Risks and Safety Assessments on Nuclear Power Plants
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
John-Paul Flaherty, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
Risks and Safety Assessments on Nuclear Power Plants
The Chair: This places us in some difficulty, because we were formally told by the European Scrutiny Committee that the statement would be made by Jacob Rees-Mogg. Do you want to sort this out between yourselves?
Michael Connarty: I broke my journey from Scotland to be here, and I am supposed to be going to Paris on the 6.10 pm. I received a note stating that I would make the statement, and I was sent a speaking note.
Michael Connarty: Thank you, Miss McIntosh. I am happy to be under your strict eye, which reminds me of being back in school. I want briefly to describe the background to document 14400/12 and to explain why the European Scrutiny Committee recommended it for debate.
Although the safety record of the European Union’s nuclear plants is good, after the Fukushima accident the European Council agreed that each plant should be subject to stress tests and that the EU should review the relevant legislation. In November 2011, a Commission communication acknowledged that nothing could be decided until the completion of the stress tests, but it suggested that there was scope for strengthening EU and national legislation, for improving emergency preparedness and for reinforcing the EU nuclear liability regime.
The document identifies how the EU nuclear safety framework can be improved, and seeks to develop legislative, non-legislative and project proposals. In particular, it looks at follow-up action for safety measures, safety procedures
The Government have said that they are putting in place measures to implement the lessons of Fukushima and that the focus should be on the proper implementation of the current EU framework. They have pointed out that the nuclear safety proposals are already covered by the current directive, and that the Commission’s conclusion that the nuclear safety directive should be revised is not supported by any robust evidence. They are concerned that the Commission is seeking to increase its competence in key areas—in this case, in energy.
Given the general public interest in nuclear safety, the particular concerns raised by the Fukushima accident and the current debate on the role of nuclear power in the future energy mix, the European Scrutiny Committee took the view that the document was of some significance and raised questions about the division of competence between the Commission and member states. The Committee therefore saw merit in the House expressing a view while discussions are continuing, which is why the document has been sent for debate today.
Let me say at the outset that the Government remain wholly committed to learning the lessons from Fukushima, and to using the outcome of the stress test exercise to inform our decisions on the next steps. At its core, the Commission’s communication aims to ensure that nuclear safety remains a top priority for all the nations concerned and, as the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk has said, to ensure that they take seriously the results of the stress tests and deal with the issues identified by them. It seems to me that those ambitions are absolutely worthy of our support. However, those ambitions can be achieved in different ways.
The subject of this brief debate is how those ambitions are to be achieved and, frankly, that is where the Commission and the Government differ. The Government’s view is that the member state should address these issues under the current nuclear safety framework arrangements and, to that end, I would like to focus on four main issues in these brief introductory remarks.
First, on the need for strong, independent nuclear safety regulation, it certainly remains important that there is sufficient separation between Government, regulators and operators. It is equally important that nuclear safety regulators can take independent regulatory decisions. That is already an explicit requirement of the current directive.
We believe that the Commission’s proposals could lead to an undermining of the regulator’s independence. Specifically, the proposals appear to seek greater oversight for the Commission of regulatory activities, and also seek to bind international standards to the nuclear safety directive. Both of those measures could lead to a restriction in the ability of regulators to take action appropriate to particular national circumstances, reduce
Secondly, on the transparency and openness of regulatory regimes, we agree with the sentiments of the communication. That said, there are limits. For example, we cannot agree to the sharing of information that could impact on national security. The Government believe that, under the current provisions of the nuclear safety directive, it is implicit that member states are required to provide information. Those provisions could be made clearer, but that issue alone does not warrant amending the directive at this stage; it may, however, be material for further discussion between member states.
Thirdly, on emergency preparedness and response arrangements, prevention will always be better than cure. In the event of a major nuclear incident, robust response arrangements are absolutely necessary. My Department is therefore working to strengthen our arrangements in light of lessons learnt; that fits with our obligations under the current nuclear safety directive requirements. Again, in our view, amendments to the legislation are not necessary.
