Orders of the Day — Nuclear Power Programme

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:48 pm on 1st February 1982.

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Photo of Mr Reg Race Mr Reg Race , Haringey Wood Green 8:48 pm, 1st February 1982

It is incumbent on us to put on the record the real reasons for the Government's decision to go ahead with the PWR. As we are aware, there was a leak from the Cabinet on the matter. The minutes of the Cabinet meeting have been revealed and printed in the press. It is important to know what was said in the Cabinet on 23 October 1979. The two quotations to which I wish to refer are: The nuclear programme would not reduce the long-term requirement for coal because of the likely decline of world oil prices towards the end of the century …but a nuclear programme would have the advantages of removing a substantial portion of electricity production from the dangers of disruption by industrial action by coal miners or transport workers. It continues: Opposition to nuclear power may well provide a focus for protest groups over the next decade and the Government may make more rapid progress towards …its objective by a low profile approach …But there will be a problem in maintaining a low profile once a decision is made to proceed with a PWR. We have there two clear reasons why the Government wanted to go for an expanded nuclear programme. They wished, as they saw it, to protect the electricity suppy industry from the disruption which might be caused by miners. The policy of expanding the 15 gigawatts capacity and installing PWRs is an attempt to remove the bargaining power of a section of workers and to protect the supply industry from that problem.

The other significant point which has been referred to by many hon. Members is the problem of PWR engineering. I made that point in an intervention in the speech of the hon. Member for Havant and Waterloo (Mr. Lloyd). the Chairman of the Select Committee. We should remember what Sir Alan Cottrell said about the dangers of PWR design and what the NII itself said about the inherent dangers of PWR design.

According to Sir Alan Cottrell, PWRs suffer from two major design deficiencies. First, there is a problem about the integrity of the pressure vessels. Secondly, a loss of coolant accident, in which the reactor safety systems fail to prevent the pressure from falling, is highly probable.

There is a great deal of detailed technical evidence to support both those criticisms. I am not convinced that the designs proposed for Sizewell will be any safer than those which have proved so disastrously wrong in the United States and in France. One has only to look at the experience of France where, in reactors based on the Westinghouse design, cracks have been found in the interface between steel and inconel in the heat exchanger plates. Each of the plates has been shown to have between 30 and 200 cracks, and £13.8 million has had to be spent in one financial year to repair the deficiencies. The technical problems of PWR design are substantial and, in my view, they should make the Government pause in their commitment to choosing this form of reactor.

There are other reasons for opposing this development. The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate has produced its own report on the Marshall report and has stated plainly: There are no firm grounds for stating that nuclear steel pressure vessels will have acceptable failure rates". It went on to show that the calculations in the Marshall report on the critical size of cracks in the pressure vessels ignored the peak stresses maintained in the system. As has already been said, according to the NII the United Kingdom might have 150 pressure vessels in use at the end of 40 years, that of such a number between four and 40 might fail, and that failure in four of them would lead to catastrophe. That is the view not of Friends of the Earth or of nutty conservation groups that the Conservative Party might oppose, but of the NII, making a perfectly rational and reasonable point about the choice of reactor design. I therefore foresee great problems if the Government go ahead with that design.

The Government have not produced any real estimates of the cost of decommissioning nuclear power plants or of disposing of the high level waste generated by them. Indeed. there have been some disgraceful exchanges in the House on this. The Minister may recall the exchanges we had on 23 November that appear in column 603 of the Official Report. The difficulty now faced is that the only cost estimates for the disposal of waste—which presumably are built into the CEGB's cost estimates for decommissioning and waste disposal—is the green document produced by Beale from Harwell dated July 1981. The costs are set out there in a way that makes them difficult to understand. It is about time that we had a clear statement from both the Government and the CEGB about the way in which those costs are fed into the assumptions about the relative cost of nuclear power production and the relative cost of electricity from coal production. I am not at all convinced that the CEGB has got that equation right, nor do I believe that it has done its sums properly.

We know that the CEGB shielded from the Select Committee important information about its decision-making processes in regards to loads. On 10 occasions in its conclusions, the Select Committee report criticised the CEGB. I just do not believe the CEGB's estimates of the relative cost of nuclear-powered electricity production and coal-generated electricity production.

Because of the assumptions about cost, the problems of disposal, the costing of the disposal of waste, the failure to understand the engineering problems of the PWR and the reasons behind this programme, the Government ought to think again about this commitment to the PWR. I hope that the inquiry will expose the fallacies behind this policy.