Hansard Report on use of CUK Civil reactors for production of weapons grade Plutonium

HC Deb 11 July 1958 vol 591 cc779-94

§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Hughes-Young.]

§ 1.43 p.m.

§ Mr. Arthur Palmer (Cleveland)

This afternoon, having rather more time than I would have had in the normal way, I am raising this matter of the use of the nuclear power stations which are to be constructed under the civil programme by the Central Electricity Generating Board for the production of military plutonium in several cases.

I want to make it perfectly clear that I dislike this decision, but at the same time I am not raising the issue today, as I hope the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Power will understand, in any unduly controversial spirit. I am anxious mainly to obtain information, and I think there may be others of my hon. Friends, unfortunately absent at the moment, who will be interested, as I am, in the answer that is obtained.

I do not think it can be doubted that this decision to use the civil nuclear power stations in this way is a serious departure from the original intention. I have here in my possession the White Paper of 1955 entitled "A Programme of Nuclear Power", Cmd. 9389, which announced the important decision to launch this civil nuclear power programme. The Government stated in the first paragraph of that White Paper: The military programme continues to be of great importance but the peaceful applications of nuclear energy now demand attention. Nuclear energy is the energy of the future. Although we are still only at the edge of knowledge of its peaceful uses, we know enough to assess some of its possibilities. The words that I want to emphasise are The military programme continues to be of great importance … The trend of the argument here was that a distinction was to be drawn between a military programme and a civil programme, a civil programme being something quite different.

The first intention undoubtedly was to construct these nuclear power stations of the future on a civil, commercial and competitive basis, and that they were to 780 compete with power stations making electricity but fired by coal. Also—and I shall return to this point in a moment—it was argued that a constructional programme of this kind would be of great value to our home energy needs and at the same time be of equal value in training our manufacturers to compete in export markets in the sale of nuclear power stations to other countries.

For that reason, the original White Paper of 1955 used certain arguments about operating costs and, since this is important, I will quote, for the refreshment of the memory of the Parliamentary Secretary, what was said on page 5 of the 1955 White Paper. Paragraph 20 states: These estimates assume that all the Plutonium is used for civil purposes, as would be most desirable. No allowance has been made for any military credits. That is the basis on which this programme was launched.

The 1955 White Paper therefore discussed the provisional nuclear programme, estimated cost of electricity likely to be turned out and other assumptions justifying the vast capital expenditure involved. The extent of the first programme as given in 1955 was to consist of the construction of, I believe, twelve nuclear power stations over a period of ten years, and the total capacity of those stations in the first programme was to be between 1,500 and 2,000 megawatts.

In March, 1957, we were all delighted when the representative of the Ministry of Power told us in this House, as did his noble Friend in another place, that the programme was to be greatly enlarged. Many had thought that it might be twice the size, but in fact the enlargement turned out to be three times the original size. The revised programme, therefore—and I believe it is still intended to carry it through—is to the extent of 6,000 megawatts.

From my memory, and from what I have been able to read, there was no suggestion at all then that this programme was to be used for other than civil purposes or other than on a strictly commercial competitive basis. I know that the situation has changed a lot since 1957, but there is, if anything, a surplus of small coal in this country which can be burned successfully in conventional-type power stations, and the capital cost of 781 conventional power stations tends to come down relatively to general costs. Therefore, if the nuclear programme is to continue to be justified, surely it must be on a commercial and a genuinely economic basis. Certainly, in 1957, as in 1955, there was no suggestion that the reactors connected with those proposed civil nuclear power stations were to be used for the production of military plutonium.

Hence to those of us who are interested in this subject it came somewhat as a surprise and a shock when last month the Ministry of Defence—I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will remember that it was the Ministry of Defence and not his own Ministry which made this announcement—announced the decision to which I am referring and to which in principle I object.

