Nuclear Energy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:23 pm on 13th May 1986.

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Photo of Mr Tony Benn Mr Tony Benn , Chesterfield 7:23 pm, 13th May 1986

I should like to express sympathy for the terrible tragedy that the Soviet people have suffered, in terms not only of the immediate loss of life but of the loss of life that may come later and of the contamination of their crops. I am aware that it is not the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Energy, but if it were possible to make a gift of food, which is at present held by the Common Market, that would assist the Soviet Union at this time. I believe that would be much appreciated and would contribute to better relations between East and West, which may result in lessening the risks of nuclear war.

I have risen to put on record the reasons why I take the view, to which I have come slowly over the years, that we should have an energy policy that does not incorporate a nuclear component. I say that, having been responsible for the Atomic Energy Authority as Minister of Technology, from 1966 to 1970 and again as Secretary of State for Energy from 1975 to 1979.

I express my respect for the scientists and people who work in the industry. Many of them were motivated to work for civil nuclear power because they believed it was an alternative to the military uses of nuclear energy. The Atoms for Peace campaign, which was launched by President Eisenhower, was seen as a major development of technology in the interests of mankind. It was certainly considered as such by my generation who remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was a classic case of swords into ploughshares, which my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) expressed powerfully in his speech.

Nuclear energy was to be a peaceful development; it was to be cheaper and safe; and we were to be open about it. I regret to tell the House that my experience, over many years from that Dispatch Box, taught me that none of those arguments was true. I wish to point out one or two of the facts that the House should take into account.

Nuclear power began as a military operation. In the countries which have adopted it, it remains primarily necessary for military purposes. In India, Pakistan and Iran, and in Britain, it was wanted for military purposes. The first British reactor was built when Mr. Attlee decided that Britain needed the bomb. That desire was not confided to his Cabinet or to Parliament. That was the origin of the development of British nuclear power.

The proliferation which has followed has been a proliferation with military consequences. The House may be aware that within Euratom, of which we are members, there is no safeguard to prevent the French, who have not signed the non-proliferation treaty, from obtaining uranium for its bomb programme, even though that means that it is no longer possible for Canadian uranium to come to Britain because it would go outside its safeguards.

It is an expensive technology, concealed by the fact that the research and development has been paid for by the Ministry of Defence. Recently the French stated that it would cost 40 per cent. of the cost of construction of a new power station to decommission a nuclear power station. It would cost about £600 million to decommission each nuclear power station.

We have no answer to the waste problem. I accept that whether we proceed or—as I believe we should—stop and phase out nuclear energy, there will a residual waste problem. Is nuclear energy safe? It was only by an act of God or of chance that the accident occurred in Chernobyl, not here.

In 1969, I was Minister of Technology when the corrosion occurred at the Magnox stations. I was told in great detail how a meltdown might occur if it was impossible to close the reactor down and if the heat exchanger ruptured. At Windscale there was a serious fire, and serious leaks also occurred. Another leak occurred at the end of my period as Secretary of State for Energy. A soil sample was taken in December 1978, but it was not analysed until March 1979. I was informed of the analysis a few days later, and 2,200 gallons of highly toxic waste had seeped into the earth. It lies there today under the clay, just above the water table. When I asked about cleaning it, I was told that a new plant would be required for the clean-up operation. For that reason, one of my last acts as a Minister was to state that there should be an inquiry into Windscale.

There was a near-disaster at Three Mile Island. But people may not be aware of what happened at Brown's Ferry in America. A fuse blew at that site. A scientist was sent to look for the fuse box with a candle, and he set fire to the safety circuit.

There was serious corrosion at Winfrith. It was discovered that a dissatisfied employee had urinated into the equipment, and Scotland Yard had to be called in to discover how the corrosion had occurred.

At Hunterston a valve was turned the wrong way and sea water was brought into the station. As a result, the power station was out of action for a year.

One cannot exclude human error. There have been many cover-ups. When there was a big explosion in Kyshtym American intelligence picked it up and told the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1958, but American intelligence also told it not to tell British Ministers. When 200 tonnes of uranium was stolen from Euratom in 1968 I was Minister, but I was not told, on the ground that Britain was not a member of the Common Market.

The biggest cover-up of all, for which I shall never forgive those responsible, was that throughout the period when I was Minister plutonium from our atoms-for-peace reactors was going to America to make bombs and warheads that would return to American bases here. That view has been confirmed by Ministers in this Government. I was cross-examined about it at the Sizewell inquiry, and only recently has it been admitted that the atoms-for-peace power stations are in reality bomb factories for the United States.

The environmental hazards of nuclear power both now and later are too great for us to take. The cumulative effect of radioactivity is very different from the reassuring statements that we receive about little doses that may come from time to time. The military implications of what happened at Chernobyl are phenomenal. People must now know that if we bomb Russia, the bombs that we drop will release radioactivity that will ultimately destroy us, and if conventional weapons are dropped on our nuclear power stations radioactivity comparable to that from a nuclear attack will be released.

The civil liberties of which we are so proud are bound to go by the board when dealing with such a dangerous technology that has military implications. I have been to the plutonium store in Dounreay. It is like a bank vault. One can understand why the Atomic Energy Authority constabulary is armed with orders to shoot to kill in the event of an attempt to steal plutonium. We must phase out nuclear power. We must cancel the PWR, abandon the Dounreay project, close Sellafield and decommission nuclear stations, beginning with the older stations. Anyone who thinks that the industry's skills will not be required should bear in mind that it will take the skill of every nuclear engineer for 10 years to clean up what has, alas, been created.

The miners were right to say that coal should be the basis of our future energy needs. In the 1960s the pits were closed on the ground that oil would always be cheaper. In the 1980s they were closed on the ground that nuclear energy was better. We should go for a coal programme. Even my Department admitted that, even with the fiddled figures for nuclear energy, coal was as cheap as nuclear power. We should also go for conservation and for alternative sources of energy.

I fear that Chernobyl will not be the last accident. I listened to the debate and wondered how different it would have been if that accident had occurred at Bradwell, Hunterston, Oldbury or Torness. I share the view expressed today. This is a technology that humanity cannot handle, and, not for the first time, the public are ahead of Parliament in perceiving that.