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19 Apr 2007 : Column 166WH—continued

The Finnish example is a good one. I do not know exactly what procedures the Finns followed but, knowing Finland to some extent, I am sure that they were extremely thorough. They have good inspectors, and they have done a good piece of work in evaluating their power station, the European pressurised water
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reactor, which will come on stream in, I believe, 2009, which is fairly soon. As somebody said earlier, there may be experience of the operation of that type of station to draw on before we take irrevocable decisions here—perhaps not very much experience because, as I said, I want to ensure that we start breaking the sod and building the first of the new pressurised water reactors as soon as possible.

Mr. Jamie Reed: I do not think that the hon. Gentleman was attacking the nuclear installations inspectorate. I certainly did not infer that from his comments. However, if I may leap to its defence, it has an exceptionally difficult and important job in respect of nuclear science in the UK. The point that I would make, which is of direct relevance to the hon. Gentleman’s comments, is, yes, pre-licensing and investigation of new reactor technologies has been done in the United States most recently and in Finland as well, but, because the UK regulatory regime is the gold standard internationally, it is important that we do not simply import other regulatory regimes or accept the findings of other regulators. It is important—sadly, I concede that it is probably also very costly—for the NII to undertake its own investigations and fulfil pre-licensing requirements for whichever reactor design we may wish to proceed with in this country. I do not know whether the Minister can confirm this, but I believe that the Health and Safety Executive and the NII have begun a pre-licensing investigation of new nuclear reactor designs.

Mr. Davies: We cannot have it both ways. Either the nuclear licensing regime in this country is the gold standard, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, in which case our inspectorate is not only up to speed but more up to speed in evaluating new nuclear types than anybody else, or it is not up to speed. It has not had experience recently because we have not built anything since Sizewell B, and therefore it cannot be the gold standard.

Perhaps the gold standard is, in fact, the French licensing regime. If anybody gets a gold medal for successful development of nuclear power stations, it is the French. They have been brilliant: they built a batch of pressurised water reactors, and every few years, on the basis of the experience curve effect, they have improved them slightly and added another batch. There must be extraordinarily good engineers in Areva, EDF and so on.

I do not know whether what the hon. Gentleman said is true. It is very nice to say that the British set the gold standard for everything. We all feel comfortable and happy in this place when we beat our breasts and say that, but it may not be true. I am not having a go at the inspectorate—I am just asking questions. The purpose of these debates is to ask questions of the Government. What has the NII been doing? Is it up to speed? Will it introduce new delays into the system because it is not up to speed? We do not want delays. Has it been evaluating new types of station? If so, I would think—I cannot imagine how it could be done otherwise—that the NII must have been working closely with the French, the Finns, the Americans and so on. I hope to hear that it has been doing that.

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I wanted to make only two points, and this is the second one. There is a need to avoid delays, to keep up to speed.

Peter Luff: It may reassure my hon. Friend to know that the Select Committee took evidence from the nuclear installations inspectorate. We were very impressed by what we heard from it. It seems to be combining the best of prudence in terms of safeguarding British interests with the ability to learn from international experience, and we are optimistic about its ability to deal with these issues.

Mr. Davies: That is exactly what I wanted to hear. If anybody from the NII should read this debate in Hansard, which, conceivably, they might, I do not want them to think that I am in any way disparaging them. However, I do want them to think that there are people in this House who are asking precisely the questions that I just asked, and who will be alert to the answers.

I hope that I have not trespassed too long on the time allocated. I would like to end by saying, once again, that I totally agree with my hon. Friend. It is extremely important that we have an informed and sensible public debate on this matter and we must reach decisions urgently. For far too long, for political reasons that we all understand, both parties have just been putting off the evil day and saying, “Oh, this is a bit difficult. We will wait until after the election, or until next year. We won’t put a Bill in this year. We will take a bit longer about it and have some other Committee, or some commission, or some negotiation, or some consultation.” Frankly, we are getting to the point now where we really have to be businesslike and take some decisions that will be vital for the future of this country.

