Examination of Witness (Questions 200-219)|
6 JULY 2004
Q200 Mr Key: That is not very bold leadership,
Mr Blair: I agree, Robert. I will
tell you what, I will do a deal with you, Robert, we will put
one in your constituency first and you can lead and I will follow.
Q201 Mr Key: I still maintain that is
a pretty weak approach to this problem. After all, there are over
430 nuclear reactors around the world in 31 countries and, as
it happens, five of those countries make up half the population
of the world and over 50 years nuclear energy has proved to be
the safest of all energy sources. So why are we not prepared to
take the lead here?
Mr Blair: There is a cost issue.
You have to work out how you are going to engage with the public
on the basis of acceptability. The reason why in our White Paper
we kept the door open deliberatelyand I think we were attacked
at the time for keeping the door openis because I think
it is not sensible for us to say, "Because of the public
concern about this we are just shutting the door." Let us
be clear, when you embark upon this you are going to have to be
clear both about the costs and that you can meet the concerns
over public safety.
Q202 Mr Key: I would maintain that on
neither are you giving a lead, Prime Minister. Look at costs,
your own figures from the DTI on generation costs in 2025 point
out that nuclear could be cheaper than offshore wind. I believe
that if you are going to use your G8 Presidency to champion climate
change you will be going into the conference chamber half-naked
if you will not come off the fence.
Mr Blair: I think that is an interesting
thought. I agree with you to this extent. I have fought long and
hard, both within my party and outside, to make sure that the
nuclear option is not closed off, but I think we have got to be
realistic about this. If we are going to develop a new generation
of nuclear power stations, we are going to have to do a lot more
work on reassuring people both on the cost and on the safety grounds
and we are going to have to have a debate in which people understand
the science and, in particular, which I think is the real issue
to do with nuclear power, the difference between a nuclear power
station and the development of nuclear weapons, because I think
what happens in scientific terms is that the two get mixed up
together. I am not pretending to you that the Government has been
majoring on this issue recently because we have not been, but
we have left the door open for that debate. I also think, frankly,
the more it happens in a cross-party way the better because I
think it is one of these issues that obviously is highly potent
in the political field. I agree with you to this extent, that
you cannot remove it from the agenda if you are serious about
the issue of climate change. There is no point in me sitting here
completely blind to the political reality. Unless we overcome
these two hurdles our progress will be limited.
Q203 Mr Key: Prime Minister, if you will
come off the fence, I will come off the fence half-naked or not.
Even in decommissioning our own nuclear power stations, the UK
skills base is aging, people are retiring and they are not being
replaced. Are you content with the thought that we will be out-sourcing
our nuclear engineers and workforce from India and China in a
Mr Blair: No. The skills base,
as you would rightly go on to tell me, requires us also to make
sure that we are developing the new generation of nuclear reactors
because that skills base requires updating in respect of that.
I think as well that there is a serious casethis may be
one of the things we can do in the course of our presidency of
the G8which is to try and put before people the facts as
we know them, not just about nuclear power, but about renewables
and about the research and development that is necessary and about
the impact of climate change so you get a more rational debate
and I am very happy to engage in that.
Q204 Mr Key: Should we be spending more
research money on nuclear fusion or the hydrogen economy?
Mr Blair: I think we are looking
at the moment on nuclear fusion as to how we put investment into
that research. I find that a very interesting idea and I know
that David King is keen that we look at that and that we look
at that with the United States as well. One thing I should say,
to be fair to the US, is they put an awful lot of money into research.
One of the things that we could do at the G8 level is, insofar
as that is possible, to share some of the benefits of this research
knowledge because all of these thingsdeveloping fuel cell
technologyrequire a massive lead time and investment.
Q205 Dr Gibson: You might be able to
resolve the problems in the G8 between different nations about
the siting of the new thermonuclear reactor that they are going
to put in Europe somewhere and they are all arguing where it should
be and it has been going on for some time and we desperately need
that in the G8 Bill now.
Mr Blair: This is the debate about
whether it is in Europe or Japan, is it?
