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Civil Nuclear Power

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): We now come to the second debate. Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister. I advise all Members that Mr. Speaker has imposed a time limit of eight minutes on Back-Bench speeches.

7.19 pm

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): I beg to move,

The idea that we might build a new generation of such plants is on the agenda for the first time in about 15 years. We have been told by the Prime Minister and others that the process will require no primary legislation, perhaps not even a vote in the House. The Liberal Democrats are thus happy to provide an opportunity for the House to discuss this important issue—as we did with climate change throughout the last Parliament, when the Government failed to provide opportunities to discuss that important issue, too.

Hon. Members may ask why nuclear power is back on the agenda. The first reason is clearly the concern about climate change and the belief—erroneous, as I hope to demonstrate—that nuclear power is an answer to that problem. The second reason is security of supply. I will deal with those points later.

Let me refer to the poll on nuclear power that was published today and reported by the media. Those who have been desperate for some good news have been keen to point out that a narrow, wafer-thin majority of people have said that, under certain circumstances and if it dealt with climate change, they would reluctantly embrace nuclear power. It is also worth pointing out that, notwithstanding the fact that nuclear power does not deal with climate change, 80 per cent. of those polled thought that renewable technologies and energy efficiency were better ways of tackling global warming. So that poll and the one from the BBC last year, which showed overwhelming opposition to nuclear power, show that the country understands these issues very well indeed.

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way so early. As he is talking about polls, is he aware of the online poll on the Sunday Herald website, which shows that 65 per cent. of Scots oppose nuclear power and that only 35 per cent. are in favour?

Norman Baker: That does not surprise me, and the Scottish Executive are taking a rather different position, of course, from the Government in London.

Before I come to the case for new build, such as it is, let me deal with the nuclear legacy and explain why many hon. Members are sceptical about the merits of nuclear power. Let us remember that we have just passed the Energy Act 2004, which has written off a bill of £48 billion—subsequently revised upwards, of course, as they always are, to £56 billion—to clear up the mess that we already have. About £933 for every man, woman and child in the country is needed to deal with the existing mess. The nuclear industry is effectively bankrupt, or it would be if it were not for state subsidy.
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Of course, British Energy had to be bailed out to the tune of €6 billion by the Government to stop it going bankrupt, with all the European Union involvement in that. The nuclear industry presents massive security hazards—not least with the legacy at Sellafield, which is very serious indeed, as the Minister for Energy recognises.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I note that the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) is not in the Chamber, but what would the hon. Gentleman say in response to the point that his hon. Friend made in the Sunday Herald on 11 December, when the party spokesman on Scotland said:

He dismissed as emotional arguments about the controversial policy of building new nuclear power stations and commented that the waste issue would be solved. Does the hon. Gentleman fundamentally disagree with his hon. Friend?

Norman Baker: My hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) said before he left the Chamber that Labour Members would raise that issue, because they are desperate to find   anything to divide the Liberal Democrats—[Interruption]—and he asked me to make it clear that he is no advocate of nuclear power. Those are the words that he asked me to pass on to the House, so I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to do so. I wait to hear whether there is unanimity among Labour Members or, indeed, Conservative Members.

Mr. John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): It is a question of unity not among Members, but among Front Benchers. As far as I am aware, the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) is the Scottish spokesman on behalf of the Liberal Democrat party. Will he stay as part of the Front-Bench team if he does not agree with the policy of his own party? Who speaks on behalf of the Liberal Democrats—or, as usual, are they saying one thing in one area and another thing in another?

Norman Baker: I have already answered that question, but it will be interesting to find out, as the matter unfolds and as we debate it today and later on, whether the Minister for Energy and the Minister for Climate Change and the Environment, who are sitting very close to each other on the Front Bench, share the same view or, indeed, whether the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) shares the same view as the Conservative trade and industry spokesman. So we will have a fascinating three hours and more, as the debate unfolds.

I want to deal with the waste issue, as part of the nuclear legacy. In fact, 18 million cu m of contaminated soil and rubble have been produced from 30 sites over a period of 60 years. The nuclear industry has been incapable of clearing up after itself; it has simply accumulated waste and hoped that a solution will arrive. We now have the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority,
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which I support, but it has taken a long time to get there. The fact of the matter is that the nuclear industry cannot be trusted to deal with its own waste.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): May   we please have some clarity? I hope that the hon.   Gentleman will agree that, when he talks about nuclear waste, he must clarify whether he means high-level, medium or low-level waste. The amount of   high-level waste in the United Kingdom would barely fill a large football pitch. [Interruption.] If he is talking about all the waste, yes, the amount is much bigger, but 90 per cent. of that waste comes from hospitals. Is he saying that we should stop allowing that waste to come from hospitals?

Norman Baker: It is perfectly true that, by volume, the majority of waste is low level. Much of it is kept at Drigg, which, by the way, is about to fall into the sea—in about 50 to 60 years, according to the Environment Agency—so whether the existing sites are safe for the storage of waste is an issue, too. On high-level and intermediate waste, I would not want a teaspoon of plutonium in my constituency, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman does.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): My hon. Friend may recall that I was leader of Somerset county council when we opposed Hinkley C, as a result of which we have had a moratorium on nuclear power ever since. May I put it to him that the arguments that we deployed then were not emotional, as was suggested by the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), but hard-headed economic assessments of the value of nuclear power? Does my hon. Friend agree that that hard-headed economic assessment is as true today as it was then?

Norman Baker: It certainly is, and I shall come to the costs of nuclear power, the implications of which are frightening.

The last legacy issue that I want to raise is, of course, the contamination that has been emitted from Sellafield and other nuclear sites. The Irish sea is the most radioactively contaminated sea in the world, as the Irish Government regularly tell Environment Ministers at their meetings, and I am grateful to the Minister for Climate Change and the Environment for acknowledging that fact.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Gentleman is talking about spent fuel. Does he agree that a reasonable estimate of its half-life may be about 50,000 years—about 1,500 generations perhaps—for a new generation of nuclear power stations that would give perhaps 60 years' power, two generations perhaps? So for two generations of power, we are willing to let 1,500 generations of our descendents pick up the tab. That is like us going back to the ice age in reverse. Is it not correct that the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) is guilty of peddling a red herring, promoting white elephants and all the other such things that he has been accused of?
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