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Queen’s recommendation having been signified——

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Northern Ireland

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Income Tax

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Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Lord Chancellor

Question agreed to.

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Nuclear Waste (Scotland)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Heppell.]

9.20 pm

John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): I welcome the opportunity to debate a matter of absolute importance. It is fortuitous for someone who has such a large speech that we have managed to acquire extra time for the debate. I have warned the Minister that that will give me the opportunity to clear the air on a variety of subjects. I know that he will answer my questions, so perhaps I will give him a little bit of extra time to allow him to do so. As you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, I am known for my consideration of others, and tonight will be no exception.

Our future energy policy is of paramount importance to this country. However, I wish to further the debate in the context of responding to many arguments against nuclear build. I emphasise that waste and nuclear build must be treated as two separate issues. That has not been made clear to the general public, but it is a vital point that must be addressed.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

John Robertson: The hon. Gentleman cannot possibly have a question about my opening remarks. If he is going to be helpful, I will allow him to get in. Is he going to be helpful?

Angus Robertson: I will be, as I always am to fellow Robertsons. The hon. Gentleman says that build and waste disposal are two separate issues. However, the First Minister of Scotland, Jack McConnell, says that that is not the case. He thinks that it is absolutely essential to know what will happen regarding waste disposal before one talks about build. Is the hon. Gentleman disagreeing with the First Minister?

John Robertson: Once again, if the hon. Gentleman had waited until I had got into my speech, his questions would have been answered, although I am not saying whether that would have happened on the first or 31st page. If he is willing to wait, I guarantee that he will get his answer—perhaps somewhat sooner than later.

Misinformation and scaremongering seem to be regarded as legitimate and acceptable by environmental groups in their attempts to frighten and mislead the public and thus encourage the population to reject nuclear energy. The propaganda is continuous and unrelenting, and, unfortunately, it creates the best headlines in the media. The best example of the media trying to exploit division on nuclear energy was seen in a BBC news article that was published on 12 May 2005. The First Minister was quoted as saying:

The waste in question seems to appear out of thin air, instead of being the result of nuclear plants that are
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operating in Scotland and the UK for the benefit of the Scottish and British economies. Nuclear energy has provided more than 50 per cent. of Scotland’s electricity needs since the first plant at Chapel Cross was opened. Hunterston, Torness and, of course, the experimental fast breeder reactor at Dounreay all contribute not only to power generation, but, substantially, to the economic well-being of thousands of workers involved in the nuclear industry and their families.

If the communities in those areas were asked, I am sure that they would give their approval to new nuclear build on existing sites. The highly skilled workers should be applauded for their contribution to electricity production and the benefits that their endeavours have brought in terms of strengthening the local and national economy. The workers and their families know that any incident, however small, will be reported in the most sensationalist way by the press and media. If those reports were correct, working in a nuclear power station would be the most dangerous job on the planet, but workers, families and communities know the industry and they know that, without proper safety procedures, any industry can be dangerous: ask those who live alongside and who work in the nuclear industry—they are the real test. The workers are sick of hearing about the dangers and the threat of Armageddon. We should applaud them for the contribution they make to our nation—and by that I mean the United Kingdom.

On 12 July, the nuclear workers campaign will lobby Parliament. I support the campaign and have arranged a meeting with the Prime Minister so that the workers can relay their concerns about meeting the UK’s future energy needs. The workers will then head to No. 10 Downing street with a petition signed by more than 10,000 people who live around the nuclear sites. We must applaud the workers for their efforts. Nuclear is their livelihood and that of their communities and we must help to protect it.

However, headlines such as “Nuclear plans could generate rift” seek to present tensions not only between the Scottish Parliament and Westminster, but within the Scottish Executive. The media have latched on to a statement by the First Minister that the Scottish Executive will not agree to planning consent for new nuclear build until a solution to our nuclear waste legacy is in place. According to reports emanating from the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management, geological disposal could be some way off. I ask both the First Minister and the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland to clarify their positions, acknowledging the situation in respect of planning permission and accepting that the Scottish Executive could prevent the building of any new nuclear power plant. It will also be important to know their views on the recommendation when it is published by CoRWM.

