§ 6.25 p.m.
§ The Earl of Bessborough rose to ask Her Majesty's Government how far advanced is scientific investigation into possibilities for the application of thermo-nuclear fusion to the generation of electricity in Europe and elsewhere.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I think it must be some 40 to 50 years since nuclear-fusion first came to be studied in the East and the West, and indeed some 20 years since I personally became concerned with high energy nuclear and plasma physics when I was Parliamentary Secretary for Science with my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor who was then Lord President of the Council and Minister for Science. It was then that I visited CERN, which is the European Centre for Nuclear Research, at Geneva, and I must say that some of our most senior official and scientific advisers had some doubts about the ultimate applications of this highly important 538 European basic research. I remember saying to myself, "Yes, isolating the elusive neutrino, but then what next?"
§ I have no such doubts about the joint European Torus, the JET, the project which is so admirably described in brochures which are issued by the Joint Euratom Undertaking at Culham near Abingdon. The main brochure is entitled, "Energy for the Twenty-First Century". I am very glad that this evening we have persuaded the noble Lord, Lord Marshall of Goring, to make his maiden speech. I cannot imagine anyone who would be more appropriate than the noble Lord, Lord Marshall, to take part in this debate, and I am very glad that he managed to get back from Canada in time to do so.
§ In so far as the application of fusion to the generation of electricity is concerned, I have been more precisely interested for at least ten years, ever since the 1970s when I was energy spokesman in the European Parliament and urging that the JET should, owing to our unique expertise in Britain, be situated at Culham rather than perhaps at Cadarache in France, Garching or Karlsruhe in Germany or Ispra or Padua in Italy, though, as I understand it, research of this kind nonetheless continues in those places as in others, and the next European tokamak, the NET, might well be situated in one of those places on the continent. But I should add here that the siting of JET in Britain has considerably benefited British firms and I hope that my noble friend Lord Torrington, whom I see here tonight, may expand on this.
§ Had the Council of the European Communities not decided in 1977 on the siting at Culham, I believe that the "brain-drain" of nuclear and plasma physicists from Europe and particularly from Britain would—certainly my American friends confirm this—have been quite considerable.
§ In 1979 I represented the European Parliament at the laying of the foundation stone of the JET complex at Culham by Guido Brunner who was then the EEC Energy Commissioner. This centre, which was finally opened in April 1984 by Her Majesty the Qeeen, accompanied by President Mitterand, who was representing the presidency of the European Communities, has been hailed as the most ambitious project ever undertaken jointly by European Community countries. I particularly regret that my noble friend Lady Elles, who attended this prestigious opening and who is one of my successors as British Vice-President of the European Parliament, is not able to speak this evening owing to meetings on the continent, but I know that she would have liked to have done so. However, we look forward to what she will have to say on European union next week on the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Kearton, whom I am also glad to see here this evening.
§ I visited the JET again at Culham very recently and spent some hours with Dr. Pease, the AEA Fusion Programme Director, and his colleagues, to all of whom I am most grateful for the information which they gave me. At the same time I was most distressed to learn of the passing of its director, Dr. Wüster. I think we should pay a tribute to the contribution that he has made in building up this highly useful research facility and in creating a team of scientists and 539 engineers, which is a very important human asset for Europe and which I believe is unique in the world. Dr. Wüster is a great loss to this enterprise. At the same time we must welcome the new Director of JET, Dr. Rebut, a most distinguished French scientist who has been concerned for many years with nuclear and plasma physics.
§ The JET, as most of your Lordships probably know, is an attempt to find out how to harness the massive energy released by nuclear fusion—that is to say, instead of splitting atoms (which is known as fission), merging them together (which is known as fusion). To achieve that, the atoms have to be heated to extremely high temperatures. The medium used is an ionized gas or plasma, which has to be made so hot that it would normally melt any apparatus that was built to hold it. In the case of the JET experiment at Culham, the gas is not held by any solid object but by a magnetic field which holds it away from the doughnut-shaped machine in which the gas whizzes round.
§ Producing energy by magnetic fusion would cause very much less radioactivity than nuclear fission, and the basic raw material would be sea-water, which will provide one of the two basic materials, deuterium. The other fuel sources would be lithium, from which tritium would be bred. Lithium is a very abundant element occurring widely, though usually in low concentrations. Controlled thermo-nuclear fusion could thus provide a cleaner and virtually infinite method of generating electricity which is safe, economical and environmentally acceptable.
§ At present it is true that there is no imminent energy crisis. Some may say that we have abundant coal and oil in the world, but others believe that oil could run out in Saudi Arabia and the North Sea early next century, only 15 years on, and coal, although abundant in Britain, has, as we know, its own problems. Also, other European member states are not so favoured as we in Britain are in this respect. In any case, coal, oil and gas are finite energy sources compared with hydrogen from the sea, which can be considered as infinite.
§ I recognise of course that in Europe (including Britain) advanced gas-cooled reactors and pressurised water reactors are now making an important contribution as an energy source, and that fast-breeder reactors may do so too. However, in my view, in the long term we must recognise that we may well need fusion as an environmentally acceptable option or alternative energy source. As well as present and future Community member states, Sweden and Switzerland also participate in this successful and important European research project.
§ At the same time a great deal of work has been going on elsewhere in the world. It was in fact the Russians who developed the first tokamak. The word is Russian for toroidal magnetic chamber. They developed the first tokamak in 1950, but that was from an idea first conceived and patented by Sir George Thompson in 1946. How far the Russians have maintained their lead I do not know. Perhaps my noble friend may have some information on that point.
§ Meanwhile the Americans at the Plasma Physics Laboratory in Princeton, which I have visited twice, 540 and at the Laurence Livermore Laboratory in California, at Oakridge in Tennessee, at Los Alamos and indeed at MIT, as well as the Japanese at Tokaimura, have been pursuing similar research, as have, I believe, for some time also the Chinese.
§ Nor should we forget the work of the International Atomic Energy Authority at INTOR, which is the International Tokamak Workshop in Vienna. I should be interested to know how far my noble friend thinks that those countries, including the IAEA in Vienna and the OECD International Energy Agency in Paris, have progressed in their studies and researches, and what the prospects for co-ordinated international fusion research could be within the ambit of the IAEA.
§ At Princeton I have been most grateful on both occasions to its director, Dr. Harold Furth, for spending time showing myself and Dr. Cox, the Science and Technology Counsellor at our embassy in Washington, round his establishment and frankly discussing his problems with us. Dr. Cox and I were both impressed not only by the Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor (the TFTR) and their Spheromak but also by their work on lasers, which not only may have an essential role to play in igniting the deuterium-tritium fuel but may also have applications in the strategic defence initiative or star wars programme in the United States.
§ Already in the first two years of the JET experiment at Culham the current in the plasma has been raised to a record 5 million amperes and the confinement time of nearly one second has been achieved. I believe that in both those respects the JET is more than twice as advanced as its nearest rival, the test reactor at Princeton, which, as I understand it, has nonetheless achieved at least 100 million degrees Celsius for one-third of a second. The European JET is now starting the critical phase of attempting to heat the plasma to high temperatures, which will take several years to complete to the point when deuterium and tritium can be introduced and significant thermo-nuclear power demonstrated.
§ I should be interested to know whether my noble friend is able to confirm that, and also how long he thinks it will be before we achieve what the Americans describe as break-even conditions and what I might describe, in one alternative, as magneto-hydrodynamic stability. I apologise for the length of the word magneto-hydrodynamic!
