Orders of the Day — Nuclear Power Programme

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:58 pm on 1st February 1982.

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Photo of Mr Edward Leadbitter Mr Edward Leadbitter , Hartlepool 8:58 pm, 1st February 1982

A great deal has already been said about this report, and it is unlikely that anyone will be sufficiently ingenious at this stage to say something particularly new. Perhaps we can end the debate by emphasising several important matters relating to the future prospects of the nuclear power industry.

It must be borne in mind that it takes at least a decade to carry out the planning authorisations, construction and commissioning of plant. It should also be borne in mind that the life of a power station is about 30 years. We must acknowledge that the rate of change in plant composition may be unfortunately slow. Those and other factors make it essential that planning should take place years ahead.

Any systematic approach or strategy must evaluate developing trends in the economy in addition to the problems that I have already mentioned. It must take a view about the uncertainties of the future, fuel resources, the costs of generation, security of supply and the impact of world energy policies. It follows that investment decisions will have to be taken when a number of uncertainties and variables are consistently at play. when supply and demand forecasting can be confounded and when employment and world pressures have some leverage.

Recent history has shown that during the oil crisis new attention was paid to the conversion of plant equipment, less dependence on oil and the provision of alternative power plant construction. The types of plant and balance between coal-fired and nuclear stations add to the complexity of any investment decision.

I have no hesitation in expressing my admiration for the CEGB, for the understanding of the Department of Energy and for the fortitude of the construction industry, and my belief in the importance of the Atomic Energy Authority. There is no lack of professionalism and it has been my pleasure to meet excellent men from all these Government Departments and agencies.

In addition. to the problems that I have mentioned, the type of plant to be used has been influenced by a dependence on the abundance of fossil fuel supplies. 13ut three or four decades ahead that position may alter, although perhaps on price grounds alone.

I have already stressed the planning time scale so it is the decision making now, and in the recent past, which is of crucial importance. That is the significance of the Select Committee's report. Any criticism that I may make does not lessen the regard I have just expressed, but I would add that there is a need for the Department of Energy, the CEGB and other Government agencies to respond more wholeheartedly to the observations and recommendations of the report.

The report lists 75 appendices, outlining visits, memoranda and correspondence. There were 25 Committee sittings with specialist witnesses and highly competent advisers and excellent Committee clerks and officials from Government Departments. The evidence from these sources has led to the recommendations. That collected opinion deserved a better response than that given to it by some of the prompted and sponsored commentaries in the press, following its publication. The response brought no credit to the professionalism I have described to the House, and showed a lapse of professional integrity. The comments I have already made are plain in their significance in the light of the decision making to which we must address ourselves in the next 10 years.

In the 10 years preceding 1980 no power station was ordered. Thirty years have passed since the United Kingdom led the world with the first industrial scale nuclear power station at Calder Hall. There have been no export orders and, as the report shows, this is compounded by the absence, after 15 years of the AGR programme, of a tried and tested reactor type with a separate design and cost-benefits that would enable orders to be made confidently. What else could have been the outcome when Governments, the CEGB, the AEA, the South of Scotland Electricity Board, other agencies and the industry have been arguing about different kinds and design of reactor?

The steam generating heavy water reactor was wanted for the south of Scotland but denied by other forces. The advocates of the American light water reactors were as busy as little bees, delightfully employing patience and persistence with a guile that makes politicians in the House look veritable simpletons. Other views sought to protect British technology, taking the next step from the AGR to the high temperature reactor and the fast breeder. That seemed to be common sense. Time brought about the casualty of the steam generating heavy water reactor and the AEA had, as a consequence, come in 1976 to the interesting view that the SGHWR was less attractive than it had been two years before.

That is a thumbnail sketch of a tragedy in the decade before 1980. I am afraid we are looking forward to another decade where great question marks lie across the decisions that have been made. I have opposed the PWR and have told the House of the influence of Sir Arnold Weinstock, the chairman of the AEA and the past chairman of the CEGB—the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. It is a conspiracy to override common sense. We face an inquiry that will take a long time, with the promise of a 15 GW programme following that exercise. But that will not materialise by the end of the decade because, in reality, there is no programme.

The great danger is that unless we turn away from the PWR construction programme and return to what we thought of 10 years ago—the natural route from AGR to HTR to fast breeder—Britain will find itself wanting in its power programme and supply provision. Indeed, Britain is the only country in the world that has meddled with many generations of nuclear power. That has dissipated our resources and deprived us of a valuable export market. We must have the foresight and will to think consistently.

I hope that during the next few months the matter will be thought about further. Whatever the outcome of the PWR inquiry, a decision should be made—I hope that the House will have influence in it—to turn our backs on the PWR with its questionable safety aspects and the risks involved.