Nuclear Power

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:45 pm on 11th May 1987.

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Photo of Mr Michael McGuire Mr Michael McGuire , Makerfield 8:45 pm, 11th May 1987

On two previous occasions I said that it was probably the last time I would address the House. Today I am on surer ground and I believe that this will be the last time that I will address the House. This is Custer's last stand and everybody knows what happened to Custer.

I am delighted to take part in this debate because we can appreciate the political messages coming across. The lads behind me, the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) and his hon. Friends, will get some flak. My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Thompson) will also receive such treatment. When my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) gives the Opposition reply to this debate he will give his usual ebullient speech, which will convince everyone except the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton). He is a dyed-in-the-wool nuclear reactor man. He believes that everyone should have one in their house and, if he could provide them, he would do just that.

In a previous debate on this matter I described the people who advocate nuclear power by using the analogy of a card game when one man tries to kid his opponents. Today I will give the analogy of the man trying to sell gold bricks on Waterloo bridge. He says to a chap, "You can have this gold brick. It is the biggest bargain of your lifetime and you can have it for £100." The fellow shows some doubt, so the man says, "As it's you, you can have two for £100."

There have been four ages in the nuclear debate. The first was the age of innocent expectations and that occurred between 1946 to 1966. I remind the House that one of my late colleagues, Fred Lee, when he was Minister of Power in 1964, swallowed the argument, like all those before him, that nuclear power would be so cheap and so profitable that it would not be sensible to monitor it nor meter it. He believed that people should get it for nothing. We know that that idea soon went.

The second age was the age of doubt, and that lasted from 1967 to 1974. We have had two further ages. The first of those was the age of anguish that occurred between 1975 and 1980. The nuclear advocates were saved by the tremendous increase in oil prices and coal prices and they were able to capitalise on those increases.

We are now coming to the last stage—the age of justification, from 1981 to the present. Why do we have such concern? Why is there disaffection? Why are people worried? They are worried because there have been sufficient signs to justify worrying about nuclear power. Chernobyl happened one month after the Layfield committee finished taking evidence. It is staggering that there is no mention of Chernobyl in the report. We must not allow Government supporters or anybody else to get carried away. When he had heard all the arguments, Layfield said that the Sizewell station justified itself provided it could be built to time and cost. That has not happened. The Magnox programme overran by several years and about £900 million. It has not been proven. We cannot say that, given what happened, it can be justified. It has not been justified.

We know that, many years ago, Sir Arthur Hawkins, a previous chairman of the CEGB, was PWR-mad when he appeared before Select Committees. He wanted to build 15 of them. We must remember that Sizewell B is a prototype. The Government have said that they will build replicas. People say that Chernobyl was different. What about Three Mile Island? That is a PWR station and is still contaminated. The principle is not sound. Some people say that we shall be the poor man of Europe, that we are isolated, and that we shall choose energy sources that will impoverish people. That is a lot of bunkum. I am glad that the Secretary of State for Scotland is present. He intervened earlier and tried to get a Scottish point of view across. I shall refer later to the difference between the SSEB and the CEGB. It is important.

The hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) mentioned Sweden. He said that the Swedes are super-keen on environmental matters and that 50 per cent. of their energy is nuclear. The hon. Gentleman should bring himself up to date. They are committed to phasing it out. The hon. Member for Tatton, with all his wisdom, told us that gas, coal and so on are finite and that supplies will finish fairly soon. There was a newspaper report that an English scientist, of all people, who has always had a theory about how gas and oil were created, did not go along with the dead fish concept. He believes that there is something deeper. We cannot believe everything that we read in the papers. If we did, we would believe that the Tories are a lot further in front of us than they are—[Interruption.] The House considered the matter in 1970. Government Members should not count their chickens before they are hatched. The public can be fickle. Thank God for fickleness; they might swap over.

The scientist whom I mentioned said that oil supplies would satisfy world requirements far into the distant future. Oil is a fossil fuel. The hon. Member for Tatton said that such resources are finite. The English professor has done some deep drilling in Sweden and has come up with what looks like a winner.

We have an international picture. Grave doubt has been expressed. No new stations are being ordered in America, the land from which we get nuclear technology. They are completing one or two that are too far advanced to stop. but they will not build any more. Every country with any sense is learning the lessons of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. They have said that the next time could be worse. We should learn that lesson, too.

The South of Scotland Electricity Board put forward a strong case. It said that an AGR programme is better, that it would be better to sustain it, and that the cost saving would be several hundred million pounds. The SSEB believes that the system is proven and that the CEGB would be better going down that road. It opposes the PWR system. I have referred several times to Chernobyl and have said that it staggered me that it was not mentioned in the Layfield report. Chernobyl has changed people's views on the matter. Before Chernobyl, The Economist stated: Nuciear power is as safe as a chocolate factory. After Chernobyl, it stated: Chernobyl has convinced many people, and not just what we describe as greens, that nuclear power is too dangerous at any price. The European Commissioner for Energy said: It is very difficult to plan long term after Chernobyl. I have described the change in the European scene. The Danes have asked the Swedes to close down a nuclear plant 12 miles across the Baltic from their territories. The Italians have pledged a period of careful reflection following Chernobyl. France is held up to us as the country that we should try to copy and it is said that we should try to get our energy production from nuclear sources up to that of France. France is in an economic shambles and its debt-ridden economy resembles that of a Third world country. It has debts of over £20 billion. That is why France wants to flog power stations to anybody who will take them. The French Government, unlike us, have a system where they can ride roughshod over public opinion. In France, public opinion would not delay a similar discussion for this length of time. In France the Government get their way. If we want a Third world economy we should go down the French road, as we will finish up with £20 billion of debt, quite apart from whether the station is safe or not.

The economics of the argument have not been made out by any measuring stick. There are disagreements between sectors of the electricity supply industry. The SSEB argument cannot be discounted as some sort of small-time rivalry. It is a very serious argument.

I began by saying that this may be the last time on which I address the House. I can say with some conviction that that is a certainty. All through the four ages that I outlined we have been sold a pup. The case for nuclear power has not been made out economically or safely. The PWRs at Three Mile Island and at Chernobyl cannot be laughed off as not being quite as good as ours. The Government should listen to the voices that are saying, "Re-examine the arguments". I mentioned before the arguments about coal. As soon as the report I mentioned previously was written it was almost out of date because of forecasted coal prices. The bedrock of the argument is that Sizewell could only be justified if it was built on time and to cost. No nuclear power station in this country has yet achieved that. They have all overrun, sometimes grotesquely. The cost has been enormous. The hon. Member for Gordon mentioned alternative sources and energy conservation. When about £10 million is given to energy conservation as opposed to about £256 million for research into nuclear power one should not expect credible comparisons. One will be emphasised more than the other and it is not fair play. The savings are enormous and I believe that people would be gratified, willing to listen, and delighted to hear the Government say that they will have another look at Sizewell.