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Standing Committee Debates
Energy Bill [Lords]

Energy Bill [Lords]

Column Number: 123

Standing Committee B

Tuesday 25 May 2004


[Mr. Bill O'Brien in the Chair]

Energy Bill [Lords]

2.30 pm

The Minister for Energy, E-Commerce and Postal Services (Mr. Stephen Timms): On a point of order, Mr. O'Brien. I would like to respond to a point made by the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) before the break. He suggested that there is an inconsistency between what I said on Thursday and what I have said today. I am pleased to reassure him that there is no inconsistency between the two points.

I made it clear last week that the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority will be able to run only nuclear power stations pending decommissioning. I made that point again today, and as I said, that will be the Magnox situation. The NDA will also operate thermal oxide reprocessing plant—THORP—and the Sellafield mixed oxide—MOX—plant for operational reasons, but those are not nuclear-generating stations, so there is no inconsistency between the points that I made this morning and those I made last week. If the hon. Gentleman looks again, he will, I hope, be satisfied on that point.

The Chairman: We will deal with that as we make progress through the amendments.

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): I beg to move amendment No. 79, in

    clause 6, page 4, line 16, leave out 'treating,'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 80, in

    clause 6, page 4, line 18, leave out 'treatment,'.

No. 81, in

    clause 6, page 4, line 27, leave out 'treatment,'.

No. 82, in

    clause 7, page 5, line 43, leave out 'treatment,'.

No. 83, in

    clause 40, page 35, line 7, leave out 'treatment,'.

Norman Baker: Welcome back to our proceedings, Mr. O'Brien.

I am grateful to the Minister for having reflected on my comments over lunch, but I shall now deal with another problem that concerns me greatly: the use of the word ''treating''. That word has particular connotations for politicians, but in this case I am talking about a different context.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): Speak for yourself.

Norman Baker: I certainly was not.

Clause 40(1) contains the Bill's definition of the word ''treat'', which,

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    ''in relation to any matter or substance, includes processing and reprocessing (including any use as a material in a process for the manufacture of nuclear fuel)''.

Clause 6 effectively means that the NDA will be empowered to carry on the reprocessing of fuel.

We already know that the Government do not believe that they should intervene in that. In response to a written question from me, the Minister for the Environment and Agri-environment said:

    ''Decisions about whether to reprocess spent nuclear fuel depend on the commercial judgment of the operator concerned.''—[Official Report, 23 February 2004; Vol. 418, c. 146W.]

We know therefore that the Government have no policy to prevent the further generation of nuclear waste—reprocessing generates further nuclear waste—and that that is a matter simply for the industry. We could have a situation in which the Government are happy for the industry to generate increasing amounts of nuclear waste while the NDA runs around trying to stop that, although, as clause 6(1)(e) gives the NDA the power to treat, it may participate in the reprocessing.

Reprocessing is a particularly useless activity, which is more expensive than alternative spent-fuel management options. It magnifies the UK's nuclear waste management programmes, causes increased discharges of radioactivity to the environment and increases the UK's stockpile of weapons-usable plutonium. Plutonium is relevant to the question of treatment, so will the Minister say whether the Government regard it as a liability to be disposed of or a fuel still to be used? That is important, considering what the NDA will be doing.

We know that plutonium will separate from used fuel, and as I have mentioned, clauses 40 and 6 mean that the NDA may be involved in that process. However, such plutonium has no use any more. As the Trade and Industry Committee said,

    ''plutonium separated from used fuel is not only no longer required by any end-user, but is increasingly regarded as a positively dangerous waste product. Because of its physical properties and its potential attraction to terrorists or others seeking material for nuclear weapons, it has to be heavily shielded and securely guarded. The future disposal of the UK's current stockpile of separated plutonium, estimated to rise to at least 100 tonnes by 2010 if reprocessing continues, is currently under consideration.''

Every tonne of Magnox fuel reprocessed, which is what the NDA can be involved with under the Bill, produces 0.02 cu m of high-level waste, 1.2 cu m of intermediate-level waste, and 3 cu m of low-level waste. A tonne of spent advanced gas-cooled reactor fuel, when reprocessed, produces a much higher quantity of high-level waste—0.08 cu m—and the same volumes of intermediate and low-level waste. According to BNFL, the stockpile of spent Magnox fuel in March 2003 was 7,100 tonnes. If the reactors continue to operate, as the Minister wants, in accordance with BNFL's closure timetable, the amount of spent Magnox fuel that will require reprocessing before 2012 will rise to 9,400 tonnes.

