Michael Heseltine – 1978 Speech on Windscale

Below is the text of the speech made by Michael Heseltine, the then Conservative MP for Henley, in the House of Commons on 15 May 1978.

You have asked, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that we be brief. I very much take the point made by the Secretary of State that we have already had a wide-ranging debate at which many hon. Members who are in their places today were present on 22nd March and that many of the issues were ventilated extremely widely and fully on that occasion.

I understand the case pleaded by the leader of the Liberal Party that we should have more time and take another look at many of the questions that he put forward. But the fact is that there is no decision which has to be taken to which that kind of approach cannot be adopted. One can always argue that there should be more delay. No matter how detailed the investigation, the inquiry or the report which precedes the point at which we are to take the decision, ​ there will always be those who are against the decision that they think we are about to take, who argue that we should have yet further delay or who call in aid some future event which we should await before reaching our decision.

I think that the House should approve the Windscale special development order. In doing so, we should remember what we are doing. We are not, as the leader of the Liberal Party suggested, taking an irrevocable decision to move into the plutonium age. We are taking a decision to give planning permission for certain consequences to flow.

The consequence that flows immediately is work on the storage ponds associated with the Windscale project, and there is no risk associated with the development of the storage ponds. It would only be if we moved into the full-scale work that follows from THORP that the kind of contingencies about which the House is rightly concerned would have to be anticipated. It is not conceivable that that kind of step would be taken for perhaps another four or five years at the earliest. Therefore, I believe that the House should ask questions about the way in which it is to be kept informed of the developments that will take place between the passage of the order tonight, if that is the will of the House, and the irreversible decision which the Leader of the Liberal Party assumed would be taken tonight, but which in practice will not be taken for four or five years.

I listened to what the Leader of the Liberal Party said about Concorde. I had certain experience of the problems connected with that project, together with many other former Ministers responsible for it. The fact of the matter is that practically no high technological decision which has to be taken by modern Governments would be taken today if we argued that some of the decisions taken in the past proved more expensive than people expected. The problem with the state of the art of high technology in which virtually all modern Governments are becoming deeply immersed, is that we cannot predict exactly what it will cost or how long it will take. The fact is that, for political or economic reasons, we decide that it is right that Governments should move forward in those areas. I and, I am sure, the Secretary of State would not want to put ​ a price tag on the Windscale development and claim that in 10 years we shall come back to this House and say that we got the figures 100 per cent. right.

Mr. John Mendelson

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Heseltine

No. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me. We are short of time. I am sure that he will want to make his own contribution.

I was told of the reason why the Americans got their space budget so accurate. It was because, when all the experts had made their calculations, the President multiplied them by 10, and he turned out to be pretty close to the mark.
We are deciding whether to grant planning permission, a consequence of which would be that certain work could take place. The work which is of concern to the House is connected with planning and design. In consequence, it should not be put in a position where it equates with it. As a consequence of the planning and design work, I believe that we keep open certain very large commercial options which are considered to be of importance to this country.

If we were to decide not to proceed, I believe that one consequence would be that the commercial options which are open to us at the moment would diminish. We might find that by the time we wish to reconsider the matter in two years, the countries which at the moment are prepared to enter into commercial relationships with us for reprocessing would have developed their own facilities or gone to other parts of the world to seek the contracts which are conceivably on offer to us.

We are deciding the degree of probability of developing certain reprocessing facilities. The Secretary of State rightly made the point that, whatever we do, none of us can be certain that the risks are totally eliminated. Indeed, the shattering statistic produced in the House not long ago was that in the coal mining industry some 53,000 people have died in this century. That indicates the scale of difficulties which beset anyone trying to forecast what is likely to happen.

The fact is that at this time—no one can be sure that it will be so in future—the nuclear industry has a good record of safety. It is obviously of prime concern ​ in the decision that we take tonight to remember that and to maintain the high standards that have brought it about.

In the debate in March the Secretary of State made the point that if, as the process and the investigation continue, he is not satisfied—I shall want to ask what information the House will get about his tack of satisfaction—he has every power to refuse to allow the procedures to go on. Therefore, it is vital for the House to remember that we are not saying that from this moment on this matter moves out of the control of the politicians. It does not. It remains totally within the power of the Secretary of State of the day. Indeed, on 22nd May—column 1542 of Hansard—the Secretary of State made it absolutely clear that he had all the powers that he needed to exercise the degree of control that everybody in the House would wish to see.