I have here the report in The Times of the statement: Ministry of Defence issued the following statement last night: 'In order to provide insurance against future defence needs, certain of the civil nuclear power reactors now in the early construction or design stage are being modified so that the plutonium produced as a by-product is suitable for use, if the need arises, for military purposes'. I will not read the rest of it. Considering everything, it is not entirely respectable that the Ministry of Defence should have made that announcement. I do not wish to weary the House in trying to convince the Parliamentary Secretary, but when we find that the Ministry of Defence interests itself not only in the use of these reactors for military purposes but makes comment about the operating costs of power stations, it is rather curious. Why did they give the news at all? Perhaps the hon. Gentleman's noble Friend was asleep on that occasion. One could understand that, in pre-1914 Prussia, the Ministry of Defence there might make announcements on civil matters, but it is a curious thing to happen in the democratic and constitutional Britain of today. However, I will let that pass.

The justification of the decision, as I understand it, is that, in short, this way of obtaining military plutonium is the cheapest and most convenient. In order to avoid putting down special reactors for the purpose at enormous capital cost, it is useful to take hold of the civil 782 reactors which are coming along, adapting them a little and using them instead.

If this be so, it would appear—it is a pity that no one from the Ministry of Defence is present—that the country's need for military plutonium has increased enormously in the last two years. I base that view on common sense and, if I am wrong in what I say, no doubt the hon. Gentleman will correct me. In 1956, we had just the two reactors at Windscale for the production of military plutonium, and they had been in use virtually since the last war. There was the operating disaster at Windscale, and it was stated that, as a result, the use of one of the piles was lost to us. I believe that it is pretty well a total loss and is not likely to be used again, so that one of them certainly has gone out of action.

However, in addition to the Windscale installation, there are now the Calder Hall reactors under the Atomic Energy Authority, both designed for the production of military plutonium, Calder Hall A and Calder Hall B, which is very nearly in commission if it is not already. There is the Chapel Cross plant, again an Atomic Energy Authority plant, which will be coming along very soon. It seems, therefore, that at quite an early date the country will have at least eight reactors suitable for the production of military plutonium, under the Atomic Energy Authority, whereas there were only two two years ago.

Unless, as I say, defence needs have multiplied enormously, I am at a loss to understand why we must now bring into service the reactors of the Central Electricity Generating Board yet to be constructed. If the statement made by the Ministry of Defence, which has since been reinforced by the hon. Gentleman and his right hon. Friend the Paymaster-General in the House is correct, then the Hunterston nuclear power station yet to be constructed and the Hinkley Point nuclear power station are to be modified for the production of military plutonium. In addition, two other stations further down the line of the construction programme are also to be made suitable for the purpose.

On this basis, we can take it that the potential defence needs of the country for plutonium have increased to a quite fantastic extent. How is all this 783 plutonium, as it comes from the reactors, to be processed? As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is not complete in itself and has to pass through very elaborate processing. >From what knowledge I have on the subject, processing can be done at Capenhurst and Windscale, but, beyond that, is it proposed to put down further processing plant? It seems difficult to understand how all this plutonium could be handled if all these piles, both present and future, are to be modified for military purposes. It may be that the hon. Gentleman will say that it is outside the province of his Department. It may be that the United States will help us in processing, but the question I put is an obvious one which any intelligent layman following these matters is bound to ask.

I am inclined to think that this is another case of the old story; of the Ministry of Defence becoming rather scared about military plutonium resources and following the good Service practice of grabbing all it can "just in case".

There are several serious objections to this course of action. First of all, there is the principle itself. It was the proud boast of this country until recently that we were the first, indeed the only, country in the world to develop nuclear power, with all its potentialities for good or ill, for peaceful applications. In the world of ideas, that was something much to our credit which probably stood us morally in very good stead. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not brush that objection aside too lightly. We live in a world dominated very much by material considerations, as we know very often to our cost, yet I should have thought that ideas and mental attitudes counted for as much in the world today as ever they did in the past. I count it as a blow to our prestige as a trading, commercial, industrial and scientific nation that we should have had to take this step. There must be very serious arguments in its favour as yet unknown to us to justify the change being made. But if we move away from the argument of principle, that it is not a good thing, as a matter of prestige, to mix civil and military nuclear requirements, let us look at another serious objection.