§ I should also be grateful to my noble friend if he could tell us something about international co-operation. From my visits to Princeton I understand that as a result of generally reduced United States Government funding—apart from research on lasers which may have SDI applications—there is a desire for increased co-operation with colleagues in Japan and Europe, especially when it comes to the next machine, more advanced than JET or the test reactor at Princeton.
§ In so far as co-operation in the West is concerned, I see that a panel of senior tokamak scientists and engineers from the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan conducted an assessment of the Ignition Design Point Workshop at MIT in June this year and that this panel concluded that the present database was sufficient to guide the conceptual design of a tokamak 541 ignition experiment which could provide unique and highly useful information.
§ In my view, fusion research must be pressed to a successful conclusion even if it may have cost participating countries—or shall I say atomic energy authorities?—some £600 million in the 12 years from 1978 to 1990.
§ My noble friend Lord Gray may also like to comment on other fusion systems or ideas, not only magnetic but also, for example, the study of Stellarators now being carried out by the Max Planck Institute at Garching and what is known as reverse-field-pinch, which is being studied jointly by Culham and Padua. Then of course there are the large mirror machines which the University of California plans to operate in the late 1980s and the studies of inertial confinement using pulsed laser and particle beams.
§ There has been co-operation also, but I shall not go into it this evening, between the United States and the Soviet Union on fusion-fission hybrid reactor studies. But I am not at all certain—and my noble friend knows what I think about this—that this is as applicable in Europe as it might be in the Soviet Union.
§ I am very glad that earlier this year my honourable friend Mr. Goodlad, the Under-Secretary of State for Energy, said in another place that a substantial British fusion programme would be maintained even if, as in the United States, there has been some cutback in funding.
§ From a physics point of view there is no doubt that the research so far undertaken at Culham has been a success and that from the engineering point of view the project must not fail. I hope therefore that Community Governments, including our own, will do everything in their power to encourage and facilitate this research. My Lords, I beg to ask my Question.
§ 6.40 p.m.
§ Lord Marshall of Goring
My Lords, may I ask your indulgence for a maiden speech in which I would first like to thank the noble Earl, Lord Bessborough, for giving us the opportunity to debate an important subject? The fusion research programme of the world scientific community is a great adventure story. It is an attempt to tame the hydrogen bomb for the benefit of mankind. It is therefore an attempt on a massive scale to beat swords into ploughshares, and surely all of us must welcome that with enthusiasm. However, that enthusiasm must be tempered with judgment and with realism. We will hinder, not help, this international effort if our optimism is unrestrained and we ignore the real technical problems facing the project.
In this work on fusion, it is first necessary to build an ingenious device of one type or another which is large and complex and which, by means of electric current, creates a magnetic bottle in which to hold a high temperature plasma, which is just like the plasma in the sun. Creating that magnetic bottle requires energy in the form of electricity. Then we must both compress and purify the plasma, and that requires still more energy. Following that, we must heat the plasma by laser beams, by particle beams or by some other ingenious device. Once again, that requires energy. Therefore, in any thermo-nuclear device, we must first expend a great deal of energy in the device as a whole 542 to get a small fraction of that energy into the plasma itself. We must then hope that the energy in the plasma is sufficient to initiate a thermo-nuclear reaction so as to get back more energy than we used in the first place.
In the JET project as presently designed we have good reason to suppose that we will get a thermonuclear reaction which will give us thermo-nuclear energy but probably not enough to match the energy we will have put into the plasma itself It is conceivable, however, that an extension of the JET project, which I would commend to you, would give an improved thermo-nuclear reaction. We might then get more energy out of the plasma than we put into the plasma. But we would still have less thermo-nuclear energy created than electrical energy put into the device as a whole. If all goes well, we should reach this stage before the turn of the century.
Beyond that stage, we will need some new machine to make progress. And let us hope that that new machine is built by international effort even wider than that of Europe. It would be wonderful, and a real possibility, if that could be a joint effort between the United States, the USSR, Europe and Japan. That new machine, which might be operational in the first decade of the next century, might well produce more thermo-nuclear energy than the electrical energy we have put into the device as a whole.
Beyond that again, if all goes well, we might hope for a still larger and more complex machine in which the thermo-nuclear energy is converted to electricity. Then, for the first time, we might get more electricity out of the device than the electricity we have put into it. It is my best judgment that we will not reach that stage until well into the next century unless we get a chance to leapfrog one of the steps I have described to you. We will then have established by these successive steps that we can get more energy out of the plasma than we put into the plasma; that we can get more energy out of the plasma than we put into the entire device; and, finally, that we can get more electricity out of the whole device than we have put into it. Then, and only then, we can address the most crucial and important question of all. Can we get more money out of the device than we have put into it? In other words, can fusion be economic?
I must admit to you, my Lords, that my present judgment is that the fusion project will meet all these technical targets one by one but, in the last resort, will fail to be economic because of the complexity and difficulties of the technology. Let us hope that I am being too pessimistic. And certainly let us maintain a proper United Kingdom contribution to this great international effort. But let us also be realistic about the timescale for possible exploitation of the technology and realistic about the eventual hard test of the market place.
Let us also be realistic about the environmental impact of possible power stations based upon the fusion process. It is sometimes forgotten that a fusion power station will be radioactive just as a fission power station is radioactive. There is no great difference in the potential environmental impact that these two types of nuclear power station could make. The fusion reactor would certainly use tritium, which, because it is radioactive, would need to be handled carefully. At 543 a guess, we might expect technical questions to arise on the same scale that our Canadian friends have with their heavy water reactors. They are all solvable.
The material making up the fusion reactor is bound to be radioactive. It is therefore bound to give radioactive waste. It certainly will be possible to avoid the production of actinides and fission products and with luck we might be able to avoid the longer-lived activation products. We therefore may hope that the radioactive waste from a fusion project might be roughly comparable to that arising from the decommissioning of a fission reactor although we will not have the waste comparable to the spent fuel of a fission reactor.
There are no technical difficulties in dealing with these waste problems. The problem in both cases will be to win public acceptance for the disposal of that nuclear waste. I mention this radioactive waste matter most particularly at this point for fear that we mislead the public into thinking that this is a nuclear reactor that avoids nuclear waste altogether. The noble Earl carefully avoided giving your Lordships that impression. His was a very fair description of the waste situation.
My caution about the eventual economic success of fusion must be balanced by the promise of an infinite energy source capable of serving mankind in perpetuity. Therefore as this great scientific adventure continues I will wish to urge that the United Kingdom continues to play its full part in the international activity. I feel obliged to comment that the present United Kingdom effort is at the minimum credible level to do that. But we will be doing a disservice to ourselves, to the project and to science as a whole if we did not balance our enthusiasm for this work with the realism I have attempted to set out for you today.
I realise that it is unusual, and may even be controversial, for a scientist in his maiden speech to be realistic about scientific research. If so, please forgive me, my Lords, but, whatever you think, thank you for your patience in hearing me out.
§ 6.51 p.m.
§ Lord Shackleton
My Lords, in rising to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Marshall of Goring, I am inclined to think that we could almost close the debate now. My sympathy goes to the noble Lord, Lord Gray of Contin, in having to reply to a debate which has been not only very well introduced but so formidably discussed by the noble Lord. He is of course a great addition to the House. He is a relatively young man; another Fellow of the Royal Society to join our ranks, along with Lord Kearton and others; and a very distinguished scientist. I do not know where his present enthusiasms lie. I know of his earlier defence of the fast breeder reactor and the desirability of eating up the plutonium that his PWRs and others were producing. But I am sure that his contribution to our discussions will be very valuable indeed, and it is a question as to whether we dare put him on the Select Committee on Science and Technology or whether he will blow us all out of the Committee room on the way. However, there is no doubt that we are very pleased to see him here; and his speech was a most acceptable one to us.
