Nuclear Reactor Policy

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 8th August 1972.

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Photo of Mr John Davies Mr John Davies , Knutsford 12:00 am, 8th August 1972

With permission, I shall make a statement on nuclear reactor policy.

Decisions in the field of nuclear reactor policy have immense importance for the future strength of British industry and for the security and cost of energy supply. The Government are resolved to build upon the major achievements of the Atomic Energy Authority in the past and to ensure the development of a powerful capability for the future in which the AEA will continue to play a vital part. We have decided, therefore, to intensify the installation of nuclear plants as far as technological progress, environmental constraints, industrial capability and generating plant requirements permit.

As far as reactor systems are concerned the Government intend:

To push ahead as rapidly as possible with the development of the sodium-cooled fast reactor, which they see as the main element, in the long-term, of our nuclear generating programme. A small experimental reactor of this type has been running at Dounreay since 1960, and a 250 MegaWatt prototype is expected to run next year.

In addition, to arrange for a major programme of work to be carried out over the next five years, at an estimated cost of £15 million, largely directed towards component development. It is expected that this system might be ready for a first full-scale order to be placed in the latter part of the 1970s and for it to be assuming the major part of the nuclear plant orders from the mid-1980s.

Then to commission a complete and specific design and component development programme for the steam generating heavy water reactor. A 100MW prototype of this reactor has been operating satisfactorily for four years at Winfrith in Dorset, and it is accordingly a strong contender for adoption in the United Kingdom grid system. This work is likely to take some 18 months.

To complete urgently work on the advanced gas-cooled reactor with a view to optimising the benefit to be achieved from the five generating plants of this type currently under construction; in addition, to study whether design improvements can be made with a view to maintaining it as a possibility for future construction.

Two other systems are currently under consideration, the high temperature reactor and the light water reactor. The HTR's prospects are in the medium term, and we shall explore the possibilities of an international collaborative development. for the LWR, our objective is to achieve assurance about the questions that have arisen as to its safety.

Within about 18 months all this work should have reached the stage where firm orders can be placed. In appraising the generating boards' capital investment programmes at that time, the Government will seek to secure the healthy development of the nuclear industry.

As to the structure of the industry, a much stronger design and construction capacity than is presently available will be necessary to provide nuclear plants on the scale on which the generating boards will need them in the 1980s.

It is reasonable also to envisage that the combination of the extensive research and development effort intended and the level of home orders should lead to valuable export business if we have available a strong design and construction capability. To this end the Government propose to encourage the consolidation of the present industry into a single strong unit. It should be closely involved with the AEA in reactor R and D and with the AEA and British Nuclear Fuels Limited in fuel development and fabrication. It should also have powerful technical and commercial backing. Finally, it should be capable of playing its part in international, and especially European, collaboration in the development and exploitation of nuclear reactors, to which the Government attach much importance. I am commencing discussions forthwith with all interested parties with a view to constituting as soon as possible the strong unit which I envisage.

In addition, I propose to set up a nuclear power board which will bring together all those having a major part to play in providing me with concerted advice on all aspects of nuclear generation policy and on the Government's rôle in ensuring the most effective progress in this field. The board will have a major part to play in the decisions to be made in 18 months' time about the ordering of generating plants.

The plans announced in this statement do not require legislation. I intend to proceed as quickly as possible with any necessary consultations with the interests covered in this country and abroad.

Photo of Mr Eric Varley Mr Eric Varley , Chesterfield

The right hon. Gentleman's statement does not take the House much further on the development of nuclear reactor policy, and we had expected that we should by now have had a White Paper setting out all the issues. Even at this late stage, will the Secretary of State consider making available to the House much more information than we have had so far? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we think that it is right in some respects—and he may think that it is right in some respects—to proceed cautiously in view of the huge financial commitments that have already been made to nuclear reactor systems in the past, although they have not always lived up to their expectations? But certainly we expected today a much more definitive statement on the policy.

Can the right hon. Gentleman say more about the collaborative ventures he announced in his statement on the HTR system? Why has he rejected, or seemed to reject, the discussions his Department has had with Mr. Lorne Grey and the Canadians? Why not go ahead with a collaborative venture on that system?

Can the right hon. Gentleman also say more about the one-company structure the Government have decided to back? Is it, in fact, a one-company structure? Is it the Government's intention that the two consortia should merge into one consortium? Will there be Government backing, and on what terms? What return do the Government expect for any taxpayers' stake? Will the Industry Bill be used to bring this about?

Does the Secretary of State agree that in a probably worldwide situation of fast-approaching energy crisis, despite the oil discovery of this week, nuclear reactor policy must be taken as part of a total energy strategy and Britain must use all its indigenous resources? Can he tell us when the Government will be ready to announce to the House the results of this survey on all these energy questions?

Photo of Mr John Davies Mr John Davies , Knutsford

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman that the statement does not take us much further. I think that it takes us a very important step further, particularly on the question of the emphasis which has been given to the work on the fast breeder and to the major design study into the steam generating heavy water system. These are two major moves, as is also the move in relation to the consolidation of the industrial side of the whole industry into a single unit. Therefore, I cannot accept the hon. Gentleman's broad proposition that it is a small step forward. On the contrary, it is a very specific and important step.

