Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): Is it not true that wind power needs back-up for when the wind is not blowing? Denmark relies heavily on wind power and when the wind stops blowing, the Danes have to switch on the cable from Germany. Some of the German power comes from nuclear generators, but much of it is generated by burning lignite—brown coal.

Norman Baker: If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that we should not rely 100 per cent. on wind power, I   agree. That is not possible and I am not suggesting that we do that. We have always advocated a basket of renewable sources, including wind, tidal, solar and decentralised energy such as microgeneration and so on. We do not have to rely on one source. The great problem for advocates of nuclear power is that they have to pretend that the sole alternative is wind power, but that is not realistic.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Norman Baker: I will not give way again because I   have to bring my speech to a conclusion.

The energy mix that works is one that minimises energy consumption in the first place. We could do a lot more in that respect—without much difficulty we could cut our energy consumption by a third over a period of   25 years. Secondly, we should work to achieve decentralised energy and encourage householders to be part of the generation mix. Thirdly, we should have a basket of renewable sources, not only wind. Fourthly, and importantly, we should give serious consideration to carbon capture and storage and acknowledge that there may be a role in future for fossil fuels if they can be cleaned up. Of course, using fossil fuels and wind power and taking energy efficiency measures would help to meet our security of supply objectives, about which the Government are rightly concerned. A number of commercial sequestration projects are up and running in Norway, Canada and Algeria—the technology has been proved to work.

I could say more but I am conscious that other hon. Members wish to speak. I shall conclude by saying that nuclear is a dodo that does not fly. If I wanted to extend the metaphor, I could say that it is a white elephant and a red herring as well. I ask the House to support the motion.
17 Jan 2006 : Column 772

7.49 pm

The Minister for Energy (Malcolm Wicks): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

I welcome the debate at this important time for our energy policy. Although I agreed with little that the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) said, I nevertheless congratulate him on securing the debate. In response to some noises on the Labour Benches—I hope that my colleagues will not mind my referring to them as noises on this occasion—the hon. Gentleman said they were seeking to divide his party. With that project, his party needs no help at present.

The House is aware that the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry have asked me to lead a review of UK energy policy, including civil nuclear power. The review is under way and proposals will be made by the summer. We will launch our consultation document with a written statement to the House on Monday. I hope that all Members will study that document and contribute to the important debate.

The question has been raised of why we should have a review now.

Stewart Hosie rose—

Malcolm Wicks: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman was about to ask that question. It would be sensible for me and for the House if I took one or two interventions, but not too many, as I know that many colleagues want to join in the debate and I want an opportunity to listen.

Stewart Hosie: Can the Minister confirm that when nuclear power is reviewed, there will be a direct comparison with other options so that, for example, a new nuclear power station at Hunterston may be compared directly with a wind farm with a biomass element to it for when the wind is not blowing? Will the Minister give a commitment that such direct comparisons of nuclear and other options will be put together in the review?

Malcolm Wicks: We will want to look at the cost comparisons, as well as other comparisons.

Why have a review? The situation has moved on since we set out our energy policies in 2003. Our own energy output in the North sea has declined faster than anticipated and we have moved to being a net gas importer earlier than envisaged. We could become a net importer of oil, too, by the end of this decade. There have been changes beyond our borders—we have seen slower than expected liberalisation in the EU, leading to exposure to higher, more volatile prices. Global demand for energy has increased massively as economies such as   China's have boomed. China's energy demand is increasing by about 15 per cent. each year.
17 Jan 2006 : Column 773

There are lessons to be learned from these changing circumstances and from what we have already experienced this winter, both in the UK and overseas. The energy review is not a reaction to this winter, but a planned response to the lessons that we have learned and the changes that we have experienced since 2003. We are taking action now in order to keep us on track, or in some cases to put us back on track, for our long-term energy goals.