544 I am not sure what his own responsibility is for JET as former chairman of the AEA. He does of course sell them a lot of electricity at the moment, which they probably appreciate. On looking him up, the only other matter which I can find in common is that we are both honorary Fellows of St. Hugh's College, one of the few colleges who do not admit men except as Fellows.
I was interested in his style because he has something of a sanguine temperament and he gave us a very balanced view. I think that there is very little that I need to say beyond asking Lord Gray to deal with some of the questions.
I was interested in the noble Lord's comment on radioactivity. At least I understand that the amount of long-lasting radioactive material may be less than in the case of some of the existing reactors and that there may not be the problem. Perhaps Lord Gray would comment on this. A great deal will depend upon the engineering and the materials used, quite apart from the tritium which will be a source of radioactivity. It is fair to say that for once the British are playing a full part in the Community role, and it is depressing when we see our failure to continue the deep-sea drilling to think that even this particular operation might in 1990 be at risk. It is difficult to defend JET simply on the grounds that they produce an extraordinarily good European school—which is an attractive element within the general equation of these activities—but there is no doubt that we should have lost quite a lot of our scientists who now work happily at JET and who, among other things, are able to place some quite valuable orders and contribute to our technology in this country, which otherwise might not be possible. I think therefore that Lord Bessborough can be thankful. He, like Lord Ironside and others, played a large part in the early days in ensuring that JET came to this country.
Owing to the lateness of the hour—which is the kind of phrase that 25 years ago we would have used with horror, whereas this is now relatively moderate—there is very little more that I need to say other than to wish success to those very dedicated scientists, Dr. Pease and others, at JET—who speak so freely and are so willing to advise us—and the properly considered support of your Lordships' House.
§ 6.55 p.m.
§ Baroness Airey of Abingdon
My Lords, Culham has played a large part in my life for more than 20 years and, although it was just over the border of my husband's constituency, a very large number of the eminent scientists who worked there lived in our area, what was then North Berkshire and is now mostly called Oxfordshire. We had many friends among them. I have therefore listened with particular interest to your Lordships' learned speeches this evening and I join with many other noble Lords—and I am sure with the noble Lords who have yet to speak—in thanking my noble friend Lord Bessborough for introducing this Unstarred Question this evening.
I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Marshall of Goring—I am tempted to say my noble friend of long standing—on his most erudite maiden speech. Out of the many remarks he made I was particularly touched 545 and moved with the sentence almost at the beginning of his speech, about "Swords into ploughshares" and "faith in the future". We shall look forward very much to hearing the noble Lord, Lord Marshall, in this House in the future.
I do not myself feel competent to comment on the specialist scientific details which are being so ably expressed this evening, but I should like to touch on two matters which I believe to be of great importance. The first is that in this country—and I do not believe I am exaggerating—we have a genius for invention, and particularly for scientific invention. But, unlike other countries, we do not always recognise this sufficiently to give the necessary financial backing for the research and development. Your Lordships may recall that I pressed this matter with much support from all parties for the adoption of the British AGR power station. However, it must be a matter of great satisfaction that Culham Establishment was chosen to host this important project of JET, with its unrivalled facilities which I believe induced our scientists and those eminent foreign scientists to assemble at Culham.
My second point is about employment. I am sure that your Lordships on all sides will agree that this is a great matter of importance to all of us in this country. If Culham had not been chosen, there would, I believe, have been a disastrous brain drain to America or elsewhere of our inventors and our scientists. I believe that they would have gone despite the marvellous initial work which they have already achieved here. In addition there would have been serious losses to our local and wider British economy.
JET—which of course your Lordships know is the Joint European Torus—has already resulted in orders of some £95 million with United Kingdom industry, including the United Kingdom AEA, and since 1978 the total I believe has been about £220 million. Currently, there are about 600 non-industrial staff working on the JET site, including 430 team posts and contractors, and the benefit of course does not include the money spent on goods and services by the influx of people into what I like to call—because I still live around there—"our part of the world".
It is, I believe, a great success story and one of which we may be very proud. It is the reason that I have pressed in the past, and shall continue to press in the future, for the adoption of the British invented and constructed AGR power station. Despite the success of Hinkley B and Hunterston B during the last coal strike, the failure to make a definite decision to place orders for AGRs has already caused 1,200 redundancies at Gateshead and considerable loss of jobs at Stockport and Renfrew in factories specifically created to manufacture these relevant components. Let us, as at Culham, with foresight for the future of our grandchildren—because I realise that a project like JET must look to the far future—back our British genius and our British workforce.
§ 7.2 p.m.
§ Lord Ironside
My Lords, I should like to thank my noble friend Lord Bessborough for tabling this Unstarred Question this evening because I think that it is again time for us to take stock of the progress being 546 made with fusion research. However, first, I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Marshall of Goring, on his expert maiden speech. None of your Lordships can say that his remarks on fusion were confusing. Indeed, they were instructive, inspiring and they were also admirably realistic. Energy out must exceed energy in, and there must be an energy gain. I think that we can say in this House that we have gained the noble Lord, Lord Marshall of Goring, and I hope that we shall be able to hear him again making a contribution in our debates on energy matters.
We are investing a great deal of money, and the lead time into a commercially viable fusion reactor option extends well out into the next century, as the noble Lord, Lord Marshall, has said. However, unlike many other endeavours such as fuel cells and biotechnology, where there are many spin-offs along the line, fusion means going to the end of the line—you either get it or you do not; you cannot pick up any of the benefits half way along.
Like the noble Earl, Lord Bessborough, I have taken an interest in the EEC fusion programme since the question of siting the JET project was proposed by the commission in 1976 and the Select Committee on European Legislation in this House—of which I was a member at the time—inquired into the proposal. Noble Lords will recall that there was great concern over siting JET at the Joint Research Centre at Ispra in Italy, as we felt that our bid for Culham was unassailable at the time. On behalf of the committee I visited the JRC at Ispra and the Max Planck Institute at Garching with the late Lord Hinton to judge the issues for ourselves and to see whether the EEC proposal was sustainable and why Culham was not favoured. Both establishments opened their doors to us and we had wide-ranging discussions with management, the unions and the educationists.
It was not until we had visited the European school at Varese—and the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, mentioned the European school—that we realised the importance that EEC employees placed on the proper education of their children and the high standards that they demanded. A European stream in a comprehensive was being proposed by the Socialist Government at the time, and that just was not sufficient inducement for commission staff to work in England. Moreover, as my noble friend knows, the Government decision to set up a European school was instrumental in bringing JET to Culham, It is important to realise that JET is the first EEC project to come to England, and I welcome it. It has been a success all the way.
Possibly one other reason why the JET experiment is more suited to the United Kingdom is that the Ispra region suffered some earth tremors at the time the sites were being considered and those tremors were also felt at Garching. In fact one of the crystal containers in, I think, the Stellerator experiment, was shattered, and that perhaps was one good reason why expensive experimental equipment like JET should be sited in a stable place like Culham.
I should therefore like to ask the Minister how the school is now developing and what plans he' has for expansion and catering for a wider cross-section of the business and scientific community as in Varese, instead of just the children of employees of 547 international organisations such as the EEC and the European Meteorological Office at Bracknell.
