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Mr. Purchase: I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman's sentiments, but does he agree with me that part of the problemperhaps the major partis the fact that when young people reach the age of 18, 19 or 20, they realise that the labour market is far better at rewarding accountants and lawyers than it has ever been at rewarding scientists and technologists?
Robert Key: I am delighted to agree with the hon. Gentleman. In fact, the problem is worse than that: all the best science graduates are snapped up by the City institutions because they are good at working systems and understanding mathematical models and computing. He is absolutely right, but we have to start with science education.
The problem facing any Governmentthe last Government had to face it and the current Government have to face it in spadesis that they are frightened of science, the public are frightened of science, and, with some honourable exceptions, journalists know little about science. The result is a lot of gesture politics in science. The Government think that if they set up citizens' juries, focus groups, stakeholder forums and consensus conferences, and if they pass the buck between the scientists and the decision makers in government, when something goes wrong they can say, "Well, we're all to blame aren't we? It's not only my fault." That is a real problem which much be tackled.
The solution starts with trusttrust in scientists and in their status. If we are to rectify that problem, we need more scientists, educated to a higher standard, and we have to give them their head in their field. The solution also requires trust in politicians. We should not usurp scientists. Although there is a certain amount of science that is either right or wrong, there is more in which value judgments about risk are required. Nothing is risk free, but we do not understand risk well enough and we do not try to explain it. If we continue to fail in that respect, we shall not engender trust. In addition, there is the problem of deflecting blame or not holding the right person to account if something goes wrong. It seems
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that there is always someone to blame. Take the example of foot and mouth disease. Whom do we blame for that? We still do not know. We do not know who was wrongwhether it was the scientists, the farmers, the vets, or the Government who should have been talking about vaccination. We try to deflect blame when things go wrong, but that is because we do not understand the nature of risk and the fact that nothing is risk free. One of the ways to tackle that problem is to create new demand for greater openness and transparency. There is uncertainty in all things, but continuous obfuscation by Government about serious matters affecting us allwhether it is GM crops, nanotechnology or anything elsedoes us no service at all. Worse still, if we are too secretive about the wrong things, we stifle innovation and discourage scientists from producing what they are capable of producing.
There is one point that I shall address head on: our energy sources and how we produce base-load electricity in future. It is extraordinary that the British debate on nuclear energy has been tainted for so long by the defence legacy of the past 60 or 70 yearsthe fact that early nuclear energy was produced in conjunction with defence trials and the defence uses of nuclear fission. That legacy continues to distort our perception today, and we have to get beyond it. We are tackling the problem of nuclear waste through legislation introduced by the Government in the last ParliamentI give them credit for that. If we can overcome that problem and the defence legacy, we can move forward.
We must not be deflected from our path by self-appointed pressure groups who are opposed to nuclear energy for a variety of reasons, but who have managed to skew public opinion in this country by exploiting fear, prejudice and sheer ignorance about nuclear process. We need a wholly new approach. First, we have to state clearly that safety is paramount in all our energy sources. That is so obvious and so far beyond dispute that it should not be a matter of argument between those who are opposed to nuclear energy and those who are not. I was interested in what the Finnish people did when they decided to move ahead with a new generation of nuclear plants, so I went to FinlandI declare an interestto discover the facts. I wanted both to hear about technological developments and to understand the political processes that had led the Finnish people to conclude that they needed a new generation of nuclear plants.
One of the first things that I discovered, apart from the putting of safety first, was that they had persuaded themselves as a nation that they had a moral duty, first, to clean up the mess of previous nuclear generations and, secondly, to address climate change in a grown-up way, and to accept that in a no-carbon economy generated by nuclear energy, that is a moral position to adopt. It is preferable to high imports, even of natural gas, let alone other fossil fuels.
It was then a question of serious public education. It took the Finns eight years to reach the stage where they felt that they could take votes in Parliament. There was also the national interest, of persuading people that rather than being fearful of nuclear energy they should be interested in security of supply for the nation and the problem of base-load capacity, which can never be met by renewable energy such as windmills. In addition, there was the problem of storage of nuclear waste. There were local issues to be considered.
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We are sitting in London but there are communities in the north-westfor example, around Sellafield, in Cumbriawhere the entire population, one way or another, depends on the nuclear industry. We must understand that those who are living in such areas do not share the fears and do not countenance the prejudices that perhaps people have in the Westminster village. The national interest must be complemented by local interests in the highly skilled, highly paid, highly responsible and highly fulfilling jobs that are available in high technology industries such as the nuclear industry.
The issue of future waste is extremely important. It is an approach to science that we forget. We must work out before we start becoming involved in new science and technology what to do with waste products. Nuclear waste is a classic example. I have seen the future in Finland; I have seen how the Finns are handling the issue. I have been down the first of the new deep-level facilities that they are constructing. They are constructed on the basis that if someone has a bright idea in 300 years' time, it will be possible to retrieve the nuclear waste and treat it. Meanwhile, it will be safe.
Then there is financing. What a revolution! Imagine going to the City and saying, "We want to build a nuclear power station. Will the City sign up to a 60-year business plan?" That is the problem that we face. Of course, the City will not do that, but that has been done in Finland, where those involved have said that the Government will not be involved and there will be no taxpayers' money. There must be a consortium of people who are prepared to wait 60 years. All the big users of energy in Finland60 private companiesgot together to form a new company, which is putting up 25 per cent. of the capital straight away, over 60 years.
That financing system is extremely important. The short-term nature of financial investment in this country is a problem if one goes to the City, where 60 years will not be countenanced. If it were not for tax breaks, a windmill would not be built anywhere in the UK at present. Tax breaks, rather than anything else, are driving wind turbines at the moment.
There is a huge role for the Energy Intensive Users Group, which was formed many years ago. The group consists of the big users such as the steel and chemical industries, paper, glass, ceramics and gypsum. Alcan and Rio Tinto are two large companies that are involved. They are also allied to the Major Energy Users Council, which has been working since 1987 to bring things together. If only we could persuade the big users to become involved, we would be able to make proper use of the technology that is available.
The Government have a double lock on progress in nuclear energy. At present, the Government are in denial because they are split. It is all very well saying that industry must come to us, the Government, with proposals. I agree that a UK Government will probably never build another nuclear power station. That must come from the private sector, which will be prepared to take the risk if the two locks are undone by Government. The first lock is that it is necessary to have a licence to build a nuclear power plant and the second
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is the need for a second licence to operate it. Until the Government are prepared to concede that when everything else is in placesafety, waste disposal and finance, for examplethey will be prepared to unlock the double lock, the industry will not be prepared to make the first move. It will not be prepared to take the risk.
These are the issues that we should be discussing in this Parliament. What I have described in terms of nuclear energy is replicated throughout science and technology in this country, whether it is nanotechnology, stem cell research or new technologies in a wide range of industrial processes on which the UK depends. It is up to us to start thinking differently, in a completely fresh way, about the nature of risk, the nature of investment and the nature of partnership between the Government and the private sector. That is what I hope to see coming out of the Queen's Speech and in legislation that we shall see in future. I hope that we shall also see a marine Bill, which we have been promised. Above all, we must take science seriously. It will take several Parliaments to change the tide in favour of science. I hope that the Government will be brave enough to grasp that point at primary school level right through to universities and beyond.
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