§ 3.33 p.m.
§ Viscount Torrington rose to move, That this House takes note of the Report of the European Communities Committee on Nuclear Power in Europe (18th Report, 1985–86, H.L. 227).
§ The noble Viscount said: My Lords, in introducing this debate I am very conscious that there is indeed another report, as yet unpublished, which will pervade many of our thoughts today like some unseen radioactive cloud. I hope it will not inhibit us. I refer of course to the forthcoming report of the Sizewell inspector, and I hope that my noble friend the Minister will be able to give us today some inkling of when we may expect the Sizewell report to see the light of day.
§ When Sub-Committee F began its inquiry into nuclear power in Europe there was evidence of a kind of early spring in the nuclear garden. At the time public opinion, after reaching a rather low point in the early 1970s, seemed to be moving in favour of nuclear power and confidence was increasing. The miners' strike and the use of nuclear-generated electricity to replace some of that lost from coalfired stations demonstrated to many people in the United Kingdom the importance of having a strong nuclear component in the energy equation.
§ I do not think the industry was in any way complacent. Three Mile Island was too recent for that, in 1979, but its effects were receding and there were continuing but minor problems from Sellafield. But all in all, public opinion on the whole was swinging in favour of nuclear power. As is now well known, that brief spring came to a bitter end on the morning of 26th April when reactor No. 4 at Chernobyl nuclear power station went out of control. There was an explosion: I hasten to add not a nuclear explosion, but a purely mechanical incident caused by pressure, which released volatile radioactive iodine and caesium 349 into the atmosphere. There was a fire. More than 200 people were shortly admitted to hospital and at least 26 people died that day or shortly afterwards. Whole towns and villages in the disaster area had to be evacuated and a cloud of radiation passed over many parts of Europe.
§ Chernobyl was the world's worst nuclear civil accident to date. It is fervently to be hoped that it will prove to be the worst ever and that such an accident will never be repeated. But your Lordships can well imagine that Chernobyl greatly complicated the task of your committee and obliged them to ask a number of questions which would certainly not have been in their minds at the outset of that inquiry. As a result, the committee decided to divide its report into two parts: the first dealing with the situation as it existed before Chernobyl, and the second part covering our view afterwards.
§ I propose to deal first with the post-Chernobyl situation. With the RBMK reactor the Russians designed and built a plant which needed the minimum of complex engineering facilities which was suited to their available industrial base. But it gave rise to two problems: first, control of the reactor depended to far too great a degree on operator involvement and, as we have seen, human error contributed in major part to the disaster by failure to follow the safety procedures. Secondly, the design was defective in principle. No doubt other noble Lords of a more technical bent will wish to take this subject further, but as I understand it in an ideal reactor, loss of coolant would lead to a decrease in the fission reaction. In the RBMK reactor at Chernobyl, as cooling water was lost after the initial containment failure, the coolant channels filled with steam and the fission reaction increased. Chemical reactions between the steam and the graphite moderator and the zircalloy cladding of the fuel elements ensued and compounded the disaster.
§ I am assured that there are no nuclear reactors in the West based on the Chernobyl design. The only reactor which had any similarity with the RBMK was the steam generating heavy water reactor: a design which was not proceeded with and of which only one small experimental unit remains.
§ The committee was assured by numerous experts in evidence that no such accident could happen in any of the main reactor designs now in use in the West. This is because none runs at such high operating temperatures; none has the entire range of physical properties which combined to cause the accident and all have more or better safety systems which place far less reliance on the human factor for control.
§ But undoubtedly the most important message from Chernobyl is that nuclear power is no respecter of frontiers. In a nuclear world what one does in one's own backyard is of considerable interest to people living even thousands of miles away. The release of radiation from Chernobyl caused alarm, despondency, potential danger and considerable inconvenience in very many countries many miles away. It can be clearly seen that the design, control and monitoring of nuclear power stations is a matter of international concern and not one which can be regarded by any country as a purely domestic affair. 350 What seems to me to be needed is more liaison between countries with nuclear power, franker discussions of all aspects of it and more timely warnings when something goes wrong. Perhaps it is too much to hope for, but ideally there should be an international nuclear safety inspectorate and licensing authority with real teeth, able to monitor and sanction developments from Archangel to Hobart, from Vladivostok to Anchorage the long way round.
§ What is it about nuclear power that most worries people? It should not be the belief that a nuclear power station can explode like a nuclear bomb. That is simply impossible. So a reactor which goes wrong cannot wipe out at a stroke a large area of countryside or city. What worries people most seems, fairly obviously, to be radioactivity. This is mainly because one cannot detect it with one's senses. One cannot see it or smell it, know whether it has harmed you, what the harm is or when it will show itself. Every day, indoors and outdoors, we are bombarded by natural and unavoidable radioactivity without our health being in the least endangered.
§ The fact is not widely appreciated among the general public and it is important to place the dangers from man-made radioactivity in the context of risks from other industries and other areas of life. The gas released at Bophal killed many people instantly, but it was a chemical accident and therefore seems more understandable than a nuclear accident. Yet nothing like the number of people were killed at Chernobyl or are likely to die as a result of Chernobyl.
§ Radioactivity is easily detected today by machines, by technology. Indeed, there is a paradox in that just because it is so easily detected and thus easy to take protective measures against, it seems more pervasive and more threatening. Modern technology can detect even minute amounts of radioactivity. When the committee visited Dounreay, the 30-year-old luminous watch worn by the noble Lord, Lord Kearton, set off the detector system. Hundreds of workers in the plant pass through the same detector system every day without setting off any alarms.
§ If there seems to be so much more radioactivity about today, one reason is that we are so good at detecting it. It follows that any radioactive leaks should be easy to detect and should be able to be plugged quickly. When something is perceived to be a good idea in general but bad or defective in practice, the answer is to improve it and make it better. If the production of nuclear electricity has caused problems, the answer is not to do away with nuclear electricity but to iron out the practical problems which have occurred.
§ The European Commission's illustrative nuclear programme (known in the trade as PINC) was the starting point for your committee's inquiry. The programme called for a target of 40 per cent. of Europe's electricity to be generated by nuclear power by 1995. It also expressed the hope that 50 per cent. will be provided by the year 2000. The 1995 target is a summation of developments already in the pipeline and, barring a major change of heart by governments, should also certainly be achieved. The figure for 2000 will depend rather more on the political fall-out from Chernobyl.351
§ It must be pointed out that these figures do not refer to any individual country in the EC but to the Community as a whole. Thus France, with well over 70 per cent. of its electricity generated by nuclear power, will help to compensate for those countries which either have no nuclear power or which have alternative major sources of energy and a more mixed energy economy. The United Kingdom is just such a country, and indeed it might be suggested that the United Kingdom, to some extent, has bungled its nuclear choices simply because it has many other energy resources. The problem of choice is much simpler when there are fewer opportunities, as has been the case with France.
§ One question which recurred throughout the committee's inquiry was that of reactor choice. Should the future of nuclear power stations in the United Kingdom be PWRs or AGRs? The committee decided as a committee not to express a view on this question in view of the impending Sizewell report. Of course, individual members of the committee, as individuals, had strong views on this question. We shall certainly hear some, I suspect, this afternoon, and I hope that I shall be forgiven for saying that, having imposed severe restraints on the committee and on myself as chairman during the inquiry, I now feel free to deal briefly with the question of reactor choice and to state my views on it. Indeed, the recent party conferences and policy decisions make it almost impossible for me not to touch on this question during the debate.
In paragraph 248 of the report, the committee states:
One danger is that, while the anti-nuclear tide is in full flood (following Chernobyl), political parties will commit themselves to the policy of halting nuclear programmes and phasing out nuclear power, and that when these parties are elected to power the policies may be carried out even if public opinion is becoming more favourable towards nuclear power".
§ We did not have any political parties represented in this House in mind. We were thinking of other political parties—the Greens and so on in Germany—when we made that remark. We had no idea that the first crop of party conferences following the report would see the adoption, here at home, of the full range of policy options that we contemplated.
§ I have to say that while I sit on this side of the House I have great respect for the parties which occupy the Benches opposite. However, I confess that I am a little disappointed when I look across the House. What can they mean by those party conference decisions? Are we really to take them seriously? Being an optimist, I look even now for some sort of silver lining to the Chernobyl cloud. While perhaps I shall not be popular with the noble Lord, Lord Marshall, who follows me in this debate, for saying it, I can find some silver lining in Chernobyl if it were to lead to a small delay in the immediate British nuclear programme. Why do I say this? I say this because I think it will provide a little more time and a lot more information on which to decide the great question of reactor choice
§ I have a natural bias towards home-grown technology. Up at Torness, there is about to be commissioned the latest and possibly the last of the British-designed nuclear reactors, the AGRs. This reactor calls on a great wealth of British skill and engineering experience and there is a just a chance, just 352 a small chance, that this AGR will prove to be at least as efficient and competitive as any reactor based upon imported technology—by which I mean the PWR. If the PWR/AGR argument is resolved this year, or early next year, in favour of the PWR, then even if Torness and its sister plant at Heysham 2 prove to be the ultimate in excellence, economy and efficiency, that will simply be academic because the AGR technology will have been junked.
§ Why do I favour the AGR? The answer, I have to admit, is not based on economics. It is based on safety, and by this I do not mean overall safety but on the simple, physical properties of the reactor. If we look at the three classes of reactor system which remain for the present or the near future, we are left, in order of perceived economic efficiency, with the PWR, which is giving France the cheapest electric power in Europe; the AGR, which is at present giving Britain more expensive electricity but which is probably cheaper than fossil fuels in the medium term and cheaper still if Torness lives up to expectations; and the FBR, the inaptly-named fast breeder reactor, still reckoned by most experts (but not all) to be uneconomic at present.
§ However, the ranking of these three reactor types, from a purely physical safety standpoint in operation, is the other way round. The FBR in operation is probably the safest of all. The reactor vessel operates effectively at zero atmospheric pressure, the high heat sink properties of the coolant, liquid sodium, are such that the reactor could be left out of control for many days without any danger of the coolant beginning to boil and so carry radiation and radioactive material into the atmosphere. There are question marks about the safety and efficiency of reprocessing the fuel but there is virtually no question about the safety principles of the reactor itself.
§ By contrast, the AGR retains the middle ground. It has a relatively small primary circuit containing a few tonnes of carbon dioxide, which is not a great carrier of radioactive materials, in any case, and operates at 700 psi. An escape of the coolant will not send much unpleasant material into the atmosphere and the coolant itself does not react with the moderator or the fuel element cladding. Even if there is a control failure, nothing needs to be done in seconds or even minutes and possibly hours—thus leaving plenty of time for sensible decisions to be taken about reactor control.
§ Finally, with the PWR, one has to say that this has an enormous reactor vessel. The primary circuit contains water at 2,600 psi and its control is much more critical in terms of time. As we have seen, steam easily carries radioactive pollutants, though happily, as we have seen at Three Mile Island, the worst radioactive substances condense or sublime very quickly outside the containment.
§ When I talk about pure physical safety in this context, I am drawing an analogy with flying machines. The fixed-wing aircraft, properly trimmed, will fly itself, hands off. It is inherently stable. By contrast, the helicopter does not have inherent stability; it has to be kept straight and level by human or autopilot control. In the nuclear context, the FBR is the fixed-wing aircraft and the PWR is the helicopter, with the AGR lying somewhere in between. For those reasons, I do not believe that the case for the PWR is quite as clear or convincing as its advocates suggest.353
§ I accept there are disadvantages in delay. Delay of even a short period has implications for jobs, for the maintenance of skilled technological teams and for the ability of the CEGB to discharge its obligations to the consumer. But since a nuclear pause in Europe now seems likely, or possibly likely, following Chernobyl, let us see it used constructively to help settle the great question of reactor choice if such a pause comes.
§ Delay or no delay, one thing is clear. Even if this country were to renounce nuclear power today and close all nuclear reactors in this country, we should have the ability only to reduce the number of nuclear plants within 200 miles of London from 14 to six and the number within 600 miles of London from 63 to 46. Naturally the remaining plants are outside this tiny island.
§ The message of Chernobyl is that there are no nuclear-free zones today. Renouncing nuclear power is not the answer. The answer is to continue the quest for better and safer nuclear power. Nothing is achieved without some sacrifice and some mistakes, and it may be that Chernobyl is the necessary mistake along the road to safer nuclear power. If so, we owe it to those who died at Chernobyl to see that we derive the right lessons from that unhappy event. I remain convinced that those should be lessons on how to do the job better rather than not to do it at all. My Lords, I beg to move.
§ Moved, That this House takes note of the Report of the European Communities Committee on Nuclear Power in Europe (18th Report, 1985–86, H.L. 227).—(Viscount Torrington.)
§ Lord Ogmore
My Lords, is the noble Viscount saying that radioactivity is not easy to detect or that it is easy to detect? I am not quite clear on that point.
§ Viscount Torrington
My Lords, my answer is that I said it is extremely easy to detect by technical means, but we cannot feel it, see it or smell it.
§ 3.52 p.m.
§ Lord Marshall of Goring
My Lords, I must first declare an interest in this matter and explain that I consider it would not be proper for me to comment directly upon the report produced by the Select Committee led by the noble Viscount, Lord Torrington. But, as he has already stressed, all of us here today must have at the forefront of our minds the dreadful nuclear accident at Chernobyl, and I have had the privilege of attending the Vienna review conference at which the Russians gave a full, frank and complete report of the Chernobyl events. I believe I am the only Member of this House who has had that opportunity and my remarks will be entirely about that event and, as far as possible, I shall use the vocabulary and language which the Russians themselves have chosen.
As all noble Lords know, the Chernobyl accident was a severe disaster and for the first time civil nuclear power has definitively caused human casualties; 31 people have died. They were mostly reactor operators and firemen who coped with the accident during the first crucial few hours after it had occurred. The long-term health effects of the accident, however, are less 354 than was first feared. The Russians themselves, who seem anxious not to understate the effects, have estimated that on average the people in the affected parts of the USSR will have received an additional radiation dose roughly equivalent to half of what they would receive anyway from natural radiation during their lifetime. That is very much to be regretted, as is the upheaval caused by the evacuation of 135,000 people within a radius of 30 kilometres and also the fear and concern the accident brought to many people in many countries.
But for us here in the United Kingdom the most important question we must ask is a simple one: "Could Chernobyl happen here?". I must tell your Lordships that in my opinion it could not, and you might like to know that Academician Legasov, who led the Russian delegation to the Vienna conference, has told the press that the Chernobyl accident is simply not possible in any reactor operational outside the USSR. I think it is worth explaining why that is the case.
According to the Russians themselves, the Chernobyl reactor as originally designed has several "shortcomings"—I use their own choice of vocabulary—many of which also concerned a group of British engineers who studied this design in 1975. A matter of particular concern that the Russian reactor had what is called a positive void coefficient. With such an undesirable characteristic, if the amount of steam in the reactor core increases for any reason, then the power of the reactor tends to go up and still more water converts to steam, which tends to create still more power, and so on.
But in all commercial reactors the fuel itself becomes less effective as the power and temperature go up (in our technical jargon we call this the Doppler coefficient). This is a safety feature built in by nature and we all assumed that the Russians had ensured by careful design that this safe feature dominated the undesirable void characteristics I have just described.
But in Vienna the Russians told us that they had done this only for normal operating conditions and that at any power below 20 per cent. the void characteristic dominated and their reactor could have what is called a positive power coefficient. Such a coefficient is a description of the fact that, when all the technical features are taken into account, then a simple increase in power leads to a further increase in power and a still further increase in power, and so on.
What we have is in effect feedback on the build-up of the power which, if it is suitably triggered, is capable of producing massive power increases on a timescale of a few seconds. This unsafe characteristic is not shared by any of the major commercial reactor types operating outside the USSR. It is the key reason why the accident happened, and why the Chernobyl reactor is unique. This is why the Russian operators are instructed to avoid this unsafe condition either by closing down immediately or by using very special operating procedures. In the United Kingdom, it would be unthinkable to have such an overall fast-acting positive power coefficient and it would be unthinkable to place such tremendous safety responsibilities of a fundamental kind on the operators.
355 The Chernobyl reactor is a bit like having a powerful automatic car which has a design fault so that, if it is driven below 20 miles per hour, the driver needs to give constant attention to the brake to stop the speed surging away; and if the fanbelt snaps or if a piece of rust interrupts the flow of the coolant water, the car instantly accelerates to 100 miles per hour or more, with no chance for the driver to put the brake on in time. The Chernobyl reactor actually "accelerated" from a fraction of full power to 100 times full power in just four seconds.
The Russians have admitted that they knew of this design deficiency from the beginning, and they chose to compensate for it not by built-in engineering devices but simply by instructing the operators to avoid potentially unsafe regimes. They were very strict instructions. But, in the event, the Russian operators made the error of ignoring those instructions. The Russians now admit—and again I use their words—that their designers made "a tremendous psychological mistake" in placing responsibility for the fundamental safety of the reactor upon the continuous discipline, attention, understanding and concentration of the reactor operator. It is not possible that such a situation could occur in the UK because of the differences in safety philosophy between the Russians and ourselves.
First, in the United Kingdom our reactors must have inherent characteristics which provide built-in protection and that is true whether we build gas cooled reactors or water reactors. Neither of them has characteristics of the kind I have described for Chernobyl. In either case, if anything untoward happens, the natural characteristics of the reactor compensate and oppose the change.
Secondly, in the United Kingdom those natural defences are supplemented by engineering features which prevent, limit or terminate any fault. It is physically impossible to withdraw control rods rapidly from our reactors and if the operator mishandles the control rod system the reactor automatically fails safe; that is, it closes down. Thirdly, our system designs must be tolerant to operator action. If the operator attempts to take action which could pose an immediate threat to the reactor, such action will be prevented by design provisions or the reactor will automatically close down.
Fourthly, our operators are well qualified and trained, not just for routine operations but for unusual and accident situations. The Russians themselves have admitted that improvements in their operator training programmes are required. Finally, our entire nuclear system is overseen by an independent nuclear inspectorate second to none, which can at any time, without hindrance or challenge, close down any reactor. The Russians do not appear to have the same independent inspection capability. For all these reasons, the difference between the Chernobyl reactor and the reactors we operate or might contemplate, including the proposed pressurised water reactor at Sizewell, is not a matter of degree but is a matter of gross qualitative difference.
It is of enormous relief to me, and I suspect to your Lordships, that the Russian authorities have already closed down most of their Chernobyl-type reactors to 356 undertake urgent retrofits which move all of them closer to the standards that we apply in the West. We are satisfied that there is no narrow technical issue which we in the West could or should learn from the Chernobyl disaster—and I stress the phrase "narrow technical issue". We have very well established safety rules which we follow meticulously. The Russians have chosen to ignore many of them and, sadly, have now paid the price.
But that is the technical position, and progress in this country, or indeed in any democracy, does not depend narrowly on a technical appreciation. It depends ultimately on public acceptance, and there is no doubt that the Chernobyl events have shaken the confidence of the British public in the safety of nuclear power.
Because of the importance that our designers attach to defence in depth, and because of our strong safety culture, I am confident that an accident on the style of Chernobyl could never happen here. It is important that we remember this when we are considering the future of nuclear power in this country, particularly bearing in mind that since the accident our competitors in France and in Japan have reaffirmed their intention to expand their nuclear programme and the Russians themselves have recently outlined ambitious plans to increase their own nuclear power production.
§ 4.5 p.m.
§ Lord Nelson of Stafford
My Lords, I first apologise to the House and to my noble friend Lord Torrington for the fact that due to a previous engagement I cannot remain for the whole of this interesting debate. It will, I am sure, be a most interesting one because of the number of speakers who have put down their names this afternoon. I shall read with great interest in Hansard the report of the debate.
I first congratulate my noble friend Lord Torrington and his committee on this excellent report. It is a most valuable contribution to this major subject, particularly at this moment in time when important decisions will be coming up in this area of power supply. It is particularly interesting as it comes at a time when the Chernobyl incident has been commented on recently by the Soviet Union's experts in Vienna. How lucky we are that in his speech this afternoon the noble Lord, Lord Marshall of Goring, has given us such an authoritative statement on exactly what is the position on that incident, which must be a dominating factor in our thinking.
It is extremely interesting to look through this report and see the summary of what is being done in other countries throughout the world, particularly in Europe, in this important field of nuclear power. My noble friend Lord Torrington referred in his opening speech to the fact that the French are now obtaining 70 per cent. of their power from nuclear energy, and a significant portion of that comes from a major station right across the Channel from us outside Dunkirk, where there are six major reactors operating within a very easy distance of a highly populated area of this country.
A factor which comes out in this report, and which I think is of paramount importance, is that our 357 European friends have very much in mind the need to ensure to their industries the cheapest possible power that is available to them. In this respect, the French have succeeded in an outstanding way and are not only supplying their own industries but are supplying other industries, including ours, with the cheapest power available.
One hears on so many occasions discussions on this matter of nuclear power which range from the emotive to the highly technical, but very seldom does one hear reference to the economics of the electricity supplied. The price of the electricity which comes from our power stations is a dominating factor in many of our industries, not least to our heavy industries, which are under the most competitive pressures. I believe it is of the utmost importance to ensure that these industries have the cheapest possible power available to them. In any debate on nuclear power or on any other power I should like to see the question of making available to our industries the cheapest possible electricity paramount—but of course safety must also be paramount.
Like a number of other speakers in this debate, I have spent a lot of time in the nuclear construction industry and I know what it means to ensure maximum safety in those stations during construction and subsequently during operations. Also, we are well aware of the long timescale involved in this type of construction so we must all be thinking ahead. Our decisions today will determine what our power supply position will be at the beginning of the next century. Those of us who have been involved in nuclear power are also well aware of the importance of a consistent programme—a consistent programme of construction, of progressive improvement and of recruitment of engineers, scientists and skilled people into this important area, if the safety considerations are to be properly met.
It is now a long time since a decision was taken for a new nuclear power station to be put in hand. Our teams involved in the stations that have been constructed in this country have proved their worth. They have proved that they can produce reliable and safe stations and they have proved their worth in their technical decisions, to which the noble Lord, Lord Marshall, has already referred. But they are all getting rather long in the tooth. There is no new blood coming into the nuclear industry because people cannot see a forward programme. I believe that it is very important we should have competent teams with a proper age balance. That can come only if we have a progressive programme stretching over the years ahead.
This report makes a major contribution to the subject at a timely moment. It will play an important part, as will this debate and the contribution of noble Lords this afternoon, in creating a better public understanding of this important and often emotive subject.
I believe—I repeat—that it is paramount that this country has the cheapest power available to it. I believe that decisions on our future sources of power supply should include a major element of nuclear power. I conclude by emphasising that we have a major responsibility to ensure that future generations 358 have the choice of that form of power in the future. I congratulate the committee on a major contribution to this important subject.
§ 4.12 p.m.
§ Lord Swann
My Lords, I hope that I too may be excused if I have to leave, as I fear that I will, before the end of this important debate.
Sitting as a member of the committee under the able chairmanship of the noble Viscount, Lord Torrington, and thinking a good deal about the problems subsequently, I am left with far more thoughts than I can possibly put to our Lordships this afternoon. But I have come to two conclusions that weigh upon me. The first is that, given our present state of knowledge, it could well be that phasing out nuclear energy will be the worst possible strategy. The second is that, because our state of knowledge is continually altering and because of the complexity, the contentiousness and the difficulty of the issues, we sorely need an impartial expert, wholly trusted and continuing official body to which governments and all concerned can turn with confidence for guidance on national energy problems.
