Energy Bill

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Q 137Mr. Reed: I have a question for you each individually. Do you advocate the burning of more fossil fuels before any new nuclear energy is used?
Tom Burke: Is it better for us to burn fossil fuels? Provided that we can do that in a carbon-neutral way, absolutely. I think that I said that extremely clearly; to protect the security and prosperity of 60 million Britons, we have got to solve the coal problem, irrespective of what we do, because of what others will almost certainly do. Also, we are going to use coal, as has been demonstrated by the Kingsnorth application. Therefore, we need to show that we will walk our talk on climate change. We will need to move very rapidly to the mobility for ourselves and for everybody else to use coal in a carbon-neutral way. I think that that is technologically possible; I also think that it will be very expensive. There are some technological problems and other problems to solve, but they are all inside the bounds of our technical and economic competence to solve. I think that we should just get on with that.
I am not advocating using more energy of any kind. As others have said—I think most people would agree—improving energy efficiency is by far and away the fastest and cheapest way to guarantee both energy and climate security. So I was slightly trapped by the word that you were using there, “advocating”. I do not want to “advocate” more use of energy per se, but I want to advocate that we solve the coal problem first.
I am also somewhat sceptical of a rather interesting reversal, where we have an environmentalist arguing for the prioritisation and the business world arguing for “let’s do a bit of everything”. We usually get accused of wanting to do everything and not being willing to prioritise. I suspect that the idea that we can do a bit of everything will lead us into a situation where we do not get very much of anything done.
Benet Northcote: You asked your question in a provocative way. The answer, of course, is that we will be burning fossil fuels, as Tom quite rightly says, and the question is this: what is the right way to take us to the 80 per cent. emission cuts that we need by 2050? Our point is that nuclear is not the right way and that there are better ways to do that. So, you put your question in a particular way and I think that that is not particularly constructive or realistic within the framework of how you discuss energy policy going forward.
Q 138Mr. Reed: I do not think that there is any realism with that confrontation about it; it is a yes or a no.
Benet Northcote: Yes.
Q 139Dr. Iddon: You are supposed to stick up for sustainability; green organisations stand up for sustainability. I put it to you that by burning fossil fuels, particularly coal and oil, we are destroying future chemical sources for future generations. So how can you advocate burning coal and oil?
Tom Burke: I do not think that we were. That was why we objected to, and had some difficulty with, the term “advocating”. We were not advocating burning oil. I am completely in favour of ensuring as long an availability of fossil fuels to future generations as is possible. [Interruption.] If you will forgive me, my point is that I do not think that nuclear can help you to get off that hook, and I laid out some of the reasons why I think that. That is all. It is not a question of saying, “I want people to use up all the fossil fuels instead”.
The Chairman: I need to keep order here, because I get the sense that everyone wants to get stuck into our witnesses. I think that Mr. Reed wants to finish off his point.
Q 140Mr. Reed: Your answer, Benet—yes or no?
Benet Northcote: I disagree with the premise of the question.
Robin Webster: I am not giving you a yes or no either. I do not think that it is an either/or proposition.
Russell Marsh: I do not agree with the proposition, but if I was pushed, I would have to agree with Tom that I would rather see CCS than nuclear. So I would advocate CCS more than nuclear.
Q 141Mr. Reed: On the crowding-out theory, the renewables versus nuclear dichotomy, which of course should not be a dichotomy—it is counterintuitive—the figures for France, Spain, Italy and Finland, all of them nuclear countries, would suggest that this theory is nonsense. France has 12 per cent. renewables; Spain 14 per cent.; Italy approximately 15 per cent., and Finland 25 per cent. How do you respond?
Benet Northcote: There are large amounts of hydro in all those countries.
Q 142Mr. Reed: Is hydro not a renewable?
Tom Burke: In the past, that is right; they have sustained that. However, we are not talking about the past. We are talking about what will happen in the future. The point that I did not make before about crowding out is this; what is the view that investors take? If the view that investors take is that the Government will support a nuclear programme to the point where they might even change their mind about whether to subsidise it—and Mr. de Rivas and others made it quite clear that they think it extremely unlikely that there will be nuclear build unless there is some sort of revenue support— and if investors think that that is where it is going to go, of course they will think that there is less room for them, so they will be less willing to take the risk. That is perfectly normal.
That is my sense of what the crowding-out argument is about—what view will investors take of the political probabilities? As we have seen over the last few months, in a somewhat disturbing way, investors do not always get it right; they, too, make mistakes. What all the energy industry is looking for—it is true of the electricity utilities and of the renewables investors; it is true of pretty well everybody—is a sense of the clear political direction and what the Government are really going to drive for. This debate is about whether nuclear is the right priority.
Q 143Anne Main: I have different questions, and I shall put them to different people. From Greenpeace, I would like further expansion of your concerns about the lack of provision for marine technology in the Bill. I want to ask Friends of the Earth about their social justice policy engagement with people, and whether you are concerned about the lack of reference to smart metering in the Bill, which may help to reduce energy consumption and help with fuel poverty, which affects many vulnerable communities.
I throw the next question open to anyone. I would like a brief answer, as my colleagues want to speak. You may have heard Dr. Roxburgh say earlier that spent nuclear fuel may be a valuable national resource in future. Please discuss. Do you agree or not?
