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22 Jun 2010 : Column 6WH—continued

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He alluded to the fact that if we do not plan now-we should have planned already- we will hit a spot when there are real problems. That, of course, is where the dash for gas comes in.

When we get to about 2016-17, we will be in a particularly vulnerable position. It is hoped that the first nuclear power station will soon be given planning permission, and that it will be available and ready for commissioning in 2017-18. The most important time is between 2020 and 2025, when other power stations go offline and new power stations will have to be built. The Government have to make a commitment today: if they do not, those power stations will not be built. Indeed, that was said by my predecessor on the all-party group in 2002-03, when it was not popular to be a member of the group. It is amazing how time has proven him to be correct. Our original goal-when I say ours, I mean everyone's; I am referring not only to you, Mr Brady, but Opposition and Government Members and the people of this nation-was to make Britain the most attractive place to invest in energy. In order to provide secure, low-carbon energy, we need to keep bills affordable.

In conclusion, I must tell the Government that talk is cheap and that actions speak louder than words; they must lead, proving that they have the solutions to our energy needs. If they act, they will have my full support and that of my party, as well as the support of everyone else in the country. If they do not act, I shall look forward to the next Labour Government being here-but we will probably need candles to see one another.

9.53 am

Damian Collins (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (John Robertson) on securing this important debate. I may not be able to say this a huge number of times in my parliamentary career, but I can say this morning that I agree very much with the thrust of his argument on the importance of nuclear being part of our energy mix. In an intervention this morning, I spoke of the Dungeness nuclear power station in my constituency, a subject that I also mentioned in my maiden speech. My hon. Friend the Minister knows that I take a strong interest in the matter; I am grateful for his reciprocal interest, as it is important to my constituents.

As I said earlier, in their consultation on the nuclear new-build programme, the previous Government removed Dungeness from the national policy statement on approved sites. That caused great concern in my constituency, and it was something of a surprise. There has been nuclear power at Dungeness since the 1960s, and there have been two generations of facilities. Dungeness A is being decommissioned, and Dungeness B is due to run until about 2018. It has always been anticipated that there would be a third-and, potentially, a fourth-generation of nuclear power stations on the site, which is strategically important; it is the only nuclear facility to the south-east of London, and it is in an area of high energy demand. It produces enough power to provide electricity for the whole of Kent.

I share the concern expressed by the hon. Member for Glasgow North West: if that facility is no longer available, and there is no new nuclear power, where is the energy
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to come from? It is likely to be imported, and the sources of that energy may not be as secure and certain as we would like. That will have a knock-on effect for consumers in the prices that they have to pay.

Like many Members who have nuclear facilities in their constituencies, I am aware of the excellent safety record of the British nuclear industry, and of the large number of jobs created by the building and running of nuclear power stations. They create an important economic infrastructure for the local economy. It is estimated that Dungeness B nuclear power station puts £20 million into the economy that it serves; in the current economic climate, I struggle to see where else that funding could be found, or what other investment could match it.

I wish to consider why the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) decided to take Dungeness off the list of potential new nuclear sites. Was it a lack of local support? No, not at all: there is a huge amount of support for the Dungeness nuclear power station. Research conducted in that area of Kent shows that the nearer one gets to Dungeness, the more popular it is. Was it because of the risk of coastal flooding? The Environment Agency says that it is perfectly content with managing the flood risk at Dungeness. If anything, maintenance of the flood defences there has a knock-on benefit for the whole of the Romney marsh area, which is largely below sea level and is considered to be one of the areas most at risk from sea flooding, so it was not that. Was it, as some in my constituency have suggested, concern about the proximity of a small, local airport? In evidence to the previous Government, the Health and Safety Executive said that that was not a concern, either now or if the airport should expand; it would not be a reason for not progressing with the Dungeness site.

The European Commission is not a body that I would normally draw upon for supporting evidence, but it clearly considered Dungeness to be a site for potential new nuclear build, because when EDF Energy completed its takeover of British Energy, it requested the new company to consider selling sites where new power stations might be built, so that it did not have a monopoly. Dungeness was earmarked as a site that might have to be sold. Clearly, at the macro level, the European Commission considered that it was logical for Dungeness plans to be taken forward, which is interesting.

