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Torness (Nuclear Powerstation)

Volume 959: debated on Monday 4 December 1978

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Jim Marshall.]

10.59 p.m.

I am glad of this opportunity to raise in the House the concern of many people about the proposed nuclear power plant at Torness, in East Lothian. It is perhaps a curious comment on the way we handle these things that this is, I believe, the first occasion on which the House is debating a project which will cost £1,800 million of public sector investment.

There was a public inquiry into the matter in 1974, which resulted, if I have the term right, in"deemed planning permission"being granted for a nuclear power station at Torness. It is not my purpose tonight to challenge that deemed planning permission, but I want to make clear at the outset that the planning inquiry and the planning permission which came out of it were constricted to the narrow ground of whether Torness in East Lothian was a suitable site for a nuclear power station.

The inquiry did not go into, nor did the report condescend to comment on, matters which have given rise to concern since in relation to nuclear technology, such as the impact on civil liberties, the problem of disposing of the waste that comes out of the nuclear reactors and ultimately the stimulus to nuclear proliferation that might come from a global nuclear power programme. Those were not matters dealt with at the public inquiry, and they are not touched upon in the subsequent report.

Nor did the reporter go into whether a nuclear power station is required in Scotland at present. Indeed, in fairness to the reporter, it must be said that it would have been extremely difficult for him to have said anything about whether a power station was required, since the SSEB never indicated in the course of the inquiry when it proposed to start construction of the power station at Torness. On those grounds, it was impossible for either the reporter or, indeed, any of the objectors to challenge whether that power station was necessary.

It is, perhaps, worth recalling that when the reporter submitted his report to the Secretary of State, commenting upon the fact that he was not in a position to judge whether the power station was necessary, he observed—I quote from a summary of his report which was presented by the Secretary of State when he announced his decision—that
" before construction of the generating station could commence, the consent of the Secretary of State would have to be obtained to the necessary expenditure."
In other words, in reaching his recommendation, the reporter explicitly relied on the investment approval required from the Secretary of State as a test, as a guarantee, that the power station would not be ordered until it was necessary.

What I wish to do tonight is to challenge the decision of the Secretary of State earlier this year to grant approval for that investment expenditure and to invite my right hon. Friend the Minister of State to reconsider that decision. The first question that must be put to the Minister, in order to stimulate him to think afresh on this matter, is this: why was he able to justify a decision to order a power station at this time in view of the considerable excess of generating capacity over demand in Scotland?

In 1974 the SSEB validated the application on the ground that it expected a growth in electricity demand of 6 per cent. per annum. We are now four years on from 1974, and we find that electricity demand in those four years has grown by only 1 per cent. per annum—not 6 per cent., not 5 per cent., not 4 per cent., but 1 per cent. per annum.

Moreover, in those same four years, we have seen coming on stream the additional generating capacity which the Board ordered in headier days of electricity demand. We have seen Inverkip come on stream. We have also seen, albeit fitfully, Hunterston B come on stream. The consequence is that we now have considerable excess of capacity over demand.

On 18th January this year, at 7 o'clock in the evening, I understand, the peak demand was reached in the South of Scotland area. It was a peak demand of 5,803 megawatts. On the same date the SSEB had installed capacity of 9,800 megawatts. That means that it had an excess capacity over demand of 70 per cent.

I know all the arguments about having spinning reserves and safety margins, but, by any sane test, 70 per cent. excess capacity is ludicrously excessive. Indeed, I understand—the Minister will be able to correct this if it is wrong—that Inverkip, built at a cost of £180 million, has produced only 10 per cent. load factor in the past year because it is not required to produce any more.

The problem would be comic if it were not so expensive. Some hon. Members may have seen the television programme last week in which workers at Kincardine power station were interviewed and admitted that 400 men went along to the power station and clocked in daily, produced no electricity and yet managed to obtain a productivity bonus on the basis that they spent their time scrubbing the power station.

In that situation there is no way in which rationally to defend a decision now to order a further power station. When he gave his evidence in 1974, Mr. Tombs estimated that it would require seven years for construction. There is no way in which that excess capacity will disappear over the next seven years. Therefore, the first question that we must ask my right hon. Friend is why we are now, in 1978, starting construction of a power station when we have that excess capacity.

Then one comes to the second leg of my argument and the second area of concern. If we are to have a power station of any kind, why should it be a nuclear power station? It is plain from the SSEB's latest annual accounts that nuclear power is no longer cheaper than other forms of electricity generation. The table towards the front of the report claims an advantage for nuclear power of 0·1p per unit, an 8 per cent. advantage. Yet appendix F3 at the rear of the report shows that a substantial amount of money was set aside by the Board in the same year for decommissioning nuclear plant. Indeed, it set aside three times as much to decommission a nuclear plant as to decommission all conventional plant operating in the South of Scotland area.

