Orders of the Day — Nuclear Power

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 20th December 1976.

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Photo of Mr Nigel Forman Mr Nigel Forman , Sutton Carshalton 12:00 am, 20th December 1976

I rise at this rather early hour to discuss Class IV, Vote 6, of the Civil Vote on Account, which makes provision for £122 million to be spent on nuclear energy in 1976–77 and for £55 million required on account for 1977–78.

As there are in themselves considerable sums of money but are in fact small beer compared with the huge sums already spent and projected to be spent on nuclear energy in the United Kingdom, I believe it is right for the House to pause at this stage and ask itself a few key questions about the future of nuclear power in the United Kingdom. I believe that we should try to formulate sensible answers to some of these questions before proceeding further.

The key questions on which I should like to focus are these. First, is the further development of nuclear power in the United Kingdom inevitable? Secondly, if so what size and shape should that programme be? Thirdly, what would be the likely consequences of such a programme in all the various aspects that that involves? Fourthly, what would be the impact upon the environment of such a programme? I know that some of my hon. Friends, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for East Grinstead (Mr. Johnson Smith) and for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Rost), wish to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and therefore I shall not be dealing with that aspect in any great detail.

Fifthly, what are the wider implications of such a nuclear programme? I am thinking here particularly of the implications as regards nuclear proliferation which I regard as a key issue. Finally, what are some of the ethical considerations involved? We should not overlook the fact that there is a strong ethical dimension to this whole debate.

The United Kingdom is in the fortunate position of being what is known as a four-fuel economy. By that I refer to coal, oil, gas and nuclear power. However, as our recoverable stocks of oil and gas are definitely finite, a consensus has emerged to the effect that this country will be faced with an energy gap towards the end of this century which, it is said, can be bridged only by the extensive further development of nuclear power.

Everyone from the Secretary of State for Energy downwards, including the Under-Secretary—the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie)—who has kindly turned out at this hour to reply to this debate, foresees that the energy equation by the year 2000 or so will rest upon the tripod of coal, nuclear energy and conservation. The debate so far has been concerned largely with trying to strike the correct balance between those three.

Whichever way we look at the equation, the nuclear industry has been able to argue that the further development of nuclear power in Britain is both necessary and inevitable. I would not dispute that. Nor, I believe, would the British Gas Corporation, which was the only notable witness at the National Energy Conference last July to cast doubt on the now conventional wisdom that an energy gap will materialise at some stage in the future.

Hon. Members will recall that the Corporation, in a paper it submitted to the National Energy Conference, made the following statement, which was notable for its disagreement with virtually everybody else at the conference: Discussions of energy supplies over the next 25 years are tending to take as axiomatic an energy shortage in the United Kingdom in the 1990s. Statements in the discussion at the Church House meeting of February 26th, 1976 by several speakers appeared to accept, almost without question, an 'energy gap' at that period.In the view of British Gas, such an assumption is very much open to question; certainly we would all be most unwise to allow energy policy decisions which have to be taken over the next few years to be determined by such an uncertain premise. The more interesting question to attempt to answer is my second one, namely, on the assumption that the further development of nuclear power in the United Kingdom is inevitable, what size and shape should our programme take?

In one of its documents for the National Energy Conference in July, the Department of Energy forecast that the contribution from nuclear and hydro, which it lumped together, would increase from its present level of some 13 million tons of coal equivalent in 1975 to 25 million tons of coal equivalent in 1980, 30 million tons of coal equivalent in 1985 and a bracket of 40 million to 55 million tons of coal equivalent in 1990. Beyond that, things were thought to be too murky to predict.

The Department's forecasters also had the good sense and the good grace to enter, in paragraph 26 of their submission, the following caveat, that The foregoing figuring and analysis covers a period of only about 15 years from the present day. It is thus heavily conditioned by existing patterns of production and consumption and by fairly well established past relationships between energy and other econo- mic and technological considerations. Analysis related to the projection of past trends can provide a reliable framework for the consideration of energy policy for only a limited period ahead, and in the longer term the patterns of the past become less of an influence, their relationships weaken and the wedge of uncertainty widens. That is an appropriate choice of words, I think— the wedge of uncertainty widens". Indeed, in my view even the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority has become somewhat more realistic as the passage of time, the criticism of its previous forecasts and the light of common sense all begin to break through.

In his most recent public pronouncement on this aspect of the subject, Sir John Hill, Chairman of the UKAEA, wrote in The Times on 26th November 1976: The probable nuclear programme, particularly in view of the high energy prices now ruling and the sustained depression which this country is experiencing, is likely to be much smaller"— that is to say, smaller than the previous reference programme submitted to the Flowers Commission in 1974–75. No 'massive increases' in our nuclear programme are contemplated at the present time. Well might he have said that, and I regard it as at least an improvement on the wild negotiating bid put in by the UKAEA at the time when it submitted its reference programme to the Flowers Commission, when it was apparently advocating 104 gigawatts of nuclear capacity by the year 2000 and no less than 426 gigawatts by the year 2030, of which no less than 370 gigawatts would have been fast reactor capacity.