I have tried to put this point in some Questions I have addressed to the hon. 784 Gentleman. I believe it will cause much confusion in the matter of operating costs of the future nuclear power stations but first a word on the capital cost. It has been stated that the capital cost to the Central Electricity Generating Board of making the modification is relatively small, and that not only is it small but the cost in the end will be met from Government funds and will not have to be met from the commercial trading funds of the electricity industry. I must accept that statement.

I noted that the hon. Gentleman said in the House, in answer to a Question put down by one of my hon. Friends, that the additional operating cost would be very small. I do not know on what he bases that opinion, because I am given to understand from discussions with technical and engineering friends that the additional operating cost of working power stations, with this modification made, will be between £12 million and £15 million a year per station. If that is not the case, perhaps the hon. Gentleman will say so, but it does not seem to merit his view that the additional operating cost will be small.

I hope the hon. Gentleman will not misunderstand me if I say that before he was on the Front Bench he was an economist in the darkest sense, and in those days he would not have described £12 million or £15 million a year as a very small addition. It may be that change of position makes a difference to Parliamentary ideas of size in matters of finance, but it would be interesting to have confirmation that the additional operating cost will be indeed very small, since I understand that it will be of the order I have mentioned.There is another serious objection. It will now be difficult to obtain the true operating costs of the future nuclear power stations. I will not weary myself and others with the uranium changes that come about in nuclear energy processes—the business of the U.235, U.238 the U.240 and the rest. To put it simply, if a reactor is to be used for the production of military plutonium, it must be of a relatively high grade, and it really means that the uranium fuel elements must be taken from the reactor at a much earlier stage than they would have been taken had the station been used purely 785 for the production of heat and electricity. In short, the fuel elements in the piles will have to be changed far more often.

Therefore, it will not be too easy to say to any potential buyer of a British nuclear power plant, when he looks at an installation in this country, "This is the true operating cost". He will immediately ask, "What is the assumption? For how long will the rods remain in? You have taken them out too soon because of your defence programme and, therefore, the figures you are giving are not correct. You cannot say they are correct. Indeed, you are no longer in a position to obtain the true figures."

That fact may have an unfortunate effect on our export trade possibilities. I am not alone in that assumption, because I have here the Electrical Review, which is an independent trade paper, having no bias in politics either for or against Her Majesty's present advisers. Its leading article on 27th June reads: But it must still he the case that stations employed for the dual purpose of power and plutonium producion are likely to have lower overall efficiencies and it will be very difficult to assess how much of the reduction is attributable to their secondary function. This may prove a serious handicap when it comes to quoting for stations overseas, although of course, the Bradwell and Berkeley plants will be able to provide 'pure' power statistics. It is kind of the Electrical Review to make that qualification, namely that the Brad-well and Berkeley plants will be able to give us some correct figures.Speaking from memory, I think the hon. Gentleman himself used that argument in answer to a question I put to him on an earlier occasion. The truth is that the stations which will now be left to us for getting at the true operating costs are the stations that very soon will be the first to be out of date, because under this proposal the most modern, up-to-date experience in the operation of nuclear power stations will be lost, perhaps for ever.

I could instance Hinkley Point station, which is included in the military plutonium programme now and is one of the stations affected. That will be a model plant, far more modern that either Brad-well or Berkeley. It will also he a much larger station, of the enormous size of 500,000 kilowatts, which is as large as any of the conventional power plants we see on the river in London. Certainly it 786 is a plant which is likely to be capable of giving us electricity at less than .5d., if it is free to operate as a power station and not as a military explosives plant. If, however, it is to be used for the production of military plutonium, it is doubtful if anyone could say honestly that we are able to produce electricity from a nuclear plant at less than .5d. Therefore, the argument that we shall have left to us some of the nuclear power stations unaffected by this change really means that we shall have left to us not the latest and most modern plants, not those which will be in real competition with foreign manufacturers, but just the out of date plants.