In and around the British Isles we have a good deal more coal, oil and gas than most countries. It might seem therefore that we have no great problem. But the world is currently burning up in a year fossil fuels that took nature a million years to lay down. Not surprisingly, therefore, they will run out. How soon depends upon a lot of things, in particular the discovery of new fossil fuel sources, the rate at which we can develop other sources of energy and the extent to which we can reduce the amount of energy that we presently waste. But run out they certainly will, while getting increasingly expensive in the meantime. The time scale is hard to predict with any certainty but, if we go on as we are, there can be little doubt that we shall be in increasing trouble as we move towards the middle of the next century, and we look like being in very serious trouble by the end of it.
It follows that if we care about our successors on this planet—and surely we do—even if governments are prone to thinking no more than a few years ahead, then we have to face the inevitable problem now rather than shirking it.
The exhaustion of fossil fuels, however, is far from being our only problem. All of your Lordships will have heard of acid rain and the greenhouse effect. Unfortunately, when fossil fuels are burnt, acids are generated which blow away on the wind and ultimately fall, dissolved, in rain on countries downwind, polluting their environment and killing their trees. Because there are some thousands of miles of ocean to windward of us it does not very much worry us in the United Kingdom, but this windborne effluent from our power stations, and to a lesser extent our domestic heating, our industrial processes and our motor cars, ends up polluting Europe, and especially Scandinavia, who do not like it one little bit.
Like every scientific and technological problem—and as a scientist I am well aware of this—the phenomenon of acid rain is not as simple as all that, but, after a period of doubt about the true cause, the scientific consensus is moving slowly, steadily, towards the burning of fossil fuels, and especially coal, as the prime culprit.
359 In itself this is not disastrous. The smoke from power stations can be cleaned up and the acid removed, but it is expensive. Even that is not the end of the problem. The residue left after the cleaning process is very considerable and, ironically, it contains not less but more radioactivity than the waste from nuclear stations which causes so much public concern. One must never forget that radioactivity is not some freak product of nuclear reactors; it is everywhere around us, and cleaning up smoke from power stations is a very good way of concentrating it in one place, with the familiar problems of disposal. Acid rain then looks like becoming a serious British problem as well as an international one.
But probably far more serious, and certainly much more sinister, is the so-called greenhouse effect. Fossil fuels—if your Lordships will forgive my dwelling for a few moments on a little elementary chemistry—consist of hydrocarbons, and burning them means combining them with oxygen. The result is a lot of hydrogen oxide and carbon dioxide in the air. Whereas hydrogen oxide is simply water, and harmless, carbon dioxide, although not poisonous in the ordinary sense of the word, accumulates in the atmosphere and acts as a shield that prevents the earth losing heat into space, much like the glass of a greenhouse, hence the name.
It might be supposed that a bit of warming up of the earth would be a good idea in our chilly climate, but meteorology is a complex and difficult subject, and there is every reason to believe that warming up the planet, even a very little, will cause extensive climatic changes. If the warming up went on only a few degrees further, it would cause the polar ice-caps to start melting, the sea level to rise and land that is at present only a little above sea level to be flooded—and there is a great deal of land in the world. In passing, I observe that half the capital cities of the world, most notably London, are liable to tidal flooding even as things are.
Scientists have been aware of the greenhouse possibility for a long time. The average temperature of the earth has risen by a degree or so in the last 80 years, the period during which we have been burning fossil fuels on a really large scale. It seems that there may already have been some climatic changes, and there is some evidence of melting of the ice-caps. Whether this is due to the enormously increased burning of fossil fuels in the last century is not proven, although in the opinion of the experts, not me, it looks like being increasingly likely. On any showing it is an alarming phenomenon that needs the most careful monitoring and very expensive research.
How can we hope to escape these dilemmas? There are a number of ways out, none of them easy and few of them very promising. First, we could and should stop wasting energy. Enormous amounts of it are wasted in heating buildings that promptly lose their heat to the outside. But the capital costs of doing much about the problem are gigantic. Likewise, most of our industrial processes and all forms of transport could be made a lot more energy-efficient than they are. We have made a start, but the realistic estimates of what might be achieved overall—that is to say, savings in the foreseeable future of perhaps 20 per cent. or 30 per cent, at most—will not solve the problem.
360 Secondly, we could and should pursue more energetically what are known as the renewable sources of energy. We have already gone pretty well as far as the geography of the British Isles allows in the matter of hydroelectric power. However, there are other options: tidal barrages, wave energy, solar energy, wind energy and geothermal energy. Unfortunately, the possibilities are limited. They will also be expensive and some of them are technically very difficult; nor will they make enough difference to enable us to escape from the central dilemma for a long time hence. We nonetheless need them.
In the present state of knowledge, it looks very much as though there is only one possibility likely to be left to us if we want our successors to enjoy in the next century and beyond the vast benefits of modern society. That possibility is nuclear energy. This too has its limitations and, as your Lordships well know and have already heard, it has its risks. The reserves of uranium are not limitless but they look like lasting for at least 500 years, given that we turn sooner or later to using fast breeder reactors which use uranium much more efficiently. Well before then, however, we may reasonably expect that we shall have made enough scientific and technological progress to manage, if need be, without uranium. We may reasonably expect to have the bonus of nuclear fusion—that elusive and much cleaner (if not totally clean) process from which the sun derives its heat. Even failing that, we shall surely know how to use energy far more sparingly and efficiently than we do now. We may also expect to have developed both more and more efficient alternatives sources of energy which will be capable of meeting at least a reduced demand.
As I am sure your Lordships know and will hear much about this afternoon and this evening, there is much unease in the country about the health risks of nuclear energy. There is no time for me to go into details, but the evidence indicates that the risks are in fact less than the health risks of burning fossil fuels. Indeed, the committee was more than a little surprised that the Friends of the Earth (perhaps the foremost campaigner against nuclear energy) conceded in their evidence that the nuclear industry was not significantly better or worse than coal. However, in the light of what I have tried to explain about the hazards of burning coal, oil and gas, it looks as though there ought to be at least as much and probably more unease about that than about turning to nuclear energy.
Moreover, some of the dangers of burning fossil fuels are inherent and inevitable. I have touched on the greenhouse effect. The exhaustion of hydrocarbons, which are essential as a fuel for many sorts of transport, will one day be an alarming problem because they can only be synthesised at a huge cost in electricity. By contrast, the dangers of nuclear energy, as the noble Lord, Lord Marshall of Goring, has already said, are technological problems. Most if not all of those problems are already solved, in the West at least, and any that remain unsolved are, in principle, soluble.
In no way do I presume to say what the precise pattern for future energy in the UK should be as we move into the next century. It is a difficult, complicated and no doubt shifting problem that involves extensive monitoring and research in a great 361 multiplicity of areas. As I mentioned earlier, it leaves me in no doubt that we need an extra, impartial and wholly trustworthy standing commission to advise governments, oppositions, industry, trade unions and the general public on what to do for the best.
On the other hand, the then Secretary of State for Energy said in 1982:I do not see the Government's task as being to try and plan the future shape of energy production and consumption. Our task is rather to set a framework which will ensure that the market operates in the energy sector with a minimum of distortion and that energy is produced and consumed efficiently".The then Secretary of State for Energy is currently the Chancellor of the Exchequer and I hesitate to take issue with him, but I do. The free market is an admirable mechanism in a great many respects; but can it encompass the exhaustion of valuable resources for all time, or the efficient use of these dwindling resources when (for complex international reasons) their price has fallen sharply rather than risen; or the legitimate anxieties of society; or the gradual and almost imperceptible but potentially very dangerous disruption of the environment; or new technological possibilities? I do not believe that market forces can deal with what economists call those externalities.
I profoundly hope that some government some day soon will actually want a national energy commission. It is not a new idea, and I cannot do better than quote the last paragraph from a very perceptive report by an impartial and expert professional body, the Institute of Energy. It says:In view of the technical complexities … the risk of emotional overtones, of the deep concern of public opinion over certain aspects of the subject, and of the need for dispassionate thinking to support objective policy assessments, we regard the case for a national energy commission to advise the Government on the facts and on the options as an extremely strong one".
§ 4.26 p.m.
The Earl of Bessborough
My Lords, I hope your Lordships allow me to intervene briefly in this debate, to speak especially about France and the French who, as the report says, have the most extensive nuclear programme in Europe and with whom we now have an operational 2,000 megawatt cross-Channel electricity link from which I gather (and I hope my noble friend Lord Davidson may be able to confirm this) we can receive nuclear generated electricity up to 25 per cent. cheaper than we can provide it for ourselves. I think your Lordships would like to congratulate all the engineers who have made this link possible under very difficult conditions. I think I am right in saying that as a result we in this country now know very much more about sub-sea cable problems.
In the late 1940s, nearly 40 years ago, when I was a Secretary in the British Embassy in Paris, I helped Sir John Cockcroft, the famous nuclear physicist then at Harwell, in talking to the French about the building of their first mini test reactor called Zoë at Fort Chatillon. I had many talks with the High Commissioner or Minister, M. Raoul Dautry, as well as with Joliot Curie and Bertrand Goldschmidt of the French Atomic Energy Commissariat.
Ever since then, keeping in touch with my French friends (including M. Gaston Palewski, the subsequent Minister) concerning nuclear energy, I have always 362 thought that, despite our own reticence in Britain and reluctance to share know-how with the French due to our close association with the Americans, the French would ultimately develop an effective nuclear industry of their own. I declare an interest, being half French, but at the time I was sorry we did not co-operate more closely with them. Now, with the new cable link, France can supply nuclear generated electricity to us.
I wondered whether this might not ultimately happen when, during the 1960s, I was a Minister and a Shadow Minister concerned with atomic energy and the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, was chairman of the Atomic Energy Authority. Again in the 1970s, when I was for six years energy spokesman for our political group in the European Parliament, I became even more convinced of France's nuclear capability. I became yet more so during the six years I was a member of Sub-Committee F over which my noble friend Lord Torrington now presides so effectively. The report of his sub-committee, endorsed by the full Select Committee, is certainly one of the best a European sub-committee has ever produced, and I should like to congratulate him and his colleagues on their excellent work.
I mentioned France because, as I say, I think the section on that country is one of the most interesting in the report, and I hope that my noble friend Lord Davidson can assure me that nuclear co-operation with France is now as close as can realistically be expected—as close as possible. I fully agree with the conclusions of the report, in both Part I and II. We in this country must also develop our nuclear capability as a valuable contribution to a diversity of energy supplies and as a means of conserving for future generations supplies of fossil fuels.
I have spent many hours in the Energy Committee of the European Parliament considering the problems of Three Mile Island, and I have since read various reports on Chernobyl and have listened to the noble Lord, Lord Marshall of Goring, on this subject on various occasions, including this afternoon. I know how much all your Lordships appreciate his highly important contribution to this debate. With him, and with my noble friend Lord Torrington, I do not believe there is any possibility of similar accidents occurring in the case of our own advanced gas cooled reactors or any future pressurised water reactors which we might build. We all must agree that Chernobyl was an out-of-date design which could never have been licensed in the West, and that there is no possibility of that kind of accident occurring in our reactors.
I hope therefore that the Chernobyl disaster will not result in too long a nuclear pause in the West or long-term falling away of orders for nuclear plant. I agree none the less with the Select Committee that nuclear safety is an international problem which affects everyone, and that there must be an international agreement covering all aspects of safety and rigorous international inspection. However, overall we must accept that atomic energy has caused infinitely less loss of life or injury than coal mining, oil drilling, the kind of industrial accidents which were mentioned just now, or even driving on the roads or smoking. Therefore, I think it would be madness not to continue to develop this economical and relatively safe source of energy.
363 I congratulate my noble friend Lord Torrington and his colleagues on thier admirable report. It should certainly help bring us all to our senses and encourage us not to be unduly swayed by the anti-nuclear lobby or. above all, to jeopardise the future of the 100,000 people who depend directly or indirectly on the nuclear industry.
§ 4.34 p.m.
§ Lord Dean of Beswick
My Lords, first of all perhaps I too may congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Torrington, and the members of his Select Committee on the excellent report that we are debating today. It comes at an ideal time because of the problems that have emerged lately in the nuclear industry.
I start from the premise that we must keep a nuclear energy industry. I have listened to previous speakers and I have taken careful note of what they have said. I agreed with most of what the noble Lord, Lord Swann, said in his broad assessment of the problem. But in a debate in this closed Chamber we must be careful not to misunderstand or underplay the deep and widespread public disquiet arising from Chernobyl. The disquiet is felt not only by the Friends of the Earth, the anti-nuclear lobby or one political party.
I have spoken to people outside in the main stream of this country who possibly will never vote for my party. They are seriously concerned about what took place at Chernobyl and about what the future holds for their children and grandchildren if we continue with a nuclear policy. It is incumbent on the nuclear energy industry to be as open and frank as possible, to make people aware of what is happening and to bring that confidence back. It will not be brought back just by speeches in your Lordships' House. It has to be done by example outside.
Having said that, I oppose an over-reaction to and misrepresentation of what is happening in the nuclear energy industry. People who are not in favour of nuclear energy are entitled to oppose it but they must oppose it on a factual basis, produce evidence in a proper manner and not frighten people unnecessarily.
I have before me a press release dated 10th November 1986 from the CEGB regarding an article that appeared in The Times. I accept that what the CEGB says in the press release is quite correct. On that occasion The Times was not performing a public service in any sense of those words. The press release concludes:Both reactors at Hinkley Point 'A' are operating normally. The Times was wrong in stating that one reactor would be shut down this week. The Times was also wrong to suggest that Britain's other Magnox nuclear power stations faced premature closure, leading to possible winter power cuts. In fact, there is no evidence at all that any of the other Magnox stations are affected by this particular corrosion problem. For planning and accounting purposes the lives of the Magnox stations have been extended from 25 to 30 years and this is unchanged".I cite that briefly as an example of what a less than responsible article can do in misinforming people.
I do not want to appear to be wearing the hat of criticising the Russians, but the widespread contamination caused by Chernobyl has frightened people more than anything else. Because nuclear contamination knows no boundaries and depends on the prevailing 364 winds we must try to institute some form of international inspectorate which will have the right to go anywhere and see anything as it sees fit; and not at the behest of a particular government.
The question of employment in the nuclear industry has been touched on. The issue of whether or not we have nuclear energy is so profound that it cannot be decided on employment alone. Nevertheless, it is a prominent factor in our debates. I find it strange that the leaders of a trade union who would not ballot their members on a national strike are prepared without a ballot to cast their votes to put more than 100,000 people out of work. I find the double standards to be rather strange, and they are unacceptable to me as a trade unionist who has been able to vote in my own union all my life. I say no more than that.
I have to tell your Lordships that I speak as a complete layman, with no technical knowledge or expertise on this subject, but I have always been led to believe and have always understood that the advancement of nuclear energy is one of our sunrise industries. It is a part of the future and is there whether we like it or not. It is no good people saying that it is a thing of the past. There are upwards of 400 nuclear power stations throughout the world and that number will continue to grow. I accept that there is possibly a case for a pause to re-assess the situation in order to produce absolutely undeniable evidence to the general public that nuclear power is a safe way of producing energy and that it will be quite safe to develop it.
However, what particularly worries me is the number of people employed in the nuclear industry in a special capacity. I think the noble Lord, Lord Swann, also referred to this point. Over 100,000 people are employed. Let me briefly give some figures. British Nuclear Fuels employs a total of 15,502 people. The company lists 2,604 craftsmen, 982 apprentices, 866 scientists, 3,508 technicians, over 5,000 semi-skilled and unskilled workers and 2,380 administration personnel. The United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority employs over 13,000 people in arguably Britain's most advanced and leading industry in research and development. The figures are somewhat similar. The authority has 1,601 craftsmen, 462 apprentices and over 1,600 scientists.
I am particularly worried about what will happen if we institute a moratorium that goes on for too long. As I said, I have no technical knowledge or background on which to decide what the issue is, but I have always understood that if one opts out of a fast developing technology, the longer one opts out with a moratorium the more one falls behind and gives competitors the edge. The way that technology is moving these days, I suggest that we would never make up such a loss.
I do not want to be accused of siding with any particular lobby because I believe that we are bound to see coal-fired power stations as our major supply into the distant future, provided we clean up our act. I do not accept that coal-fired power stations in this country are the sole contributors to acid rain, but it is undeniable that they are major contributors. I quote from a report in my own trade union journal:Coal contains uranium; every year in Britain from coal burning in power stations 120 tons of uranium is either dispersed into the atmosphere or in the form of ash".365 The source of energy which has so far been attacked by virile periphery groups has been nuclear energy. Not far from where I live in Yorkshire some of the major power stations were under seige by similar groups of people. I do not begrudge them the right to indulge in such activities if they believe they can speed up the Government's programme to deal with the problem of acid rain or the emission of ash from acid rain—sulphur dioxide—which we all want dealt with. However, I suggest that if we follow their arguments to the logical conclusion it will not be myself, my children or my grandchildren who will be affected. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Swann, that there is no way alternative sources of energy have anything like the dimension that will be required for our industrial future. We have to ask: what will our successors eventually become? Do they become troglodytes again? That is the situation if such people pursue the argument to its logical conclusion.
I have heard arguments concerning the safety of the nuclear industry compared with other industries. There is no doubt that the nuclear energy industry in this country has a safety record that is second to none. Some of the claims that have been made about cancer in the area of nuclear power stations, of children suffering from leukaemia in those areas, have been debunked by figures. Children in clusters are suffering from leukaemia in areas that are hundreds of miles away and where there are no nuclear power stations which could possibly affect them. That is another red herring which should be exposed.
I find it difficult to understand people who say that loss of life is another effect because it is not nuclear, it is just sudden death, nothing else happens and nobody is affected afterwards. I find that to be an odd argument to accept. I remember when I was a newspaper boy in Manchester in the early 1930s, when media coverage or availability was extremely limited. I picked up the bundle of newspapers which I was to deliver and noticed the headlines which stated that over 300 miners were trapped in Gresford colliery, near Wrexham, and it had to be sealed off. I would not accept from any present day trade union leader that the tragedy ended there and that it did not scar their wives, children and grandchildren. I suspect that the terrible accident in that colliery probably still scars the area and will do so for time immemorial. To fall back on the argument that it is a "one-off" but nuclear energy carries on is a little bit blasé.
My own party's view is to hold the situation at present. I do not go totally along that road. I believe I clashed with the Minister a few weeks ago when we were debating alternative resources. I believe there are two sides to the equation. If we replace nuclear energy with a further, heavy building programme of coal-fired power stations—I certainly would not turn to oil in the present situation—we are bound to create an increase in ancillary jobs. Whether there would be less or more than in the nuclear industry is conjecture, but there would be some spin-off. I am not particularly making the case that we ought to pursue that line.
Everyone hopes there will be an economic and industrial recovery and I believe that in this country there will be a substantial increase in the need for 366 energy. There will not be a reduced role for coal-fired power stations. There is a stable and, perhaps, increasing role. I hope that while we await the result of the Sizewell inquiry—I am not seeking to influence noble Lords present—it will be possible to proceed with a programme of one or two coal-fired power stations in order to meet the situation and help industry in the wider context.
Having said that, I honestly believe that as a nation we cannot turn our backs on nuclear energy. It is here to stay. However, with the provisos I have mentioned of ensuring that we take the public with us, with an open book showing what we are doing, we will regain the public's confidence. However, if any of your Lordships think that the Chernobyl disaster has been forgotten by ordinary people who use electricity, I must insist that it has not. We must do our utmost to allay their fears as best we can.
I close by once again thanking the noble Viscount, Lord Torrington, and members of the committee. I think that they have performed a tremendous service and that the debate in your Lordships' House will not only be read nationally but internationally. My only hope is that people will listen.
§ 4.50 p.m.
§ Lord Tanlaw
My Lords, first of all I want to thank the noble Viscount, Lord Torrington, for his dispensation that allowed me to take part in this debate although I may perhaps be unable to listen to his winding-up speech. Having once sat with members of this committee, I must congratulate him and his Sub-Committee F on producing one of their finest, if not the finest report that I can recall being produced by them. I must admit that I agree with almost every word spoken by the noble Viscount in his opening speech which set the theme for this debate. The only point that I shall take up and on which I slightly disagree with him concerns his remarks about the political conferences. If I may pick up something that the noble Lord, Lord Dean, said, I think it is possible to have underestimated the very deep concern of the public at that time and their feeling of slight bewilderment because they were not nearly so well informed as we have been in preparation for this debate. Delegates at those conferences, including my own delegation—and I disagree with their conclusion which I felt was possibly due to the lack of information that is now available to us—felt that the decisions were a reaction to the feeling of the time experienced by most people in the country regardless of party loyalties.
The noble Lord, Lord Marshall of Goring, not only sent me the excellent video Could it Happen Here? but also raised this question in this debate. From the information that has been given, the exchange of letters I have had, and indeed from what has been said in this debate so far, I am absolutely convinced that it is extremely unlikely if not virtually impossible, that such an accident would happen in this country. But this accident did not happen here; it happened over there, in Chernobyl. I think that is perhaps the area which needs to be tidied up, and some assurances need to be given to the general public if nuclear power is to 367 receive the go-ahead that it requires under the illustrative programme put forward by the European Community.
I think this point is summed up in paragraph 274 of the conclusions of Volume I of the report:The real lesson of Chernobyl is that nuclear safety is an international problem which affects everyone. There are no nuclear free zones".It is in this context that our procedures in this country were perhaps caught a little by surprise. I think that people were prepared; government departments, the agencies, the CEGB and everyone connected with the nuclear industry had made preparations for some possible accident or emergency on our own patch. However, when something reached us from abroad, I have a feeling that the lines of communication were not very clear and that the public was left in confusion for some period of time as to just how serious the situation was. It is in this area where restoring the confidence of the general public that the safety factor in the nuclear industry is as good abroad as it is at home can be most productive.
In paragraph 845 of Volume II of the report the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, expressed a very valid point and raised serious doubts. We might get it right in Europe, but what about Russia, which still has a number of models of what are considered to be unsatisfactorily designed nuclear power stations? Will the Russians show that they are good Europeans in the sense that they will conform and agree with the safety procedures that the whole of the European Community may well concur are satisfactory? I think that is a point that needs to be expounded and looked into, possibly over the next 12 months.
I mentioned earlier—as indeed did the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick—the public concern at the time of Chernobyl. I think that the existence of a multiplicity of government departments and agencies which have every right to be concerned and to issue statements when such an accident happens was really half the problem. There may very well be a need for one sole agency to be concerned and to act as the interface between the Government and the general public.
I have had difficulty enough—let alone members of the general public—in trying to speak to the persons concerned. As Members of Parliament we are privileged to have access to an officer of, say, the CEGB or British Nuclear Fuels who can keep us well informed, but an ordinary member of the public who is really worried about radioactivity and who has a general worry of this kind, experiences great difficulty in getting through to someone who will either reassure him or tell him the required information or the right department to which he wishes to speak. He may be a sheep farmer on Eskdalemuir who, like myself and many others, several months after the accident at Chernobyl has said to have his sheep killed and examined for radioactivity without being given too much explanation as to why. So I think that it would be very helpful if British Nuclear Fuels, the Department of the Environment, the National Radiological Protection Board, the UK Atomic Energy Authority, the Natural Environmental Research Council, the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology 368 and so on—the list goes on—who all have an interest in radioactivity, could intercommunicate and communicate better with the public through one agency.
