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5.3 pm

Bob Spink (Castle Point): As a responsible nation, we must move from a carbon-based economy to a hydrogen- based one. Only by retaining a nuclear option can we provide the stepping stone that we need to make that change successfully. A hydrogen-based economy is not yet a practical option—for instance, we need continued research and development into fuel cells—and we need time to reach a longer term solution. A reliable, safe, cheap, environmentally friendly, secure interim solution is not available now. We will have to compromise on some of the criteria, but we cannot sacrifice safety or our environment and, therefore, cost is under great pressure.

The PIU report predicts that gas could supply 70 per cent. of our total electricity needs by 2025, 90 per cent. of which will have to be imported from Russia, north Africa and the middle east, with all the obvious threats to security of supply and cost that that would entail. The suggestion that gas is an easy solution, and that we can be sanguine about our increased exposure to imported gas, is naive. Other hon. Members have called that total madness.

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The Kyoto protocol sets the goal of a 50 per cent. reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. Renewables and energy savings, especially in the domestic market, must be energetically pursued and can make a sound contribution, but only at the margins. The real option for replacing the current 27 per cent. nuclear capacity is between new nuclear reactors, based of course on the best available safe and reliable technology with improved economy, or even more carbon, at a time when carbon emissions must be reduced.

Some Labour Members baulk at the word nuclear. They are averse to technology, but Lord Sainsbury—who I presume was speaking for the Government—said that it was most important to convince the public that the application of science and technology is the solution to the present problems, not the cause. He said:

perhaps even the nuclear engineers—

The belief that people will not change their habits conflicts with the PIU report's recommendation that we should aim for a 20 per cent. power saving in the domestic sector in only eight years, and for 40 per cent. in 18 years. Those targets are overly optimistic.

We need to follow Japan, which is committed to maintaining nuclear power. Like Finland and the US, Japan has a plan for long-term radioactive waste management. It has also committed itself to a major programme of research on nuclear fusion. It is a partner with the EU in the international thermonuclear experimental reactor.

We must hope that nuclear fusion will be the longer term solution, because it is potentially the most significant opportunity facing the scientific world today. Recent developments are encouraging. Physicists in the USA make claims—viable ones, I hope—to have created nuclear fusion through sonoluminescence or bubble fusion, using deuterated acetone. Other scientists have voiced doubts about that method and the truth will emerge from the current debate in good time.

There are other ways to create nuclear fusion. For example, the fast-ignition approach uses intense short-pulse energy to initiate fusion reactions. Those could be generated by the upgraded Vulcan laser at the Rutherford Appleton laboratory near Oxford, which could create temperatures and pressures comparable to those found inside the stars. That is exciting and—to some—frightening, but nuclear fusion offers an unlimited and safe energy source with no waste problems. It is a target for the whole world to aim at, in this blue sky debate.

Other hon. Members have mentioned waste problems, and I shall try to put them into context. If we decide to replace nuclear with nuclear, we would add only 5 to 10 per cent. to the existing stockpiles of nuclear waste that we need to manage regardless of the decision. Therefore waste is not a key issue in the debate, although it is an important problem that we need to tackle.

We have much of the technology to deal with nuclear waste but we have none of the political courage to make the decision to deal with it appropriately. The PIU report seeks, impossibly, to square a circle in advocating low cost and low carbon outputs. Those two are incompatible. It is granted that costs are currently very low—1.7p per kWh—

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but to achieve those low costs we are running out our oldest, least efficient and dirtiest plants. Indeed, carbon emissions increased last year by 1.5 per cent. at a time when we are promising to reduce carbon emissions by a massive amount, and when global temperature in the first three months of this year was the highest ever. With parts of my constituency—Canvey Island, of which Members will have heard before—below sea level, global warming as a result of increased carbon emissions, which is causing sea levels to rise, is a matter of pragmatic concern. It is not an academic debate for my constituents—they live with it day to day.