In addition to losing the valuable data we might possess on operating costs, we shall in addition lose a great deal of valuable technical experience for our engineers and scientists. We know that with the development of nuclear power and nuclear energy a great deal of research has been done which reflects great credit on the scientists of our country. Some of it was done during the last war, a great deal since. It is a continuing process. If it had not been for this early research we would not be in the advanced stage we are now. In addition to research there has been a great deal of engineering development. However, what is still wanted is practical operating experience.

As yet that is an unknown factor. We want some years of experience in the operation of nuclear power plants under conditions of commercial loading—day and night operation. It is the only way in which engineers can check the behaviour of components and remedy the weaknesses which will inevitably arise, and it is the only way in which they can check the potential life of the fuel element.

Unless there is a true test under commercial conditions and not conditions exaggerated by military needs where the elements are not run for a period which corresponds to their maximum possible life, the results will be artificial and misleading. It will be a great loss to the engineers engaged in the nuclear power stations if the reactors are to be prematurely shut down from time to time according not to technical needs but to a schedule of military production.

787 I think these are serious considerations which it was necessary to put before the House, but I am not in any sense against the defence programme as such. A defence programme must be one which is realistic and corresponds to military possibilities and requirements. At the same time, it is surely necessary that we should keep a sense of balance and perspective. Defence is intended to safeguard our existence as a nation, including as a trading and commercial nation. I should have thought that in times of peace defence must always be subordinated to our normal national life. If, instead, defence becomes the master, do we not in the long run risk the danger of finding ourselves left with very little normal life to protect?

I have outlined the objection in principle, and I have outlined some of the practical difficulties which are now bound to arise particularly in respect of nuclear station operating costs and engineering experience. I believe the decision is probably a mistaken one and likely to make our nuclear power stations, as potential exports, far less competitive than they would have been. Already we have failed to secure certain contracts for the construction of nuclear power stations in Western Europe. These have gone to the Americans instead, and if we persist in the kind of thing we shall find ourselves losing other valuable contracts.

The policy is shortsighted. I cannot believe that we really need all this military plutonium, but that it is the result of scare on the part of our military advisers. I should be very grateful if the hon. Gentleman will answer the points which I have made.

§ 2.15 p.m.

§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Power (Sir Ian Horobin)

The hon. Member for Cleveland (Mr. Palmer) has been making very heavy weather. As a result, I am afraid that some of his comments may easily be unfortunate from the national point of view. It has already been made plain, but I feel that I must start by reminding him, that all we are concerned with here is an insurance. It is not to be taken that any of the slugs in any of the reactors which are to be modified or which do not require modification, like Hunterston, 788 will stay in the piles for a length of time different from that under the original programme.

Nevertheless, with a vast programme of reactors such as this country has in hand—ahead of the rest of the world—I should have thought it was evident that if it be possible at this early stage at very small cost to provide ourselves with a possiblity of very greatly increased supplies of a vital factor in modern defence, the Government would rightly have been subject to criticism, criticism when it might have been too late, if they had not considered the situation. Already two of the piles, at Berkeley and Brad-well, cannot be modified, and it just happens—it arises out of decisions taken irrelevantly to all this—that one of the other stations will not require modification. Hinkley Point will, and it is anticipated that two further ones will. If at a very small premium, as it were, we can put ourselves in possession of a very valuable insurance, it seems to the Government that it would be wise so to do.

The hon. Member will appreciate that as this touches defence matters there are a number of points which it would not be in the public interest to discuss, and in any case they are irrelevant to his main point that we are prejudicing the civil stations. Therefore, all the questions of how and where and the cost of processing slugs and so on are not relevant. In any case, I could not go into them very far.

I ought to say a few words to get into perspective what is actually happening. There is a good deal of misunderstanding. People talk about high-grade plutonium and so on. It may be worth while to say a word or two about the scientific background. All the slugs which go into a pile will be exactly the same as they would have been in any case.

While uranium 238 is subject to large neutron flux, some of it, as the hon. Member knows, is transformed into plutonium, but plutonium, like uranium has several isotopes. Plutonium has four isotopes, but we are concerned with only two. The first of those, plutonium 239, is a fissile isotope and is valuable for weapons. After a time, an increasing proportion of this is turned into another 789 higher isotope, plutonium 240 which is not fissile. That has other uses. It is expected to be of value in different types of more advanced reactors, but it is not suitable for weapons.

