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19 Apr 2007 : Column 173WH—continued

I should like to hear my hon. Friend the Minister say something about the fact that we have a structure that will stay in place for the foreseeable future. We do not want further change. If the NDA is going to continue in its crucial role, it must be open and it must push on.
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However, we need to know who is going to launch the new build. I do not think that the state can wash its hands of it; it has a critical role to play. It might not be able to do everything because much of the industry is in the private sector, but in other countries there are all sorts of paper walls between what the state commissions and who does the work on its behalf. It is not true that there is privatised industry in all other parts of the world; nothing is that clear cut.

I hope that my hon. Friend hears what I am saying about urgency, openness and attempting to engage with people who, in the main, are uncertain but not against the industry. Some are obsessed with the belief that the great British public are anti-nuclear. That is not true. Most of them are agnostic, but we have to get those agnostics on board. Other parties might not agree, but I would challenge them to tell us their solution. If renewables cannot fill the gap, what will they do if they do not want to see the lights turned off?

4.3 pm

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): Should I address you as Mr. Deputy Speaker in Westminster Hall, Mr. Cook, or as Mr. Chairman? What is your status?

Frank Cook (in the Chair): There must be some difficulty with eyesight in the Chamber today. It is plainly stated here. The term “Deputy Speaker” in Westminster Hall was laid aside by the House some 18 months or two years ago.

Michael Connarty: That is a pity, Mr. Cook, because I would certainly be happy to accord you that status, knowing the role that you perform.

I said earlier that I had come to the House opposed to nuclear power generation. I have been involved for many years in the oil and gas industry, as secretary of the offshore oil and gas industry group in this House. I was chairman of the chemical industry group and a member of PRASEG—the parliamentary renewable and sustainable energy group. I was challenged to review my position by some people who felt that the climate change and security supply issues were on the horizon—at that time, four or five years ago, they were not quite so prevalent. They were reacting to what seemed to be the Government’s abandonment of the future of nuclear with the 2003 energy review, in the same way that the United States abandoned its capacity to build nuclear power, mainly because of some large problems in the industry worldwide when people were not taking climate change seriously.

I set myself some tasks and asked myself five questions, one of which was whether nuclear energy generation was avoidable. If people are interested enough they can find in the publication Nuclear Future, volume 2, No. 5, an article that I wrote following a debate in the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology Committee, in which I argued strongly that nuclear power was not only necessary but unavoidable if we were serious about saving our planet and contributing to the continued growth of people’s energy needs, even with the amelioration offered by energy-saving policies or generation from other renewable sources such as wind, wave and tidal. In Scotland, we have the blessing of hydro power, which some countries do not have.

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I was pleased that the Select Committee took up the issue again and I compliment the Chairman on the excellent and thorough report. It is a pity that he was not the guiding hand when the 2003 review was under way, as we might not have been carried away by the siren voices that were being heard loudly then that we should take the route of other countries and abandon a low-carbon fuel which, unlike fossil fuels, does not generate other by-products that are equally damaging to the atmosphere and the future of our planet.

Peter Luff: I am most grateful for what the hon. Gentleman said about the Committee’s report. Since he intervened, I have had the opportunity to check what I thought was the case and can confirm that the figures on the carbon footprint of nuclear technologies in the report of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology to which he referred are repeated in our report and prove exactly his point——that nuclear is the least carbon intensive of them all. He also makes the important point that emissions associated with some other technologies do not apply to nuclear.

Michael Connarty: I say with some pride that I have been a member of the board of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology from the days before it was properly budgeted for in this House and had to go begging and borrowing to pay the scientists who did the excellent reports, including the one on nuclear security. I am the member of the board who asked them to do the study they produced. I had no sense of what the conclusion would be. I was seeking knowledge and it did provide the knowledge that, as the hon. Gentleman said, nuclear has the lowest carbon footprint.

As the Chairman of the Committee said earlier, the first question was whether we would need to build new electricity generating capacity, and the second was whether we need to replace nuclear with new nuclear. He came out very clearly and said that, on the basis of analysis, there should be no special favours. However, I noticed on page 59 that the Committee said that, whatever happened, it should be in a framework that rewarded low-carbon technologies. That is as objective as we can possibly be and I hope that from that conclusion, in other studies, wind, wave, photovoltaic and other types of power will also be seen as low carbon and given the incentives that they require.