There is one government agency or department which is not included in that list, yet it is perhaps the most important of all in my view, and it is the only government department that has daily, if not hourly, contact with its counterparts in Europe and the rest of the world. It has a national network of monitoring stations for rainfall, and in many of the main towns it also has a centre which the public are quite used to dealing with. It is of course the Meteorological Office. I am talking only about an incoming disaster or incoming radioactivity. Here the Meteorological Office is vital and the information that it dispenses and predictions that it makes are absolutely critical when an accident takes place, which may occur not only in this country but, more importantly, beyond our shores. As I explained earlier, I feel that there is a case for the argument that the British public were not kept adequately informed after the accident, and it seems to me that it was because there was no one agency involved with a clear means and responsibility to issue the information which the public required.
The situation was handled better in Germany. I understand that the German weather service is responsible not only for measuring rainfall but also for measuring radioactivity, and this may have been a significant factor in explaining the difference between the reactions of the general public in Germany and in the United Kingdom to the event at Chernobyl. I wonder whether there is a good case to be made for setting up a similar arrangement in this country, whereby the Meteorological Office has the ability to detect radioactivity in the weather. The weather centres which have been set up in our larger cities could then provide possibly a good interface between the general public and the information about radiation levels, if and whenever it is of concern to the general public.
What is also missing is that there is no local person or local officer to whom one can go. Obviously, the local authorities will have to be brought in and I suggest that it is a radiation officer—or perhaps someone in the public health department of a local authority could be designated as a radiation officer—who is trained up and organised to link up with other government departments if such an accident should happen again.
In preparation for this debate I have asked each of these departments in turn and each of them says that it will take up to two years to work on a possible inter-relationship between government departments in order to get this information out to the general public. While at first I thought that it was rather shocking that it should take so long, on reflection it may give us a good opportunity to draw back and to think again about how we shall reassure the public. We need the public's confidence in and support for the nuclear programme or it will not work, for the reasons given by the noble Viscount, Lord Torrington.
Let us take the extreme case that he mentioned: that a political party in this country, Germany or even France, decides that it is not satisfied with safety and does not want to build any more nuclear power 369 stations or wants to shut existing ones. What are the alternatives? The noble Lord, Lord Swann, with his depth of knowledge, which is greater than mine, said that it is not easy to say, "We shall go straight into fossil fuel to make our electricity".
The atmospheric pollution that coal-fired power stations cause was mentioned earlier. I think that we were told from the Government Benches only two weeks ago that 2.5 million tonnes of sulphur dioxide are released by our power stations every year. That is equivalent to 66kg of sulphur per person per annum. That is a worrying statistic, but I am far more worried about another one—200 million tonnes of carbon dioxide are released from United Kingdom power stations alone every year. That is 3.5 million tonnes per person per annum in this country. That situation is already creating serious problems, and I shall refer to it later. That 65 per cent. of the heat generated by coal-fired power stations goes into the atmosphere is now well known. There may be a 50 per cent. increase in electricity bills. There may be an increase in the number of premature deaths. The American experience, according to one set of statistics, shows that there have been 40,000 premature deaths every year in the United States due to atmospheric pollution.
Decisions are not easy. The European Community and the industrialised world have the responsibility and burden of deciding which way they are going. They will need a good two years before they can come to such a decision. What happens in the industrialised West will be followed by the necessary programmes of rural electrification in the third world if it is to catch up with the benefits enjoyed by industrial civilisations. It too will be adding greatly to atmospheric pollution. It will take a lead from what we do in Europe.
Noble Lords who have a long memory will recall that on 30th November 1978 (col. 1442 of Hansard) I drew to the attention of the House worries about the change in global weather patterns that might result from carbon dioxide or, as it is well known today, the greenhouse effect. I have recently read confirmation in the United States' geographical survey on permafrost in Alaska that the predictions and slight worries expressed in the House at that time seem to be occurring far faster than was predicted in 1978 with the knowledge then available.
Governments in Europe have an ethical responsibility to decide whether we are going to change the atmosphere permanently and change the climate of the northern hemisphere by maintaining a major policy of fossil fuel burning in our power stations.
This debate is timely. The need for decisions on the laying down or commissioning of nuclear power stations may be urgent, but far more urgent is the need to decide whether we use an economic measure alone in making a judgment on the long-term future of nuclear generation. I hope that after two years, and after the safeguards which were missing in the recent disaster have been put right, international co-operation, with Russia in particular, will reach a new level. I hope that Russia, as part of Europe, will co-operate on a problem which is a human and not a political one, so that we can produce a long lasting and happy answer for us all.
The Earl of Halsbury
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I wonder whether I may give him the opportunity to correct what must have been a slip of the tongue. He referred to an output of 3.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per person. With 50 million people in the country that works out at 1.7 x 1014 tonnes of carbon dioxide per nation per year. I feel that he must have made a slip.
§ Lord Tanlaw
My Lords, with respect to the noble Earl, I queried that figure. I was given it by the CEGB information officer. I was astounded by it. I wait for any further correction from any noble Lord who may be more scientific than I am.
§ 5.6 p.m.
§ Lord Plowden
My Lords, I should declare a past interest because in 1954 I was appointed the first chairman of the Atomic Energy Authority. I want to congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Torrington, and his colleagues on a most excellent report that we are discussing. The committee's report is an important step in building confidence in the future of nuclear power. I have been encouraged greatly by listening to all who have spoken in the debate and who have accepted the views of the committee and not those of those people who wish to slow down the development of nuclear power.
The report does not confine itself to four or five years; it looks well into the next century. That makes the timescales of energy supply planning clear. It is not possible to discuss the future of nuclear power without accepting, as we all heard today, that many people are apprehensive and fearful of its use. In its report, the committee points out that that stems largely from a fear of radiation because it cannot be detected by the senses.
Some 30 people died in the accident at Chernobyl. No doubt some other people will have their lives shortened by the amount of radiation that they received. We must, however, put those casualties into perspective. I should like to give some figures. In 1985, 4,832 people were killed on the roads of this country; in 1983, 45,800 were killed on the roads of the United States; and, in 1984, 591 people were killed in industry in Great Britain. That includes agriculture, construction and mining. We seem to ignore those figures, horrendous as they are, perhaps because they occur only in small numbers. However, I think it is generally because we have come to accept them as part of the price we pay for the kind of society in which we live.
There are other disadvantages in fossil fuel-fired generating plants, as the noble Lord, Lord Swann, has pointed out. Perhaps I may add to the figures that have already been given. In 1984, United Kingdom power stations poured 2.4 million tonnes of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere. As we know, that has adverse effects on the environment as far away as Scandinavia. That does not take into account the millions of tonnes of pollutants poured into the atmosphere by the motor cars which we all drive.
The report reminds us that there are other substances that cannot be detected by the senses: mercury and pesticide residues. In the last few weeks there have been two accidents in Switzerland on the 371 banks of the Rhine involving these materials, but the amount of alarm that this has caused has been very little, at least in this country.
Electric power is the basis of modern civilisation. With the exception of Germany—which has abundant forms of extremely cheap lignite—the committee found that all the European utilities agreed that nuclear energy is the cheapest source available. There have been suggestions that we should delay the whole matter. I am not sure whether I understood the noble Viscount, Lord Torrington, aright when he suggested that we should hold up the development of nuclear power until it had been decided whether in this country we wanted to adopt the AGR or the PWR. I do not intend to enter into that controversy.
§ Viscount Torrington
My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord would permit me to correct that impression. I said that if there is a politically or technically caused pause in the nuclear power programme I hope that that pause may be used to sort out the problem of reactor choice. But I did not suggest that I would wish to encourage the pause.
§ Lord Plowden
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reassurance. I am reassured. However, the reactor which the noble Lord, Lord Marshall, mentioned—and which is mentioned in the report—to which I attach most importance in the long run is the fast breeder reactor. One was started at Dounreay in the 'fifties and I understand that the progress made has been very great. Within reasonable time, therefore, an economic and safer reactor can be put into use. It has the great advantage not only of better safety but that it can use the spent fuel from the thermal reactors. I understand that there are stocks today which, if used in a fast breeder reactor, are equivalent to the nation's recoverable coal reserves.
However, I would issue a plea that in no circumstances should a delay be imposed so that the teams working on the development of the fast reactor are broken up and the valuable experience lost. It is vital that that knowledge should continue to be exploited, and that it should be exploited on the international scale which has been suggested.
Finally, we want to emphasise that the nuclear industry must be more open and explain to the public the advantages and disadvantages of nuclear power. It must admit its mistakes when they are made. The need for this is extremely urgent, as the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, pointed out. It is all very well for us in this House to discuss and agree the advantages of nuclear power, but we have to persuade the great British public of its advantages and of its inherent safety when compared with other forms of power. But, if the nuclear industry is to be more open, the corollary is that the media must refrain from treating everything to do with nuclear energy in a sensational way.
If I look back on my time as Chairman of the Atomic Energy Authority, I think that we were too secretive. The reason was that the first use of nuclear power for generating electricity was at Calder Hall and the reactors at Calder Hall were built to produce plutonium for our military programme. That made us particularly secretive. When I think about the fire in one of the very early reactors at Windscale, I do not 372 feel we were secretive then. We had two, if not three, inquiries chaired by the then Chairman of ICI, Dr. Fleck. the results of those inquiries were made public. However, as is clear from the report and our discussions this afternoon, we need to be thinking very seriously about how we are to meet the energy needs of our children, our grandchildren, and even our great-grandchildren.
One of the important contributions of the report is to focus our minds on the fact that decisions we take now, or fail to take now, will determine how well placed future generations will be to meet their energy needs and to maintain their standard of living, let alone increase it. The message from the report is strong and clear: that a substantial expansion of nuclear capacity is needed. I would endorse that and suggest that there are no realistic alternatives which have the potential to meet our future requirements with the economic and environmental advantages of safe nuclear power. To renounce nuclear power would cost our descendants very dear, particularly if our competitors continue with it, as indeed the French have already declared that they will do.
§ 5.17 p.m.
§ Lord Ironside
My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Torrington for introducing this subject which we are now debating. As a member of Sub-Committee F I should like to congratulate him—I am afraid the noble Viscount is not in the Chamber at the moment—on the way that he chaired the committee in this inquiry. If Russian reactors are accident prone, he is not, because he kept the line of inquiry absolutely on course throughout the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident.
It is ironic that the binding forces of nature in the nucleus of uranium isotopes have proved to be far more compelling than the forces of man trying to bring together countries, and for that matter physicists and nuclear engineers, to work towards common thermal reactor designs through the medium of Euratom. It has been easier in fact to split the nations on most aspects of radioactivity than to split the atom. I would say that the only factor that now seems to be fusing minds together—at least in Europe, thank goodness!—is for the realisation of the fast breeder reactor in the early 2000s and the distant prospect of the fusion reactor itself embodied for all of us to see at the moment in the JET experiment at Culham.
The whole subject of nuclear power invites a number of questions on the international scene, as we can see from the illustrative programme which we are now debating. We should be more concerned with the United Kingdom fallout from all of this and how we ourselves can respond to the energy scenario, which is not just centred on the question of which type of thermal reactor we should have, but on other far more significant factors, such as the management of the whole of the uranium fuel cycle, from enrichment to reprocessing to waste disposal, and that sort of thing; and keeping the right balance of coal-fired generation in the face of increased nuclear generation, establishing international safety standards, developing acceptable waste disposal methods, and developing decommissioning and dismantling techniques for stations.
373 Incidentally, following this last point, we have all just read of the lives lost a few days ago in dismantling a fossil-fired station in this country. There is as yet no experience in dismantling a nuclear station, but I do not think that from this we should necessarily jump to the conclusion that it would be more dangerous just because it is nuclear, and that more lives will be lost. As in the case of ammunition, it becomes dangerous only as soon as you forget that it is safe, but I shall return to the decommissioning point later.
As my noble friend Lord Torrington has said, the illustrative programme's global target is set at 40 per cent. nuclear-fired generation capacity by 1995 and 50 per cent. by 2000, which, in the opinion of the committee is unlikely to be achieved. These figures of course sound very straight-forward, but they cloud the situation in the member states, which have widely different resources and regimes of electricity production.
We have to take decisions nationally to ensure that our own security of supply is at a competitive cost. In trying to increase the contribution of nuclear power to electricity generation, we must not lose sight of the fact that it cannot be done unless there are adequate and readily available engineering skills and capacity in UK industry to carry the decisions from design through into building plant to time and to cost. I think that we must also ensure that we get the right mix of fossil-fired and nuclear power stations to be able to utilise our coal and oil resources in the most effective way before premium uses of these primary fuels appear on the scene and give nuclear power generation its prime role.
All of this decision-making is complicated by the very long lead times in getting generating stations on stream—and this was a point which was emphasised by the noble Lord, Lord Nelson of Stafford—by introducing new reactor technology and clean combustion, and, I suppose, eventually getting into the technology of fast breeders and fusion. The situation we now find ourselves in is the result of earlier decisions to go for Magnox stations followed by AGR. To some extent, we are not alone in this, but I think that we have to bear the agony of having too many reactor designs to worry about.
There are calls now for AGR, PWR and coal, but in the evidence I think that there is a clear case for nuclear-power generation on the grounds of lower unit cost of production, so that, as the noble Lord, Lord Nelson, has said, in the end industry can get electricity at the right price.
I think that the planned nuclear option (if this is what we can call it) of AGR or PWR at Sizewell exists only so long as we can reach a decision in time. The inquiry delay at Sizewell has meant that we are running out of AGR ordering time and, in order to arrive on stream in 1994, we shall find that we are committed to the PWR because, as the CEGB has said, it can start ordering straight away instead of having to wait two years before AGR ordering can commence. Of course, with AGR there are perhaps the added risks of further planning delays. In theory, I suppose that the planned option still exists, but in practice it seems to have just evaporated, and, from 374 what has been said in evidence, I think it now looks only like a fall-back position at the best.
Certainly, if Sizewell goes PWR, the AGR can never again be an option. The squeeze will then start to come on the AGR technical resources in the country, putting a premium on the maintenance and running of the 14 stations of this type.
The South of Scotland Electricity Board takes the view that it is better to concentrate resources on one type of thermal reactor, and I think that this makes sense, but it looks as though very late in the day PWR, and not AGR, will become the favourite.
The mood in the United Kingdom nuclear industry—and here I have to declare an interest—is becoming apprehensive, and it is becoming more difficult to justify keeping facilities on tap indefinitely without some firmer ordering prospect than we now have. It is becoming more difficult to attract the right talent and to assure engineers of further career opportunity in this field. It takes years to build up skills and the trained people who operate all the very expensive facilities, and they can be dissipated overnight. I noted that the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, drew attention to the figures involved here, and the large number of people who have to worry about what the future will be, while the moratorium and the nuclear pause is taking place at the moment.
I think that we can avoid a great deal of this, but not unless we bring to an end the stop-go ordering situation. A case for AGR is strong after getting the design right, but I think that if PWR beats AGR on unit costs of generation, it is also clear that there will be a premium attached to exercising the PWR option in the United Kingdom. The contingency costs of getting that design right will have to be counted and paid for fully. I think that the CEGB recognises this and it has included them. However, I am wondering whether it has included enough here.
I want to turn to decommissioning. I think that the illustrative programme tries to sweep the issue under the carpet and put it out into the "distant future", but it is now here with us. What the report actually says is:Since the nuclear sector is of recent origin, demolition is an activity for the distant future".As the noble Lord, Lord Nelson, said, some of the nuclear stations are already rather long in the tooth and I do not think that this particular statement of the committee in this document lines up and makes sense.
Small experimental reactors have already been decommissioned and the larger Magnox reactors are now in the pipeline for this treatment. I believe that Latina, in Italy, which is a Magnox station, has started decommissioning, or is just about to start decommissioning. Plans are in hand to deal with the French Magnox reactors and that will have to be carefully handled. Plans will have to be put in hand here, as I understand it, to decommission Berkeley and Bradwell in the very near future.
The evidence that we received in committee showed that in Germany the authorities will have to demonstrate that it can be done safely. In France it will go ahead in a planned way, but it has not yet started. Methods of dismantling are being developed, and the first station at Chinon in France may be turned back into green fields. However, they recognise the 375 problems with their type of Magnox which represents to them the worst case of contamination in the range of reactors that they have. Private companies will undertake the work and it will take a long time. During this time the site has to be kept secure, and that is very costly.
We are faced with these problems, and evidence from the Sizewell inquiry shows that the CEGB might wait for decades for the Magnox sites to cool down, radioactively speaking. In fact to me it would seem logical to keep them as nuclear islands for ever, and perhaps use them as storage sites for low or intermediate waste. Bradwell is being studied for this purpose at the moment. There is much merit in doing this and arranging for that particular site to be one of the storage sites.
But what I want to say, my Lords, is that the nuclear industry in this country is well equipped to offer decontamination services and has already expertly decontaminated the old naval dockyard at Chatham, and it is well placed to offer services for example to the Australian Government to deal with decontaminating the old Maralinga or Woomera rocket ranges in the great Victoria Desert. It is well placed to provide expert technical assistance, and I hope that the Government will consider this in negotiating with the Australian Government.
Decommissioning, decontamination and dismantling are projects which are not to be treated lightly, and I hope that the United Kingdom plans will demonstrate the major role that the British nuclear industry can play in this sector. The problem is here with us now and not in the distant future, as the Commission suggest.
If the periodic review document under the Euratom Treaty Article 40—which has the acronym, as the noble Viscount, Lord Torrington, said, "PINC" for Programme indicatif nucléaire pour la Communauté—shows up anything at all from our point of view, I think it shows that we are not so freshly in the pink as we think we are, even if the EC thinks that Europe is. Clearly there are hard and calculated decisions to take and a long way to go to get to the fast breeder reactor and fusion, if that ever comes, but I hope that whatever is decided on Sizewell B the ordering programme can be swiftly resumed to put the United Kingdom nuclear industry properly back in the pink.
§ 5.33 p.m.
§ Lord Zuckerman
My Lords, the manner in which the contributions of Members of your Lordships' House have complemented each other during the course of this afternoon is a tribute to the skill of the noble Viscount, Lord Torrington, who chaired his committee so superbly. I had the privilege of sitting under his chairmanship, and I do not believe that anyone could have done a better job in steering us to a report which, from what has been said so far, has the approval of your Lordships' House.
We all know that there is a close link between manufacturing output, the growth of the economy, and the consumption of electric power. The noble Lord, Lord Marshall, will correct me if I am wrong, 376 but I believe that the trend is towards an increase in electrical consumption per unit of economic growth.
We also know that in general the growth of generating capacity proceeds a little faster than does the growth of the economy, and I believe that I am right in saying that at the present moment there is no particular shortage of electric power. But what we appreciate even more is that there is an enormous shortage of manufacturing power and that demand for electrical power is therefore bound to go up. I forget the exact figure we were given at our hearings, but I seem to remember that it was something like a shortfall in excess of 10,000 megawatts by the year 2000. If this is so, it implies an enormous shortfall that will have to be made good on any reasonable assumptions about the growth of the British economy.
Our inquiry was addressed in the first instance to the Illustrative Programme about the need for nuclear power in the Community as a whole. But our immediate, and important, concern is with our own requirements. The question which faces us, and which has come up in this afternoon's debate, is how critical is the need to add now to our own nuclear capacity, a point made by my noble friend Lord Plowden.
We also want to know what options are open to us for the generation of large quantities of the electrical power that we are bound to call for. If we follow the nuclear path, we also have to decide—or someone has to decide—on the best choice of reactor design; the best choice in terms of the most economical, the safest, and the most acceptable design.
The options for increasing the volume of power which different countries in the Community can exploit vary. We in the United Kingdom believe that at the present moment we can choose between coal, oil and nuclear. Of course there is also conservation. Another option would be to import power, and I shall come to that later.
The fact that France has no coal—she does not have the natural resources that we have of fossil fuel—is probably responsible for her having gone ahead with her nuclear programme as fast as she did, beginning in 1970. I am one of those who regret enormously that we did not do likewise at the same time. We are now unfortunately lagging behind, and so the noble Lord. Lord Marshall, the chairman of the CEGB, is now talking about his first PWR. When he saw the committee, he told us that if he were given permission to go ahead straight away, and if he could follow with further PWRs soon after he got planning permission for Sizewell 2, in the period up to the year 2000 we might have, I think he said, five PWRs, and in the interval the French number would have gone up from its present figure in the thirties to 59.
We have a number of choices before us. We enjoy a mix of all three sources of power, but I do not have the slightest doubt that we are going to need nuclear power. It is not just because we are going to find it difficult to rely upon fossil fuels; there are also the demands of the third world to consider. There is conservation. The noble Lord, Lord Swann, who has had to leave, referred to the fact that our sources of fossil fuel would be running out, and he gave a figure somewhere in the middle of the next century, which is 377 somewhat sooner that the figure I would have accepted, I think it will he later than that. In the estimates for the Coal Board, for which the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, was responsible at the time, the minimum figure that was given was 300 years.
I am not competent to suggest which is the best type of nuclear reactor to go for, and nor would I express any views on the general economic considerations which surround the whole of the problem. The fact is that there are pros and cons whatever our choice is. Among the pros for nuclear power are those two issues on which the noble Lord, Lord Swann, dwelt: the greenhouse effect—there would be no addition to the greenhouse effect if we went nuclear—and acid rain. On the other hand, we also know that there are considerable cons to nuclear power—mainly, and essentially public acceptability and public fear. There are hazards, but we have to realise that whatever option we choose, whatever option any country chooses, there are technical and social risks.
I feel that in what has been said about informing the public, we are all a little confused about the components of the nuclear fear. This is a subject which the noble Lord, Lord Marshall, can talk about far better than I can. He has to deal with worker exposure. The radiation levels to which workers at nuclear plants are subjected, minimal though it is, are occasionally reported in the newspapers.
There is the question of environmental radiation, but the main one which really worries everybody is the big nuclear accident—another Chernobyl or Three Mile Island. Admiral Rickover, whom I knew well, once said to me, when referring to variations we were proposing in propulsion reactors, that every reactor ought to be designed to be better than the average of all previous reactors that had been designed. He was not making a silly remark in the sense of saying that we are a great country and cannot afford to have any of our citizens having a standard of living below that of the average. It was not that kind of remark. He was making a real statement about technological progress and efficiency. I am sure that in the design which has been produced for Sizewell 2, and in any future designs, this consideration will he foremost in the minds of those doing the technical planning. They have to do better than what has been done before.
Unfortunately, we have no working experience of PWRs. All we can hope is that so far as worker exposure is concerned the situation will be far better than the average in the United States at the present moment. There are some in the United States who believe that our design assumes far lower levels than are possible.
So far as the general environmental risks are concerned, these have been touched upon and dealt with adequately in what has already been said in the course of this debate. As the noble Lord, Lord Marshall, pointed out when he saw the committee, we face normal environmental radiation risks all the time. This again was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Plowden, and by other speakers in the debate who referred earlier to the amount of uranium that is poured into the atmosphere by coal-fired stations.