3.40 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies). I am also delighted to have the opportunity to debate a report from the Trade and Industry Committee, which I think is a very balanced and fair report.

I will start with a note of agreement with the previous speaker. I think that we have dilly-dallied for far too long and a degree of urgency is now required. There is no better person to demonstrate that to me than James Lovelock. I do not know how many other hon. Members had the opportunity to hear him, but he spoke in this place about a month ago. If one wanted a clearer explanation of why the nuclear option is inevitable, and also wanted to know how to dismiss some of the absolute rubbish that gets put about by those who call themselves members of the green movement—I believe that I myself am a member of the green movement—but have an obsession with finding reasons why we apparently have alternatives to nuclear energy, James Lovelock utterly dismissed their arguments that day, being someone of outstanding repute who, along with Patrick Moore, has become a great advocate of the nuclear industry. They see it as both inevitable and right that we choose to go along the route of at least replacement.

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There is some misunderstanding and I think we need to stress that nobody is asking for a complete change in our energy provision, so that we go over entirely to the use of nuclear power.

Michael Connarty: I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend when he has just got into his stride. However, I must say that there are different views on this subject. In fact, Professor Patrick Moore, speaking at a meeting that I attended, said that he believed that all advanced countries that had the ability to do so should have 60 per cent. of their base electricity generated by nuclear power, if we are serious about dealing with climate change. If I am called to speak later I will elaborate on his remarks, but there is a view that responsible, advanced countries, when they consider the damage done to the planet by carbon and other emissions from fossil fuels and also the inability of renewables to give adequate capacity, should seek 60 per cent. generation, and I agree with that view.

Mr. Drew: I would never in any way disagree about the precise figures or percentages; that is an issue that I have never been too concerned about. All I believe is that our starting point is replacement. We cannot stand still. After that, we must look at how the different component parts of energy provision best fit together. However, I also make no apology for the fact that I believe strongly that our time for renewables is here and now, and again we are rather slow in the take-up of some of the opportunities that are now coming our way.

Mr. Quentin Davies: Would the hon. Gentleman agree that when we discuss renewables we are really talking about non-base load, because most renewables that we can think of in this country, particularly solar and wind power, obviously only work when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining? So they are distinct from base load. Would it not be more sensible conceptually to examine what we need in terms of base load and what proportion of that might reasonably be generated by nuclear power, what we need in terms of renewables and what we need in terms of very flexible capacity, which can be switched on to replace the renewables when the renewables cannot provide the necessary power?

Mr. Drew: That is an absolutely pivotal point. We are talking about two interrelated but separate systems. We need both a national system through the grid, which obviously will be partly, if not wholly, supplied by nuclear in the future, and local solutions. They can be very local. They can be microgeneration at the household level. We are talking about two different systems that need to work together. That is what technology will have to allow us to think through. We have not done that yet. That is for the future and let us talk about the here and now.

I will start with the point to which my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr. Reed) alluded: some of us are currently subject to a freedom of information inquiry about our interest in the nuclear industry. Like him, I have various bits of correspondence winging their way through my office at the present time.
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Considering that the three of us on the Back Benches—my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland, my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) and I—have rather an established reputation for supporting the industry, it is somewhat bizarre that anyone should need to find out what our links with the industry are.

If they had the courtesy to write to us, I would tell them clearly that I have been pro-nuclear for at least the last 20 years. I make no apology for that. I do a lot of work with the industry and I am totally transparent about that. Notwithstanding the Bill that is to be debated tomorrow, it is rather a waste of time trying to prove the obvious. But that is by the way. I just say in passing that much of the correspondence relates to a visit by my hon. Friend the Minister to Berkeley that in the end never took place. It is a fascinating study that shows just how obsessed people are in trying to attack through all sorts of means those who have a view on this industry that is sensible and right. But we will not be put off.

I have to introduce a slight note of rancour here. I have disagreements with my hon. Friends and with the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford. I have always believed that there is a role for the state not just in terms of the strategy. The industry needs greater state involvement. From the word go the state has played a crucial role in the nuclear industry. At one time it was an almost entirely state-run industry. Indeed, it was born out of state involvement. We sometimes forget that. Because of all the changes that the industry has undergone and the fact that it has been split up so many times, many of us who know the industry still find the picture of who is in bed with whom and who they represent extremely confusing.