My first conclusion is that the total nuclear programme for which we plan ahead need not and should not be anything like as large as that for which the UKAEA originally bid in the immediate panic atmosphere engendered by the oil crisis more than two years ago. But that still leaves a legitimate and important debate about the shape of the planned nuclear programme. The UKAEA would like to see an early decision taken by the Government to build the first demonstration commercial size fast reactor—the so-called CFRI—since it sees this as a vital stepping-stone to an eventual pattern of nuclear power generation based increasingly on fast reactors.

That is undoubtedly one of the reasons why the Authority is so keen to press ahead with its plans to extend its reprocessing facilities at Windscale, particularly the mixed oxide plant, which is projected to be able to handle some 1,000 tons of throughput—far in excess of the total foreign business which British Nuclear Fuels Limited is likely to be able to secure in this sensitive and dubious field.

We also gather that, following the so-called Marshall Report on the safety of PWR pressure vessels, the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority is keen to reopen the Government's 1974 decision to proceed with 4,000 megawatts of SGHWR capacity and is veering back to its earlier position of favouring the building of PWRs under licence, or is veering towards a new readiness to consider a modest programme of AGRs. These have proved their advantage in terms of cost of operation and are beginning to look more hopeful.

Our future thermal reactor programme is shrouded in such uncertainty that the AEA is inclined to adopt a "double or quits" attitude by focusing all its pressure on the need for the CFR1 decision and the associated question of reprocessing mixed oxide at Windscale. This suggests that we could be approaching a turning point in the development of Britain's nuclear power programme.

It is doubly important at a time of scarce resources and growing doubts about the AEA's previous advice to the Government, and the virtually stagnant electricity demand, that the Government should take their time and give themselves the maximum chance of taking the best available decision in the circumstances. The Government have the unenviable task of balancing a number of important factors to establish their decision as the best one available.

The first interest which must be taken into account, but not necessarily the most important, is the power plant manufacturing industry, on which the Central Policy Review Staff published an interesting report. Paragraph 29 of the summary and conclusions at the beginning of that document states: It is undeniable that the measure which will help in the longer term is a contractual commitment to a firm and steady ordering programme in the years ahead. It is precisely that firm prospect of a contractual commitment which is not currently available to the four large firms which are principally involved in this sector in the United Kingdom. It makes no economic or social sense to order generating plant far in excess of likely future requirements, because this country's requirements for electricity, from any source, have been consistently overestimated since 1965—long before the oil crisis.

I do not believe that we should make nuclear ordering policy in any way dependent on the need, however pressing, to keep our over-large and under-rationalised power plant manufacturing industry in exactly the same shape as that to which it has become accustomed.

The next clearly identifiable interest is that of the UKAEA itself—the institution which is now in the driving seat. Even if its latest recommendations led the Government to steer an erratic and non-profitcise direction the nuclear industry should established and powerful institution, backed by a mystique of professional expertise which is not readily available to poor lay politicians, like myself, who have to make value judgments and assist in taking decisions which establish how far down the nuclear road and in which pre-able course in recent years, it is a well-be allowed to take us.

In essence, the current argument of the UKAEA is that we have a successful thermal reactor programme which could now be judiciously expanded by further limited ordering of AGRs or PWRs, but that if we are to safeguard "civilisation as we know it", once the energy gap sets in towards the turn of the century, the Government must make a firm commitment to the fast reactor programme in the shape of the CFR 1 and the reprocessing technology which goes with it. My response to that is to say that the need for nuclear-generated electricty on the scale envisaged by the UKAEA is not proven, that the cost of such electricity as provided by fast breeders is more than the country can afford—on its own at least—and that the environmental and social risks raise doubts about whether the game is worth the candle.

I shall deal first with the question of need. Since 1965 the rate of growth of United Kingdom electricity demand has been consistently below the forecast and there is a substantial over-capacity of about 40 per cent., if one includes the usual spinning reserve of 20 per cent. Because the stations ordered in the late 1960s and early 1970s are still under construction, it is estimated on the same basis that there will be about 55 per cent. surplus capacity by 1980. If that comes about, it will produce the kind of situation which I more usually associate with the Soviet Union where some production targets have been so far out that the authorities might as well have done their planning with a roulette wheel. The nuclear industry and the miners must realise that there is such a thing as electricity saturation which may well arise sooner than anyone thought possible.