Another key and difficult issue is that very low prices inhibit new investment, and, therefore, hold back the development of safer and cleaner technologies. Many commentators regard 2.7p per kWh as a more appropriate current price planning level. Even at that level, however, the private sector would be reluctant to finance innovative new technology such as the new nuclear plants that are now emerging—for instance, pebble bed reactors. Government support will be needed to ensure that we get medium-term energy supply that is secure, reliable, safe, environmentally friendly and as cheap as possible, consistent with those aforementioned criteria.

The PIU has avoided the obvious decision to replace nuclear with nuclear. It talks of 20 per cent. of energy coming from renewables by 2020. I believe that that is an unrealistic target. I suggest a future energy profile, an alternative to the PIU approach, using coal via gasification with CO 2 sequestration, balanced with a third of generation from gas—that is just about manageable within our objectives of stability and security—with about 15 per cent. from renewables and savings. That would provide a realistic strategy. It would require the replacement, however, of the UK's existing nuclear capacity with the latest reactor technology, as David White of the Institute of Chemical Engineers has explained. That more balanced strategy is lower risk. It spreads our sources of energy evenly and creates a greater degree of self-sufficiency while we buy time as a nation to pursue the necessary research and development into new hydrogen-based technologies and improved renewables.

In summary, our current energy generation plant and technology is old, inefficient and in dire need of replacement. Our over-dependence on gas is not the answer; it is the soft, sloppy, dangerous option. It would put our supplies at security and cost risk and hand strategic control of our nation's energy to uncertain foreign powers in unstable areas of the world. The sensible solution is a balanced generation strategy, building up renewables to supply about 15 per cent. of our energy requirements, with one third produced from new coal technologies, one third from gas, and 20 to 25 per cent. from new reactor capacity. That is the courageous, and, if I may say so, the Churchillian vision—the rational interim solution. It provides an environmentally sound and geopolitically secure medium-term energy supply while we search for a—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order.

5.12 pm

Ms Debra Shipley (Stourbridge): I am pleased to be called today because I want to explore the position of my Government regarding nuclear power, and to consider

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some of the statements made by Ministers, including the Prime Minister, on the environment and renewables. In brief, the argument appears to be: we are running out of natural energy resources, CO 2 is a problem, nuclear power is CO 2 -free, and renewables cannot meet out power requirements. Let me try to deal with some of those points.

Are we running out of natural energy? A statistical survey by the World Resources Institute of the world's mineral reserves predicted that, in 2050, we will have run out of oil and will have just two years' supply of gas left. Better news is that we will still have 380 years' supply of coal, but, of course, consumption of coal creates CO 2 , a major greenhouse gas. The same study suggested that we will run out of arsenic—very useful—cadmium, copper, gold, lead, sulphur, tin and zinc, and that recycling will be the only way to get hold of those primary elements.

Meanwhile, the world population is growing quickly. I will be one of 9 billion—not 6 billion—people on the planet. All 9 billion of us will aspire to living standards that Britain currently enjoys. Many visions of a dystopian future are offered to us: apocalypse by volcano, the coming global super storm, global warming, rising sea levels and warfare over diminishing stocks of fresh water and energy. Current nightmares are sparked by 11 September and dirty bombs. All that does not include things such as weird weather conditions and incoming asteroids.

It is important to remember how wrong most warnings have proved to be. In 1914, the US Bureau of Mines forecast that 10 years worth of oil was left. In 1951, the Department of the Interior predicted exhaustion of oil reserves by 1964. However, the overwhelming scientific evidence that we have suggests that global warming indeed exists and that it is a human creation. I therefore commend my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's timely foresight in reviewing our energy requirements. That review must be wide ranging.

For instance, the politics of some of the most unstable and illiberal regimes critically affect world raw material and energy reserves, and western involvement in the middle east is inextricably linked to the importation of energy. Oilfields and gas pipelines are central to the developed world's concern with Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, the Gulf and the ex-Soviet states.

A book on the Taliban by Ahmed Rashid revealingly illustrates the existing and proposed oil and gas pipelines in the region and the oil and gasfields that they serve. The suggestion is that energy control is already playing a significant part in warfare on the supply side while, on the demand side of the equation, consumption, consumerism and economic growth seem addicted to using up diminishing energy resources. By 2050, Kyoto will seem to have been a muted wake-up call.

