Orders of the Day — Nuclear Power Programme

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:01 pm on 1st February 1982.

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Photo of Mr Alexander Eadie Mr Alexander Eadie , Midlothian 9:01 pm, 1st February 1982

I do not think that the House will regret the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Leadbitter). His experience and knowledge always enhance and enrich any debate. The hon. Member for Havant and Waterloo (Mr. Lloyd), the Chairman of the Select Committee, made a good speech, which was appreciated by the House. That is not to say that we agree with all that he said.

When considering the issue, we must ask about the Government's announced programme. I am sure that hon. Members will have read pages 14 and 15, paragraphs 7 and 8, dealing with the Government's statement about one nuclear power station of 15 GW per year during the decade beginning 1982. The Select Committee was correct to draw our attention to the statement and the words the precise level of future ordering will depend upon the development of (projected) electricity demand and the performance of the industry". The House must be aware that the Select Committee said, in bold print: This means, taken at face value, that there is no irrevocable commitment to an ordering programme of 15 GW (and indeed that is not strictly accurate to describe the announcement as constituting a 'programme')". Whatever we think of that view, and despite the huffing and puffing of the Government about nuclear power, it is the best description that I have read about what is currently happening. In reality, we are being told about a step-by-step approach to the building of new nuclear power stations—yet the Government criticise others who tried to argue that same case. We heard some hon. Members do that during the debate.

Incidentally, I would suggest that in paragraphs 7 and 8 the Select Committee makes an overwhelming case for this debate, particularly in the light of the Government's announcement about the public inquiry into the building of the PWR at Sizewell. Britain's loss of capacity to build power stations was mentioned during the course of the debate. One can translate the kind of arguments that have been advanced, and that have to be faced in Britain, into the influence that the 3 million unemployed will have on the reduction of energy demand and the need for new generating capacity. The tenor of the the debate was that we have a responsibility to keep alive our capacity to build power stations in Britain in time of recession. If we allow that capacity to go, how do we measure the damage it does to Britain's industrial base? The argument that I have taken from the debate is that this industrial capacity must be retained. If it is not retained in some shape or form, when we eventually have more economic activity we shall be confronted with the de-industrialisation of this part of our indigenous capacity.

Before I deal with what I would describe as the impact of the PWR, I must respond to the three contributions made by hon. Members from Scottish constituencies, regrettably only from the Opposition Benches. There is at present an argument developing in Scotland suggesting that we may be compelled to mothball power stations because of the over-capacity that we have in Scotland. It is ridiculous that we should be talking along those lines when, in Scotland as in other areas of the United Kingdom, the elderly and the disadvantaged are unable to buy energy. That is a crisis. If we are considering a policy of mothballing power stations, it must be after some arrangement is made to provide heat to the elderly or the disadvantaged, Furthermore—and I regret that there is no Scottish Minister present—industry in Scotland has to be considered on the basis of more advantageous costs in order to keep what industry we have. I want to make it perfectly clear to the Government that any mothballing must be applied to nuclear-powered stations and oil-fired stations but certainly not to coal-fired stations. There is a determination in Scotland that that will not take place.

I said that we would have to look at the PWR and the cost factor. The Secretary of State for Energy told Parliament that a joint task force would be established combining the resources of the National Nuclear Corporation, the Central Electricity Generating Board and the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority to ensure that firm designs for the PWR would be constructed consistent with United Kingdom safety requirements. I have the greatest respect for some of the people involved in this exercise, since I know some of them personally.

I ask the Government and the House to consider whether it has been wise to make announcements from time to time—sometimes in rather jazzy, startling headlines in the press—to the effect that the PWR system can or will be very much cheaper. It leads to suspicions in people's minds. It certainly diverts attention from the other scientific or technical appraisals that may be made. There have been problems associated with the pressurised water reactor in America, and many people believe that those problems will spread to Europe. They have happened because corners have been cut during the construction phase, in the interests of cost. A price is to some extent being paid for that and will be paid in the future.

It is a false assumption that we shall have available to us the sort of off-the-shelf type of American Westinghouse or Bechtel PWR. Indeed, all the documentation that hon. Members have at their disposal, and the information contained in the Select Committee report, demonstrates that there will be a British PWR; in fact, I believe that it will be a new or virgin-type reactor. I have mentioned the people involved in the task force, and it is my bet that we shall see a different type of PWR, even if my prediction of a virgin-type reactor is not correct. I also assert that it will be more costly than the previous designs of PWR.

All the experience with different types of nuclear reactors shows that they face difficulties in their initial running-in period. There are always problems initially for new or virgin-type reactors. Even if the results of the inquiry are favourable, it is difficult to believe that a PWR will be started in the lifetime of this Parliament. I noticed that the Secretary of State for Energy, in the course of his speech, also doubted whether it would be possible.

I should like to give a timetable to substantiate what I am saying. If what I am saying is correct, a future Government would be required to examine the matter before making a decision. Delay would appear to be inevitable. The Vale of Belvoir planning inquiry has been going on for three or four years already, at a cost of over £2 million. We hear how expeditious the Government are, but we have not yet had a decision on that matter. There would certainly seem to be doubts concerning the time scale for the PWR.

The Government have tried to argue that there is a need for nuclear power, but they could lay themselves to open to the charge that they are indulging in a very expensive delay in the development of nuclear power. Whether one is in favour of nuclear power or an opponent of it, if the decision is for a PWR, or what the environmental lobby calls the "American type reactor," the activities of the environmental groups will be fuelled.

