§ 6.58 p.m.
§ EARL ALEXANDER OF HILLSBOROUGH rose to ask Her Majesty's Government to state what steps are being taken to put this seafaring nation on comparable terms and to match the progress of other nations in respect of nuclear propulsion in merchant ships The noble Earl said: My Lords, I regret that we are somewhat late in opening this debate on the Unstarred Question that I have on the Paper. Your Lordships will see that it is my request to the Minister and to the House of Lords that we should be given information as to the steps which are being taken to keep this great seafaring nation of ours on comparable terms in research, and, I hope, development, with regard to the question of nuclear propulsion of merchant ships. I think it is essential for the reputation of our country in mercantile matters; and I think it is essential, also, that we should be making progress in this matter because of the likely future of nuclear propulsion of merchant ships.
§ Your Lordships may think it strange that I should have raised this matter in the debate upon the Shipbuilding Bill two or three weeks ago. But I had to speak upon the Bill anyway, and what impressed me, as I read the debate in another place which took place on January 15, was that a very great case was submitted by the speaker for the Opposition with regard to this general question of nuclear propulsion of merchant ships. What impressed me even more was that there was no attempt on the part of the Government to reply to the case that was then presented with considerable force.
§ When I came to speak upon the Shipbuilding Bill, I pursued a similar line to that which had been pursued by the I Opposition in another place, hoping to 97 get an answer. But the remarkable thing was that, although a case had already been made known by the debate in another place to the Department for whom the Minister here was speaking, no reply at all was made in this House to my contentions about the nuclear propulsion of merchant shipping. After all my experience (especially through practically 80 per cent. of the war period and then after, having been at the head of the direction not only of naval repair and shipbuilding but merchant repair and shipbuilding, when anything to do with the future of that great nautical industry of ours was of concern to me) I still fail to understand why no reply was given, either to my colleague in another place or to myself on this matter.
§ So last week I put on the Paper a Question to the Government, to which the noble Earl opposite made a reply. I was bound to express at the end of the Questions and Answers on that day that I was wholly dissatisfied with the Answer which was given, and that I would take the earliest opportunity of raising this subject upon an Unstarred Question, on which there could be at least a short debate.
§ The more I go into this matter, the more I feel that there is something which, in the public interest, needs a real inquiry. I am not quite sure what sort of inquiry would be the best, but that an inquiry is required in my view there is no doubt. The operations of the Atomic Energy Authority in regard to this matter have now gone on for a good many years. There were various proceedings and inquiries by themselves and in conjunction with a number of industries, or sections of allied industries, concerned, so that there were about five of them in constant consultation with the Atomic Energy Authority on this matter. They entered into a great deal of activity and research along lines arising out of the consultations, but those were brought to an end, so far as relations were concerned, on a question of payment of research money for the work the private firms were doing. Then came the decision in 1961 to make a fresh start, because, apparently, no great progress had been made. I do not know exactly what was the total cost to the Atomic Energy Authority 98 during that trial period, but it was then decided that there should be set up a special arrangement by which the Government would make a grant of £3 million, which was to cover three years' research into this question.
§ Since then, it seems to me that things have been going so far wrong that there has been a constant attempt by Questions, mostly in another place, to find out the situation of the research; how far it had developed and how much money had been spent from time to time out of the £3 million grant, and the answers came in various and somewhat uncertain degrees. At one stage, it was suggested that the cost at the end of ten months of the period after the end of November, 1961, was about £600,000. The replies at which I have looked since seem to have been of various kinds. Sometimes, when general information has been asked for about the progress of this research, the answer has been given that the statement could not be made now, or it was postponed to some other time, and no real information was ever given to Parliament, which, after all, is responsible for the management of the nation's finances and is entitled to be kept informed of what is going on.