Finally, on the tone and apparent ambitions of the communication, we appreciate that the communication was drafted to reflect the Commission’s view. We also acknowledge that it is the Commission’s right to issue communications without prior consultation with member states. However, it is frankly disappointing that the Commission did not take the opportunity to consult member states on this highly important and sensitive issue.
As I indicated, at its core the communication makes some good points that deserve further consideration. It is unfortunate, however, that the tone used is little short of alarmist, which could undermine public confidence in nuclear safety. Equally disappointing is the apparent loss of one of the key outcomes of the stress tests. While some new safety enhancements were identified—I say this without being complacent—nuclear safety in the European Union remains in good shape. Moreover, concern remains that ambiguity in the language used in relation to the safety and security interface could result in an assumed shift in competency. That must be resisted.
Bearing those issues in mind, we find it difficult to understand how the Commission came to the conclusion that the nuclear safety directive, which was adopted only a little over a year ago, should be replaced. On that basis, I look forward to an interesting debate.
The Chair: We now have until 5.30 pm for questions to the Minister. May I remind Members that questions should be brief? It is open to a Member, subject to my discretion, to ask related, supplementary questions.
Tom Greatrex (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (Lab/Co-op): May I begin by asking the Minister a couple of questions relating to a point he referred to: the communication encouraging the sharing of information from stress tests and peer reviews? It refers to the sharing of that information from EU-neighbouring states, but will the Minister inform us to what extent that has happened since the peer reviews were done, and whether he has had any discussions with the Commission in relation to that?
Mr Hayes: It is true that the stress test analysis in different member states, which—generally speaking—has produced similar outcomes with similar effects, may have shown some distinctiveness. For that reason, the details were shared across member states earlier this year, in May, and there are always discussions across member states about that, so the particularity of local circumstances, which obviously allows different analysis of the outcomes of the stress tests, though they were broadly similar, were shared and encouraged further discussion.
Tom Greatrex: Perhaps I was not clear in how I phrased the question. The communication also refers to neighbouring states, and I think there are three—Ukraine, Switzerland and Croatia, which is not yet a member state—that took part in the stress tests alongside the rest. What I wanted to get to is whether those states outside but neighbouring the EU have undertaken the advice or guidance from the Commission to share the information as well.
Mr Hayes: The material was published alongside that of the EU states, and the information was shared across those neighbouring states. We are keen to have discussions throughout the whole of the EU, and to include those neighbouring states. The process was permissive and not restricted to a narrow number of countries.
Tom Greatrex: The communication also refers to a suggestion that the tests should continue on an ongoing basis. Given what the Minister said about competence, is that something he has a view on or a view expressed to the Commission?
Mr Hayes: Yes. I share the view implicit in the hon. Gentleman’s question, that we need to maintain a close watching brief. It is important for tests to continue to take place as a matter of routine, so that such things do not become in any sense less salient or central to our considerations, in particular, by the way, as we make a robust and strong case for nuclear power, on which he largely shares my view.
There are three stages: first, the test themselves; secondly, the proper dissemination or sharing of information—the subject of the hon. Gentleman’s first questions—as well as the proper discussion arising; and, thirdly, a programme for implementation. It is right that we now implement the results of those first two stages and, on implementation, there is an argument for further consideration and test of effectiveness. He makes a useful point. I am certainly more than happy to go away and consider that, to look at what we have said so far and at what other European states are doing, and to feed back some thoughts. At this stage, however, we are focusing on implementation.
Tom Greatrex: The Department’s memorandum of 16 October, which is published with the papers, refers to the Commission coming forward with a revised nuclear safety directive from March 2013. Some of the points that the Minister was making earlier are tangential to that, I suspect, but can he update us on any discussions that he or his Department has had with the Commission?
We are not alone, by the way, because other European nations share our view that this is a step too far. Interestingly, some of the nations that are sometimes rather more complicit with the Commission than we are have voiced their own doubts about whether such a response to our circumstances is appropriate and measured—so we have allies in Europe. We have made those representations known to the Commission and today will be important, which is why we wanted this thorough scrutiny—which the hon. Gentleman is exercising his responsibility to secure—so that we can move forward with a shared policy and a common view.
