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Norman Baker: I did.

Mr. Duncan: I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman's speech. I was out of the Chamber for only two minutes, during which I asked someone to ensure that I knew what was happening. The hon. Gentleman said nothing about how the gap would be filled. A sweeping mention of renewables is not the answer because the capacity does not currently exist. He made no comments about whether fossil fuels might become more acceptable, with a new lease of life.

Norman Baker: I mentioned carbon capture.

Mr. Duncan: If the hon. Gentleman is banking on carbon capture, let him say how we shall get the capacity we need in time to keep the generators going.

Being pro nuclear should not be used as an excuse for not doing other things. We are impelled to consider all alternatives, especially those that are most friendly to the planet, if we are to solve the problem. However, being pro other things should not be used as an excuse not to reappraise the nuclear option. The Liberal Democrats' approach is fundamentally irresponsible at a time when all hon. Members need to tackle the issue with the seriousness that it deserves.

8.26 pm

Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West and Royton) (Lab): As the energy review gets under way, one assumption goes almost unchallenged. It is that renewables alone cannot fill the looming energy gap—a point that has just been made—and that, therefore, a revival of civil nuclear power is inevitable. I believe that to be false.
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Before I give my reasons, I emphasise that no satisfactory explanation has been given for the energy review, given that the Government carried out a full-scale, thorough and comprehensive investigation, over two to three years, leading to the energy White Paper of February 2003. Events since then—increasing dependence on foreign supplies of gas and oil and high oil and gas prices—were long anticipated and only reinforced the conclusions that were reached at that time. They do not alter them in any way.

As the Minister for Energy rightly said, nuclear accounts for approximately 19 per cent. of electricity generation and, as the Magnox and advanced gas-cooled reactors are decommissioned, it will reduce to around 7 per cent. by 2020. Let us assume—I am the first to admit that it is not certain—that gas generation of electricity may increase slightly by 2020 and that coal generation may decrease slightly. The main question is whether the gap from the 12 per cent. reduction in nuclear will be filled by a new programme of nuclear build or by renewables. That is the central issue.

The Government already have a commitment to achieving a target of obtaining 10 per cent. of our electricity from renewables by 2010, and an aspiration to reach 20 per cent. by 2020. Of course, it is true that renewables generation is starting from a low base. However, the proportion of electricity that they provide has almost doubled in the past four years, and it is now sufficient to supply more than 2 million households.The argument for relying on renewables alone to fill the gap is very strong, because nuclear power is beset by several severe problems that, in my view, rule it out as a sensible option. I am not against it being considered; I am simply saying that, when we do so, it will be ruled out for very good reasons, if—and this is the big question—an effective alternative is available.

First, there is the question of cost. The Government's own advisory body, the performance and innovation unit, has calculated that the cost of electricity in the UK in 2020 is likely to be about 1.5p per kWh from on-land wind; 2p to 3p from offshore wind; 2p to 2.3p from gas; 3p to 3.5p from coal; and 3p to 4p from nuclear power. I am aware that the nuclear industry is saying that the AP1000 series reactor will be cheaper than that, as the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) pointed out. However, he also made the key point that no prototype has yet been built to prove that assumption. We simply do not know whether it will be the case. We can be certain, however, that the cost of nuclear-generated electricity will be significantly higher if—as should be the case if we are to have a level playing field—the cost of decommissioning the nuclear plant and of the waste management is to be factored into the price. That is a crucial consideration.

Mr. Chaytor: In regard to the list of comparative costs that my right hon. Friend has cited, is not a further factor the measure of reliability of estimating those costs? Is not the reliability of estimating the costs of onshore and offshore wind power generally deemed to be higher than the reliability of estimating the costs of nuclear generation?

