Nuclear Energy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:09 pm on 13th May 1986.

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Photo of David Heathcoat-Amory David Heathcoat-Amory , Wells 9:09 pm, 13th May 1986

This debate takes place in the shadow of the Chernobyl disaster. However, in the few remaining minutes available, I should like to try to broaden it out into a consideration of whether we should continue with our nuclear programme, and look at the matter on a world basis.

I have been disappointed by some of the parochialism in the contributions to the debate, particularly by the Labour party, which used to be the party of internationalism. The supply and demand for energy in this country is only a small part of the global picture. There is little doubt that the population of the world will more than double some time in the next century before it finally stabilises. The energy requirements of the developing world will increase even faster than that. The economic growth that those countries will need to feed themselves and provide themselves with the basic necessities will require energy.

Most of the responsible studies that I have seen suppose that the global demand for energy will more than double in the next 25 years, even with the most optimistic projections on conservation. I do not see, and I have not heard during the debate, how we can get through the next 25 years without nuclear energy.

Hon. Members have said that coal will play a major part. It is true that the same studies suppose that part of the gap will be closed by the additional production and use of coal, but can we continue to plunder the earth of its fossil fuels? Apart from anything else, coal, oil and gas create their own pollution. We have heard about acid rain and the ash produced by coal-fired power stations. We have heard how the combustion of fossil fuels uses up oxygen and produces carbon dioxide. We have heard about the possible greenhouse effect, with the heating up of the planet and the consequential melting of the polar ice caps. I wish that some of the enthusiasts for the coal industry would give equal attention to some of the long-term effects of the industry that they so enthusiastically champion.

Perhaps this is the main point. Fossil fuels are exhaustible. Will we pass on to future generations an earth that has been stripped of its easily accessible fossil fuels; an earth with a teaming population with a voracious appetite for energy; an earth where we have denied people the technical means to produce the energy that they require?

That is why I support nuclear energy. It behoves the advanced industrial countries to make use of that form of power so that we can leave the fossil fuels to the less developed, poorer nations. It is not that nuclear energy is a magic solution. To me, it has always represented an opportunity, to be controlled, managed and harnessed. Of course there are risks, but some are very small. The routine, normal discharges from the nuclear power industry in this country contribute much less than 1 per cent. to the normal background radiation to which every one of us is exposed every day of our lives. That is certainly a great deal less damaging to health, and in every other way, than most other forms of industrial pollution.

I was a little nervous to hear my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment suggest that every untoward radiological emission from the nuclear power industry should be reported and published. Does he really mean every untoward unauthorised emission? If so. he must include the coal industry. As we all know, there is a great deal of uranium ore in coal, which comes out by way of ash. If, during the normal operation of a coal-fired power station, the dust suppressors or effluent scrubbers are not working, presumably on a day-to-day basis there is a steep rise in the amount of radiation coming out of the power station. Is the Secretary of State going to put such a requirement on that industry? I would like a response on that from my right hon. Friend or from any other hon. Member who believes that the nuclear industry is unique in that respect.

Of course routine emissions should be further reduced, but if we are rational, we realise that it is better, if we are interested in saving lives, to concentrate on the many other sources of avoidable accidents caused by cars, aeroplanes and dams.

The nuclear industry in this country is spending millions of pounds on reducing the number of cancer deaths resulting from emissions from the industry from two deaths a year to one death. That money would be better spent on finding a cure for cancer, because hundreds of thousands of people all over the world would be saved.

My main concern—I am sure it is the main concern of the population—is not about routine emissions, but about the possibility of a major disaster. Almost the worst possible kind of disaster happened at Chernobyl. That was worse than the incident at Three Mile Island, where the Kemeny report showed that no one was killed as a result of the accident. We do not know the whole story about Chernobyl, but I hope that we do learn the facts. I would guess that the final death toll from the long-term cancer effects of the Chernobyl disaster will be far less than the 2,000 people who died at Bhopal in India. I do not think that we should close down the world's chemical industry because of the Bhopal disaster; equally, I do not think that we should seriously contemplate closing down the world's nuclear industry because of one accident in a badly designed reactor in the Soviet Union.

The hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), in a brave speech, gave certain assurances about what a future Labour Government might do. In passing, he said that none of Britain's nuclear power stations was ordered by a Conservative Government. The corollary of that is, of course, that they were all ordered by a Labour Government. It is strange that Opposition Members have so dramatically shifted their position. If we are in a mess out of which we must get, it is a mess which the Opposition have created.

It is startling that the Opposition should flatly turn down the possibility of a programme of PWR reactors before the Sizewell report has been published. The Labour party is always keen to have commissions, reports and inquiries. However, it has turned down any recommendations that the Sizewell report might make, even before the scientific evidence has been sifted and published.

Of course, there are lessons for the United Kingdom to learn. The nuclear industry has the most to gain from maximum disclosure. It is my experience that the more people know about the industry, the more willing they are to replace emotion and suspicion with a rational assessment of the risks. There is a need for clear, timely and acceptable information of a technical nature and of a more simple kind that the man in the street can understand. If that means organisational changes at Government level, so be it.

When submitting parliamentary questions about the nuclear industry, I have found that they tend to be shifted and shunted around between the Department of Energy, the Department of the Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. We must know who is responsible for what and who will publish the information.

The nuclear industry has the most to gain from being open and accessible. It is heartening that 180,000 people annually visit Britain's nuclear power stations and Sellafield. That is not enough. In France, 500,000 people visit nuclear power plants. As a result, it would seem that 60 per cent. of French people are in favour of their nuclear programme. Another factor may be that electricity in France is 20 per cent. cheaper than in Britain.

There are, of course, still technical, political and social hurdles to be cleared if we are to have a successful and continuing nuclear power programme. It is a paradox that although a great deal is known about the physics of radiation and the engineering aspects of radioactivity and although radiation is easy to detect and measure, the public still consider it to be mysterious.

We should not fall into the trap of leaving everything to the experts. The industry must create a partnership with the public and encourage maximum discussion. Some hon. Members have their own private reasons and interests for other ways of producing energy. Some are told what to say, and perhaps even what to think, by their trade union sponsors. But the rest of us have a duty to try to explain to the public the facts behind the industry. I endorse everything that has been said this evening about the need for maximum disclosure.

I end on a note of caution. In discussing this matter there is a danger that we will shift attention from what I consider to be the main threat to mankind—the proliferation of nuclear weapons. There is no direct correlation between a civil nuclear programme and a military nuclear programme. The fact that a country may possess a civil reactor does not enable it to produce weapons-grade plutonium. Similarly, the fact that a country does not possess a civil reactor does not. I am afraid, preclude it from obtaining enriched uranium or plutonium from a research reactor which is separate and distinct from any civil programme. That is the main danger.

We should be turning our attention to how we can encourage international inspection and increase the number of signatories to the non-proliferation treaty of 1968. Far too much concentration on the dangers of civil nuclear power leads to such facts being overlooked.

This has been a helpful debate, but we should never forget that the legacy that we must bequeath to the people is not one of an earth stripped of its fossil fuels. That would be far more dangerous than bequeathing to them the shorter term problem of the disposal of nuclear waste.