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19 Jun 2006 : Column 1160

As we have some extra time tonight, there are some other myths that I draw to the Minister’s attention. Myth No. 1: nuclear energy is expensive. It is, in fact, one of the least expensive energy sources. In 2004, the average cost of producing nuclear energy in the United States was less than 2 cents per kilowatt-hour, comparable with coal and hydroelectric power. Advances in technology will bring the cost down further.

Myth No. 2: nuclear waste will be dangerous for thousands of years. Within 40 years, used fuel has less than one thousandth of the radioactivity that it had when it was removed from the reactor. It is incorrect to call it waste, because 96 per cent. of the potential energy is still contained in the used fuel after the first cycle. Now that the United States has removed the ban on recycling used fuel, it will be possible to use that energy and to reduce greatly the amount of waste that needs treatment and disposal. Last month, Japan joined France, Britain and Russia in the nuclear fuel recycling business. The United States, I believe, will not be far behind.

Myth No. 3: nuclear reactors are vulnerable to terrorist attack. The 6 ft-thick reinforced concrete containment vessel protects the contents from the outside, as well as from the inside. Even if a jumbo jet crashed into a reactor and breached containment, the reactor would not explode. There are many types of facilities that are far more vulnerable, including liquefied natural gas plants, chemical plants and, dare I say it, numerous political targets.

British Nuclear Fuels Ltd took the unprecedented decision to issue a full statement regarding a report that predicted very serious consequences for the public if the high level waste tanks at Sellafield were to be targeted by hijacked aircraft. None of the authors of the report has access to the current engineering and construction information that is necessary to undertake a credible study of the likely consequences. For that reason, BNFL considers that the conclusions are unsubstantiated, entirely speculative and significantly exaggerate the consequences—nothing new there.

It is accepted that nuclear fuel can be diverted to make nuclear weapons. This is the most serious issue associated with nuclear energy and the most difficult to address, as the example of Iran shows, but just because nuclear technology can be put to evil purposes, that is not an argument for banning its use. Over the past 20 years, one of the simplest tools, the machete, has been used to kill more than a million people in Africa, far more than were killed in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombings combined. What are car bombs made of? Diesel oil, fertiliser and cars. If we banned everything that can be used to kill people, we would never have harnessed fire.

Imagine if the ratio of coal to nuclear were reversed, so that only 20 per cent. of our electricity was generated from coal and 60 per cent. from nuclear. That would go a long way towards cleaning the air and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Every responsible environmentalist should support a move in that direction.

A public debate about radioactive waste is important. Public confidence will not be restored unless there is confidence in the institution that manages the consultation and debate and develops
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policy. New institutions are required that have independence, authority, transparency and accountability. They should be formed as soon as possible, and there is no need to wait until the consultation process is completed in 2007.

Such institutions would be required to manage a three-step process. First, they would need to run a public consultation to elicit the values, priorities and wishes of the electorate. Secondly, they would need to conduct detailed analysis and obtain technical advice to formulate waste disposal policy. Thirdly, they would need to implement that policy. A waste management commission should be created to undertake the first two roles. A separate waste management executive will be required to undertake the third role, and its relationship with the liabilities management authority and the waste management commission will need to be clearly defined.

International involvement, especially through the European Union, is an essential element of future research on the problems of radioactive waste. Although this debate concerns Scotland and the UK, I recommend that relations with European and other international collaborators, including the USA, should be explored in parallel with the present consultations.

With the events of 11 September in mind, we must advocate an urgent safety review, which should take into account the possibility of extreme terrorist intervention. Nuclear energy is the only large-scale, cost-effective energy source that can reduce emissions while continuing to satisfy the growing demand for power, and these days it can do it safely.

The issue of nuclear waste should be subject to significant discussion and consultation independent from any new build that may occur. Nuclear waste exists today, and it will exist in the future. Even if no new nuclear power stations were commissioned, and even if the existing nuclear power stations closed tomorrow, we would still have to deal with nuclear waste in the years ahead. In my view, nuclear power is the safest and most regulated energy source in the UK, and it produces no CO2 emissions.

We have the highest safety standards in the UK, and we should ensure that every country shares them—Chernobyl would not have happened if our standards had been applied. Let us tell the world how safe our industry is and dispel the myths constantly perpetrated by those who wear blinkers and who refuse to acknowledge the way forward.

