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Nuclear Safety

Volume 974: debated on Monday 26 November 1979

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asked the Secretary of State for Energy when he expects to make a statement on the implications of the Kemeny report on the nuclear accident at Harrisburg.


asked the Secretary of State for Energy what assessment he has made of the Kemeny commission's report on the Three Mile Island disaster with reference to Great Britain's nuclear programme; and if he will make a statement.

The Three Mile Island accident undoubtedly has important lessons for us. My Department is seeking a careful evaluation of the Kemeny commission findings. The Health and Safety Executive and the CEGB have been doing their own studies and I have asked for these studies, together with their views of the implications of the Kemeny findings for the United Kingdom, to be published as soon as practicable.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that a preliminary analysis of the Kemeny report appears to show recommendations for a movement in America towards our philosophy of regulation in matters of safety and away from legalistic arrangements that have been traditionally undertaken?

My hon. Friend is correct. At first reading, the Kemeny commission report is mainly concerned with regulatory procedures and attitudes and organisation within the United States. Its concern seems to point away from present arrangements in the United States towards those that might be broadly similar to arrangements enjoyed in this country.

Bearing in mind that the Kemeny commission said that the nuclear industry must dramatically change its attitude to safety in nuclear power stations, and the practical delay that will occur in issuing new licences for power stations in the United States, will the right hon. Gentleman disavow the Prime Minister's infatuation with the expansion of the nuclear power programme in this country as foolish and dangerous?

It is recognised in most countries, and certainly by this Government, that it would be an unjustifiable risk to plan our future without a further expansion of nuclear power in some form. But any developments in reactor systems or new designs would have to be preceded by detailed safety clearance, taking into account all possible lessons from the views that we publish and our evaluation of the Kemeny report. That must be common sense.

Will my right hon. Friend, when he considers the Kemeny report, look particularly at the recommendation that, for the present at least, nuclear power stations should be built as far from population centres as practicable?

I have asked for an evaluation on these matters from the Health and Safety Executive and from the CEGB. We will examine all their recommendations and evaluate them in the light of our own circumstances and our own plans inside our own nation.

Will not the right hon. Gentleman admit that anxieties about the pressure water reactor and its inherent safety features, or lack of safety features, first drawn to the attention of the public by Sir Alan Cottrell and now confirmed by Harrisburg and by apparent cracks experienced in French reactors, mean that the Government must make clear that they will not order a PWR in Britain until all the assessments in this country have been published, enabling everyone, including the House of Commons, to examine the factors that are involved?

I have already indicated the publications that will be made. At the same time, it must be right that full safety clearance is given by our well-tried and laid down safety procedures, through the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, before any new reactor design is placed before an inquiry in this country. That is understood. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman shares my view.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the reactor system used at Harrisburg was different from the system proposed here, being a Westinghouse system as opposed to Babcock and Wilcox?

My hon. Friend is correct. It was a United States Babcock and Wilcox design. There are a number of other designs of pressure water reactor in the Western world. If the plan was to activate a licence with Westinghouse, a different technology would be involved. I again emphasise that anything built here would be subject to our own safety clearances and our own standards laid down by our own Nuclear Installations Inspectorate.

Will the Secretary of State look at that part of the Kemeny report which deals with public information? It states that the public should have full access immediately to any possible information when a nuclear mishap takes place. Is he aware that there has been the feeling in the past in this country that when there has been a nuclear incident an attempt has been made to cover up rather than release the fullest possible news to the public?

Yes. I see no advantage in an approach which involves a cover-up of vital information. I will look at the particular element in the Kemeny report to which the hon. Member referred. It is certainly my view that there should be full information and discussion on incidents and developments involving any hazard to the public. That must be the basis upon which confidence is established when we go forward with a nuclear programme in this country, as we must.