Q206 Dr Gibson: Yes.
Mr Blair: I hope that we will
resolve that reasonably soon.
Q207 Mr O'Neill: Prime Minister, you
seem to be confusing, certainly me, about timescales. As far as
I can see, by about 2011 to 2012 we will have virtually no coal-fired
stations of any substance in the UK. We will have diminished quite
considerably our nuclear capacity because of obsolescence and
the end of life and various things like that. We will have become
increasingly dependent upon gas. I do not think there are many
bookies taking odds on renewables. We might reach 10% by 2011
it and it does not matter if it slips a wee bit, but I do not
think there is a cat in hell's chance of us getting 20% by 2020.
The point, therefore, is that we are going to have a generating
gap probably around 2013/2015 and we cannot wait until we redevelop
our own nuclear stations. The history of British nuclear power
has been ridiculous "Union Jack projects" where, in
fact, there are probably going to be ones from America or South
Africa that we could usefully employ and there are sites which
will be freed up as a consequence of the closure of the stations
that I mentioned. There are opportunities that do not have to
be addressed and probably thankfully this side of the General
Election, but very shortly afterwards they will have to be. Would
you agree with that logic or am I being a little too pointed in
bringing up words like General Election?
Mr Blair: No. Irrespective of
the General Election, I think within the next few years there
are some very difficult decisions that we will have to take on
this. Precisely because of the points you make, Martin, that is
why I think there has been a deal struck recently in respect of
Norway and imported gas. We believe we have sufficient energy
reserves that are available to us to deal with this. I agree,
there is a question that does not arise for decision today but
will arise within the next few years, which is whether as your
existing nuclear power stations run down you try and replace that
and replace it with the latest technology which, as you say, round
the world is developing in a different way from the generation
of nuclear power stations that we have now. I am not in a position
to make a decision or give an indication on that, but I do not
disagree with the essential thrust that you are making. There
is a real issue for us about energy supply in the medium to long
Q208 Mr O'Neill: At the moment who is
looking at this on your behalf in Government?
Mr Blair: We published the paper
on energy policy precisely because we needed to look at this and
the Strategy Unit within the Cabinet Office also looked very closely
at what the future energy needs were going to be and how we were
likely to meet them. We are continuing to do that. Defra and the
DTI are in the lead on it.
Q209 Dr Gibson: Is that not the problem,
there are so many departments with their fingers in the pie, you
either need a Ministry of Energy, which we have had before in
this country, or a minister who champions the whole link up and
there does not appear to be anybody emerging?
Mr Blair: We realise we have got
to be in the position to take these decisions within the next
few years. The nature of the decisions is such that it will be
at a fairly senior level that we need to get this sorted out.
Q210 Mr O'Neill: One of Europe's unsung
achievements last year was to have the chemical Directive offered
by the EU radically removed and it was perhaps one of the few
occasions when there was big power unity between Germany, France
and the UK on an issue. It highlights another aspect, which is
the competing claims of Defra whose desire is to meet Kyoto at
all costs and in the quickest possible time and then the DTI which
has a responsibility to represent the interests of industry. So
we have got the Climate Change Levy, we have got emissions trading,
we have the large plant directive, all of which are imposing sizable
burdens on British industry and our capacity to generate the wealth
which will enable us to subsidise less economic forms of electricity
generation in the future. Are you happy that there is the right
balance or do you think that we have undue creative tension between
the two departments?
Mr Blair: I think in a way what
you and others have been questioning me on actually leads us to
the conclusion that there is no reason why the two should be in
conflict. The starting point of Robert's question was really that
climate change is a serious issue, have we measured up to the
scale of the challenge? The whole issue to do with nuclear power,
with renewables and so on is how do we make sure that we have
a sufficiently secure energy supply that is compatible with the
requirements of the environment in dealing with climate change?