I shall now discuss a nuclear success story, Three Mile Island. The concrete structure did exactly what it was designed to do—it prevented radiation from escaping into the environment. Although the reactor itself was crippled, there was neither injury nor death among the nuclear workers or nearby residents. Three Mile Island was the only serious accident in the history of nuclear energy generation in the United States.

In a press release, Friends of the Earth states that security specialists have warned the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management that

I would be grateful if the Minister were to respond to these points.

In previous contributions, I have often referred to Professor James Lovelock. This evening, I want to introduce a new name into this important debate, because an article by Patrick Moore in the energy review May 2006 Holyrood supplement has caught my attention. Many, especially the environmentalists among us, will have heard of Patrick Moore, the co-founder of Greenpeace. In a very forthright article, he makes many points with which I agree. Many people in the past, himself and myself included, felt that nuclear energy was synonymous with nuclear holocaust. While he does not want to underestimate the very real dangers of nuclear technology in the hands of rogue states, he feels that we cannot simply ban every technology that is dangerous. That was the all-or-nothing mentality at the height of the cold war, when anything nuclear seemed to spell doom for humanity and the environment. After 30 years, his view has changed, and the rest of the environmental movement needs to update its views too.

It is refreshing to see that many distinguished individuals with such impeccable green credentials recognise the need for honesty and are urging their compatriots to recognise the realities that this planet now faces. Being an eternal optimist, as everyone knows, I live in hope that environmentalists such as James Lovelock, Stewart Brand, Bishop Hugh Montefiore and Patrick Moore, who have all faced the realities of climate change and come to the same conclusion, may convince those who think that being green means that they must oppose nuclear energy to see the error of their ways or to open their eyes and accept that nuclear energy can and should play a major role in protecting the earth’s climate.

The danger that the planet faces not only in Scotland and the UK, but internationally, is highlighted when we examine the damage that burning fossil fuel creates. For example, 600 coal-fired electric plants in the United States produce 36 per cent. of US emissions and nearly 10 per cent. of global emissions of CO2—the gas primarily responsible for climate change. Today, 103 nuclear reactors are quietly delivering 20 per cent. of America’s electricity. Eighty per cent. of people living within 10 miles of these plants approve of them, and that does not include the nuclear workers. I believe that the community support is similar within areas of the UK.

Of course, wind and solar power, which are intermittent and unpredictable, have a role to play, but they cannot replace big base-load plants such as coal, nuclear and hydroelectric. Natural gas, a fossil fuel, is too expensive already, and its price is too volatile to risk building big base-load plants. Given that hydroelectric resources are built pretty much to capacity, nuclear is, by elimination, the only viable substitute for coal. It is that simple.

The 600-plus coal-fired plants in the US emit nearly 2 billion tonnes of CO2 annually—equivalent to the exhaust from about 300 million automobiles. In
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addition, the Clean Air Council reports that coal plants are responsible for 64 per cent. of sulphur dioxide emissions, 26 per cent. of nitrous oxides, and 33 per cent. of mercury emissions. Those pollutants are eroding the health of our environment by producing acid rain, smog, respiratory illness and mercury contamination. That is not to say that we should not invest in research and development into clean coal technology. In fact, I believe that that is a must for the Government, and I would encourage more in-depth R and D into all energy supplies.

Let me conclude by urging the Minister to implement the proposals from CoRWM, taking in to account all the caveats. Urgency in implementing a solution to the nuclear waste legacy is vital. Reprocessing may need to be reconsidered, along with identification of deep geological disposal sites. I have explained why I believe that waste should be taken separately from new build, which, if it happens, will add only about 10 per cent. to the waste that we already have over the next 60 years. However, we have that waste and we must do something about it.

I reiterate a few of my questions. What can be done with existing nuclear waste? Are the Government aware of the views of experts who claim that nuclear waste will leak from containers if we adopt deep geological disposal? If so, what will they do about it? I ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to answer those questions and the others that I asked. I hope that I have been positive in suggesting some solutions.

Mr. Speaker: I call John Cairns—sorry, David Cairns.

9.54 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Cairns): My name is John David Cairns—how clever of you to know that, Mr. Speaker. It is obviously how one gets to become Speaker. That is enough crawling for now—I shall press on with my speech. [Interruption.] I am sure I can get more in, including a reference to an excellent visit that I made to your constituency on Friday, Mr. Speaker.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) on securing an important debate. Given the energy review next month and the final recommendation and report by the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management, we shall hear much more about it in the approaching weeks and months.