§ It is essential to call attention to these things to-day, when you consider the amount which has been spent upon research and experiment in this country in the last twelve years, and how little real result we have from it in the nuclear—military or civil—sense. At last, however, a statement was made that it was expected that the £3 million would be used up by the end of December, 1963. The noble Earl kindly answered a Question of mine the other day, when he said that up to that time, at any rate, the expenditure amounted to £3.4 million and that it would continue through 1964, and would probably—I do not suggest he gave an absolutely firm figure—be round about £5 million by the end of 1964. What I was then pressing for was to know what results had actually been obtained from this research. I am bound to repeat to the noble Earl to-night (as I am sure he expects me to repeat what I said then) that I was wholly dissatisfied.99
§ As I had made the speech on the Shipbuilding Bill, and asked my questions, which were not answered, he must not be surprised to find that people with technical knowledge of the matter got into touch with me. I had not met them before at all, and they brought what may be regarded as their certain and known facts of the situation to my notice and, therefore, made me keen to press for an inquiry into the whole question. One thing is quite certain, and that is that, whatever may be said by the Government to-night, to my mind, knowing what has happened in the past in our general industries, and not without regard to our great seafaring industry, there is a future for nuclear power in the propulsion of merchant shipping.
§ The extent to which nuclear power has been developed in Service ships, of course, is used as an argument to say, "They are not required to be economic; they are done for specific purposes of defence". It does not need a lot of intensive study of the question of the future of the propulsion of merchant ships to show that there is every reason to suppose that nuclear-powered ships could be made effective and economical. You need only cast your minds back to the history of engineers' experience with regard to the propulsion of merchant and passenger ships, back to the period of—I ought to know the name; I handled it many times, but I forget it at the moment; at any rate, back to the period when the methods of driving a ship which are now so common were said, as recently as 1900, to be quite impracticable. Yet after research, and especially the final and successful research, in the British shipbuilding industry, these methods have made us quite pioneers in the new types of propulsion. And the same thing will arise in regard to nuclear expectancy.
§ The grant was made originally by the Government to the Atomic Energy Authority to continue following up the previous researches, to enable the Atomic Energy Authority to engage in research, but also to keep in touch with, and use (as I took it to mean), these services of private industry who had also 100 been interested in it, especially in certain research and experiments. But, from the date the grant was made, I cannot find, from all the information given to me, that anything really effective has been done by the Atomic Energy Authority to use to the full the knowledge, experience and research of private industry in this matter. There seems to be an attempt to keep anything arising out of their consultations for the sole benefit of any operations of the Atomic Energy Authority, rather than to spread the advantage to the whole of the consulted industry as well as to the Authority. I think this is not a fair way in which, under the terms of reference of the grant, this expenditure should have been made. I think that aspect needs inquiry.
§ I then find, of course, from getting the inside knowledge from those who have been inside this business, that the real course pursued by the Atomic Energy Authority was to confine, largely at any rate, its research to the development of the boiling water reactors. You had two types of what were called the I.B.R.s, which were pursued at considerable expense; and I think the Minister will confirm, when he replies, that both have been abandoned. But on the course up to their abandonment certain things happened.
§ First of all, there was the fact that no announcement was made by the Minister of Transport about the course of research to be adopted in this matter, until, I think, 1962; although it is clear to me, at any rate—and I should like to know what the evidence of the Minister is—that the decision to concentrate upon these boiling water reactor types was made much earlier in the year, and that the consideration of the other type of reactors which were included in the submissions of those who had been engaged in private and industrial research was put on one side, so that the Minister had only one choice to make: to approve what was put to him. He had nothing before him at all on what would be a question of special examination, from the nation's point of view, of the differences in effectiveness, as well as in cost, between the various types.
§ It is of note to relate from my information that in fact the T.B.R.s have been 101 abandoned, and solely, or almost solely, for the reasons which were exposed by Captain Atkins in the Press just over twelve months ago. He may perhaps be charged by some people with having revealed something he ought not to have revealed, but he certainly saved this nation from what would have been enormous expense to no avail, if that basis of research had been continued, because the reasons which have led to the abandonment of the I.B.R.s were the very reasons which were made public by one who himself was a qualified naval engineer of great experience and who had been connected with the work that had gone on on the industrial side a year or two before—that in connection with Rolls Royce and associates. What happened? The Chairman of the Atomic Energy Authority insisted that he be dismissed from his post by the head of the firm concerned in Rolls Royce associates dealing with the matter; and he was promptly dismissed. But the I.B.R.s have been abandoned for the very reasons that were exposed then. How does this sort of thing arise? I think we ought to have an answer to that.
