by the Government.

Viscount Thurso

In thanking the noble Earl the Minister for that reply, may I ask him whether he is aware that he has already indicated that there is no decision yet about a future for the fast breeder reactor, and therefore it must be assumed that the programme lying ahead of the Dounreay Nuclear Establishment is limited? Is he also aware of the work which is being done in fuel reprocessing and fabrication at Dounreay and can he indicate whether there is a future for the Dounreay Nuclear Establishment in this particular field?

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, with respect, the noble Viscount must not make leaps into the dark, particularly when they are not wholly logical. I do agree with him that the long-term future of Dounreay is of necessity dependent on the outcome of the Government's present consideration of fast reactor policy. I know that my right honourable friend is very well aware of the key role, if I may so call it, that Dounreay can play. He is equally aware of the importance of the establishment and its work to the Highland region, but, as I said in answer to the last Question, all this is part of the Government's review of their fast reactor policy.

Lord Ross of Marnock

My Lords, will the noble Earl agree that it is 16 years since a Labour Government gave the go-ahead for a prototype fast breeder reactor at Dounreay, so that we have had plenty of experience of that? Would it not have been better for the noble Earl the Minister to acquaint himself and the House with the fact that the safety factor involved in fast breeder processing is very much more reassuring than with other processes? Will he not under-estimate the value of this to the Highland area and continuing work there? We do not want another Invergordon further north.

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, I entirely agree with the last part of the noble Lord's remarks. I do not want another Invergordon anywhere in Scotland or, for that matter, anywhere in the United Kingdom. But of necessity conditions change, and they have changed in the last 16 years. That is why the review is going on in the way that it is, and that is why my right honourable friend is considering the future. As I have said, he is well aware of the importance of the present programme of Dounreay and any future role it may have in the local economy.

Lord Wynne-Jones

My Lords, will the noble Earl suggest to his right honourable friend in the other place that it might be desirable to look at the present programme of ordinary thermal reactors? Will he pay attention to the report from the inspectorate today stating that they are not prepared to approve of immediate progress with the proposed pressurised water reactor, and will he not therefore suggest that it would be better to scrap this ill-considered programme and, rather, go over to the fast breeder reactor, which is known to be safe?

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, I will certainly draw that to the attention of my right honourable friend, although, as the noble Lord will appreciate, he is going slightly wide of future work at Dounreay.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, would my noble friend also bear in mind that, given the accelerating programme in the development of thermal reactors all over the world, there are those who believe that there might be a shortage of uranium by the end of the century, and that in turn argues the case for the fast reactor being pushed ahead?

The Earl of Mansfield

Yes, my Lords; that is no doubt one of the factors that my right honourable friend is considering.

Lord Energlyn

My Lords, may I ask the noble Earl, as I have just returned from Dounreay, whether he is conscious of the fact that the research and development there have reached a point where they need to be told that there is something in the future? Should they not now logically go forward to the building of a commercial plant? Also, does the noble Earl realise that if this is not given to them we stand in serious danger of losing this remarkable team of men who have proved themselves to be not only so competent but also so enthusiastic about the fast breeder reactor?

May I also ask the noble Earl, in the light of the galaxy of supplementary questions on this subject, whether time could be found in your Lordships' House for a debate on this subject, as he has gathered from these questions the range of information we possess? In particular, would he not agree with me that what we need to do is to enlighten the public on the safety factors associated with the containment of plutonium and the safety of a fast breeder reactor?

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, so far as the noble Earl's point about a possible debate is concerned, I am sure that the usual channels, who are here and as always aware of the moods of the House, will make the necessary arrangements in due course. It may be that when my right honourable friend makes his statement that will be the occasion on which to arrange a debate.

So far as Dounreay is concerned, the Government's review of fast reactor policy is concerned with the programme as a whole and not just with Dounreay. As your Lordships will know, a number of possibilities are being examined. First, for example, there is the option of going ahead with an independent United Kingdom commercial-scale fast reactor, which I think the noble Lord was advocating. Secondly, there is a measure of international collaboration; and, thirdly, there is the reliance of licensing the technology as and when we need it. All these are options. But, so far as Dounreay is concerned, I repeat that my right honourable friend is aware of the fund of devotion and expertise at the establishment and also of the very great economic benefits that have been brought to the people in that part of the Highland region.

Lord Derwent

My Lords, why is it that scientifically-minded noble Lords always try to turn Question Time into a debate?