Inevitably that is something where you have got to have the Government
working together. I do not honestly think it is the problem. I
think you put your finger on the problem earlier, which is that
these decisions are so big about future energy links that it is
going to be very hard to see how we deal with this unless you
are prepared to take a big and reasonably bold decision. There
is not a great problem in the short term because we have got sufficient
supplies of gas and so on that we can buy in. I think longer term
there is. To be fair to the United States, they raised some of
these issues to do with nuclear power. Where they have shifted
their ground somewhat is that they used to be saying they did
not accept this as a problem. They are now saying we do accept
it as a problem, but if we accept it as a problem, why is nuclear
power ruled off the agenda? Why are we unprepared to look at this
solution and that solution? That is where they do have a point.
The other thing is, for those countries that are heavily dependent
on carbon fuels, again there is technology that can be developed
there to make those cleaner and they are of huge importance but
it requires a massive research effort. I think the interesting
thing about climate change is that it is an issue that every political
leader really knows is a very big long-term question. There is
no political leader for whom it is such a short-term problem that,
as it were, you can knock every obstacle out of the way in order
to deal with it. Talking about some of the security threats that
we face, as we will be doing later, and the need to co-operate
at an international level, this is par excellence an issue
that cannot be dealt with by any one country. Even if Britain
meets all its Kyoto targets (and I believe we will) but supposing
we do and other people do not meet them, the actual impact on
the world environment is pretty limited. So it is an issue where
there is, I think, a tremendous need for the beginnings of agreement
at the international level as to how you tackle this. The reason
I made it a priority for our G8 is not because I suddenly think
the Americans, whatever the famed British influence or not, are
suddenly going to say "Right, that's a very persuasive argument,
we will go with Kyoto"they will notbut what
I do hope to do is to get agreement on certain key principles
that inform this debate, and a way of working to move it forward
in the future.
Q211 Dr Gibson: You must have been saying
this all your political life, really. You have seen the problemand
you had an energy brief at one time, I think, in your careerand
people make these speeches and it sounds great, and wonderful,
and nothing much happens. Somebody has got to take the bull by
the horns at some point and go for it, and whatever devices you
have to use politically have to be used. Is there not that all-consuming
demand to get it done, for any politician, to hide it because
"I'll be out of office before it happens and before the lights
go out in London and before the water comes streaming down"all
that kind of scenario?
Mr Blair: One of the things we
have done recently, and you may have been involved in this, is
we got together a group of people from different countries, all
of whom are interested in this climate change issue, and we also
deliberately got in touch with some of the states in the United
States, because some of them are actually supportive of what we
are trying to do. I think the beginnings of this is to get agreement
on certain principles, to get agreement on the science and then
to get a way of working forward. The thing I have become more
and more convinced of, looking at this, is that unless one major
part of this is a push on the science and technology to do with
renewable energy, to do with energy efficiency and to do with
issues to do, say, with nuclear power, we are not going to resolve
this. We are not going to resolve it if you are going to end up
saying to these major emerging economies: "We want you to
cut growth in some way". That just will not happen.
Q212 Dr Gibson: I think many of the scientists
and technologists think the science is there; there are so many
renewable options now, it is just making them work. There are
debates in the Chamber here about bio fuels incessantly which
would bring the agricultural industry in East Anglia up to the
heights. They could do it but the tax incentives are not being
provided and so on. There are wind farms all over the East Anglian
coastup they are going, wind turbines. There are all sorts
of things going on, we just need to make it really work. Biomass,
everythingthere are dozens of renewable sources.
Mr Blair: But there are also big
issues to do with how you make it cost effective. For example,
if you take something like tidal power and tidal energy, there
is potentially a huge significance in that. I was up in the North
East visiting a scientific project looking at tidal energy the
other day and they were explaining to me that tidal energy, in
theory, can meet all the energy demands of the entire country,
but then they were explaining to me that the scientific and technology
problem is not understanding what tidal power can do, it is understanding
how you can deliver it at anything like a realistic cost. That
is where I think the research is very important, and the same
issues arise in relation to fuel cell technology.