When we add in that money set aside in the past year, we find that last year nuclear power in Scotland was 0·2p per unit dearer than electricity generated from conventional sources. I would not seek to make too much of one year's returns, but it is plain that the economic advantage of nuclear power is now at best slight and at worst possibly negative.

My second point relates to the type of design that is being ordered for Torness. It is not the design for which planning permission was given in 1974. Planning permission was given for a steam generating heavy water reactor. Since then the SGHWR has sunk almost without trace, but not before it cost £150 million of taxpayers' money for which we are now to obtain no return. That is not included in the cost per unit of generating electricity to which I referred earlier.

We have instead a proposal to order an advanced gas cooled reactor for Torness. It is worth recalling that in 1974 the Government published a White Paper on the choice of thermal reactors in which they said that they accepted the Nuclear Power Advisory Board's advice that it would be unwise to place further orders for the AGR before evidence of successful operation. What evidence have we since accumulated of the successful operation of the AGR? Only two AGR stations have been started up anywhere in the world, one at Hinkley Point and the other at Hunterston. Both have suffered serious incidents. At Hunterston a valve malfunctioned and 1,000 gallons of Clyde water entered the pressure vessel. At Hinkley Point a pipe burst, and that knocked out not only the primary cooling circuit but, rather disturbingly, the emergency cooling circuit.

Neither of those incidents would be so disturbing if it were not for the consequences. After all, valves go wrong and pipes burst in any form of power station, in conventional power stations as well as in nuclear. But it was long recognised—indeed, the nuclear power industry admitted this—that because of the design of the AGR, in which boilers are contained in the same concrete pressure vessel as the reactor, if something went wrong it would be difficult to put right. That is exactly what we have seen happen.

At Hunterston B the reactor has been out of commission for over a year and is likely to be out of commission for more than two years in total. At Hinkley Point the reactor was out of commission for six months. The incidents occurred at each of the only two AGR stations that have ever operated.

On that basis, we are entitled to ask: where is the evidence of the successful operation of the AGR stations? Is it rational—is it even common sense—to order a further design of a highly expensive plant which is so sophisticated that it is vulnerable to a simple incident closing it down for a prolonged period? I should have thought that at the very least it would be prudent, until we have had further operating experience of the AGR, to find out whether over the longer term, after they have been operating for a period of years rather than months, they will operate successfully.

I come, then, to the third reason why it would be prudent to postpone construction of an additional nuclear power station. This relates to how we are to dispose of the nuclear waste that comes out of it. This is not a problem which will be new to my right hon. Friend. The Scottish Office must be very conscious of the problem which is caused by nuclear waste, because it has observed the difficulty which the Atomic Energy Authority has had in obtaining planning permission to carry out test borings to examine whether it is possible to dispose of the waste in deep geological formations. I am in no position to comment on whether technically that is a feasible solution. None of us is competent to do so. However, as politicians we may now be in a position to speculate whether it will be politically feasible to find such a solution. Until we find a permanent, safe solution to disposing of the radioactive waste that comes out of the power stations, we are entitled to ask whether it is common sense to add a further power station which will add further to the stream of nuclear waste.

There has this afternoon been revealed in Edinburgh the result of an opinion poll of electors in the Lothian region which suggests that they do not think it would be common sense to press ahead until those questions are answered. The poll reveals that 42 per cent. of those polled were against the proposal to build a nuclear power station at Torness and that 34 per cent. were in favour. More significantly, 73 per cent. which would meet the 40 per cent. test—were in favour of a further public inquiry into the issue.

I do not intend to ask my right hon. Friend for a further public inquiry. I am not sure that it would be in his power to order one, even if he chose to do so. But I believe that the matters which I have put to him add up to a significant and powerful case for some form of review of the decision to proceed now. I appreciate that he is unlikely to say so and that he has come here with his brief containing the points which have been prepared over the past week for this debate. But I ask him seriously to consider those questions to which no answers have as yet been given, to put them to his right hon. Secretary of State and to consider whether, in the light of those questions, there are not adequate grounds for reviewing the decision to construct a power station now.

11.13 p.m.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) for giving me a couple of minutes of his time in this debate to discuss this important development which is to take place in the heart of my constituency.

