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Dr. Ladyman: There is an alternative way to explain the differences in the commissioning and decommissioning of nuclear power stations. Are they not being commissioned in countries that do not have access to, or the money to buy, fossil fuels? They are being decommissioned in countries that have access to such fuels, where people are prepared to close their eyes to the fate of the world and to global warming.

Mr. Stunell: That is an interesting theory. However, it is always a mistake to ask a question to which one does not know the answer. The theory is not true. India offers an obvious example; nuclear power is being developed there, but it also has huge coal reserves. China is installing nuclear power; it too has large coal reserves and is actually expanding its generation of both fossil and nuclear fuels. Switzerland offers an example for my point about liberal democracies. That country has almost no coal reserves, but has decided to abandon its nuclear programme.

Various arguments can be brought to bear on the subject--I was just about to deploy one of them--but the shortage or the presence of fossil fuels is not a significant reason for nuclear development. A significant reason for a decision not to expand or develop a country's nuclear programme is popular opinion expressed through the ballot box. That is the major constraint--not science or resources or the inability to secure cash: public opinion provides the obstruction.

The UK should not engage in an accelerated decommissioning of our civil nuclear programme, for all the reasons that have been set out in the debate. However, BNFL's plans--I am not sure if that is the right word--or ideas for building two plutonium-fuelled reactors at Sellafield seem to be wholly unrealistic according to those reasons, quite apart from any others that might be adduced.

Dr. Jack Cunningham: The hon. Gentleman says that the use of nuclear power is not expanding. In 1999,

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according to BP Amoco's world energy review, its use expanded by 4 per cent. However, that is merely a difference of opinion between the hon. Gentleman and me.

The hon. Gentleman refers to the BNFL's plan to build two reactors at Sellafield in my constituency. I do not know where he obtained his information, but the company has no plan to build even one new nuclear power station at Sellafield--let alone two plutonium-fuelled ones. He is categorically wrong about that. The company has not even discussed potential plans to build such a station. Yesterday, I held a long discussion with the chief executive of BNFL about that myth. I have a letter from the director of the Sellafield site saying the same thing; there are no plans and there have been no discussions about plans. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that his information is fundamentally wrong.

Mr. Stunell: I am happy to accept the right hon. Gentleman's assurance. My information was not meant to be an extraordinary revelation, because, as he rightly says, it is taken to be common currency. It has been put to me by several quarters, but not by BNFL. Therefore, I am happy to accept the assurances that I have been given. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman's alacrity in wanting to state the facts clearly before the House only underlines my point that the chances of expanding the civil nuclear power programme in this country are bedevilled by the problem of persuading the public that that might be a good idea.

Mr. Chaytor: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the trend away from nuclear energy in most liberal democracies is not just a question of public opposition to it--even though it would be interesting to learn how many Members would actively volunteer to have the next nuclear power station built in their constituency? The problem is not just public opposition, because liberal democracies now understand the costs of commissioning, decommissioning and dealing with waste. They have calculated that the cost is unsustainable over the full life cycle of a nuclear power station. In addition, those countries--the United States and Germany in particular--now understand the technology of renewable energy to a far greater degree than ever before and they are investing in hydrogen technologies and photovoltaics.

Mr. Stunell: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, because his thinking overlaps with mine to some extent.

I referred to liberal democracies and to the problems that are created for nuclear power by democracy. However, the "liberal" element--by that, I mean trade liberalisation--also creates a problem. As the right hon. Member for Copeland rightly pointed out, a future civil nuclear power programme in this country will be seriously handicapped, because the privatisation, deregulation and liberalisation of our electricity services mean that it is not a financially sound prospect to invest in civil nuclear power.

Were the right hon. Gentleman and I to form a financial consortium and to go to the major banks to ask them to lend us a sum approaching £800 million to build a civil nuclear power station that would be on stream in 10 years' time if we were lucky, the banks would probably tell us that that would not be a sound proposition. If they had

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£800 million, they would prefer to give it to us to do something that would gain a return in a shorter time, in which the investment was more likely to be realised and, when that investment was realised, was likely to be profitable.

