Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 32-39)


25 JANUARY 2006

  Q32 Chairman: Can I welcome you, Lord Sainsbury, to the Committee once again and may I make the point of thanking you very much for extending your time with us, it is much appreciated, and we do appreciate what efforts you put into supporting science and technology. Could I also welcome amongst our visitors today students from Cardinal Newman School in Luton. You are particularly welcome and we hope you will enjoy meeting the Minister and listening to some of the questions which he will answer in his elegant way over the next 40 minutes. Minister, what role is the Office of Science and Technology playing in the current Energy Review?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: OST is contributing to the Review in a number of ways, focusing in particular on energy research and innovation aspects. For example, members of the Council for Science and Technology, co-chaired by Sir David King, last year published an important report on energy and they will be meeting with Malcolm Wicks tomorrow to discuss how the committee can assist. In addition, the new public/private sector Energy Research Partnership, again co-chaired by Sir David King, will, at its launch meeting later today, consider, for the head of the review team, areas where it can contribute. OST officials are also assisting engagement with the science and engineering communities.

  Q33  Chairman: You mentioned Sir David King a number of times then and clearly he is playing a significant role. How much weight do you put on his advice in terms of this Energy Review and particularly his comments about nuclear power? Is he speaking for the Department?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: Well, it is always important to understand that chief scientific advisers play, I think, a very independent role and I think that is a very healthy position. They do not, in that context, speak for the Government necessarily. I think it is very important in terms of their public credibility that they are seen to be independent, so I think the answer to your question is that we put a great deal of weight on his views because I think he is a very distinguished and really excellent scientist, but, on the other hand, he is not speaking for the Government.

  Q34  Chairman: When the Energy Minister says that our treatment, for instance, of nuclear waste over the last 20-30 years is a public disgrace and that only 8% of the 2.3 million cubic metres of waste is actively being dealt with, do you think it is credible for the Chief Scientific Adviser then to be openly saying that we need another X number of nuclear reactors in order to meet our power needs before the Energy Review has even taken place?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: If that is his view, then I think he is entitled to take that view. Equally, I think the Energy Review will have to consider, as a very key part of its report, whether the waste issue and the safety issues are such that it would not be right to go ahead with nuclear energy. Those are clearly two issues that need to be solved, and the Prime Minister has made it very clear that those issues have to be solved, before we could go ahead with nuclear energy.

  Q35  Chairman: But in terms of actually where OST puts its resources or encourages the research councils to put their resources, how much additional effort is being made to deal with that issue particularly of dealing with waste?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: Well, I think it should be said that, if you look at the spread of energy resources, they cover all these issues and we are putting very substantial resources into both renewable areas and into areas to do with nuclear waste, safety and clear-up, so I do not think there is any bias in those areas. If there is a problem, there was a tremendous fall in energy research both by the private sector and the public sector over the late 1980s/early 1990s and I think perhaps we may have taken too long to correct that, but we are now correcting it and putting more money into energy research.

  Q36  Mr Newmark: We are still curious as to why the Government is approaching the Health & Safety Executive now and will the implementation of the Energy Review's recommendations be conditional on the findings of the Health & Safety Executive?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I think it should be clear what we are asking. What we are asking the Health & Safety Executive to look at is the processes, particularly the processes involved in pre-licensing, so that we have an understanding of that as part of the Energy Review. Of course there is no way that any of this could go ahead unless the nuclear safety issue was dealt with and we had confirmation that not only nuclear safety in general, but particular designs were safe in this process.

  Q37  Mr Newmark: I am rather curious because I know that a number of environmental campaigners in particular are concerned that this is just merely a process and that it has already been decided that nuclear is going ahead. Can you give us some thoughts as to why their concerns should be alleviated that the nuclear option effectively is not necessarily a fait accompli?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: Well, as I said, the Prime Minister has always made it absolutely clear that, unless the safety and waste issues are dealt with, this will not go ahead.

  Q38  Mr Newmark: Given the rising levels of CO2 emissions from transport, is the Government prepared to put more funding into R&D in such areas as fuel cell technology and biofuels?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I think the point of the Energy Review is just this: that it is a review and I think, whether it is nuclear or what money one puts into energy efficiency, one should not prejudge the Review, but one should look at what comes out of that Review and then, on the basis of that, go forward. As I said, I think we still have a lot of work to do to make certain that we are putting enough money into energy research and putting it into the right places. That is why David King is now chairing this Energy Research Partnership because this is both a private sector and a public sector issue.

  Q39  Mr Newmark: But you have not really answered my question directly which has to do with transportation. Transportation is at the moment viewed still as a major problem with pollution and, specifically on that, do you yourself have any particular views as to the need to be focusing on alternatives such as, as I said, fuel cell technology and biofuels?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: Well, can I just go back one step. I do think there is a tendency always to see this issue in terms of electricity generation and people tend to focus on that issue solely. Of course if you are going to deal with the CO2 emissions, you have got to deal also with the whole issue of transport, so I think hopefully there will be more focus on transport in the future as well as electricity generation. If you are going to focus on transport, then obviously issues like hydrogen become very much more important.

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