It is heartening to read in the JET annual reports about the achievements in setting up the test rig and in carrying out experiments on time and to cost, and to see the way in which information is exchanged on the international network between countries working on the fusion task. Here in Europe we are committed to the international Tokamak research school of thinking through magnetic confinement, rather than the other school involving inertial confinement and laser beams.
The Lawson criterion for conditions needed for fusion reactions to take place—that is to say, getting the right product of temperature (up to 100 million degrees Celsius); plasma density and confinement time—more or less implies that magnetic confinement (that is, the bottling process mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Marshall) is the best bet. However, I hope that my noble friend the Minister can say what is the status of inertial confinement at the moment and what progress is being made on the US Saturn project. I should like to know what values to attach to this alternative approach to fusion and at what point we have to make up our minds which system to opt for, if we have to do that, bearing in mind that a decision on constructing NET—the Next European Torus—which involves super-conducting magnetic confinement, is due to be taken in 1991. This country has a most important part to play with this technology, which comes from that innovative area of England, the North-East—Newcastle—which has already produced people like Parsons and Swan.
I should like to mention two particular aspects of JET which concern me and I hope that the Minister can give assurances about them. The CEGB supplies power directly to JET, and the demands made on the grid network—the super-grid network of 400,000 volts—even taking into account the flywheel storage, are sudden and immense. With these sudden shocks to the system, is the network at risk at any time, and as JET demand and loads increase, can the CEGB still deliver with pulses called for, as I understand it, every 10 minutes or so?
When JET moves on to the deuterium-tritium experiments planned for 1989—if they are justified, and by all accounts I believe that they are—these will depend on the realisation of the tritium handling laboratory at the Joint Research Centre in Ispra. Has the case for this laboratory now been made? Does the United Kingdom support it? It seems to be a vital step in the fusion programme and the JET project, if scientific work is to remain on target and cost.
Despite the long-term advantages, very few of the new technologies like wind generation, fuel cells, combined heat and power and geothermal are likely to be deployed extensively enough to make a significant contribution to power generation. Only fusion offers this hope in the long term. I believe our support of the EC programme must continue.
§ 7.10 p.m.
The Earl of Halsbury
My Lords, in common with all those who have spoken I should like to thank the noble Earl for having given us the opportunity to talk 548 about this subject. I must offer him my apologies for missing the first few minutes of his speech, but as he did me the courtesy of providing a copy of it in advance of the event I do not think I missed anything.
It is right and appropriate that from these Cross-Benches I should congratulate our latest recruit, my noble friend Lord Marshall of Goring, on a wise, witty and modest maiden speech fully conformable to the traditions of your Lordships' House. Quite clearly on the technical front it was wise. In his warnings to us against euphoria it was modest. As to wit, there was a sparkle about his opening passages which augur well for the future. I am sure we all look forward to hearing him again on many occasions. I am glad that he came down plonk on the side of internationalism.
I was talked into internationalism long years ago by a combination of Niels Bohr and the late Lord Blackett. I have been an internationalist ever since. In so far as I have any criticisms of big science it is that we are trying to do too much locally with local resources instead of conserving it for international efforts.
I wish to say something about a point of ambivalence in relation to big science of which Culham and JET are good examples. There are two things involved in big science: one is the construction of a piece of very advanced engineering and the other is the application of that construct to some field of subject matter which has only an indirect connection with the advanced engineering which is incorporated in the apparatus. Furthermore, the advance in engineering may overflow widely. A good example would be the first Fairy-Ferranti computer-controlled milling machine where the hydrostatic bearings were a development of what was originally designed for the giant telescope on Mount Palomar. It is a good example of big science overflowing in the engineering field into applications which were never originally contemplated.
I had a good example of this some years ago, if your Lordships will bear with a little narrative. During the course of the 20 or so years when I saw service with what is now the Science and Engineering Research Council—previously the Science Research Council and before that the DSIR Advisory Council—I had occasion to make a state visit to the Royal Observatory, not at Greenwich, not at Herstmonceaux, but at Edinburgh.
There I talked to the professor of astronomy. I said, "You seem to have a very flourishing school with a lot of students. Tell me, how many of these students will end up as professional astronomers?" He said, "Not 1 per cent.". I said, "What is the justification for employing so many people in the study of astronomy?" He said, "There are two justifications: first the tradition of the university is that we are willing to teach those who want to learn and as long as this number of people want to learn astronomy, astronomy is what we will teach them. That is the first point, but do not suppose it ends there. Every one of my students leaves my school as a fully qualified expert spectroscopist who can earn his living in any branch of industry where spectroscopy is employed". The spectroscope in physics and chemistry is what the microscope is to biology. It is the great tool that allows 549 one to look inside atoms, whether it is X-ray spectroscopy, ultraviolet or infrared; whether one is looking into atoms or molecules, it is the key tool. Learning astronomy was an opportunity to be trained in the professional use of this one key tool which could be employed anywhere.
I did a lot of thinking about that conversation. I looked outwards to all the big science with which I have been concerned in my life as one of the givers of the loaves and fishes by kind permission of the Treasury; Peer review it is called. I think of the Jodrell Bank telescope. I think of some of the big computer projects in which I have been involved. I think of the initial decision to start CERN and to build the intersecting storage rings and I should like to review these very big projects. Let us take CERN and the Rutherford laboratory. They are exercises in the most advanced control engineering of their day. They are exercises in the most advanced material science of their day. They are exercises in the most advanced computer applications of their day. The number of people trained in these—I call them the birds of passage—is very much more important in a way than the resident population of those who form the permanent staff of these big organisations.
Space exploration, my Lords. One cannot land a rocket on the moon or take off again by hand. It has to be controlled by a computer. One must have a totally reliable small computer capable of being carried in a rocket. That was the motive to develop all the advanced circuitry which is the basis of the computers that our children play with when they are learning arithmetic.
Thus I come to Culham and JET. I went to talk to Dr. Pease at Culham the week before last to see what I could do by way of quantifying the birds of passage that go through Culham and receive a good training in the most advanced engineering applications characteristic of this magnificent project. It would appear that there is a permanent population of birds of passage of about 100. Some of them are holiday students staying there for only 48 days in a year or something like that, but some are there for two years. If one supposes that one year might be characteristic of their residence time then over a 10-year period 1,000 people would go through the ambience where this advanced engineering is taking place and get a training and have opportunities to work either as subordinates or colleagues with some of the most skilled imaginative scientific minds of their day and age.
This is something that we ought to learn to quantify. We must not think of these projects as perhaps an investment made for posterity. People often criticise the doing of things for posterity by asking the somewhat cynical question, "What did posterity ever for do me?" What posterity is doing for me now in this day and age through JET is to develop new control engineering devices, new materials and a new outlook. Unless we were doing it we should be working in a vacuum, not the vacuum of outer space but the vacuum that comes from a total lack of ideas.
One cannot say, "Let us go and do some high technology. Let us do some advanced engineering". One has to engineer some thing. The late Lord Blackett always used to say that the product of science is knowledge—the knowledge of how something works 550 or something to be understood or something to be constructed. But one must have a target at the end of the road: it must be a CERN, a JET or something one is going to make.
One worry I have—and I hope the noble Lord. Lord Gray of Contin, will take this seriously—is the budgetary side of Culham and JET. They are only provided for five years ahead: there is no budget beyond the year 1990. This is too big a project to allow the people working on it not to know what is their future for more than five years ahead. That is not good enough. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Gray of Contin, will take this problem very seriously to see what can be done.