Why is the NDA being given the power to continue reprocessing? The Government recognise the environmental liability of spent nuclear fuel and waste

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to the tune of £40 billion, and have set up a special body to deal with it. Therefore, why do they not stop reprocessing rather than continuing to allow it to accumulate further waste, which the NDA will presumably have to deal with?

Mr. Richard Page (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): I must confess that when I read this series of amendments I thought they were probing. I am sure that you, Mr. O'Brien, will remember when probing amendments were discussed in Committee at great length, which enabled us to discourse on matters that were not always relevant. Timetabling means that we are more constrained and have to deal with the case in hand.

Having listened to the hon. Member for Lewes, I wonder whether the amendments are genuine, or whether, in the words of John McEnroe, ''You cannot be serious.'' I regard them as wrecking to the purpose and aim of the agency, which the Committee signed up to before lunch as a good thing. What the hon. Gentleman said was amazing. He could have achieved his intended aims with a more direct amendment rather than through the circuitous route that he has taken.

My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) confessed to standing for the Workington constituency in a general election and kindly referred to the fact that I used to be the Member for Workington, until the generous electorate there allowed me more time to spend with my family. Like her, I visited the plant at Sellafield and became acquainted with the intricacies of the nuclear process and its problems.

I point out to the hon. Member for Lewes the fact that the operations of BNFL, including THORP, MOX and other commercial plant facilities, require an integrated process. We cannot hook out a word, as he has suggested, and expect everything to continue as normal—the whole process would fall apart. One cannot technically separate the natural decommissioning of the plant from the storage and disposal facilities by removing the word ''treatment''.

The hon. Gentleman's point does not stand up because, having searched through the amendments, I cannot see the corollary. Why, for example, did he not table a similar amendment to clause 19(1)(b) under which the NDA will have responsibility for

    ''the operation of a facility for treating . . . hazardous material''?

His amendment is technically defective. Perhaps, at a later stage, he will produce an amendment to remove the word ''treatment''. I apologise to the Minister, who might have to answer on that at a later stage, and to the Committee, for referring to it now.

The hon. Gentleman has tabled a wrecking amendment that would severely damage the work of the NDA. In doing so, he has offered no alternative on how the word ''treatment'' would flow through in respect of hazardous material. The amendment is anti-nuclear and designed to stop the NDA in its tracks. Although I seldom pray in aid the support of the Minister, I shall do so on this occasion in the hope that

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he denounces the amendment as unworkable. I hope that the Committee as a whole, with the obvious exception of the hon. Gentleman, soundly defeats the amendment.

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus) (SNP): I want to make a brief point. The hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Page) is dismissive of the amendments, but the definition of ''treatment'' includes

    ''processing and reprocessing (including any use as a material in a process for manufacture of nuclear fuel)''.

That is the area that concerns me. Running through the Bill like a thread is an assumption, or at least a possibility, that the NDA will become a nuclear processor in its own right, although the Minister has denied that. However, this is yet another example of where that possibility exists, because the NDA is given the power to treat

    ''in a process for the manufacture of nuclear fuel''.

I am therefore inclined to support the amendment, unless the Minister can persuade me otherwise.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Nigel Griffiths): Welcome to the Chair, Mr. O'Brien. Let the record show that, probably for the first time in my years in Parliament, I agree with the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire.

I shall answer the questions put by the hon. Member for Lewes directly. The amendment would prevent the NDA from taking responsibility for the operation of any nuclear facilities involved in the treatment of hazardous material. To remove the treatment of hazardous material from its functions would mean that it could not take responsibility for THORP, the SMP or Springfields, and would make the Sellafield site unmanageable in regulatory terms.

I realise that the hon. Gentleman's party is opposed to the continued operation of reprocessing at Sellafield. I also listened to what the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) said. Our policy on THORP and the SMP was set out clearly in the 2002 White Paper, ''Managing the Nuclear Legacy—a Strategy for Action''. There are existing contracts to fulfil, and decisions on the continued operation of the plant beyond those dates needs to be considered by this Committee and by Parliament.

We are committed to making decisions that are in the best interests of clean-up. In this context, the continued operation can be justified to the extent that it generates additional income or reduces the future costs of storage and the disposal of radioactive waste. Preventing the NDA from taking responsibility for the treatment facilities would not answer the question of what should happen to those facilities. The hon. Member for Lewes has asked me some questions. Let him tell the Committee how those facilities would be treated under Liberal Democrat policy.


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