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4.29 pm

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): That excellent speech by the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) illustrates the important interplay, mentioned earlier, between matters connected with the environment, technology, taxation, and, indeed, industry. All those factors affect energy policy.

I agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about the role of the rural economy and agriculture in our future policy. I was heartened for a brief moment when I saw the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs come into the Chamber, but she disappeared very quickly. Sadly, the Minister was not supported by someone from that Department. Although such support might be symbolic, it would show a dimension that has not been much discussed hitherto in the debate.

This debate shows the House of Commons at its best. We have heard excellent, well informed and knowledgeable speeches, and I have already learned a considerable amount from the contributions of right hon. and hon. Members so far. None the less, energy security lies at the heart of the matter. The PIU report has been cited almost as a security-free zone, but I would counsel colleagues to read page 86. In box 5.1, we find a telling but short sentence. Under the words "natural gas", it says:

That is prefaced by this acknowledgement:

The report acknowledges the importance of what it describes as "geopolitical concerns".

The speeches that we have heard so far illustrate clearly the fact that in the world of energy supply, there are no absolute certainties but a great number of complex issues, so it is important to have a balanced portfolio, as the Minister has said, and the Government have a central role to play. Given the energy providers, it is easy to believe that this is almost a private sector matter—but it is not; it is a very public matter that involves large parts of the public sector.

The public sector sets the environmental targets and the fiscal regime. It deals with agriculture and rural policy. Most importantly, it deals with the establishment of the electricity market, and sets the regulatory framework in which the industry operates. The Government therefore have a central role, so their consultation exercise is to be welcomed, and the questions and challenges thrown up by the PIU are central to our further discussions.

It is important that, unlike the United States, we remain fully wedded to the aim of achieving our Kyoto targets, and address the decline in the amount of electricity that can be generated from nuclear sources in the future. I want to say a few words about that from my constituency standpoint.

My constituency is the home of BNFL's Springfield plant. Apart from the fuel for pressurised water reactors, all the other fuels for nuclear power stations are produced in my constituency. The tremendous efforts that the work force at the Springfield plant have already made to improve not only their efficiency but the safety of their operations are noteworthy. They have recently won a national aware for the way in which they operate.

Although a while ago, the events at Sellafield perhaps represent a blot on the landscape of safety and probity in the nuclear industry. However, post-Windscale, we in the

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United Kingdom have had a safe, regular and consistent supply of nuclear electricity and the waste has been dealt with, difficult though that may be. The plants that manufacture nuclear fuel have a record of increased investment and improved safety. Without doubt, if my constituents were here today, they would make a plea to be given an early and clear indication of just what the future of the nuclear electricity industry will be.

BNFL, with its expertise now drawn from Westinghouse, which it took over in the United States, has produced new and interesting design prospects. From the United Kingdom's point of view, the best design is the Westinghouse-designed AP1000 reactor, the potential cost of which could certainly match, if not better, anything currently available. In fact, it is said that that design's potential cost of generation could be competitive with the current average bulk electricity price.

Clearly, we all want a competitive and—I suppose most people think—cheap electricity supply. We need a pricing policy that provides affordable energy, but does not preclude a range of options, and helps to provide a secure electricity supply. If the returns are not right, people will not invest in the variety of energy sources that hon. Members have mentioned today. Without that cocktail of different sources, we will not have the security of supply that, above all, should underpin this country's energy policy.

One of the key issues is the disposal of nuclear waste. The Select Committee on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, of which I am a member, recently conducted an in-depth study into the consultation exercise that is trying to build a consensus on what we should do with such waste. The time scale is too long and the idea of a universal public debate is heroic. It has been suggested that because there will have been a debate, there will be no explosion of opposition when someone at last points a finger at the map and says, "We'll get rid of it there"—but we have to recognise that that is not the case.

Perhaps we also have to recognise that we are seeking a sort of ideal state that the technology cannot provide, whether for the legacy of waste or for the waste from nuclear power stations. Perhaps we should recognise the fact that what we need to sustain our nuclear industry is an acceptance that we shall do our best with technology at our disposal, such as dry storage, on-site storage at nuclear power stations and some form of deep but perhaps not absolutely final repository, just as the Finns have done. The Finns have recently decided to build a fifth nuclear power station, and they accept that they cannot provide the absolute ultimate answer, because they recognise that the disposal technology is moving on.

BNFL's proposed new nuclear reactor is based on a proven design. Westinghouse has designed about 50 per cent. of the power stations already in service. The design builds on pressurised water reactor technology, which is known and proven. Fail-safe technology has been built into the new AP1000, making it one of the safest designs possible. It relies not on pump technology for cooling water if something goes wrong, but on good old-fashioned gravity. It is an extremely safe design, and I hope that it will commend itself to the House and the Government.

My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) mentioned waste, and opting for like-for-like replacement would effectively produce less waste, given the newer technology. The old "If it ain't broke, don't fix

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it" formula underpins the question of nuclear power—it is certainly not broken, and it has proved successful. It is worth stating that some 438 commercial nuclear reactors are in operation, 32 are under construction and 35 are planned.