378 No one has discussed the disposal of radioactive waste—and I do not intend to do so—or discharges from reprocessing plants. These issues again are compounded in the general public fear. In the public mind all these risks come together in the concept of nuclear disaster, and in nuclear disasters, as we have learnt from Chernobyl, there are no national frontiers. The nuclear fear is a transnational problem. That is why I particularly like one of the conclusions or recommendations in the second part of the summary of the report in which a call is made for an international agreement covering all aspects of reactor safety and operation, and also for rigorous international inspection. That was not regarded before as seriously as it should have been. Chernobyl undoubtedly has made the international aspect of nuclear safety a primary objective. There has been, and there was, as the noble Lord, Lord Plowden said, undue secrecy at the start. There was secrecy not just because our first station made plutonium. There was competition: one of the things that used to worry Admiral Rickover was that his Shippingport reactor went on stream after Calderhall.
The public should be made aware of the nature and the source of the different fears which are compounded in the fear of nuclear power. They should be assured, which I believe can justifiably be done, that the best engineering standards, coupled with disciplined operational and management procedures, should assure safety. France is much better standardised than the United States, and by comparing the different performances one can see how valuable standardisation is. I have been told that in the United States three plants opened up recently and practically no members of the crews put in to work those plants had worked in a nuclear power station before. I hope that is an exaggeration, but that is what I was told by someone in the industry.
We have heard, and the noble Lord, Lord Marshall, made the point, that the way things are here a nuclear accident of Chernobyl scale could never occur in this country. There is, unfortunately, rather too long a perspective to that word "never". One just has to hope against all hope, or with all hope, that such an accident will never occur. Were there to be another nuclear disaster, that would finish the nuclear industry, regardless of the need for the power it should provide. It certainly would delay progress for a considerable time. Probability calculations are very odd things.
I was involved in those which led to the construction of the Thames Barrier and the likelihood of another North Sea surge occurring. We calculated how many tens of thousands of people would be drowned in their beds with this or that rise in the level of the Thames. Nonetheless, although the probability was utterly remote, the government of the day had to decide to build the barrage. I hope that we can rely on that word "never". That is why I repeat again that the best engineering standards, based upon experience, and with all the knowledge that is now available about negligent operational procedures, will always justify the use of the word "never".
There is one final point. I want to elaborate something that the noble Earl, Lord Bessborough, said when he was talking about our relationship with France. I hope that relationship is as close as he 379 suggested it was. I hope that our collaboration with France and Europe and in the Common Market generally on the development of nuclear power is as close as it should be. By the year 2000—which is the time by which any new nuclear power stations which we might embark upon now would become operational—Europe will be far more integrated than it now is. We are already importing power from France. As I have said before, had we embarked on the same programme (which we might have done) when the French programme started, we would be in a position to export power. Well, the French got there first. A variety of reasons made us reject the course that France took, and I am quite certain that I am not alone in regretting the way we went.
I therefore conclude by repeating that I believe that Europe is going to be very much more integrated by the year 2000 than it is today. I imagine that as the French programme expands it will become more economic and costs will fall. It seems to me that we have to be quite sure that our current competitive cost estimates can be relied upon to apply to the end of the 1990s. We have a poor record in co-operating technologically with Europe, and not just in the nuclear field. Apart for URENCO, there is very little in the nuclear field; and we were not the most enthusiastic supporters of EURATOM. But times have changed and I hope that in satisfying the additional need for power in this country we do so within the context of the general need for an increase in generating power in Europe as a whole.
§ 5.52 p.m.
My Lords, I should like to congratulate my noble friend Lord Torrington, who chaired the committee on which I was privileged to sit. Indeed, even during the world's worst nuclear power disaster, his organisation of the committee was not diverted when often the questions put to our witnesses were. If we turn that dark, Chernobyl cloud inside out, I am sure that we can find several silver linings shining through. Indeed, this afternoon several have already been identified. In the same way as that highly radioactive cloud of iodine and caesium swept across north-west Russia and into Europe, uncontainable even in a territory the size of the Soviet Union, so also were the clouds of secrecy swept away, unstoppable by any government, even one as powerful as the Kremlin.
It was, after all, the Russians who instigated the first international post-accident review in Vienna in August, and I think that this House is very honoured to have heard the noble Lord, Lord Marshall of Goring, tell us exactly what the Russians said at that meeting. Secondly, the Chernobyl accident (as my noble friend Lord Torrington has already mentioned) poignantly demonstrated that countries without nuclear power are as much at risk as those which are firmly committed to it, perhaps even to the point of persuading non-nuclear countries to think again. After all, if they have to suffer the risks, why should they not also reap the benefits?
Nuclear power generation on a world scale can only be as safe as the weakest reactor in the world, even if that reactor is nearly 1,000 miles behind the Iron Curtain. Every nuclear plant—and there are now more than 370 in the world—must be subject to 380 internationally agreed minimum standards, as the noble Earl, Lord Bessborough, the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, and other noble Lords have mentioned. Perhaps now in the light of Chernobyl an international nuclear safety inspectorate, with the sharpest possible teeth, might yet become a reality.
My third and main reason for gilding that terrifyingly posionous cloud is that since that accident there has been no excuse for most Europeans to be ignorant of nuclear options. Prior to 26th April, European public confidence in nuclear power was slowly but surely improving. The miners' strike had shown the importance of a nuclear component in our own generating capacity while the French, enjoying Europe's cheapest electricity—over 70 per cent. nuclear powered—had, hardly surprisingly, a large majority of public support.
Nonetheless, despite the huge economic advantages of nuclear power, despite the environmental damage caused by the burning of fossil fuel, despite the good nuclear safety record in Europe, public opinion even before Chernobyl was not overwhelmingly in support. A MARPLAN survey conducted in September 1985 found, for example, that 50 per cent. were in favour of maintaining or expanding the nuclear component while 38 per cent. opted for the reduction or abandonment of nuclear power.
In the game of party politics, a 12 per cent. majority may be ample to send the country into an immediate general election but not sufficient, I suggest, to justify a wholesale increase in nuclear plant. Why, then, the concern? The public's view of nuclear energy is more often than not emotional rather than rational, being based more upon fear than upon fact; and the noble Lord, Lord Zuckerman, has already referred to this in his speech. Because of its early associations with nuclear weaponry, our own nuclear power industry grew up with its own cloud of secrecy. In 1985, the World Association of Public Opinion canvassed people in countries accustomed to nuclear power about its desirability. While the actual percentage of pros and cons are now history and probably out of date, I am sure the trends are still valid. For example, women were more opposed to nuclear power than men; the younger generation more opposed than the older; those with only secondary education more opposed that those with a higher education, and those with an arts background more opposed than those with a scientific or technical bent.
An obvious conclusion is that those who know about nuclear power are in favour of it while those who do not are afraid of it. Yet public opinion is by far the greatest restraint to the expansion of nuclear power. Certainly even before Chernobyl great efforts had already been made to improve what virtually all those who gave evidence to us on behalf of the nuclear industry admitted was an appalling lack of information. The noble Lords, Lord Tanlaw and Lord Plowden, have referred to the same crucial point. Indeed, one can adopt a topical phrase and say that the nuclear industry could have been accused in the past of being somewhat economical with the truth.
The Russian accident immediately reversed public opinion. However, it has also resulted in a fact-hungry public—something on which the noble Lord, Lord 381 Dean of Beswick, talked a lot; and I shall not repeat what he has said. But the public want to know the risks, they want to understand the pros and cons before they make a judgment, and they ought to be given those facts. In other words, public relations is vital. Many people think of public relations as the first two letters of the word "propaganda". The Institute of Public Relations, hardly surprisingly, defines it differently as:the deliberate planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain mutual understanding between an organisation and its public".The Government are now committed to making information about our nuclear industry widely available. Every leak of radioactivity, however small, however inconsequential, now has to be published immediately. In turn, full government support is being given to the nuclear industry's efforts to build upon their public relations. Last year 30,000 people visited Sellafield, where they have opened a new information centre. According to British Nuclear Fuels, the number of visitors is now running at an annual rate of nearly 100,000. There are many people who cannot or will not go, but if they know that such places are open to them, that in itself must improve public confidence in nuclear power.
Another major priority in educating the public is surely to find some easily understood benchmark to indicate the relative degrees of radiation. Some of these comparisons are fairly astounding—and we have heard a number of them this afternoon—even to those with a fair knowledge of the industry. For example, on average the population of the United Kingdom receives 115 times as much radiation from medical applications such as X-rays as it does from the nuclear industry. Air crews, in their occupation, are exposed to twice as much radiation as workers in nuclear power stations. A person swimming in the Cumbrian sea or eating huge quantities of Cumbrian fish would receive about one twentieth of the radiation he would be exposed to if he lived in certain parts of Cornwall.
In giving evidence to your committee, the noble Lord, Lord Marshall, suggested expressing radiation risks in terms of the number of cigarettes which, if smoked by an individual, would produce a similar risk of cancer. The uranium discharged from Sellafield, for example, in January would have resulted in a radiation dose to a member of the public equivalent to one-twentieth of one cigarette in a lifetime; that is, less than one puff in a lifetime. On that account, I for one would have been better off swimming for many weeks beside the Sellafield outfall than working for a day on this speech!
Chernobyl will undoubtedly produce a nuclear pause in Europe, and the public have every right to be concerned; but unless the truth about nuclear power is communicated that pause could last for ever and a great opportunity to provide Europe with the power it needs would be lost for ever, probably through ignorance alone. If, on the other hand, Chernobyl results in an informed but demanding public supporting a safer nuclear industry, then there is the silver lining.
§ 6.2 p.m.
§ Lord Sherfield
My Lords, I must begin by saying that owing to the unforeseen popularity of this debate I may have to leave before its end to fulfil a long-standing engagement. I crave the indulgence of the House and of the Minister for that predicament.
The report we are discussing this evening is, in my opinion, one of the clearest, best-balanced and cogent reports which have been issued from the Select Committee on the European Communities. I join wholeheartedly in the congratulations which have been given to the noble Viscount, Lord Torrington, and his colleagues. In fact the shortest speech which could be made about this report is really, "Hear, hear!". The committee has also surmounted with aplomb and good judgment the Chernobyl disaster.
A European official is quoted in the report as saying:after Chernobyl public opinion will never be the same again",and one has to agree with him. Yet even this disaster should not, as the committee concludes and as many noble Lords have said this evening, invalidate the case for the development of nuclear power, because there is an inherent difference between the RBMK design and those operating in the rest of Western Europe.
It was in 1963 when, as chairman of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Agency, I was on a visit to the Soviet Atomic Energy Commission that my Russian opposite number or side-kick, as an American might say—who incidentally is still in post—sent me down to visit one of these RBMK reactors then under construction at Voronesh in the Don basin. I am, of course, no engineer, but my advisers had briefed me about the already perceived weaknesses of the design—the choice of materials, the absence of secondary containment and the other characteristics to which the noble Lord, Lord Marshall of Goring, has drawn our attention. My inspection on the spot, though perhaps amateurish, did nothing to reassure me; and so perhaps it was inevitable that this major disaster should have occurred in the Soviet Union.
It also so happens that last February I wrote an article in which I felt able to say that there had not been a fatal accident (except for workmen falling off ladders and the like) in the whole history of civil nuclear power generation. Now that can no longer be said, though the number killed in the accident is about the same as the average number killed in bus crashes, which occur all over Europe with such regularity. There are of course a larger number who may later die prematurely from the effects of radiation, but this effect is extremely difficult to estimate and experience has shown that hitherto it has been very much exaggerated.
However, most nuclear matters seem to be beyond rational argument. If one says that a similar accident, as has been said this evening, could not occur in the types of reactor in service in this country and in other countries of Europe and elsewhere that is not generally believed or understood, because the majority of the population do not distinguish between different types of reactor and indeed do not seem interested in making such a distinction. The noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, has underlined this point very well. The issue of the public perception and acceptance of nuclear 383 power has been made much more difficult by what has happened. Three Mile Island, where no one was hurt, was bad enough; Chernobyl was a real disaster.
There is a need to review the safety aspects of all reactors, and to do so on an international scale; but it is essential to retain a sense of proportion. There are two aspects to this—the workforce and the hardware. It is noteworthy that, as in so many air, sea and transport disasters, at both Three Mile Island and Chernobyl the fault lay with the operators, who not only made errors but a whole series of major errors in direct breach of the rule books. Human folly can foul up even supposedly foolproof mechanisms, and so it is essential for the operators of nuclear power plants in all countries to be trained to the highest standards and given refresher courses at regular intervals. No doubt this is an obvious conclusion which will be drawn by all nuclear authorities; and, not surprisingly, the noble Lord, Lord Marshall of Goring, has reassured us that this conclusion has long been drawn in the United Kingdom.
The second conclusion seems to be that the highest possible degree of automation should be built into nuclear reactor control arrangements. But as regards the plant itself, it must be very doubtful whether, except at the margin, much more needs to be built in, and the committee's report confirms this.
Already the safety margins have been greatly increased so far as the AGRs are concerned. I cite a recent article by Dr. Ned Franklin, whose untimely death we recently mourned. Dr. Franklin, after spending over 20 years in the Atomic Energy Authority and the nuclear industry, was elected to the Royal Society and was Professor of Nuclear Energy at Imperial College at the time of his death. In comparing the AGR stations at Heysham I and Heysham II he points out:The second reactor will cost one and a half times as much as the first and the increase is certainly due in great measure to increased safety margins, though the exact amount is difficult to calculate".He concludes:Of course, real safety standards should be and are improved in the light of knowledge and experience, but it is difficult to believe that it can be necessary to spend so much extra on the daughter if the parent stations are judged safe for continued operation and unlikely to cause any loss of life, as they certainly are. To do so is to value a single human life at some tens of millions of pounds".I come now the the question of radiation, which has been referred to by many previous speakers and which, as the report rightly states, is,a major cause of public disquiet about nuclear energy".It also says that,public attitudes contain many elements of illogicality and inconsistency";and, thirdly, that the committee,received much evidence that in ordinary circumstances the public's fears of radiation are groundless".It continues with an eminently objective analysis of the problem.
My contribution to this issue will be once more to quote Professor Franklin. I take two points only. After stating, as indeed the report does, that only one-tenth of 1 per cent. of the total radiation which the population receives from natural sources is caused by the nuclear industry, Dr. Franklin goes on to describe 384 the follow-up analysis of the experience of 98 per cent. of the workers at Sellafield, covering 11,500 workers, with more than 1,600 deaths being identified. The main conclusion was that,the total number of deaths from cancer has been about 10 per cent. less than might have been expected in the national population",and the other conclusions were similary reassuring. This sort of information never seems to get into the media.
The second illustration relates to the limits on the amount of radioactiviy which can be discharged into the sea at Sellafield. These limits are set by the consideration of the pathways back to man of the radioactive materials discharged into the sea. In my day at the Atomic Energy Authority, the levels were set by the largest consumer of laver bread, of whom there were a handful in Wales. This is made from a species of seeweed which preferentially takes up the element ruthenium. There was one Welshman who actually ate twice as much of this bread as any other of his colleagues. He was therefore the level setter.
Dr. Franklin tells us that the levels are now set, due to a change of circumstances, by the largest consumer of winkles in the region. This is not, as your Lordships might suppose, a joke. Dr. Franklin says:The local winkle eaters now dominate the scene although there are now less than 20 of them in the critical group; that is, the group in the population most at risk. Last year they received about 50 per cent. of the maximum permitted dose of radiation as a result of their diets. The individual risk of radiation-induced cancer is at this dose very small. It represents a doubling of the national background radiation. Nevertheless steps are being taken to reduce this level to 20 per cent. and eventually to a few per cent".Dr. Franklin concludes by adding rather drily:It is estimated that the consequent reduction in dose of this final step will reduce the radiation-induced deaths among all British winkle eaters during the next 10,000 years from two to one at a cost of £250 million for providing and operating the equipment to achieve this final reduction".I have said enough to illustrate the fact that the issues with which we are faced are essentially concerned with judgments about relative values and assessment of risks and with distinguishing between myth and reality. The committee's report deals with these issues with admirable objectivity and its conclusions and recommendations are soberly and clearly formulated. I hope that the Government will be able to give these recommendations their whole-hearted support. This, I submit, is necessary in order to steady the boat which has for understandable reasons been rocking badly since Chernobyl.
In the past, I have felt that governments have been rather inclined to fluff these nuclear issues. Reference has been made this afternoon to the possibility of setting up some impartial body, national or international, to advise on them. But I conclude that it is only the Government who can really give a firm lead in issues which arouse so much emotion, and I suggest that they should do so by endorsing the conclusions of the Select Committee this evening.
§ 6.17 p.m.
§ Lord Holderness
My Lords, I am pleased to follow the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, with whom, when he was chairman of the Atomic Energy Authority, I had many interesting discussions on a number of occasions which I hope he also remembers. I should like to share 385 in the gratitude which has been universally expressed to my noble friend Lord Torrington and to his committee for what I consider, and what other noble Lords have considered, a superb report.
As usual, I feel apprehensive and apologetic for daring to take part in a debate of great complexity amid a wealth of experience and expertise which I myself can never hope to match. My apprehension is increased by the almost infinite width of this debate, which indeed includes but goes far beyond a short and small debate that I introduced here in June on the comparatively narrow front of disposing of nuclear waste. My noble friend Lord Elton, who was then replying for Her Majesty's Government, gave what I considered to be a very satisfactory reply but there are still certain questions, and perhaps especially the need to allay public anxieties, which continue to cause all of us concern and about which many noble Lords have expressed concern this afternoon.
My own interest in this matter stems from my time many years ago at the Ministry of Power, as it then was. Since then, I reflect that some things have not greatly changed. It seems almost as hard as it was then accurately to estimate the extent of future energy demand. It is perhaps a little easier, but I am not sure it is very much, to weigh the relative economic merits of various means of generation. I myself strongly incline to the committee's view, which seems to be supported by a great volume of very weighty evidence, that,a substantial expansion of nuclear power in Europe is necessary.I agree completely with the three reasons that it gave—the reasons of cost, the desirability to diversify sources and the desirability, as the noble Lord, Lord Swann, earlier reminded us, to conserve non-renewable resources. I believe that if we happen to default, to turn our back on nuclear generation, we should be doing nothing whatsoever to alleviate, and a very great deal to add to, the problems of our successors in the 21st century. This point was strongly made by the noble Lord, Lord Plowden.
Your Lordships have declared themselves this afternoon very clearly, robustly and so far, I believe, with complete unanimity. My own view has not greatly changed over 25 years, but it certainly has been very much strengthened by the committee's report.
What has changed since the 1960s is the state of public opinion, to which, as I say, great attention has been given this afteroon. It seems to me strange that in 1960, only 15 years after the horrific demonstration of nuclear destructive power, a fairly large part of the population—I have no knowledge how large, because public opinions were not quite so active then as they are now—seemed comparatively ready to welcome the harnessing of this gigantic force for more constructive and beneficial purposes. I do not claim that there was no opposition; there was, but much of it was founded on a very natural concern for the coal industry at that time and on smaller, more domestic considerations.
The opposition was lighter then, not because the type of reactor chosen, which happened to be Magnox, was considered superior to all other types. I do not believe that had anything to do with it. It was light because the whole climate of opinion in those days was 386 utterly different. I said here in June that a great many people now seem thoroughly rattled. That is certainly true since Chernobyl. I think that it was quite true before that.
The noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, to whom I look forward to listening, recently compared our present public fears with the obsession over witches in a past age. The comparison seemed to me very apt, particularly in the light of the committee's report, which thought that public opinion now thinks of radiation as worrying, mysterious and evil. I believe that those are the very adjectives that some of our less enlightened ancestors may have applied to witches.
It is quite clear (and we all acknowledge it) that radiation does carry risks; but risks, as the noble Lord, Lord Plowden, and others have pointed out, involved in nuclear generation are but dust in the balance compared with the non-nuclear risks that we all run. The risks are infinitesimal compared with the risks run by quite a number of brave men and women whose exploits in games and sport daily bring delight to thousands of our people. I might add, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Swann, said, that the risks involved in any alternative to nuclear generation are considerable. The noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, and others have pointed out that nuclear risks, either in the present or in the future, are not likely necessarily to be home-grown.
Unfortunately—and I think that the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, has recently been making this point—there seems to be very little disposition to balance the risks or to agree that we are all at risk, whatever we do about nuclear generation. Certainly I think that there is very little understanding, possibly little belief, that literally 99.9 per cent. (to turn the figure given by the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, round the other way) of average radiation has nothing to do with the nuclear industry. One could go on, but the difficulty is that fear is an emotion, as my noble friend Lord Chilston pointed out. Rational argument has rather limited power against emotional fear. Nonetheless, I am convinced that those who believe that Great Britain must have a strong nuclear future can never give up the attempt to convince; and the report rightly pays great attention to this need.
I believe that much can be done by the public bodies—the generating board and all the others. If I may say so, the noble Lord, Lord Marshall of Goring, has already performed a signal service this afternoon by pointing out to us very clearly—this has been echoed by other noble Lords—that Chernobyl is unrepeatable in the West. The public bodies can do a very great deal in informing, in educating and in maintaining their record with its great commitment to safety.
But the ultimate responsibility—and here I echo what the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, said—must rest with Her Majesty's Government. They now have the immensely valuable support of this fine report. I beg the Government to broadcast as widely as possible the findings and the reassurance that it gives.
Above all, I beg them to spell out the risks of failure to convince public opinion, because I feel that if we follow the Swedish example and try to phase out all nuclear generation, admittedly the risks will be 387 different but they will be there. They are something that we cannot possibly live without.
§ 6.27 p.m.
§ Lord Kearton
My Lords, as a member of Sub-Committee F I had the privilege to serve under the chairmanship of the noble Viscount, Lord Torrington. His chairmanship was at once strong, subtle and decisive. The fact that a fairly large committee arrived at a unanimous report is a tribute of the skill with which he guided us. I feel rather like the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, in saying that my contribution can be very brief in that I stand behind the recommendations of the report.
As the noble Viscount reminded us, we are considering a Community document, the Illustrative Programme. At paragraph 250 our report states:as a statement of the general case for nuclear power, of the direction in which Europe needs to move in the nuclear field, of the issues that need to be resolved and of the general lines of action that need to be pursued, the Committee believe that the Illustrative Programme is still valid".That means, of course, a steady expansion of nuclear power both in this country and in Europe.
The noble Lord, Lord Plowden, said that he had to declare a past interest. Perhaps I may be permitted to declare a past interest of my own and draw some thoughts from it. The phenomenon of nuclear fission was discovered in 1938 by Hahn and Strassman, and elucidated in 1939 by Lise Meitner. Shortly after that, a number of people felt that this discovery might lead to the possibility of the production of a nuclear weapon. In the spring of 1940, Professor Sir Rudolf Peierls, who is still with us, and Dr. Frisch produced a memorandum outlining the scenario for an atomic bomb. An organisation called Tube Alloys was set up, and I was one of the people seconded to that organisation in the summer of 1940. It is interesting that at the time we thought the business of separating the uranium 235 isotope very formidable and very tricky.
In the calculations on the bomb itself we were uncertain about whether in the end we would be able to have a big explosion or just a kind of big fireball with nothing like the dramatic impact. We carried on research and development in this country in collaboration with the Americans until about 1943. Then, because of engineering considerations and the scale of the effort required, the whole of the programme was transferred to America and we became associated with the American effort. I was one of the team which was seconded to work with the Americans.
