Energy Bill

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The Chairman: I am afraid that I must now call a halt to proceedings. I apologise to colleagues who wanted to ask supplementary questions, but I could not reach you all. I want to thank the witnesses very much for their evidence. Could you kindly leave so that the next set of witnesses can take your places?
Good afternoon, gentlemen, and thank you for appearing before the Committee. I should tell the Committee that the description in the papers in front of us for Dr. Mike Weightman is not accurate. So, gentlemen, could you please introduce yourselves?
Dr. Ian Roxburgh: I am chief executive of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority.
Dr. Mike Weightman: I am Her Majesty’s chief inspector at the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate and a director of the Health and Safety Executive.
Keith Parker: I am chief executive of the Nuclear Industry Association.
Paul Spence: I am head of strategy at British Energy.
Q 103Malcolm Wicks: As you might know, I have been persuaded that nuclear should be part of the future energy mix. Do you accept that there is widespread public suspicion and distrust of the nuclear industry and its secrecy? If so, how do you think that we can create greater transparency in order to win public confidence at a time of concern about safety and security?
Keith Parker: On behalf of the NIA, which represents companies throughout the industry, I think that what the Minister says is broadly correct. In the past, there has been a degree of public suspicion of the industry. It has not been entirely trusted and has had a reputation for secrecy for reasons that I think are broadly historical. It came from its sort of military background. There were instances of apparent cover-ups in the past. I think that the perception of the industry has changed quite significantly in the past few years, and certainly the industry itself is going out of its way to engage much more readily with the public and moving away from a situation in which it just spoke to itself because it felt very comfortable doing that. We are going out and debating the issues, putting our case in public forums. That willingness to engage has improved people’s perception of the industry and their understanding of the case for nuclear.
Dr. Ian Roxburgh: May I add one small comment? As the Minister will know, it is part of the NDA’s remit that we are bound to be open and transparent. We were meant to represent a break with the past, and I think that in large part that has been achieved. It is also fair to say that the communities that we work in are actually quite comfortable with matters nuclear as a general rule. We have two Members on the Committee here today, Jamie Reed and Albert Owen, who represent constituencies that are lobbying the NDA quite hard that they should not be left out of the possibility of site review for new nuclear plants, so there is another side to it.
Q 104Charles Hendry: Could you tell us what your current thinking is about the potential life extensions of the current fleet of nuclear power stations, so that we can have an accurate understanding of when they may come out of commission? Also, do you agree with me that, if there is going to be a new fleet of nuclear reactors, it will be viable only if a number are built to the same design, rather than one of one design, one of another and two of another, and that we therefore need to break from the tradition that we have had in this country? Do you also agree that in the design approval process, we should not add on a huge amount of extra work and cost, as happened with Sizewell B and elsewhere and in Finland, which would make them essentially unaffordable?
The Chairman: Who would like to answer that?
To pick up your second question, about standardisation, one feature of our current fleet is that, although they are all called advanced gas-cooled reactors, they are all subtly different, or in some cases markedly different. We are on record in a number of places as saying that we think it will be extremely desirable for the UK to adopt designs that are like international designs and drive, as far as we possibly can, for those stations to be built to a standard, accepted international design. We believe that that offers the greatest margin of safety and the greatest prospect of attractive economics.
The Chairman: Would anyone else like to respond?
Dr. Mike Weightman: If I may answer from a nuclear regulatory perspective, clearly the operators will have to demonstrate that the life extension that they propose is safe. There will be some technical limitations on issues such as graphite cores, which we will have to consider very carefully to ensure that we have the confidence on those life extensions. I need to be sure that Members are aware that there are various steps to go through to secure approval, so that we protect the people of the UK. Similarly, on taking forward standardised designs—I shall not comment on the commercial aspects of that, but merely on nuclear safety—clearly, if you have a replicated fleet then you can learn more from events that occur across that fleet, because they will be equally applicable to all the stations. So there are some safety benefits from that.
In terms of the design approval process, it is clear under international conventions—and, indeed, under the International Atomic Energy Agency safety standards— that nuclear safety is a national responsibility. We are set up to protect the people and society in the UK, and we have to fulfil that duty.
That does not mean to say that we do not take account of other nuclear regulators worldwide. Indeed, we have good relationships on a bilateral basis and a multilateral basis, and more is being done at international level to secure greater co-operation. However, some of the changes in design that occur from country to country reflect some of those national concerns. We know that the Finns have different concerns to the French, but also some of those changes reflect different operators. Some of the changes in Finland in the finished design of the European pressurised reactor compared with the French design are to do with the operator wanting to gain access to some of the areas, which meant that they had to be reassessed. Indeed, there will be a third variant of that design which has gone into the US system as well.
It is a more complex picture than just a regulator being imposed on some things. Clearly in the UK we have looked at our safety standards recently, reviewing them against the IAEA safety standards themselves, so that we have an international underpinning of ours. Perhaps we can go forward on a more firm basis than just looking at our own standards.
Q 105Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet) (Lab): Clause 41 requires a costed programme of decommissioning to be submitted when you apply to build a new nuclear plant. First, are you all content that the framing of that clause and associated clauses is sufficiently comprehensive to ensure that the programme is robust? Secondly, what are the industry and the regulatory side doing to ensure that you understand what will be involved in that decommissioning, and the costs involved? Thirdly, what efforts are you taking to ensure that you are learning from international experience, in order to ensure that that costed programme is robust?