I know that there is a dichotomy of views. Some believe that if we support nuclear, both Government and commercial money would flow away from renewable energies. I hope that that would not be the case. It is clear from the recent European decision about the energy options for Europe that those technologies are seen as important. There is no doubt that we need to find ways to use less energy and to advance the use of renewable and low carbon energy, from wherever it comes. In that mix, there must be nuclear energy, and the report points that out well. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s opinion. I have seen the Government’s response, but I want to see whether the Minister has further thoughts. The Government must give strong signals about where they are going.

There is no doubt that the legacy of nuclear power was not good. We have a lot to apologise for in its
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technological legacy, in this country and possibly in others. The worst incident was of course the Soviet Chernobyl incident, where the technology was entirely inadequate and the procedures and processes used were dangerous and caused major upsets.

For everyone in this country, there is the psychological legacy of the continual loss of technological integrity in the nuclear industry, with leaks into the sea and breakdowns. We have had a couple recently, even at quite modern reactors in Scotland. There are serious questions to be answered. From my experience of 15 years working with people in the oil and gas industries, I know of a parallel when there was a terrible fire at Texas City. It was down to the fact that the board had called for a 25 per cent. reduction in maintenance costs, so people just lengthened the maintenance cycles and eventually something went seriously wrong. My worry is that, with the pressures of finance—the legacy of our financial model is not good either—the pressure was always on people not to do their best. The concept of the gold standard mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr. Reed) was not always the one seen by the public.

Even at this moment, as part of the process at Sellafield is turned on, the Norwegians are protesting because they see THORP as a further danger to them. That shows that our legacy has left people with a genuine, serious and respectable view that we must prove the technology all over again in the next generation before we can go forward. It is a shame that the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood), who went across to see the CANDU reactors, is not here. That is British technology that was shipped out during the war years to get it away from the war zone, and it has one of the safest records. The people who developed it were British scientists, sent across to Canada, who stayed there. As usual, we moved on to yet another untried technology and did not bring back the technology that was working perfectly well and has done so ever since at a high level of safety that we would love to have.

There is a Scottish dimension to my concerns. The question is not just whether we will need to have renewable energy as a substitute or low energy use. As a Scottish Member, I know that for some time we have exported electricity to England, because we have had nuclear generation. Luckily, we have also had hydro generation.

The country that boasts the lowest carbon footprint in the developed world is France, which has 80 per cent. of its electricity generated by nuclear and the rest by hydro. If I recall correctly, it creates about 5.8 tonnes of carbon per head of population per annum. The most vociferous country on renewable energy is Denmark, and its carbon footprint is almost 12 tonnes a year per head of population. It does not have hydro, which is geographically unfortunate, and it does not have any other alternatives because it will not use nuclear. If the winter is really cold, it imports power on the grid from a nuclear power station in France or Sweden, so there is a bit of kidology going on there. It is clear that, if a country is half nuclear and fortunate enough to have hydro or wants to use photovoltaic or renewable energy, it can create a small carbon footprint.

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At the moment, 38 per cent. of Scotland’s electricity is generated from nuclear power. I was at a seminar in Scotland recently when someone from a technical institute said that they had profiled the longest period that they could foresee Scotland surviving, even with the growth of wind power, without having to cut off the electricity, or switch off the lights, as the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) described it. It would be 16 years without nuclear.

The reality of wind power is that all the profiles show that it can replace no more than 18 per cent. of the base load, because it cannot be stored. There is no profile to show that more than that can be replaced and, unless the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) can do so, no one has ever proven differently.

David Howarth: I invite the hon. Gentleman to make it clear that the base load is only 20 per cent. of the entire electricity demand, so when he refers to a third of base load, he is talking about only 7 per cent. of overall demand.

Michael Connarty: My understanding is that 29 per cent. of our electricity was generated by nuclear in 1979. That percentage is now lower at 19 per cent., and heading for 18 per cent. because the Magnox stations have been turned off. The profile in the 2003 report was that it would fall to 7 per cent. with only Sizewell B running by 2020.

