Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Nuclear Energy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:34 pm on 13th May 1986.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh , Gainsborough and Horncastle 8:34 pm, 13th May 1986

Conservation has been mentioned several times tonight, not least by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). It is appropriate in this debate to say that we are products of our environment. I was at university during the late 1960s and early 1970s, when there was great concern about conservation of the environment and the safety of the civil nuclear industry. The two, of course, are inextricably linked.

In succeeding years it is not surprising that, in the battle for our very economic survival, those issues have been pushed into a backwater inhabited mainly by the far Left and political eccentrics. It is no less surprising that, now that the success of the Government's economic policies has given the country sustained growth and low inflation, there should once again be more talk about the environment, and I welcome that. I especially welcome the efforts of my hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment, Countryside and Local Government to ensure that the Conservative party dons its rightful mantle as the conservor of and carer for our environment.

We have to make two decisions on the nuclear industry—on Sizewell and on the disposal of nuclear waste—that raise fundamental issues about the future of our nuclear policy and concern about our environment. We are standing as it were on the threshold of a busy thoroughfare—traffic is coming towards us at great speed from the left and the right. I do not argue that we should stand still for ever or that we should vegetate on one spot, but we should stop, think, look and, above all, listen. I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown)—it is time to pause for reflection.

There is no overwhelming urgency about either decision. There is no rule requiring elected, accountable—and, it must be said, disposable—Ministers to proceed at the behest of an unelected and unaccountable body such as NIREX, and to do so at a rapid pace. Much as we regret the publicity surrounding Sellafield—unfair as much of it may be—much as we regret the disaster at Chernobyl and much as it may be true that we rejected that design of reactor many years ago, public confidence in the nuclear industry has been shaken. We cannot ignore that fact.

I listened with great respect and care to my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth), and I agreed with much of what he said. However, the fact is that public confidence has been shaken. The incident at Chernobyl has proved the argument put forward for many years by those of us in the National Council for Civil Defence against official complacency and for more resources to be put into civil defence. The radioactive cloud that drifted towards Lincoln did not part like the Red sea when it appeared over the nuclear-free city—it carried on. We need effective civil defence, whatever our civil or military nuclear policies.

I do not believe that it is statesmenlike or resolute to fly in the face of public concern about the nuclear industry and to proceed regardless, without pausing for reflection. That is merely foolish. Ina few days, 12,000 of my constituents—who were not given much time by the Government for consultation—signed a petition collected by West Lindsey district council objecting to the disposal of waste in Humberside and Lincolnshire. Barring a handful, they are not Greenpeace activists or flower-shaking dropouts—they are decent folk from villages and small towns who are both worried and concerned, and to whose views the Government should listen with sympathy and concern. They need reassurance.

I am the first to welcome the Government's decision to restrict the disposal of nuclear waste in shallow trenches to low-level waste. I know that we are now talking in terms of overalls and the like used in the nuclear industry and in hospitals. I know that the risks are small and I welcome the Government's concession, but I and my constituents need to be told the facts in full. My constituents need even more reassurance. Until they receive it, I cannot support the Government by voting for NIREX to be given powers to drill in either South Killirigholme or Fulbeck.

I repeat what I have said before in the House: that we in Lincolnshire cannot merely say, "Put nuclear waste anywhere, except on our doorsteps, please." No Government can govern on that basis, ignoring the national interest. Ultimately, waste must be put in the best, that is the safest, geological site. The moral is clear, and has been pointed out by my hon and learned Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Lyell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg): Do as the Swedes do at Forsmark; put it in mines under the sea. Obviously, that is expensive, but if we are to have a successful, progressive nuclear industry, it must enjoy public confidence. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Hickmet) said clearly, if we ignore the need for consent by the local population, we may put our entire nuclear industry at risk. No expense can be spared in ensuring that confidence.

I know that the volume of waste is large. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment talked about its being equivalent to eight Victoria towers in the Palace of Westminster. Would he like eight Victoria towers of low-level nuclear waste in his Mole Valley constituency or next door? We cannot ignore or despise public concern. My right hon. Friend mentioned the date 2010 when the Drigg site will be full. Does that not give us time for pause and reflection?

There is a perfectly good case to be made for the continued survival and growth of our nuclear industry in terms of the need for abundant and cheap energy to ensure our competitiveness. During the past 10 years, no fatality has been directly attributed to the nuclear industry in this country. It is necessary not to depend on militants in the coalfields, and the desirability of a four-fuel economy.

Safe nuclear power can legitimately be defended as better for the environment and for conservation than traditional coal-guzzling power stations. However, the analogy of standing on the edge of a busy road holds good. I beg the Government not to rush decisions, but to conduct a massive campaign, not of propaganda, but of information, and to reflect on the words written by William Deedes this weekend. When he was the Minister of Information in the 1963 Government, he was asked to conduct a massive campaign of information, not propaganda, on joining the European Community.

No expense should be spared on the campaign to explain patiently and at length where we are now and where we are going. If necessary, we should put the declared outcome of that consultation exercise in the manifesto, and let the people decide. That is fair, honourable, democratic and popular, and I commend it to the House.