Mr. Meacher: My hon. Friend makes a very fair point; I would endorse that.
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The Government's Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has already said that the cost that taxpayers will have to bear from decommissioning nuclear plant—to be fair, this includes military as well as civil installations—will be about £56 billion. That relates to operations over the whole of the past half century. It is an astronomically high cost to the taxpayer, amounting to about 5 per cent. of our entire gross domestic product. If these enormous external liabilities were to be written in to the consumer price—which might be the right thing to do—nuclear power would be nowhere near competitive. Alternatively, they could be left as a huge tax burden for future generations, but would anyone seriously suggest that that was a fair and reasonable option?

Nuclear power has other drawbacks. We already have 10,000 tonnes of highly toxic intermediate and high-level nuclear waste, mainly at Sellafield. That waste has a half-life of tens of thousands of years, and nobody knows how to dispose of it safely. The Finns think that they might have a solution, but that has not yet been proven. An official estimate in a DTI White Paper is that, even without any new nuclear build, decommissioning will increase the amount of waste 50-fold to 500,000 tonnes by the end of this century. Is it rational or responsible to create yet more mountains of dangerous waste before we have found a satisfactory form of long-term disposal for the gigantic quantity that we already have? I am glad that the Minister also asked that question.

We must also take into account the risk of nuclear proliferation and the dangers, post-9/11, of a terrorist attack. A recent US study estimated the health impact of an attack on a nuclear reactor at 44,000 immediate deaths, with 500,000 long-term health impacts, including cancers. It is therefore quite clear that nuclear power should be avoided. As I have said, I am not against looking into the matter, but there seems to be very clear evidence that we should avoid it—if we can. Can renewables realistically fill the gap? The independent consultant, Oxera, recently predicted that the Government will virtually achieve their target of 10 per cent. of electricity generation from renewables by 2010. The EU renewable energy directive already stipulates 22 per cent. electricity generation from renewables for Europe by 2010, so the UK is likely to come under a great deal of pressure, perhaps mandatory pressure, to move swiftly to reach 20 per cent. as soon as possible after that date.

The question is whether that is realistic. The fact that it is realistic is shown by the performance of other states. At a time—I am talking about 2001, when these figures were compiled—when Sweden generated 57 per cent. of its electricity from renewables, including hydro, Finland 33 per cent., Portugal 30 per cent., and Italy, Denmark, Spain and France all between 13 and 19 per cent., the UK managed just 2.7 per cent. It is not that the UK lacks potential; it simply has not been exploited.

The UK has about 40 per cent. of Europe's potential wind power, but we are using less than 1 per cent., so there can be no serious doubt about the fact that the 12 per cent. gap that will be left by nuclear by 2020, and significantly more, can be fully met by renewables
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alone—without the higher costs, without the environmental and health hazards, and without the terrorist risks of nuclear.

It is equally clear that we do not need nuclear to achieve our Kyoto climate change obligations if there is a better alternative available, as there clearly is. Even AEA Technology, the former research arm of the Atomic Energy Authority, thought that a quarter of Britain's electricity needs could be met by building the world's largest complex of wind farms—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. The eight-minute rule is now in operation.

8.36 pm

Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): I want to concentrate on issues relating to nuclear waste disposal. Everyone agrees that solving that problem is the precondition for nuclear to go ahead in the future. The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) might want to read my two books on the subject, or possibly the Liberal Democrat policy document "Conserving the Future", which was published in September 2004. It will give him the answers he seeks. There are engineering and scientific issues to be dealt with, as well as economic and environmental issues and social and political issues. The hon. Gentleman making attacks in such a way trivialises the issue.

Since the publication of our proposals, plenty has happened in relation to nuclear power. Some of it has been positive, such as the creation of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, which has separated the generation of waste from disposal. It was absolutely right to do that. Other examples are the free-standing commission to establish the process and the options for dealing with waste, the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management—CoRWM. It was absolutely right to set that up, and I was happy to play a part in the Energy Act 2004, ensuring that it went forward.

We also need to recognise the fact that some negative things have happened as well. British Energy went bust. British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. accidentally released a swimming-bathful of radioactive liquid—never mind a football pitch. The Department of Trade and Industry estimate for managing waste has gone up from £48 billion to £56 billion, and is about to go up yet again, as we have heard. We now know that the British Energy costs taken over by the Government will amount to £3.3 billion, starting with 10 yearly payments of £181 million.