Benet Northcote: On marine renewables, the answer is that we have the best wind and tidal resources in the whole of Europe, yet we have the lowest renewable energy of pretty much anyone in Europe. We have been hugely supportive of the need to exploit marine and tidal resources, and very little has been done to date on that. That is why we need to have mechanisms that incentivise the R and D, and growth in these areas. The figures quoted earlier were essentially due to hydro power, which was giving a lot of countries a boost in their renewables.
Q 144Anne Main: Do you feel that that is a missed trick in the Bill?
Benet Northcote: Absolutely, in this country. I think it is something that we need to exploit far more in all ways. I do not think it is as simple as reaching for the big ticket items and saying, “Here’s the Severn barrage” as an answer, and that does it. It is about looking at how to exploit the whole of tidal and marine resources.
Robin Webster: I had hoped just to say yes. Generally, when something gets thrown at us as environmentalists, given the kind of work that we do, it is that we advocate technologies that might raise fuel prices, and that would have an impact on those that find it more difficult to afford them. That is something that has to be considered in the development of the Bill. For example, we advocate the use of a feed-in tariff for renewable energy development, something that has been incredibly successful in other European countries, as it is a way in which renewable energy can be developed on a community level and on an individual level very successfully.
However, in developing such a mechanism, you have think what kind of impact it will have on electricity prices and what impact it will have on the fuel poor. I think that that is such a key point that mechanisms could be introduced to find ways in which the fuel poor have get-out clauses on rises in electricity prices. Feed-in tariffs, for example, can be brought in for technologies on a more social housing level, so there are ways in which the Bill should consider the impact on the fuel poor, and that is something that needs to be considered very carefully.
Russell Marsh: Perhaps I can pick on the point about smart metering. As Robin said, the short answer is yes. It is clear that the debate about smart metering has been around for years. It is not necessarily a technology problem; it is more how to get the technology out there. It is clear that the current framework is not going to deliver a roll-out of smart meters to every house in the country. We need to see the Government taking a lead and mandating it to happen, and the Energy Bill is an opportunity to start laying down a timetable to get smart meters out as widely as we can and as quickly as we can.
Tom Burke: To answer your last question about future assets, there are several hundred tonnes of separated plutonium and uranium sitting around at Sellafield at the moment. They are a bit of a problem for the people running the site. They are said to have some sort of notional asset value, but they are actually a liability. I do not see anything—not even the construction of more nuclear reactors—altering the situation. It is a theoretical possibility, but it remains pretty speculative as an asset and I would be hard pressed to put a value on it.
The Chairman: I was going to call Mr. Albert Owen, but Mr. Brian Binley will explode if he is not allowed to speak on that point.
Q 145Mr. Binley: I was jumping up and down, but I want to have a real feel for your long-term thinking. Let me quote Professor Christopher Llewellyn-Smith, who is reckoned to be one of the leading—perhaps the leading—atomic energy and atomic power experts in this country. He told the Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform that if we had the investment, he could get “a viable nuclear fusion station working in 35 to 45 years.”
Tom Burke: Yes, and people were making exactly that promise about 30 or 40 years ago. Funnily enough, the person who punctured that prospect was Mrs. Thatcher. She asked a very important question about whether the research was based on science or technology. The answer came back pretty emphatically—
Mr. Binley: Forgive me, he said it six months ago, so we do not need to go back as far as Mrs. Thatcher.
Tom Burke: His predecessors made that point 30 years ago.
Q 146Mr. Binley: Are you totally rejecting his authority and credibility?
Tom Burke: Yes.
Q 147Mr. Binley: Do you see no evolution in those terms?
Tom Burke: No.
Mr. Binley: That is a very closed mind.
Tom Burke: It is not a closed mind. It is somebody who has actually looked at the evidence. The European Parliament did an exemplary study on that some 10 years ago.
John Robertson: We ask the questions and you answer them.
Q 148Mr. Binley: Thank you, John. I am most grateful to you.
Let me now go on. I happen to agree with you on clean coal. However, you are making a leap of faith on clean coal, which you reject with regard to nuclear fusion. Explain that to us.
Q 149Albert Owen: I want to push you a little on your pragmatic approach to nuclear, which you say is not based on dogma. You say that it is a distraction, which is a very interesting analogy. Other countries are looking to extend their current nuclear fleet. One such country is Canada, which already has renewables, and hydro power in particular. It does not feel that they are a distraction.
You also mentioned China. I would not think that they are talking about distraction. What they are talking about is getting a balanced energy policy and achieving economic growth. We have not heard anything about economic growth in your presentation. We have heard about sustained growth and low carbon. Do not every Government in the world have that responsibility? I know that we can talk about the academic reasons why we need different things but, at the end of the day, Governments have to make decisions and these Governments are making decisions. Canada, which is extending its nuclear fleet, has a renewable history.
Friends of the Earth talked about iconic measures such as the barrage in the Severn. In Wales, the distraction is wind farms. Many people ask me why barrages are talked about so much so, Friends of the Earth, do you support the barrage in principle? Also, the two gentlemen who raised the issue about the distraction initially were able to say, “Isn’t economic growth important and isn’t a balanced base load important in that?”
Tom Burke: The issue of ensuring Britain’s energy security is as important as securing its climate security. I do not think that you can trade off between the two; you have to do both together. My underlying point, which will take rather longer than we have to explain it in detail—though I have done so to a Select Committee not long ago—is that the contribution that nuclear can make even to our energy security is very small. That is because our primary energy security problems are oil, which nuclear cannot help with, gas, of which there is only a tiny proportion—
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