§ When I come back to other aspects of the question, I look at the information supplied to me, and what I find is that there has been no adequate consideration at all of the other types of reactors which have been under examination and research by private firms, and which have not, in their judgment, some of the particular handicaps which I know to be in the boiling water type of reactors. What has gone on? They have had communications, I think, from time to time, and conversations; but no indication that the merits of these other proposals have ever been fully examined. Yet were any explanations given with regard to the decisions made? No, not at all. Instead, there has been a steady pursuit of the same ultimate type of reactor, the Vulcain, through the Belgonucleaire Organisation; and so, at the present time, so far as I can see, the Government are committed to a contract, a considerable contract—
§ EARL ALEXANDER OF HILLSBOROUGH
I am not certain about the figure. My noble friend has one in mind 102 apparently, but it is certainly quite considerable; and I should say that it is extraordinary in these circumstances that the Minister of Transport says that he declines to give the figure of the contract price, in spite of this situation I have been describing.
This is an extraordinary position. We now know that the £3 million grant is to go up to £5 million by the end of the year. The Government give no reason for it, but is not the reason, in the main, that this sum is about to be added to the balance of the contract price which still goes to be met with the Belgonucleaire Organisation? I want to ask the Minister to-night to tell us how much has been paid to the Belgonucleaire up to the moment and what remains to be met on the contract which is now entered into. This is something which ought to be communicated to Parliament in view of the fact that, in spite of all that has been done so far, there is no result—unless the Minister can tell us to-night what that result is.
What is the fact about the other proposals which had been made by other organisations before the date of the making of the first grant, the £3 million grant? What had gone on before then? The Rolls Royce associates were willing to supply a reactor of the type which one might describe, not being an engineer, as a steam-cooled reactor, but I am sure that the noble Earl with the research he has been making knows all about that particular one. That was offered to be produced and installed into a ship ready for trial for £550,000. That offer was not accepted. So far as I know, that particular offer was quite deliberately turned down.
But then later on, after the £3 million grant had begun to overate for this special research, after the announcement was made at the end of November 1961, the Mitchell organisation had consultations with the Authority, and they found that although all these other people were to have been consulted they had in fact been forgotten; and there was no going back upon that; but if they liked to make some submissions they might be considered. The other organisations concerned had no doubt been recipients of payments for the pieces of research work they had done for the 103 Atomic Energy Authority before the commencement of the operation and administration of this £3 million grant.
The Mitchell organisation submitted a scheme of design which had been very carefully and thoroughly prepared and costed to their satisfaction down to the last degree. They offered to supply a steam-cooled reactor for propulsion of merchant ships at £500,000 installed in the ship for sea trials. This was a firm that had never had any research money at all from the Atomic Energy Authority. In my view, according to my information, the way in which they have been treated hardly bears description. They have been asked questions as to what has been done and the secrets of their own design for production. They have never been paid anything for that information. I do not think they have asked anything for it. But what apparently seems to happen is that the Atomic Energy Authority in such matters ask for and obtain all the information required in the course of consultation, and seek then to use such information for the development of their own organisation of production.
Looking at the records of the Atomic Energy Authority over the last twelve years, I wonder what has actually been produced by them and about the results of their research. I am sure they must have done something, but how much? I understand that they now have a staff of 42,000, and that the productive workers number hardly much more than one-quarter of that number, certainly not much more than something between one-third and one-quarter. Despite all the money going in and being paid out, we seem in a matter of reasonable simplicity, the matter of this particular nuclear project, to be getting no information about the results. Until now it has been whispered and said in different places that the Government, having spent the money thus far, say that, after all, the idea of having nuclear-powered propulsion of a merchant ship is not likely to be economically successful at all at any time. I must say I disagree with that. When we consider a ship of 15,000 to 20,000 tons, and even larger ships than that, if we can get a satisfactory reactor which can develop 20,000 shaft horse-power at 0.2d. 104 per hour, which does not entail having to put into your merchant ship all the immense space required for the bunkers at present required for oil or diesel or other fuels, and does not interfere with the whole arrangements for the voyage by the ship having to go from port to port to re-fuel, and if the reactor is able to produce all the fuel that is required for propulsion—certainly up to the period required for entering for the ordinary inspection as required by Lloyds, and therefore it must be able to make and will make its own fuel out of the same core for four years and, if necessary, it could go to five years—then, in the light of these economic factors, the idea that we cannot ultimately get by research and trial a real economical use of nuclear power in merchant ships sounds to me ridiculous. It sounds ridiculous to suggest at this stage that there is no likely future economic case for the development of nuclear propulsion of merchant ships. These are facts.
