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Nuclear Energy

10.59 am

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Illsley. I know that you have an interest in energy policy. I sought this debate because although nuclear power is not often debated in the House, it is important, particularly in the wider context of Britain’s energy and environmental policies. All countries need energy, and all advanced countries need secure, dependable and economical energy supplies. As electricity is the most versatile and adaptable form of energy, this debate will largely be about electricity generation.

Due to a combination of short-sightedness and wishful thinking, this country faces a looming energy gap between future demand and supply, because we have been decommissioning our nuclear power stations without replacing them. Many stations have already been decommissioned, and the rest will largely disappear in the next 10 years. Coal has also declined in importance: many coal-burning stations are increasingly obsolete and will fall victim to the tightening regulatory system, particularly the EU large combustion plant directive, which will take them out of service. So far, the difference has largely been made up by burning more gas. Incidentally, the so-called dash for gas was largely the reason why the Government were able to claim that they had complied with the Kyoto commitment on carbon dioxide stabilisation. That happened anyway, because gas produces less carbon dioxide per unit than does coal, and was nothing to do with what the Government had done elsewhere.

The massive switch to gas burn cannot continue for ever, and is becoming expensive. There were significant price rises last year, which have not been fully reversed, and which created a lot of grief both domestically and industrially. Also, gas reserves around our shores are declining—it is not just North sea oil that is running out—and we are having to import more and more gas. Indeed, we will soon be overwhelmingly dependent on imported gas from countries that, by and large, are unstable, unfriendly, or both. Many of those gas-exporting countries clearly use their energy exports as a foreign policy tool. Russia is a good example of that. Europe, as a whole, is very dependent on Russian gas, but those supplies are interruptable, and this country is at the end of the pipeline.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for making that point about gas, but does he acknowledge that the new liquefied natural gas terminal at Pembrokeshire, in Wales, is extremely important? Does he, like me, support the project being put forward by Cantaxx to take on LNG in Anglesey and deliver it through a pipeline to Preesall in Lancashire? Those projects are part of the energy mix, and I hope that they both prove successful.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: I do know of those projects, particularly the one into south Wales, but the gas is derived from the middle east. It comes from a friendly country there, Qatar, but the middle east is not known for its political security. Also, the gas comes by sea, so, although those imports and that system are very welcome, they do not give the security of supply that I seek for the overall future of British energy sources.

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John Mason (Glasgow, East) (SNP): Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that when it comes to security of gas supply, England and Scotland are completely different, because Scotland has sufficient gas to last until at least 2020?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: The hon. Gentleman may be proposing that Scotland is somehow not part of the United Kingdom, but I look at the UK as an energy unit, and I think that Scotland would be ill-advised to shut off the nuclear option and rely entirely on gas, if that is what he is suggesting. However, I shall discuss alternative supplies later.

First, I am setting the scene for the future of the UK’s energy sources, and I am afraid that the Government have done nothing about the problem, if they saw it coming. We have had a succession of anti-nuclear Secretaries of State, who have ignored the problem of replacing nuclear power stations, while signing up to ever more demanding CO2 reduction targets. We are now committed to a CO2 reduction of 80 per cent. by 2050. That is well beyond the term of office of anyone here, which might be why those promises are being made now, but it is irresponsible to set targets and to will the end without willing the means. Apparently, the Government are relying on a vast expansion in renewable energy.

John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that Conservative Front-Bench Members have not been consistent on this matter? He is right to criticise us for not being further down the line than we are, but does he accept that we have at least grasped the nettle, and have taken the issue on by going forward with nuclear?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: I am not exempting any party entirely from my strictures. I was once a Minister in the Department of Energy, and I had responsibility for the nuclear industry. I tried my best to keep the nuclear flame alight, if I may use that metaphor, but the mood at the time was very much against it, as there had been a number of accidents and nuclear power was clearly uneconomical when compared with fossil fuel. However, Labour has been in charge for the past 12 years, and its Secretaries of State have taken an almost explicit anti-nuclear stance. That is what I am criticising.

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): I do not want to get into a partisan argument on this matter, and I accept that we have dragged our feet with new nuclear build, but my constituency is now getting a second, new nuclear power station for which plans were first laid in the mid-80s. I accept what the right hon. Gentleman says about the anti-nuclear climate, but one reason why that power station did not go ahead earlier was that before 1996 the Government had nowhere to put the waste, and did not make a decision. Does he accept that that long-term problem has caused the industry to contract in many ways?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: I agree that Governments of all complexions have not solved the problem of deep-storing or disposing of nuclear waste, but I do not think that that is the sole reason for the drift and negligence of recent years.

