Nuclear Energy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:03 pm on 13th May 1986.

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Photo of Bernard Braine Bernard Braine , Castle Point 6:03 pm, 13th May 1986

We should not have been surprised by the Chernobyl disaster. I do not mean simply that the Soviet reactor was of a design that would never have been approved in the West, but that the Soviet system itself is inherently inefficient and incapable of letting its own people, let alone its neighbours, understand what is happening. Information is the lifeblood of democracy; it can spell death to a dictatorship.

However, it would be facile to think that the Soviets are alone in maintaining an atmosphere of secrecy about technological risks or in camouflaging awkward issues. There is nothing new in secretive attitudes, even in our country. It took me 10 years to obtain a public inquiry into excessive concentrations of liquefied gas, chemicals and oil in and around my constituency. In 1974 I had to make a speech that was the longest from the Back Benches for 146 years in order to focus attention on the plight of my constituents. We got a public inquiry which came down on our side, but it took another seven years before there was a reduction in the volume of risk for the people of Canvey Island.

Our free society did not prevent the Aberfan disaster in 1966, although all those concerned with the control of that death-dealing tip, which cost the lives of 116 children and 28 adults, knew the risks, but failed to see what might happen and to take avoiding action. Our free society did not prevent the managerial stupidity in 1974 which led to the blowing up of the newest chemical plant in Europe, at Flixborough, which killed 29 workers and injured 40 others.

The truth is that even without Chernobyl our nuclear industry would have had to address itself to the question how to convince the public that its plants and procedures are inherently safe. Given the fact that the industry, both here and in the West generally, has been relatively troublefree—for example, during the past 10 years there have been a regrettable 399 deaths in the pits, while there have been only nine in the nuclear industry, none of which was due to radiation—and given the fact that it does not compare in any way with the atmospheric pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels or the manufacture of chemicals, the task would seem to the layman to be easy.

In other Western countries there does not appear to be anything like the fuss and bother that there is in this country. We have already been reminded in the debate that France has built 40 power stations without any clamour from its people. By last year it was producing 60 per cent. of its electricity requirements from nuclear plants, which is the highest percentage in the world. It is especially significant that the French are able to export cheap electricity and to give their own industry a billion-pound advantage over ours.

In this country there is a difference—an underlying anxiety. There is no ducking that issue. A revealing passage in paragraph 220 of the report refers to a study of a nuclear energy exhibition, on which £50,000 of public money had been spent. It states: the people who went into the exhibition were slightly more worried than average, but when they came out they were even more worried. That does not appear to me to be the right sort of public relations. Why cannot the facts be presented in a way that enables a balanced judgment to be made? The report correctly states that the industry must make positive efforts to give as much information as possible to the public. In the end, however, the Committee considered that the industry's actions alone will convince the public, not its words. The disorder of the Sellafield site, the crudeness of Drigg, the remoteness of NIREX: these have created far more damage than any amount of facts and figures and public relations work will ever repair. Those are harsh words, but in a democracy there cannot be a nuclear industry without public acceptance. That is really what the debate is all about, and it underlines the importance of the criticism that I must make about the extraordinary behaviour of the industry, and of NIREX in particular, over the disposal of nuclear waste, which has left the public living in the areas likely to be affected both suspicious and fearful.

Consider the business of finding repositories for what is described as intermediate—as though that was not dangerous, which is not really the case—and low-level nuclear waste. The industry's agent, NIREX, produced criteria for such disposal. It said that there must be regard to population density, to accessibility to conservation and to geology. That is excellent, and exactly what we would expect, but the site chosen at Bradwell in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip and not far from my constituency does not satisfy a single one of those criteria.

Bradwell is close to areas of rapid population growth in both north-east and south-east Essex. It is not served by a railway, and existing roads are wholly inadequate to take 128 movements a week. On the other hand, believe it or not, it is in an area designated as an important international site of special scientific interest. For full measure, the site is in an area which is historically vulnerable to sea flooding. If that is not enough, it lies adjacent to a fault line which has seen four earthquakes since the 17th century. The epicentre of the last earthquake in 1884, which killed people, was only four miles away.

Those who selected this site for investigation did so before consulting Essex county council, which could have told them the facts. If they had come to me, I could have told them the facts. I am soaked in the history of my county. I love my county. I know about it. If they had asked anybody who knows anything about Essex, they would have been told the facts. How they could select that site for investigation, and how they will ever convince anyone that they knew what they were doing baffles me.

It is true that, since I made those revelations in the debate on 13 March, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has announced that intermediate-level nuclear waste will not be buried at Bradwell or at any of the other sites. I should think not. If NIREX had any sense, it would abandon the proposal altogether. If it is committed to following this particular path, I am in favour of a full public inquiry as soon as possible, and I predict that it will reduce confidence in the industry, not enhance it. That is the foolishness of the step that has been taken without proper consultation, reconnaissance and research.

I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy is present to reply to the debate, because my next point concerns him. In the debate on 13 March I complained on behalf of Essex county council and my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip that a request by the council for details of the borings carried out before the erection of the Bradwell nuclear power station, which is adjacent to the site chosen for the storage of waste, had not been met. Hon. Members will appreciate the relevance of having that information. I demanded that the details should be given. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment agreed.