The hon. Gentleman asked about collaboration on the high temperature reactor. In both Germany and the United States there is great interest in this system as a medium-term system for generation. The United Kingdom shares the views of both those countries about the potential importance of the system. However, it is some way forward yet; it is not within the same span as systems like the steam generating heavy water reactor to which I have referred. Therefore, it is ideally one in which international collaboration could and should take place.

Photo of Mr John Davies Mr John Davies , Knutsford

I shall come to all the questions of the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friend.

As to Mr. Lorne Grey in Canada, the developments that have taken place in Canada have moved along the heavy water side to a considerable degree. It may well be that in the course of the major design study into the steam generating heavy water reactor we shall find ourselves having a great interest in discussions and perhaps collaboration with Canada. I do not exclude that as a possibility.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the single-company structure. I cannot today go further than I have already gone. There will need to be very deep consultation among a great number of parties, but he would be wrong to assume that all that is envisaged is necessarily simply a merger of the two existing design and construction companies.

As to the degree to which what I have said today fits into a total energy strategy, it is right to say that the total requirements of energy in the country must be looked at in a strategic way embracing them all. This is a matter about which the Government are constantly concerned, but it would be wrong to imagine that there is a point in time at which the requirements can be arrested and definitely stated for an extended period into the future. The energy pattern is changing constantly, and the Government's decisions must take account of those changes. That being so, I cannot promise the hon. Gentleman a White Paper which arrests a situation which by its nature cannot be easily arrested in that way.

Photo of Sir Henry Legge-Bourke Sir Henry Legge-Bourke , Isle of Ely

As a member of the Select Committee on Science and Technology who yesterday was at Winfrith, where the steam generating heavy water reactor and the high temperature reactor are both situated, may I first say that my right hon. Friend's statement is a major advance? But does he fully appreciate the enormous importance of exports from the point of view of the future of the steam generating heavy water reactor and their dependence upon the decision of the Central Electricity Generating Board to order a reactor of that type? Will he bear in mind in particular that unless the CEGB makes up its mind to place an order the manufacturers and the Atomic Energy Authority will inevitably be at a disadvantage in promoting exports?

Secondly, what is to be the relationship between the new nuclear power board and the Electricity Council?

Photo of Mr John Davies Mr John Davies , Knutsford

I fully agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of exports. Like him, I realise that the SGHW system has particular potential in that respect. I assure my hon. Friend that the decisions I have announced today in no way prejudice or fail to sustain that potential. It would not be practicable at this stage, without the further work to which I have referred, for the generating boards to contemplate an order for the system. Therefore, the work which I am commissioning is the most important next step for this reactor system that can be undertaken.

My hon. Friend asked about the relationship between the nuclear power board and the Electricity Council. It is my intention that there should be representatives of the Electricity Council on the board.

Photo of Mr Arthur Palmer Mr Arthur Palmer , Bristol Central

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, and as his hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke) said, the Select Committee on Science and Technology has these matters under investigation. Is it not true that, in view of the little that the right hon. Gentleman has said, that investigation is now more necessary than ever?

Secondly, does not the right hon. Gentleman's proposal for one nuclear boiler company fairly vindicate the recommendation of the Select Committee in 1967, when it made that very proposal, which was mistakenly turned down then?

Thirdly, does the right hon. Gentleman's statement mean that there is now no danger of this country's making the gigantic blunder of turning to American reactor systems?

Photo of Mr John Davies Mr John Davies , Knutsford

I am the first to recognise the very valuable contribution that the Select Committee has made in this and other matters, including an early recommendation in the form the hon. Gentleman mentioned. I am thankful to him for that.

The likelihood of there being an order of a light water reactor of American design must clearly be suspended on the concerns about safety which are so much to the fore at present, not just in this country but throughout the world. Until they are resolved one way or the other, it would be difficult to contemplate orders for a system of that kind.

Photo of Mr Hugh Fraser Mr Hugh Fraser , Stafford and Stone

While I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the structure he proposes, may I raise a most pressing point—the question of orders for the heavy electrical machinery industry? Unless orders are given and there is an improvement now, there will be no heavy electrical machine industry left in this country when all the rationalisations have been carried out. That is by far the most important matter in my view, though I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the structure he proposes for the nuclear reactor programme.

Photo of Mr John Davies Mr John Davies , Knutsford

Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Stafford and Stone (Mr. Hugh Fraser), I am concerned about the position of the heavy electrical plant industry. The Government have already taken some important steps by advancing orders for the Ince plant, and it is possible that further orders will be forthcoming for plant. This matter governs my thoughts a great deal.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , West Lothian

In spite of Ince, what about Stakeness? We were hoping that some definitive judgment would be made on it. Has the right hon. Gentleman nothing to say about it? Can he elaborate rather more on the problems which face the sub-contractors? As the right hon. Member for Stafford and Stone (Mr. Hugh Fraser) said, they are facing serious problems—for example, Reyrolle Parsons.

