Orders of the Day — Nuclear Power Programme

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:48 pm on 1st February 1982.

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Photo of Mr David Stoddart Mr David Stoddart , Swindon 7:48 pm, 1st February 1982

My hon. Friend anticipates my next remark. The Select Committee was entitled to be angry over its treatment, in the first instance, by the CEGB. The estimates of demand given to us by the CEGB in the first place were downgraded by 7 per cent. within three weeks. That might not sound a large figure to hon. Members. But the 7 per cent. downgrading in the demand estimates is equivalent to three 1,200 MW power stations costing £1,400 million each.

The 7 per cent. downgrading was therefore very relevant. It involved a capital expenditure of about £4,000 million. Mr. England properly made the point that construction timetables make forward forecasts difficult. But the CEGB had not moved fast enough to revise its demand estimates in the light of new circumstances which should have been known to that body. It is the CEGB's duty to know that. It must have known that by 1973 power investment in industry had literally been completed.

The CEGB must have realised, following the oil crisis of 1973, that activity in our economy would tend to decline. It has declined very quickly. The board should therefore have been in a good position to revise its demand estimates. That it did not do so is a condemnation of itself and the methods it used for estimating future demand. I hope that the CEGB, as a result of the Select Committee's report, will look again at the methods it uses for estimating future demand.

Another matter investigated was the issue of spare capacity. My guess is that most hon. Members before entering upon that inquiry did not have much idea how much capacity the board had at its disposal, let alone the amount of spare capacity. I had worked previously in the electricity supply industry and therefore had some notion. However, when I learnt that the CEGB had a planning margin of 28 per cent., I became very worried. In my view, that was far too much and represented a waste of the country's resources.

I was concerned about that, but when we examined the South of Scotland Electricity Board we found that. before Invercape was even completed, the board had spare capacity of 73 per cent. I was horrified and concerned about the waste of resources that was taking place in the whole of the electricity supply industry. Indeed, the Committee rocked back on its heels when it heard those figures, and rightly so. It was its duty to draw the matter to the attention of the House, and that it has done in the report.

Mr. David Fishlock was mentioned this afternoon. He wrote an odious article in the Financial Times in which he accused the highly qualified and sincere people of high integrity whom the Committee was fortunate enough to have as advisers of being "bought". That was a disgraceful allegation. The Chairman of the Select Committee has already dealt with that allegation, and I agree with him that our advisers were people of the highest integrity and gave the Committee a great deal of help. I myself am most grateful to them. Mr. Fishlock made the breath-taking claim in his article that planning margins must be a matter for fine engineering judgment and are no concern of politicians. Nevertheless, in 1977, when demand was roughly equivalent to 1980, the planning margin was only 20 per cent. However, Mr. Fishlock says that that is no concern of politicians.

The difference between 28 per cent. and 20 per cent. represents £6,000 million, because the difference between 20 per cent. and 28 per cent. is five nuclear power stations. Nevertheless, he says that politicians are not to be concerned about that. If we are not to be concerned with the expenditure of public money on this scale, what on earth are we here for? It is just the sort of matter that should concern us, and I am glad and proud that the Committee did concern itself and brought the matter to the House's attention in its report.

In considering this nuclear power programme of 15 GW, we should bear in mind that, between now and 1985, a further 11,000 MW of generating capacity will be added to the 56,000 MW that we already have. The planning margin will go on escalating. Certainly, if we go on with this programme, we shall have so much power that we shall not know what to do with it.

The Chairman said that nuclear reactor choice was not a matter for the Committee, and we made no choice. However, I shall say a few words about the reactors that we saw and that have been under discussion today. We examined the AGR, the PWR and the CANDU. The Committee visited the United States, France, Germany and Canada. While we were in the United States, we looked at a PWR that was under construction, one that was in operation, and one that had gone wrong. The PWR had gone wrong in circumstances that the citizens of Harrisburg had been assured by the authority could not happen. The accident that the authorities told the residents could not happen did happen. That, of course, is the great danger. While we were at Harrisburg, we learnt that many people had left the area never to return because they were too frightened. We learnt of people who were desperate to get out of the area because they feared another Three Mile Island accident. We heard of the decrease in property values following the accident. I was concerned about the accident at Three Mile Island which, in my view, was more serious—not less serious—than was originally thought. That reactor is still closed down. Let us not forget that. Since then, two further reactors have been closed down because of safety problems.

In talking about the PWR, I wonder whether we have been taken for a ride by the vested interests. It is interesting that there have been no reactor orders in the United States for about five years, and—even more serious—reactor orders for the PWR are being cancelled all over the place. In Washington State, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Skipton (Mr. Watson), orders have been cancelled because costs escalated four times above the original estimate. So we are right to have doubts about the PWR, and we are right to have doubts about safety and cost.

I am amazed that only four days ago the CEGB sent to each Member of Parliament—certainly to me—a huge document, which must have been extremely costly to produce, justifying the AGR on the ground of safety and saying what a wonderful reactor it was. Yet it wants to go for a PWR that has not been proved to be the safest, and certainly is not proving to be the cheapest. Apart from that, we learnt about the possible cracks in the pressure vessels—the brittling of the pressure vessels over a long period due to radioactivity—and what would happen if they were suddenly drenched with cold water. Certainly, I was convinced that it was not the sort of reactor that we should introduce into this country.

Now I shall say a word about my own reservations about the reactor. I sincerely hope that the Government will think long and hard on the matter, although of course the inquiry is to take place before a decision is made.

The report that we are discussing is a long one. I should like to have spoken longer, but I realise that many other hon. Members wish to speak, so I shall be brief in my concluding comments. First, I want to refer to the CANDU reactor, and confirm what the Chairman said. We found that Ontario Hydro and the Canadian authorities were absolutely superb. The CANDU reactor is the most efficient, and also very safe. Moreover, it has a flexibility which neither the PWR nor the AGR possesses. The CANDU is capable of burning unenriched fuel. It is capable of onload refueling. The pressure tubes can be replaced while the reactor continues to work. It can burn thorium rather than uranium. What is more, it can be a near breeder reactor. The CANDU has virtually everything that we want, and we cannot understand why the Government have not taken on board the Select Committee's suggestion that they should make a further in-depth evaluation of the CANDU.

If the Government really want to diversify and to get away from the AGR, why do not they, even at this late stage, accept the Committee's advice and consider the CANDU reactor? If they did, I am sure that they would be as impressed as the Committee was.

With the nuclear power programme that the Government have in mind they are completely on the wrong track. We have a surplus of generating capacity for a long period ahead. There is no imminent urgency about the decision to go ahead with further nuclear reactors. The Government should use this time to re-evaluate their energy and power policy. Instead of spending huge sums of money on large power stations, they should use the money for conservation and for building smaller power stations in conjunction with combined heat and power schemes. If they really want to save energy and to go ahead with a modern forward-looking energy saving policy, that is the route that they will take. They will use public money far more wisely and to much greater effect. What is more, they will not only cheapen the cost of electricity, they will cheapen the cost of energy and heat generally to the people. I hope sincerely that the Government will take those matters aboard.