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 Tom King Mr Tom King , Bridgwater 12:00 am, 20th December 1976

The closing comments of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) will be supported by all hon. Members. I do not wish to restrain my gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton (Mr. Forman) not only for initiating the debate—albeit at such an early hour—but for his impressive speech. That is not to say that I endorse every word that he said, but I was impressed with the range of the speech and the way that he dealt with the issues. Although I value this opportunity I regard it as a house warming party for a more substantial, full-ranging debate soon after the House reassembles.

The hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) referred to hiding things under the carpet. We would be outraged if the Government thought that they could get away with it by wrapping the matter up in a parliamentary nightshirt. The scale of the issues involved requires a major debate at a time when all hon. Members can take part and when it will receive full publicity. The conclusion drawn by Sir Brian Flowers is that it is now time for a debate by Parliament and people—and he did not mean at 6.5 a.m.

I tip-toed towards this subject with caution. I am here only because of the unavoidable absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Gray). I should not otherwise have chosen to take part in such a controversial debate so soon after taking over my present responsibility. It is one of the most important spheres with which I shall be concerned. The subject is complex and technical. As my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton said, the ethical, moral and futuristic implications of the issues are beyond the experience of any hon. Member in the House. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Grinstead (Mr. Johnson Smith) said, the report is probably the most substantial and significant which has been received by any Minister since the war. One can see the scale of the problem and the scale of the isues before us.

As I look for certainty and information in trying to familiarise myself with the issues, I realise that everything I touch turns to dust and that uncertainty is everywhere. My hon. Friends have referred to the difficulties of forecasting. I can appreciate the Minister's difficulties in that respect, because if he attempted even now to give us any sure forecasts of energy demand, he would know that no one in the House would believe them. The uncertainties and difficulties, especially against the background of recent unfortunate forecasting experience in relation to energy, electricity demand and the major economic forecasts give us no confidence that we can see with any certainty what the probabilities are. The scope for variations is enormous. The potential margins for error are very great.

Is there an energy gap to come? If there is, how big will it be? These are very difficult issues which the Government and the House will have to consider.

The issues raised in the Flowers Report provide at least some guidelines as to the way in which we should go forward into the whole question. This debate deals with nuclear power, but one cannot separate nuclear power from the capabilities of the other energy sources, and our dependence on those will depend on the demand for energy and the resources available and on the decisions that are taken about the availability of those other resources.

There have been cries for a great debate. I very much hope that in that great debate, if it takes place, as we have said, in Government time as well as in public time, and elsewhere, there will be borne in mind something to which Sir Brian Flowers drew particular attention. He contrasted the two sides of the argument that tend to become polarised. Perhaps one has tended to imagine certain identikit images across the Chamber of the great protagonists of the argument. Sir Brian Flowers said, The environmentalist tends to see those in the industry as being so committed to furtherance of their technology as to be wilfully blind to its dangers to the world. Those within the industry tend to see environmentalists as people opposed to all technology who are prepared to denigrate their work on the basis of nebulous fears of future catastrophes. That puts very clearly the two extreme poles of the argument. The plea of Sir Brian that The arguments of both deserve to be heard with greater mutual understanding is a cry that we should echo in the House, because it is extremely important as we move into what is clearly a very serious and most important debate.

Having accepted, therefore, the honest motives of both sides, it is equally important to ensure that we avoid any unnecessary sensationalism. Comments have been made about plutonium and the effect of a quantity of plutonium no larger than an orange. Sir Brian Flowers indicated that this was a highly misleading and most unfortunate description which was clearly very sensationally presented.

We also need to ensure that in the House we preserve a balance. The Secretary of State has made great play of his desire for the fullest and widest possible public debate, and for a realistic approach to the issues. I am not sure that he has played quite as valuable a part as he might have done in ensuring that. His reaction to the incident at Windscale has raised public concern, when perhaps a little more study would have shown that there were other Ministers who were well aware of what had happened.

I think that an official statement from a body that is responsible to the Minister that In the view of the company it is very important that questions of this sort, blown up as they are by the media out of all proportion to their true significance"— with respect, they are blown up by the media egged on by the Secretary of State—is something to which the right hon. Gentleman will wish to give his attention, because these are difficult issues and they must be approached responsibly.

I welcome the approach of submitting questions to the Nuclear Inspectorate. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton has his list on the table, but when I read the Secretary of State's list of questions I get rather concerned about which angle he is pursuing. Question No. 1 is: Has the work done on fast reactor technology so far, here or world-wide, enabled you to say authoritatively that fast reactors will be as safe in operation as thermal reactors now in use? I think that anybody in the House with a fairly elementary understanding of the subject could answer that.

One wonders how that question can lie together with Question No. 16. which is: What advantages do you see in Britain building its own commercial-sized demonstration fast reactor … on the present state of technology, as compared to the alternative possibility of waiting until the state of the art has advanced here and abroad and certain unresolved safety questions are better understood and better remedies have been found in dealing with them? That is the most loaded question that could have been put to anybody, and rather contradictory to Question No. 1.

When one is worrying about a sensational approach to this problem I am not sure that Question No. 6 which asks If the core melted through the pressure vessel and sank into the earth how far would it go and what could stop it and how could it be subsequently recovered? does not take us into the world of science fiction, or, if not that, whether it is helpful at this stage to raise that sort of issue.

Having posed all the difficulties—and I recognise the real problems that face the Secretary of State and Ministers over this issue and the scale of them—and having outlined the uncertainties, I think that the first clear opinion that impressed itself on me in my initial study of the subject was that made at the nuclear forum about the importance of keeping all the options open for as long as possible, because it is clear that we are moving into an uncertain technological field, with distinguished people holding diametrically opposite opinions. There is a need for clarification in order to avoid commitments too early or any earlier than is absolutely necessary.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. Monro) spoke up boldly for the situation in his constituency. In a sense I share his problem because I have a Magnox reactor and an AGR in my constituency. I know many of the problems and difficulties that can exist in such a situation.

I now come to the problem of the disposal of waste. I was struck by the statement of Sir Brian Flowers that he was confident that an acceptable solution would be found. I thought that that was a bold statement, recognising the difficulties that exist. But that statement having been made, he emphasised the time and scale of effort that would be needed to identify that solution.

Clearly, if we are to keep our options open. that search must be pursued as a matter of urgency, because we do not know now whether that option exists. If there were no acceptable way of dis- posing of waste, that would raise real problems for the future of any fast breeder programme. It is therefore a matter of crucial urgency that the Government press ahead with their search for a suitable disposal method. It is true that this is needed in any case to deal with the waste from the present reactor programme. It seems inescapable that that programme must be pursued as a matter of urgency.

It seems to me also that, in giving ourselves the greatest time in which these options can be maintained, the most active programme of energy conservation is essential. In my new responsibilities, I have the initial impression that energy conservation has not received more recently the impetus that it should have done. There was impetus at the time of the oil crisis, but that has now gone, and those who see further ahead can lee even more reason for an active programme now.

Benign sources would be everyone's ideal if they were achievable. I see no desire for nuclear power for the sake of it. If the renewable sources of energy are a rather earlier prospect than seems to be the case now, that is extremely important. I would like to see some evidence of a greater concentration, perhaps on a European or wider international scale, on the process of research into such sources.