HL Deb 09 October 1986 vol 480 cc350-2

3.25 p.m.

Lord Beswick

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government to what extent national defence considerations are taken into account in deciding the number and siting of nuclear power stations.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, in the first instance the number and siting of nuclear power stations are a matter for the electricity boards. The consent of the appropriate Secretary of State is, however, necessary before each such station may be constructed. All relevant matters are fully taken into account before a decision is reached on an application for consent.

Lord Beswick

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for his Answer. May I take this opportunity to offer congratulations on his promotion? I am sure that he will find the Yeomen a splendid and agreeable body of men with whom to work. I am sorry I cannot commit questioners from this side of the House. I wonder whether the noble Viscount's Answer was not verging on the complacent. If, in the event of hostilities, we have high-explosive missiles controlled by modern target-seeking devices, and not necessarily nuclear missiles, directed against each of the nuclear power stations in the country, can he and his advisers really be sure that this island would remain habitable?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his kind remarks. I do not think that anything is absolutely sure in this world. All I can say is that all our nuclear power stations are designed to withstand a large range of aircraft crashes, direct hits from conventional weapons and earthquakes. I would add that the threat of terrorism and other malicious acts is recognised and the appropriate preventive measures are taken, but these cannot be divulged for national security reasons. I am therefore not complacent but realistic.

Lord Taylor of Hadfield

My Lords, I first declare my interest with a company that builds nuclear power stations. We have accumulated in Britain over 320 years of experience of nuclear power stations without one single adverse incident.

Viscount Davidson

I am grateful to my noble friend for his comment.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Viscount. Perhaps I may also say that following the noble Lord, Lord Gray of Contin, he has a hard act to follow and I hope and trust that he will do it well.

May I ask him whether in relation to nuclear power stations there is not in defence terms a qualitative difference between the AGR and the pressurised water reactor, about which there has been a long inquiry at Sizewell which we are hoping will soon report? Is not the containment of a pressurised water reactor much more susceptible to attack than the AGR? Will the Government take this into account if they should (in my view, wrongly) decide to change the reactor design from the AGR to the PWR design?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, the noble Lord is more experienced than I am in this field at the moment and I shall certainly consider what he says.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, every nuclear power station must necessarily be a potential hazard of great consequence and also an inviting target. One of the assurances given by the Secretary of State for Energy recently, was, to say the least of it, a bit glib and possibly even verging on the mendacious.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I take note of what the noble Lord has said but I am sure he does not expect me to agree with him.

Lord Thorneycroft

My Lords, is it not clear that if we suffered an attack, conventional or unconventional, a great many terrible things would happen, not only to nuclear power stations? Is that not the reason we maintain an independent nuclear deterrent?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I thank my noble friend.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that one of the attacks against which a nuclear power station is particularly vulnerable is an attack by terrorists with heat seeking missiles of some kind? Is he further aware that in France, where nuclear power accounts for a substantial percentage of electricity generation, this threat is taken very seriously indeed? Is he also aware that the French criterion is that their nuclear power stations should be proof against all but an all-out missile attack directed at the nuclear power stations themselves? Can he give the House an assurance (as I am sure he can) that our own nuclear power stations are as secure as that, at least as far as we can make them?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I have already said that we recognise the threat of terrorism and other malicious acts and we take that very seriously indeed, but we cannot divulge the measures we take because of national security.

Lord Beswick

My Lords, we have heard of the expertise which goes into the construction of these new developments and I have had the opportunity of knowing and respecting many of those who have been engaged in the advanced technologies in this country; but when we consider Chernobyl and the fact that nuclear submarines, both American and Russian, have failed, and when we think of the London air control system this week thrown into confusion because of one computer failure and the tragedy of the space shuttle in Florida (which shook me more than anything else), can the noble Viscount be certain that we can eliminate mistakes? A mistake in this field may well be the ultimate mistake.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I do not think it is up to me to say whether I can eliminate all these mistakes. But I must assure the noble Lord that we feel that safety is absolutely paramount and, as my noble friend said, the United Kingdom has an excellent safety record. We have a rigorous system of safety licensing. Operators are subject to the strictest standards of safety in the design, construction, operation and maintenance of their installations. The Chernobyl reactor was of a completely different design from any kind of reactor operating in, or proposed for, the United Kingdom and it could not have been built here.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that among the risks he has to take note of is that probably by the middle of the next century we shall have run out of fossil fuel for generation and that we shall run the danger of all dying of cold? Would he take that into account in deciding what nuclear reactors we should use for generating purposes?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, we shall certainly take all these matters into account. All I can say is that nuclear power has an important and vital role to play. It contributes a very valuable element of diversity and security of supply and it already supplies some of our cheapest electricity.

Lord Leatherland

My Lords, may I ask the Minister whether armed guards or sentries are on duty at these stations?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I said earlier that I am afraid I cannot divulge any of the methods taken to secure these plants.