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House of Commons

Thursday 23 June 2005

The House met at half-past Ten o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Nuclear Power

1. Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham) (Con): If he will make a statement on the future of nuclear power in the UK. [6515]

4. Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): If he will make a statement on the future of nuclear power in the UK. [6518]

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Alan Johnson): The 2003 energy White Paper set out the Government's energy policy on all sources, which obviously includes nuclear energy as well as fossil fuels and renewables. The Department keeps progress against the White Paper goals under review, through, for example, the work of the Joint Energy Security of Supply Working Group and the publication of the second annual report on the White Paper.

Mr. Atkinson: The whole question of our energy future is still in the long grass, and it is folly for this country to rely for its future energy sources on importing increasing amounts of gas from regions of the world that are inherently unstable. President Bush has estimated that the United States would need 100 new nuclear power stations to maintain a 20 per cent. contribution to its energy supplies. How many new nuclear power stations would this country need to maintain a 20 per cent. contribution?

Alan Johnson: I understand the point made by the hon. Gentleman, who has long been a proponent of new-build nuclear energy. I come to this question with what could be called clean-slate technology, as I am
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neither pro nor anti-nuclear. I feel very strongly that the 2003 energy White Paper got it about right when it said that at some point in the future

That is still the case. There are issues around cost and waste which, as the hon. Gentleman well knows, are difficult issues. The Prime Minister has said that we need to make a decision on new build in this Parliament. We intend to do so, but we intend to take a measured look at all the issues across the energy field and ensure that our decisions, if they involve nuclear new build, meet the obligations that we agreed in 2003 for further consultation and another White Paper.

Mr. Steen: In addition to nuclear power, the Government are committed to a 10 per cent. target on renewable energy. In view of the fact that Devon has more areas of outstanding natural beauty than any other part of the country and has great landscape value with two national parks, conservation areas and a heritage coastline, does he intend to cover the whole county with wind farms and ruin the landscape, or does he propose that it should go to—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is out of order.

Mr. Steen: Why?

Mr. Speaker: He knows as well as I do that he is out of order.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): We must cut energy use substantially and increase renewable energy sources if we are to leave our options open on whether we need a new generation of nuclear power stations, but that will be difficult. Will my right hon. Friend discuss with his colleagues at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs the financial regime and incentives needed to encourage the use of biomass energy crops and microgenerators for local energy production?

Mr. Speaker: Order. We must keep the questions to the subject of nuclear power. I shall try again, and call the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle).

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): If we recognise the need to ensure that the lights do not go out in this country, a debate on nuclear must take place earlier rather than later, but must we not ensure when we debate whether to build new nuclear power stations that we look at other technologies such as clean-coal technology?

Alan Johnson: Congratulations to my hon. Friend for asking a question that I can answer. I accept his point. A vast range of issues are involved, and unlike some Opposition Members, I think the energy White Paper set them out clearly. It set a time scale for us to consider them and to put the money into research and development of the kind of technologies that my hon. Friend mentions, which are in the very early stages, such as carbon capture and storage, on which my hon. Friend the Minister for Energy made a statement two weeks
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ago. We are putting £40 million into carbon capture, fuel cells and hydrogen technologies, all of which need to be explored more fully before we make crucial decisions, which should be made sooner rather than later, on nuclear new build.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): The Secretary of State may be aware that the majority of Britain's nuclear fuel is manufactured at present at British Nuclear Fuels' Springfield plant in my constituency. Does he agree that it is important to recognise the need to keep together the fuel manufacturing expertise that we have in the United Kingdom? I welcome his commitment to a measured further review, but may I press him to be more specific on the likely timetable of the Government's consideration of the matter if vital investment and personnel decisions by BNFL are to be made to maintain our ability to make nuclear fuel in the United Kingdom?

Alan Johnson: I accept the first point. We need to take a strategic view of the nuclear sector, not least to retain the skills that we have there, which is why Cogent, the sector skills organisation for nuclear, is examining those strategic points. On the time scale, the right hon. Gentleman may press me, but I will say nothing beyond what the Prime Minister said in the first week after the general election—that we must make the decision in this Parliament. As to exactly when that will be during this Parliament, we need to ensure that we consider all the issues raised by right hon. and hon. Members. We need to make the decision within this Parliament—not within six weeks of the general election.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend accept that the future of nuclear cannot be decided without a reliable set of estimates for the cost of dealing with radioactive waste? Given that the committee on radioactive waste management is currently holding consultation on the issue, does my right hon. Friend believe that we will have reliable costings of the processing of our radioactive waste within this Parliament?