Tom Greatrex: May I press the Minister further on that point? I understand from reading the communication that the process is not subject to co-decision making; it is qualified majority voting for any changes. I noticed that he referred to other member states without naming them. Can he tell us which other member states are similarly concerned about the Commission’s approach?
Mr Hayes: Yes. There are two things to say, really. The first is that I understand now that the Commission’s further representations are likely to be in June, so there is a bit more time. These things frequently change, do they not? Secondly, discussions have taken place between member states, so we are working with other member states. Clearly, in doing so we are trying to get a position around which we can cohere, and which we can articulate communally.
Some like-minded nations, if I may put it in those terms, include—the hon. Gentleman will be fascinated to learn—France, Germany, Sweden, Czech Republic, Hungary, Finland, Slovakia, Poland and, potentially, the Netherlands and Estonia, who also have reservations about a revised safety directive, although there are some differences of nuance, I gather, with the last two.
The hon. Gentleman will gather from the way I made my remarks that those are not all nations that are usually—I will choose my words carefully—regarded as difficult by the Commission. They are proud and independent nations, but they are communitarian to a degree that sometimes Britain is perceived as not being. On this occasion the whole group of nations I described has made the case that what is suggested is an unnecessary third step. We should work with the arrangements we have in place. As I said in my opening remarks, there are areas where we could have more discussion, of course, but we feel that it would be disproportionate to issue entirely new arrangements when the ones in question are young and, we think, largely fit for purpose.
Jacob Rees-Mog g: Following on from the comments of the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, the revised directive would be under qualified majority voting. Would the compensation issue under article 98 of the Euratom treaty be under QMV or unanimity?
Jacob Rees-Mogg: I am not sure in what respect it is reassuring, other than that it shows the Minister’s complete knowledge and mastery of the subject, which I was confident of anyway. The real question I want to ask arises from the documentation about the peer review teams, which are composed of nuclear safety experts from EU member states, Switzerland, Ukraine and the Commission. There are observers from third countries—Croatia, the USA, Japan—and the International Atomic Energy Agency. It seems to me that that shows international and multinational co-operation working extraordinarily well and effectively, and that it is unnecessary for further steps to be taken by the European Commission. Does the Minister agree with that analysis?
Mr Hayes: I do agree. It is important that discussions of the kind in question be measured; and I suppose our view is that post-Fukushima it is in a curious kind of way even more important. It is always important for them to be measured, but there is an element of what amounts to alarmism in what we are being presented with.
As I said in my opening remarks, I do not want to overstate that, but it is certainly the view of many of the nations I mentioned. We need to take some of the heat out of this by having a sensible and rational debate with the Commission to say that, while some of the existing arrangements may be adjusted, they are essentially fit for purpose. That is the discussion that is taking place across the nations of the European Union and also with nations beyond its boundary, as the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West described.
In moving forward in a measured and sensible way, we need to draw on the experience of several countries. I mentioned earlier that there are particularities in their responses to such circumstances. However, to issue an entirely new directive would add to the worry, rather than alleviate it, and it would not necessarily better equip us to deal with such important matters.
Does he agree that it would be much better done by national Governments, who already have their own safety systems in place, and that the EU seems to be using a disaster to enhance its own powers, which cannot necessarily be taken for granted as being beneficial?
Mr Hayes: My hon. Friend will not be surprised to know that I do share that view. It will be no great shock to him not only because he knows my views on such things more generally, but also because he will have heard what I said earlier. That is certainly the Government’s view.
I do not want to be complacent, and it is important to say such things in an extremely careful tone, but Europe has a good record on nuclear safety. Such things are better done at member state level, and a large numbers of European countries share that view. We do not think that much would be added—it could perhaps be worse—by issuing a new directive. We see no great purpose in that. There is, however, a perfectly proper discussion to be had around how the existing arrangements may be improved, and I highlighted a couple of areas where they could be. We do not want to forbid or to prevent that discussion, but it should take place against a backdrop of broad agreement across nations that they need to co-operate, but to do so in a way that honours the particularity of their circumstances.