Nuclear power is the largest source of electricity in Europe, and new building programmes are being commenced in Finland and the United States. It is certainly not a redundant technology. As for providing security, it is something that we can have and hold, and secure for ourselves. Certainly, British engineering technology is well up with the rest of the world when it comes to constructing plants and producing fuel.

Risk is a key word in the energy world. The nuclear industry may be risky, and there are certain problems with it, but coal has its risks, too, including carbon dioxide emissions. Clean-coal technology has been discussed, and I support efforts to secure the use of that indigenous technology. Risk is involved in the interruptability of renewable energy sources, but I personally support the development of those sources because that will give us a balanced portfolio. Saving energy using better insulation and building techniques also involves risks.

There is no guarantee that all the sources will deliver simultaneously, so, as the Minister said, we need a balanced energy portfolio. Not just for parochial reasons, but for good national reasons, I believe that nuclear power, with modern new power station designs, can underpin a sensible United Kingdom energy policy, and I support it.

4.39 pm

Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown): I am glad that the PIU report has been produced and that we can debate it today, but I want to challenge some of the terms of the debate and the basic assumptions that underpin it.

The terms of the debate drive the outcomes. The political drivers for both the debate and the PIU report are, as we have just heard from the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), security of supply and the need for cheap affordable energy. That is fine. However, another political driver—the overwhelmingly important one—should be climate change.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs publishes climate change scenarios and recently issued an update. I commend those documents to everyone. We should all read them—they are required reading. The scenarios are scientifically sound—I am convinced of that—and they make it clear that even if we start to take action on carbon dioxide emissions now, the milder of their forecasts, at least, will still come into effect. Some of the more extreme scenarios would happen even if we implemented the Kyoto targets, but if we do not do that things will get worse and worse.

If we are to slow down the inevitability of climate change, we need to adopt targets more like the 60 per cent. cut in carbon dioxide emissions proposed by the royal commission on environmental pollution. We should be doing that almost immediately if we are to make a significant difference.

I give much credence to the catastrophic scenarios—they are truly terrifying. As we know, the polar ice caps are already melting at an alarming rate and mountain

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glaciers are retreating. Once the ice has gone global warming will accelerate, and one of the likely climate changes will mean dry winters in what are currently areas of tropical rain forest. If the Amazonian rain forest were to burn, the huge quantities of carbon locked up in that enormous carbon sink would be released.

Carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere would double and climate change would again accelerate precipitately. It might reach the point at which the northern and southern oceans warmed up sufficiently for the enormous deposits of methane hydrates on the ocean beds to be released—the seas would boil and methane would be released into the atmosphere in massive quantities.

Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The planet would fry. Temperatures would go up by at least 20 deg C. The inevitable consequence would be the mass extinction of species, including the human race. That is a truly terrifying scenario and it could even happen in 2050, if we do not start to take action now. There is evidence in recorded geological history that just such a scenario once occurred. That is why carbon dioxide reduction at the earliest possible moment should be the crucial driver.

It is thus imperative that we put the emphasis on production of energy that does not involve carbon dioxide. The report has a great deal to say about that. I agree with its recommendation for a 20 per cent. saving in home energy consumption by 2010, which is completely consistent with the target in the guidance in the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995, of 30 per cent. between 1996 and 2010.

Unfortunately, if things go on as they are and we take no further action, we shall miss those targets by 6 percentage points. The way to fill that gap, which equates to a few million tonnes of carbon dioxide, happens to be through my Bill, so I hope that the House will forgive me if I do a brief plug for it. Only slight obstacles remain and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will use his eloquence to maintain Government support for my Bill to ensure its passage. Significant environmental and social benefits could be achieved, and the measure will make a contribution to our energy future.

I want to concentrate on renewables. Although the PIU report recognises that by 2050, wave and tidal energy will make a massive contribution to the UK's energy requirements, I take strong issue with its view that by 2020 there will be almost no such contribution. We are in a unique position geographically, in having energy sources that are capable of supplying more than twice our current electricity generation requirements. It would be complete folly not to exploit them to the greatest possible extent.

Furthermore, to return to security of supply, there is nothing more secure than the waves—who can interfere with them?—and the tide, which flows with exact timing, predictability and strength wherever one goes. Tidal power is just as capable of supplying what is frequently claimed of nuclear power by its proponents—a regular and predictable baseline load. It is vital to develop it.

The assumption is that it will take 30 or 40 years to make significant developments in tidal power. We should consider the example of wind power in Denmark and

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Germany, where we can see what Government priorities can do—even in a liberalised energy market—to exploit a technology and bring it to a commercial point of development.

There are already demonstrators in the water that are working successfully, and if the Government took wave and tide power seriously and gave the technologies enthusiastic support, which would not need a massive Government investment, those energy sources could be supplying the bulk of the 20 per cent. renewables target by 2020. Furthermore, we would have a wonderful green industrial revolution through the manufacturing industries that supplied the technologies, and we could offer the world a great example by doing something about climate change and providing energy at an economic cost. Even before commercial development and exploitation, the demonstrator machines operate at about 5p per KWh, and it is reasonable to assume that the generating costs will fall to meet the current costs of fossil fuel generation. It is unrealistic to expect that fossil fuel prices will remain at their current low level.

However, there are constraints on the development of those sources—

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