Q213 Mr Ainsworth: Prime Minister, the
impression I am left with, after listening to those recent exchanges
and your talk about big and bold decisions needing to be made
at some point in the future, is not so much that you are keeping
the nuclear option on a back burner but it is actually a decision
which, somewhere inside your own mind, has already been takenbecause
I cannot think of what other big and bold decisions you might
be going to take in relation to energy. Do you not think you are
leaving it all a bit late if the time-frame that Ian Gibson set
out is correct (and I believe that is right)? As you pointed out
to Robert Key, the idea of building new nuclear power stations
quickly and easily is hardly feasible. If you have actually decided
to reinvest in nuclear, why do you not just say so?
Mr Blair: We have not, Peter.
We have not made that decision. We are not going to be in a position
to make that decision for the near future.
Q214 Mr Ainsworth: How long are you going
to give renewables to make up the gap?
Mr Blair: We have got our renewable
target, and although it is challenging we believe that we can
meet it. We do not have to take the decision on nuclear power
at this present time. The significance of what we did in the paper
on energy is that we left the door open. As I say, there were
people who wanted us to close it off. We have not, but we are
not in a position to take a decision yet. It is not that we cannot
in the near term meet our energy requirementswe can. As
I say, the deal that was struck recently with Norway is a perfect
example of that. I think there is something like 20% of the gas
needs met through that. We can do that. I do not think that is
the issue, I think the issue is the interplay between the environmental
question and the energy requirements. That is the difficult thing.
It is not there are insufficient reserves of gas in the world
that we could have access to in the near term; that is not the
problem, the problem is how are we going to not merely meet Kyoto
but end up with a radical reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
Q215 Mr Ainsworth: Just on that point:
you talk a good game, Prime Minister, on these issues, and you
do it internationally and make a lot of good noises about it,
but do you not feel slightly embarrassed when you make the case
for the need to tackle climate change when you look at the record
of your own government which has, since 1997, seen a 0.2% decrease
in CO2 emissions when we were achieving 1 per cent-a-year decreases
during the 1990s? Why do you think the pace has slowed so dramatically?
Mr Blair: Of course, the pace
was very dramatic because we were closing coal mines and coal-fired
Q216 Mr Ainsworth: Is that before you
were interested in climate change?
Mr Blair: No, I have been interested
in climate change as well; I am just explaining why the rate was
very strong in those times. Actually, we will meet our Kyoto targets,
so it is not that we talk a good game, we have done a good game,
and that is in periods of high economic growth. In the late-80s/early-90s
we had a recession. We have had strong economic growth and we
are still managing to meet our Kyoto targets. We introduced the
Climate Change Levy, though it was not very popular, let me say,
with parts of business, but, nevertheless, we did it and that
has contributed to meeting our targets as well. So I do not think
we have just talked a good game.
Q217 Mr Ainsworth: I apologise, but we
have our own target as well, which is a 20% reduction, as you
know. We are currently standing at minus 7.5% against the 1990
figure, which is the benchmark figure. I just do not know how
you are going to make up the extra 12.5% in the next six years
of this decade when the current rate is 0.2% since 1997.
Mr Blair: We believe we can do
it. I am not saying it is not challenging because we are going
beyond the Kyoto target.
Q218 Mr Ainsworth: How are you going
to do it, Prime Minister?
Mr Blair: The only way of doing
this is to increase the renewables, and this is why we are putting
what is a substantial sum of investment into that, and to make
sure that we are doingin terms of fuel efficiency and the
Climate Change Levyeverything we possibly can to meet it.
We believe we are on a trajectory to meet it. I agree it is going
to be very challenging to do it, but we are doing the most that
we can reasonably do at the present time in order to achieve it.
Q219 Mr Ainsworth: Just finally, is there
not one further complication here which is, to the extent that
the door is open to nuclear, that there is a significant disincentive
to those who might consider investing in the risky, high-tech
business of renewables? If the door is open the nuclear industry
might walk through it with a huge taxpayers' subsidy at any moment,
and blow you out of the water.
Mr Blair: I do not think that
will happen. I think both are necessary as issues that we have
to resolve. I do not see it as an either/or, actually.