The argument falls broadly into three parts. The first relates to the original public inquiry in 1974. It have come to the conclusion that the original public inquiry was satisfactory. It lasted nine full days. The objections of seven organisations, including Friends of the Earth, and of 19 individuals were heard. I suggest that it is not good enough for the opponents were heard. I suggest that it is not good enough for the opponents of this power station to condemn the 1974 public inquiry simply because it did not come up with the conclusions that they wanted.

The second question is whether there is a need for a further power station in Scotland. We could debate, probably all night, the projected consumption of electricity in Scotland in the 1990s, but on the best possible forecasts available we shall need this additional power station in Scotland if we are to avoid costly and dangerous power cuts at times of peak consumption towards the end of this century.

The third and most crucial argument is that of safety. This is the overriding consideration in these developments. The nuclear power industry has a clear record, both on safety and on pollution. Nuclear power stations have been operating for up to 17 years without any serious accidents. It visited Hunterston about 10 days ago. I handled the uranium fuel and went inside the pressure vessel of a reactor without coming to any harm. I am convinced that on grounds of safety and pollution a nuclear power station is infinitely preferable to most other heavy industries.

Most people in my constituency accept the need for the power station. They welcome the 600 long-term jobs that will result from the development. They also welcome the fact that there will be a short-term construction labour force of about 2,000 to build the station. We realise that that will cause planning problems. But last month there were almost 1,500 unemployed men in Berwick and East Lothian. Many of them are from the construction industry. We need this work. Construction workers will welcome an early start to the Torness project.

But people are worried about the disposal of nuclear waste. I am aware that little waste is produced by such power stations. But it is without question extremely nasty and dangerous stuff. I urge the Government to do everying that they can to encourage research into ways of dealing with the potentially lethal byproduct of what is otherwise a clean and safe industry which I look forward to welcoming to my constituency.

11.17 p.m.

We are grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) and Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) for raising this subject. It has attracted the biggest House I have seen for an Adjournment debate in the 13 years that I have been here. There must be some significance in that.

There has been much criticism tonight. I watched a television programme last week in which my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central took part and in which certain criticisms were expressed. I hope that I can deal with the criticisms that have been made about the Government's decision to authorise the South of Scotland Electricity Board to build an AGR power station at Torness.

My hon. Friend and other critics of the Torness project argue that there should be a further public examination of nuclear issues before work on the station is started, but even if we held 10 public inquiries and debated the issue for a further 10 years my hon. Friend and others would not be persuaded. I feel that strongly when I listen to the critics and to the media.

Parliament has legislated a procedure for considering applications from the generating boards to construct power stations. It provides for advertisement of the board's intentions, for the submission of objections and for a public local inquiry. It has been used to the full in the case of SSEB's application to build an AGR station at Torness.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central suggested that at the public inquiry in June 1974 issues of local planning significance only were considered. Wider issues were also considered, as might be expected at an inquiry at which representatives of the Friends of the Earth, the Conservation Society and the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate gave evidence.

My hon. Friend said that we considered only the narrow issues, but the scope of the inquiry covered the demand for electricity, fuel policy, choice of fuel, district heating, nuclear safety, nuclear issue, conservation of energy and labour supply, in addition to matters specific to the site. To say that the inquiry was limited in scope is a travesty of the facts and suggests that those who make this assertion have not troubled to read the report in full, or, more probably, simply do not like the conclusions to which the evidence led.

I remind the House of the salient conclusions. First and foremost was the fact that Torness is an appropriate site for a nuclear power station of any one of the four types—including AGR—for which application was made. The second conclusion was that, in relation to Torness, the Government's policy on nuclear safety can be implemented. The third point, as a finding of fact, was that the growth of demand for electricity in the SSEB's area will continue. Fourth, again as a finding of fact, was the point that the timing of a start to construction and policy concerning the long-term handling of nuclear waste was for consideration by the Government. The Report's recommendation was that consent be granted.

Does the Minister not consider that the forecasts of electricity consumption are a key issue in this matter and that the forecasts of the SSEB in the past four years have proved to be wrong?

That point has been made already by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central. I shall come to it in a few minutes' time.

I turn to the issue of nuclear waste. We have had the Windscale inquiry. Parliament has pronounced on this.

My hon. Friend referred to electricity demand, and at some length. On this question of growth in electricity demand, the Government have taken the view that the SSEB should act on its present forecasts of an increase in the all-Scotland load of 4 per cent. a year on average over the next 10 years. That forecast is compatible with an assumed rate of GDP growth of 3 per cent. a year and is not out of line with recent experience in Scotland. Although the economy has been in deep recession and is still moving slowly, electricity demand in Scotland was up by about 3 per cent. last year.

