Diary

Tam Dalyell

Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones. Those who, maybe understandably, conduct their civil nuclear affairs with an occasional under-injection of candour should not be too quick to condemn the secretiveness of Russia. With a timing that is perfect in its irony, it has emerged this spring, thanks to the 30-year rule, that in 1957 Harold Macmillan, then Prime Minister, took a decision that would have done credit to the most reticent of regimes. Told that there had been a graphite fire at Windscale, Macmillan deemed it better that the British public should not know, and that the Irish, across the water, should not be informed. Horrifying, deceitful, wicked, many people would now say. But, are we, even with the benefit of hindsight, quite sure?

Supposing, in the 1950s, a flood of scare stories had emerged from the Windscale incident, would the loss of life over years have been less? Even supposing it is conceded that some tens of people did indeed die from cancer as a result of the graphite fire in the plutonium-producing pile at Windscale in 1957, would we be right to wring our hands and say that the notion of producing electricity from nuclear power ought to have been snuffed out in its infancy? Because the snuffing-out in its infancy of, at any rate, the British nuclear power programme is what might well have occurred if Macmillan had decided to come clean. Had there been no significant nuclear power programme, the demands of electricity would have been such as to keep open a large number of marginal and probably dangerous coal mines. I have attended too many funerals during the last quarter of a century, as a Member of Parliament representing what were, in 1962, six pits, to wax lyrical about the need to keep mines open.

Although I myself raised in the House the behaviour of Macmillan in 1957, to mellow the criticism of the Russians in 1986, it is by no means an exact parallel. The fire at Windscale in 1957 was inside a massive concrete containment building into which it was possible to pump water. The Soviet facility is a totally different creature. Pouring water on the burning Soviet graphite moderator would only have made things worse by creating clouds of radioactive steam and probably setting in train a plutonium and uranium fire.

If the parallel is technically deficient, it is none the less a salutary reminder that we are in no position to lecture the Russians on secrecy. My outburst in the House of Commons on Wednesday 30 April, directed at both Front Benches, Conservative and Labour, stemmed from impatience with the notion that it served any useful purpose to lecture the Russians on secrecy at that point. Rebuking the Kremlin was likely to make it even more difficult for the British scientists who could actually lend assistance to get in contact with their Russian counterparts. Even on the worst scenario, it does not make much sense to infuriate people, however stupid they may have been, at a time when they are worried sick.

Public scolding of the Russians made even less sense when it was confirmed that scientists employed by government agencies were involved in telephone conversations with their Russian counterparts throughout most of the last week in April, if not earlier. Suggestions from within the UK nuclear power industry indicate that contacts may even have been established the previous week, when engineers at the Ukraine plant became alarmed at developments. Why on earth did the British Government not acknowledge that the contacts had been going on for some time, in spite of ministerial claims that Britain, like other Western countries, had been kept in the dark by the Russians? If the concern of ministers was to distance Britain from the accident, fearing a public backlash against the Government’s nuclear energy plans, it was misguided. If it was to heap obloquy on the Soviet regime, it was even worse. The real criticism of the Russian authorities is not their alleged failure to tell the West and ask for help. The real criticism hinges on whether, had they known earlier, their own populations could have taken action to mitigate the effects. Over one hundred thousand Soviet citizens in a 30 kilometre radius of Chernobyl have had to be removed from their homes. Though it may be too late, the Poles are pouring away their contaminated milk. There are, however, some forty million Soviet citizens still living in areas much more contaminated than Poland or Scandinavia. If they have not been told to start taking similar precautions, this would be a damning indictment of the Soviet system. On the other hand, Dr Georgi Arbatov deserved to be listened to when he told Radio 4 listeners that the dangers from panic were real.

Is the British nuclear industry unnecessarily secretive? Do they hide information which they ought not to hide?

