Nuclear Reactors

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 2nd May 1974.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Dr Maurice Miller Dr Maurice Miller , East Kilbride 12:00 am, 2nd May 1974

I listened with great interest and with more than a degree of admiration to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. He gave the House the facts upon which any future decision will be based. He did so with clarity and precision. I am sure that we can have absolute confidence in him as someone who has obviously gone out of his way to master the complexities and intricacies of this highly technical matter.

I am glad that my right hon. Friend set out the whole position as he did. We must take into account all the factors that are involved before committing ourselves to something that may have irrevocable effects on the very lives of future generations for perhaps as long as the human race survives.

There are, if I dare to state the obvious, two main considerations. The first con- sideration, in the light of future power requirements, is what part nuclear reactors play. The second consideration, on the assumption that we shall have to build nuclear reactors, is what type they should be. It must be remembered that our thoughts about nuclear power in general were in the formation stage against a background of the rundown of the coal industry and when firm evidence of offshore oil was relatively scanty. That situation has undergone drastic change. The oil crisis of last autumn, which could recur at any time, has concentrated our minds wonderfully.

Oil has become very expensive, and we have rightly given a new lease of life to our coal industry. Both oil and coal are finite, but at a fairly conservative estimate we have enough coal under our soil to last 200 years. In the foreseeable future we should be producing sufficient oil for our needs. I agree with my right hon. Friend that we should not be profligate in the use of coal. It is much too valuable merely to be burned.

I agree with the right hon. and gallant Member for Eye (Sir H. Harrison) that the prime consideration must be safety. That consideration must not be sacrificed for greater energy. That is the real problem. The hotter the reactor the greater the pressure on the coolant and the more dangerous the apparatus becomes. We should make up our mind that we do not intend to proceed with any of the light water reactors because the dangers are too great. Both the Westinghouse PWR and the American Electric BWR use light water as coolant and as a moderator. The water therefore becomes radioactive, and as the operating pressure is high—it is a little more than a ton per square inch—leakage means the escape of radio-active material. Sir Alan Cottrell, the Government Chief Scientist, giving evidence to the Select Committee, impressed his views on the Committee to the extent that it indicated that the PWR system was not a proven design for the size of reactor envisaged.

It would therefore seem that heavy water reactors are a safer choice, and, as has been amply demonstrated today, there are in this respect the Canadian CANDU and the British steam generating heavy water reactor—the SGHWR. The advantage of heavy water is that it absorbs fewer neutrons than light water, thus permitting natural uranium to be used as fuel. In addition, in the steam generating heavy water reactors the pressure is much less. For example, the SGHWR, which has a fairly high power density, has a comparatively low pressure; it is considerably less than half that of the PWR. CANDU has a lower power density and a much higher pressure than the SGHWR. The Select Committee summed up the position regarding the LWRs, and the hon. and gallant Member for Eye quoted the words of the Select Committee which, in my opinion, concisely summarised the position concerning the light water reactors.

I have learned to be wary of scientists. I am not blinded by their flashing genius It is touching to hear erudite, knowledgable speeches by hon. Members who know their subject extremely well but accept all the blandishments of the scientists. Some of this rubs off in my profession. The extent to which people have confidence, which is often exaggerated, in the medical profession is extremely touching. I am very sceptical about what scientists tell us as definite facts because much of it is experimentation; it is not proved.

I do not disparage science; far from It. But, in the main, scientists do what they are asked to do. If asked to design an efficient nuclear reactor, they will do so, and they will in all probability draw attention to its deficiencies which are inherently and intrinsically involved in their terms of reference. For example, if more power is wanted, more risk must be accepted. A choice has to be made, and we have to make it not only on behalf of people today but for far into the future.

The danger is minimal when we have few reactors. We can watch them extremely carefully. If anything goes wrong, there are not many sources of contamination to involve ourselves with. But think of the time when the number of nuclear reactors runs into hundreds. Nuclear waste remains radioactive not for hundreds but for thousands of years. I should like the Secretary of State to estimate, on the basis of the decision which he must make at some time in the future, how many nuclear reactors we shall have in operation in this country In 20 years' time.

I say to the Government, with all the seriousness I can muster: do not rush. There is plenty of time for experimentation, and it should be experimentation with safety in mind. Spend more on coal research. Powdered coal, on which the National Coal Board is experimenting. can be burnt with an efficiency approaching 95 per cent. There are also other sources of power which have to be investigated.

In conclusion, I can do no better than quote a paragraph of an article which appeared last week in the New Statesman. It runs as follows: The as yet unsolved problems of large-scale permanent radioactive waste management, the risk of catastrophic releases of radioactivity and proliferation of bomb-grade material create grave and justified misgivings about a premature major expansion of nuclear power. It goes on to say that there is— an incontrovertible case for a much more thorough investigation of the issues involved than has so far been made available to Parliament and the public. The issues of public safety and the scale of the resources involved clearly require a public and properly researched investigation about a decision which threatens to cost many times more than Concorde and is inherently more dangerous. The Government would do well to give this comment close attention.