I do not want to be non-constructive. If one criticises something one must have an alternative. I believe there is a job here for the SERC, or possibly our own Select Committee on Science and Technology, to quantify the birds of passage through all these great enterprises and to find out where all the Ph.D students who go in for nuclear physics go after they have gained their Ph.Ds. They do not go permanently into CERN or to Rutherford. They do other things, and we ought to know what other things they do. This might be a joint enterprise for the SERC and the Select Committee on Science and Technology. Field studies on demographic lines are dull things for anybody to have to undertake, but they are extremely important and I hope that this aspect of Culham and JET as training grounds in advanced engineering for our young people is something that will not be forgotten.
§ 7.20 p.m.
§ Viscount Torrington
My Lords, I rather shamefacedly have to admit, and it does not say much for my investigative powers, that I spent three years at Oxford as a student in a science subject and frequently passed the gates of Culham without ever finding out what went on there—I mean Culham, not Oxford!
I am therefore particularly grateful to my noble friend Lord Bessborough for introducing this debate today. Rather as with the electricity analogy with JET that we have already heard, I am quite sure that I shall get rather more out of this debate than I shall be putting in, not least from hearing the really excellent maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Marshall of Goring. He has brought to our deliberations today not only an unrivalled depth of knowledge on the subject of energy, but indeed energy itself. I join with others in saying that I hope we shall hear him often in this House and I know that we shall welcome his wise counsel in fields far beyond that in which he has made his name.
I was interested in the remarks of my noble friend Lord Bessborough that controlled thermo-nuclear fusion could provide a "cleaner and virtually infinite source of safe economical and environmentally acceptable" electric power. I say this as I understand that at the recent Labour Party Conference—and I was not privileged to attend that august gathering—a motion was put forward on a proposal to halt the building of nuclear power stations and to phase out existing nuclear generating capacity. With this would presumably go all research into present and future forms of nuclear power.
551 I imagine the expressed reasons for this suggestion probably hinged around environmental and safety aspects, and, whether or not expressed, I do not think one has to guess very hard that possibly a more important reason was that certain people wanted to increase and maintain coal production at high levels. Were such a suggestion actually adopted as the policy of a future government of whatever colour, the consequences for British industry would be catastrophic, both in terms of electric power costs to industry in the future and in terms of the brain drain, on which my noble friend Lady Airey has already touched, of qualified scientists from this country.
All scientific research has many blind alleys and I sincerely hope that the Joint European Torus project and ultimately commercial nuclear fusion will not prove to be such a blind alley. However, sometimes only a fraction of research expenditure produces a worthwhile idea, or tangible result. It is therefore conversely possible to say that the largest portion of all scientific research expenditure is wasted. It may be so, but without abortive research we shall never have successful research. It is a little like the oil industry in which I work; the explorer may have to drill several dry wells before he finds one which produces oil, but hopefully that oilfield will pay for all the unsuccessful expenditure on dry wells.
We could of course divert all research expenditure on nuclear matters into subsidising the production of coal at ever-increasing prices. It is extremely doubtful, however, that such a diversion of resources would produce the long-term benefits, even if they are halfway through the next century, which would be produced by a successful breakthrough in harnessing thermo-nuclear fusion as the servant of mankind.
My noble friend Lady Airey has already stolen my thunder on the figures of investment in JET, so I shall pass on to the point of my noble friend Lord Halsbury regarding the "overflow" in engineering.,
I am told that in addition to direct research in the field of thermo-nuclear fusion, the Culham laboratory has gained a number of orders utilising by-product ideas of its mainstream research. These cover the protection of aircraft and computers against lightning and electrical discharges, specialised laser technology for the glass, printing and packaging industries, ion-beam technology for deep implantation of high energy oxygen ions into silicon in the micro-chip industry, and many others. These growing activities of Culham are currently producing an income of some £2 million per year.
Like my noble friend Lord Bessborough, I believe it is vital that this research is pressed on with, and I hope that we can have some assurance from the opposite Benches, and indeed from these Benches, that should there be a different government in the future, research into thermo-nuclear fusion, and indeed the nuclear power programme itself, will not become a casualty in the cause of artificially maintaining employment in the mining industry or because of expenditure cuts.
A source of energy for which the raw materials are relatively cheap and abundant, and which produces far less—well, somewhat less, perhaps a lot less—unpleasant residues with their attendant disposal 552 problems and few emissions to choke the air we breathe, is a very desirable objective. I hope through the medium of the JET project and its successors we can achieve that objective.
§ 7.25 p.m.
Lord McAlpine of Moffat
My Lords, at the risk of appearing to be repetitive I should like to say how very much I, along with many others, have enjoyed the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Marshall. It was both interesting and instructive. I should like to make one remark. He said he ran the risk of being regarded as pessimistic. I should say that that was quite wrong because he was talking from genuine, practical experience and knows of the problems that are around the corner, that one does not meet until one is involved in one's operation. Apart from that, I think it was jolly nice to hear what he had to say.
I should also like to thank my noble friend Lord Bessborough for raising this debate because it is not really for us in our lifetime that this matters, but we have to think of our children, our great grandchildren and the people to come. We are living in a heavily populated country. On the one hand the people expect a continuing, rising standard of living, and on the other hand, obviously, we have minerals that are not only coming nearer to exhaustion but are costing more to produce. Therefore, we must produce some tangible and definite way of dealing with something in the future, and it seems to me that here we are on to something that must be followed up.
The last thing I should like this House to believe is that I understand the intricacies of this very advanced technical discussion. I certainly do not, although I have been involved with many scientists. I talk to you as an industrialist. As such, I believe that if this country, or any country, is to survive in this competitive world, it must be treated as a business. If one were running a large company, what would one do? One would be very careful about one's on-cost. One would endeavour to have cash reserves. However, if one really wanted one's company to survive one would start ploughing money into what is called R and D, research and development. It may well be that at times a scientist can take one along the wrong road, but one has to allow for that. Unless this country is prepared to spend vast sums of money, no matter what it costs us, to make sure that we have a steady and sound future in our research and development, then I think there will be a very bad outlook for the future. That is why I am so very grateful to may noble friend Lord Bessborough for raising this subject.
§ 7.28 p.m.
§ Lord Ezra
My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Bessborough, has introduced a subject which has led to a very informative and stimulating debate. He introduced it with an admirable speech which covered the 20 years over which he has been associated with the developments in this field. We have subsequently had the remarkable maiden speech from the noble Lord, Lord Marshall of Goring, in which I think he made very clear to all of us what are the practical issues in this exciting and scientific adventure, as he described it. In particular, what I was most grateful for was the very clear way in which he described break 553 even. I must say that in reading about this subject, I had assumed that one suddenly reached break even and that was the end of the story: one had got there. But in point of fact he showed us that there are three very clearly distinct stages in break even and that the ultimate break even, namely getting more electricity out than the electricity that is put in is unlikely, in practical terms, to be achieved until some part of the first half of the next century.
I think this gives us very clearly the time scale of the operation. It does not in any way detract from the need to pursue it, but it makes us realise that this is in fact a long-term energy project. There are two aspects of this project which I should like briefly to mention. The first is its international aspect. I think that there must be very few major research projects today which have stimulated so much international co-operation. In fact, it is interesting to note that after a very distinguished British scientist first patented the idea, the first tokomak was developed in Russia, and that following on that successful development in Russia there are today four large tokomaks in operation in various countries—at Culham, as we know, in America, in Japan and so on. There is now a free exchange of experience from all these developments co-ordinated in Vienna and, as far as one can make out, there is no inhibition of any size in sharing the experiences and the successes achieved. Very large sums of money are being devoted, much expertise is being gained and, in the international sense, it is being freely shared. I think that this is one of the most important and impressive aspects of this exciting scientific adventure story, as Lord Marshall described it.
