David Steel – 1978 Speech on Windscale

Below is the text of the speech made by David Steel, the then Liberal MP for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles, on 15 May 1978.

I beg to move,

That the Town and Country Planning (Windscale and Calder Works) Special Development Order 1978 (S.I., 1978, No. 523), dated 3rd April 1978 a copy of which was laid before this House on 3rd April, be withdrawn.
I intend to be mindful of your statement, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

This motion is in an updated form. The Prayer was signed by more than 50 hon. Members on both sides of the House earlier this year, and there is no doubt that some hon. Members who wish to take part in the debate will have more fundamentalist objections than I have to proceeding with the reprocessing plant at Windscale. Therefore, in my brief opening speech I do not propose to deal with either the financial or the technical arguments, which no doubt other hon. Members will wish to deploy and some of which were aired in the debate in March, although I have read the recent reports from the United States which cast doubt on the wisdom of proceeding on both the financial and the technical grounds.

In my view, the arguments on both sides are finely balanced and contain many uncertainties. It is because of that that I believe the burden of proof ought to lie quite firmly on the side of those who are pressing this order and who argue that we should now be taking this firm step into the plutonium economy.

In fact, I disagree entirely with the conclusion, although I agreed with many of the arguments, of this morning’s leader in The Times which, rather surprisingly, concluded:

“The overwhelming importance of keeping the widest range of options open in the coming world shortage of power resources amply justifies going ahead at this stage. The relative novelty of the technology is itself a reason for pressing on, since success or failure will to a great extent define those options in future. But the project is a venture into political and technological waters that are very incompletely charted, and it is important that it should be kept under genuine and fundamental review as it develops, and that today’s vote should not be seen as setting it on an inflexible and irrevocable course.”

My first argument is that, unhappily, in this Parliament we know that these matters too easily get set on an inflexible and irrevocable course. Perhaps I may take the mind of the House back to the discussions that we had on the Concorde project. I question seriously whether, if we knew in 1962 what we know today about the costs and the effects of the Concorde project, the House would ever have given approval for it. I have looked out the figures. In November 1962, the House was told that the project would cost us £150 million to £170 million. The latest figure, given earlier this month, was £1,137 million, not to mention the annual operating cost losses to British Airways of £8·5 million, none of which takes account of the small number of orders for the aircraft or the write-off of the capital costs.

I say that merely in passing because, if one is to take The Times argument that we should not regard this vote as irrevocable—

Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland) rose—

Mr. Steel

I hope that I shall not be pressed to give way, because I know that a great many right hon. and hon. Members are waiting to speak.

Mr. Jopling

Will the right hon. Member give way on that point?

Mr. Steel

Other right hon. and hon. Members can counter my argument in the debate. I promised to curtail my remarks as much as possible. We have only three hours. The hon. Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling) knows that usually I give way in debate, but this is ​ a debate of a rather special nature and I must proceed with my speech. If any hon. Member wishes to challenge my figures, he may do so later in the debate. However, I obtained the figures from the Library.

Mr. Jopling

They are wrong.

Mr. Steel

The first reason why I oppose this order is precisely that I think that it is not possible, once we are past this stage, easily for Parliament or future Governments to review it and draw back.

My second reason is that I think that public opinion is increasingly concerned about the way in which we push forward technology at the dictates of the expert without adequate thought of safeguards given by the layman. On occasion, that concern turns into outrage when matters go wrong. I give three examples. There was the accident at the Seveso plant in Italy. Afterwards, a great many articles were written about it in which people said how tragic it was and what precautions might have been taken there.

Then there was the crash landing of the Russian space satellite in Canada, which happened in an unpopulated part of Canada but which nevertheless caused concern about the release of radioactivity. Then, coming nearer home, we had the wreck of the “Amoco Cadiz”. Leaving aside the effects on tourism, which are temporary and ephemeral, the destruction of a total environment in part of the world surely gives rise to considerable public concern. Increasingly, people are asking what it is that we are doing to a world of which we are simply temporary trustees. I believe that the magnitude of the decision that we are asked to take today is greater than any of the examples that I have given.

It must be said that the record of safety of our nuclear industry is excellent. In the course of my visit to the prototype fast-breeder reactor at Dounreay and when I was at Windscale, I was immensely impressed by the record of the nuclear industry, and it is right to resent implications that it is less safe and less scrupulous than other dangerous industries.