Mr. O'Neill: I missed part of the hon. Gentleman's speech, but I have been following it since I returned to the Chamber. What would his reaction be if the Government of the day--party non-specific--introduced a carbon tax on energy generation? Surely, the economics of that would be transparent overnight and, given the Liberals' enthusiasm for all things fiscal, it is likely that they would not choose to oppose a carbon tax. However, were they to support one, would they go the extra mile and face the consequences of choosing what might then be the cheapest fuel, namely nuclear power?

Mr. Stunell: Serendipity sometimes works remarkably well. I had reached precisely the point in my notes where I had written about the Ochil case. The economics of producing electricity, like the economics of producing anything else, can be tilted by fiscal and regulatory measures, and the Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe might want to comment on that fact. I am sure that she will also remember that, when we served together on the proceedings of the Utilities Bill, I tabled amendments that would have introduced a carbon tax. Far from our opposing the suggestion, it is good Liberal Democrat policy and I have advocated it in the House.

Given that there will be state intervention--either fiscal or regulatory--to tilt the market in favour of one fuel or another, what will the cost of that be? I would be happy to supply the hon. Gentleman with a copy of my booklet on the topic. However, for an equivalent amount of investment by the state, one can obtain more electricity more cheaply, with less environmental impact and with much more certain support from the public by investing in renewables rather than in nuclear power.

You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, might be becoming impatient at the fact that we are exploring an issue that was not covered by the report, so I shall return to a previous point. BNFL's reputation as a company must be repaired. There is common ground in the House that, over 20, 30 or more years, the problems have followed a repeated cycle. Something happens, it is concealed and denied and that is followed by reluctant disclosure and then a promise of reform and change.

About six months before the most recent incident took place, I visited BNFL at the company's invitation in my role as the Liberal Democrats' spokesman on energy matters. I was given an extensive trip round the site and its facilities and much was explained to me. One of the key points that was made in the several presentations that I heard, including separate presentations from senior management and the trade unions, was that everything had changed and that the company now had a safety culture. I was told that the problems of the past had occurred under different managements and different regimes and before the problems had been understood. The company was absolutely focused on safety. However, I now know that,

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at almost exactly the time that I visited the company, people were filling in last year's numbers on the check sheets and creating the current problem.

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): Given that my hon. Friend is referring to BNFL's reputation, does he agree that it was an extraordinary Government decision earlier this year that the company should be put partly in charge of Britain's major nuclear arms centre at Aldermaston? Does he not agree that that is yet another good reason for putting off the privatisation of BNFL?

Mr. Stunell: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. It was a strange decision and it is a good reason for delaying the public-private partnership.

I now come to the company's business, how that might be related to what the PPP would deliver, and the risks of going down that route. It is time for the company to refocus its activities and to move on from reprocessing. As a constituency Member, as a former Minister and as a former Opposition spokesman, the right hon. Member for Copeland has been a long-term, dedicated and properly committed supporter of BNFL's work. Equally, Liberal Democrats have been sceptical of the steps that have been taken and the investment that has been made. We think that, at least to some extent, we are entitled to say, "We told you so."

THORP has always been an uneconomic project, but it has been justified in a three-legged way. First, part of it is justified because the fuel is coming through. Burning the fuel is then justified because the reprocessing is coming through and storage cannot take place because it would not be economic to stop the reprocessing. For nearly 40 years, we have had a succession of arguments that have been entirely self-reinforcing. We now have a large facility that is not working and is supplying materials that every one of its customers would desperately like not to have to buy but which they have been trapped into buying by contractual arrangements. One could say the same of Magnox business and MOX business--of course, the MOX demonstration facility has been shut down.

What should happen next? There must be ways of involving and using the work force and the technology that has been developed. There is a major worldwide decommissioning industry, not to mention decommissioning on the site in west Cumbria itself. There is a worldwide need for clean-up facilities. There is also a need for a plutonium immobilisation programme because that will solve the problem of the mountain--or the molehill, as the case may be--of plutonium that is being generated across the world.

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