Nuclear Reactors

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

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Photo of Mr David Howell Mr David Howell , Guildford 12:00 am, 2nd May 1974

I share that view, and I should like to hear the Minister's comment on it.

As for the light water reactors, pressure water reactors or boiling water reactors, much has been said in the debate. This is not the time to add to that, nor would that be necessary. But what do the Government understand by the programme being proposed by Sir Arnold Weinstock and the NNC? Who will make what in the GEC-Framatome-Westing-house club? Is it the right club? Have the Government thought of looking at the alternative club, the Kraftwerk Union capability? When or if we go this way, what shall we be making? Shall we be making reactor internals, as Sir Arnold suggested? What will be export? Shall we find that everyone has got to the export market first while we have arrived in the line too late?

There are central questions of safety which have been mentioned. Do the Government have views on the sort of cost involved in any modifications? Have the Government assessed what changes will he necessary once the big light water reactors are built, and if they have to build to British specifications what major changes will be involved? Sir Alan Cottrell's words are on the record. The pressure vessel of the light water reactor would have to be subject to rigorous manufacturing and quality control standards and thorough, effective and regularly repeated examination of the vessel by ultrasonic crack detection techniques. I share the view—this is saying nothing against the light water reactor that the safety aspect must be proved beyond doubt. I believe also that the Government should be beginning to form some views about the costs of this matter and reassuring those who support this choice, as many do, that we should not be going along the same path as we did with the Phantom aircraft—that by the time we had got it and modified it it would cost more than the British system.

Then we come to the steam-generating heavy water reactor and CANDU, its Canadian cousin. There is the question about the heavy water. From where will that come? Would we have to develop our own capability for that? How much will it cost, and where would it be set up? If we do not develop it ourselves, on which sources for imports could we rely? If we are to go along the path with CANDU and make what my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon called the "Canadian connection", what is the export potential there? We have heard about countries such as Romania, the Argentine and Denmark. Are these orders which would be forthcoming if we were to make steam generating heavy water reactors, or have these merely been inquiries? Are such exports to be based on such lavish credit that we could not afford to supply them? What are the facts?

The next in line is the high temperature gas-cooled reactor, in the same technology as our present advanced gas-cooled reactor. I think everyone agrees that this is a starter. It is everyone's favourite son. It is about the one reactor on which no one seems to have anything nasty to say. I am told that Sir Arnold Weinstock is positively ecstatic about it. The Select Committee, at one stage before the present oil crisis, was putting heavy emphasis on this as its favourite. What information do the Government have on this matter? How far have the orders gone in the United States? What is the significance of the order by Philadelphia Electric, which is to be completed in 1981? Are the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin) about the present HTR fuel difficulties borne out by the Government's experience? We must have a Government view on these matters too if a proper public judgment is to be made.

Hon. Members are right to emphasise the virtues of the HTR. This is an open-ended technology. There is heat for process heat and even for cracking water eventually and producing hydrogen. There is virtually an unlimited energy source. There is process heat of every kind, and even heat for coal gasification and so on. Furthermore, the HTGR would be very much in line with the AGR technology and some components would be similar. Again, however, we must hear the Government's views on the extent of similarity of components. HTR a very efficient fuel user, has possibilities for European collaboration. Do the Government have any views? Dare we wait for it and dare we go straight from AGR to HTR, which in some ways would be more intellectually satisfying? But is it even a starter when it comes to contemplating the real immediate needs of the country?

We would like to ask the Government much more about timing. The Secretary of State spoke several times about decisions in a few weeks, but are these decisions to be to order in bulk now, and what are the sums on which the Government are working? It was a pity that until this afternoon we did not know the Government's mind on load growth, and it seems that information on the relative costs of other fuels is hazy. Comparison with coal has to be considered and oil prices must also be taken into account. The Secretary of State has not yet been able to make much of an assessment on the movement of oil prices, and one man's judgment is as good as another's. Yet this is the sort of context in which judgments have to be taken about investment in nuclear capacity.

There is also the question whether we could get away with a stopgap, with one or two orders, and be able to fill the generating capacity gap that might occur in 1980 or 1981. Or do we have to go ahead in a few weeks with a whole colossal commitment and a decisive undertaking which would commit us for the next generation?

The commercial fast reactor must also be considered. We welcome the prospect of an order being placed in this connection in three and a half years' time, but does this mean that the CFR will be coming forward in the early 1980s, the late 1980s or later still, and what are the prospects of international collaboration in this regard? Why have we fallen behind? How do the Government see this situation?

My hon. Friend the Member for Havant and Waterloo (Mr. Lloyd) referred to uranium and he made some telling points. Do the Government put these aside as being unimportant?

We must also consider the environment and safety. It is absolutely right that the main emphasis should be on this aspect. We must be well aware in the House that resistance to nuclear power stations on safety grounds could be much greater than anyone estimates in England, and for that matter in Scotland, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. Monro) reminded us when talking about Girvan. Safety must be put beyond all reasonable doubt; it must be the central consideration in talking about our major future nuclear programmes.

No one envies the Secretary of State in having to make these decisions, or not make them, as the case may be. Parliament can advise, and through the Select Committee it has advised, not without effect and not without credit. But now the Government must decide. My hope is that this debate might mark the end of an unhappy chapter in decision making in these matters and the beginning of something better. We shall see.