I have examined the Secretary of State’s reply to the Parker inquiry and I wish to ask about the number of organisations and public bodies that will be involved in the next few years. I have made a list. I do not claim that it is exhaustive but it is sufficiently long to raise a number of questions. Those organisations involved include British Nuclear Fuels, the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, the Health and Safety Executive, the local liaison committees, the Industrial Pollution Inspectorate in Scotland, the National Radiological Protection Board, the Fisheries Radiobiological Laboratory, the Radiochemical Inspectorate of the Department of the Environment and some independent person to check the security situation. There are also the Department of the Environment, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Scottish Office and the Department of Energy.

All those organisations have some specific role to play in the evolution of the Windscale project. What is the degree of co-ordination of all those organisations? For example, will there be—as I suggest that there should—either an annual statement to Parliament or perhaps a statement in two years’ time on the progress that is being made in all the spheres for which these organisations are responsible? If there were we should not have to wait for one report after another nor have to try to piece them all together. It should be the responsibility ​ of the Secretary of State to see that there is co-ordination of all the monitoring, checking and processing of information for which those bodies are responsible to the House.

With the best will in the world and without wishing to indulge in the scare-mongering techniques which are so easy—the Friends of the Earth could not conceivably be accused of that—it is necessary for the wide number of bodies to be drawn together so that a co-ordinated view of their findings can be put before us.

Can the Secretary of State explain which hurdles he thinks that this project will now have to jump before the final decisions are taken in four or five years’ time? The leader of the Liberal Party asked for a general review. This is not the time for that because we have reviewed the relevant issues thoroughly in what the Secretary of State rightly described as one of the most far-ranging public processes that any country has devised.

But there is a case for a review before a final decision is taken. It would be helpful if the Secretary of State explained exactly what that will be and the way in which Parliament will be involved in that process. I hope that during that review we shall hear about the quest for alternative sources of energy, which must be an important factor in the decisions that we have to take. But I take the view that we shall come to the conclusion that nuclear power has a significant role to play in our industrial future.

I praise the Secretary of State for his determined attempt to meet the conditions laid down by the Parker inquiry. In his written reply to the hon. Member for Derby, South (Mr. Johnson) he dealt with all the points raised. He has tried to find answers which indicate a great concern for the issues involved and do not lapse behind the phraseology of further reviews and more reports, which is an easy method of trying to escape from taking decisions.

The leader of the Liberal Party raised the question of security. The Parker inquiry recommended an independent person. It has also been suggested that there should be a Select Committee to deal with the House’s anxiety about security. ​ I thought about this in the earlier debate and again today. I see no way in which this House can become involved directly in the security provisions at Windscale. I do not believe that it will be possible to divorce the security of the nation from the considerations and techniques that will apply at Windscale. I am convinced that one cannot meaningfully have a process whereby a Select Committee—however well-meaning its members—probes and checks security. Argument on the Floor of the House is not necessary to make the majority of hon. Members understand the vulnerability of a technique of that kind.

The leader of the Liberal Party is naive to believe that one can expose the nation’s security to semi-public inquiry. Ministers of the Crown do not all have access to the security provisions of the nation. Only a small number of members of the Government have that in any Government. It would be wrong to extend it to the 80 members of the Government and impracticable to extend it to a Select Committee. I understand the need for independent scrutiny but in practice it would be difficult to go as far as has been suggested.

The Secretary of State in his announcement dealt with the question of the independent commitment of environmentally minded people to the surveillance of radiation standards. It is not always possible to pick up the full details of an announcement, but I understand that the Secretary of State is to appoint to the advisory body representatives from all the main energy institutions and that there will be a majority of non-experts from outside. That is a satisfactory outcome and I am glad that the Secretary of State has made that decision.

Any reasonable forecasts of energy requirements must assume a nuclear capability for this country. If we are to take a decision to move along that road, decisions will have to be made about the disposal of waste material, even if we pursue a nuclear commitment only for our own energy requirements. The moment that we take a decision of that sort, which was taken many years ago, we are faced with the choice of either storing or reprocessing waste. I accept the view of the Parker inquiry and of the Secretary of State that it is unlikely that one can conceive for all time that we ​ should want to go for storage. Reprocessing seems to be a safer and more efficient method of coping with the problems. It is right to move towards that decision as quickly as safety conditions allow.

I ask the Secretary of State to consider my argument seriously. We should recognise that we are not taking an irreversible decision tonight. The Secretary of State should come forward with an argument that will satisfy the House and those who have legitimate doubts that there will be a final moment at which the House has another opportunity to look at the whole matter. He should take into account not only the promises and the optimism upon which British Nuclear Fuels’ submission is made but the facts and what has happened in the three or four years that separate us from that irreversible decision.