One of the arguments is that it is in Britain's interests to have the PWR because that will give us an export potential. That line of reasoning is strengthened because we were first to develop thermal nuclear power stations. The argument is that we have not been successful in exporting our stations, but that when we are involved in building a pressurised water reactor we shall be able to break through into the world market.

There must be some doubts about that, if that is the declared aim of Government advisers who are trying to persuade the Government to build the PWR. If we build that PWR it will be started in about 1984, if we are lucky. If it is running by about 1991 the world will still want to know whether it has had a successful running-in period. That might take another two years. Therefore, we are talking in terms of 1993, if all goes well.

Is it really suggested by Government advisers that even if two PWRs are operating successfully in the 1990s that will push us into the export market, when our competitors will have had years of experience—many more than we will have had? They will have a grip on the market. The argument is not strong. It is unlikely that we would have the capacity to break through a market that already is pretty well sewn up.

It is ironic that on the day that we are dealing with safety and other aspects we should all receive booklets dealing with the safety of the AGR. The booklet is impressive by any standards. Whatever one might say about the British AGR, it has not been tainted by safely and environmental considerations to the same extent as the PWR. The CEGB booklet contains the caption Why Britain needs the option of the pressurised water reactor. The booklet is more concerned with denigrating the AGR than it is with arguing the case for the pressurised water reactor. We are entitled to remind the CEGB that its record in power station choice leaves much to be desired.

It is not yet proven that the pressurised water reactor, when and if it is built and commissioned, will be cheaper than the AGR. We may be indulging in a very costly gamble at the expense of our own indigenous technology. Some costings are given on page 407 of the first report of the Select Committee. These will have been perused by hon. Members. It is argued that the pressurised water reactor will be easier to construct because it lends itself to prefabrication. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer) has, however, argued that it is likely that the AGR could be subject to some prefabrication. If that is true, it introduces a new aspect to the debate.

Under the heading Investment in UK manufacturing facilities paragraph 8 on page 407 states: The necessary investment in manufacuring facilities would amount to £16 million for the AGR and £12 million for the PWR. This assumes that the PWR pressure vessel, associated internals and parts of the steam generators would be imported for the 4-station programme". I wish now to turn to the issue of the import bill. Paragraph 9, under the heading, "Likely import bill" states: For the AGR, the only significant import is the pitch coke for graphite production which would amount to £1.6 million per station. The size of the import bill for the PWR would depend on the extent to which UK industry decides to participate in the production of components. Those arguing in favour of the pressurised water reactor have endeavoured to show that there would be only minimal export or import involvement, whichever way one views the matter, in PWR. The statement is qualified. It seeks to argue that the import part of the PWR is not clear. Hon. Members need to consider these matters. There is an import content apart from lost technology. We are entitled to ask the Government what this means in terms of job losses. This country is already job hungry. The figures I have read to the House are dated. The likely import bill will still stand.

Another important matter is dealt with in the evidence on page 413 given by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn), the Secretary of State for Energy in the Labour Government, who said that the Kraftwerk Union people came to see me and said: 'We can give you a better reactor than Westinghouse'". That important matter was raised in evidence that was submitted to the House of Commons, and I wonder whether it was ever pursued. Can the Government give us any information about that? I was at the meeting with the Kraftwerk Union. It said that, in its opinion, it could do a PWR cheaper, and that it was concerned to keep the AGR alive because if something were to happen and the PWRs ran into difficulty the world was surely entitled to an option on another nuclear power station. I therefore hope that the Government will tell us the position.

The Chairman of the Select Committee, in introducing his report, and other hon. Members, made great play of CANDU as a reactor choice. So I shall say a word about CANDU. The Government's response to a request for an in-depth independent assessment of CANDU can be found in the White Paper of July 1981 on pages 14, 15 and 16. The Government argue there that they rejected the recommendation contained in the report of the Select Committee on Energy of 13 February 1981. The history of the SGHWR was brought into the argument in rejecting an independent assessment. I am not sure how powerful that argument was, because that reactor never became a reality, in a commercial sense, apart from the prototype at Winfrith. There are some people who still say that opposition within the industry to building the SGHWR, particularly the opposition of the CEGB, meant that it never had a chance. Frank Tombs, the former chairman, told me that when the decision was made in favour of the SGHWR.

The Government rejected CANDU, but we should examine booklet No. 4, published by the CEGB. It gives the arguments against CANDU. It concedes, incidentally, that the reactor is working well. However, I am not sure how powerful the case is, when it says that even the self-confident Canadians have sold only six reactors mostly to the Third world, and that there is a world total of only 13 working with operational experience. That is not a valid argument, because it is well known that the argument in favour of the PWRs is based on the industrial size and the commercial entrepreneurial ability of America. So the argument is not strong.

It is said, for example, that one of the difficulties about the CANDU is that it is necessary to have a heavy water plant. It is quite extraordinary for the CEGB to make this an environmental argument against the CANDU. Indeed, it is ridiculous bearing in mind the environmental arguments against the PWR all over the world. I think that it is a bit rich of the CEGB to take that line.

We are all very grateful for the contributions to the debate. Later, the Opposition will take up some of the issues raised about the public inquiry. We think that it is right to have a public inquiry, and we endorse the attitude that has emerged from the debate, that at the end of the day, after the public inquiry, the House must be given an opportunity to reach a decision about whether to go for the pressurised water reactor.