It seems that Dungeness was taken off the list because of an interpretation of the habitats directive, and because of the Natura 2000 reserves, which are set up at a European level, although enforcement takes place on a national level. The Dungeness site would fall foul of the environmental protections under the habitats directive. That was certainly the view of Natural England, the Government's statutory consultee. My predecessor, Michael Howard, raised that point with the right hon. Member for Doncaster North before the general election, asking whether Natural England had a veto on Government policy in such matters-its objection would seem to be the primary reason why Dungeness plans have fallen-but the right hon. Gentleman said that it did not. I hope that that is so.

We know that overwhelming national interest can take precedence over concerns about enforcing the habitats directive. Given what the hon. Member for Glasgow North West said about the huge need for nuclear power, I hope that we will consider it a matter of great national
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importance to have as many new-build nuclear sites as possible. I know that there would be problems with planning, and local opposition to grid connection points in various sites around the country. However, in evidence to the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change before the election, EDF Energy said that it considered Dungeness to be an excellent site for grid connection, and that it could potentially be online and producing energy before 2020.

Mr Watson: The hon. Gentleman makes a compelling case, and he will have a very long career in this House if he makes arguments as potent as the one that he makes this morning. I suspect that part of the reason why Dungeness was taken off the list is that it does not work well-or occasionally does not work very well. Does he think that it would be useful for the Minister to forge links with the nuclear industry work force, and to perhaps meet Mr Dougie Rooney of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union, who could build common cause with him on the work force of Dungeness?

Damian Collins: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comments. I am assured that there is a lot of life in Dungeness B power station yet, and I hope that continues. As regards his other comments, I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister can speak for himself.

Sir Robert Smith: The intervention from the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) was confusing, because the performance of an existing power station does not have anything to do with the performance of the next power station on the site. Not to defend the previous Government, but I am sure that the decision was to do with the environmental impact locally, and the fact that the Government found sites elsewhere to fill the quota that they were looking to hit.

Damian Collins: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the nature of the environmental objections and whether they are well founded. Natural England's objection is that Dungeness sits on a peninsula of shingle. It is the second largest shingle peninsula in the world; the largest is Cape Canaveral in Florida, so clearly either NASA has found ways of managing the natural environment, or the Americans are working to different rules. We are talking about a living, moving landscape, with nuclear power and other development. There is a need to intervene to prevent coastal erosion of the shingle peninsula, which is moving, and to maintain the defences and protect the existing power station; that means moving shingle from Lydd-on-Sea to the western end of the peninsula. That work has to go on, and people who have lived in Dungeness all their lives are aware that human intervention is natural.

Natural England is right to raise concerns about this important ecological site, which is unique in our country and, in many ways, in Europe. The history of Dungeness is the history of man working in successful partnership with nature. The site is excellent for meeting the energy demand for nuclear power in our country, and it should be considered as a site for a station. Given that the development area for the new power station sits alongside an existing power station, and is on land previously disturbed and developed as part of the building of the first two power stations, we are talking about potentially less than 1% of the entire protected area that covers
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Dungeness and Romney marsh and the Rye site of special scientific interest. That is a relatively small area of development; development could not be said to bring into question the integrity of the whole site. Only a very small part is affected, so some mitigation may be possible.

The national case and demand for nuclear power is such that we should seriously look at that option. We should not get into a position where any area of development is considered impossible, or where Natural England has, on certain sites, a veto over whether anything happens at all. There are even objections to the movement of shingle from one area of Dungeness to another to maintain the sea defences; there are questions over whether that should be stopped, and whether the building aggregate should be dumped into the sea instead, at great cost to the taxpayer.

Mr Iain Wright: I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument closely. Like him, I have a nuclear power station in my constituency, and there is the possibility of a replacement power station next door. There is also an area for birds, which is of scientific interest, so we have very similar views. I would like nuclear power to be part of a balanced mix of energy for Britain. We need that to happen as quickly as possible, and I think that he agrees with me. On that basis, does he think that the Government's abolition of the Infrastructure Planning Commission is a good or a bad thing?

Damian Collins: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The question is, what planning framework should deliver the nuclear new-build programme? Regardless of what takes the place of the IPC, all Members want a structured and coherent plan to take the sites forward. My concerns and argument are about the bit that comes before the IPC-the consultation on the list of nuclear sites. My concern is that that system has fallen down.

I am aware that the Government have inherited a live and open consultation from the previous Government. Ministers are still considering the evidence given by my constituents and many others during the consultation period, as well as the evidence in the report of the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change. Those things will be taken into account, and I look forward to reading the report. I hope that Ministers will consider some of the points that I have made on the suitability of Dungeness as a key site.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): Of course Natural England does not have a veto, but new build will take place only at a certain rate, and that is determined entirely by the private sector. It makes a great deal of sense for a Government to choose the sites most likely to progress at speed. In the case of Dungeness, the consultations necessary would be complicated. It was a purely pragmatic, straightforward and reasonable decision for the Government to withdraw the site from the consultation.