From the suggestion that an atomic bomb was possible to producing an atomic bomb which exploded took just over four years. In America alone it cost something like 2 billion dollars—a great deal of money in today's terms. However, all the problems were solved and bombs which worked were produced. In the post-war years the Attlee Government decided that we must have similar facilities in this country and I was for some years one of the consultants to the Ministry of Supply, which was concerned with developing a nuclear programme.
When the Atomic Energy Authority was set up, I was invited to join it soon after its formation and I 388 remained a member for 26 years. I was a member of two of the committees which were set up in the aftermath of the Windscale accident, which, as my noble friend Lord Plowden said, were under the chairmanship of Sir Alexander Fleck, later Lord Fleck. One committee was concerned with the organisation of nuclear operations and the other with health and safety. I think it is of some interest to see that the recommendations which Sir Alexander Fleck produced have stood the test of time, although they have been modified in the light of progressive developments in this country. However, they laid down the basic principles, which have been followed ever since. It is rather sad, therefore, that this country, which had the lead in the commercialisation of nuclear energy, has fallen behind so badly, and one may ask why.
It has been mentioned that the Chernobyl incident involved a reactor which the Russians developed in the first place to produce plutonium. It is equally true that our first reactors—the Windscale piles and later the Sellafield unit and the Chapel Cross units—were all developed for the same purpose. As I remember, it was for the IMD or Immediate Military Demand programme. When we went to commercialisation, the Magnox reactors were a natural follow-on to the gas cooled reactors at Sellafield and at Chapel Cross. Although they are (by today's standards) large and clumsy reactors, they have proved to be very safe. There have been no mishaps of any kind that I can recall to the Magnox reactors.
It was therefore somewhat understandable that when the search for a more efficient reactor was undertaken the minds of people on this side of the Atlantic were still directed towards gas cooled reactors, whereas in America, owing to the pioneering efforts of Admiral Rickover, who wanted nuclear propulsion for submarines, all effort went towards a more compact type of reactor, which was finally developed into the PWR as we know it today and which was scaled up on a very large scale.
In developing the satisfactory commercial use of atomic energy it has taken a lot more money, sweat, blood and failures than developing first the atomic bomb and later the hydrogen bomb. In other words, the idea that nuclear weapons are immensely difficult to produce in comparison with civilian end uses has turned out not to be true. It was developing safe and economical civilian uses which in fact placed enormous strains on the engineering capabilities of this country.
With hindsight, we completely misjudged the engineering capabilities of the UK. We set up rival consortia to bid for separate designs, which was a very great mistake. There was hardly enough talent to go round for one consortium. When we went to the AGR (as is easily forgotten) the CEGB called for competitive bids. Bids were provided from this country which showed that an AGR would be competitive with a PWR as developed in America. That judgment turned out to be sadly wrong and the whole story of building AGRs in this country from the late 1960s onwards has been a fairly major disaster, with the exception of two of the units at Hinkley Point and Hunterston, which have formed the basis for the present developments at Torness and Heysham II.
389 I think that the noble Viscount, Lord Torrington, has put his finger on what we must consider for the future. We are all agreed that we must go ahead with more nuclear energy, and therefore the question of what system we adopt is not academic. The noble Viscount correctly pointed out that the fast breeder reactor has fearsome connotations in the minds of many people because of the word "fast". All it means is that fast neutrons are used in the working of the reactor, and in any reactor many fast neutrons are provided in any case. All that happens in ordinary thermal reactors is that they are slowed down. It is intrinisically a safe reactor. It is interesting that work in the last three years in particular has shown great advances in the cost picture for that reactor and it seems a shame that just at a time when most of the very difficult problems of that reactor seem to have been solved we have decided to soft-pedal it.
I was a great advocate of going ahead with the fast breeder reactor 10 years ago. At the time I was wrong because it was quite premature, but the advances which have been made at Dounreay in the last few years have put a totally different complexion on the matter. Some of the evidence received indicated that the fast breeder reactor was going to be almost competitive with the AGR, even if it is not fully competitive with the PWR.
As regards the PWR, the Americans, with their vast resources, were able to put a greater effort into development than we could in this country. Therefore, the conclusion which my noble friend Lord Weinstock and others drew quite a long time ago that our future energy programme in this country should depend on PWRs had a definite logic about it. However, as the noble Viscount, Lord Torrington, pointed out, the AGR has certain inherent characteristics which make it just a little bit safer than the PWR.
I agree that we are talking in intangibles. The PWR, as redesigned in this country—a redesign in which the noble Lord, Lord Marshall, has played a very prominent and successful part—is going to be an extremely safe reactor. When one says that the AGR is going to be a little bit safer, it is rather like saying that something which is 99.99 per cent. safe might be 99.999 per cent. safe. However, in view of the considerations which the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, pointed out most forcefully, the fact that it is inherently a little bit safer—largely because of the time lag in case of any trouble; in other words, one has more time to put right anything that goes wrong—is an important consideration.
I should like to comment on one or two matters which came up during the debate. I do not entirely agree with my noble friend Lord Swann that we should have some kind of overseeing body deciding what is to be done next. In 1974 the then Minister of Energy, Eric Varley, set up a committee with this objective in mind. The committee arrived at the recommendation, supported by many senior industrialists from outside the atomic energy field and the TUC representatives, that the right thing to do was to go ahead with the steam generating heavy water reactor, or so-called SGHW reactor. Correctly, in my view, that recommendation was abandoned in the late 1970s.
390 However, it illustrates that going to a group of distinguished outsiders does not necessarily give the right answer.
I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Dean, made a most important contribution in many ways to this debate. What we do not have is public acceptability. In my contacts with non-nuclear or non-energy people, when I talk about radiation and all the figures which have been quoted here today (which are, to anyone with a smattering of scientific knowledge, irrefutable) that information does not really register with the general public. When one thinks about it, that is because of the disappointments of the last 20 or 30 years. Nuclear energy, we were told, was going to be plentiful, cheap and absolutely safe. If I may say so, the scientists of 25 or 30 years ago were regarded almost as demigods. They could produce miracles. That has turned out to be a mirage.
Whereas nuclear energy, whether from the PWR, the AGR or the fast reactor, has an economic advantage over fossil fuel fired reactors, the advantage is nothing like that which was trailed before the public as bait 30 years ago. Similarly, it is only through the efforts of outside bodies that the dangers of radiation have been brought home to the general public. Very few people in the nuclear industry 30 years ago gave a thought to radiation. We dealt with it all the time. We dealt with it in the laboratories, we dealt with it on the site, and the precautions were perfectly adequate. The amount of harm done to anyone was infinitesimal. As the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, pointed out, the number of people harmed by radiation over 30 years of operation is vanishingly small.
I was interested to hear the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, quote Ned Franklin, whose death is a great loss to this country because of his depth of experience and knowledge. Ned Franklin pointed out that the pendulum has swung the other way. From taking no note of radiation, we have now reached the absurd stage, as the noble Lord pointed out in quoting him, of spending £100 million to prevent the possibility of one death. That is not an economic use of resources anywhere.
I stand firmly behind the recommendations in the Select Committee's report. We must go ahead with nuclear energy. We must make decisions soon, because at the present time the main manufacturers of equipment for the nuclear energy industry are desperately short of orders. If we delay decisions we run a real risk that in three or four years' time we shall not have a capability in this country. Therefore a decision must be taken soon.
I hope that when they take their decision the Government will attempt to provide a balanced view for the public, neither understating the risks nor overstating the economic advantages, but saying that the sensible course is to go ahead; and make a still greater effort to educate the public in the fact that many of the terrors with which they have been fed from so many sources are quite unreal. But to remove an irrationality which is firmly rooted is one of the most difficult jobs for any propaganda or publicity machine, particularly the Government's. All that I can do is to wish them well in that future endeavour.
§ 6.43 p.m.
§ Viscount Hood
My Lords, I should like to add my word of thanks for the able chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Torrington of Sub-Committee F, of which I was a member. I should like to say a few words in a brief intervention on the economic importance of nuclear power.
It has already been said that electricity pervades our economic life. It is essential to industry not least at the heavy end, as the noble Lord, Lord Nelson of Stafford, said, which today is most vulnerable and about which we are most anxious. All foreign witnesses agreed that nuclear power is the cheapest. The French position involves already very serious competition for the United Kingdom. The French are already offering long-term contracts, stretching into the next century, with a 1 per cent. price reduction in real terms per annum. This is formidable competition to which we must relate the problem in this country of the extension of the nuclear industry.
The price of electricity necessarily depends on cost, and the subject of cost in a new plant is a very difficult one. Even if planning permission is available it takes eight years to build a nuclear plant. It then has a life of some 35 years or more. Therefore in estimating cost one has to take a term of 43 years or more. The same is of course true of coal. The CEGB estimates that power generated by coal is about two-thirds more expensive than the nuclear power generated from Sizewell. These estimates were made a year or two ago but fundamentally this position has not changed.
There is another important factor. The cost of nuclear power is essentially in the plant itself, which represents something over 60 per cent. of the total cost of a kilowatt of power generated from nuclear sources. On the other hand, for coal and coal mining wages the figure is more than 70 per cent. It follows that when the nuclear plant is built the costs are substantially fixed. This is true of France today. The plants are built, they will live for 30 or 40 years and the power is offered on a long-term basis.
Coal is another matter. What the price of coal will be in the year 2000 or 2020 is anyone's guess. The CEGB has taken what I call a conservative view in believing that the price of British coal is not likely to be very different from the world price over time. It is today. The world price of coal is £27 a tonne; the price which the CEGB pays is £44 a tonne. It is anybody's guess where we shall be in the year 2000. It could well be that if this country, in my view very mistakenly, concentrates on coal our generating costs will lead to a price twice as high (or more) as that of the French. That is a dangerous prospect for our industry.
The proposal of the CEGB to build one or more stations at Sizewell, depending necessarily on the report which is now, I hope, imminent, does not form an alternative to coal. The plans of the CEGB are that at least as much coal will be purchased for the generation of power in the year 2000 as is purchased today. But it assumes that British Coal will utilise all the efficient coal opportunities which are now in prospect. If, however, the nuclear programme is cut down and more and more coal has to be used for power generation, the cost in my judgment must 392 inevitably rise because obsolete coal mines would remain in being and less efficient mines would be developed.
There are no other alternatives. Oil is not a realistic alternative to nuclear power. I understand that the fall in the price of crude oil has brought down the cost of an oil plant only to that of the least efficient coal plants. But that is not the real argument. Looking 40 years ahead, the known alternatives to Middle East power will have been consumed. It is not a happy prospect to rely on the Middle East. Indeed, it was to get away from this reliance that the European Commission issued the report upon which our own report was based. Following what other noble Lords have said, I do not think that any other sources are realistic in terms of the year 2000 or even beyond.
My conclusions are very close to those of the noble Lord, Lord Plowden. To stop the nuclear programme now would be most damaging to the British economy. To phase it out would be a disaster. I feel that those who advocate such policies for whatever reasons must take account of the very real damage to the economy, to employment and to all such matters of a judgment adverse to nuclear power.
§ 6.49 p.m.
§ Viscount Hanworth
My Lords, first, I too should like to congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Torrington, and his committee on producing an excellent report. It is relatively short but entirely adequate. The committee has made some references to important parts of the evidence, which makes reference easy. I hope this will become a precedent because the record of evidence is, to say the least, indigestible and I suspect very often unread.
I am a supporter of nuclear energy. I would say that, in spite of Chernobyl, its use should continue and expand. Nevertheless, I accept that it is possibly not an ideal method of generating electricity but it is the only one which we have today, apart from coal, which will provide the power we want. Leaving aside the disposal of nuclear waste or even the risk of another major nuclear incident, what worries much more is the proliferation of the atom bomb in the smaller states. Apart from the plutonium route via nuclear reactors, laser separation of uranium 235 may possibly make the uranium route easily available for small countries.
What are the alternatives to the nuclear generation of electricity? Coal is an obvious one. However, there are problems of acid rain. Even with 90 per cent. desulphurisation of flue gases there remains the nitrous oxides, which also produce acid rain; and, as has been mentioned, there is the difficulty of disposing of the by-products when the sulphur has been taken out of the flue gases. Many scientists believe that the greenhouse effect due to carbon dioxide emissions is already having an effect on the world climate and could be really serious in the future. Moreover, the casualties from coal mining are very considerable—death, serious injury and pneumoconiosis. For the latter, in 1983 there were 400 cases for that one year alone due to coal mining; so there must be thousands suffering from that disease.
In passing, it should be noted that existing coal-fired power stations emit a large amount of uranium and other radioactive products. In fact, the uranium 393 produced world-wide is nearly as much as is being mined for the nuclear power stations in use. In England, the radioactivity is comparable with that due to our nuclear power stations.
The second alternative is oil and natural gas—and both are diminishing assets. In my view their use for generating electricity in quantity should be limited to countries without high technology because their use for that purpose does not demand sophisticated techniques and could to some extent avoid the danger of more countries potentially gaining a nuclear capability via the plutonium route.
Next there is the idea of preventing an increase in the demand for electricity by energy conservation methods. I do not believe that in practical terms it would solve the problem. Demand for energy is bound to increase as the developing countries develop, and power stations have a limited life. Renewable clean energy sources are attractive but cannot at present, or for the foreseeable future, provide an alternative solution unless the public and industry are prepared to pay several times as much for energy. Even if they were, there would be a long lead time of 30 years or more.
Let us examine the renewable energy resources in more detail. All of the sources which might make a significant contribution—I repeat, significant—are intermittent unless there is energy storage, which is difficult to arrange. I have excluded hydroelectric power because it is being developed to an extent where there are grave environmental problems in going much further, except possibly in some of the overseas countries. We shall be left in the near future with wind energy, wave energy and tidal barrages.
Wind energy has been developed to a point where wind turbines rated at three megawatts should be practical in the near future. However, to equal a modern power station of, say, 1,000 megawatts some 800 such wind turbines would be needed because, on average, they do not work at full power. The blades of such wind turbines have a diameter of 73 metres—that is, 250 feet—which is the length of a long suburban railway train. They need a tower 70 to 80 metres high—almost exactly the overall height of the Big Ben clock tower. I give those figures in both units because some people find it easier to visualise size in one or the other system.
To avoid interference, each unit must be separated from its neighbour by at least 100 metres in any direction. To provide the equivalent of a 1,000 megawatt power station, therefore, requires at closest spacing an area of 30 kilometres square. Therefore if we attempt to substitute a modest proportion of the CEGB's generating capacity of 50,000 megawatts, many clusters of wind turbines would have to be installed out to sea to avoid environmental problems and to get enough wind. The civil engineering for that would raise the cost for electricity by a factor of two or more.
Turning to wave power, the best estimate is that electricity so generated would cost at least three times as much as we now pay; and time for the further development of a suitable wave generator is needed. Some 900 miles—almost as far as from Land's End to 394 John o' Groats—of wave generators would be needed to equal the country's existing generating capability.
The third option is tidal power. Although I believe the Government are right in continuing to develop and install a number of wind generators, it is only in tidal power that a real impact can be made fairly quickly; say, within 12 to 15 years. In a fairly short speech it is impossible to argue the merits of the smaller Severn barrage scheme and that of the Mersey. I dismiss them for three reasons. First, there is no need for a pilot scheme. The French barrage scheme at La Rance has been operating since November 1966–20 years—and no new technology is involved. Secondly, the output of the Mersey scheme is very small—only one-third of that of one of our modern power stations; that is, around 400 megawatts, equivalent to less than 0.5 per cent. of our national electricity requirement.
Thirdly, the shorter barrage in the Severn, generating about 1,000 megawatts, probably will result, as may also the Mersey scheme, in sedimentation problems. Moreover, in the Severn it would prevent the larger scheme from being adopted later on.
In my view we should now go all out for the Severn barrage on the lower line, known as the Cardiff-Weston line, costing around £5.5 billion at today's estimates but potentially providing 6 per cent. to 7 per cent. of the CEGB's electricity, In addition, it may well have some EC financial backing and also to a very important degree some from local interests, for sailing, recreation and so on.
Your Lordships will notice that I have not mentioned power from fusion. It is still somewhat pie in the sky. Even with a so-called breakthrough not yet apparent, its useful application is at the very least 50 years away; but I hope that it succeeds.
Any debate on this subject would be incomplete without facing squarely the public's concern about the risks, which a number of speakers before me have done. In the first instance, I should like to dispose of the so-called problem of disposal of nuclear waste. The technologies of doing so without threat to future generations are all there. The only problem is how far to go beyond what seems reasonable to informed persons and at what cost to satisfy the real, though often only emotional, fears of the public. It is long past time that we should worry about this being a major problem. It is not. It would be more useful for protesters to have their attention drawn to the relatively uncontrolled disposal of toxic and long-lived chemicals, for example. When considering problems which arise today, our reaction ought to be pragmatic. An emotional response should be brought in only as a last resort to weigh the factors involved. However, the public are very poorly informed by either governments or the media.
I must take this opportunity of castigating the Government, who in my view have been worse than most at even trying to inform the public on any subject on which their majority allows them to legislate effectively. Be that as it may, there is a real problem in trying to get the public to think rationally about nuclear matters and to measure the risks against the others that we seem to accept. For example, accidents on the road cause over 5,000 deaths a year and 70,000 seriously injured people, some of whom are 395 permanently badly injured. The probability of a fatal accident at work during a lifetime is three in 100 in the construction industry; in the nuclear industry it is one-fifteenth of that and less than the average for all other industries. Some of WHO's statistics are revealing. For example, 12 million people have leprosy and one-quarter of the third world is badly undernourished.
I am worried about the emotional approach to cancer deaths. They are and should be described as earlier—probably only slightly earlier—deaths. With Chernobyl, the extra cancer deaths in Russia and elsewhere represent at the most an increase of one in 1,000 on what could normally be expected in those countries.
I have been a spokesman on energy for the SDP, but I believe that in this House one can usefully give one's own views (which is what I am doing tonight) though they are not very different from those at present held by the SDP. The accident at Chernobyl was very unfortunate and worrying, though it is still within what might be called the benefit-risk assessment. It may well bring 1,200 earlier deaths from cancer within Western Europe, but as I said this represents in this case an increase of less than half of 1 per cent. overall. We may yet have to accept some further small problems from earlier PWR reactors on the Continent. Whatever we do, we shall not eliminate possible effects from the many French reactors facing us on the other side of the Channel.
Finally, in the hope that it will lessen public fears and that eventually the media may present a more balanced point of view, I give a few facts about radiation. We are surrounded by radioactivity. It comes from space, the soil, our food and drink; it seeps into our houses as radon gas. If this natural background radiation is taken as 1,000 units a year—and in some areas of the country it is almost double that—then a medical chest X-ray provides 200 units, and this compares with only one unit from our nuclear power stations. Even a four-hour trip in an aeroplane provides 20 extra radiation units. At, or even above, the background level of radiation the possible risks of earlier death from cancers are absolutely minimal compared with the other risks to life. The average risk during a lifetime's work in industry on average is three in 1,000, and for construction workers it is 30 in 1,000.
There are two further matters that I must mention before ending. First, there is the PWR/AGR controversy. We should await the report of the Sizewell inquiry before firmly taking sides, but I make two points in favour of the AGR. One is that however we assess risks, unlikely as they are, the fact remains that the AGR, owing to its thermal inertia, would give four hours to deal with a crisis before it became out of hand. This allows time physically to check and operate valves should the instruments or controls go haywire. This is not so with the PWR. In some circumstances the time available for taking action can be a mere 15 minutes. The other point is that even if the earlier PWRs do produce some incident, the AGR is a very different animal, and to some extent it may be possible to convince the public that such a failure would not occur here.
396 The second matter concerns Sellafield. We are investing £2 billion on this project and there are firm commitments from overseas. To overturn it on no more than emotional grounds would be a tragedy and, more than that, an opting out of firm international commitments. As I said previously, the disposal of nuclear waste is an emotional problem and not a real one. Sellafield will progressively reduce its discharges of nuclear waste to at least one-tenth of the present levels if its programme is allowed to continue. Sellafield is needed to reprocess the irradiated Magnox fuel from our own reactors, and this would give a much greater effluent radioactivity than would be the case if the new plant comes into being. It has been said that reprocessing nuclear fuel from abroad is taking in other people's dirty washing, but under the contracts foreign countries have to take back most of the radioactive products after reprocessing.
Let us be realistic and not just a prey to subjective reactions. With the contracts already agreed, Sellafield will produce a very good return. There is absolutely no logical or sensible reason to close down the plant, and there would be enormous financial loss in doing so. Sellafield and BNF as a whole are one of our largest earners of foreign currency. The order book for the year 2000 amounts to £12 billion, of which more than one-third is in export business, and this represents only the firm orders at today's date.
I apologise to the House for taking rather longer than usual, but energy is my main subject and for years I have managed to keep to a 10-minute speech. I am sorry I have not been able to do so tonight.
§ 7.8 p.m.
§ Lord Rodney
My Lords, first of all may I apologise to your Lordships' House for the fact that I shall not be able to stay here until the end of the debate owing to a long-standing previous engagement. I should like to start by congratulating my noble friend Viscount Torrington and members of his sub-committee on their report, which I personally found extremely interesting and thought provoking. I have been tempted to take part in this debate, though I am far from being an expert on this subject, because I fear that unless the public in general and we in particular can put the question of risk into perspective, decisions may be taken to phase out nuclear power in this country which are based on emotional arguments rather than on a calm assessment of the pros and cons of the situation. Such a decision would, I personally consider, prejudice very seriously our industrial competitiveness in future years.
The lobby against nuclear power is sustained by a number of different motives, some of which are genuine in their sincerity, if perhaps misdirected and ill-informed; but other factions are quite deliberate in their use of scaremongering to achieve their ends ranging from vote catching to other more sinister objectives.
We should not underestimate the potential risks of radioactivity, nor should we relax our vigilance; but on the other hand we should not allow ourselves, or the public, to be stampeded into the total abandonment of a source of power which, in practice to date, has been proved cleaner, cheaper and historically safter than other traditional sources of energy.
397 May I ask your Lordships to consider for a moment the risk element of nuclear power stations compared with the fossil-fuelled equivalents? There seems to be a tendency to emphasise the danger to human life of nuclear power and, by omission, to give the impression that energy derived from coal and oil is danger free.
Radiation is the principal danger element derived from nuclear power, but unitl the Chernobyl disaster there is no record, to my knowledge, of anyone dying as a direct result of exposure to radioactivity from a nuclear power station. Considering that there are over 300 in operation worldwide, and that they have been in use for over 30 years, I think that your Lordships will agree that historically they have proved themselves remarkably safe.
On the other hand, sadly, there are almost annual fatal accidents in coal mines around the world, and fossil-fuelled power stations, as we have heard from a number of speeches, are a source of acid rain which, although not a direct risk to human life, can be said indirectly to be so.
There is another product which emanates from those power stations which many people feel, if left unchecked, will, over the years, seriously threaten the world's climatic conditions and eventually human life. It is carbon dioxide which most people associate with car exhausts, but which in fact is released in large quantities from fossil-fuelled power stations. Measurements show that since the beginning of this century concentration of that gas in the atmosphere has increased by no less than 13 per cent. We heard about that from the noble Lord, Lord Swann, who was able to explain the risks from that much better than I can. It is an element which is not often mentioned but which is a definite risk.