The Atomic Energy Authority ought to be asked for other information as well. I was very much struck to-day in picking up the Hansard of another place and reading Mr. Hay's statement with regard to the Dounreay reactor which was to be built there for the "Valiant"—that is, the No. 2 nuclear propelled submarine out of the three, at least, to be built for ordinary submarine purposes; not one of those which is to be in the Polaris. What do we read? We read that in fact certain faults have occurred in materials used, resulting in certain complete changes having to be made in the piping which had gone into the business, and that is now to require months of delay, at that very choice centre for nuclear development at Dounreay. And yet one of my informants had made his protest against the acceptance of materials and methods with regard to that particular operation there, and because he would not give up his professional views upon that he had his contract ended.
I say that the way this business is going on at the moment calls for an inquiry. I should be glad to discuss with the Government if necessary what form the inquiry should take. But there is something that needs a lot of answering. I shall be most interested to hear what the noble Earl has to say upon it, but I 105 have no doubt at all that if the inquiry is granted there can be revelations for the benefit of Parliament, which has to provide the taxpayers' money in these matters, and for the benefit of the industry, which has every right to be encouraged to come to a more modernised and, in the end, more economic form of merchant ship propulsion. I believe this would provide some general addition to the incentive for protecting and increasing the expansion of British industry. I hope we shall get an answer to-night.
§ 7.31 p.m.
§ LORD HOBSON
My Lords, I rise to support my noble Leader. In preparation for this discussion on the Unstarred Question I did a little research in the Library, and I found that on no fewer than eleven occasions this question of nuclear ship propulsion has been before another place and your Lordships' House. It has been handled by two Ministers, the Minister of Transport and the Minister for Science, and in not one single case has a direct answer been given. There has been equivocation and dodging of the main points that have been put to the Ministers by the questioners. I think this is most unsatisfactory, and I hope that the noble Earl will be much more forthcoming when he comes to reply.
I want to ask him straight away one or two questions. First of all, I want to know whether the Committee under Sir Thomas Padmore has yet reported. I think that would be of interest to your Lordships, because, after all, this was the Committee which was set up to go into the matter. May we know whether the technical Committee under Professor Diamond of Manchester University have reported? Presumably they will have done, if the Padmore Committee have. Their terms of reference were singularly limited at the outset. They were called on to study two types of reactor—the integral boiling water reactor, which of course is a paper design produced by the Atomic Energy Authority at Risley; and secondly, what is known as the spectral shaft reactor of a water type known as the Vulcain.
The Vulcain is designed by a Belgian consortium, and what makes it rather unsatisfactory is, I think, that the British Atomic Energy Authority have entered 106 into a contract with Belgonucleaire who produced the Vulcain. Presumably if the A.E.A. choose this form of reactor it will be produced in Britain under licence, but it is not a British reactor. This is the point that I want to make, because later on in my speech I shall refer to other reactors of a foreign make. Obviously, there is no prejudice so far as Her Majesty's Government's present advisers are concerned, in obtaining and manufacturing a foreign reactor and placing it, should it be necessary, into a British ship. I should like to know whether the Atomic Energy Authority are providing money, which they presumably are, for the Vulcain, and whether there is any evidence at all that this reactor will be a suitable one for placing in a vessel. I think that is information which ought to be given to your Lordships.
One of the disturbing factors to those who have something to do with the industry is that apparently the Atomic Energy Authority are wedded to the philosophy of a pressurised water reactor, despite the fact that there are other systems. The most likely one at the moment is an American design of an air-cooled reactor. I want to reinforce what my noble Leader has said. The point is that tenders were asked for for this nuclear engine and reactor, and five firms tendered. Of those five firms, three submitted tenders for reactors of American design. I think that is rather of interest. But have these firms been told whether or not their tenders have been rejected? We should like to have an answer to that question. Were the firms told at the outset that the nuclear reactor that they had to produce for the ship had to have such characteristics that it would be an economic proposition if placed in a merchant ship? I think that is most important.