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My point is slightly different. The Government are relying on another source of energy that is based largely on make-believe—a vast expansion in renewables. We are now committed to deriving 15 per cent. of all our energy requirements—not just electricity—from renewable sources by 2020, but we currently derive only about 2 per cent., and we are nowhere near getting to 15 per cent. within that time scale. That commitment is legally binding and will be in treaty law. We know that EU law is superior to national law, but I do not know who will go to prison when these commitments are not fulfilled—it will probably be another lot of Ministers in the future. Today’s Government are signing up to a specific, legally binding commitment that is not attainable.

Some renewable technologies make sense, such as hydro and, possibly, tidal power, but the rest are usually small-scale and expensive. The Government are relying strongly on wind power. The Secretary of State has said that those who oppose having wind turbines where they live are antisocial—like people who do not wear a seat belt. Those who have to live next to such noisy, expensive and unreliable machines are being made to feel socially inferior. That is not a clever way in which to proceed. Wind turbines are also expensive and increase electricity prices for everyone else. They create fuel poverty and make industry pay more for its power costs. At the same time as we are industrialising the landscape, we are de-industrialising the rest of the economy. That is not a clever policy and it is certainly not one on which we can rely for many future years.

I want this debate to be about solutions, not just problems, blame and complaints. The solution both for energy security and the reduction of CO2 emissions is to replace those nuclear stations, advance further and expand civil nuclear power in this country. We used to be a world leader in nuclear. We were the first country successfully to harness atoms for peace and to turn nuclear fission into a technology for the benefit of mankind. We led the world. The story is not altogether a happy one, and I am not starry-eyed about the nuclear industry. Mistakes were made and certain expectations were not fulfilled. However, by and large, it was a British success story. It is true that we were too slow to switch to water-cooled reactors—the French did that successfully before us, and all credit to them. We also never hit on a standard design of reactor to replicate and therefore we did not benefit from the successive production of a single reactor type. Despite that, our recently built reactors have largely performed well and safely.

The percentage of electricity supplied by nuclear climbed steadily and reached a peak of 27 per cent. in a fateful year—1997. I do not want to read too much into that. One could make all sorts of party political points, but it is a fact that during the past 12 years, there has been a steady decline in the percentage of electricity derived from nuclear stations. The figure is now down to around 15 per cent. At the same time, Britain has become a net importer of energy. The Government have now finally woken up, and their policy of drift and neglect is no longer sustainable.

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Mr. Mike O'Brien): I remember when the right hon. Gentleman was Energy Minister. Was it post-1987 when he had responsibility for the curve going the way that he is complaining about?

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Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: I have already made the point that I was an Energy Minister about 15 years ago. However, during my time in the Department, the contribution from nuclear was still rising. I had something to do with Sizewell. I visited Sizewell, which was successfully commissioned and is now a good generator of power into the grid. I am not ashamed of the role that I played. I contrast that with the succession of White Papers that we have had from the Government, which have clearly sidelined nuclear and gunned for the illusion of renewables taking up the slack and replacing the nuclear contribution. On top of that, the Government hope that renewables will meet long-term commitments on the reduction of CO2 .

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): On wind turbines, whether one is for or against nuclear, is the right hon. Gentleman aware—as, indeed, my constituents are—that people have actually made a fairly objective judgment that such a variable source will not necessarily be able to provide base load in the way that nuclear unquestionably can? Has he done a price comparator on the costs of, for example, wind versus nuclear? The nuclear industry has given me the impression that it could operate without subsidy in terms of the commissioning operation, decommissioning and safety factors. Does he have a view on that point, which he might have been coming to?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: I was going to come to that point, but I will give the hon. Gentleman the price comparator now, which comes from an official source. The consultation document on the Severn tidal power scheme was published by the Department in January. On page 18 of that document there is a comparator of the costs, which gives the pounds per megawatt hour for a number of generating sources. Tidal power is somewhere between £104 to £317, which is very expensive at this stage. Broadly speaking, the next most expensive is power from biomass. Wind-derived power is a little more economical as the figure varies between roughly £70 to £80 per megawatt hour. Much cheaper than that, at £53, is energy from combined-cycle gas turbines and the cheapest source is nuclear at £38 per megawatt hour. On that basis, nuclear is far and away the cheapest technology listed by the Government.

