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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 22 June 2010

[Mr Graham Brady in the Chair]

Nuclear Energy

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.-(Bill Wiggin.)

9.30 am

John Robertson (Glasgow North West) (Lab): Thank you, Mr Brady, for this opportunity to seek assurances from the new coalition Government on their energy policy. I have considerable concerns, which are well founded and based on the track record and previous rhetoric of the Ministers now responsible for delivering a comprehensive, balanced energy policy that will provide security of supply and reduce our CO2 emissions. Internationally, there are tremendous concerns regarding the effects of climate change, and the UK must continue to play a major role in delivering. There are many hon. Members present, and quite a few will want to intervene or speak, so I will try to keep my remarks as short as possible. Having said that, I have a number of things to say and a number of questions to ask.

We have had considerable discussions on the subject over many years, started by scientists and political leaders who believe that climate change is the most dangerous and life-threatening issue facing the world. That, along with security of supply, has been my focus for a number of years, and we need clarity and a positive response to the issues that I will raise in this brief but important debate.

The UK's security of supply is a major concern, and it is vital that the Government take appropriate action to ensure that we do not run out of power and end up with black-out Britain. The demise of the coal-fired power stations, and the closure of nuclear power stations at the end of their life cycle, will create tremendous challenges for the Government, and it is important that they are united in the pursuit of a coherent energy policy.

All energy sources must be developed to reduce our carbon footprint and allow us to meet our emissions targets. Although I am in favour of a balanced energy policy, it is time that we looked at the ever-increasing subsidies for renewable energy. Onshore wind energy, which is intermittent and requires 100% back-up, has benefited enormously from the renewables obligation, but it is extremely expensive and it is not the best way to use our huge levels of investment.

I must declare an interest as the chair of the all-party group on nuclear energy. Over the years, we have had considerable success in highlighting the issue of nuclear energy and promoting solutions to the problems that the UK faces over its security of supply and the devastating effects of climate change. As chair of the APG, I had hoped that the general election-no matter what the result-would not affect the nuclear industry and the future of new build. However, there is a problem with the Con-Dem coalition, because the Government said
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one thing-or, should I say, two things-during the election and another after it. That has been a regular occurrence with the coalition over the past few months.

Despite considerable misfortune, recent polls clearly demonstrate that those who support having a nuclear component of a comprehensive energy policy are winning, and may indeed have won, the argument. The majority of the general public are now convinced that we need to build new nuclear power plants. When the APG was formed, nuclear energy was on the back-burner, but leading environmentalists who have spent a lifetime opposing nuclear energy have recently gone public in support of it. The former head of Greenpeace, Mr Tindale, has openly come out in support of nuclear and is lobbying for it. It is interesting to look at his reasons for once opposing, and now supporting, nuclear energy; his reasons for having opposed it are shared by many of those who oppose it today. He says that

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): Given that analysis of the global impact of carbon emissions, the melting of the permafrost and the release of methane, what contribution will nuclear make to the reduction of global carbon emissions?

John Robertson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. As I develop my argument, he will get the answer to it, but I will happily let him intervene again before the end of my speech if he wants to repeat his question.

As I said, I am concerned about the new Government's policy, because their strongly held, differing views will not be coherent and will lead to the development of a mishmash of energy policies that does not meet the country's needs. We are fast running out of time, and my concern is that we will end up with a dash for gas that leaves us dependent on imports for our energy supply. Any delay in delivering new nuclear build would be disastrous. Unfortunately, the history of some members of the Government raises major concerns about the new nuclear build programme. If Government policy is less than positive, the delivery of new nuclear power stations in the UK will be undermined.

Across the globe, there is strong demand from many countries that wish to build new nuclear power plants. The Government's recent decision to withdraw funding for Sheffield Forgemasters must be viewed with deep concern.