Does the Minister regard that particular passage and recommendation as a micro example of overreaction? Has he actually looked at that paragraph and examined what the implications might be for safety measures for future UK structures?
Mr Hayes: The hon. Gentleman is a great expert on such matters. Not only is he a member of the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change, but he has also taken an interest in such things for a long time. He will know that the tsunami that produced the flood at Fukushima was not, of itself, the cause of the disaster. The disaster was caused by the inadequate ability to maintain electrical supply to the plant, meaning that it could not be cooled, which was a consequence of the flood. I apologise for that convolution, but the hon. Gentleman will be familiar with the chronology of events that led to that disaster. The events will have undoubtedly encouraged a greater concentration on flood risk than might have otherwise taken place. Nuclear power plants, by their nature, are close to large volumes of water, and in the United Kingdom and other countries are therefore coastal. By the nature of those plants, flood risk must be properly considered, but I believe that such consideration is best conducted locally.
As I have said, the different circumstances of each nation do not prohibit, and may well enable, better scrutiny of the conditions that apply to each plant. I do not want to be too critical of what I would describe as an understandable emphasis on flood post-Fukushima, but I am critical about the means of meeting that concern. I am happy to look at the matter again, however. I always think the value of scrutiny is that it gives Ministers the opportunity to ask their civil servants to go one step further and to exercise still more diligence
Tom Greatrex: I have a further question. The document refers to the European Commission’s starting infringement proceedings against 12 member states that did not complete the transposition of the nuclear safety directive by the deadline of July 2011, one of which was the UK. It emerges later in the document, however, that that is to do with Gibraltar, and as I understand it there are no nuclear power stations in Gibraltar. Will the Minister explain what the result of the infringement proceedings will be for the UK?
Mr Hayes: That requires more inspiration than even I can conjure up. Let me add to the theme that is emerging from the debate. The essence of our case is that certain things are better done locally because of particularity. That applies, for example, to location and resultant flood risk, and to a range of other safety and security requirements.
The hon. Gentleman asked why the United Kingdom was late in transposing the nuclear safety directive. As he said, the documents make it clear that the UK, with the exception of Gibraltar, transposed the directive within the July 2011 deadline using the existing nuclear safety regulatory regime. The UK’s transposition of the directive was never in question, but the UK was listed as not having fully transposed it because of Gibraltar’s delay. The reason why Gibraltar was not included was implicit in his question: Gibraltar has no nuclear power.
Mr Hayes: We have subsequently been told that the case will not proceed against the UK, so in a sense the matter is closed. Just to add a further word of explanation for the benefit of the whole Committee, the hon. Gentleman will understand that part of the reason for Gibraltar’s not being included was the elections that were happening there at the time. There was a technical issue as well as the fundamental issue that Gibraltar does not have a nuclear safety issue as such. When the combination of those two things were explained to the Commission, it told us that it would not proceed with the action against the United Kingdom.
Tom Greatrex: Would it be reasonable to infer from the Minister’s response to my question that he would be willing to look at the relationship between the recommendations of the technical annexe on flooding defence for UK plants, and the other points on flood preparation that were made subsequent to that headline point in the technical annexe? Are the recommendations of the technical annexe compatible with the ONR recommendations on action pertaining to flooding? If they are not, is further consideration required?
Mr Hayes: It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman raises that issue. Since I became a Minister, I have asked questions about the location of generating resource in relation to flood risk. Many of our ambitions about emissions are predicated on our belief that one of the effects of a changing climate will be to change our
So yes, I am prepared to have a close look at this matter. I can offer the hon. Gentleman even better news, which is that the United Kingdom is to submit an action plan to address all the actions from the stress test. The purpose of looking at the stress test in each country is that we learn lessons from it. I emphasised in my opening remarks that we are in no sense complacent about the existing arrangements. We are happy to have further discussions about how they can be improved. The stress test will inform those discussions, as will the scrutiny of this House.