There is not the slightest doubt that we are behind other countries so far as nuclear reactors for ships are concerned. Let us look at the present situation. In the United States of America they have the "Savannah". I do not propose to say much about that; but it is a merchant ship. Of course, so far as naval ships are concerned they have the aircraft carrier, nuclear submarines (I forget how many), and a 107 nuclear-propelled cruiser. I am told that they are all of the pressurised water characteristic. So there is experience of nuclear propulsion. Then comes the question of the type. The type of reactor that is placed in the "Savannah", for instance, I am told, weighs something like 2,000 tons, for a shaft horsepower of 20,000; but with the air-cooled water reactors that weight can be reduced to something like 400 tons for a shaft horsepower of 20,000.
There is nothing secret about all this. This is not classified information. The noble Earl will be perfectly free to say whether this is true or not, because one can actually go and buy the technical appreciation of these forms of reactor. It is unclassified material, and is readily available in the United States. What we want to know is, what at the present moment are the Government going to do? Germany has placed a contract for a 15,000-ton oil carrier. The nuclear reactor is going to be of the Babcock and Wilcock water type. It is going to be built by Babcock and Wilcox Deutsch in consultation with Siemen-Schuchertz. Obviously, the Germans are pretty hardheaded in this matter. Apart from being our nautical rivals at the moment, they must have thought that this was an experiment worth going on with and that there seems to be a future for producing a merchant ship with a nuclear reactor.
What are the objections to going ahead with this scheme? I think the noble Earl should tell us what the objections are. There certainly cannot be any doubt about building a ship's reactor under licence. I cannot see any objection to that. Indeed, the Atomic Energy Authority, as I said earlier, are already considering the Vulcain. And from the point of view of the shipbuilders of Britain—after all, we do build hulls for ships and occasionally put in foreign engines, so there is nothing unusual in that—certainly the industry should be given a chance to produce a hull in which we can put a nuclear reactor.
A statement was made in answer to a Question in the other place that there was to be international co-operation so far as Britain was concerned in the production of a maritime nuclear reactor. What has 108 become of that proposal? Are any consultations taking place between the countries of Euratom? Has any consideration been given by the Technical Assessment Committee under Professor Diamond to the American 630A reactor? This reactor seems to have the best possibilities of all. It is much lighter, and indeed was originally conceived out of an idea of President Kennedy when the Americans were flirting with the idea of having a nuclear-propelled aeroplane. This reactor—and there is nothing secret about it—is certainly of much lighter weight and produces steam of a quality which is compatible with turbine techniques in modern merchant ships, so it overcomes many of the difficulties which exist in such ships as the "Savannah". I should like to know what consideration has been given to these matters.
I should also like to ask the noble Earl what is wrong with the conception of constructing an Admiralty fleet auxiliary, a tanker of 15,000 to 20,000 tons, and placing within that ship a nuclear reactor. We should get the experience of running it and also have extra facilities for training the crew. This appears to me to be something which could well be done. I am surprised that there has been no indication whatsoever from any spokesman on behalf of Her Majesty's Government that they are considering this. I think it is far better to work in that way than to have a dry cargo ship constructed by a private firm which would have to be subsidised at the outset. I think the Admiralty fleet auxiliary is a suggestion worth considering.
The fact remains that for British people it is rather annoying—because, after all, we were the pioneer of steam turbines in the past—that we should lag behind in this matter. It is evident that at the moment there is no nuclear reactor of British design which fits into the time schedule of the other nations who are constructing nuclear ships. To that extent, I consider that all British people—we are a seafaring nation—feel hurt in this matter. This is a question of pride.
I do not think that the implications of this Unstarred Question are that the Minister is expected to get up and say, "Here we have a reactor which is viable and, when installed in a merchant ship, will be a paying proposition." We do 109 not expect that. But we are now entitled, after three years of equivocation and of dodging the issue, to have some authoritative statement whether the Government are throwing out the whole conception of nuclear propulsion in merchant ships or whether they are prepared to go ahead. For my own part, I should like to see this great maritime nation build a nuclear ship. I am absolutely convinced that if we do not, we are going to fall behind in what, in five or six years' time, could very well be almost standard means of propulsion, particularly for fast cargo ships.
The Atomic Energy Authority have been criticised. One finds it difficult to know precisely what their rôle is in this matter, but there is no doubt that whilst they have spent taxpayers' money, so have many private firms in the British consortia spent many thousands of pounds in going into this problem. It is now incumbent on Her Majesty's Government to declare firmly their intentions in regard to nuclear propulsion in merchant ships.