Photo of Mr John Davies Mr John Davies , Knutsford

Stakeness is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, but I have it in mind that he will be having something to say on the matter in the not too distant future. [HON. MEMBERS: "When?"] No doubt he will choose his own moment. I cannot say more about the question of plant orders. As I have said, these matters are very much of concern to the Government. I know that Reyrolle Parsons in particular was greatly appreciative of the action of the Government with regard to Ince.

Photo of Mr Trevor Skeet Mr Trevor Skeet , Bedford

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the House greatly appreciates the fact that he is keeping his options open but at the same time giving emphasis to an all-British system—the steam generating heavy water system? Will he, in his international collaboration, bear in mind the work done by Siemens of West Germany, and Gulf General Atomics, of the United States. In consideration of the heavy water systems will he bear in mind that the Scottish Electricity Board wants to buy that system?

Photo of Mr John Davies Mr John Davies , Knutsford

I note these points and register them. I hope that this British steam generating heavy water system will prove in the next phase of design study to be as successful and trouble-free as it has been in its work up to date.

Photo of Mr Alexander Eadie Mr Alexander Eadie , Midlothian

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that if there were any possible interpretation that his announcement means that we are to contract out of the nuclear power industry and buy nuclear power off the shelf from the United States it would be disastrous, because fuels are close at hand and we must address ourselves to the problem of nuclear power? Will he be more forthcoming to the House on one matter which may be interpreted optimistically from his statement? Will he tell us what the position now is for the North of Scotland Hydro-electricity Board in relation to the power station that it wishes to construct? Since we already have an oil-fired power station in prospect in Scotland, what are the opportunities for experimentation in nuclear power?

Photo of Mr John Davies Mr John Davies , Knutsford

It would require a considerable degree of imagination to read into what I have said that there is an early intention of ordering an American-based system.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland would not be disagreeable to my saying that the problem in relation to installing a steam generating heavy water reactor at Stakeness is largely one of timing. The requirement for additional plant capacity is likely to accrue before the time when in any circumstances whatever Stakeness plant would not have been available for such a form of reactor.

Photo of Mr David Renton Mr David Renton , Huntingdonshire

Will the new nuclear power board be responsible for further experiments in de salination?

Photo of Mr John Davies Mr John Davies , Knutsford

I would be grateful if my right hon. and learned Friend would put down a Question about that. I am not prepared for it at the moment.

Photo of Mr Robert Maclennan Mr Robert Maclennan Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)

The only part of the right hon. Gentleman's statement to be welcome to the House today is that which relates to the fast breeder reactor, and it would be erroneous for him to claim any credit for that announcement, since it has been part of the consistent policy of successive Governments. There is nothing new in it at all. He has ducked the decisions which have to be taken on the rest of the reactor systems.

In relation to the steam generating heavy water reactor, is it not the case that the right hon. Gentleman, by his dilatory dithering, and by submitting questions to successive committees, such as those of Lord Rothschild and Lord Vinter, has deprived this country for 18 months of the opportunity of a steam generating heavy water reactor at Stakeness, a prototype which would have sold this extremely valuable system abroad? How can he now have the effrontery to try to shuffle this matter off on to the Secretary of State for Scotland to make some announcement behind our backs in the Summer Recess?

Photo of Mr John Davies Mr John Davies , Knutsford

When the hon. Gentleman reads in HANSARD what he has said I think he will realise that it was an accumulation of nonsense and misunderstanding.

Photo of Mr John Osborn Mr John Osborn , Sheffield, Hallam

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that whereas we have alternative energy sources in the short term, the world has a rising demand for nuclear energy as a source of electricity. The steam generating heavy water reactor has good export potential. We have poured an immense amount of money into atomic energy research and development. Will my right hon. Friend encourage the Central Electricity Generating Board to place an order for a steam generating heavy water reactor to see how it works in practice?

Photo of Mr John Davies Mr John Davies , Knutsford

I realise the potential of the system for export. One of the useful features of the work of the nuclear power board will be to bring together all concerned with the future with a view to seeing that orders for generating plant and the like conspire towards the best advantage of the industry.

Photo of Mr William Ross Mr William Ross , Kilmarnock

What are the implications of the statement for Dounreay? Where is the major development in component work to be carried out in respect of the fast breeder reactor?

I remind the right hon. Gentleman that all this started with a proposal by the North of Scotland Hydro-electricity Board for a nuclear power station at Stakeness. He is now saying that he has taken so long over his consideration that we no longer can have a nuclear station there as the generation has to be in time for the proposals of the board when it is needed. It is implicit in the right hon. Gentleman's statement that there is not to be a nuclear power station at Stakeness but one near Aberdeen.

Photo of Mr John Davies Mr John Davies , Knutsford

I will leave the announcement to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, whose responsibility it is. On the last point, the right hon. Gentleman falls into precisely the same error as the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan). He is quite wrong, as is not entirely unaccustomed.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the components programme for the fast breeder reactor. He asked whether the component programme in association with the fast breeder reactor development was going to Dounreay. The whole of the work of Dounreay will be directed towards component activity. Component activity is largely in the hands of the industrial concerns which will be responsible for the industrial components supply.