The inescapable point is that we are in a weak position now because of a policy of neglect. One of the decisions made by the Government was, indeed, to sell off Westinghouse—our last remaining consortium capable of designing and building a nuclear reactor—to Toshiba. We now hear that the Government are selling off the commercial arm of the UK Atomic Energy Authority. Again, that is for all the wrong reasons and is to plug another gap—this time in the national finances. We are not in a position to take a lead anymore, even if we wanted to.

The Government apparently want eight new reactors in this country. They will now all be built by foreign consortiums—probably Electricité de France and Westinghouse. We are in a long queue now because the rest of the world also wants nuclear power. The population of the world is rising rapidly and will increase to at least 9 billion before the end of the century. Energy demand in developing countries is rising even faster, and the electricity component of that is rising fastest of all. The only hope of meeting that demand without having an
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enormous increase in CO2 emissions is nuclear power. Worldwide, about 40 nuclear stations are under construction and over 100 more are in the planning phase. We could have led this revolution and done so much for our manufacturing base and engineering skills. Instead of that, we are now an also-ran. We are clowns, spectators, supplicants. It is a very sad story.

To give credit to the Minister, I think that he is personally aware of that. He knows that there have been policy mistakes and that we must do something about it. The Government have revised their cost estimates—I have already given them—which are highly favourable to nuclear power at the moment. In addition, nuclear power is secure. There is plenty of uranium left in the earth’s crust and we have also stock-piled a lot of it. There is a great deal of uranium and plutonium at Sellafield, which can be used in future reactors, if they are adapted or built to take it. Fast reactors can make better use of uranium, and thorium is another element in the earth’s crust that can be used for nuclear fuel. Thorium is even more abundant than uranium. We are not going to run out of nuclear fuel; it is stable and secure.

In operation, nuclear power is virtually CO2 free. Of course, the reactors have to be built, and that absorbs a lot of energy, but exactly the same thing is true for every other power station. In operation, nuclear power is a highly effective, low-carbon source of power.

None of that makes nuclear power easy. As I said, I have no illusions about the problems. In the past, certain expectations were not met. It is a demanding technology, project management of the sites is complex, and the industry has not always been good at explaining itself. We have to be open with people and engage them in debate about the costs and problems, as well as the benefits, of nuclear energy.

There are hard choices to be made about energy, but often people do not want to face up to them. All forms of energy generation have an effect on the environment—that is inescapable. I agree with the point that has already been made that we have been slow to find a deep storage site for nuclear waste, but that vulnerability is a technical problem that can be solved.

Meanwhile, public attitudes have changed in favour of nuclear energy—again, no thanks to the Government. I wish that the last Prime Minister had used just a fraction of his political authority to lead the debate on energy. In 2004, I asked him about it at Prime Minister’s questions. I criticised wind power and said:

In reply, Prime Minister Blair stated:

That was not leadership; it was totally supine. He did nothing to explain or meet people’s concerns about safety. That was a missed opportunity.

Mrs. Gillan: Is there not another consequence of dithering, delay and pushing decisions out into the long grass? For example, the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), who is the Member for Anglesey, has
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always supported continuous generation of nuclear energy on the Wylfa site. Decisions now to extend the life of that power station will come too late. There will be a gap: as I understand it, it will not be possible to put in new nuclear power generation on the site until 2018, simply because the Labour Government have ducked the issues. They did not get to grips with them early enough.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: My hon. Friend gives a good illustration of what I am saying. It is now very late in the day to get into gear and do something about nuclear power to close the looming energy gap.

My main point is that there is a contrast between the rigid, legal, binding commitments on CO2 reduction, and the vague, uncommitted way in which the Government speak about energy production. We have seen that in the succession of White Papers that I mentioned. In 2003, the most the Government could say was:

That is all that they could say about nuclear power when the stations were all being decommissioned and the energy gap was becoming more and more apparent. Even in 2006, the energy review stated:

But, again, almost nothing was done. There was no leadership, commitment, energy or determination.

Albert Owen: The right hon. Gentleman is making a case that somehow the Government, by moving forward, were not doing enough, but during that same period in 2006, the new leader of the Conservative party was not in favour of nuclear power. He was courting the green lobby and said that nuclear power should be the last resort. At the time, the Government were putting through the Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Bill and, indeed, a Planning Bill to help make nuclear power part of the rich mix. The Conservative leader was not doing that.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: I shall mention planning before I finish, but my attitude to nuclear power and the strictures and comments that I make are applicable to all political parties. My party will come into office either this year or next year—I believe by implication that the hon. Gentleman recognises that—and we will inherit these problems. I hope and have confidence that my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) will do something about the problem and not simply produce a further succession of White Papers that ignore the problem.

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