The hon. Gentleman will know that the Energy Bill, which has been published and is about to receive its Second Reading, deals with matters concerning the ONR, and its sovereignty in particular. It will be an opportunity to debate some of the ONR’s powers because the Bill essentially enforces a number of its powers under its new constitutional arrangements. Part of that debate will be about making sure that it has sufficient powers and competence in sufficient areas to do its job as well as it can. It will need to be coherent and consistent, and its consistency will be measured in part by whether it works alongside our response to the stress test.
That the Committee takes note of European Union Document No. 14400/12, a Communication from the Commission on the comprehensive risks and safety assessments (“stress tests”) of nuclear power plants in the European Union and related activities; agrees with the Government that the is a need to ensure that a robust EU nuclear safety regime is in place; and supports the Government’s view that any changes to the current regime should be evidence-based to ensure that they are proportionate to the risks they aim to address and do not result in a shift of competence away from Member States.—(Mr Hayes . )
Tom Greatrex: It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Miss McIntosh. It is important that we have the opportunity to participate in this debate on the communication. I congratulate the Committee on bringing it to the House’s attention. This is the third time I have been engaged in a debate on issues arising from the European Scrutiny Committee. On each one of those occasions—once, in relation to off-shore safety, subsequently in relation to renewable energy and again today—my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk, in his breathless, brief but welcome introductory remarks, pointed out the concerns that that Committee has around competence creep, if I can put it in those terms. I am sure that if the hon. Member for North East Somerset had made the opening remarks, he would have drawn our attention to that concern, as indeed the Minister did.
I should say that the Opposition are perfectly relaxed about and content with the idea that, in relation to nuclear power, safety is vital and so there should be as much co-operation as possible across borders. The impact
The Minister referred, when answering questions, to the action plan that the Government will submit. Can he indicate when that will be? The deadline was to be the end of this calendar year, which is very close now. Can he inform us whether that will be achieved or, if it is to be missed, by how far?
My other point is that Fukushima has had a significant impact on the way that nuclear power is viewed in different member states. The reaction and response from Germany is probably the one most frequently commented upon. However, it is also the case—Mike Weightman made this point in his interim and final reports—that, in terms of climatic conditions, the circumstances relating to Fukushima would be unlikely in the UK; also, we do not currently have any boiling water reactors in our nuclear stock. Can the Minister touch on project Horizon, now that Hitachi has bought it, and Hitachi’s potential proposal to build an advanced boiling water reactor: will he ensure that the UK safety regime is properly and appropriately up to date should that design receive approval in due course?
Jacob Rees-Mogg: It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Miss McIntosh. May I apologise for the confusion at the start of our sitting about who was giving the statement from the European Scrutiny Committee? It was meant to be me, but I gave way to the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk: he used to chair the European Scrutiny Committee and I therefore thought a senior figure would be better than a junior one. I hope that that meets with approval, broadly speaking, and apologise if it does not.
I am very interested—I can see myself dining out on this particular anecdote for years to come—that the European Union brought infringement proceedings against the United Kingdom because Gibraltar, which has no nuclear facilities, had not produced a plan for its nuclear facilities. There is a lesson in that about what happens when we internationalise bureaucracy: as the Minister so rightly said, such bureaucracy cannot deal with the local specifics. In the rather magnificent example about Gibraltar, the local specific is that it does not actually have any need for a nuclear power programme, plan or safety process because it does not have any nuclear power.
I turn now to the details of the documentation before us, and to some of the things that the Committee has said, the Government have said, and the Commission has said. First, the key point is that the review of the directive has come forward without the Commission having provided any robust evidence. As the shadow spokesman rightly said, we all accept that nuclear safety is naturally something of international concern—Welsh
The previous Minister made the point that seeking to increase competence in key areas of nuclear safety and security can undermine the independence and effectiveness of the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group. That should be a concern, because the stress testing has shown that a rather efficient system of co-operation already exists and is more multinational than being simply within the European Union. I know that those of us who are Eurosceptic are sometimes accused of being little Englanders, but in reality we are often more internationalist, where relevant, than the European Union, which likes to do things within its own safe confines. Hence the Commission concludes with its wish to seek to harmonise nuclear safety assessments.