§ 7.45 p.m.
THE PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY TO THE MINISTER FOR SCIENCE (THE EARL OF BESSBOROUGH)
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Earl the Leader of the Opposition for putting down this Unstarred Question on a subject which certainly deserves considerably more discussion than we were able to give it in question and answer the other day, and, indeed, than perhaps we can give it this evening. The noble Earl has great experience in these matters, as has the noble Lord, Lord Hobson, who, as a former power station engineer, is perhaps as well qualified to speak as anyone else in this House; and I am very glad that he did speak.
I should like first to deal with certain points which were raised by the noble Earl in his supplementaries last Wednesday, and which also have a direct bearing on what he has said this evening. The noble Earl referred a few days ago to the article in the Financial Times. of February 20 and asked me whether it was true that by then, as he has again stated this evening, £3.4 million had already been spent on research into nuclear propulsion for merchant ships. I confirm 110 what I said in answer to him that £3 million had certainly been spent by the beginning of this year, and that expenditure was continuing at the rate of about £2 million a year.
The noble Lord, Lord Waleran (who unfortunately is not with us this evening), asked me how I related the statement that £3 million had been spent since November, 1961, with the answer made by my right honourable friend, the Chief Secretary, in another place on November 20 last, that the nuclear marine programme cost £200,000 a year. I have already informed my noble friend that this figure of £200,000 related only to the extent to which the Atomic Energy Authority had placed contracts with industry and paid for research, design and development work on nuclear merchant propulsion. The figure of £200,000 was given in response to a question specifically concerning British companies engaged on this research. This expenditure was part—and only a small part—of the total expenditure of £3 million to which I have referred. The remainder of this sum of £3 million has been spent by the Atomic Energy Authority on work by its own design teams, working in conjunction with engineers, naval architects and others seconded from the British shipbuilding industry and the British Ship Research Association, together with the Authority's share of the expenditure on the joint project with Belgonucleaire on the Vulcain reactor.
The development of any reactor, and particularly one designed as a marine propulsion unit, is essentially a long-term process. Results of such development programmes do not materialise within a year or two, as I think noble Lords opposite recognise. For example, the agreement with Belgonucleaire to develop the Vulcain system, which was signed in 1962, extends to 1967. This is a long-term agreement covering this particular project of which we are a joint party. Belgonucleaire is a commercial undertaking, and its partnership with the Atomic Energy Authority necessarily has a commercial aspect. The Belgonucleaire and the Atomic Energy Authority are joint owners of the patents, and an arrangement has been reached on licensing should the Vulcain system prove to be successful. 111 Under the Vulcain project the fuel elements, which have been designed for the Vulcain reactor, will be tested as a complete charge in an existing pressurised water reactor, the B.R.3 in Belgium, in order to determine the behaviour of the fuel elements under operating conditions. Noble Lords know what problems are involved there.
My Lords, before the noble Earl proceeds, could he give the figure of the British financial contribution to the Belgonucleaire agreement? This is a question that my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition has put on two occasions. I think it is very important, when taking into account the small amount that the Government have contributed to British industry.
THE EARL OF BESSBOROUGH
My Lords, this is a figure which I was hoping I might be able to give your Lordships. I cannot do so to-day, but I hope that it may be possible to do so on a later occasion.
The noble Earl also asked me—and he confirmed this to-day—whether or not the handing over of this research to the Atomic Energy Authority had led to the discarding of any further consideration of the American steam-cooled reactors, or those developed by Rolls-Royce and their associates, or by Mitchell's. He said that the Mitchell reactor had, in fact, been quoted at a firm price, much below anything we seemed to be able to get in any other direction. In reply to the noble Earl on those points, I should like to say this. Those American types of reactor, which are essentially variations of the pressurised water system, are said to be ready for immediate installation. But, my Lords, the United States Administration do not at present appear to intend to build another nuclear-propelled merchant ship.
I understand that the reactor system which was investigated some years ago by Rolls Royce and its associates is no longer being put forward by that group of firms. I hope that the noble Earl will forgive me if I do not at this moment enter into any discussion on the merits of the reactor design put forward by the Mitchell undertaking, nor refer to the 112 claims which he made the other day regarding its cost of construction and seaworthiness.
