HL Deb 25 February 1985 vol 460 cc810-3

2.47 p.m.

Lord Ezra

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are satisfied that the purposes of the Sizewell Inquiry are still valid and what were the costs of the inquiry to 31st December 1984.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Lord Gray of Contin)

My Lords, the Government's purpose in setting up the inquiry was to ensure a full and wide-ranging public debate into all aspects of the Central Electricity Generating Board's application to build and operate a pressurised water reactor at Sizewell. The Government are satisfied that such a debate is taking place. Costs up to 31st December 1984 falling to my department were some £445,000. Other costs incurred to the same date in running the inquiry and recoverable from the CEGB by agreement with the board total approximately £1,696,000. Costs incurred by parties to the inquiry, including the CEGB's own costs, are a matter for them and are not included in this total.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that since this inquiry started over two years ago, the advanced gas-cooled reactors at Hinckley B and Hunterston B have worked very successfully, and that the construction of new AGR stations at Torness and Heysham have also been progressed with great success? In the circumstances, would he not agree that this throws doubts on the desirability of changing over to another nuclear station with which we are as yet unfamiliar?

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, the Government have made clear their endorsement of the CEGB's proposal that the pressurised water reactor should be established as a valid option and that the next nuclear power station order should, subject to the necessary consents and safety clearances, be a PWR. The CEGB's case for building a PWR is being examined by the Sizewell inquiry. The inspector has heard evidence on alternative reactor systems and will no doubt take this into account in writing his report.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, would my noble friend not agree that it is very important, on almost every possible ground, that the technology of the AGR should be kept in existence, which means further orders? Can he also say whether every time in the future that the CEGB may seek to order a PWR there will have to be another inquiry of this momentous, monumental and in fact wasteful style and duration?

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Lauderdale for what he has said. I would not necessarily agree that the inquiry has been wasteful, because it was the Government's intention at the very outset that it should be a wide-ranging inquiry so that a total debate on the subject could take place. As I have already said, the inspector at the inquiry has heard evidence on the merits of the AGR system. The Government will have to see what conclusions he draws in his report, and I think it would probably be inappropriate for me to comment further at this stage.

Baroness Burton of Coventry

My Lords, I should like to ask the Minister, on the more general question, whether he does not feel that it would be helpful if the Government would consider this whole question of public inquiries. In view of the time taken and the cost involved, not only to the Government but to the taxpayer and those wishing to give evidence, does he not feel that perhaps it would be useful to see whether some other system could be found?

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, this is a subject which the noble Baroness will appreciate has been discussed at length in many places. However, we live in a democracy and we observe the principles involved in doing so. Where a decision of such magnitude as this has to be taken, I think the general view is that it would be difficult to imagine a more simplified system.

Baroness Airey of Abingdon

My Lords, I should like to ask my noble friend the Minister whether, if at the end of this immensely long Sizewell inquiry—which has been commented on today by various noble Lords, and, as we have just heard, is extremely costly—the American PWR is ordered, it will not be the end of the British nuclear industry, with the consequence of the loss of many jobs of those associated with British gas-cooled reactor technology.

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, I appreciate what my noble friend Lady Airey has said. I take the view that to place such an order would certainly not see the end of the British nuclear industry. I think the British nuclear industry is in a healthy situation, and will remain so. I also think it important that we have a viable alternative to the AGR, and that is what Government policy is at the moment. At the present time we do not want to close options.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, would not the noble Lord agree that the option really now has been closed, or would be closed if a PWR were constructed at Sizewell? Has he noticed the fundamental disagreement between the SSEB and the CEGB over this issue? The South of Scotland Electricity Board maintains that, if a PWR is built at Sizewell, that closes the option for AGR, with all that that means for our own industry. Did the noble Lord also notice that over the weekend Mr. John Baker, on behalf of the CEGB, said that the CEGB, if granted permission to go ahead with PWRs, was planning to build between three and five PWRs by the end of the century? That would certainly close the option for the AGR.

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, I think that the difference of opinion, to which the noble Lord has rightly directed the attention of your Lordships' House, between the SSEB and the CEGB merely highlights the necessity for keeping options open at the present moment. Where we have two bodies each of which has at its disposal expert opinion, and that expert opinion is divided, I think the best thing we can do at the moment is to wait until the inspector reports on the result of the inquiry and re-assess the situation then.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, will the noble Lord confirm that, in the event of the inspector preferring the AGR, the Government will approach his recommendation with an open mind and not feel themselves in any way bound by the earlier preference of the CEGB?

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, yes; I can give the noble Earl the assurance that the Government will approach the report of the inspector with the open mind which Governments traditionally use on such occasions.

Lord Howie of Troon

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the electricity board's proposals are to provide a handful of nuclear stations by the turn of the century? In view of his remarks about keeping the options open, will he give us an undertaking to do what he can to see that some at least of that handful are AGRs?

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, I can give the noble Lord the assurance that the Central Electricty Generating Board has made no final decision on what type of stations would follow Sizewell B if it were approved, and the board is taking measures to help ensure that the AGR option is maintained at least until the end of the decade.

The Earl of Bessborough

My Lords, following on the questions from my noble friends on this side of the House, and indeed from noble Lords on the other side, I should like to ask my noble friend whether I am not right in thinking that Hinckley Point B, an AGR which we no doubt have both visited, has proved highly economic, and that an AGR could produce as cheap electricity as could a PWR? In view of that fact, is it not desirable that we should support British technology in this matter?

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Bessborough, whose knowledge on this subject I recognise. Would not he agree with me that it certainly would be very ill-advised for any Government to pursue one policy without having identified all the potentials of another?

Lord Howie of Troon

My Lords, would the Minister agree that the end of the decade is quite soon? He mentioned this in answer to my earlier question. Would not he like to substitute, "end of the century"?

Lord Gray of Contin

No, my Lords.