There is, as might be expected, a clear link between energy demand and growth in the economy. Arguments which deny growth in electricity demand therefore amount to assertions that the Scottish economy will stagnate for a decade. I assure the House that that is no part of mine or the Government's thinking. Nor are we prepared to make that prophecy of gloom self-fulfilling by failing to take the steps today which will safeguard the people of Scotland 10 years hence against the possibility of a shortage of electricity which could empty our factories and turn away potential industrial developers.

On these projections, the need for new generating capacity in Scotland in the late 1980s is indisputable, without any displacement of existing nuclear or coal-fired power stations. Our existing capacity, which is indeed in excess of present requirements, will serve to bridge the nine years or so until firm output from Torness is available. But I stress that a surplus in 1978 is irrelevant to the position that we shall be in in 1978.

I believe that a power station needs to be ordered now and that the procedures leading to the choice of Torness were comprehensive. The whole matter has been debated for a long time. The Government have thrown the issue open to public debate. We have provided new machinery, representative of all interests, to discuss energy matters. We have flooded Parliament with information. Many of us started with open minds. I wish that this applied to all hon. Members and critics outside.

Another point which concerns me, which was stressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick and East Lothian, is that Torness will provide us with jobs. That is something in which we are all interested. There will be 2,000 jobs in construction and 600 in operations—all in an area badly in need of jobs. The project will provide good work for the power plant industry—again sorely needed—in the west and east of Scotland. My worry, and it is shared by many others, is that if we fail to place an order for this type of station now, in a few years we shall not have a power plant industry or a components industry capable of meeting our needs.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central asked why the station should be at Torness. If the need for a power station is accepted, why, he asked, should it be sited there? The answer is that it meets the exacting criteria for a site. It is geologically suitable, free from subsidence and seismic effects, and with a high load-bearing capacity. It has ample cooling water with natural dispersal. It has good road access. It complies fully with the Government's nuclear siting standards. Very important, it is close to the load in the East of Scotland, with my hon. Friend's constituency at its centre, which will make demands over and above those which can be met from the only existing power station in Lothian, at Cockenzie.

Torness will not put miners' jobs at risk: on commissioning it will not displace coal-fired stations in a system which is, and is expected to remain, capable of providing a market for electricity coal in Scotland big enough to match production from the Scottish coalfield.

My hon. Friend stressed the importance of costs, and I wish to repeat what I said in the debate, that we had in the summer. In spite of all his suggestions then and his assertions on television last week, the Government have made and have published through the Energy Commission, a full and careful study of costs relevant to the considerations applying today to the different systems for electricity generation. This study included the whole range of costs, including decommissioning, which my hon. Friend asserted were excluded from the figures published by the SSEB. It showed that nuclear stations are cheaper, though not by much, than coal-fired stations, and that this advantage would widen if, as is expected, there is a significant escalation in future in the costs of fossil fuels. The Commission's paper concludes, however, that the comparison is largely academic, since the clear prospect of an energy gap means that the maximum use of both coal and nuclear stations will be required in due course. I ask my hon. Friend and other critics of our nuclear programme to direct their attention to that document, which has been freely available to them for some time, and is worthy of their attention.

My hon. Friend asked about the disposal of nuclear waste. High level radioactive waste arises largely from the reprocessing of spent fuel. At present, this waste is stored safely in tanks in thick-walled concrete vaults which are clad in stainless steel. In the longer term, it is the intention that this waste should be glassified to prevent leakage, placed in stainless steel containers and either buried in geologically stable areas or dumped at great depths in the sea. Research on the glassification process is at an advanced stage, and an EEC sponsored research programme is in hand to assess the suitability of specific geological strata for the disposal of solidified radioactive waste.

Although the problem of nuclear waster disposal exercised the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, the Commission concluded in its sixth report that the processes giving rise to nuclear waste should not be altered since it was confident that acceptable solutions would be found, and that is a confidence that the Government share.

The safety record of British nuclear reactors in commercial operation is exemplary, with not a single case of damage to the public. There has never, in 16 years of operation, been an accident at a nuclear power station in the United Kingdom involving a significant release of radioactivity. Judged on performance, no other heavy industry has such a good record of safety both for its employees and for the public. Calculations of probabilities put the risk of fatality from a nuclear power reactor accident at much less than one-thousandth of the risk of being killed by lightning. And the system of control and supervision, through the Health and Safety Executive, which we have created in this country, provides assurance for the future.

If Scotland is to grow, as we are all determined that it will, a new power station will be needed by the late 1980s—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-nine minutes past Eleven o'clock.