§ EARL ALEXANDER OF HILLSBOROUGH
My Lords, with regard to the steam-cooled design which was quoted by Rolls Royce and its associates at £550,000, may I ask if there was ever any communication to them that there was any disapproval by the Atomic Energy Authority of its design? May I ask, also, whether any similar expression of disapproval was communicated from the Atomic Energy Authority to Mitchell's; and, if so, why?
THE EARL OF BESSBOROUGH
My Lords, these points are all matters for the Working Group and for the Diamond Panel. I do not think it would be at all appropriate for me to go into them this evening. They are matters which have been examined by the Working Group; and, as I say, their Report is awaited. Until Ministers have this Report in their hands, they will be in no position to evaluate the claims which have been made on behalf of this reactor system and others.
§ LORD SHEPHERD
My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Earl, before he proceeds?—because this is a most important matter. My noble friend Lord Hobson specifically asked whether the Report had been received. Obviously, it has not been received, so can the noble Earl say when he expects to receive it?
THE EARL OF BESSBOROUGH
In answer to further supplementary questions last Wednesday, I also referred to the Russian icebreaker "Lenin", which can be operated without regard to ordinary commercial considerations. There is then the United States passenger cargo ship "Savannah", to which I have already referred, and this cannot be regarded as an economic unit. I have already said that the Americans show no present intention of building another passenger cargo ship. I have just seen that the "Savannah" is reported as 113 having cost the Americans 83 million dollars, and we might well ask what the results have been there. I also mentioned the other day that the Germans and the Japanese had each announced their decision to build a ship. I should add, in this connection, that the Germans have, as the noble Earl knows, ordered a reactor of American design from Babcock and Wilcox. There are observations I could make upon that, which I cannot do in your Lordships' House, but your Lordships may well be able to imagine what has passed. Then, in so far as the Japanese are concerned, they have still apparently to decide what reactor they propose to install
The noble Earl now asks:What steps are being taken to put this seafaring nation on comparable terms and to match the progress of other nations in respect of nuclear propulsion in merchant ships.
§ EARL ALEXANDER OF HILLSBOROUGH
My Lords, I do not want to embarrass the noble Earl, but before he goes on to the future steps I should like to have some answer, if I may, as to why the I.B.R.s were abandoned, and why all the steps were taken by the Atomic Energy Authority to get somebody dismissed who had exposed the very reasons for which they have subsequently been abandoned. I should also like to know the actual relationship of the Vulcain project to the I.B.R.s which have been abandoned.
THE EARL OF BESSBOROUGH
My Lords, I have the answer. The work by the Atomic Energy Authority on the I.B.R. has been suspended for reasons unconnected with the contentions put forward by Captain Atkins, whom we all recognise as an eminent naval engineer. The main reason was that the design of the fuel elements entailed a long-term development programme. Incidentally, I would take this opportunity again formally to deny that Sir Roger Makins had any connection with the dismissal of Captain Atkins by Vickers. Lastly, on this point, I should emphasise that the Atomic Energy Authority has achieved much in the development of nuclear power stations, for which the economic prospects are good. Nuclear power for ships, however, is a different problem.
I assume that what the noble Earl has in mind is the development of a 114 reactor unit which can be economically operated in a merchant vessel. Your Lordships will have gathered from what I have said—and I must re-emphasise it—that so far no country has built an economic propulsion reactor for use in a merchant vessel; and, so far as I understand the matter, it will be many years before they do. Indeed, during the course of this debate some noble Lords could have said that we might see a jet engine in a motor car. This, of course, may come. I do not know whether the noble Earl was referring to diesel engines or not, but he referred to the fact that at one time a certain type of engine was not accepted but that later it was. Sometimes a design may he accepted: sometimes it may prove to be inappropriate.
§ EARL ALEXANDER OF HILLSBOROUGH
I struggled for the right word. The word I ought to have used was "turbines". Turbines, it was said in the early 1900 period, were unlikely ever to be useful for the propulsion of merchant ships. But in fact this country then made a great advance in turbines, and later on very specialised turbines swept the industry throughout the world, almost. I want that to happen with the nuclear propulsion of merchant ships.
