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Nuclear Propulsion

Volume 648: debated on Wednesday 8 November 1961

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asked the Minister of Transport if he will make a statement about the proposed construction of a nuclear-powered merchant vessel: what is the earliest date on which such a vessel could be launched; and what would be the approximate cost.

The tenders received by my Department from industry for a nuclear reactor suitable for installation in a merchant ship have been examined in detail by the Committee on the Application of Nuclear Power to Marine Purposes and also by its Technical Committee, and the Government have carefully considered the matter in the light of the advice received from these Committees.

This advice shows that while it would certainly be technically feasible to build a nuclear-powered ship now, nuclear propulsion for marine purposes does not offer sufficient economic promise to justify building a merchant ship at the present time. The Government have, therefore, decided that the right course in present circumstances is to authorise a vigorous programme of research, aimed at a reactor system which is economically attractive to a wide range of shipping. The programme will be carried out by the Atomic Energy Authority in conjunction with industry.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is a considerable body of opinion which feels that little more progress can be made until a prototype is at sea? Will not the decision he has announced make Britain even more backward in this new research? Will he publish a White Paper setting forth the arguments for and against a prototype?

I will consider the last suggestion of my hon. Friend, but at the moment no country in the world has a nuclear reactor which is economic as far as shipping is concerned. I am sure that the major break-through will be to the country which first finds that reactor.

It is very difficult for laymen to come to any judgment on these highly technical matters, but can the right hon. Gentleman say why there has been so much delay in coming to this decision? Is it not the fact that tenders were first sought about two years ago? Surely we could have had some decision about the value of the tenders long before now?

As the right hon. Gentleman said, this is a matter of great complexity, and it is for that reason that the decision has been delayed.

Is it not regrettable that in the present depressed state of the shipbuilding industry this decision has been arrived at, and is not this the very development which would put us once again in the forefront of world shipbuilding? In view of the failure of the Cunard order going to the North-East, is it not time that something like this was given in the North-East to take its place?

I do not think that it will help shipping or shipbuilding in this country unless we can make it economically viable. If we start having marine propulsion which is not an economic proposition, I do not think that it will help us in our competition against countries abroad.

In view of the long delay which has occurred, can the right hon. Gentleman say how long he expects it to be before some conclusion is arrived at? This continuing delay is very serious, and it appears that there is to be further delay, inevitable perhaps, but has the Minister any idea how long it will be?

I am afraid that it is never possible in scientific research to say when a conclusion will be reached. These are primarily matters for my noble Friend the Minister for Science.