The second aspect to which I should like to refer is the part that this project should play in our over-all energy research strategy. It is, as we now know, very clearly a long-term project. It must play an important part in preparing for the long term. But we must not forget about all the other research efforts which we should be putting in. It was not the purpose of today's debate to go into that; nevertheless, I feel that our long-term research in energy should play its proper, balanced role compared with all other aspects of energy research, and I should like just briefly to remind your Lordships that the other aspects of energy research are, of course, research in other forms of nuclear energy. The noble Baroness, Lady Airey, referred to the successes that we have already achieved in this country with the AGR and this should be pursued in a research sense to improve on that.
There is non-nuclear energy research which we should not diminish in any way merely because of these exciting projects in the future. There is research in renewable sources of energy which some of us feel are not being sufficiently supported at the present time. And perhaps one of the most important aspects of energy research is the research in improved utilisation of energy having regard to the environment. These are all aspects of research which have to be considered together. I believe that the JET project, the thermonuclear project, is one which should properly play its part in our overall research programme but I would hope that at some future, not-too-distant, date we might be able to debate in this Chamber once again—because time passes and developments take 554 place—the whole area of our energy research in order to make sure that we have got the balance right, that we are devoting the right amount of time and attention to the longer-term projects as well as to the more immediate projects.
§ 7.33 p.m.
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
My Lords, I should like first of all to thank the noble Earl, Lord Bessborough, for raising such an important subject at the present time and also for his kindness of giving me an indication of his direction and thinking on the questions before us tonight. He has had this item on the agenda for as long as I have been a Member of this House and I think that we should commend his persistence and his patience; and I sincerely hope that he feels that his persistence and patience have been well rewarded by the excellent debate of such super quality that we have had tonight. I should like also to thank Dr. Pease, Director for Fusion at Culham Laboratory, for his unstinting assistance; and I can assure your Lordships that without that assistance I would have been quaking in my shoes rather more than I am at the moment, bearing in mind the subject in hand and bearing in mind that quite obviously I am a layman in a den of scientific lions.
I should also like to join in the congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Marshall of Goring. I have to tell him that his reputation preceded him in this House. We expected a good speech from him and I am glad to say—and everybody will agree—that we had a superb speech from him. Although he was pessimistic. as one noble Lord has described it, he was right to draw our attention to the fact that fusion, while it is a great adventure story, nevertheless has to be approached with realism.
There have been many false starts before and I shall refer to that later; and it is important that we know what we are about and where we are going. I think that the House can be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Marshall, for bringing this aspect to our attention. He believes that nuclear fusion will not become an economic possibility until the mid-twentieth century, and I think he may very well be right in that. But I think that he would also agree that the economic case will have to be decided then against the cost of other fuels available at that time. So that may be in fact a note of optimism which perhaps can temper his pessimism. Nevertheless, we have had from the noble Lord an excellent speech and I sincerely trust and hope that we shall hear a lot more from him in the future.
There may be some who believe it to be premature and unproductive to raise this subject at this stage when, as we have heard, the prospect of electrical power from nuclear fusion reaction seems so dim and distant. But I am not among them and neither is the Labour Party for whom I speak from this Bench. I hope that that will reassure the noble Viscount, Lord Torrington, who may not have been to Labour Party conferences but who, I am sure, has been to Tory Party conferences and understands exactly what the conference season is about.
Indeed, we believe that increasing doubts about nuclear fission add to the urgency of solving the problems of obtaining from nuclear fusion a commercially viable and attractive energy gain. When 555 I refer to doubts about nuclear fission I do not do so in any party political sense. The fact is that any party in power has to consider and deal with the problems which arise from the fission process and take into account the public perception of those problems. Again, that was a point which was touched on and brought out by the noble Lord, Lord Marshall. He understands that you have to take the public with you.
As your Lordships well know, the major difficulties facing fission involve the leakage of radioactive material into the environment—and we have had problems at Sellafield; people have been prosecuted and public fears have been roused—the transportation and long-term disposal of highly radioactive materials and the decommissioning of power stations when they have served their useful life. These problems have not yet been entirely solved and there is a growing opposition to all the options at present available. In theory at least the point could come when fission power stations could not operate because those difficulties have not been overcome.
Therefore, the successful development of the fusion process must be attractive not only because it gives the prospect of a limitless and virtually inexhaustible fuel source for electricity generation but also because, as I understand it, the problems arising from radioactive waste while not entirely absent are of a much lesser order of magnitude than from the fission process and could be more easily handled.
I am not a physicist and I cannot discuss in any learned sense the theories of plasma physics although I was educated by the noble Lord, Lord Marshall, in the matter tonight. Indeed, my mind boggles at the complexity of what is being attempted in seeking to imitate, in a controlled and microscopic way, the process which created the sun and keeps it alive. Man is, through the fusion process, attempting to reproduce the conditions which are the basis of all creation. Thus we are seeking to adopt a role and achieve powers which hitherto have been reserved for the gods. No wonder success is taking rather longer to achieve than we thought in the 1950s, when serious work began on the fusion process! In 1958 expectations were raised following the ZETTA experiment that were not fulfilled and could not have been expected to have been fulfilled. For example, the Daily Telegraph of 25th January 1958 published this sort of headline:ENERGY FROM THE SEA IN 20 YEARS".That was in 1958. The year 1978 has come and gone a long time ago and we are still a long way from that energy from the sea.
Such headlines were of course misleading and over-optimistic and arose from a statement by Sir John Cockroft that he was 90 per cent. certain that fusion was a viable proposition. We now know that there are formidable difficulties to be overcome before fusion can be an economically viable proposition. We also know that results will come more quickly if there is co-operation between the nations engaged on fusion research and it is unfortunate that some of the work associated with lasers, both in the USA and the USSR, is shrouded in secrecy because of the defence implications. However, as we have heard tonight, there has been considerable co-operation between 556 countries, and the JET project at Culham is a remarkable example of European nations coming together to pool their resources and expertise to achieve a common goal which, if and when attained, will benefit not only themselves but the whole of mankind.
Not that such co-operation was achieved easily. The noble Earl, Lord Bessborough, himself knows this full well because he was involved, and indeed he assisted in getting this co-operation. Some Members of this House will well know it was at one stage touch and go as to whether the project foundered, particularly over the issue as to the location of the site for the construction of the project. It would not I think be unfair to claim that British enthusiasm for JET was crucial in ensuring that construction went ahead and that the personal intervention of the then British Prime Minister, James Callaghan, in 1977 ensured that JET was secured for the United Kingdom. But, as I have said, it was touch and go as to whether JET proceeded to construction phase and at one stage the design team was actually on the point of disbandment. Britain was a powerful force in saving the project, but even so our influence was in some sense weakened due to the expenditure cuts that we had made in our own fusion programme which might have given an indication of waning confidence in the ultimate success of the fusion process. I sincerely hope that the lesson has been learned and that we shall hear an encouraging message from the Government when the noble Lord replies to this debate.