If further evidence were needed, I can do no better than quote from paragraph 7 of Chapter I of the recent CPRS Report which states: The United Kingdom generating boards consider that no additional generating capacity will be required in this country until 1985 or 1986, assuming a 3 per cent. growth in GDP and the associated growth in electricity demand. The significant point is not so much the forecast itself as the heroic assumptions on which it is based. Are we likely to achieve a 3 per cent. annual growth rate over the years to 1985? If we do, what incontrovertible evidence is there that the relationship between economic growth and electricity demand will remain as it was? It is always possible that we shall see a higher ratio of electricity demand to economic growth than in the past. Anything is possible, but since past assumptions are based on a period in our history when "we never had it so good" and the domestic consumer market appeared to thrive, I assume that the ratio is more likely to be adjusted downwards, which means less demand for electricity.

As Harford Thomas said in a recent article in The Guardian: Translated into human terms it is fundamentally simple: enough is enough. I turn to the cost issue. Britain is now a comparatively impoverished country and there is little evidence that North Sea oil will or should much change our basic situation. We already have too much overseas debt to pay off and such extra wealth as the oil does generate will need to be put into the balance of payments and industrial investment. In such a situation I contend that even if it could be demonstrated that we need more and more nuclear electricity, we can no longer afford it unless we allow it to eat up all our scarce resources like a fearful institutional tape worm.

The total cost of our ill-fated AGR technology is estimated at £2,000 million so far, with more to come. No one knows what the development of commercial fast breeders would eventually cost. We know that the development of the prototype fast breeder is already costing some £50 million a year in research and development alone. That is in the Government's recent little document "Report on Research and development—1975–76." We also know that the best estimates of the cost of CFR1 have a margin of error of some 100 per cent. for the future, ranging from £1,000 million to £2,000 million, depending on the accounting assumptions made. We know that the capital costs of the fast breeder are about 77 per cent. of the total, whereas fuel cycle costs are only 18 per cent., so that the acknowledged high uranium efficiency of fast breeder reactors does not necessarily mean that they would be economic as compared with thermal reactors.

Furthermore, the costs of introducing new reactor systems have invariably turned out to be substantially higher than originally forecast, and the real capital costs of nuclear power have risen steeply. For example, according to a recent study by the West German Government, the cost per kilowatt of the German 300 MW fast breeder prototype will be several times greater than that of a standard light water reactor. Other studies have indicated that fast breeders would be economic only if their capital costs were no more than 15 per cent. to 20 per cent. higher than those of light water reactors. That seems unlikely to me, if not totally improbable.

I am afraid that the suspicion must remain that since it would probably be the biggest civilian technology project ever undertaken in the United Kingdom, CFR1 is something that this nation cannot and ought not to afford. If we must go down the fast reactor road, it would be much better to stretch the existing design of the protoype reactor to, say, 350 MW, assuming that subsequent events prove that there is no possible alternative, and then to instal a cluster of such reactors on one or two remote sites, together with their own reprocessing complexes.

However, my broad conclusion remains—namely, that we ought not to allow this particular cuckoo to claim such a disproportionate share of the food that is brought into the nest.

Finally, I turn to the environmental and social side. At this point I should like to put down a marker and ask the Minister whether he can give any indications as to what progress has been made with the questions, to which I personally attach quite a lot of importance, which I and some others put to the Nuclear Inspectorate some months ago, and to which I am still confidently expecting answers in the near future. The environmental and social risks are aspects that have been graphically portrayed, as hon. Members will know, in both the Flowers Report, with which we are all familiar, and the First Report of the Fox Commission in Australia, on the Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry, which is perhaps less well known to my colleagues but which, none the less, I commend to the House.

In many ways, for responsible politicians these environmental and social risks ought to be deemed the most crucial considerations of all. The attitude of the nuclear industry, on the one hand, was typified by Sir John Hill in his famous, or even notorious, recent article in The Times, when he wrote, We could not run today's programme on 1950 technology. I am convinced that the technology of the year 2000 will be satisfactory for the programme of the year 2000. In other words, no matter what the problems, technology will find a way. That, I believe, is a statement of faith, not a statement of fact, and I should like to draw attention to it for what it is worth.

On the other hand, Sir Brian Flowers, in his recent memorable lecture at the British Nuclear Energy Society, said, The crucial long-term issues are on the one hand the competition between nuclear energy and coal, and on the other hand between both and renewable resources; and also between high electricity and therefore high heat- waste, on the one hand, and vigorous conservation measures on the other. These are the real environmental and social issues on which we can make choices and on which we politicians are uniquely placed to deliberate and to decide. Whereas the nuclear priesthood would have us leave everything to the specially equipped initiates behind the altar screen, I say that Sir Brian Flowers and the Fox Commission have got it right in their quiet but insistent demands that these issues be aired, and once aired be decided, after full public debate, by the duly elected repesentatives of the people.