We still have a fully owned state company in the form of what was BNFL, which reappeared again yesterday even though I thought that it had become BNG. Whatever it is now called, it is still entirely owned by the state. We cannot dismiss that. It is important. One of the problems goes back to the way in which the old Central Electricity Generating Board was divided up, leaving us with the so-called residue in the form of the old BNFL because of the liabilities issue. That was not necessarily done in the right way, but we are where we are. It was never successful because Nuclear Electric then became British Energy; it has hardly had a great financial past. One hopes that it is through the worst and that it comes out the other side.

One of the problems with the industry is that whenever we want to look to the future—there are those of us who advocate that there is a future and strongly support it—we are somewhat overcome by events. There is no better example of that than yesterday. It may be somewhat marginal to the industry and the new nuclear build, but it is a story that has not been helpful. As with previous stories about the falsification of data, it may have been greatly exaggerated, but this always stops the nuclear industry from getting a fair wind and building that consensus which needs to be built.

I see a strong role for the state. It is fascinating that this Sunday a rather important election is taking place. It is in the country next door and it will have a big impact, not least because that country happens to own a lot of our utilities due to the successful operation of
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what was EDF and is now, I presume, Areva. I have some difficulties knowing which company it is and who is in bed with whom. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford will put me right.

Mr. Davies: I think that the hon. Gentleman will find that EDF remains EDF. EDF is the operating utility that owns the power stations, whereas Areva, which was previously called Framatome, builds them.

Mr. Drew: I accept that and take the hon. Gentleman’s clarification in the best spirit. The point is that there is heavy state involvement in the company; it has built on that and used it to move into other markets, including, in a big way, Britain. I raise the issue now because many great issues are under discussion in France—social policy, economic policy, personalities—but the one issue that never gets discussed is the nuclear issue. I shall give way for the last time, because I am trying to develop an argument.

David Howarth: I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. The nuclear issue has been raised by a number of bodies in the run-up to the French election; tens of thousands of people demonstrated against nuclear energy in France only last month.

Mr. Drew: I take that information as being completely genuine. The reality is that it will not make a blind bit of difference, because whoever is elected as the new President of the French Republic will be avowedly nuclear. They will be nuclear not only for the generation of power; sadly, I think that the force de frappe will remain in place. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk, I voted against the renewal of Trident. I think that the two issues are completely separate. It does immeasurable damage to the argument in favour of nuclear power that it is always linked to nuclear weaponry. I would hope that we could convince other countries that the two issues are separate; perhaps we could do more to lay that ghost to rest.

The French have a much clearer strategy than we do. They are committed to the amount that they can produce with their nuclear component. The nuclear issue is not talked about much in political circles. As the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) said, there is some inevitable resentment towards nuclear power, but it is a given. They will continue with that approach, which has allowed them to secure their energy future. France remains the only country in Europe that can say that; the rest of Europe, let alone the wider world, is at least partly dependent on imported supplies, and increasingly so.

I do not want to delay Westminster Hall too long, but I would like to make a couple of other points, one of which is parochial as it relates to Berkeley in my constituency. I shall come to that in a minute. The building of a consensus is largely dependent on convincing people that we have an answer to the waste issue. The report of the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management was interesting; I will say nothing more defamatory than that. It resulted from the issue having been in the long grass for so many years, and although it brought it out of the long grass, it did not give it the full-frontal publicity that it needs. We have to
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convince people that we have an answer, because it is difficult to believe that we can go for a new build when there is legacy waste to be dealt with.