In matters of planning, I do not think the charge of being secretive can be made to stick. I visited the Maltings at Snape in Suffolk on Day 167 of the Sizewell Inquiry. In the huge auditorium, indelibly associated with Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten, Mr Justice Layfield presided over an inquiry the minutes of which were a lawyer’s dream. How they wallowed in it! Every detail of every pipe of every set of tubes seemed to be dissected. I came away doubting whether this form of planning inquiry provided any sensible basis whatsoever for deciding whether we should opt for PWR reactors or for the AGR reactors advocated so strongly, against the wishes of the CEGB, by the South of Scotland Electricity Board, who manage the successful reactor at Hunterston. Nor, I suspect, will the labyrinthine inquiry do much to satisfy those who live in Constable country or on the Suffolk coast.

The problem is that, after Chernobyl, rational, scientific and balanced discussion of nuclear power may become impossible in Britain. The spectre of Minsk-Kiev may see to it. Three Mile Island has already achieved a higher profile in the public mind than it has ever had before. (Having met Dr Zebrowski, who conducted the investigation into TMI, I was convinced, in the objective atmosphere of a Ditchley Conference, that the Americans were dealing with an ‘incident’ and not an ‘accident’ at Harrisburg.) Similarly, the Windscale fire of 1957 has achieved a greater prominence in the public mind than it has ever had in the course of the last three decades. In a society like Britain it is jolly difficult to take on prejudice born of sheer fright. In Russia and in France they might just manage it! In both those countries they have a political élite, emanating, respectively, from the Communist Party and the Grandes Ecoles, who have the confidence to withstand what they would consider ill-informed prejudice. In Britain we have no such self-confident cadre.

Furthermore, it is difficult to be a friend of the nuclear industry. The easy arguments are all stacked in the hands of those who are against nuclear power. To argue convincingly for nuclear power requires some knowledge of engineering and reactor physics, which most people simply do not begin to have. Britain has become an almost anti-scientific society. Even good cases can go by default. The problem is partly that it is easy to portray the nuclear industry as secretive if no one other than those engaged in the industry has any notion of the scientific disciplines involved. It is hard for a nuclear physicist or engineer to defend himself in front of an audience which not only has no inkling of the processes of nuclear physics but does not even want to try to understand. In many arguments those defending nuclear power are now reduced to crude retorts as to whether their tormentors are prepared to do without electricity. How many readers of the London Review of Books have a passing understanding of what atomic physics is all about? Not a high proportion, I venture to suggest. In my view, every university ought to provide a course in nuclear physics for those not reading physics or maths. In the Cambridge of the early Fifties I well remember going along with my friends to the packed lecture hall where Otto Frisch, then Jacksonian Professor of Natural Philosophy, laid bare the essentials of his subject. I am utterly appalled how little some of the graduates who get themselves elected to the House of Commons understand these problems – while understanding very well how to obtain maximum publicity for an instant reaction.

It seemed not to occur to a number of MPs that the Russian leadership might want to concentrate their minds on doing something about the Chernobyl disaster, and mitigating its effect, rather than spending time and effort on how to present it to the Western media. The real problem is why they didn’t tell their own people earlier. Part of the explanation derives from the unfortunate situation of the Ukrainian Communist Party being at odds with Gorbachev’s Moscow. The leaders in the Ukraine constitute the last remnants of the Brezhnev era, and they were desperate to avoid handing their new masters in Moscow a stick with which to drive them out of their positions. I do not, however, understand how the Swedish Government can complain about being kept in the dark when Soviet scientists were asking the advice of their Western counterparts from a very early stage. Possibly the Western counterparts bit their tongues, correctly anticipating the sensationalised reaction of the Western press. In a situation where Mr Murdoch’s Sun can brandish over its front page a rumour that twenty thousand people have died, professionals can be forgiven for keeping their fears of an imminent catastrophe close to their chests. In the early stages, both Russian and Western scientists must surely have hoped that they could contain the situation – however forlorn that hope turned out to be. If the nuclear industry is reluctant to release information this must in part be because of what it believes to be the wilful misinterpretation of the information which it does give out.

Given that we are an electricity-dependent society, no discussion is meaningful without an assessment of the alternative means of satisfying our needs. Those who say that we should mothball our nuclear power stations and return to coal had better enter the problems of acid rain into their calculations. Personally, I do not think that the CEGB has been devious about acid rain: but, as a generalisation (and I’m wary of generalisations), it could be argued that less information has been forthcoming about acid rain than about nuclear energy. On the other hand – and the discussion is riddled with ifs, buts and meanwhiles – those who are prepared to spend money, and lots of it, on reducing power-station emissions can improve the case for coal. In the short term, there is only one option other than coal for producing electricity: oil-fired power stations. But to use a finite resource, which should be a feed-stock for industry for centuries to come, and for which there is no substitute as far as many forms of transport are concerned, would be wasteful.

