Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300-311)



  300. In terms of nuclear build, and you mentioned this in your response a moment ago, is it your judgment that until the issues of the disposal of waste have been satisfactorily resolved, there should not be any new nuclear power stations built in the United Kingdom?
  (Mr Meacher) I think you ought to wait and see what the results of the PIU Report actually are, and what proposals they make or do not make about any further nuclear build. I do not think I can go beyond that point at this stage.

  301. What about the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, which again said that until there was a demonstrated solution to this problem there should not be any nuclear build? Are you constrained from commenting on that 25 year-old conclusion by virtue of this report?
  (Mr Meacher) No. The Royal Commission Report is already on the table and certainly before any new nuclear build was determined it does seem to me extremely important that the Government should have a view about the long-term disposal of waste. I am not saying that there should be no new nuclear build until the waste has been disposed of or until a decision has even been taken as to how that might be done, I am simply saying it is a decision of very great importance considering its cost and considering the long-term implications. Mrs Thatcher was very good about talking about sound finance, which I understand to be taking decisions today on the basis of today's conditions which did not involve having to borrow or find yourself in difficulties years hence, I think that is quite a good way to go in respect of waste as well.

  302. Clearly the Chancellor in looking at his golden rule knew where to look for the origins of it. As far as the CO2 emission targets are concerned, as I understand it the closure of the Magnox stations is factored into us achieving our Kyoto target. What about the situation thereafter against your own target, which sees a greater reduction of Kyoto and CO2, of the programme for the closure of the advanced gas cooled reactors? Is that reduced target achievable without having a programme to replace the AGRs?
  (Mr Meacher) The reprocessing of Magnox fuel is due to end about 2012, and that of course is well before the Sintra target date of reducing radioactive discharges to background levels by 2020. Even if reprocessing in THORP continued to 2020, the discharges will by that stage be extremely low and not inconsistent with the strategy. You are asking a wider question about the achievement of the climate change targets, not just the 5 per cent under Kyoto but a significantly higher level which I would expect to be discussed at COP 8 in November of next year when we perhaps, having got the mechanism to deliver Kyoto under our belt through Bonn and Marrakech, will then turn to what is called the "adequacy of commitment" which is in fact the targets. I would expect that many Annex 1 countries, particularly in the EU, will be arguing for further commitment periods beyond 2008-2012 to be looking at a level of 20, 25, 30 per cent. The Royal Commission, of course, was talking about 60 per cent by 2050, and indeed that is what the scientists tell us is the minimum reduction necessary to stabilise the level of CO2 in the atmosphere, which is the only way to try and arrest the future increase of climate change. So it is extremely important. Britain, happily, is in a very strong position, probably more so than any other country in the world, or equal with Germany, in terms of our targets. We have to achieve a reduction under Kyoto of 12½ per cent in the six greenhouse gases by 2010 compared to 1990, and we are on target to achieve around 23 per cent. That does give us a certain leeway. I am not suggesting we are complacent, but I do not believe the argument that it is necessary to maintain a significant nuclear source for electricity generation in order to achieve the climate change targets. There may well be other arguments for doing it, in terms of security of supply, in terms of balance, possibly in terms of cost although it rather looks the other way at the moment, but not I think the climate change one. The reduction will be gradual and, of course, over time—and again it is a question whether these are synchronised—the increase in renewable sources of energy will come on stream more and more. You will have seen, and I am not giving away any secrets because it has been leaked in the papers, a suggestion there should be a 20 per cent target for renewable sources for generating electricity by 2020, that is pretty ambitious, but again many of the companies like Shell and BP are themselves in the market intending and expecting to reach 50 per cent by 2050. If all those happened, and they are broad orders of magnitude but if that kind of progress and momentum is achieved, it is not necessary to reduce carbon generation by new nuclear build or by extending nuclear reactors. There may be other arguments for doing it but not climate change ones.