Mr Tom Watson (West Bromwich East) (Lab): My hon. Friend is making a strong case for a low-carbon future, but does he agree that what happened to Forgemasters was not just a tragedy for British jobs? The only other company that makes these reactor pressure vessels-these large components for nuclear reactors-is Japan Steel Works, in Hokkaido, Japan. We therefore
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face a huge lost export opportunity. Forgemasters has tripled its order book in recent years, and there is now a waiting list. Not only have we have lost an opportunity to be a major exporter of a key component in nuclear growth, but we may be at the end of a waiting list, which may jeopardise the future build programme in the UK.

John Robertson: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I will go into that in more detail later. The situation with Forgemasters is symptomatic of the problem that we will face in years to come. The previous Government pledged cash to Forgemasters to enable the Sheffield company to build parts for nuclear power stations-it was as simple as that.

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): I have a simple question that touches on the Forgemasters issue. Should there or should there not be any direct or indirect public subsidy to the nuclear industry?

John Robertson: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, which he has made many times. It has been said on many occasions that no subsidy will be given. Indirect subsidy is a different thing; it would be about what was happening with the carbon price in European markets and so on. We can never say never about anything, but the Labour Government said that they would not give any subsidy, and that it was down to the companies to cover the cost of not only building plants but dismantling them at the end of their life cycle. I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman's question.

When the loan to Forgemasters was announced in March, it was clear that it would make the plant one of two in the world-the point that my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) made-able to make large forgings for the nuclear energy industry. Apart from creating employment opportunities and highly skilled jobs, it would lead to international order opportunities for the product. Those of us who have been involved in nuclear energy know that a number of nuclear stations are being planned all over the world. It does not come as a surprise to me, although it will to some, to hear that even Sweden is jumping on the bandwagon. As we speak, people all over the world are tackling the issues of security of supply and the need for a base load that includes nuclear. On that basis, it is essential that the Government look again at the decision. We need world leaders, and the Sheffield plant, with the investment, would have an opportunity second to none.

I do not feel the need to rehearse the concern about climate change and emissions targets; we have expressed it many times. However, I seek assurances from the Government about their intent. It is vital that we hear at first hand what position Ministers at the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Prime Minister will take not just on climate change but on nuclear power. I have some concerns about their policy on new build. The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change has long been completely and unequivocally opposed to nuclear build. He has said:

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That view-that nuclear power is not the answer to future energy needs-is the view, of course, of the Secretary of State.

On Friday 12 May 2006, the Secretary of State said, responding to an affirmation by the then Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (David Miliband), that the Government were considering a new generation of nuclear power stations:

He went on to say:

That is the point that the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) was making earlier. Such statements cause problems for those of us who want a balanced energy policy, because it is the Secretary of State making them, and one would expect him to be writing the policy.

I want to quote Melanie Phillips of the Daily Mail, although it is not a paper that I quote very often, and is not known to be a friend of mine-

Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): But just this once.

John Robertson: As my hon. Friend says, I shall do so just this once. The Secretary of State's former colleague at The Guardian highlighted the dilemma of the coalition when she wrote:

I have great respect for the Minister. We both served on the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change, as did several other hon. Members who are here-I thought I was at a Select Committee meeting when I came into the Chamber. I think I can say that the Minister and I have been singing from the same hymn sheet for some years, even if that did upset the Front Benchers of our respective parties. Melanie Phillips continued:

No pun intended.

I know that I should not believe everything that I read in the Daily Mail, or other media, for that matter, but will the Minister give this House an assurance that nuclear new build will go ahead, that the Secretary of State has changed his stance, and that the Secretary of
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State's complete dismissal of the building of any new nuclear power stations has been sacrificed for his present position?

Mr Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): I appreciate my hon. Friend's obtaining this debate. I am completely confused about the coalition's policy on nuclear. "The Coalition: our programme for government" states:

How on earth can we keep the lights on when we have such confusion at the heart of such an important part of Government energy policy?