How one adds those figures up and the outcomes that one gets are difficult and controversial matters. One can argue about discounted costs, undiscounted costs and so on, but no one doubts that a huge amount of taxpayers' money has already been committed to the clean-up, and an even bigger sum is to follow. We have not got to the end of it yet. My hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) referred to the situation at Dounreay and the possible £70 billion extra for clearing up the beaches and the seabed there.

All the enormous costs referred to so far relate to cleaning up, decommissioning and making safe, not to ultimate safe keeping. That is not in the figures we have discussed. What happens to the spent fuel rods, the reactor housings and the contaminated pipe work—
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and, for that matter, what will happen to the 10,000 metallic radioactive particles on the seabed at Dounreay—is still not known by anybody. Nobody knows how much it will cost and where it will all go.

The Government answer to all such questions is, "We   don't know yet, but we are looking for a man who does." Of course, that is through the CoRWM process. I welcome the setting up of CoRWM, which has covered quite a lot of ground. In fact, it has covered more—space, sea and the four corners of the universe to see whether there is somewhere it can send the waste. However, as the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee pointed out in December 2004, CoRWM is in some real difficulty, and there were trenchant criticisms of it in that report. The Government responded last February, and the House of Lords responded again to the Government, rebutting their complacency, in April last year. The report referred to the narrow scientific base of what CoRWM was doing. It also noted with concern the suspension of one member of CoRWM and the request that another be suspended. It went on to say:

Have things improved since? No, they have not. In the British Medical Journal, on 10 December, the two suspended members made the point that

and that the

I want to hear the Minister confirm that he believes that the timetable of July this year can be stuck to, I want him to tell us why there are no replacements for the experts needed on CoRWM, and I want him to say that the credibility of CoRWM remains intact despite its difficulties.

We are a long way from settling the issue of how to dispose of nuclear waste, let alone of where to dispose of it and how to pay for it. The proponents of a new generation of investment in nuclear now say that that does not really matter, because it is all legacy waste. From now on, they say, there will not be a problem, as the new nuclear industry will be virtually waste-free. Yes, there is an issue with historic waste, they say, but future waste volumes will be so small that we will not even notice them. A few years ago, they used to say that nuclear power would be so cheap that there would be no need to meter it. Now they say that it is so clean that there is no need to clean up after it. Both claims are straight from the fantasy world of pro-nuclear lobbyists.

A few minutes ago, I mentioned that CoRWM might be afflicted by a credibility problem. I am sure that when the Minister replies he will say that CoRWM is a very credible body, which has carried out careful study and has expert advice in its support as well as high-quality research and sound and sustainable facts and figures. I   hope that he will say that, because I want to quote some of the figures that CoRWM has brought into the public domain.

CoRWM says that the total of high-level waste if a new generation of nuclear plants is built—its working assumption was 10 nuclear plants—will rise from just
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over 8,000 cu m to 39,000 cu m. That is five times as much as we would have if those 10 new nuclear plants were not built—a five-fold increase. What does the industry say about that? British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. told the Science and Technology Committee that there would be a 10 per cent. rise—not a five-fold rise—in nuclear waste. It used that dodgy statistic to persuade the committee to say to the House that nuclear waste issues should not be a bar to future building. The nuclear industry now says:

The difference, however, is between the right way of measuring it and the wrong way of measuring it.

No one yet knows how, where or when this country can safely store its nuclear waste. No one can be sure of the cost, although we know that it will be in the multi-billions and will pose problems for centuries, not just decades. We also know that a new generation of nuclear build will massively increase the amount of high-level waste to be disposed of. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) has spelt out the cost, the folly and the risks of new investment in nuclear power. I hope that I have cast some light on the unanswered challenge of dealing with an increasing mound of radioactive waste that nobody knows how to deal with.

8.43 pm

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