Nuclear Power

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:07 pm on 11th May 1987.

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Photo of Dr Michael Clark Dr Michael Clark , Rochford 9:07 pm, 11th May 1987

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McGuire). I am sorry that that was his last speech in the House. I am sure that he is leaving just when he has reached his own age of justification and that he will be replaced in due course by someone from his constituency in his age of innocent expectation. We bid him farewell if that was his last speech.

Tonight I should like to speak about the views that people have about nuclear energy and nuclear generated electricity. Not much thought is given to electricity generation in general. People do not wish to understand how turbines or generators work as long as they work and electricity goes into their households. As soon as the electricity is generated from a nuclear source, many people take an interest and quite a few appear to become experts. I wonder why nuclear power has that effect on people. Perhaps it is because nuclear power is rightly conceived as complex and is little understood by laymen. Those who understand it may well think that it is wrong and risky to change the nature of the atom. The fact that the nature of the atom is being changed all the time on the sun, which gives us our energy through nuclear fusion, is generally ignored. It may be that nuclear power has a special place in people's minds because of the nature of the risk and the difficulty in defining that risk.

To a greater or lesser extent, everyone accepts risks in crossing the road, working with machinery or flying off on holiday, but in nearly every case the risk can be quantified in terms of possible damage and the extent of the damage. Nuclear risk is not perceived in that way, and is generally thought not to be quantifiable. That is not so. We can quantify nuclear risks and in doing so we should also quantify the risk of not having nuclear power and what effect that would have on the economy and the life of this country.

Human casualties caused by nuclear accidents like the recent one at Chernobyl arouse great emotion, probably because in people's minds there is a link between nuclear power, nuclear warfare and nuclear bombs. The enrichment of the fuel in a bomb and in a nuclear power station is brought about in wholly different ways and there is a complete difference in basic engineering. Those facts are not generally understood or acknowledged. When Chernobyl went up just over a year ago, a bomb was created. First, there was a steam explosion and thereafter an explosion caused by the release of hydrogen. However, that was a conventional explosion and there was no mushroom cloud to prove otherwise.

We have to look at the extent of Government involvement in nuclear energy and wonder whether that is one reason why the population at large treat nuclear energy as something special. The high capital cost of nuclear installations, the special planning inquiries, the safety scrutiny and the disposal of radioactive waste mean that Governments have to take an interest in nuclear matters. Some people say that, because the fuel could be diverted to military programmes or hijacked by terrorists, it is essential that Governments take an interest.

Unfortunately, the more interest a Government take in nuclear power, the more special it appears to become, and that interest is perceived by many as a sign of control and even as a sign of preference. Governments then tend to play down their nuclear power programmes and begin to show a reticence about propagating the virtues of nuclear power. The exception is France, where a massive nuclear programme is proudly and openly proclaimed and generally accepted by the public. On the one hand, Government are seen to be protecting nuclear power. As all Governments are almost, by definition, of the Establishment, and as anti-nuclear groups seem to get linked with Left-wing organisations, nuclear power has, unfortunately, become a political issue. I say "unfortunately" because I should prefer to see nuclear power viewed not as a political issue, but as an educational issue and an environmental challenge.

By their very training, scientists are taught to reveal the truth and have a high reputation. However, from time to time it seems that nuclear scientists have lost that reputation and are mistrusted by the public at large. One must ask why that is so. Is it because those scientists are not educating the public sufficiently well in nuclear matters, or is it because nuclear scientists are getting too closely involved with politicians and the politicians are tainting the scientists, thus giving rise to a lack of trust?

Nuclear matters are matters of national pride, rather like state airlines. To have a nuclear power station or a nuclear programme is a status symbol of maturity and wealth. Even Governments in developing countries have nuclear research programmes and nuclear generating programmes. Some even carry out work on designing and modifying reactors. The more developed countries compete with each other to introduce refinements to their nuclear reactors so that they can sell them at home and abroad. Nuclear engineering then becomes just another international business operated by a whole series of multinational companies. Many people see the multinationalism of nuclear power as more important than international safety. I have some sympathy with that view.

We all know that, as has already been said, the Chernobyl design was thought to be faulty by Western experts many years ago. Why did not those experts shout louder and longer if they thought that Chernobyl was unsafe? Had they done so, it is perhaps unlikely that the RBMK-type reactor would have been decommissioned by the Russians, but it is highly likely that they would not have dared to carry out the experiments which led a year ago to that disastrous explosion.

Do the experts who kept quiet in years gone by have reservations about other nuclear power stations, in their own countries or abroad? If so, they should reveal those doubts, now. Should there be another incident like Chernobyl—God forbid—it will be no use their crying out after the incident "Yes, we knew that it was not safe; we would not have had one in this country." They must cry out now if they feel that any power station anywhere in the world is intrinsically unsafe. More international cooperation, particularly with regard to safety and the interchange of information, is perceived as necessary by individuals worrying about nuclear issues.