My hon. Friend has a reputation as an expert on the issue and a considerable background in the subject. He seldom misses an opportunity to discuss issues around the civil use of nuclear technology. Indeed, I recently turned on my television, bleary eyed on Sunday morning, only to see him on the “Heaven & Earth” show, which I had hitherto assumed was reserved for bishops. However, my hon. Friend was on the programme, showing his expertise on the subject of our debate. I understand that it received more e-mails on the topic that he introduced than on the travails of the Church of England, which was the other topic that day. He is an acknowledged expert and he speaks with great authority.


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I want to try to tackle directly the questions that my hon. Friend asked in the context of where we are now on managing radioactive waste safely, the CoRWM report and the forthcoming energy review. It is important to deal with the title of the debate, which is about the effect of UK Government policy on nuclear waste management in Scotland.

Policy responsibility is clearly devolved to the Scottish Parliament and Executive, but it is also characterised by widespread joint working between Whitehall Departments and their counterparts in the various devolved Administrations as well as bodies such as the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. Technical expertise in Government on handling nuclear waste is shared across several Administrations but joint involvement and the Administrations working together go much further than that.

Joint working is currently focused on the managing radioactive waste safely programme, which updates policy on radioactive waste in the United Kingdom. The title of the programme goes some way towards addressing the first of my hon. Friend’s questions. Managing radioactive waste safely is the No. 1 priority and when Ministers make decisions on such matters, safety will be the paramount consideration. Those who question the safety of some methods of disposal such as those that my hon. Friend mentioned have every right to make their case, but Ministers will be guided by the science and putting safety first.

The central focus of the managing radioactive waste safely programme has been the long-term management of the long-lived wastes, which display higher levels of radioactivity. That led to the joint decision by UK and devolved Administration Ministers in 2002 to establish CoRWM. There is also joint oversight of the activities of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and joint participation in the current review of handling low level waste.

The long-term management policy for higher activity wastes will be decided by the UK Government and the devolved Administrations in the light CoRWM’s final recommendations. As we have not yet received them and have only the interim report, it is difficult for me to comment on the specific recommendations that might emerge from that. The Government will respond once CoRWM has produced its final report, which is expected in July.

As I have said, responsibility for nuclear waste in Scotland is devolved. However, the picture is of considerable joint working with the Scottish Executive on the part of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department of Trade and Industry as the main Whitehall policy Departments involved. My hon. Friend has recognised the significance of such co-operation in selecting his topic for debate and in his speech this evening.

A joint approach involves concerns and priorities from all sides being considered together in the search for a common approach that meets the needs of all parts of the country. This is not a question of the Government imposing a view on how the Scottish Executive should use their devolved powers; it is about working with each other to address the shared problem of what to do about nuclear waste.

It being Ten o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.


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

David Cairns: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I assume that I should now carry on as normal. That is the first time that that has ever happened to me. It provided a bit of excitement to jazz up my speech.

As I was saying before I was so pleasantly interrupted, this is not about one part of the Administration foisting a view on another part. It is about the acknowledgment that we face a common challenge, and that we need to work together. To those of us who believe in devolution, this sort of joint working demonstrates how we can benefit from the diversity within the United Kingdom by making the effort needed to reach common understanding.

Angus Robertson: The Minister has talked about joined-up working, but what about joined-up thinking? The hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) said that he believed that new build and waste disposal were separate issues. The First Minister of Scotland, Jack McConnell, has said that they are not. What is the Government’s position on this? Is it the same as that of the Scottish Executive and of the First Minister, or as that put forward by the hon. Gentleman?

David Cairns: The hon. Gentleman slightly caricatures the position that my hon. Friend has taken. Of course those issues are separate to the extent that we have nuclear waste today, and, irrespective of whether we make any decision about new nuclear build, we have to deal with that nuclear waste. That issue would be on the table irrespective of whether there were a possibility of new build. However, because there is the possibility—and it is only a possibility—of new build nuclear power stations, or of extending the life of the existing ones, there will clearly be a link between what we do with the waste that comes from those and whatever decisions are taken about the legacy waste. However, the positions are different to the degree that, irrespective of any decision that we take on new build nuclear power stations, we have to deal with the legacy waste. The First Minister fully accepts that.

John Robertson: Does my hon. Friend accept that the existing waste will not be stored in two separate places, one north of the border and one south of the border? The solution will be a British solution, rather than a Scottish, English or Welsh one. Is it not therefore important that, while we should talk to our colleagues north of the border, we should realise that CoRWM is putting forward a British solution rather than a Scottish one?


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