As the Minister so rightly pointed out, there are different parts of the assessment that need to be made. The United Kingdom is singularly unlikely to have serious earthquakes, whereas in Italy they have them quite often. They even have volcanoes, and although Vesuvius may be asleep at the moment, there are risks in other parts of Europe that simply do not apply in the United Kingdom. We must therefore be very careful about signing up for everything and doing it all on a one-size-fits-all basis when that size does not fit.
I note in passing that none of these proposals are applicable to the EEA acquis, so if we were simply in the European economic area we would not have to worry about this particular effort of the European Union. For once, the fax democracy—in this case, perhaps the word should be pronounced “faux”—would not apply if those were the circumstances.
On the Commission’s report specifically, it starts off by accepting that the legal responsibility remains at national level. Once we have started at that point, it seems logical that the regulatory responsibility should remain at the national level. It states:
but then goes on to do precisely what it is not empowered to do. I know that there is a cynical phrase that no good crisis should be put to waste, and it strikes me that what happened in Japan is being used by the European Union to increase its powers quite unnecessarily.
The Minister covered much of what the Commission says about there not necessarily being the need for an entirely consistent approach to nuclear safety regulation, and about there being no need for a codified EU mechanism to agree on technical standards and the way to conduct safety reviews. That can all be done competently at the national level. The independence of the national regulatory authorities has worked very well and should be maintained. All the EU can currently do is peer review the national nuclear safety framework. It has actually done that rather well, so let us praise the European Union on those rare occasions when we can because it has
It is important that we look at these documents with care. I find enormous agreement with the Minister and shadow Minister, and a disagreement with the European Union, which, in its glorious EU-speak, says that there is a
When the language is so inelegant, one may think that the argument is particularly weak; as a rule of thumb, that is usually true. The Minister is right to be tactfully, wisely and cautiously robust in defending our position at a national level, because the issue is one with international connotations. It is not one on which it is right to make a grand speech, as I know you like, Madam Chair, about Alfred and the Danes immediately behind you, but one to bat calmly back to the European Union, saying that we have something that works. To use that good Tory phrase, if something does not need to be changed, it ought not to be changed.
Mr Hayes: I shall deal first with the points raised by the shadow Minister, in reverse order for the sake of colour and interest. He will know that the technology that Hitachi has used, largely successfully, is the boiling water reactor. He will also know that any new design of reactor is subject to a full regulatory process of scrutiny, which will lead to a generic design assessment. I am told that that process can take several years—probably two to three years. Hitachi has submitted the design for such an assessment in this country. We have not, as he rightly said, done that historically in this country; it is not the kind of reactor we have employed up until now. However, the process will be as robust as it needs to be. It certainly will not be changed in any way; he asked to be assured of that.
Regarding the action plan, the hon. Gentleman mentioned that the document before us makes clear that the plan will be drawn up by the end of the year. We are on schedule to do that. We are finalising the action plan as we speak. I will drop him a line tonight to give him an absolute assurance that even if people have to work to Christmas eve, it will be available by the end of the calendar year. I think that it will be perfectly proper for him to claim that he has exerted due but measured pressure on the Minister to achieve the result that we both desire.
It is always a feature of the contributions of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset that they enjoy a certain melancholy. I say that admiringly, because in every Tory heart there is a certain melancholy. However, I remind him of what Churchill said, that a pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity, while an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty. It seems that in this difficulty, the Commission provides an opportunity—an opportunity for us to have a sensible discussion about what further pan-national sharing of interest, expertise and understanding we can bring. It is perfectly proper—given that, as the shadow Minister said, such matters cannot be confined to a single nation, for all the reasons that he implied—that we have discussions regarding enhancing best practice, which are taking place and will
Kipling said that a people ends up resembling its shadow. I could not have put the case more elegantly or convincingly than the shadow Minister. The area is one on which we in this Committee broadly agree. It is clear that not just we agree, but many other European countries too. That is both strength to our bow and reassuring, because the conclusion that other nations have reached is much like the conclusion that this Committee has reached.