I shall not at this late—or early—hour rehearse all the many important environmental and social issues which are raised by the further development of nuclear power. Suffice it to say that ordinary people in my constituency and elsewhere—I know this from my post bag—are worried by the problems of nuclear waste, and I know that my hon. Friends will say more about that. Ordinary people are worried by the threat of nuclear terrorism and, if they stop to consider the question at all, they must be worried by the prospect of further nuclear proliferation.

It would be irresponsible to take irreversible decisions about the next stage of nuclear development unless and until we have a fool-proof and publicly acceptable way of dealing with the problems of nuclear waste, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Grinstead will no doubt point out if he catches the eye of the Chair. It would be shortsighted in the extreme to embark upon a programme of nuclear development which required much of the paraphernalia of a police State to guard society adequately against the threat of nuclear terrorism. And it would be the very reverse of statesmanlike or responsible conduct for this Government, or any of their successors, to embark consciously on a nuclear policy which tried to maintain the pretence that there is a natural fire-break between the so-called peaceful and so-called military uses of nuclear energy, when every responsible nuclear scientist knows that there can be no such divide.

Today there are at least 19 countries operating nuclear power stations, including such countries as India and Pakistan. There are at least another seven countries with reactors under construction, including such as Brazil and Taiwan. There are at least six more countries with power stations on order, including such as Iran and Yugoslavia. I ask the House to ponder some of the countries that I have chosen and the reasons why I shall not embarrass any country by saying why I pick it out. The nuclear genie is out of the bottle and the only important question is the extent to which the major nuclear suppliers can delay or control its fearful progress.

More dangerous than reactor development, there are now at least five countries with nuclear enrichment capacity—the USA, the United Kingdom, France, the Soviet Union and China—and there is a real likelihood that Iran, Brazil and South Africa will join this select band before too long. Further, there are at least five developed countries with the capability, or the ambition to have a capability, to operate reprocessing plants—the USA, the United Kingdom, France, West Germany and Japan—and there is the distinct danger that this lethal technology will spread to Brazil and Pakistan, unless steps can be taken at the highest international level to undo the damage already done by cut-throat commercial competition with its ruthless disregard for the lone-term survival chances of mankind—and I put it no lower than that.

All this adds up to a disturbing picture of a world drunk on the prospect of nuclear power and desperate for a slice of the Faustian bargain so thoughtlessly entered into by the Americans, the British and the Canadians more than 30 years ago. As I wrote in a letter to The Times, I believe that this country could get by with a more modest nuclear effort, consisting of an extended life for our existing Magnox reactors, incremented with a limited programme of one of the more modern thermal reactors, depending on the outcome of the current review. Of course, in the longer term our energy options in a sane society could be much more varied and benign than those suggested by the nuclear industry's alarming and unsatisfactory dichotomy between their preferred course of action and "the end of civilisation as we know it".

We could begin to implement a really serious programme of energy conservation—and on this I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South-East for his work—based upon significant further price rises coupled with wide- spread design changes in buildings, factories and modes of transport. This would probably save at least as much delivered energy each year as our current nuclear programme now produces.

We could and should rapidly scale up our investment in the more promising alternative energy sources, such as solar, wind, wave and tidal power. There should not still be a differential of some 100 times between the amount of money spent on nuclear research and development and what is spent on alternative sources. We must get the balance right. Equally, we should press ahead boldly with nuclear fusion, which may not have nearly as many environmental disadvantages as fission. One of our laments on this side of the House, judging by what we have learnt from Press reports, is with regard to nuclear fusion. Can the Minister throw light on the situation, which is causing considerable concern on both sides of the House and to the skilled scientists whose future depends so much on the viability of the JET project?

All these things are possible, but I hope that the House will forgive me if I conclude by returning to a few of the ethical issues which I believe to be at the root of this whole debate and put a few questions upon which we politicians should focus our minds. I put them in the form of simple questions.

Can we justify to our complete satisfaction taking decisions which, being effectively irreversible, will influence the state of the world as far ahead as the human mind can see, and well beyond? Certainly a generation which attempted to take such decisions without exhaustive thought about all the consequences would stand convicted of a peculiarly wicked selfishness and shortsightedness—that is, if there were succeeding generations around to convict us.

Can we justify pressing ahead with nuclear power without heeding the Swedish scientist Hannes Alfven's warning that if a problem is too difficult to solve, one cannot claim that it is solved by pointing to all the efforts made to solve it. That is worth pondering.

Can we justify passing on to subsequent generations a pattern of electricity power generation which decisively influences our social priorities, pre-empts a disproportionate share of our economic resources, and increases the ever-present risks of nuclear war? I do not think we can, and that is why I urge the House and the country to think again before it is too late.