The replacement is not available and the idea that it does not matter is contradicted by the fact that I celebrated, as did the Liberal Democrats and all the supporters of renewables, that we reached 2 GW from wind power. That is fantastic, but it does not represent a great proportion of what we use. It is a question of whether the glass is half-full or half-empty. The hon. Gentleman would say that it is half-full when talking about renewables, but half-empty when talking about nuclear. I would be much happier if we had made a commitment to maintain that 30 per cent., and Patrick Moore made a good argument for showing that the carbon footprint would be much better if we considered going to about 60 per cent. That is not to say that the other 40 per cent. cannot come from renewables elsewhere, but we have a different perspective. The Scottish dimension worries me because we have parties committed to no nuclear rebuild, and that would be a problem for me.

Turning to the legacy and reprocessing, I heard what my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland said about what goes on at Sellafield, and its 17,000 jobs. That may be a strong argument, but things must be done properly, and it cannot be good just to keep employing people. It is clear that Sellafield and reprocessing are vital to the nuclear industry, and it is important to me as a Scottish Member. We have no reprocessing facilities in Scotland, and we must reprocess Scottish waste somewhere in England. I am not sure how that squares with the policies of the parties who would abolish the use of nuclear power in Scotland.

Mr. Jamie Reed: On the issue of waste and Scotland, all the waste that is produced by the nuclear industry in Scotland is in my constituency. In the event of
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independence, that waste will go back to Scotland. The agreement for housing that waste in my constituency is that it arises from Britain. I thought my hon. Friend might find that information useful.

Michael Connarty: I have always argued that, in the chemical industry, the polluter should pay, and it is certainly sensible to stay within the United Kingdom. I want an integrated energy-producing and waste-reprocessing unit. Otherwise, we will end up with problems and conflicts. I am happy to repeat that argument again and again between now and the Scottish elections.

I have been looking at the new technologies. I have been to Canada and France to see what they do there, and I am extremely impressed by the passive safety technologies in the CANDU process. They are designed to prevent repeats of Chernobyl by incorporating features that cut out processing and other dangerous elements very quickly. The latest technology enables any problem to be completely locked off within 72 hours—automatically and without human intervention.

Those who like to create hysteria—I call them siren voices—talk about waste and spent fuel rods, and pretend that there is a ticking bomb. They give the impression that when fuel rods are removed and set aside those rods could blow up at any minute. I was astonished, as would be any hon. Member who visited a nuclear power station, that one can actually swim in the tanks where the fuel rods are kept. Obviously that is not recommended, but it is possible to swim in the water above the fuel rods that have been removed for reprocessing without contamination being likely. No radiation is given off from the surface of the water at all, because 5 m of water completely cancels it out.

The Canadian plan is that, after 10 years, the fuel will be taken into concrete bunkers that are open to the air, where it can be kept without any radiation registering on a Geiger counter. The Canadians talk of keeping fuel there for 100 years without nuclear pollution, so it is wrong to give the impression that a great reaction is going on.

Reprocessing has moved on immensely. I am not sure about the company structure, but I believe that Areva owns EDF and Framatome and that it is a holding company that, in turn, is owned by the French Government. We went to look at its operations in the manufacture of MOX fuel—mixed oxide fuel, which is mentioned in the report. When people are asked how much of a spent fuel rod can be reprocessed, their guess is 10 or 5 per cent. They do not realise that the actual figure is 96 per cent. and that not only the uranium but the plutonium can be dealt with. The material is reprocessed into mixed oxide fuel pellets that are put back into rods and returned to the customer.

At an Areva site in France, four bundles of spent fuel rods have been reprocessed from weapons-grade uranium. Britain’s 100 tonnes of plutonium was described as a treasure. It might be stored in or near the constituency of my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Copeland, but in any event it is valuable because it helps in the creation of mixed oxide fuels, and the report says, I believe, that two nuclear power stations could be run throughout their life using the quantity of plutonium stored in the UK. The industry is
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sustainable and safe, and people should seriously consider the idea of “plutonium for peace”, because when plutonium is not a scare story, it is very valuable.