I realise that the Scottish Parliament may not have a majority in favour of nuclear build at present, but we need a public debate on our energy choices. In my opinion, confidence in the public when faced with the facts would win the day. It is clear that the Scottish Parliament wants the rest of the country to look after the waste. My view is clear: regardless of the time span, if there is agreement to a long-term solution, that should be sufficient to resolve the problem.

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I am aware that there are those in other political parties who, regardless of CoRWM’s report and the adoption of a solution to the disposal of nuclear waste, will oppose new nuclear power stations. I am also aware that our coalition partners in Scotland have indicated that nuclear energy will be an issue in the 2007 Scottish Parliament elections. I say to them: let battle commence—I look forward to it. But let us have less rhetoric and more truth.

Angus Robertson: Of the 33 potential high-level waste dump sites in the United Kingdom, 22, or 67 per cent., are in Scotland and, interestingly, 15 of those 22 are in Liberal Democrat-held constituencies. Is the hon. Gentleman surprised that not a single Scottish Liberal Democrat MP is here to hear this important debate between the Labour party, which is now in favour of nuclear waste dumps in Scotland, and the Scottish National party, which is opposed?

John Robertson: It is usually us saying that the Scottish National party does not turn up for debates. It makes a pleasant change to have a go at another party. I shall go into detail about the sites and the so-called sites that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate, to which I am listening with huge interest. He rightly states that half of Scotland’s electricity comes from nuclear plant. We are all aware of the increasing importance of carbon-neutral generation. If nuclear plants were phased out, and without new nuclear build, how would Scotland replace that carbon-neutral generation with alternative carbon- neutral generation?

John Robertson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. I understand where his error comes from. Scotland contributes to the national grid and is a supplier, not a receiver. In effect, we could close two power stations in Scotland and still meet today’s output. But as with other nuclear power stations—Torness and Hunterston—that were decommissioned, their output would have to be replaced. The figures that we have at present do not take into consideration the 1 per cent. increase that is expected in electricity needs for the country in each successive year. We would have a problem in Scotland if no nuclear build went ahead, as will probably happen.

If, God help us all, we ended up with a completely independent country, the Government would have to decide whether they should build nuclear power stations. Thankfully, I know that people in Scotland are not that stupid. It is likely that we will continue on our current path.

Nuclear waste management has been an issue since the first reactor was commissioned in England in 1956. At the end of 2005 there were 443 nuclear power plants in operation throughout the world. There were 103 in the United States alone, with another 25 under construction in Japan, India, South Korea, China and Finland. Environmental groups, whose views are often
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reflected in media reports, state that the majority of the public are against the idea of new build. I believe that the jury is still out on public opinion and that once the issues are in the public domain the vast majority will recognise the benefits in security of supply and a reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. That is essential if we are to meet our environmental obligations.

The fact still remains that even if those who are entirely against nuclear power were successful in preventing new nuclear build, the disposal of nuclear waste will remain an issue facing not only the United Kingdom, including Scotland, but each of the 32 countries currently using nuclear energy to enhance their energy portfolio. The establishment of CoRWM by this Government was a necessary decision, even if it was a difficult one. It has created an opportunity for the most comprehensive and wide-ranging public debate on possible solutions for the disposal of our existing nuclear waste legacy.

The Government acted, and should be congratulated on acting where successive Governments failed, to seek a solution to the nuclear energy legacy. From as far back as 1976 the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution advised against the expansion of nuclear power until a safe method was found to contain radioactive waste, but nothing was done. With the establishment of Nirex in the 1980s, it was hoped that a solution could be found for radioactive waste disposal. To its credit, it began examining the best method for disposal and was involved in substantial research into various options, including shallow disposal methods. Unfortunately, it did not manage to involve the public in an open and transparent debate. This failure led to widespread opposition and a change of course in 1987 led to Nirex investigating the solution of a deep repository for all types of low level and intermediate level waste. Its investigation was extremely comprehensive, with more than 500 potential sites being considered for their suitability for the disposal of low level and intermediate level waste. Those are the sites to which the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) referred.