Therefore, the whole point at issue here is simply, if we are to make it possible in cases where it is felt to be desirable to use the plutonium out of the civil reactors, whether it is worth while making arrangements to be able to handle a greater number of slugs and take them out more quickly. From the point of view of the civil programme, only two financial elements are concerned, and, in the broad sense, there are no technical issues. The reactor starts off in exactly the same way and goes through exactly the same set of operations. To put it crudely, it is only that the changes take place rather more frequently.

The first of the two financial elements, without going into details, is that the machinery to handle these things more frequently must be provided and that involves a capital cost. However, that is proportionately small, less than 1 per cent. of the cost of the station. On the whole, that will be met straight away and will not be a charge on the civil programme.

Then there will be certain small costs, because of the mere fact of handling the slugs more frequently—although they will not be substantial—and there will be certain other changes in the operating costs. I cannot be taken to accept or deny the figures the hon. Member mentioned, but he may have slightly misunderstood the situation. There is no substantial change in the pile itself and the operating expenses are, therefore, simply the difference between the initial cost of the slugs and the price at which the Atomic Energy Authority buys them back from the Central Electricity Generating Board.

It is therefore plain that the whole of the capital costs will be met, so that that factor does not arise, but the price at which the Atomic Energy Authority buys back the irradiated slugs from the Board will be so adjusted as to ensure that there is no additional operating cost to the Authority.

Supposing that this matter of military plutonium had never arisen; the slugs would still have to be sold and bought back and those costs are therefore a matter of agreement. All that will be 790 done is to adjust the price at which they are bought back from the Board, and, so far as is humanly possible, to equate exactly any increase in operating costs to the Board. It is the clear intention that neither on capital account nor on revenue account will there be any change in the financial position of the Board.

§ Mr. Palmer

I knew already that the Government would meet the costs which the Generating Board would incur, both capital and operating costs. I hope the hon. Gentleman will not ride away from this too easily, but the point is that the rods will now have to be left in for a much shorter time instead of in order that the engineers who operate the station can get the maximum use from them. That makes a great deal of difference to the actual operating costs of the station.

Secondly, the figures I have given are not figures which I have simply dreamed up. They are the figures of engineering experts, and there are many engineering experts outside the Ministry of Power.

§ Sir I. Horobin

I do not intend to enter a slanging match with the hon. Gentleman on whether my information is right or wrong. He must assume that I am giving him the best information I have, and accept it as such. I repeat that it is the firm intention of Her Majesty's Government, the Atomic Energy Authority and the Central Electricity Generating Board, in fixing the prices at which the rods will be bought back, to take account of any additional operating costs so as to neutralise them.

There remains only one objection which the hon. Member has raised. Even supposing, for the sake of argument, that the operating costs of the Generating Board are not affected. The hon. Member says that the fact that the piles are being operated in a different way will affect, and may seriously affect, the knowledge obtained from them. That is a very important matter with which I will deal.

A vital part of the economic calculations of the competitive position of a nuclear station depends upon the number of megawatt-days per ton of uranium obtained from a slug. To put the hon. Member's objection in a specific form, he said that if the newer stations were not used to find out whether the 791 figures were correct, the knowledge obtained might be endangered.

§ Mr. Palmer

The information would also help us with exports.

§ Sir I. Horobin

Apart from exports, we want to know those figures. Indeed, the hon. Member referred to competition with conventional stations now that we have a surplus of small coal. Calculations of the competitive efficiency of a nuclear station are concerned not with the plutonium factor—which, for reasons with which I need not deal, has already fallen to such a low figure that, although important, it is of much less importance than it was a few years ago—but with the correctness or otherwise of the megawatt-days per ton of uranium.

It may be asked how the calculations can be checked if the rods are pulled out long before that figure is known. That is important. The answer to that is twofold. The first I have already given, and it is that it just happens that two of these stations cannot be modified, so that Berkeley and Bradwell will have their slugs running to the full length.