It would therefore seem that the only way to make nuclear power risk free is to have no nuclear power stations; equally, the only way of eliminating the risk of a possible climatic catastrophe derived from carbon dioxide is to stop burning fossil fuels. But your Lordships will agree that one suggestion is almost as ridiculous as the other.
Some weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit the French reprocessing plant at La Hague, the biggest in the world, and I have to say that any lingering doubts that I had about safety precautions in the nuclear industry were completely dispelled. It would be a technical task beyond my capabilities to describe all the checks and double checks that the French employ; suffice it to say that they have never had a fatal accident from radioactivity, and so high is their concern for safety that their record on the normal industrial site—nothing to do with the nuclear plant—rates as high as any in the country. As has already been mentioned, the French derive at least 60 per cent. of their electricity from nuclear power. Far from phasing out this industry, they expect that figure to rise to 75 per cent. by the turn of the century. They are now doubling the capacity of their reprocessing plant.
I am sure that we all appreciate and sympathise with the emotional element attached to the fear of radioactive pollution. To a great extent, I believe that 398 it is the fear of the unknown. We deplore but comprehend the loss of an aeroplane with 300 people on board or a major earthquake with thousands dead, but the idea of an unseen, unfelt radioactive cloud with the threat of future cancer casualties over many years fills us with terror. If such a crucial decision as the phasing out of nuclear power is to be taken, we must rise above those emotional fears and consider calmly and coolly the facts of the case. For instance, what is the industry's track record? As many of your Lordships have said, it has been extraordinarily good. What is the risk element compared to the advantages to our nation and to our people?
Popular but uninformed fears should not decide our long-term industrial future. It may be worth while reminding ourselves of the risk elements in kindred industries. In 1974, 15,000 people were killed when the Gujarati Dam failed in India. In 1963, 2,000 people died in Italy when the Vaiont Dam broke, but dams are still used as a means of generating electricity. In 1984, 600 people died in Mexico City, and many more were injured, when a liquified petroleum storage depot exploded, but a similar storage depot at Canvey Island is still in use.
One could cite many more similar man-made catastrophes, particularly in the chemical industry; but although safety precautions have no doubt been improved, those industries have not been closed, and neither have they been put in abeyance. Why, then, should the nuclear power industry be treated differently, especially when it has an exemplary safety record and its attention to safety precautions is probably higher than any other comparable industry?
I believe that research into further risk elimination should continue to be given the highest priority in nuclear power stations but, having said that, I can see no logical reason why it should be singled out. The potential risks are considerable, but the actual accident level, even including Chernobyl, has to date proved to be encouragingly low.
§ 7.17 p.m.
The Earl of Halsbury
My Lords, in rising to address your Lordships this evening, I must, like all my colleagues, pay tribute to the noble Viscount's chairmanship and the excellent work he put in in welding us together into a very happy ship. We worked well together, and those of us who are still on Sub-Committee F, which will become Sub-Committee D, look forward to sailing under him for a long time.
I think that the most significant conclusions are Nos. 254 and 255, which deal with the relationship between the number of options open and the vigour with which policy is formulated and implemented. Britain, with four options—oil, coal, gas and nuclear power—has never had a decisive policy at any time. I do not think that it ever will. France, with only one option, has had a vigorous and decisive policy from the beginning. Germany comes somewhere in between, because it has more than one option. It has not only the nuclear option; it has a great deal of brown coal and hard coal. Belgium resembles France. In Sweden they talk about running down nuclear power, but that is purely political. The establishment in Sweden is clear that that is not to be taken seriously and never will be implemented.
399 In the course of working with my colleagues, I drew up a large chart covering the 41 years from 1945 to 1986. Across the chart were the principal divisions of authority in the government, the Civil Service, the nuclear industry and so on. I had the names of every chief executive on that chart. In the course of those 41 years there were only five years when there was no hiccup somewhere at the top which caused the whole system to halt. Inevitably, something was going on in the outside world at the same time and therefore the hiccup at the top interacted with some change in the outside world and something came to a standstill.
It is a rather pathetic chart of indecision and of decisions taken and then reversed. I believe that to some extent temperamentally we in this country rather like that way of going about things. We do not like to be prisoners of a decision so firmly taken that we cannot get out of it.
My life has not been spent in writing elegant essays about options; it has been spent in choosing among them and then implementing the choice as vigorously as possible. I shall therefore tell your Lordships what I would tell my noble friend Lord Marshall in the unlikely event of his asking me what the policy should be. First, Britain's base load power should be based 100 per cent. on nuclear energy generation. The system should be transformed onto that basis as fast as is economically desirable, consistent with approval and licensing by the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate. A fast breeder reactor—or fast neutron reactor, as it is better to call it—should be incorporated into the system as soon as a clearance can be obtained from the NII. The comparative cost between electricity generated by thermal reactors and the fast reactors is quite irrelevant. We are concerned with electricity generated by this system, of which a fast reactor is a part, as opposed to energy generated by any other system. Comparing one bit of a system with another bit of the same system does not give one significant information.
Such being my policy for the future, what would I do in the immediate present? Would I build an AGR or a PWR? I am not sure that I would build either. I think that I would place an order for one, or perhaps two, coal-fired power stations using the latest techniques of fluid bed combustion so as to avoid the type of acid rain which the noble Lord, Lord Swann, deplores. I almost seem to hear the popping of corks in the household of the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, when I say that that would be my policy. By doing that I should give myself something like a two-year moratorium on placing orders for nuclear power stations. I would use that in this way. First, I would allow Torness and Heysham II to run in and establish themselves as trouble free, with established, not estimated, costs and with the possibility of serial ordering at the end of that time a reality.
Those two stations were built according to plan right up to the very last moment when they were ready for fuelling. Then a last minute hiccup took place. There was a little trouble with vibration of the control rods, and that has to be cured. However, this is the kind of trouble that engineers have a habit of curing. It has 400 happened before; it will happen again. It must mean a few months' delay, but I hope that it will not be more than that.
I would use the same period to redesign the fuel elements in the PWR so as to employ stainless steel instead of zircalloy, which would entail a slight extra enrichment of the fuel, and that would slightly increase the running costs of the PWR. My reasons for doing this are on page 420. I am the questioner. Some of the colleagues of my noble friend Lord Marshall are providing the answer. Question 1013 is:Is it the case that in the context of the Three Mile Island accident the exothermic reaction between the water and zircalloy was implicated in the generation of the hydrogen bubble which mercifully did not explode?(Mr. Baker) Yes".The next question is:Is there any evidence one way or the other whether the zircalloy steam reaction was implicated at Chernobyl?(Dr. Edmundson) You ask for evidence; we have no firm evidence. What is said is that there was a hydrogen explosion and our presumption is that that would have been the source of the hydrogen".That presumption by Dr. Edmundson in evidence before us has been confirmed by all the accounts we have had of the Chernobyl accident subsequently. The zirconium water reaction was implicated in the generation of the hydrogen, which subsequently exploded and blew the top off. It is much easier to take precautions than prove that taking precautions is not necessary. That is a dictum of the great Lord Rayleigh who discovered argon and was president of the Royal Society. I believe that we can redesign a PWR without zircalloy, using stainless steel.
That two years would also be extremely valuable in awaiting the result of the Westinghouse-Mitsubishi designs of an advanced PWR. We should then have three options to choose from. However, I think at that point we might find that we were getting such good results from the AGR that we would not want to take up the other choices.
We cannot have everything. We cannot have three designs in competition with each other. The design effort would be beyond us if we were to make a good show of it. We cannot develop the PWR, continue development of the AGR and build the fast reactor, which is an essential component of the future system. Therefore a couple of years from now a painful decision will have to be made, but we can use those two years profitably.
The other matter I want to deal with is paragraph 267 of our conclusions on page 75, where we say:There is urgent need for an easily understood scale of risk from radiation, both natural and artificial, to help the public measure and assess the dangers of both normal and accidental discharges".That suggestion originated with me, and in evidence before us my noble friend Lord Marshall said that he thought it was a very good idea. I have subsequently corresponded with the CEGB and British Nuclear Fuels and they asked me whether I objected to it being known as the "Halsbury scale". I replied that if I were to be immortalised along with Richter and the earthquake scale and the Beaufort scale for wind, I had no objection to that at all. Exactly what progress has been made since I do not know. Perhaps the noble 401 Viscount who will reply can give us information about how that project is progressing.
I have one last comment I should like to make by way of reassurance to the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick; he can read it tomorrow. It is 10 years since I laid down my responsibility for the Institute of Cancer Research but I have kept in touch with what has been going on in this field for years since. The list of specific tumours that are concerned with a prior infection with an identifiable virus is getting longer and longer. There are leukaemias which are definitely virus induced. They develop sometimes many years after the infection. In the case of cancer of the liver it can be 20 years after hepatitis B that a tumour develops in the liver. This mechanism is not necessarily unique. There may be other means whereby cancer can be induced. There certainly must be, because we can induce it artificially with chemicals.
Nevertheless, the most reasonable explanation for these little clusters of leukaemia—about which the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, was talking—is simply the co-infection of a young age group at the same time, where cross-infection is very easy between them. Then at a specific period later on there is a tendency to produce leukaemias, and so on. The noble Lord was quite right when he said that there are plenty of these clusters. This is still a matter of epidemiology which is being investigated. There are still many of these clusters that are in no way associated with the presence of nuclear power stations, and even where they may coincide the connection between them is very dubious, because the actual radiation levels to which children at a distance are exposed are very low indeed.
I cannot help recalling that when I was a little boy in a railway station nanny said to me, "Don't go near the boiler, dear. They do burst". I have no doubt that in the early days of locomotive engineering boilers did burst, and this induced a general fear of boilers bursting in the population at large. Nanny therefore being wise in her generation said, "Don't go near the boiler, dear". It took me a few years to get that out of my system but I no longer have any apprehensions of going near a locomotive engine, especially as modern locomotive engines are diesel electric and do not have boilers.
Something of that vague, numinous fear has infected the population at large. I think that it has been amplified by the media which merely use it as a source of promoting circulation. The media are a kind of broker that exchanges entertainment for advertising revenue. All kinds of funny, seamy sides of human nature can appear in their columns as something which the public will buy. There is a funny, queer, strange, love-hate relationship that we all have with something that frightens us. One can go near the edge of a cliff to see whether you can stand up to the feeling of exposure on it; it frightens you and, at the same time, you are slightly drawn to it.
That is why fear can be a source of entertainment, and the media exploit it. I think that they have exploited the fears that have been induced by the unknown elements in nuclear power generation and its 402 mysterious association with the first nuclear explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, I believe that if we can keep up relations with the public we shall eventually convince them that we are not being secretive, that we have no secrets, that they can come to visit nuclear power stations, that they can visit the installations of British Nuclear Fuels, and so on. That is the way in which we must handle the matter. I think that the chairmen of both organisations are well on their way to doing so. With that, I think, I too have exceeded my 10 minutes and I thank your Lordships very much.
§ Lord Tanlaw
My Lords, perhaps I may be allowed to make a correction. The noble Earl queried the statistics about carbon dioxide which I gave. I have checked, and the noble Earl is quite correct. It is 3.5 tonnes per person per annum, and not 3.5 million tonnes per annum, as I mistakenly said. I apologise to the noble Earl and to the House.
§ 7.32 p.m.
§ The Duke of Portland
My Lords, in the first place I should like to add my voice to the well-merited tributes that have been paid to our chairman, and particularly for the tolerance and patience shown towards a tiresome member of his crew.
I should now like to turn to the nuclear situation in Western Europe. In France, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and Spain after Chernobyl there has been no change in their respective nuclear programmes. However, the Opposition in Germany have indicated that, if successful in the federal election next January, they will stop all nuclear construction and gradually phase it out.
In Italy and in the Netherlands the nuclear programmes have been suspended, presumably waiting to see what happens in Germany. As regards Sweden, after a referendum in 1980, the Swedish Parliament decided that nuclear power should be phased out not later than the year 2010.
After the Chernobyl accident both the Prime Minister and the Minister for Energy said that there were no plans to change the energy policy. This was wise, as 50 per cent. of the electricity in Sweden is produced by the country's 12 nuclear units. A week after the Chernobyl accident, the government formed a commission to evaluate this accident and the lessons learnt therefrom. It remains to be seen what this commission will report.
As regards the United Kingdom, all the evidence shows that, if the policy advocated by the Opposition were to be adopted, only the National Union of Mineworkers would benefit, and the rest of the country would suffer. We must bear in mind that, as in the case of the steam engine, the motor car and the aeroplane, the nuclear reactor will inevitably improve and become safer. Progress in the nuclear field is slower owing to the huge capital expenditure involved.
Remembering the somewhat intense lobbying in 1965 in favour of the advanced gas-cooled reactor, as against the pressurised water reactor, I had hoped that it would be possible to avoid a repetition of this on the present occasion. However, my hopes were not realised.
403 When speaking to the committee in favour of the advanced gas-cooled reactor, Mr. Miller, the chairman of the South Scottish Electricity Board, concluded with the words:The UK should stick with the known, the proven, the established, that is to say with AGRs".In referring to the advanced gas-cooled reactors I think that Mr. Miller had in mind not all the AGRs, but those at Hinkley Point and Hunterston which, even yet, are not operating with high availability. There are at present over 145 pressurised water reactors operating worldwide as against those two advanced gas-cooled reactors.
I am aware that it is said by a number of persons in this country, whose opinion is highly respected, that the advanced gas-cooled reactor is safer than the pressurised water reactor. Nevertheless, I cannot believe that the French would have based their future energy programme on the pressurised water reactor; nor would the Belgians, Germans, Swiss and Spaniards have done likewise unless they had full confidence in the safety of the pressurised water reactor.
In 1973, when I was on the board of the Franco-Belgian Nuclear Fuel Company, I had opportunities to see the distaste with which the French accepted Westinghouse technology. I am certain that they would have preferred that technology to have come from the United Kingdom, if they had believed it to be competitive. Time has shown that they made a wise decision then. It may well be that the new advanced gas-cooled reactors have no defects, but I submit that this can be known for sure only after they have operated for at least a year.
One of the most important recommendations contained in the committee's report calls for an international agreement covering all aspects of reactor safety. The disaster at Chernobyl demonstrated that reactor safety is an international issue. A nuclear disaster in one country can affect many others. For instance, the disaster at Chernobyl affected vegetables in the Southern Ukraine and the moss consumed by reindeer in Lapland. Consequently, safety standards worldwide must be brought to the highest pitch, which can best be done by a universal international agreement. Steps have already been taken in this direction.
On 24th September the International Atomic Energy Agency's general conference approved a draft convention on early notification of a nuclear accident, and another draft convention on assistance in the case of a nuclear accident or radiological emergency. However, there remains the even more important matter of ensuring that nuclear reactors should be designed to be tolerant of operator error. In the case of the two most important accidents—those at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl—both were due to human error and a reactor design which did not failsafe when those errors were made. Finally, every effort must be made to ensure that the reactors are themselves absolutely safe and subject to regular inspection by inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The international agreement, which I have outlined, will only be attained, and subsequently ratified, if pressure is kept up by Her Majesty's Government. As 404 time passes after the Chernobyl disaster, nuclear safety will come to be regarded less and less as a matter of great urgency.
In their report the committee have drawn attention to the unsatisfactory nature of the present planning procedure. In this connection I wish to draw your Lordships' attention in some detail to the time which has elapsed since the Government abandoned further research into the steam generated heavy water reactor and decided to make a survey of the various other reactor systems.
In 1977, the advanced gas-cooled reactors having proved disappointing, a decision was reached that the possibility of constructing a pressurised water reactor should be studied, and Sizewell was chosen as a suitable spot for the construction of such a reactor. In April 1980 a letter of intent for a pressurised water reactor was sent by the Central Electricity Generating Board of Great Britain to the National Nuclear Corporation.
In January 1983 Sir Frank Layfield, QC, was appointed inspector to conduct a planning inquiry, and he spent the following two years taking evidence. The inquiry itself ended in 1985, since when Sir Frank Layfield has been writing his report. This, I understand, is to be delivered to the Secretary of State for Energy either in the last week of this month or the first week of next. Although almost 10 years will have elapsed since the construction of a pressurised water reactor was proposed, the Government are accused of introducing the pressurised water reactor into this country at a Gadarene gallop.
§ 7.42 p.m.
§ Lord Weinstock
My Lords, I have first to add my congratulations and thanks to those of other noble Lords to the noble Viscount, Lord Torrington, and his committee for this informative and timely report. The noble Lord, Lord Marshall of Goring, gave the House a clear and authoritative exposition of the dramatic events which occurred at Chernobyl and dealt in simple terms with the question uppermost in every lay mind, "Why shouldn't it happen here?" It will not happen here, and the noble Lord explained why not. But as he and other noble Lords spoke we could hear the reverberations of past doubts and mistrust.
I have to express an interest since the company for which I work is a shareholder in the National Nuclear Corporation and a supplier of components for nuclear reactors, although its main commercial interest in power stations is in the turbine generators which are driven equally by steam raised by nuclear boilers or any suitable fossil fuel source.
I have for many years supported the expansion of electricity generation by nuclear power. As other noble Lords have said, we cannot in the United Kingdom get much more than a marginal contribution from windmills, solar, water and wave power, and so on. There are only two really effective other fuels for large-scale production of electricity, coal and oil, in which I include gas for this purpose.
Leaving aside the obvious fact that supplies of these materials must eventually run out, the first of them, coal, is under the control in the United Kingdom of a 405 monopoly supplier because of the difficulties of importing cheap foreign coal in large quantities. The second, oil and gas, is mostly controlled by an international cartel whose members' interests are political as well as commercial.
The recent moderating of the unbridled power of the National Union of Mineworkers is a relief to the whole nation, but there is no guarantee that this is more than transient; and the same is true of OPEC, thrown into disarray by the glut of oil resulting from the temporary overproduction coincident, on the one hand, with industrial recession and, on the other, with a chronic, and uncured, crisis in international finances which continues to inhibit the matching of the material needs of relatively poor countries with the unused resources, including unemployed workers, of most of the relatively rich ones.
On purely economic grounds the case for nuclear power is unanswerable, other things being equal. But other things are not equal, because for one reason and another the resonance set up by the word "nuclear" creates an impression of danger. Several noble Lords have referred to the need to give the public reassurance, but I wonder whether the lack of understanding is really the fault of the generating authorities and the nuclear industry.
Even in the field of diagnostic medicine, we have found that the use of the word "nuclear" is at least undesirable, even to describe a machine where there is no question of nuclear activity in the sense of radiation or anything of that sort. I suppose that in the field of public relations in this matter only the Government can take the lead, as the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield said.
We cannot support nuclear power unless we believe it to be safe, by which I mean free, for all practical purposes, of major risk. Chernobyl was not an inevitable choice on the road to nuclear power, as the noble Viscount, Lord Torrington, suggested. The noble Lord, Lord Marshall of Goring, to the prejudice of his own career when he was deputy chairman of the Atomic Energy Authority, opposed the choice of the steam generating heavy water reactor, which was forced on the industry in 1974 by the Government of the day, rejecting thereby the probability of the joint development with France of a nuclear power industry, as the noble Earl, Lord Bessborough, would have wished.
That reactor which, as the noble Viscount, Lord Torrington, pointed out, bears certain similarities to the Chernobyl machine, was fortunately abandoned largely due to the scientific judgment of the noble Lord, Lord Marshall of Goring. His persistence lost him at the time his post as adviser to the Department of Energy. The noble Lord took the view that the SGHWR suffered from many practical difficulties, and if it could be built at all to meet our rigorous safety standards the cost would have been prohibitive.
The fact is that a large part of the cost of nuclear reactors lies in making them safe to standards which are as severe as the imagination of scientists and technologists can conjure up. That is not to say that nothing ever goes wrong in our nuclear power stations. Things do go wrong, but when they do the design and 406 the operating procedures ensure that there are no consequences of the Chernobyl type or anything remotely like them.
The pressurised water reactors, which I hope will be built following the painstaking and exhaustive Layfield report, have been operating now for decades without causing a single death, or any more industrial ill-health than would be expected in any non-nuclear industrial installation for a similar purpose. Seventy per cent. of the electricity generated in France, as other noble Lords have pointed out, is powered by 42 of these reactors already operational, and 13 more are under construction; even if we never build another nuclear power station in this country, Heaven help us if they are unsafe.
By collaborating on safety matters with other countries whose nuclear power programmes are going ahead, we can make assurance doubly sure. By failing to shake off the semi-superstitious fear which defies all scientific and technological reassurance, we merely store up trouble for those whose well-being in the future depends upon adequate supplies of energy.
I must say that I do not quite follow noble Lords in the reasoning that deaths and injuries caused by accidents in activities which have nothing to do with energy and nuclear power generation constitute an argument in favour of nuclear power. But, my Lords, those who sincerely support the case for nuclear energy, those who design, build and operate the power stations, too, live in this world, and they too are concerned not less than the Friends of the Earth for the safety of their children and grandchildren. Since we depend upon these same people for so much that is vital for the present and the future, let us at least hear their arguments with balance and objectivity.
At paragraph 118 of volume 1 of the Sele;ct Committee's report we read,that in most countries nuclear programmes have been overwhelmingly based on light water reactors, mainly PWRs. Agonising over thermal reactor choice has been a uniquely British preoccupation.Let us hope that this time round, after more than 20 years of policy lacking in decisiveness, resolution and good judgment, the present Government will finally get the United Kingdom's nuclear power programme right.
§ 7.50 p.m.
§ Lord Hankey
My Lords, I think our remarkably efficient committee has produced a truly excellent report. I support all its main conclusions. First, I support the European Communities Illustrative Programme to produce 40 per cent. of nuclear electricity by 1995 and, if possible, 50 per cent. after the turn of the century. These are very ambitious goals, especially the second one, but there is a particular reason why I think the nuclear option is important. I say this because I was a diplomat with much experience in the Middle East.
Europe is still very dependent on oil, especially oil from the Middle East. Of course we have a lot of oil in the North Sea and more has been found elsewhere since OPEC put the price up in the 1970s. But the Middle East is still very important to Europe as a source of energy, and it is almost always in a very unstable condition. Israel's relations with its 407 neighbours seem to be almost insoluble, and there has been trouble with Europe's oil supplies before. Now the war between Iran and Iraq, lasting six years, shows few signs of ending and could well endanger supplies from the Persian Gulf. A dark Soviet shadow hangs over the area to the north, fortunately not too dark just at present. But in short we cannot see far ahead through this mist of troubles.
It is important for us in Europe to diversify our sources of energy and the obvious and cheapest alternative is nuclear energy. I am sure that is the conclusion of our debate already. Our wise Select Committee did not think anything of other alleged alternatives. I think the House will have noticed that the representative from Sweden, where the government are committed to phasing out nuclear energy, was at a loss to suggest where else Sweden's power was to come from.
Nuclear power plants do not cause acid rain—a fossil fuel problem that will clearly cause a great deal more trouble. Its solution is bound to increase the cost of burning fossil fuels and make nuclear energy relatively more attractive. I do not believe the problem of disposing of nuclear wastes safely is technically impossible. After reading this report I am fully convinced that the real problem is largely psychological, and more especially emotional, and is due, as we have said, to fear of radiation. But surely over the years we can educate our public to see it in a better light.
My noble friend Lord Marshall of Goring showed clearly how much natural radiation, including that produced by coal-fired power stations, exceeds the minute quantities released into the atmosphere by the nuclear industry. My noble friend Lord Hanworth also gave some interesting statistics on that. But we must all support the insistence in the report that safety factors must receive absolutely prime consideration.
