Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Nuclear Power

6. Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): If she will make a statement on the future of the UK nuclear power industry. [211114]

The Minister for Energy and E-Commerce (Mr. Mike O'Brien): Existing nuclear power stations are expected to continue in operation for some years, with Sizewell operating up to the 2030s. Our policy on possible new nuclear power stations was set out in the 2003 energy White Paper. There are no current plans for new build, but we do not rule out that option in the future.

Mr. Jack: Today, I had the pleasure of receiving a delegation from the Chinese environmental protection committee. Its members told me that China is about to double its commitment to nuclear power. A recent MORI poll confirms that the public now favour the generation of more nuclear power because they recognise its contribution to reducing CO 2 emissions. Given that the Minister confirms that the option will be kept open, will he ask the nuclear installations inspectorate to commence a design review of candidate designs to cut down the lead time if the industry can provide funding and investment to build a new generation to replace power stations that are being taken out of use?

Mr. O'Brien: The right hon. Gentleman takes a keen interest in those issues, given that Springfield is in his constituency. It does a good job and has an excellent safety record. However, the time scales for developing a nuclear power station are long. We are currently keeping open the options for possible nuclear development at some time in the future if the position changes, but it is currently economically unattractive. No private sector business organisations are making such propositions. We continue to watch the operation of the market but I repeat that the proposition is economically unattractive.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend please visit Culham and look at the next generation of nuclear energy producers? Will he acknowledge that, to have an option, we must have the ability to produce nuclear energy? Some in the industry
27 Jan 2005 : Column 445
fear that, unless we stop the slide, the critical mass in the British nuclear sector will be unable to develop, design or build any future generation of nuclear power stations.

Mr. O'Brien: We are making efforts to ensure that we keep the skills that are needed if we decide to build in future. It is currently economically unattractive to do that: nobody is presenting propositions for building a nuclear power station. The decision does not need to be made immediately. If we reconsidered the matter, we would want to produce a White Paper and hold a broad-based consultation and discussion before making a decision. It is not a foregone conclusion that new build is necessary. Progress is being made on gas and renewables and energy efficiency, which are currently our priorities.

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus) (SNP): The Minister said that new nuclear power stations were currently uneconomic. Is he aware of the huge concern in Scotland that the crazy transmission price regime that the zealots of Ofgem pursue will undermine the economics of new renewable build in northern Scotland? Does the Government's support for that regime imply that they intend to support new nuclear power stations in future?

Mr. O'Brien: The hon. Gentleman stretches the question to try to include matters that are important in Scotland—matters that we are considering with a great deal of care. Ofgem is examining how connections between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom are developing. We believe that, in future, whatever the regime, Scotland will produce an enormous amount of energy for the whole UK. The link between Scotland and the rest of the UK is the key to Scotland's future prosperity.

Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South) (Lab): Keeping the nuclear option open is welcome but there is a problem with retaining skills and attracting graduates to the nuclear industry. That is worrying. Nuclear waste is also a major issue. Will my hon. Friend give a commitment today that, if the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management—CoRWM—seeks an extension of report-back time on the solutions for nuclear waste, he will resist it?

Mr. O'Brien: We set up CoRWM and are awaiting its report. We want to ensure that the report deals effectively with the issues that it is considering, and it is important to respond to any requests with the due consideration that it deserves. CoRWM has a complex and difficult task to undertake and we want it to be done fully and properly.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham) (Con): With respect to the Minister, his view that the Government are maintaining skills in nuclear engineering is not shared by engineering departments at universities, where they are running things down continually. There is no doubt in my mind or that of many others that we will need nuclear power stations one day and the skill to build them will not exist. We cannot continue to rely on wind power or our indigenous resources. For example, we cannot rely on coal—the last coal mine in Northumberland is going to be closed down.
27 Jan 2005 : Column 446

Mr. O'Brien: We are making efforts to improve the skills base in the nuclear industry. We are working with the private sector as well as engaging with the trade unions to ensure that we preserve the skills that would be essential if we were to take the option of nuclear new build in the future. We will preserve those skills to ensure that the industry—which has quite a long life ahead of it, with Sizewell lasting until 2030—will be able to provide part of our diverse energy supplies. We are looking at the future, keeping the options open and trying to ensure that those skills will be there, should we need them.

Trade Balance

7. Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): What estimate she has made of the balance of trade in the current financial year; and what estimate she has made of the balance of trade with the EU in the current financial year. [211117]

The Minister for Trade and Investment (Mr. Douglas Alexander): The Government do not produce forecasts on a geographical basis. However, figures published by the Treasury in the December 2004 pre-Budget report forecast a trade deficit as a percentage of gross domestic product of 3.7 per cent. in 2004, falling to 3.5 per cent. in 2007.

Sir Teddy Taylor: Does it not genuinely worry the Government that, whereas in 1970 we had a positive balance of trade in goods with the 15 members of the EU before we joined that organisation—allegedly to improve our trade—in the past 25 years we have seen horrendous and worsening deficits in our trade with Europe, culminating in a figure of £24 billion last year? Why has our trade with Europe gone so horribly wrong, and what can be done about it?

Mr. Alexander: That is an intriguing point for the hon. Gentleman to make, given his long-held views on this matter, not least because one of the contributory factors has been the outstandingly long and successful growth in the British economy over recent years. However, that should not mask the more general point that more than half our trade is with the European Union. Nearly 60 per cent. of our exports of goods are sent to European Union markets, accounting for 3 million jobs in what is still an extraordinarily strong British economy.

Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West) (Lab): Are not the Government's efforts to promote a better balance of trade, not only with the EU but internationally, greatly helped by British Trade International, a Government body that fuses the assistance of both the Foreign Office and the Department of Trade and Industry? When that body was set up, I seem to recall the Conservatives praising our efforts and welcoming the initiative as a positive step forward. What effect would the proposal in the James review to abort it have on our future balance of trade?

Mr. Alexander: I am well aware of my right hon. Friend's expertise in this area and of his immense contribution to the establishment of British Trade
27 Jan 2005 : Column 447
International and its successor body, UK Trade and Investment. His expertise is evident from his question, and it explains his incredulity that, when BTI is doing such outstanding work for British exporters and in bringing inward investment into the United Kingdom, the Conservatives should choose this time to suggest that it should be abolished.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): Does the Minister recognise that one issue affecting our balance of trade with Europe in relation to large manufacturers and energy users is the fact that energy prices in Europe are established by a different mechanism from that used in our liberalised market here? What action are the Government taking to ensure that the EU delivers a fully liberalised energy market on the mainland of Europe, and when does the Minister expect that to be achieved?

Mr. Alexander: I appreciate that this is an important issue. Tomorrow I am meeting in my constituency representatives of Ciba Speciality Chemicals, one of our main manufacturers, which has concerns about the operation of the energy market in Europe. I am working closely on this matter with my colleague, the Minister for Energy and E-Commerce, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we take it very seriously.

Next Section IndexHome Page