Having said that, however, we are lucky in that we have never had a major incident in our nuclear industry. No one ​ can guarantee, no Government can, and no hon. Member can, that there might not be some incident in the future. The fact that 10,000 people were prepared to go to Trafalgar Square peacefully on a Sunday—[Interruption.]—and 3,000 to Torness on the South-East coast of Scotland—[Interruption.]—is an indication of growing public concern. I know that the groans coming from some of the Benches indicate precisely what alarms me, which is that these people are written off as cranks or political misfits. That is a wrong attitude to what is a genuine growth of public concern about these issues. A Parliament which is arrogant and sweeps these people aside is adopting entirely the wrong attitude.

That is my second reason for suggesting we should think again about going ahead with this project.

My third reason for opposing this order is that we still—and the evidence is in the Parker Report—require further investigation into the safety and security of nuclear materials both on site and in transit and of waste storage and that the information that we have so far on all these is inadequate.

It was accepted by the Secretary of State for the Environment in his speech during our debate in March—and it was accepted by Mr. Justice Parker in his report—that there is no case for domestic reasons related to a future fast-breeder reactor programme for pressing ahead now with the Windscale reprocessing plant. Indeed, in its evidence to the inquiry, BNFL said that it could withstand a further delay of up to five years without its affecting the CFR programme.
So we should not be pushed by arguments of urgency into agreeing to this order tonight. On the safety and security questions we should pause and consider what was said by the Flowers Commission. It said:

“The unquantifiable effects of the security measures that might become necessary in a plutonium economy should be a major consideration in decisions on substantial nuclear development. Security issues require wide public debate.”

In the debate in March there were many criticisms of the perfunctory manner in which the security question was dealt with by the Windscale inquiry and the Parker Report.

In the Written Answer which the Secretary of State for the Environment gave earlier this month in the Government’s official reaction to Mr. Justice Parker’s recommendations, the right hon. Gentleman said:

“The Government accept the principle that security measures at Windscale should be checked by an independent person not involved in their design or operation, and will examine how best to put the recommendation into effect (No. 1). There are, however, wider security implications which need further consideration before detailed arrangements can be worked out.”—[Official Report, 8th May 1978; Vol. 949, col. 337.]

Bearing in mind the perfunctory way in which security matters have been dealt with, and considering the statement that there is still quite a lot to be worked out, there is a case for examining the matter further. I suggest, whether we proceed with the order or not, that the Government should consider the appointment of a Select Committee to consider these matters, because I accept that we are limited in the degree of public debate that we can have on them.

If I may cite a precedent, the Select Committee on Services, of which I was a member a few years ago, which deals with security in the Palace of Westminster, is a model of how a delicate matter can be dealt with by private Committee. I believe that we would all be willing to trust our colleagues to look more deeply into these questions.

It is not simply a question of holding material on site. There is also the question of the transporting of nuclear material to and from Windscale. The Parker Report recommended that the majority of the transport should continue to be by rail. No doubt that will be the case. However, there was a report earlier this year that some material was being ferried by air from Windscale to Dounreay. I do not know whether the Secretary of State can confirm that. This gives rise to some anxiety.

When I visited Dounreay I was struck by the fact that if we are to have a commercial fast-breeder reactor in the future, and if it is to be at Dounreay, which appears to be the most favourable site, there is a case for examining again the Windscale project and for arguing that purely for domestic reasons the reprocessing ​ should be carried out where the material is to be used. This casts doubt on whether Windscale is the right place if, in the future, for domestic reasons, we want to have a commercial fast-breeder reactor programme.

I suggest that we should have a Select Committee, whether or not we proceed with the order, to consider all the questions of security.

There is still doubt about the method and location of storage. The Flowers Report says:

“We are confident that an acceptable solution will be found and we attach great importance to the search; for we are agreed that it would be irresponsible and morally wrong to commit future generations to the consequences of fission power on a massive scale unless it has been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that at least one method exists for the safe isolation of these wastes for the indefinite future.”

I notice the very careful words used by the Secretary of State in March when he was interrupted by the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Blenkinsop). The Secretary of State replied on this point by saying:

“The vitrification process has been subject to a great deal of research and pilot demonstration. I believe, again, that the evidence is clear that it offers a promising solution to the problem.”—[Official Report, 22nd March 1978; Vol. 946, c. 1544.]