I also ask whether the nuclear industry in this country has portrayed a sufficient image of confidence in itself. We were confident up to 1956. That was the age of innocent expectation referred to by the hon. Member for Makerfield. We built a series of Magnox power stations. Then we entered an era of technical confusion, with steam-generating heavy water reactors, AGRs, and now the PWR proposed for Sizewell. Does the nuclear industry not realise that the more uniformity of view and consistency of approach it has within itself, the more it will project an image of self-confidence and the more that self-confidence will help people in the country at large to accept its decisions, and to accept more readily a power station at Sizewell?

Once again, France has got it right. It has a programme of power stations which has not gone in fits and starts. It has stuck with one design. In France, nuclear power is no longer a technical novelty; it is merely a way of generating electricity to boil a kettle or light a room, and it is even a way of earning exchange from this country.

Before the accident at Chernobyl, the nuclear industry could proudly claim that it had nearly 4,000 reactor years of safe experience worldwide. That is no longer so. The accident that the "antis" feared has happened. The pro-nuclear people, realising that they could not prove a negative, argued using astronomical odds that an accident would never happen. Unfortunately, it did happen, and it is very difficult now for the pro-nuclear people to go back to arguing on probability.

There is no escaping the seriousness of the Chernobyl accident. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Miscampbell) mentioned deaths on the roads, and said that the number of such deaths between now and next week would be about 100, compared with the 30 people killed at Chernobyl. However, the accidents are not strictly comparable. The magnitude of the Chernobyl disaster cannot be compared with road accidents over a week in a Western country.

It is ironic that, as the risks of nuclear war appear to diminish, the public see the risks in civil nuclear power increasing. What can the Government and the nuclear industry do to reduce that worry? First, there should be a greater awareness of radiation in general. Do the public know the strength of background radiation—for instance, radiation from rocks in Cornwall or Aberdeen? Do they know that the radiation received by the average citizen in this country as a result of Chernobyl was no more than the radiation received by any of us during a chest X-ray?

Next, I wonder whether the modern scientists could get their units in order so that old scientists like me and, I hope, the general public can begin to learn something about radiation. There is no chance of them learning much about radiation with rads, rems, roentgens, sieverts, and becquerels that very few of us understand. Communication techniques need to be improved. At the time of the Chernobyl disaster I heard a National Radiological Protection Board spokesman constantly repeat that the accident was not the end of the world, but the more he said it the less reassuring he became.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food did a splendid job in protecting the health of this nation by adhering to very strict and even over-cautious rules regarding food, including vegetables. It took away the practical fear of the population, but unfortunately all that the scientists continued to do was to talk about rems and rads and positive void coefficients. That did not help at all.

If there is to be less public anxiety about nuclear power stations, it is to be hoped that the communication machine of the nuclear industry will be overhauled and restructured so that in future there may be more prompt and professional utterances, should there be any incident, however minor. Above all, international co-operation is expected on the treatment and effects of radiation. The work of Dr. Gale, the American doctor who went to Moscow, and the Russian openness about the accident are seen as positive sides of this terrible disaster. The general public expect this togetherness, forged in adversity, to continue and will not understand a return to positions of national jealousy and mistrust.

The anti-nuclear lobby has been demanding for some years the closure of all nuclear power stations, maintaining that an energy conservation policy and the use of renewable sources of energy for generation would allow demand and production to be equated. That is not so. Unfortunately, the view of the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) that we can generate all our electricity from renewable sources and supplement it by energy efficiency would not allow demand to be met. Some energy will probably come from renewable sources. I hope that it does, and I support it. However, only 7 per cent. by 2020 will come from renewables. As for hydrocarbons, even if the big hole in Sweden is right, hydrocarbons are finite and should be conserved as a valuable premium fuel for the chemical industry and aviation.

The challenge of providing energy for our grandchildren as hydrocarbon fuels run out is just as great as the challenge of protecting them from radiation. If we do not find an alternative source of energy, we shall have high energy prices that will mean that many of the old people whom we wish to protect will be unable to afford to keep themselves warm in winter and that the Third world will be unable to buy the fuel that it needs to power its industry at a time when energy is running short.

In conclusion, there is individual and collective concern about nuclear power, enhanced to a considerable extent by lack of understanding and lack of technical education. Naturally, the public turn to the easier options, ignorant of the arithmetic that would reveal the weakness of their choice. It is unlikely that the anti-nuclear energy lobby will cease its campaign against nuclear power, but it is to be hoped that the nuclear industry will respond to the need for uniformity, simplicity and figures in its public relations approach if it is to earn the measure of public acceptability that I believe it deserves.