Those who wish to use wind, wave and tidal power—particularly in Scotland—have the problem of getting power from the generating point to the user. The report raises the issue of the choice between national grid systems and dispersed systems whereby power is used near to the generation site. There is a great debate on that topic, and I think that the nuclear contribution should be the one to use the grid system. The Liberal Democrats are leading a big campaign in Scotland against a reinforced grid system that would extend across Scotland, even though it would use the renewable energy generated in the highlands and islands and get it to the end users, who are mainly in England, not Scotland. The Government should talk not only about where they put the stations but about whether they have a commitment to putting the grids in place to allow the energy generated to get to the end user—not necessarily using a national grid system, but perhaps a dispersed grid system.

The question of skills was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland. I have spent a long time considering the run-down of the skills that we require in the oil and gas industry. Despite the best efforts of the companies and associations—and the Government, through PILOT—there is a major skills problem in the UK. There is no doubt that we have to consider that as an EU question. For example, at the moment a refit, shut-down, maintenance job is going on in my constituency at INEOS, the company that bought the chemical olefins derivatives section of BP. Some 270 skilled workers were required, but we could not get more than 200 from the UK, even after asking all the associations and trade unions to supply them. Companies have had to bring in people from Poland, Portugal and elsewhere, paying them high rates of pay and additional expenses so that they can live in hotels. If we are to renew the build programme in the UK, we shall have to do that on a skill base at EU level. That underlines why it was so important for the EU to take those policies recently.

The second issue is the capacity of the licensing body. We heard a bid from the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East, who argued for an additional consideration for the pebble-bed process that has been developed in South Africa, on top of the Areva, Westinghouse and CANDU processes. My understanding is that talk throughout the industry is that the Government are sending out signals that they cannot cope with more than two pre-licensing examples; they only licensed two of the three that were named, even though there was a bid for a fourth, because there is not the capacity.

That is a sign of how far things have run down or of how many people, as my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland said, have left—because of age, not because of any lack of interest in the industry. There is a reigniting of interest in the industry at Birmingham, where there are nuclear industry courses, and among the trade associations. However, it will take a long time to get the capacity. If the licensing body does not have the capacity, all the aspirations in the report will come to naught. We will have to reduce the market and say that we can have only two players as we cannot cope
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with three—or, as I have been told, we will have to wait two further years if we want three. That leads me to disagree with my hon. Friend.

Mr. Quentin Davies: The hon. Gentleman has made an enormously important point. Does he share my hope that, in responding, the Minister will directly address that issue—the extent to which the capacity and capabilities of the nuclear inspectorate might be an avoidable delay in the launch of a nuclear programme in this country?

Michael Connarty: I certainly have that aspiration, but I must also commend the Minister. When he was Minister for Energy, he worked with PILOT. There is no doubt it was the Government that put together the consortium that brought together their aspirations and those of the trade unions with the energies of the industry. The industry was turned around when it had been going in a similar downward spiral. I hope that those skills will be brought to bear on the question of the NII, which is the first organisation that needs to be considered. If the door is too narrow, we will never make the market that we require.

The second thing that we should do is use the information that other countries use for licensing. For example, I have been told that one of the reasons why the building of Areva’s new generation in Finland has taken longer than was hoped—it is said that it is behind schedule—is that the Finnish authority is very strict and keeps coming up with more and more rules and regulations. If that is the case, the information used in that process should be readily transferable to a UK system, without our having to go and reinvent the wheel and ask for it to be done all over again. That is often what happens—companies spend huge sums, but when they come to the UK are told, “We have the gold standard. We do not want to read that document. You will have to write it all again and we will take as long as we like to consider it.” We have to realise that, in the EU particularly, we now have comparable skills and standards in this industry. We should use that to shorten the process.

The other question is about land use planning. I noticed that one of the recommendations, on page 77 of the Committee report, is for a review of the planning as well as of the licensing system. The oddest thing at the moment is that, when an energy source is being talked up as a solution, political parties are very keen. Then, when there is an application for a wind farm or something else in the locality, the very same parties at the local level are the biggest opponents—nimby, not in my back yard. [Interruption.] Or “not in my constituency”. We have to deal with that. If we now have nuclear power stations in locus, and a new one is to be put in the same location, no logical question can be asked about whether there is permission for that land use. The process could, therefore, be very much foreshortened.

Mr. Jamie Reed: I would like to tell my hon. Friend and others that I am an “imby” and have made several requests for two new nuclear reactors at Sellafield. Nothing would please my constituents more, starting tomorrow, if the Minister is listening.

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