In June 2005, Friends of the Earth issued a press release, “Secret N-Waste Dump Sites Revealed”, which said that 537 locations throughout Britain had been identified as potential sites for disposing of the UK’s radioactive waste, but it failed to mention that those sites were considered for the disposal of low level and intermediate level waste. It failed to mention, too, that the investigation was completed in 1991, and that the only area selected by Nirex to develop an underground rock laboratory to ascertain site suitability was near Sellafield. After planning permission was refused, that application was the subject of a public inquiry, after which the application was rejected.

That is typical of the way in which the debate has been handled in the past. It is time to tackle the scare stories, myths and misinformation head-on. I urge the Government to ensure that the debate on nuclear energy and the disposal of waste is conducted in an open, transparent and factual manner. I am confident that, if the facts on climate change, security of supply and the reduction of CO2 emissions are made clear to the public, they will support our policies on nuclear energy and nuclear waste disposal. It is of fundamental importance that we inform the general public of why
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the UK may support the replacement of existing nuclear power plants, but that information should be based on fact, not the misinformation in two recent Friends of the Earth press releases.

Friends of the Earth tried to make a story out of nothing in another press release to further its opposition to nuclear power, just as the hon. Member for Moray did earlier. The fact that 537 sites had been investigated did not mean they were suitable for the disposal of nuclear waste, but Friends of the Earth did not let the truth get in the way of a good scare story. It warned that many sites could be considered in future. It arrived at that conclusion because, when Nirex was asked whether the geology had changed, the answer was “no”. Friends of the Earth made the logical deduction that, as geological change had not occurred, those sites could be considered in future. It had forgotten that the issue was first considered in 1991, when all the sites were rejected, and only one was the subject of an application. Ministers denied the argument advanced by Friends of the Earth, but that was irrelevant to the organisation. It had decided that it would make a good story in support of its opposition to nuclear power. The media swallowed that story hook, line and sinker.

In that press release, Friends of the Earth claimed to support action to achieve the safe, long-term management of existing radioactive waste but, amazingly, it did not indicate what method it supported. I doubt whether it would support anything. Instead, it offers rhetoric, with little regard to the energy needs of the people of this country. What can we do with existing nuclear waste, and when will Friends of the Earth provide the solution that it allegedly supports? Doing nothing is not an option, so how does Friends of the Earth suggest we deal with our nuclear legacy? What solutions does it support and what is its policy on a long-term solution to nuclear waste? Can my hon. Friend the Minister assure the House that Friends of the Earth and its cohorts will not delay the planning permission required to meet the needs of the nation?

In another press release, dated 27 April 2006, Friends of the Earth calls for urgent action to safeguard Britain’s highly dangerous nuclear waste. It suggests that, in the short term, that must mean secure interim storage, but it fails to indicate where and what type of storage facility that would be. Without a proper constructive proposal, it claims that this is a better long-term solution than dumping the waste deep underground, where it claims experts have warned that the waste will leak from the containers. Is the Minister aware of experts claiming that nuclear waste will leak from containers if we adopt deep geological disposal? If so, how could any responsible Government take such a decision? Or is this another attempt to mislead and misinform? I look forward to my hon. Friend’s response.

Let me give the Minister another gem. In the same press release, Friends of the Earth claims that nuclear power is inherently dirty and dangerous, and that the solution to Britain’s nuclear waste problems must involve rejecting calls for new nuclear power stations. There we have it—let us reject nuclear power, and the waste disappears. How on earth can any responsible body come to such a conclusion?

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