Chernobyl or no Chernobyl, the generation of power by nuclear means is with us in the short term. Nobody is really going to mothball power stations under construction, condemning a blameless AGR system because of the shortcomings of distant cousins depending on graphite. As for the medium and long term, clearly a most serious debate will and should take place. I regret that more funds have not been made available for the study of wave-power at universities, such as Edinburgh, where solid work has been done. But energy, in significant quantities, from the waves is a dream of the distant future – if indeed it has any reality at all. Wind power is an even less credible alternative. To produce the energy equivalent of one medium-sized nuclear power station, one would need thirty thousand windmills, spaced, for aerodynamic reasons, over at least four hundred square miles of constantly wind-swept territory. On small islands, with minuscule needs, windmills have a role to play. So, in certain places, does geothermal energy.

The alternative which does make a lot of sense is the major barrage scheme. One effect of Chernobyl will be to give an enormous boost to proposals for a Mersey barrage, and a barrage, possibly ten times larger than the Mersey one, on the Severn. I am told that the classic Severn Barrage proposal could eventually provide up to one-sixth of the electricity needs of the United Kingdom. Two factors would affect the expense in opposite directions. Extra cost would have to be allocated to a host of conservational measures such as a shield in the area of Bridgewater to protect the Somerset levels. On the positive side of the balance sheet we ought to chalk up less unemployment benefit paid out, more tax collected from both firms and employees, and adjustments to housing benefit and national insurance contributions which the Institute of Civil Engineers reckon could amount to a return to the Exchequer of £55 million for every £100 million spent on such a major capital project. For there to be any chance of national success in Britain in a post-Chernobyl situation, we will have to achieve some kind of modus vivendi on the issue of energy policy over the coming decades. A nuclear-power programme cannot conceivably be run on a stop-go basis. Chopping and changing tends to produce the worst of all possible worlds. But to arrive at a consensus that is likely to provide stability, considerable candour will have to be shown on both sides of the argument.

It is tempting to suggest that any thought of proceeding with Sizewell should be postponed or abandoned. Yet to tread this course would place British manufacturing industry, and the design teams, in an impossibly barren situation. Without orders, valuable resources and expertise would simply wither away. The French would never dream of allowing any such situation in their own domestic manufacturing industry. In Scotland we are already 45 per cent dependent on nuclear-generated electricity, and this will rise to 60 per cent when Torness in East Lothian comes on stream. It is fanciful to suppose that such facilities should be mothballed overnight.

I have been reading Magnus Linklater and David Leigh’s book on the Westland affair.[*] One crucial passage, a quotation from an unnamed source, comes at the top of page 143:

The Prime Minister knew about the leak. She was pleased it had been done. There was a meeting between Brittan and her after the complaint from Mayhew. Only the two of them were present ... Brittan assumed she knew of [the leak’s] origins. You must draw your own conclusions.

I now know, not from the authors, who the source of this statement is. When I named Miss Colette Bowe in the House, I did so in the knowledge that she was acting on ministerial and indeed prime ministerial instructions, and that her career was therefore protected. I am not, however, prepared to name the source quoted here as they were not acting on ministerial instructions, but out of the same kind of anger at being abused that Clive Ponting displayed. To name them would be to put their careers in jeopardy. What I can say is that the source is at the very heart of Whitehall, is exceedingly unlikely to have fabricated such information and was in a position to know. It is simply not sufficient for the Prime Minister to defer comment by saying that the Select Committee on Defence is looking at Westland. The issue of prime ministerial integrity goes far beyond the substance of Westland. Mrs Thatcher must either ask for a retraction from the Observer, initiate a libel action against Linklater and Leigh, or concede that what they say is true.

[*] Not with Honour: The Inside Story of the Westland Scandal (Sphere, 218 pp., £3.95, 15 May, 0 7221 5546 8).