Last, but not least, in so far as the regulator will have to oversee the process, and as you are probably pretty stretched at the moment looking at safety cases and given the relatively small number of people that you employ, what level of your resources are you going to put into making sure that the decommissioning plans are robust and well costed?
The Chairman: You have four questions, gentlemen. Who would like to kick off?
Dr. Ian Roxburgh: I am prepared to be brave—probably braver than I should. The first point is that the Government have made it clear that they are establishing what I understand to be an advisory group, which is to work through the very important issues that you have enumerated. We already have significant experience. We have just heard from Mr. Hendry about life extensions. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has a duty to the Government to police those extensions, in the sense that when approving an extension you must still be able to meet the extra liabilities that accrue through the lifetime of that extension. It must make good business sense, and the regulator has made the point that it also has to make good safety sense.
I personally am content. We have a system that has already proven itself to be robust. We have the nuclear liabilities fund. I have read these documents a couple of times before, and I have skimmed them again; they ask the right questions. I personally believe that it is a good approach that can work.
Dr. Mike Weightman: May I make a general comment, and then try to answer the individual questions? We welcome the proposals in the Bill. We feel that they make much more transparent and robust the assurances on corporate finance, for instance, and matters that the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform considers at present before granting a licence. So we think that they are a good step forward.
On whether clause 41 provides enough areas or is sufficient, I think that generally it is, without having looked at it in great detail. We have a simple licence condition around decommissioning—licence condition 35—that predominantly says that the licensee shall have adequate arrangements for decommissioning, which embraces much of this. We then look to them to develop around that. The Bill puts more structure into that, so it is a good step forward. Generally, it makes the assurances that we seek more transparent and robust.
Is a costed programme robust? Well, things can change. The areas of the Bill that provide for modification are very important. There are sometimes unexpected events at plants, and that has to be taken into account when you are thinking about decommissioning and the funding of it. Clearly, there might be times when we would want to enforce something on the site from a safety point of view, which might change the approved decommissioning programme and the funding arrangements for it. I am sure that BERR Ministers will ensure that safety and security remain paramount in such circumstances and that the present robust, independent regulatory system is not undermined or fettered in any way.
If we were asked to enforce some of these aspects—we already enforce some of them under the nuclear licensing conditions—what would the impact be on the limited resources that we have at present? It all depends on how we go about it. There would be areas where there would be some synergies with what we do now. When we inspect a site to ensure that it is in line with the technical safety case, that is similar to a technical case for decommissioning. We already cover issues such as whether records are needed on the site. In some areas, we could have synergies of approach. Resourcing would need to be addressed, but we need to address it anyway. Perhaps the problem would not be as large as one might otherwise think.
If we were asked to look at financial aspects, clearly that is not something that we have dealt with recently, although we did engage in 1995-96 when British Energy was privatised with decommissioning and segregated funds and assurances about financial standing.
I do not know whether I have answered all four questions, but I have tried to answer various aspects of them.
Q 106Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): May we pursue this matter a little further? The Minister already spoke about public perception. Frankly, this impacts on public perception big time, and Members in particular know how volatile public perception can be, so it matters to us.
In management terms, a programme is only as good as the quality of the people at its lowest level—that goes without saying. Therefore, monitoring is vital. You spoke about the robustness of the programmes, but what levels of monitoring and review of the decommissioning programme should the Minister put in place? What would you expect of him and his team over time? Can I connect that issue with the skills problem, which we have heard much about today? Do we have the people to operate at the coal face who are of the quality that we would need to ensure that the public can be reassured on every occasion?
Dr. Mike Weightman: Do you want me to discuss the monitoring question first?
The Chairman: I think Mr. Parker looked as if he wanted to take this question.
Q 107Mr. Binley: I am talking particularly about the decommissioning programme.
Keith Parker: Yes, and Ian might want to talk about this as well. A number of initiatives are going on to improve the skills availability in decommissioning. Last week we saw the launch of the national skills academy for nuclear. There are a number of initiatives, in which the NDA is involved, to develop the skills that we need for decommissioning our existing stations. I am sure that those skills will also be available for the new build at the time when that is happening.
Dr. Ian Roxburgh: As you say, the NDA, along with others, has facilitated the nuclear skills academy, which deals with NVQs and HNDs up to basic degree level. Below that, we have also put in place a reinforced apprentice training programme, and below that we have engaged, to the tune of £750,000, with the energy foresight programme, which is a programme across 420 schools designed to encourage children to take the necessary O and A-levels to make them capable of taking advantage of training in the industry for decommissioning and other aspects of engineering across the United Kingdom. Talking about schoolchildren might seem strange, but given that the programme has quite a long lead-in time and quite a long time to go, it is very relevant.
At the other extreme, we have arranged a partnership with the university of Manchester—with £10 million from it and £10 million from us—to establish a new nuclear institute this year to deal with postgraduate qualifications. We have also endowed two chairs. We thought it proper to endow them, because then there can be no question of the NDA exercising undue influence beyond the establishment of the two chairs, one in nuclear materials science and the other in decommissioning engineering.
We have two other initiatives running. One is to start our own graduate scheme. We have just put out the first adverts and we have had more than 1,000 applications for 10 places, which suggests that young people see the industry as having a future now. Perhaps a few years ago we would have been hard pressed to muster a decent cohort of applicants.
We are also looking to facilitate across the industry all the existing schemes to make sure that all graduates coming out from wherever have a basic standard of proficiency, so that we can have mobility between schemes. The Committee can be assured that a lot is going on and that there is a lot of demand. The point about demand is important, because we are determined that all the courses that we are helping to facilitate should be demand led; they should be market led.
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