That does not strike me as being beyond reasonable doubt. We have yet to reach the stage at which we have on the necessary scale proved vitrification as a satisfactory process.

There is also the question of the location of storage. Here I am slightly critical of the Atomic Energy Authority. It has been seeking planning permission and in some cases engaging in the boring of test holes in places such as Cornwall, the Scottish borders, Northumberland, the Highlands and the Orkneys. It appears to have made a tour of Liberal constituencies for that purpose, omitting for some reason Rochdale—a much more likely candidate.

I believe that the authority has run slightly ahead of both Government decisions and public opinion and has needlessly stirred up much resentment and concern about the location of future storage, particularly when the method of storage has not yet been proved. I hope that this process will not be continued. ​ The public require much greater reassurance about the safe handling of all these materials, both active and waste, before we press ahead with the project.

My fourth and last reason for opposing the order is that if we go ahead with it we shall be giving an international lead in the wrong direction. Even the Parker Report, which came out in favour of the project, said in paragraph 6.2:

“A nuclear bomb can be constructed with the grade of plutonium recovered by reprocessing. A country, which had in its hands such plutonium, could produce a bomb or bombs more rapidly, and with less risk of its actions being detected in time for international diplomatic pressure to be exerted, than if it had no such plutonium.”

Paragraph 6.6 says:

“At present the system for preventing the spread of nuclear weapons is founded on a number of agreements … and … the system of safeguards which they contain or for which they provide is essentially one of reporting and inspection. This system was acknowledged by everyone to be in need of strengthening and improvement.”

The reason why we ought not to proceed with the order now is because of the international evaluation programme being conducted on the initiative of the United States. It is interesting to note that this is a bi-partisan policy in the United States which runs directly counter to what appears to be a bipartisan approach in Britain. President Ford initiated the programme in October 1976, when he said

“The United States should no longer regard reprocessing of used nuclear fuel to produce plutonium as a necessary and inevitable step in the nuclear fuel cycle.”

He went on to say that

“the avoidance of proliferation must take precedence over economic interests.”

My hon. Friend the Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon), when speaking in the debate in March, quoted Mr. Justice Parker’s version of President Carter’s updating of that initiative of April 1977 when he talked about the

“indefinite deferment of commercial reprocessing and recycling of plutonium.”—[Official Report, 22nd March 1978; Vol. 946, c. 1598.]

President Carter said

“Increasing United States capacity to provide adequate and timely supplies of nuclear fuels to countries that needed them ‘so that they will not be required or encouraged to reprocess their own materials’.”

He then announced that what he was wanting was ​

“an embargo on the export of equipment or technology that could permit uranium enrichment or chemical reprocessing.”

He said that he was pursuing discussions on

“a wide range of international approaches and frameworks that would permit all countries to achieve their own energy needs, while at the same time reducing the spread of the capabilities of nuclear explosive development.”

When the Government refer to the INFCE they do so in strange terms. The Secretary of State for the Environment in March told the House:

“We hope, however—and we shall work for it—that INFCE will recommend better safeguards with perhaps greater international participation, for sensitive nuclear plants and movements of nuclear materials.”—[Official Report, 22nd March 1978; Vol. 946, c. 155.]

The Foreign Secretary said that after INFCE he hoped to convert the Carter Administration

“to our view of reprocessing on non-proliferation grounds.”

In that speech he argued what I thought was a completely false piece of logic when he said:

“If we need to reprocess fuel irradiated in the United Kingdom on grounds of better use of our energy resources and better waste management, and there is a case to be made for that, it is only right that we should offer the use of the plant to other governments who share our view that reprocessing is a necessary part of the nuclear fuel cycle. In this way I believe that we shall reduce the need for other governments to build their own reprocessing plants. In offering our services to other governments we hope to satisfy their, and our, concern about the possible misuse of plutonium.”

The emphasis must be on the word “hope”. That is a non-provable assertion and I should have thought it much more likely that, if we have an international evaluation programme involving 40 nation States, and if we decide to go ahead regardless of that programme. we shall simply encourage others to follow suit.

The House has a straight choice between looking at the longer term results of a decision that we take tonight against the undoubted economic value of the Japanese and other contracts which we could acquire. I believe that the onus must lie heavily on the Government, who have brought forward the order, to persuade us that we are wrong. If they do not persuade us beyond a reasonable doubt, it will be right to vote in favour of the order being withdrawn.