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Electricity Generation

Volume 98: debated on Wednesday 4 June 1986

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5.

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland what is the total capacity of the generation stations of the two Scottish electricity boards; and what is the maximum recorded demand for electricity in Scotland.

I am advised by the Scottish electricity boards that, excluding oil-fired capacity held in reserve, the maximum available sent-out capacity of the Scottish generation system is 8,839 MW. The maximum simultaneous demand ever recorded was 6,341 MW during the severe winter of 1981–82.

As we now have such massive excess generating capacity in Scotland, and as serious concern is being expressed about the Chernobyl disaster, why are the Government in such haste to commission a further 1,400 MW of nuclear generating capacity at Torness ahead of schedule? Will the Secretary of State halt the fuelling of the reactors at Torness, at least until such time as the environmental, safety and economic consequences of the commissioning of that power station can be considered properly?

The Government are in no haste to do anything — [Interruption.] A well-known phrase or saying is "act in haste and repent at leisure", which I am happy to confirm. The hon. Gentleman should realise that the British nuclear industry has a superb safety record. He should appreciate that in the past 30 years there has not been one significant incident anywhere in the United Kingdom involving danger to the health or life of the public. If I remember correctly, the hon. Gentleman advocated the construction of the Torness nuclear power station when he first sought to represent his constituency in this place. It is somewhat odd that he is now trying to pretend that he has different views.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that Scotland has a great deal of knowledge and practical experience of nuclear energy — indeed, as much as anyone—and that it has been put to very good use by the South of Scotland Electricity Board in the construction of the station at Torness, not least with regard to public safety? However, will my right hon. and learned Friend take steps to counter the current unease about nuclear power, following the disaster in Russia, by tapping that knowledge and experience in Scotland, not just in the SSEB, but among industrialists and academics, so that they may better inform the public and put aside some of the fears that people feel at this time?

Of course, my hon. Friend is absolutely correct. Understandable concern has arisen out of the Chernobyl incident. I believe that the correct policy to pursue, which the Scottish Office and the Government as a whole pursue, is the maximum disclosure of all information and the maximum utilisation of any new information that is available, which will enhance even further the extremely high safety standards that we already have. That is an ongoing process. It is right and proper that everything possible should be done to ensure that the public are aware that the maximum safety standards are available, and that all information which is relevant is always disclosed, so that the public can come to a considered judgment on those matters.

Does the Secretary of State accept that Chernobyl has changed matters and that there is an overwhelming view in Scotland that we should reduce our dependence on civil nuclear power? If the Government are not prepared to do that, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give an assurance that the Government will not prevent the next Government from doing so, by closing down coal production capacity? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give an assurance that there will be no reduction in coal production in Scotland over the next few years?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the level of coal production will depend on several factors, including demand. The SSEB may have a requirement for increased coal consumption over the years to come, irrespective of what happens to the existing nuclear power stations. The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues often press upon the Government the need to help industry. He must be aware that if we ceased to use civil nuclear power in Scotland, the electricity tariffs for industry in Scotland, as well as for consumers, would go up dramatically. It has been suggested that increases of between 25 and 30 per cent. in the electricity tariffs would be required if we ceased to use all civil nuclear power in Scotland.

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that that gross overcapacity of electricity in Scotland, arising partly from nuclear power, might cause further embarrassment shortly if the French dump cheap electricity in England, which would do away with 1,000 MW currently being exported from Scotland to England? Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept the consequences for Scottish mining, where demand has been cut almost to one quarter in recent years? Does he further accept the view of most people in Scotland that there is not the slightest rational ground for going ahead with Torness?

If the right hon. Gentleman is concerned about the capacity of the French to export their electicity on a competitive basis, he might like to reflect that France has a higher level of civil nuclear power than almost any other European country. That emphasises the point that I made earlier, that if we are interested in cheap power for the benefit of the public as a whole and of industry, it is essential to use those resources when they are available.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend make every effort to make it clear to the people of Scotland that the Opposition's policies on nuclear power would result in higher electricity bills for consumers, making it more difficult for pensioners to heat their homes? Are there not double standards, through the Opposition exaggerating the dangers of nuclear power and imposing higher costs on the elderly to suit their own political ideology?

Not only are there double standards, but there appears to be a deep gulf between the representations that have been made today and the reported comments of the leader of the Labour party, who indicated an assumption that Torness would go ahead, and that it would be unwise or unreasonable to assume anything to the contrary. I suggest that Opposition Members and their Leader ought to get their act together.

Like the Minister, I accept that the first and overriding priority in this matter must be public safety. Does the Secretary of State recognise that there are fears about the implications of the expansion of nuclear power in Scotland? That point has been made by a number of his own Back Benchers during Question Time. Will he consider making available a document setting out the Government's best estimate of the impact on other forms of energy and on the industries that produce them, especially the impact on coal and the SSEB coal burn? Will he also consider whether he should at rather more length deploy the arguments which support the figure of an increase of 25 or 30 per cent. in electricity costs if we were to reduce our dependency on nuclear power, which some of us think is a surprisingly high figure? In such a paper, will he deal with the arguments that many people will take from the figures that he gave at the beginning of this exchange about capacity, the peak of demand last winter and the apparent sufficiency of the present levels of nuclear generating capacity in Scotland?

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that responsibility for energy policy rests with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy. The Government are willing that all the relevant information should be available to the general public so that people can come to their own considered judgment about a sensible policy to pursue. I note that the hon. Gentleman has not associated himself with the views of some of his more enthusiastic colleagues who are calling either for Torness not to be commissioned or for civil nuclear power not to be utilised. We wait with interest to hear the hon. Gentleman's views on these matters. So far he has been silent about them.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend tell the House something about the figures for the comparative prices of generating electricity by nuclear and by coal-fired methods and the amount of pollution that each method produces? Does he agree that there has been no significant change about whether or not Torness should have been built since the time when the Labour Government were in office and authorised it, except that the Government have changed and some Opposition Members are being opportunistic?

I think that there is a degree of opportunism here. However, I accept that, inevitably, many members of the public who do not choose to have access to scientific information may be uncertain as to whether there is some association between the events at Chernobyl and their relevance for the United Kingdom. I hope that hon. Members who take an interest in these matters will be objective rather than scare-mongering in their public comments and accept that the factors which led to the disaster in Chernobyl are not relevant to any nuclear power station in the United Kingdom.