This brings me to Chernobyl. That terrible accident showed how our world had become one. Many speakers have recognised that today. It is demonstrably absurd for Leeds or a London borough to declare itself a nuclear-free zone. We are all in this together. In this sense the public are quite right to be concerned. It is our job to reassure them. But a conclusion which should clearly not be drawn from Chernobyl is that AGRs or PWRs are in some way shown to be unsafe. It is true that we would not licence the Chernobyl type of PWR here. It has features we should not approve on safety grounds, as has clearly been explained in this debate. Our safety rules here and in Europe are extremely strict, but we now know, since our Select Committee's report was written, that the Chernobyl accident was caused by human error—engineers turning off the safety circuits for experimental reasons; clearly a half-baked thing to do. One cannot—I repeat cannot—argue back therefore from the accident at Chernobyl to conclude that European reactors are unsafe.
That brings me to the Sizewell problem on which we most earnestly await the report of the public inquiry. Our Select Committee decided to await that report before recommending whether we should build a PWR or another advanced gas-cooled reactor. Until now I had hoped that it would be an AGR, but for the 408 reasons explained by my noble friend Lord Marshall in this report I shall not be at all surprised if the Government decide that it is time for us to join the mainstream of European and American production and order a small family of PWRs year by year. The strong opinion of the users—in this case the Central Electricity Generating Board—must carry some weight in this.
The CEGB intends to get a good, well-tried design and replicate it, as the French have done. That is important. We made the same mistake with the AGRs as we did with tanks during the war. I warmly support what my noble friend Lord Kearton said about this. We kept altering the design; we employed a number of different companies and corporations; we encouraged them to compete with each other, keeping rival teams of experts here and there, and it was a flop. They missed many opportunities to learn by experience. The French have shown us how to do it. Let us follow their example. They have been immensely successful and I warmly admire and congratulate them.
I add here how important it is to follow this through so as to keep the skilled and experienced staffs together. The noble Lords, Lord Nelson, Lord Plowden, Lord Ironside, and others have stressed this issue. It is very important. We do not want just one order. We want a succession of orders to keep the firms busy, to keep skilled staff going and to give employment.
This brings me to the fast breeder reactor. The committee agreed that the eventual move to fast reactors was inevitable. The groundwork has already been done, first, by ourselves at Dounreay and, secondly, by the French who already have two FBRs operating—the Phenix and the Super-Phenix. It will be some time before the FBRs can become competitive in costs, but I draw your Lordships' attention to the very interesting evidence given by M. Carle, the top expert from Electricité de France, who has no doubt that the FBR costs can, with more experience, be reduced to make them fully competitive with PWRs even in France, where PWR costs are now low. France exports cheap electricity to all neighbouring countries, including the United Kingdom, and this is undoubtedly due to its success with nuclear energy.
The major point about the fast breeder reactors is that they burn up the uranium 238 with plutonium, both by-products of the thermal reactors—Magnox, AGRs, PWRs, and so on. These waste products, uranium 238 and plutonium, can only be an embarrassment in the age we live in. Surely, it is much better to burn them up and produce more electricity as we have been doing at Dounreay for nearly 30 years. Moreover, as M. Carle, the French representative, said,Although there is no immediate likelihood of a shortage of uranium, it does seem important to protect ourselves against any future shortage, any embargo upon uranium, any political crisis over uranium, in the future".We live in a decidedly sticky world and I do not think we should take risks in this matter. The development of really competitive FBRs will take some years, no doubt, and a lot of experimental work in research. Seven to 10 years is the shortest period before a new FBR can reach full production after being ordered. We cannot possibly foresee what the world will be like in 409 10 years' or 20 years' time. We do not want the new Europe to be vulnerable, as it was in the oil crisis of 1974, only some 12 years ago.
I hope that we are going to get on with this. I do not like the idea of putting off decisions. I think that my noble friend Lord Halsbury is one of the wisest men I know; but I must honestly say that I was slightly dismayed at his suggestion that we put off a decision for two years about the next thermal reactor. Both the EC Illustrative Programme and the memorandum of understanding of 1984 among Britain, Belgium, France, Germany and Italy foresee the need to make progress with FBRs. I entirely share the view expressed to the committee by both my noble and experienced friend Lord Marshall and also by M. Carle from EDF that, in view of the long lead times involved, we should make a start with further development of FBRs very soon. And since we have been active and fairly successful in this field for some 30 years, I hope that the next European FBR may be built in this country.
In this connection I draw your Lordships' attention to the fact that at Dounreay we have already completed the plutonium refuelling cycle, extracting the new plutonium from the burned-up uranium 238 fuel and feeding it back in new fuel elements into the reactor. That is not the least of the very remarkable achievements at Dounreay and it should encourage us to press forward soon with the support of our European partners.
Our European colleagues will want an assurance that planning delays will not hold up construction in this country. They are quite right. I must say that I am appalled at the ridiculous proceedings at Sizewell, and, indeed, the critics of nuclear energy seem to be shocked, also. We really must lay down better and much stricter rules for the conduct of such inquiries. Nor do I understand why months and months go by before reports of an inquiry are produced. Are we always to be pipped at the post because we are incompetent to settle these matters? We must do better. I urge the Government to do something effective about this soon. Incidentally, M. Carle gave our committee one rather nice bit of advice. He said:Do not consider the nuclear option as a religious question nor as a philosophical question but just as an economic question".I hope we are going to be practical about it.
To conclude, I warmly support this excellent report. I go a bit further: I hope that we shall very soon go forward with ordering further reactors, perhaps as suggested by my noble friend Lord Marshall, and also start work soon with our European partners on a new prototype fast breeder reactor of commercial size. We need to keep our country in the forefront of modern technology, which is the only safe place for it to be, and to train and maintain the scientific, engineering and industrial staffs to make such a policy effective. It is essential for the Government to have and to maintain an effective energy policy in this matter. I earnestly hope that they will go ahead soon on these lines.
§ 8.5 p.m.
§ Viscount Mersey
My Lords, it will come as no surprise to noble Lords that many of the points that I was going to make have already been made by other 410 noble Lords far more eminent than I am, and I certainly do not intend to repeat them. I must congratulate this committee on a very well balanced and sound report, having taken evidence from witnesses as diverse as the noble Lord, Lord Marshall, on the one hand, and the Friends of the Earth, on the other; and from people as pro-nuclear as M. Remy Carle and as anti-nuclear as the MEP Paul Staes of the Rainbow Party.
Whereas the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, said that he found the oral evidence rather (as he put it) "indigestible", I must confess that I found it quite appetising. For instance, the witness Herr Jelinek Fink describes the problem in West Germany. He states in his evidence that only if you tell the people the true facts about nuclear power a thousand times over will they manage to get the issue in perspective; and that all that hard-won perspective can be destroyed by one newspaper headline, containing the two words "nuclear" and "disaster". Newspapers, said Mr. Fink in evidence, are tempted to entertain rather than to inform and the headline, "Nuclear disaster", does entertain and therefore sells papers.
I have an example here from the Daily Mail:"Radioactive sheep alert".This article is by Mr. Robin Oakley, normally a very sound journalist; but the headline must show that Mr. Oakley does not realise that every sheep is radioactive, just as all of us are. Every sheep, also, is woolly. And every sheep is hot-blooded. I am wondering this. Supposing the headline had read, "Hot-blooded sheep alert". How would the public have reacted? I would mention that the area under concern is the Lake District. I suppose that people would have been sorry for the sheep and would have come to the conclusion that the wretched animal had a temperature caused perhaps by some sort of ruminant 'flu or sheep louse.
I think that what the public would not have done is what they did over this, what I might call, alert radioactive sheep. They boycotted the Lake District. I know this only too well because I went through the Lake District at the height of the tourist season. I was in a party of 10. We had no hotel bookings; yet every night we could just pitch into an hotel, and we were in. Those hotels always had rooms, they were empty at the height of the season.
I think, however, that it would be unfair to confine muddled thinking to the sort of shock-horror probe headlines of the tabloid press. There is a sentence, not in this report, but in the 1985–86 report of the Environment Committee in another place, which reads:Low activity wastes of very long half lives present very serious problems for waste management".I do not think that anyone has mentioned this sentence so far but it is rather an interesting one. Granite chippings fall into this category, but no one is worried about disposing of them or, indeed, about dispersing them as, I suppose, gravel on one's drive.
Many noble Lords have made this sort of point. The noble Lord, Lord Marshall, and the noble Lord, Lord Swann, mentioned in particular coal ash. That is in the same category and that was not seen by the Environment Committee. Each coal-fired station—and the noble Lord, Lord Marshall, will correct me if I am 411 wrong—that produces one megawatt of electricity produces also a million tonnes of radioactive coal ash every year. We really have not been too worried about the disposal of coal ash over the last 200 years or so.
There is one other area of confusion which I do not think has been touched upon as much as it might have been. That is the connection between the two types of nuclear industry—the power industry and the weapons industry—and the feeling that it is a clandestine operation working hand in glove one with the other, and that the former exists to feed the latter. Were that the case, one would expect there to be the strongest nuclear feeling in the nuclear-weapon states (that is, France and ourselves) and less nuclear controversy in the non-nuclear weapon countries such as West Germany.
This is not so. As Herr Jelinek Fink told us, there is widespread opposition to nuclear matters in Germany; whereas the famous M. Carle from France tells us that there is no opposition to nuclear power in his country despite it being a weapon state.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, that M. Carle talks interestingly, so much so that I would like just to mention one or two more of his remarks to the committee. As the noble Lord said, he represents Electricité de France. He tells the committee that each time a French region has economic difficulties the government comes to him and says to his company: "Why don't you build a nuclear reactor there? It would be a good thing: it would give employment and create more activity". Then, says M. Carle, "Unfortunately, all the regions now want a nuclear unit and the whole thing has gone too far. We have to resist them sometimes because we do not want so many nuclear plants".
In other words, the French people want more nuclear power stations than Electricité de France wishes to build. This is a unique situation, but also a powerful situation economically. My noble friend the Duke of Portland asked M. Carle to whom France exported electricity, and this was the reply:To all our neighbours: Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Spain and Portugal. The biggest amount is to Switzerland but that is because the Swiss resell electricity to other countries like Yugoslavia and Austria.As many people will know, Austria actually built its own nuclear power station but it never generated any electricity, and now they are pulling it down again. Instead, the Austrians seem to prefer to buy their nuclear electricity from France, via the middlemen of Switzerland. So the French profit and the Swiss profit and surely the Austrians lose out. Surely we should not ourselves go down that Austrian road.
My final quote has just been used by the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, but I think it is so good that I will read it again. As M. Carle puts it so eloquently,Do not consider the nuclear option as a religious question, nor as a philosophical question, but just simply as an economic question.We really must be economically realistic and continue our nuclear programme.
§ 8.12 p.m.
§ Lord Thurlow
My Lords, I will take the advice of the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, and confine my 412 comments on the main content of this admirable report to two words: "Hear, hear!"
However, I want very briefly to pursue the aspect raised by the noble Duke, the Duke of Portland, on safety. We have heard from many authorities that, as the report has said, we can for practical purposes be satisfied with the standards of safety that have been developed in this country and in Western Europe generally in present conditions. But ought we not to take a rather wider horizon? In the world that we are moving into the demand for power is going to develop on a vast scale in, for instance, the third world as well as elsewhere. I have spent a great deal of time in different parts of the third world and it is a rather frightening prospect for me to contemplate so many countries that are really still technologically inefficient moving into the world of nuclear power. It will come; but we have to guard against all kinds of contingencies in respect of human error and inefficiency. We have seen this terrible example of what negligence can lead to.
There are other contingencies that have not been taken into account in the report. I suppose that in the world to come terrorism may adopt new dimensions directed at the kind of targets that can create the greatest possible social damage. Again, may there not be physical catastrophes, seismological upheavals, earthquakes and so on, that could reduce all present safety standards to a comparative nonsense?
What seems to be necessary is fairly large-scale research, undertaken internationally, as the first step towards the kind of international co-operation that the report recommends in paragraph 249. As regards research, surely we cannot expect the Atomic Energy Authority to devote its resources to this kind of wide-horizon research: it has plenty to do with its resources in relation to this country. So it should be an international project, in the first place presumbly (as the European Parliament has recommended) on a Community basis. I would hope that we would bring in other major nuclear countries such as the United States, Japan, Russia and India, and work to form a basis for the kind of international co-operation in action that may be possible in the long term. But it is certainly a very long-term affair and, in the terms of reference for such a research project, may we envisage the worst kinds of things that can happen? Can we ask research to cover "design for catastrophe"?
The Swedes are already engaged in what I believe to be valuable and fruitful research into the storage and disposal of waste in subterranean salt caves free of water penetration. It may be that in a kind of science fiction world to come people may deem it necessary and desirable to site nuclear power installations on a vast scale in subterranean sites, thereby using the natural shields of rock.
We need a planetary horizon and a great deal more research to cover the widest contingencies; and so I ask Her Majesty's Government to take the initiative with our European partners in starting this ball rolling to pursue the recommendations of the Select Committee on moving towards international co-operation, and starting in the first place with research.
§ 8.19 p.m.
§ Lord Ezra
My Lords, we are now nearing the end of this long but very interesting and well-informed debate. I had the pleasure of serving on the committee responsible for producing this report and I should like to join all those who have paid tribute to the noble Viscount, Lord Torrington, for the masterly and skilful manner in which he blended our various opinions in order to produce a single report.
This report, of course, is primarily about the Illustrative Programme of the European Community in connection with nuclear power. I think it would be regarded in future years as a remarkably succinct summary of nuclear power developments in the various countries of the Community.
As has already been pointed out, we can see the diversity of national approaches within Europe alone—I am not talking about America or Japan—towards nuclear power, ranging from the position of the French and the Belgians at one end, and the position of Denmark at the other, without any nuclear power at all, with, in between, countries like Germany and the United Kingdom.
Tribute has quite rightly been paid to the remarkable French achievement, where they not only decided that they would have to solve their energy problem by concentrating on nuclear power, because they had no alternative readily available, but they did it in a remarkable manner. At paragraph 19 of our report on page 14, we say that the rationalisation policy of France,has led to the choosing of a single type of nuclear steam supply system, supplied by a single manufacturer, FRAMATOME. It also led to the choosing of a single supplier, ALSTHOM, for the turbo-generator sets".Here is a remarkable degree of co-ordination the like of which we have not experienced in this country, because we tend to go for debate, difference of opinion and fragmentation.
Although the report was primarily about the European programme, the prime interest of those who will read it, and of course of those noble Lords who have debated it today, is the impact of this thinking on the British position, because we in Britain have reached the situation of having to decide on how we go forward, if indeed we go forward, in nuclear power.
One cannot see nuclear power in isolation; it forms a part of the whole energy scene. So I should like to explain my own position in the matter, in case there is any misunderstanding because of my past associations. I have always believed that we should have an energy policy based on a diversity of supplies of energy. We are a country which has been favoured with an abundance of coal in the past, which is also likely to last for some time in the future, and we must make the best use of that. In more recent times, we have had access to oil and gas in the North Sea which has been most effectively exploited and we have to make the best use of that. We also led the way in the peaceful use of the nuclear operation and have developed great expertise there, and I believe we must make the best use of that. In addition, we probably need to pay more attention to renewables and to accentuate the work that has been admirably stimulated by the present Secretary of State for Energy in conservation.
414 So this is the total energy picture as I see it, but the problem at any one time is: what precise balance do you reach between these various components? We are concerned here with the nuclear component, but we have a little problem because we have had this very long running Sizewell inquiry. The preparation of the report, as the noble Duke, the Duke of Portland, has reminded us, has also taken a long time and it has not yet appeared.
However, in the meantime two major developments of great relevance have taken place. One is the Chernobyl disaster, to which we have referred a lot this afternoon, and the other is the halving of the oil price. I presume that the report which will be prepared on Sizewell will deal with the evidence presented at the inquiry. It will not, I presume, be able to deal with the subsequent developments unless a further inquiry is initiated. So it will mean that these subsequent factors will have to be very carefully taken into account.
We have talked a good deal about the Chernobyl situation and we were very fortunate indeed that the noble Lord, Lord Marshall of Goring—the very energetic and effective chairman of the CEGB—told us at first hand how that situation was presented at the meeting in Vienna. He has explained quite clearly the particular characteristics of that unfortunate mishap. It seems fairly clear that it was related to that type of plant, but what noble Lords have very rightly emphasised during the course of this debate is that one important consequence of that disaster—whether or not it could take place in that form, or in some other form in other types of nuclear reactor—has been the impact on public opinion, and it is quite clear that this situation will have to be dealt with.
There is very grave misgiving in the public mind, rightly or wrongly, about nuclear energy and anything associated with it, as many noble Lords have said in the course of this debate. So it seems to me, in the wake of the Sizewell report, that one action that is absolutely essential and which must probably be initiated by Government—I fail to see how else it could be initiated—is to reassure the public mind not only by what might be called propaganda, but by hard fact. I think the proposition of my noble friend Lord Tanlaw, that this whole question of radiation intensity is something which should be measured locally and should be available to anybody to know about it—in case people have fears about, for example, the disposal of nuclear waste or about whether, for whatever reason, the level of radiation may be getting too high—is something which must be very carefully taken into account.
I now come to the other factor to which I referred, which is the halving of the oil price, because this has changed the whole nature of competitiveness in the energy market. A great deal of the evidence that was put to the Sizewell inquiry related to competitiveness. In fact, quotations were made by noble Lords about the views of the leading personality from Electricité de France that this is really an economic matter. So we cannot ignore the economic aspects.
To what extent have the economics changed since the oil price halved? I think that this needs to be inquired into. All I can say is that in quite a carefully structured article in the Financial Times of 19th 415 August, Mr. Max Wilkinson wrote the following paragraph:With a 10 per cent. discount rate and coal at 55 dollars a tonne—the price which British Coal believes will be the ceiling this century—a coal station would be cheaper and would retain its advantage as long as the annual increase in the real price of coal was less than about 2½ per cent. over its 40-year lifetime".That was, of course, written on the basis of various assumptions. I have quoted it only because I say that it raises the question.
I do not believe that the economics, as argued at the inquiry, will any longer be relevant. No doubt in the long run the advantages of nuclear, economically, will be perfectly valid, but we are concerned here with the medium-term, with an early decision about what we do next. I do not believe that we should go into this and make this decision without clarifying that issue.
Your Lordships will not be surprised if I say that I found the suggestion made by the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, as one of great interest. What we must do in the future is to continue the range and diversity of our sources of energy. It seems clear from what the CEGB has estimated that in the early 1990s it will require additional generating capacity. I have no reason whatsoever to doubt that. I have heard speeches that the board has made on this matter, and it is absolutely clear. The question is whether that capacity can satisfactorily be met by an additional nuclear station, having regard to all the issues that still have to be faced up to.
I have not even mentioned yet the question of the choice of reactor, on which it is quite clear from your Lordships' contributions there are different views. It seems to me, therefore, that if we are going to continue to depend on a diversity, and if the need for extra generating capacity is as urgent as I am sure the CEGB is right in saying, then a proper first step might well be to go for another coal-fired station.
Let us not decry the coal-fired stations. The CEGB, whose system depends very largely on coal-fired stations, operates them most efficiently and effectively. Naturally, I have been over very many of them. Let us not be too afraid of the construction of new coal-fired stations because the performance at Drax B was exemplary. It was built on time and within the cost limits. Let us not say that the question of acid rain cannot be dealt with; it can. It will be much easier to deal with it in a new station and to build in the necessary desulphurisation plant than to retrofit it on to an existing station.
Therefore, it seems to me that, while we sort out these other questions—for example, identify clearly what the economic case is, convince the public, make our choice of which reactor we want to go for, give the new AGRs a chance to prove their mettle—there might well be a case for saying: but on the other hand, the CEGB has to have its additional generating capacity, so why not start by going for a new, up-to-date and thoroughly efficient coal-fired station that would virtually eliminate the acid rain problem. Let us then get the nuclear choice right.
Our debate is, of course, in advance of the report. I think that it is very timely because it can act as a curtain raiser. We have aired our views, we will undoubtedly be coming back to the question on a large number of occasions, but I think that we are fortunate 416 in our timing. We have been able to clarify our minds about the nuclear programme throughout the European Community. I think that the broad conclusion on the programme is that the likely position is that by 1995 a figure of 40 per cent. will be achieved, although it now seems unlikely, as the report states, to go up to 50 per cent. by the year 2000 because of the repercussive effects of the Chernobyl incident.
I think that the debate has much clarified our views on both the European and the British side. I am very pleased to have been able to participate in the committee's work.
§ 8.34 p.m.
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
My Lords, it has indeed been a very long debate and certainly an interesting one. I should like first to join others in congratulating and thanking the committee for its report and the hard work that it put into the gathering of evidence, into interviewing witnesses and into presenting the report. I think that thanks are also due to the officials who assisted with the report and the inquiry and, indeed, to the witnesses who were good enough to give evidence to the committee.
I should like also to congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Torrington, chairman of the committee, on the manner in which he presented the report to the House. I am sorry of course that he was disappointed at the Labour Party's reaction to Chernobyl—I presume that is what he meant—but I have to tell him that Labour Party policy, which was agreed at this year's conference, was as a result of resolutions passed in 1985, and the Chernobyl accident in fact confirmed all the fears that had been expressed at the conference in 1985. Therefore, it seems that the Labour Party and its conference had foresight in 1985, and ought not to be denigrated for that.
I recognise, of course, that the committee went to a good deal of trouble to obtain evidence from those intimately concerned with the nuclear industry in this country and in other countries, and took evidence from individuals and organisations opposed to any extension of nuclear power generation in Europe.
Arising from that evidence, and no doubt in the light of its own knowledge and experience of the subject, the committee has concluded that the case for an expansion of nuclear power both in the United Kingdom and in Europe is strong. However, the committee will not be surprised to learn that its conclusions will not gain unanimous acceptance in the country or, indeed, in the House—almost so in this House, but not quite. There is an alternative view, and I shall try to express it.
Before coming to that, I should like to express some doubt in my own mind about the desirability of the committee publishing its report before the full implications of the Chernobyl disaster could be assimilated and assessed and some of the witnesses re-interviewed, following the disaster. Bearing in mind that four-fifths of the evidence was taken before that fateful Saturday, 26th April, when the catastrophic accident at Chernobyl happened, it is at least conceivable that some of the evidence might have been changed in content or in tone, or both, following 417 that accident, especially bearing in mind that this was the first accident—I emphasise that—at a civil nuclear power station where the containment was breached and considerable amounts of radioactivity released into the world environment. That did not happen at Three Mile Island. It happened here. It was the first of its kind in the world.
I believe that there was a case for a pause, for people to stand back and ponder awhile before reaching firm conclusions for the future. I say that recognising fully the inherent defects of the Russian reactor and the differences in safety concepts as between the Russians and ourselves.
I also take the view that the committee, before making its report, should have considered visiting the Soviet Union to find out at first hand from officials and others exactly what went wrong, how such an accident could happen and the effects on the population in the immediate vicinity of the nuclear power station—and, indeed, on the population of the large city of Kiev. There may indeed have been lessons to be learnt about the techniques of evacuating quickly large numbers of people at short notice and in a very short period of time.
