Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Jenkin of Roding: I shall not repeat what I said earlier this week, which would be tedious in the extreme, but as a couple of days have elapsed, perhaps I may remind the Minister of the question I asked. The audience of the "Energy Choices" conference heard from the Minister's colleague, Mr Stephen Timms, that this research policy is under review. On Tuesday I asked the Minister, and shall ask him again today, whether he is able to tell us any more about that.

22 Jan 2004 : Column GC377

3.30 p.m.

Earl Attlee: During an earlier debate in Committee I asked the Minister how substantial was the expenditure on research. Unfortunately, inspiration was not coming fast enough, but I thought I would have an opportunity later on in Committee, and I was right. It now transpires that we are spending only 15 million on nuclear research. I can hardly believe that the sum is so meagre. Certainly, it will not excite academia. At Question Time today in the Chamber, we heard that we are spending 18 million on research into Gulf War syndrome. I shall check that in Hansard but I think that that is what I heard.

Last week my noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding talked about foreign designs of nuclear reactors. What about the future of the UK heavy engineering industry in building high-technology, heavy engineering plant? Surely, if we are not careful we shall end up importing all that heavy engineering. Is that desirable?

Lord Ezra: While I would agree that it is desirable that the NDA should have a research and development obligation, the question that must be asked is: what would that research and development be about? In my opinion, it should be related to its function; namely, decommissioning. If we are talking about a wider research and development activity into keeping open the nuclear option, it is very desirable that that should be pursued, but in connection with other agencies. We should be clear about what this research and development responsibility is intended to be.

Lord Christopher: I have an interest to declare. I think most people in the room know what it is. It would be boring for me to keep repeating it, and what I have to say is not directly concerned with it.

I hope that the Government can find some way to accommodate the sense of this amendment. Certainly, what the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, said is eminently helpful. Whereas previously Britain was in the vanguard, there is a very real risk that we shall now follow. It will be extremely sad if the long-term future for world energy goes in that direction. