HL Deb 15 July 1982 vol 433 cc459-62

3.11 p.m.

Viscount Thurso

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have reached any conclusion as a result of the review which they have been conducting into fast reactor systems and into the possible collaboration in this field with other countries.

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

My Lords, the Government's consideration of the scope for international collaboration on development of the fast reactor is making satisfactory progress. When my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Energy has had opportunity to consider all the implications, he will make a Statement on fast reactor policy. The Government's objective is to ensure that the country has access to the technology necessary to enable the fast reactor to be introduced on a commercial scale as and when the country needs it.

Viscount Thurso

My Lords, may I thank the noble Earl the Minister for his reply? May I ask him whether it is mere procrastination, or whether further information is required before a Statement can be made? Secondly, in view of the long lead time involved in getting these matters started, can he give us any indication of which countries we are wooing in our efforts to co-operate in the international field?

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, my right honourable friend is not one of those who is noted for his procrastination. I anticipate that he will be in a position to make a Statement some time after the Summer Recess. Regarding consultations and discussions with other countries, exploratory discussions have been held at Ministerial, official and industrial levels with the United States and with the Europeans—that is to say, the French and the Germans—and contact has also been made with the Japanese.

Lord Ross of Marnock

My Lords, this is one of the branches of nuclear science in which we in this country have long held a lead. For how long has the fast breeder reactor been putting electricity into the national grid? Also, for how long has this review been taking place?

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, I do not have accurate information to answer either of those two questions. I will write to the noble Lord.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, will my noble friend enlighten us a little? He said that arrangements will go forward so that a fast reactor can be introduced when needed. Is he not aware that the lead time must be at least 15 years? This means that even if it were started today we should not have something until the late 1990s. Therefore there is considerable urgency in this matter, in terms of general energy policy for the United Kingdom.

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, I do not altogether agree with my noble friend. On the information that I have, fast reactor technology is unlikely to become commercially viable before the next century. At that time the need for generating capacity and the fuel supply situation may well be very different. The objective of the Government therefore is to ensure that we have access to that technology when we need it.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, does the noble Earl accept that the fast reactor is the only known means of burning up and getting rid of the long-lived radio isotope, such as plutonium from thermal reactors? The urgency is to start working the stockpile down now and not allow it to accumulate.

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, with respect, that goes rather wide of the review which my right honourable friend is making as to policy at the moment.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend why it is that we seem to know already whether or not it is going to be viable? Surely, until there has been a commercial fast reactor proven for a number of years to be safe nobody will know whether it is viable or not. This is what is worrying.

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, it is in those circumstances and considering all the various aspects of the matter—some of which are extremely technical, as my noble friend will realise—that my right honourable friend is still cogitating and will make his Statement in due course. But I anticipate that it will be sooner rather than later.

Lord Davies of Leek

My Lords, bearing in mind the phrase that some of these problems are extremely technical, is the noble Earl aware that the first report of the Committee on Science, and Sir Ian Bancroft himself, suggested that we should increase as quickly as possible the nuclear installations inspectorate? May I ask whether any progress has been made since that scientific report was published and made available to both Houses of Parliament? Secondly, is the noble Earl aware that since the Three Mile Island accident in the United States, confidence in nuclear reactors has decreased? Nevertheless, if we have to educate the public it is of paramount importance for the right honourable lady the Prime Minister not to move her chariot like the Queen of the Iceni, through the quangos of scientific people so that therefore we have nothing available. In other words, we have been cutting down the scientific information that was of paramount importance. In the beginning the nation already had a lead in nuclear reaction.

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, I fear that I have no information on the first supplementary question. I am very conscious that safety concerns us all. Therefore, I can give the noble Lord the assurance that if there was an eventual decision to build a commercial scale fast reactor anywhere in the United Kingdom, that would have to be subject to safety clearances, and I have no doubt that there would be a very searching public inquiry.

As to some of the costs of all this, I may say that the British programme has cost some £900 million since 1955, and that is why, as one noble Lord said, we are among the world leaders in the development of the fast reactor. The Atomic Energy Authority are currently spending some £100 million a year on the programme. It is a very expensive business.

Lord Wynne-Jones

My Lords, is the noble Earl able to tell us whether the Government are aware of the investigation carried out by the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis which only last year, after examining the position of fast breeders, said that so far as Region 3 is concerned, which is the whole of western Europe, Japan, New Zealand and Australia, it was essential that by 1995 they had fast breeder reactors in operation, because those reactors would be essential for that region before the next century? If they are not aware of that, may I ask whether they will study the report? If they are aware, why do they not pay regard to this very careful analysis?

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, I have no doubt that my right honourable friend and his advisers are only too aware of the efforts of this committee; but I will draw the attention of my right honourable friend and his department to what the noble Lord said.

Lord Denham

Next Question.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I think we are spending a very long time on this Question, too. We have been on it for just over seven minutes and I think we ought to move on to the next Question.