From progress reports it can be ascertained that the JET project has in fact gone very well so far. The apparatus has been constructed to cost and to time which in itself is a considerable achievement, and a very able international team has been built up and is working together very successfully. The British component within the team is large and highly competent and is a confirmation that the British genius for invention is alive and kicking in fusion research as elsewhere. Furthermore, and very importantly, co-operation with British industry is excellent, with consequent benefits for the project and British industry itself. In fact, 43 per cent. of all contracts since 1978 have been placed with British industry, now totalling £95 million, and £16 million was involved during 1984. In a technical sense, too, I understand, the project is doing well and it must be remembered that this European project is currently leading the world in this type of experiment.
Inside the JET apparatus gas temperatures have reached 50 million degrees Celsius for periods of many seconds, and somewhat higher temperatures have been achieved for shorter times. That such temperatues have been achieved and contained is a feat so considerable that it is difficult for non-scientific mortals like myself to assimilate, but in simple terms temperatures have now been achieved which exceed the minimum needed for energy-producing thermonuclear fusion. However, the degree of thermal insulation so far achieved is not yet sufficient for a reactor and there remains much hard work to be done in this respect. The scientists involved are enthusiastic and are optimistic that success can be achieved for the JET project in its aim of demonstrating that energy from the fusion process is technically possible.
557 We are of course, as has already been pointed out, a long way from the commercial production of electricity by nuclear fusion and we are probably talking in terms of a demonstration reactor some time in the early years of the next century. But eventual success can only come given the sustained commitment by our own Government and the Governments of our partners to fusion research both on a national basis and through international co-operation. I have a feeling (and I sincerely hope that I am wrong) that with the easing of the international oil supply crisis there has been a diminution in governmental enthusiasm for research into nuclear fusion. Noble Lords will be aware of the article in the New Scientist of 10th January 1985 which indicated that over the next three years Britain's budget for research on thermo-nuclear fusion will fall by around 20 per cent., and if this is so it is indeed most unfortunate.
Our people at Culham believe that the research is aimed at a worthwhile target—namely, a major new source of energy for Europe and the world community—a source of energy in fact that could transform the world and help bring new hope for the underdeveloped nations of the world and their underprivileged people. It is essential then that our own Government express their own confidence in nuclear fusion by maintaining Culham as a strong centre of fusion research.
This is not to advocate throwing money at fusion research. We would certainly not want to do that. But we say that the people involved should continue to be properly resourced for the work that they have to carry out. The amounts of money may be quite large and the timescale long but the eventual reward could be the goal of limitless energy for the use and betterment of mankind.
§ 7.48 p.m.
§ Lord Gray of Contin
My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Bessborough for giving us the opportunity to have this short debate this evening. We know of course of his great experience in this subject. We know of his great knowledge of, his enthusiasm for and his dedication to the subject. We are grateful to him for introducing the debate this evening in his usual distinguished style. I should like to offer him my personal congratulations for retaining the enormous amount of knowledge which he has acquired over so many years.
I should like also to associate myself with those who have already offered congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Marshall of Goring. My days as Minister of State for Energy meant that from time to time our paths crossed, and perhaps I could warn your Lordships that although the noble Lord, Lord Marshall, was non-controversial tonight it is in his nature to speak up as the occasion demands. Like the rest of your Lordships who are present this evening, I look forward very much indeed to hearing his contributions in the future.
But to my noble friend I would say that one of the principal reasons why I am so pleased that he has been patient, and has given us the opportunity to discuss this matter, is that it gives me an opportunity on behalf of the Government to review for your Lordships the 558 present state of the art in fusion research and development both in this country and internationally. The subject is of course of interest because, if the scientific and engineering problems can be overcome, thermo-nuclear fusion could eventually offer the prospect of unlimited energy.
I think it would be helpful to noble Lords if I were to give a brief review of current work in the United Kingdom and elsewhere and then to try to set the results into the context of the progress which must be made before fusion reactors can become a commercial reality. The United Kingdom's national programme is carried out as an integral part of the Euratom Fusion Programme under Contract of Association with Euratom. Under this contract, the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority undertakes to do certain work of interest to the programme. In return, the Commission provides funds; about 25 per cent. of the costs of the general running of the laboratory at Culham and about 45 per cent. of the cost of certain specific projects which are judged to merit preferential support.
The broad strategy of the Euratom programme is, first, to establish the scientific feasibility of the fusion process. This is the current phase. Following that, there would be a phase to establish the technical feasibility. That would lead to a phase in which a demonstration of commercial feasibility would be attempted. The flagship of the Euratom effort is the Joint European Torus. The European Council of Ministers agreed in 1978 to set up a Joint Undertaking lasting until 1990 to design, construct and operate JET, and they agreed to site it at Culham.
Of course, we were all so pleased to hear my noble friend Lady Airey give us her views on Culham and to learn what close associations she had had with it. We appreciate how she feels about Culham and, of course, we accept the points which she made about future employment. I shall not be led towards the path of some of the other suggestions that she made, particularly in relation to various reactors, because I think that I would be rather out of order if I were. I am sure your Lordships will appreciate that. But I know exactly how my noble friend Lady Airey feels about Culham and I am sure that we are all very much with her on that subject.
The total estimated cost of this project to 1990 is £600 million. The United Kingdom contributes approximately 12 per cent. directly through the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority. In addition, the United Kingdom contributes through the EEC budget to the Commission's 80 per cent. support to JET. The aim of the project is to build and operate a large tokamak device in order to extend the investigation of conditions for controlled thermonuclear fusion close to those needed in a reactor. Here I wish to thank my noble friend for his splendid description of the tokamak system of magnetic confinement of high temperature plasmas. JET is the world's most advanced tokamak and, as yet, there are no plans anywhere to build a more advanced device. It started operating in June 1983, having been constructed on schedule and at a cost very close to budget. Already it has, as my noble friend has said, achieved confinement of plasma currents of 5 million amps, thus exceeding its design characteristics.
559 Further investment is in progress and under consideration with the aim of increasing the temperature and density of the plasma so that it more closely approaches the point at which nuclear reactions in the plasma could contribute to the heating. Preparations are also under way to introduce tritium into the plasma. This radioactive form of hydrogen is the fuel most likely to be used in a fusion reactor, so it is essential that its behaviour in the plasma is studied.
Within the Euratom programme there are other large tokamaks under construction at the places to which my noble friend referred in France, Italy and the Federal Republic of Germany. These and other devices are used to investigate the effects of different ways of heating the plasma, of controlling its shape and of keeping it free of impurities. These other laboratories also use toroidal devices with different magnetic configurations, as it is not yet clear that the tokamak would be the most suitable basis for engineering a reactor.
The United Kingdom's programme is primarily based on various experimental devices at Culham, but also includes work on theory and computational studies and work on reactor technology. The main aims of the programme are: to give scientific and engineering support to the JET project; to continue studies on specific problems complementary to JET in an experimental programme based on similar but smaller scale devices already at Culham, the DITE and CLEO tokamaks, together with the construction of a new medium-sized tokamak called COMPASS; to continue limited studies of alternative magnetic confinement systems, in particular using a device called HBTXI at Culham, and contributing to a joint project in Italy, both of which explore a particular magnetic configuration called reverse field pinch; to participate in the design study for the Next European Torus and to studies on the international tokamak reactor concept (INTOR), which is co-ordinated by the IAEA and involves the USA, the USSR, Japan and Euratom. Both these devices would begin to explore engineering feasibility.