To survive in the current century in a comfortable and relatively peaceful way, we will need to make a supreme political effort and engage in global co-operation. Dystopia is extremely easy to create. The real struggle will be trying to create the conditions for our continued long-term existence. We will have to do so with less, and harvest the sun, wind, rain, tides and energy stored in the core of the earth.

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What is the Government's position? In response to my question on the environmental impact of the proposed European energy market, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister illustrated the current dilemmas. He said:

Later in the reply, he stated the current orthodoxy:

I could not agree more.

I have since asked a series of parliamentary questions on renewable energy to see the state of play of the Government's commitment to alternative energy sources. I received a reply from the Department of Trade and Industry to my question about the renewables obligation. It said:

That is interesting.

I welcome the creation of demand for renewables, however small, and I suggest that it is very small. Furthermore, £260 million over three years to March 2004 is proposed to be spent directly on support for renewable energy initiatives. Again, I welcome that, but proportionately it is a very small sum.

I also asked the DTI how it would ensure that sustainable energy and realistic pricing would not increase fuel poverty. My hon. Friend the Minister for Energy and Construction said:

In the same reply, however, there was an implication that energy prices would rise. I am therefore not totally reassured that my poorer Stourbridge constituents will be protected from increasing fuel poverty, but I am pleased that some of them have already benefited from the warm homes initiative to insulate their properties.

I also welcome the planning Green Paper, which made several references to sustainability in its introduction. However, sustainability is not embedded in the proposals.

Construction creates nearly half the harmful pollutants that now concern us. It also depletes natural resources and the countryside. My recommendation to the planning Green Paper was that there should be separate statements about the sustainability of any development and that they should include statements on the embodied energy of chosen materials, life cycle costs, adjacency of public transport, car use and pollution generated by use.

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The previous Minister for Planning and Housing assured me in writing that the omission will be rectified in the White Paper. I am pleased to put his response on record. He said:

I will be most interested to see how the Government do.

Furthermore, excellent design can meet stringent environmental designs. One of the current awards by the Royal Institute of British Architects is for a barn conversion by Hudson Featherstone that limits materials to those available within a five-mile radius. It is possible to reduce energy expended in construction in a simple and direct way. Energy wasted in construction and in the use of buildings is only just beginning to be tightened in new building regulations. The move to limit the generation of CO 2 by domestic buildings could have a significant impact. Dr. Susan Roaf built a suburban house in Oxford using existing technology to reduce the amount of CO 2 produced to around 150 kg per annum from the average of 6,500 kg for a comparable conventional house.

The nuclear option ignores two things: the dangerous waste products that are created and the intrinsic threat that nuclear power stations now pose as terrorist targets. What does exist requires generations of political stability, which is unrealistic. In addition, 11 September demonstrated the potential vulnerability of nuclear plants.

The existing nuclear programme is coming to the end of its life, and maintaining a nuclear component for energy production means building new power stations. Private money has yet to be attracted to the lifetime costs of construction, disposal and, importantly, the decommissioning of nuclear power stations. It is an expensive, insecure, uncertain and hazardous option. By contrast, if every dwelling in this country came just part of the way to meet the CO2 reductions of the Roaf house, nuclear power would become an irrelevant option. We must consider how much more secure a country is if it is full of dwellings that act as micro-power stations, each self-sufficient in an emergency.

Every surface of every man-made object, from roads to buildings, could collect energy from the sun. Solar trains could have massive collectors on their backs and run on rails ballasted by solar collecting rocks. That is not a utopian dream. It is a real option and we have the nascent technology for it. For example, Marks Barfield Architects, designers of the London Eye, has just won an architectural competition for a solar collecting walkway in Cambridge to power electrical shuttle buses. That uses a developing painted, not manufactured, technology.

Many hon. Members who contributed to the debate have nuclear interests in their constituencies and they rightly pressed their constituents' concerns. I have no such nuclear interests and my constituents probably have different views. I cannot do better than quote from Mr. Lea Williams, who wrote:

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