We have to bear in mind not only the risk of an accident at our own nuclear power stations (which I accept is very low indeed) but risks which may arise in other countries—France in particular. I think we were reminded by the noble Lord, Lord Nelson of Stafford, that there are six nuclear PWR stations 25 miles across the Channel. We must therefore bear in mind the risks which arise in other countries. We have no control over the type or the operation of installations in France. We therefore need to be even more concerned about the safety of our population. A catastrophic accident at a nuclear power station on the French coast could have appalling consequences for the South East, including London. We need to know what contingency plans exist for the possible need to evacuate large numbers of people and for other arrangements necessary for their protection and well-being. That is very important. Perhaps the committee did not have the remit to go into that sort of problem, but it is one that needs to be addressed. I hope the noble Lord may be able to give us some reassurance about this when he winds up.
There is another problem in connection with the report. It is a problem for which the committee bears no responsibility and which has been mentioned already this evening. That problem is the delay to the report of the Sizewell inquiry, for which we have all been waiting for well over a year. We have been promised that report on several occasions and we have not received it. It is about time we did receive it. Can the Minister tell us tonight of a firm date for the publication of the report, or when the Secretary of State may receive it? I did see something concerning that in the newspapers—I think on Monday—but one has seen things in the newspapers before stating that the report would be available in February and then in July and then in October. Can the noble Lord tell us when we shall have the report? We need it and we need it quickly.
Because the committee's report is so comprehensive it is not posssible to deal with every aspect in what 418 must necessarily be a short speech. Bearing in mind that there have been 26 speeches in favour of the report and that this is the only speech likely to have any reservations concerning it, I think I should be given a great deal more time than approximately 20 minutes. However, I shall try to restrict my remarks and deal with those matters which I see as being most important.
First, there is the question of safety. Paragraph 268 of the Select Committee report says:No source of energy is absolutely safe. Nuclear risks differ in kind from other risks because of their potential for devastating, widespread and long-lasting damage in the event of a serious accident. If nuclear power is to be generally acceptable, a systematic and meticulous approach to all aspects of safety is essential so that no such acccident can occur".Looking through the report we find that a number of areas of risk have been mentioned. Is the risk of one catastrophic accident every million reactor years acceptable? That is a question which the committee has asked. It thinks the answer is: "Possibly". However, if there are a thousand reactors in operation that could mean one accident to one reactor every thousand years. Some may think that that is acceptable as well because neither they nor their children nor their grandchildren will be here a thousand years hence; that is a problem for people who will live a very long way ahead in time. However, statistically, the accident might happen at the very beginning of that thousand years and not at the end. Therefore, I do not believe that that risk of one accident in a million reactor years is good enough. It is not acceptable.
I should remind your Lordships that in a period of seven years between 1979 and 1986 we have had two nuclear accidents. The accident at Three Mile Island was potentially catastrophic and led to a partial meltdown. The accident at Chernobyl was, as we know, actively catastrophic. I think two accidents in seven years ought to give us reason for pause. That is why people are worried. That is why the general public have come to mistrust to some extent the advice given to them by experts. They have seen accidents occur which they were assured could not occur. The public recognise that the more reactors there are, in whatever country they may be, the greater the risk. That is the reason for the Labour Party policy. That is why the Labour Party believes that in this country we should not contribute to increasing the risk. That is a perfectly reasonable policy for a political party to pursue, especially bearing in mind the public reaction to the Chernobyl accident.
No matter how safe the reactor design, the risk of human error remains. At Three Mile Island the accident occurred because somebody switched off the emergency cooling system and also, in my view, because of the bad layout of the control room. The Chernobyl accident was due to farcical, tragic and unauthorised experimentation by a very senior engineer. Once again, it was due to human error. Yet in February of 1986, two months before that accident, the Minister of Power in the Ukraine dismissed fears about the wisdom of siting nuclear reactors near centres of population like Chernobyl. He said:The odds of a meltdown are one in ten thousand years. The plants have safe and reliable controls that are protected from any breakdown with three safety lines".419 That is what the people of the Ukraine were told in February. In April they had a catastrophic accident. We therefore see that firm assurances, honestly given, can be rendered worthless by events.
The same was true of Three Mile Island. The people of Harrisburg were given the firm assurance that the accident which did happen could not happen. I myself heard that from the lips of the people of Harrisburg when I visited Three Mile Island and spoke to them. That is why the people of Harrisbuurg are bitter and that is at least one of the reasons for the reluctance on the part of the people of the United States to consent to a further extension of nuclear power.
There is every justification for the public in this country to have their reservations about increasing our nuclear potential and every reason why political parties should put forward alternatives to nuclear power, as the Labour Party has done.
I turn now to the economics of nuclear power generation. Certainly the Select Committee has accepted the evidence that electricity from nuclear reactors is cheaper than that from coal; and for that matter, except for hydro-electricity, it is cheaper than any other source. Perhaps that was inevitable in the light of the evidence. But it is by no means universally accepted that, taking into account all the costs and all the uncertainties related to nuclear power, it is cheaper to produce electrical power from nuclear reactors than from coal.
We tend to be mesmerised, I think, by the alleged cheapness of electricity produced by the French from their huge battery of PWRs. But one thing I have learnt about the French during my lifetime is that they are great illusionists. They have the innate capacity to convince you that they are doing one thing when in actual fact thay are doing the reverse. In connotations other than this one all noble Lords would agree with me, but perhaps they think this is the exception which disproves the rule. But I prefer to go by my own experience.
The evidence of Mr. Paul Staes gives some indication of how the French may be performing their illusion. But in any event we should not accept as gospel that French nuclear electricity is indeed, and will remain, 25 per cent. cheaper than British electrical power. I saw an article in the Guardian of Wednesday, 5th November, which was written by one Andrew Warren. Discussing the cheapness of electricity provided for the French consumer he said:What perhaps is sometimes less well-publicised … is that this cut price bargain has been achieved at the cost of the French taxpayer. Unlike their British counterparts, Electricité de France trades at a loss. Moreover, it has debts which put it almost in the class of a Third World subsistence economy. It owes 200 billion francs (around £20 billion), equivalent to the cost of 20 reactors; and it borrows some 30 billion francs annually. Its foreign borrowings stands at 80 billion francs".There are grounds for querying the French figures. The French industry does not make a profit. It is subsidised by the taxpayer, as against the CEGB in this country which makes a profit and then in addition is robbed by Her Majesty's Government of about £1.3 billion through the negative external finance limit. Not only does the CEGB make a profit, it also contributes to the Treasury. When we are discussing the cost of French electricity we need to take these matters into account as well.
420 The article by Mr. Warren goes on to say:Last year, that most respected US financial magazine, Forbes, published a major survey entitled 'Nuclear Follies', which opened by describing the US nuclear power programme as the 'largest managerial disaster in business history, a disaster on a monumental scale'. It concluded that 'nuclear power is now an option nobody in his right mind would seriously consider'".There are two points of view. There is an argument on the other side. It is not universally accepted that nuclear energy is completely safe, nor indeed that it is cheaper than electricity produced by other means.
The French connection is also evident in relation to the continuing argument between the CEGB and the SSEB over the relative merits of the PWR and the AGR. Mr. Miller does at least have the benefit of operating an AGR at Hunterston at nearly full output. The noble Lord, Lord Marshall, on the other hand, can only build his hopes for a PWR on speculation, since he has never built or operated one: and nor does he know what additional safety measures may be imposed by the Sizewell inquiry. He is operating in the dark, if I may say so, and I am sure he will agree.
The noble Lord has not seen the Sizewell report, has he? I hope he has not. Even the Minister has not seen that. Therefore he does not know what additional safety measures may be imposed upon him; and that will have an effect on the estimates of the price of electricity from that nuclear power station. The costs of the PWR are unknown at present, and even with the AGR we can have no real appreciation of lifetime costs, bearing in mind the difficulties experienced by the CEGB, especially at the Dungeness B nuclear power station.
But we must not imagine that the nuclear power strategy is the only one available. Nor can we assume that over the long-term it will be the cheapest. There are a number of imponderables other than the consequences of a catastrophic accident to a nuclear reactor. For example, if the noble Lord, Lord Marshall, is allowed to build his pressurised water reactor, can he give a guarantee that the pressure vessel will be constructed to such perfection that there will be no crack during the 35 or 40 years life of that reactor? If he cannot—and he knows it—he cannot guarantee that that reactor will continue for its planned life.
The Earl of Halsbury
My Lords, I do not think it is right for the noble Lord to be addressing these hypothetical questions to my noble friend, when he has already admitted that it would be improper for him as chairman of the CEGB to speak on the controversial matters raised in this report.
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
My Lords, I am most obliged to the noble Earl for drawing that to my attention. The noble Lord, Lord Marshall, and I have known each other over a long period of time. The noble Earl is quite right. The noble Lord is in a difficulty and therefore I shall not address further questions to him.
We cannot be sure about the estimates that are now made of the costs of nuclear power from nuclear reactors because we cannot be sure that those reactors will operate over their planned lifetime. As the capital costs are most important, that is the greatest element in arriving at the cost of nuclear power.
421 One accepts the Select Committee's point that fossil fuel supplies, including coal supplies, are finite, but at the present rate of use we have anything between 100 years and 300 years of reserves. That is why the suggestion made by the noble Earl, and supported by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, is sensible. Whatever our views about it, whether we have different views about the future of nuclear energy, at least we should be able to agree about standing back for a couple of years, allowing perhaps one or two coal-fired stations to go ahead and then evaluating the nuclear power programme over a longer period of time.
I have spoken for 25 minutes, although I have by no means completed all that I wanted to say; but it is getting late and we have had a long debate. I shall listen with interest to what the Minister has to say in reply to the debate generally. It has been a good and most interesting debate. I feel sure we shall come back to this subject in, I hope, the not-too-distant future when we shall have a debate on the long delayed report from the Sizewell inquiry.
§ 9 p.m.
§ Viscount Davidson
My Lords, I am most grateful for this opportunity to pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Torrington and to the members of his Select Committee for their excellent report, which has rightly received universal acclaim today. I recognise the amount of hard work that has gone into preparing what is both a comprehensive and incisive analysis. The interesting and wide-ranging debate we have had today has fully complemented the committee's report. It has helped to set in proper perspective the future of nuclear power in this country and internationally. It has also been most helpful to have the views of this House before nuclear issues are to be discussed in the energy and environment councils next week.
I feel too that it is very appropriate that this debate should take place on the day after the debate on the Queen's Speech. This highlights the importance which the Government attach to the future of nuclear power within the United Kingdom.
The Government are delighted to note the Select Committee's conclusion that there is a strong case for an expansion of nuclear power in Europe. The Government fully support this view. In his speech to the International Atomic Energy Agency's general conference in September, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Energy warned of the dangers of casting aside nuclear power. It is a very great stimulus to the world economy.
Though a relatively new source of power, it already contributes significantly to Europe's energy needs. It has greatly reduced demand for imported OPEC oil, thus benefiting security of supply. It also enables the world's developing countries to catch up on our present living standards. If Europe does not maintain the development of nuclear energy, we should deprive the world's poorer nations of abundant energy supplies at costs that will enable them to develop. As the noble Lord, Lord Zuckerman, said, we have the third world to consider. The poor nations would again have to compete with the rich for ultimately finite supplies of oil and other fossil fuels.
422 The national advantages of investment in nuclear power are most clearly shown in the case of France. As my noble friend Lord Bessborough, with his unique experience, reminded us in what I may say was an admirable example of a short, incisive and informative speech, we are now able to share in these advantages through the newly commissioned cross-Channel link. This is an important example of international co-operation in its own right. I can confirm to my noble friend that the present arrangements also provide for supply at a cost up to 25 per cent. cheaper than could be provided on average in the United Kingdom.
The noble Lord, Lord Swann, was right to say that nuclear energy also obtrudes on the environment less than any fossil fuel. I am convinced that Europe could not have developed at the pace that it has without nuclear power. I am equally convinced that it has provided us with a much cleaner world in which to live—even allowing for Chernobyl.
Following Chernobyl, the Government's most important task is to rebuild confidence in nuclear power. I must say that the contribution from the noble Lord opposite did nothing to help that. It has evidenced that pollution is no respecter of international frontiers. The effort to raise standards therefore has to be international. It must embrace all who have the potential to pollute. This is why the Government have said that international collaboration on nuclear safety can only be done effectively through the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The Government are fully committed to supporting the agency in its work. We have already signed the two new conventions on early notifications and mutual assistance and are pledged to play a full part in developing a regime for broader international collaboration on safety. Furthermore, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Energy has laid particular emphasis on the need for the agency to look in depth at all existing regimes, suggesting a three-stage approach to this work. The first would be an updating by the agency of its information about the details of all existing national regulatory systems. Having done this, the agency could then see that arrangements of one regulatory authority that have benefit are transmitted to other authorities where they do not exist.
The third stage would be the possibility of the agency having a team that could co-ordinate a review of international regulatory systems. The aim would be to bring about a constructive exchange as to how those regulatory systems could reach the highest possible standards. He has also suggested that the agency should develop the skill and expertise to provide national nuclear inspectorates with suggestions and advice which could improve their performance.
The Government believe that we must make real and important progress in the area of international safety in which the world has confidence and trust. Our aim will be to ensure that safety initiatives in the context of the European Community shall be carried forward in full harmony with the wider work currently in progress under the aegis of the Vienna agency.
During the course of this most interesting and informative debate many points were raised with the Government, and I shall do my best to comment on them as concisely as possible. However, I am sure that your Lordships will forgive me if, due to the late hour 423 and the long list of speakers, I do not cover all the points or all the speeches which have been made during a debate which has now lasted more than five-and-a-half hours.
First, perhaps I may say in reply to my noble friend Lord Torrington that the inquiry inspector said that he now intends to deliver his report to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Energy by early December. In passing, I cannot resist saying that I do not understand why on earth the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, is so keen to receive the Sizewell report, as I understood that his party now has no interest whatever in nuclear reactors either past, present or future. However, he will no doubt have a copy when it arrives.
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
My Lords, I am sure that the Labour Party would like to see the report, but I am intensely interested in seeing the report myself. I have a personal view on this. I want to see the report and I want the people of this country to see it. They are entitled to see it.
§ Viscount Davidson
My Lords, of course the people of this country will see the report. The noble Lord will see the report; but I still cannot understand why he wants to see it.
§ Viscount Davidson
All right—like a best seller. My Lords, going on from there I can only echo the conclusion in the report of the Select Committee that I do not have a remit to comment on the question of reactor choice. The Sizewell inspector had a considerable amount of evidence on these issues and I am unable to prejudge or speculate on any of his conclusions.
I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Marshall of Goring, for his important contribution to this debate. We are grateful to him for sharing with us his considerable scientific knowledge on the subject of nuclear power. He has made it very clear that from the beginning there were design defects in the Chernobyl reactor. The pity of it is that the Russians themselves did not recognise these shortcomings in time to prevent the accident. It is indeed reassuring to have the noble Lord's view that such an accident could not occur in commercial reactors operating in the Western world. As chairman of the CEGB he has responsibility for the safe operation of nuclear power stations in England and Wales and his opinion carries great weight—and I wonder whether perhaps the noble Lord opposite was out of the Chamber when he spoke.
The noble Lord has also rightly drawn attention to the importance of having an independent nuclear inspectorate. The operation of all nuclear power stations in the United Kingdom has to be licensed by the nuclear installations inspectorate. Nuclear reactors are shut down for examination every two years and cannot be restarted without consent from the inspectorate. Nuclear reactors are therefore subject to a continuous process of review and reassessment as part of the very high standards of safety applied to nuclear power in this country.
My noble friends Lord Nelson of Stafford and Lord Hood pointed to the importance of supplying our 424 industry with the cheapest electricity available from whatever source. I fully share that view. The choice of economic generating capacity rests with the commercial judgment of the generating boards, but the French experience, to which both I and the noble Earl, Lord Bessborough, have already referred, points to the advantages of investment in nuclear power.
The noble Lord, Lord Swann, advocated the establishment of a national energy commission to plan and control the energy market into the future. Such grand designs have been tried and have failed in the past. They will always fail because experts, civil servants and statisticians, however well intentioned, cannot plan the future. We have only to look at recent changes in the oil market to realise the folly of trying to predict prices or market shares even six months ahead. Bureaucratic planning in energy, as in other sectors of the economy, can result in serious misallocation of resources. We believe that the mix of fuels in the economy and the rate of production is best left to the free interplay of market forces.
The noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, in what I may say was an extremely helpful and sensible speech, and my noble friend Lord Holderness said that an important means of bringing about greater understanding is for the man in the street to see the nuclear industries at work and to see at first hand the care that it takes in its operations. The operators recognise this.
My noble friend Lord Chilston has already referred to the considerable number of some 30,000 people who visited Sellafield last year. A much larger number has already passed through the gates so far this year. British Nuclear Fuels have been joined by the other operators. They, too, are now having successful open days at their installations.
I very much welcome the suggestions of the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, for the pooling of all resources that are available to government in times of emergency.
The Government have announced that a thorough review of contingency plans and procedures for nuclear incidents is being carried out in the light of experience following the accident at Chernobyl. I shall ensure that the noble Lord's comments are taken into account.
The noble Lords, Lord Plowden and Lord Sherfield, and my noble friend Lord Rodney made some very pertinent remarks about the public perception of risk assessment. The fear of radiation commented upon by a number of noble Lords means that nuclear risks are seen differently and are widely misunderstood by the public. By comparison with everyday dangers such as the toll of road deaths or the dangers of chemical accidents, the safety record of the nuclear industry should be applauded and not criticised.
Perhaps I may refer very briefly to the question of acid raid. Some noble Lords, and notably the noble Lords, Lord Swann and Lord Tanlaw, and the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, referred to the environmental effects of burning fossil fuels as opposed to nuclear generation and in particular to the effects of sulphur dioxide. The Government take the problems of acid deposition very seriously. The United Kingdom's record in reducing sulphur dioxide 425 emissions is good. We have already achieved over 40 per cent. reduction in national emissions since the peak year of 1970. Our nitrogen oxide emissions are down too, while those of many countries are still rising. It remains our aim to achieve greater reductions of 30 per cent. in sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions by the late 1990s on 1980 levels and we have recently authorised the CEGB to install flue gas desulphurisation equipment. We have also decided that flue gas desulphurisation equipment will be installed in any new coal-fired power station in the United Kingdom.
It is nice to know from so eminent a commentator as the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, that laver bread and winkles have an important role to play in the nuclear industry. Apart from the question of Welsh winkle eaters, discharges from Sellafield are of course subject to authorisation by the Department of the Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Your Lordships will wish to note that a new liquid discharge authorisation came into effect on 1st July. That sets new and tighter limits on discharges.
The noble Lord, Lord Kearton, gave a valuable historic perspective to the debate. He noted that nuclear technology has progressed far faster than public understanding or acceptance of it. The future of the industry, both in educating the public and in the flow of power station orders, is of course of prime concern to the Government.
As always, we enjoyed the speech of the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury. We hope that his famous name will be enshrined along with that of Richter and Beaufort. I understand from an informal source not far from where he is sitting that the nuclear industry hopes to make a firm proposal to the Government in the near future.
The noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, urged the Government to take a lead in the European Community and in international co-operation; in particular, to promote safety research. As President of the Community, the United Kingdom has been overseeing the work in hand in the wake of Chernobyl. Progress with that work is to be discussed by both the Energy and the Environmental Councils next week. As a result of that work, proposals on Community health and safety standards are expected shortly from the Commission. The United Kingdom is also playing its full part in the International Atomic Energy Agency's discussions in Vienna.
I must stress that it is the future which concerns us. Just as the present mix of generating capacity is the result of decisions taken over the past 30 years, so decisions must be taken soon on new generating capacity for the mid-1990s and beyond. "Wait and see" is not an option for anyone concerned about maintaining secure and economic electricity supplies. Anyone who looks that far ahead also knows that future levels of electricity demand cannot be predicted with certainty. That is why the supply industry in its planning looks at a number of possible scenarios. In its view, a shortfall of supply over demand is likely to appear in England and Wales by the mid-1990s. This could grow to about 10 gigawatts by the year 2000.
The noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, talked of the importance of energy efficiency. The Government 426 place a high priority on the promotion of energy efficiency. We believe the opportunity is there for the nation to save 20 per cent. of our energy—energy which is at present wasted. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Energy has spearheaded a campaign that has taken this message the length and breadth of the land. But greater energy efficiency will not negate the need for new capacity. Indeed improvements in energy efficiency mean a more prosperous economy and so may lead to more rather than less energy being consumed—an expectation borne out by the experience in Japan since 1945.
I should like to dispel any illusion that the Government, in emphasising the important role for nuclear power, are somehow rejecting coal and indeed the renewable sources of energy. We believe in developing all sources of energy to the maximum economic extent consistent with the highest safety standards. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, that coal will continue to play a major part in meeting our energy needs. The Government are committed to the future of the industry. Since the Government came to office, we have invested about £5 billion in the industry. We are currently investing over £2 million for every working day.
Renewable energy sources are also being developed with the aid of government funds. Given the early stage of technical development in this area, it is not surprising that the appropriate level of investment is at present less than that required in the mature nuclear energy industry. But as the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, said, in the United Kingdom renewable energy sources seem unlikely to provide more than a small proportion of the growing demand for electricity in the foreseeable future. At present, most of these technologies are relatively untried and costly compared with fossil fuel and nuclear technologies.
The noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, urged us to proceed urgently with the Severn barrage. Its potential contribution is significant but should not be overestimated. It would reliably contribute only about one nuclear power station's output to meeting peak demands, given the potential size of the project. It also needs careful consideration. It is not safe to assume that these new technologies, if developed on a large scale, would not have an impact on the environment. We see nuclear power as one component of the total nuclear energy future. Provided new stations can be built to time and cost, it is economically attractive. Fossil fuel prices are now low, but it would be unwise to rely on them continuing at current levels over the potential life of a new nuclear station—perhaps 30 to 40 years. Fossil fuel reserves are finite.
We are therefore pursuing, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Dean, a balanced approach to energy development. Nuclear power is already playing a major role in meeting our supplies, and it provides an element of security. Once built, nuclear power stations are much less dependent on the fluctuations of the fossil fuel market.
As I began by saying, the experience of Chernobyl has been salutary. Improvements in international co-operation are already in hand. All now recognise the important contribution this can make to improving safety measures. The results of this work by the Vienna agency and the European Community will be brought 427 to your Lordships' attention as further proposals are formulated in the new year.
Finally, I think it is appropriate to remind the House that there has not been a nuclear emergency at any of this country's civil nuclear installations in over a quarter of a century. We can be proud of this enviable safety record. However, the Government assure this House that they will not rest on their laurels. It is only by continuous effort and vigilance on the part of all concerned that we shall maintain this excellent record.
§ 9.20 p.m.
§ Viscount Torrington
My Lords, I think that after nearly six hours and 26 speakers we can truly say that we have taken note of the committee's report. I should love to pick up certain points from the speeches of other noble Lords but at this late hour I think I should content myself with thanking each noble Lord who has taken part in the debate. I thank all noble Lords for the praise which they have lavished upon the report. As in all these matters some of that praise, in large part, is due to people outside this House, and I shall convey it there.
I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Marshall, can take back to his industry when he goes home tonight the conviction that at least the House of Lords on the whole has not lost its nerve for nuclear power.
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.