The largest and most broadly based fusion programme in the world is that run in the USA. In the financial year 1985, the United States Department of Energy budget for fusion is 595 million dollars. Roughly one-quarter of this programme is spent on inertial confinement fusion; that is, using lasers or other highly energetic beams to compress and heat tiny pellets of fuel in which the fusion reaction can take place. The United States magnetic confinement fusion programme is more diverse than that in Europe. As well as investigating tokamaks and other toroidal devices the United States has devoted substantial effort to development of the mirror magnetic confinement principle. Instead of having a closed tube, the plasma is held in a straight tube with magnetic and electric fields to prevent the plasma leaking out of the end.
The fusion programme of the Soviet Union is also broadly based. As my noble friend Lord Bessborough said, they pioneered the tokamak system of magnetic confinement in the 1950s and this remains the major focus of their attention. Our latest information is that they are building another tokamak, T.15. It will be 560 comparable in size with JET but, unlike JET, will have superconducting coils. But the Soviet Union is also heavily committed to the fission-fusion hybrid system. In this system, a blanket of fertile material is used to breed additional fissile fuel for thermal power stations.
The Japanese programme has from its beginnings in the mid-1950s been heavily weighted towards the tokamak concept. Eighty per cent. of their fusion expenditure is devoted to magnetic containment systems. Recently they have started operating their JT-60 device. This is similar in size to JET, but without a tritium-deuterium capability. The rest of their effort is devoted to other concepts, including research into mirror magnetic confinement, which has become significant since 1979. The Japanese have also recently supported with money and scientists the DOUBLET III project, a tokamak in the United States and other collaborative projects.
Research into the fusion process is also undertaken in a number of other countries, including the People's Republic of China. The Chinese programme includes work on both toroidal magnetic confinement, mainly tokamaks, and mirror magnetic confinement, fusion reactor studies and laser fusion research.
The existing approach of seeking international collaboration to solve the problems of fusion power—many speakers this evening mentioned international collaboration and advocated that that is the route which we should follow—is fully supported by the Government. The scale of the devices required to solve the many problems that still lie ahead means that they are likely to be beyond the means of any one country to find the financial and scientific resources required. This had led already to a great deal of international collaboration, and it seems only sensible that this should be the route in the future. Hence the Government's commitment to the JET project under the agreement on the joint undertaking and the Host agreement. There is also a structure of formal contacts between the laboratories in OECD countries, notably through the International Energy Agency which has set up several agreements for collaborative work on particular aspects of fusion research. We are involved as well in studies on INTOR, the international tokamak reactor concept. These are carried out under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency. As is to be expected in any field of scientific endeavour, there is also considerable informal contact between those participating in it.
During the course of our most informed and interesting debate this evening a number of points were raised with me. The noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, asked me to follow some of the points which had been raised by our distinguished maiden speaker. Indeed I felt that to some extent the noble Lord had answered some of the questions himself during his maiden speech. The noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, who is distinguished himself in these matters, asked me about fusion producing long-lived radioactive waste. The fusion power would not produce the long-lived actinides or fission products characteristic of the fission process, but the tritium fuel for fusion reactors will require careful handling. The structure of a fusion reactor will be subject to intense neutron bombardment and will become radioactive, but the problems of radioactive waste management, as 561 was indicated in the maiden speech, may be lessened by the development of the structural materials which will not become as highly activated in such conditions. Studies on the environmental aspect of fusion reactors are included in the United Kingdom and Euratom programme.
My noble friend Lord Ironside, a little earlier in the evening, was kind enough to let me have a number of the questions which he included in his speech, and I am glad to be able to answer some of the points which he raised with me. I shall draw his query about the European school to the attention of the Department of Education and Science because it is a little beyond my remit and I cannot give him a direct answer about it at the moment. My noble friend also asked me whether we were satisfied with the power supply and whether the CEGB could in fact deliver. There is no problem of overall capacity of the CEGB to deliver power to JET. I understand that to match the type of load provided by JET, a reactive load, some additions to the power supply equipment are being considered. But I am not aware that the cross-Channel link will make any direct material difference in this matter.
The noble Lord also asked me about the Government's support of the tritium laboratory at Ispra. I can tell him that at the research council of the European Community on 4th June we agreed to the establishment at Ispra—part of the Community's joint research centre—of a laboratory to investigate safety aspects of the handling of tritium. Staff from the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority have helped Ispra in defining the requirements of this laboratory.
My noble friend also asked me how we can judge inertial confinement fusion is proceeding. The bulk of the civil research on this topic is in the United States. Major results are published in scientific literature and the participants in the Euratom fusion programme keep watch on these developments through informal contacts with the United States laboratories.
We heard a most interesting speech from the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury. We are grateful to him for sharing with us his enormous knowledge on this subject. Along with my noble friend Lord Torrington, who I have come to know more through the oil industry than through the nuclear industry, the noble Earl wanted to know about post-1990 arrangements for JET. While I recognise their concern for stability, I would expect that the JET council would make proposals at the next review of the fusion programme by the European Council.
I was interested to hear my noble friend Lord McAlpine of Moffat, who holds such an eminent position in the construction world, confirm what of course I knew—his great support for research and development and the fact that he welcomed what was happening at Culham and the money that was being used in order to further the research there.
The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, who wound up for the Alliance parties, raised the question of the need for balance in energy research and development. I would agree with him. I share his concern in this matter, and the Government do also. We shall certainly try to ensure that there is a reasonable balance as far as research and development is concerned. Over the 562 years we have given a considerable degree of priority to scientific research and development which is now there for all to see in the advances made in the nuclear industry.
So much for what is being been done. Where has all this effort got us to? Let us recall that what is required is a very sound understanding of the physics involved in confining an extremely hot gas inside a magnetic field; finding ways to heat it without disrupting the plasma and without introducing impurities. Beyond that we would need to find engineered solutions to the problems of extracting heat from the plasma; of maintaining a device which will become to some extent radioactive; and providing a means to refuel it. These are all major problems. In relation to the physics it is clear that there is still some way to go in understanding all the required processes, but there is hope that the present generation of large machines and all the complementary devices operated by the four major programmes will within a decade have provided sufficient results for judgments to be made as to scientific feasability of fusion.
It sometimes seems to me that fusion research has a great deal in common with detective work. Much time in detective work is spend collecting and proving evidence and only when every "t" has been crossed and every "i" dotted will it be possible to go ahead and make an arrest. In such situations it does not pay to cut corners. So it is with fusion research. Fusion is stretching the limits of our scientific knowledge and we are only just beginning to approach the formidable engineering problems that lie ahead.
It is too early, then, to speculate on when we might achieve break-even or that other rather lengthy and unrepeatable word used by my noble friend. We and the scientific community should all be very pleased if they could with JET achieve reactor relevant conditions within the timescale that we have set ourselves. Only then will we be sure of the direction in which the research is taking us. In the meantime, your Lordships may wish to take comfort from the fact that the United Kingdom has been blessed with a broad base of energy reserves which will see us comfortably into the 21st century.
I was encouraged by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, this evening, when he displayed the confidence and gave the assurances which many of us hoped for regarding the attitude of his party to JET in the future. These are important matters and I am glad that the noble Lord has firmly placed on the record the commitment of his party to the future of JET.
Finally, I join other noble Lords in paying tribute to Dr. Wüster, the former director of JET, who sadly is no longer with us. We owe him a great debt. We look forward to continued success for the new director and his team and the bringing to fruition of all the hopes invested in this project. In conclusion, may I once again thank my noble friend for giving us the oportunity of discussing this matter tonight.