The hon. Member has admitted that, but has pointed out that those stations are already beginning to become out of date, such is the speed of advance in these matters. He said that it was a pity that the work could not be done at Hinkley Point, but he has omitted to observe that—apart from the fact that the whole of this is an insurance and not what will happen—there is nothing to prevent even a station like Hinkley Point being turned almost completely into a plutonium factory and some of the slugs being kept in for as long as one likes.

As the hon. Member probably knows, an immense amount of work is being done. We cannot wait for what is happening at Hinkley Point, which is not yet in operation, with work on high irradiation. I do not think there is anything in that. But taking the Generating Board's stations themselves, as far as knowledge goes there is nothing to prevent certain of the elements being left in in order to see whether they can be burnt to the length that we desire.

I want to make one point about the export trade. In any attempt to obtain a contract abroad it is of the essence 792 that all these elements have to be sent back here for processing. Therefore, in any such contract, when the purchaser is considering whether it would be economical or not, he is asking, in effect—indeed this is now done quite regularly in Italian and Japanese cases—"At what price will you deliver the slug, and at what price will you buy it back?" That price must be quoted to him in any case, and it is really of no economic interest to him why it is taken back after any particular period, if he is prepared to let it come back after that period. All he is concerned with is the question of the price at which we will sell it and the price at which we will buy it back.

In the present state of knowledge, so far from it being an advantage, to leave slugs for a great length of time—and this is reaching out into the realms of scientific knowledge where none of us pretends to have the final answers—there are grave possibilities of difficulty with a higher length of irradiation. I should have thought that purchasers abroad would think it an advantage to get rid of their slugs at a short rate of irradiation rather than the other way round. The economic question is simply at what price the slugs will be sold and at what price they will be bought back. That price must be settled as a part of the contract. Therefore, whether foreign countries decide to buy power stations from this country rather than from America, or decide to have ordinary coal-burning stations, these calculations must be made.

The hon. Member is making rather heavy weather of this. Whether or not it is improper for a great industry to be put into a position where it can help the defence effort, I do not know. Many chemical and other materials are of vast military interest. I do not follow the hon. Member's argument on that point. But if we felt that this would be a serious hindrance to the development of the civil nuclear programme the hon. Member can take it that the Ministry of Power would be very much concerned. I can assure him that this fairly cheap insurance should not have any serious repercussions upon the nuclear programme.

§ Mr. Palmer

The hon. Member said that he cannot follow my argument, and he makes a comparison with the supply of explosive chemicals by the chemical 793 industry. There is a vast difference. The chemical industry makes manufactured chemical products but the Central Electricity Generating Board is a public utility, whose primary purpose is to make electricity.

§ Sir I. Horobin

I am sorry, but that is just not so. We cannot produce these reactors without making plutonium. That is one of the facts of life; indeed, it is one of the problems which led to the construction of Dounreay. The problem was what should be done with the plutonium if we did not get rid of it in a nuclear war. We cannot make a reactor of the Calder Hall type without making plutonium, and that plutonium must be handed over to the A.E.A. All we are discussing is the question whether, under those circumstances, it might not be a wise thing to ensure that instead of having an enormously expensive way of obtaining extra plutonium 239 we do not stop making some plutonium 240. It is as simple as that.

I honestly think that the hon. Member is making rather heavy weather of it, but I hope that because of his suspicion of the Defence Departments he will not 794 carry out a campaign which might seriously hinder the development of this most promising and vital British civil nuclear programme. I assure him that the changes involved are marginal; the economics are of no importance to the Board, and they should have no effect at all upon our chances of exporting stations. The costs on the defence side—and they will be considerable—are no concern of the Atomic Energy Authority.

They would necessarily have been incurred anyway, and they would have otherwise been very much higher. Assuming that our defence programme is right—and that is not my business—this is the cheapest way of providing this insurance, and I should be most sorry if any suggestion got abroad that we are making fundamental changes in these reactors which would make them hybrids, and no longer a perfectly genuine and economic way of producing electricity in the new age. Any suggestion of that sort would be most unfortunate.

§ Question put and agreed to.

§ Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes to Three o'clock.