John Robertson: My hon. Friend played an important part in the previous Government and should be thanked for all the work that he did-and for all the work that he will do in opposition. He makes a fair and valid point. The Minister must answer those questions. Those of us who are not trying to make political points- [Laughter.] I am shocked by that reaction. The point of the debate is to clarify exactly where we are on energy, where the industry stands, and where we are on this country's security of supply. I know that the Minister does not mean to be flippant, and takes his job seriously, and will be able to answer all my questions to my satisfaction-I say that tongue in cheek.

While the Minister is confirming the change that I spoke of, will he also confirm the position of the Prime Minister, who has also seen the light, like Paul on the road to Damascus, and who no longer feels that new build can be seen only as a last resort? Will the Minister comment on that? If the Prime Minister is not behind a nuclear programme and a balanced energy policy we certainly have a problem.

Damian Collins (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): Given the strong points that the hon. Gentleman has made about the need for nuclear power and, in the light of the potential energy gap, the need to press ahead with the nuclear programme as swiftly as possible, does he share my concern that it was premature of the previous Government to take Dungeness off the list of approved sites?

John Robertson: I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the House and hope that he has a long and happy career here-but perhaps not too long. I totally agree with him, but that will not be a surprise to the Minister. Options must be kept open. Acting prematurely for the sake of looking good is a mistake. I asked a question in a similar vein yesterday, but did not get an answer, but I hope that the Minister will answer me today.

It will be the Government's fault if we end up with power cuts. If they do not pull their finger out, that is exactly where we are going. It says here in my speech that I have tremendous respect for the Minister, and I do; I hope that that has not affected his political career or job prospects, as I am sure that he would like to move
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up at least one place. I hope he will. In a recent speech at Chatham House he said that he welcomed the opportunity to focus on one of the biggest challenges facing Government-the issue of energy security and how we decarbonise society. He went on to say:

That sounds a bit like "peace for our time" because there was no mention of nuclear power.

Sir Robert Smith: The hon. Gentleman made the point that if the lights go out, the Government will be at fault. The Government on watch must deal with the situation on the day, but with his knowledge and experience of the energy industry, the hon. Gentleman must accept that there is a huge lead time in the development of energy policy and in capital planning. We have had 13 years of a Labour Government; does the hon. Gentleman accept that the legacy of their decision making will contribute to the consequence, if the lights go out?

John Robertson: The hon. Gentleman has obviously read the next paragraph of my speech. I give him credit for his X-ray vision; perhaps what I say next will position me exactly as he has said.

Low-carbon technologies have an important role to play, not only when it comes to meeting our climate change targets, but with regard to building recovery from the recession and creating new jobs and industries in the coming decades. We face the greatest energy challenge of our lifetime. Over the next 10 to 15 years, we will need something in the order of £200 billion of new investment. How does the withdrawal of funding from Sheffield Forgemasters fit in with that rhetoric?

The need for a balanced energy policy that uses all proven sources of generation has been reinforced by the events of the last few years. The increased price of oil, and the effect that that has had on the economy, has highlighted the need to reduce dependence on imported gas and oil. Petrol prices have gone through the roof, with knock-on effects for transport and food bills, and inflated electricity and gas prices. The UK cannot be left at the mercy of imported oil and gas, but the demise of coal and nuclear would leave us dependent on our core source, gas, for at least 50% of our electricity needs. If, as is hoped, we go down the clean cars route with electric vehicles, we will need more electricity to cover the increase in demand. To ensure cheap, reliable electricity, we will need more than simple efficiency savings or more clean-generated electricity-either that, or the answer to our energy needs will have to be magic or come from thin air.

I have raised my concerns. It is essential that we have a coherent energy policy, but that requires total agreement within Government. I seek assurances that they will deliver a comprehensive balanced energy policy that includes a nuclear component. The decision to withdraw funding from Sheffield Forgemasters must be reversed, as that is contrary to delivering the skills and the means to make Britain a world leader in nuclear technology. As the Minister has said,

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