The issue is controversial; although the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland may provide the main answer, those of us who still have legacy waste in our constituencies have to think through the debate about what is stored where, rather than what is moved about. That needs to be explored fully and quickly so that we get some answers, as they will have a huge impact on where a new build might take place. I have always argued—some people will know that I do so to obsession—that any chance of the industry having any credibility will depend on the footprint falling across the country. I am not in favour of coming up with a number for the new nuclear stations that we need, but I have always thought it a terrible mistake to believe that the answer to the nuclear industry is, “Stuff it in Sellafield.” Some people may think that that would take the problem away for them, but the problem cannot be escaped from. A number of sites need to be explored properly.

That is a good thing that came out of the CoRWM report. In talking about the waste solution, it alluded to the fact that we need to consider the issue comprehensively. I argue that we need to look at a number of sites where we could situate new nuclear build. We have to be open with people and we have to give them incentives, which is of course the way the French are able to keep local populations sweet.

Let me move on to the local situation. This is where we get into some difficulties. Because the industry has been treading water, certainly for the past five years—some of us argue that it has been doing so for much longer—we have seen yet another major restructuring of the industry. The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) did not make much of the role of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. That is important because the NDA owns the sites where the new build is likely to be, although it is not in any way able to deliver anything on the sites. It is merely a holding body that will make decisions about who might be capable of delivering on the sites. It is a nice notion that we have those checks and balances. It has some attraction, although, to return to what the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford said, it is a reason why there may be more bureaucracy, delay and confusion about who will do what and when.

I still believe that the key role of the NDA is as yet untested and unproven, but at least I would give it a fair wind, which I certainly would not give to Nirex on the waste issue, because I think that there we invented a body, fully owned by the state but entirely funded by the industry, that ended up failing to deal with the waste issue. We have learned some lessons from that, but on the NDA, urgency is needed regarding what it sees as happening to the sites.

The situation at my own local site at Berkeley is interesting. We have not only the decommissioning—I say decommissioning rather than decommissioned because the facility is still in a state of being decommissioned. We have not only the station but the old lab sites next door. During the past six months to a year, we have passed quite an interesting staging post. Until about two years ago there were about 1,500 to 1,800 people on that site. It is now down to a few
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hundred people, largely very technical people, so we have seen a rapid rundown. The worry about that is that it was supposed to be the future of the industry. Of course, it was not the only future for the industry, and many of the people have gone on early retirement, so it is not as though we have lost them on the scrap heap; they went because of their age profile. There is an age profile with the industry, which needs to be understood. Many of the people who have been in it are coming out of it because they are retiring. Many other people have gone up to Sellafield, where there has been an accretion of people because of the stability of employment there.

That is important because we need to make actual statements about where the future of the industry lies. If it is always seen to be in decline, even if that footprint is partial, it nevertheless is not a good way to relaunch it. The matter to which I am referring is not the responsibility of my hon. Friend the Minister, although he would have come to see the facility, but the skill level is very important and the way in which people have come together to use the skills is even more important. The decline can be rectified. It was pleasing to hear at a meeting that certainly a couple of us went to this week that there is an upsurge of interest in nuclear engineering and that college courses are beginning to fill up. That is promising, but we have lost many good people who cannot easily be replaced and we cannot pretend that that will not damage the industry.

We need the Government to clarify what will happen to the sites, and to put pressure on the NDA to say what it thinks it should be doing—the selling on of the sites and the contracts have not really been covered. It is crucial to be transparent about what is happening if we are to convince the public that we know what we are doing. If we, as the people’s representatives, cannot understand what we are doing, it will be difficult to persuade them that things are going well.

On the nuclear installations inspectorate, one of the industry’s problems is that it has not one regulator but two; it also has to answer to the Environment Agency. The fact that the Berkeley nuclear lab site has been de-licensed could be good news, because we might go on to use it. However, with two regulators there is always the danger of in-fighting. There has certainly been a question about how independent the regulators are, given that everybody in the industry knows everybody else—people move around within a closed industry. We need to look into that carefully.

In conclusion, we have to convince the public that we are serious; nothing will happen if politicians argue that they need another review, whether it is a review of energy, of waste or of the way in which the industry can be restructured. We have to convince them that now is the time for action if we are serious about global warming and finding a centralised answer to energy provision as well as local solutions. We must be honest and open; people must believe that there is a clear structure.

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