Key questions need to be answered. How do we ensure affordable energy in the future? How do we deliver a 60   per cent. reduction in our carbon targets? How do we manage our reliance on imported gas? In a nutshell, how can we make sure that we have a fully fledged energy market that provides energy that is secure, affordable and clean? Those are big questions and they raise vital issues that are, of course, complex, intricate and interrelated. There are important links between any decisions that we make as a result of the review, including decisions on civil nuclear power.

It will not come as a surprise when I say that we are not looking for simplistic yes or no responses to complex issues, particularly on civil nuclear power. The Liberal Democrat spokesman said a few moments ago that if—and it is a big if—we go down the nuclear path again, there will be room for nothing else. With all due respect to the hon. Gentleman, that is total nonsense. The name of the game is not to talk about enthusiasm for renewables, nuclear, biomass or wind turbines, but to ask a duller but perhaps more sensible question about how we build up 100 per cent. of energy supply, not the contribution that this or that technology might make—30 per cent., 5 per cent. or 20 per cent.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): We accept that, in a liberalised energy market, it will be the suppliers of energy who make many of the significant decisions, and it will be for Government to create a framework within which those decisions can be made. Can the Minister give the House an example of   any company that has asked the Department for support to build a new nuclear power station since the last energy review?

Malcolm Wicks: No, I cannot do that. However, a number of companies have said to me that, just as in other nation states, it would need a lead from Government to provide a framework for companies to come forward. That is the political reality when it comes to civil nuclear energy.

Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): Is it not the case, however, that many companies running coal-fired power stations have already alerted the Department to the fact that if they do not get investment now, they cannot change to clean coal technology? There must be changes and decisions must be taken now.

Malcolm Wicks: Certainly, massive investment is required in infrastructure and power plants over the next 10, 20 or 30 years. People are looking forward eagerly to the results of the review on a wide range of topics. It is not a nuclear review, but as the Prime Minister made clear, in reviewing our energy policy and in the context of securing a diverse—I emphasise "diverse"—energy mix, we need to consider the future role of civil nuclear power.
17 Jan 2006 : Column 774

Nuclear is already part of the mix. Nuclear energy accounts for about 19 per cent. of our electricity generation, but the current generating plants are ageing and most are scheduled to be decommissioned over the coming 15 years or so, as we have heard. As things stand, it is estimated that by 2020 only about 7 per cent. of our electricity might come from nuclear. From an international perspective, there are several countries showing interest in new nuclear build. China and India have a building programme under way, with more new reactors planned or at the proposal stage. Closer to home, Finland has started construction of a new plant, and France also has proposals for new plant.

Nuclear might provide some of the answers going forward, but there are major factors to be considered, such as management of waste, costs and safety. We also need an evidence-based look at what new nuclear technologies can offer. Even if, and I emphasise that it is a big if, new nuclear could provide some of the answers, it could never be the whole picture. When we look not just at electricity but at UK energy consumption as a whole, including transport, we see that nuclear contributes 8 per cent.—a significant percentage, but only 8 per cent.

The Government are clear that, in making important decisions about energy policy, including nuclear, there should be the fullest public consultation. The document that we shall issue on Monday is part of that process. The Government are not, at this stage, presenting policy proposals. The hon. Member for Lewes rather implied that we were. He needs to wait. Before any decision to proceed with the building of a new generation of nuclear power plants, a further White Paper setting out our proposals would need to be published.

The 2003 White Paper concluded that nuclear power was an important source of carbon-free electricity. It remains so. However, its economics made it an unattractive option then for new, carbon-free generating capacity, and there were also important issues of nuclear waste to be resolved. These issues included our legacy waste and continued waste arising from other sources. However, the White Paper did not rule out the possibility that at some point in the future new nuclear build might be necessary if we are to meet our carbon targets.

The Government are aware that since the White Paper, new nuclear plants are being built in the far east and in Finland and that there have been a number of new studies on the costs of nuclear power. The review will therefore conduct a rigorous analysis and examine all the evidence on the economics of all forms of generation for both fossil fuel and low-carbon technologies.

Next Section IndexHome Page