Alan Johnson: We will await the report of the committee on radioactive waste management, which is due next summer. I hope that its work will give us an estimate of all the issues involved in dealing with radioactive waste. That is a crucial issue, as is the cost of new build. The public cannot reasonably be expected to deal with these issues unless they have the answers to those questions. The issue must be tackled within this Parliament, and I hope the report next summer will take us much further forward on the cost of dealing with nuclear waste.

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk) (LD): May I raise the implications of the leak of some 83,000 litres of highly radioactive liquid at the Thorp reprocessing plant and the implications for the debate on nuclear power? What are the right hon. Gentleman's views on the case for not re-opening Thorp in the light of that incident and the findings of the investigation, which suggest a degree of incompetence? Does it not add further compelling evidence that the nuclear industry is simply uneconomic?

Alan Johnson: The hon. Gentleman needs to understand, first, that I will await the report on what happened at Thorp. Secondly, it is important to recognise
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that the leak was contained within a secondary confinement cell, which was specifically designed to contain any such leaks. In a sense, the contingency arrangements worked, but I agree that that is one of the factors that we need to consider in order to be confident when we make a final decision on nuclear new build. These issues are important to the public. I heard the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) commenting just now. He did not get his question in earlier, so he said from a sedentary position, "What's that got to do with nuclear energy?" I think it is absolutely to do with nuclear energy. The issues around safety, waste and cost are central to a proper, considered decision on nuclear new build.

Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the nuclear option and timetable cannot be pursued unless a permanent intermediate-level waste store site has been found in this country? It is a pity that Opposition Members who are pursuing the nuclear option did not take the opportunity to sign off the papers for one before the 1997 general election.

Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend makes an important point. The work that is going on and the time scale within which it is due to be completed are good reasons why we should not rush a decision. I agree that we need to find the answer to the problem not just for this generation, but for future generations. We cannot make a positive, final decision until those problems have been resolved.

Mr. Speaker: I call Patrick Jenkin.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): I think you have got the man in the other place, Mr. Speaker.

The 1997 general election was eight years ago. There is a growing and pressing need for the Government to make decisions on how to replace declining nuclear capacity. On current projections the figures show that by 2020, even if the Government achieve their renewable targets, we shall be increasing our carbon-based electricity generation to 74 per cent. of total generation. If we are to have any prospect of achieving our Kyoto targets and the Government's own carbon targets, there clearly needs to be a decision to replace the declining nuclear capacity with new carbon-free capacity. How long can the Secretary of State continue to afford delaying on this when all informed scientific and engineering opinion says that decisions need to be made urgently and should have been made already? The question of nuclear waste has been resolved in other countries, and we should be able to resolve it here. I can assure him that we shall give him every assistance in resolving these questions as quickly as possible.

Alan Johnson: I am aware that the general election was in 1997, and I do not know why the hon. Gentleman raises it. I have not mentioned it, but I am aware that the Conservatives have lost two more elections since then.

The hon. Gentleman's point suggests that we should move on this point as quickly as within six weeks of the general election. I guess that he would be pleased if we had agreed with the pro-nuclear lobby, which has been pressing for nuclear new build for a long time. The energy White Paper left the door open for nuclear new build. Yes,
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there are issues about pre-licensing and identifying sites. The time between the decision and new build would be about 10 years. Given that and the statistic that by 2020 there will be three nuclear power stations responsible for generating 7 per cent. of electricity, whereas now it is 12 nuclear stations generating 20 per cent., we need to make the decision within this Parliament—but not at the first Department of Trade and Industry questions, not five weeks after the general election and not on the basis of one side of the argument. There are two important sides to this argument, and many people, like me and, I hope, the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, who are neither pro nor anti-nuclear, are in the middle looking for a decision. We are determined to ensure security of supply and that we meet our carbon emissions reduction of 60 per cent. by 2050 and all the other targets that we set out in the White Paper, including having every home properly heated and lighted. I see no reason whatsoever to move away from the timescale that we set out within that document.

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