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Uranium (Control And Supply)

Volume 932: debated on Monday 16 May 1977

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asked the Secretary of State for Energy what conversations he has had with the United States Administration about the future control and supply of enriched uranium, so far as it affects the United Kingdom and consultations internationally.

My Department keeps in close touch with the United States Administration on all matters connected with fissile materials required for nuclear power programmes.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the new policies of the United States Administration on nuclear fuel supplies and reprocessing must call into question some of the assumptions upon which the British nuclear power industry has operated up to now? Are these assumptions being revised, and what implications are there in this for overseas contracts for reprocessing?

My hon. Friend is right in saying that a new emphasis is being given in these matters, but it is worldwide, not just in the United States. Leadership is also being given by the United Kingdom and other countries in trying to prevent the proliferation of technologies that could lead to the spread of nuclear weapons. It is a matter with considerable international implications. It is also true that many countries are now engaged in a political review—that is, a ministerial review—of nuclear policy and the assumptions that have underlain that policy and that have, perhaps, gone unexamined for some time. This is now seen as an urgent matter all over the world.

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept the point made by John Nye at the Salzburg Conference recently—that, on the face of it, the American provisions for export licensing under the so-called MB 10 clause are inconsistent with the longer-term contracts of the kind envisaged by the Japanese and BNFL?

I could not answer that in detail in a reply to a supplementary question. However, it is widely agreed—and I also take this view—that the proliferation and the risk of proliferation of such technology must be dealt with on the basis of international action and by an internationally agreed and enforced proposal. There are many countries for which nuclear power plays a part in meeting their energy needs, but there is also a need to prevent the proliferation of sensitive technologies, and that must have the highest priority in the view of any sensible Government.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is a responsible and knowledgeable nation that takes the view that if the policy of President Carter were generally applied it would in the end result in greater proliferation of processing rather than the opposite?

I am aware of the argument that if we shake confidence in the availability of materials under proper supervision it may have the opposite effect to that intended. However, it is important that those countries with a background and a trade in nuclear power, such as the United Kingdom, should make it clear that non-proliferation must be a prime purpose and that within that framework such trade as takes place should be fully and completely safeguarded.

In considering the approach of the President of the United States will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the major lead that Great Britain has in fast breeder reactors—where, for a change, the Americans are technologically and practically way behind us—is used to get a major breakthrough both for our own energy and for earning foreign income?

That is a separate but relevant and connected question. The Government policy towards the basic decision on the CFRI will be taken in the light of a number of factors. The United States Government have taken a decision on Clinch River, and I read in the newspapers, though I do not have a full account of it, that the Germans may have frozen some of the funds for their fast breeder programme. We shall look at the fast breeder decision in the light of a number of factors, including economic factors.