THE EARL OF BESSBOROUGH
The noble Earl may be right—I do not know. I hope he is. I do not want to knock this project too hard, and I am merely putting the considerations which have to be taken into account. The American one has cost 83 million dollars—
§ LORD HOBSON
My Lords, would the noble Lord allow me to interrupt while he is on that point? Could consideration not have been given, as I said in my speech, to putting a nuclear reactor in an Admiralty fleet auxiliary? They are not under any real compunction to operate at an economic cost, but you would get the experience.
THE EARL OF BESSBOROUGH
That is a very interesting suggestion which I am sure the Working Group, if they have not already considered it, would be only too willing to consider. But, as I think your Lordships recognise, submarines, warships and icebreakers are another matter, because they do not 115 have to operate under commercial conditions, and there are, of course, logistic advantages in ships which can refuel only at very long intervals being equipped with nuclear reactors. But merchant ships can refuel, and they do require above all to be economic, and in that context capital and operating costs are very important.
My Lords, I am not going to go into details regarding the figures of shaft horse-power. I do not think that I can accept the figures which the noble Earl gave me this afternoon. But, there again, that is a matter which the Working Group will no doubt also consider. I know that the noble Earl will appreciate from what I have said in regard to activities in certain other countries that to use the phrase which he has used in his Question, "match their progress", is somewhat to misdescribe the position they have reached. These countries, like us, are grappling with what is a complicated problem, and one which, if it is to be resolved successfully, will entail a substantial expenditure over a long term of years. We are not giving up this project, but it is a most complicated one and it is by no means certain that success will ultimately be achieved.
There is no question but that a propulsion unit could be built now for reliable operation in a merchant vessel, but it could not be economic in competition under normal commercial conditions with conventional ships, and none of my shipping friends seems to support the idea. In view of what has been said, I think I must quote to your Lordships a passage from the Annual Report of the Chamber of Shipping, dated February 27. They say here—and this is really an objective analysis:There is no evidence that any of these ships will be commercially viable. These facts alone indicate the uncertainty surrounding the future of nuclear power for merchant ships, and put more accurately in perspective the absence of any firm decision in this country".
EARL ALEXANDER OF HILLSBOROUH
My Lords, that is the reason why they have no evidence. It is because they have not been given all the information that I have had, for example.
THE EARL OF BESSBOROUGH
I think they have gone into it in some 116 detail, my Lords. There is no question, as I say, but that a unit could be put into a ship, but I do not find that the shipping industry thinks the possibilities very promising. The vital question is whether, by building and operating an experimental ship, we could put ourselves in a better position to achieve, in the longer term, an economic unit capable of competing with diesel and steam turbine units. That is what the Government will have to decide when they have the Report of the Working Group. I should perhaps remind the noble Lord, Lord Hobson, that the tenders submitted in 1960 were considered at the time. The Government decided in the following year not to proceed with building a ship, and instead to initiate a further programme of research.
In regard to the noble Earl's suggestion that an inquiry should be set up, I hardly think that this is necessary, since the Working Group, under the chairmanship of Sir Thomas Padmore, is itself an independent body, as is the Technical Panel which assists it and which was set up to assess the merits of the various reactor systems. I cannot therefore think it necessary to set up another committee. The Panel have examined six reactor systems. For the most part, they have been variations of the pressurised water system, together with the Mitchell steam-cooled reactor and one other, more advanced, concept making use of air-cooling. My Lords, I feel we must await the Report of the Working Group. I hope that this Report will shortly be in the hands of Ministers, who will, I am sure, be anxious to reach a decision as soon as reasonably practicable thereafter. On a subject of this importance they will need some little time in which to digest the considerations advanced and to decide what would be the most desirable course for this country to follow.
My Lords, this has not been a general debate on atomic energy, but the remarks of certain noble Lords would perhaps have fitted more conveniently into such a general debate, which I suppose we can hold at any time if the Business of the House makes it possible. But the general performance of the Atomic Energy Authority is something very 117 much wider than this relatively narrow field. As to the announcement which my right honourable friend the Civil Lord of the Admiralty made in another place yesterday, that, again, is something which I do not think your Lordships would wish me to deal with here, but I am most grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, for having raised this matter. It has interested me greatly in going into it, and it has interested me greatly also to 118 hear what he has had to say, as well as what the noble Lord, Lord Hobson, has said.