Mr Breed

  303. Can I turn to the Liabilities Management Agency. As soon as we started this investigation all sorts of things happened. First of all, the House of Lords' report was published and then suddenly we had an announcement on the LMA. You will be aware that there has been a fair bit of criticism about the way in which it is perceived, that the public sector is taking over the liabilities of BNFL and leaving them with potential profits, so it may be an area for partial privatisation in the future. How do you respond to those sort of allegations? That the setting up of the LMA is effectively lifting those massive liabilities off the company and putting them very much on to the taxpayer?
  (Mr Meacher) We have to deal with what is there. I do understand the force of that argument. There is political force behind that argument. The total level of liabilities is calculated at around £85 billion. Some of that is of military origin and of course it is over a long period of time. Approximately £34 billion of that is attributable to BNFL, something like £30 billion to MoD, about £14 billion to British Energy and about £7 billion to UKAEA, so it is not all BNFL by any means and of course this is over a long period of time. I do understand the argument, but the question is what at this stage, and this is an uncomfortable decision, are the options. Now clearly one has to manage those accumulated liabilities in one way or another. Do you just leave it with BNFL or does one find another way of trying to manage them better? Do you then look at the rest of the organisation and decide on a business plan which might enable the remainder, either in one or two parts or whatever, to be profitable? That is the discussion which is now being undertaken at the present time. It is uncomfortable but one cannot just say, "We have huge losses, let's ignore them." We have to deal with it.

  304. Doing that, effectively that is what we have done. We have lifted those liabilities and put them very much on the responsibility of the public sector.
  (Mr Meacher) Half, or thereabouts, as I have indicated, are in the military sector.

  305. But it has been suggested that that £85 billion itself may not be accurate in respect of the potential long-term waste and exactly what those liabilities are. RWMAC said it may be considerably more than £85 billion.
  (Mr Meacher) I cannot speak to that. The advice I receive is that is approximately the level. It does seem to me to be a gigantic figure and I think it is serious enough. Whether or not it is £90 billion or possibly more, let's assume it is £85 billion, it is a huge total. One does have to ask the question, if you think the Government's proposal is not the best, what is the alternative?

  306. There was some suggestion about a segregated fund for the public sector civil nuclear aspects of that, but that would have to be agreed with the Treasury presumably. Has there been any further discussion or any further movement on this whole idea?
  (Mr Meacher) No, but of course there is a consultation on this. Clearly those who have got proposals are going to tell the Government, and I am quite sure there will be parliamentary debates about this. This is on such a massive scale that I do not think there is not going to be a serious and sustained public debate; there ought to be.

  307. Are there any other options which might be available?
  (Mr Meacher) The Government has proposed its option, I think it is for others to suggest theirs.

  308. Lastly, does the LMA itself have a role in developing policy? How will it interact with any independent body? Is it going to produce its own evidence? Is it going to be actively involved in the policy-making?
  (Mr Meacher) It will of course still be subject to regulation in exactly the same way as BNFL is at the present time. It may well play a role in policy formation but it is subject to exactly the same parameters as BNFL at the present time.


  309. Minister, you have said quite frequently that you have to take a decision which is good for 10,000 years or more. We have had people suggest to us that in fact we do not want to do that because we do not wish to commit future generations to a policy which they cannot retrieve, that in fact we should do something which, if they change their mind or their technology improves, would enable them to improve on what we do. How do you respond to that? What are the implications which flow from a philosophical acceptance that that might be the sensible way forward?
  (Mr Meacher) I have a lot of sympathy with that. Unless we reach a solution which everyone shouts and claps their hands and is excited that this is obviously right and sensible, and I do not think we are going to achieve that—

  310. In which case you will panic, no doubt!
  (Mr Meacher)—there will be considerable opposition to whatever we do. To that extent, the more we can avoid irreversibility the better it is. That is why, even if one goes for deep level disposal, I think it should remain retrievable and monitorable for a long period of time. But I repeat, there is a lot of technological work being undertaken in many countries—Sweden, Finland, USA—trying to resolve this problem. I think it would be very unwise prematurely or precipitously to come to a conclusion when, as you indicate, it is possible there might be some kind of break-through in 10 or 20 years in one of these countries. We have got 50 years, 50 years is a long time with some of the most able people in the nuclear industry in the world having their minds concentrated on this problem. I think there is a reasonable prospect that we will find technology not available today which is better than anything currently at our disposal.

  311. A week is a long time in politics, Minister, we have been talking about slightly longer timescales than that today. We are grateful to you for coming to see us. You are one of our more regular customers, or we are one of your more regular customers. We thank you for your evidence today, we look forward to seeing you in the New Year and, leaving all politics apart, we wish you a Happy Christmas.
  (Mr Meacher) Thank you, and may I you.

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