Damian Collins: The right hon. Lady makes an important point about the nature of consultation and how it is conducted. From the evidence of the Department of Energy and Climate Change on the consultation on Dungeness-available on its website-it seems that Natural England raised the issue early, and that meetings were
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called between it and EDF Energy very early on in the process. I am not certain how much interrogation there was of Natural England's argument, or whether it was just accepted. Were the Government concerned that Natural England might make a serious challenge? Natural England said that it potentially had concerns about a number of the sites, but it had the greatest concern about the one at Dungeness. My concern is this: how much exploration has there been of Natural England's argument, and what cases for mitigation have been made?

I am conscious that other right hon. and hon. Members would like to contribute. I obviously want Dungeness back on the list of sites, maybe with caveats at the planning stage that a very detailed plan for managing the local environment must be part of the consideration of how that power station could be built. I am sure that the right hon. Lady is correct that there will be issues with a number of the sites, whether or not they are included in the national policy statement on nuclear power. It would therefore be sensible to have as many sites on the list as possible that can contribute to our energy needs. We can then progress as many as possible and hope that a good number are delivered.

10.6 am

Mr Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): I am pleased to make a brief contribution to the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (John Robertson) on securing the debate. He is, of course, a well known and passionate advocate of nuclear power, as is the Minister-these debates often seem like a meeting of old friends. While I respect their positions, it will not come as a great surprise to either of them that I take a somewhat different position. The Scottish National party remains opposed to new nuclear power stations. We believe that Scotland neither needs nor wants such stations, and there is a clear majority in the Scottish Parliament against them. This debate centres on the new Westminster Government's policy, and I do not want to debate the pros and cons of nuclear power as such, but will focus on what their policy is.

Before the election, the Conservatives made no secret of their support for nuclear power, and their manifesto clearly supported new nuclear power stations

The Liberal Democrats clearly stated that they

However, the coalition agreement states unequivocally:

a fudge if ever there was one. It gets worse, in that the Liberal Democrats can speak against it but are committed to abstain on any vote. That seems to lack principle completely. The present Liberal Democrat Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, the right hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne), who once described nuclear power as a "failed technology", has stated that it is very clear that there will be a new generation
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of nuclear power stations. No doubt the Conservative party are relying on a temporary coalition with Labour to ensure the measure goes through.

We should not be unduly surprised; the Liberal Democrats were against nuclear weapons, but now appear to be in favour as long as they cost less than Trident. The position appears to be that there will be new nuclear power stations provided the private sector meets all the costs, but how will that work? In November last year, Citigroup published a fascinating report entitled "New Nuclear-the Economics Say No", in which it describes the "three Corporate Killers" and says:

I presume it does not mean that in a good way. It makes the point that

and concludes:

Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): Has the hon. Gentleman not seen the comments by the head of EDF, Vincent de Rivaz, about how his organisation welcomes this new development and how it will continue to put forward its programmes despite there being no subsidy from the public sector? Such comments will be very pleasing to my constituents because it should mean that Sizewell will get built.

Mr Weir: I have heard Mr de Rivaz's comments, but he seems to be the only one to make such comments. Different comments have been made by the head of E.ON UK, who is also interested in new nuclear power stations.

Let me return to what Citigroup was saying. I should add that the report was written before the oil spill in the gulf of Mexico, where BP has found that legal maximum liabilities are meaningless. Already, it has paid out more than the legal maximum under United States federal law and is facing many billions more in compensation payments. Just what would the cost be to any operator of a nuclear power station should-God forbid-there be a serious incident? The fact that there is a serious potential liability should be a red light to utility companies, and all those who invest in them. It is also worth noting that the present Secretary of State has already reported a black hole in the budget of his Department to meet the cost of decommissioning current stations and of containment of our existing stock of nuclear waste. Given that situation, how will the Government ensure that the new nuclear power stations will be built without public subsidy, especially as that has never been done anywhere in the world?

The coalition agreement gives us a clue when it states:

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It seems that that is the answer as to how nuclear power is to be given a subsidy. Nuclear is to be made commercial by introducing a floor price for carbon. In a recent speech to the Nuclear Industry Forum, the Minister said:

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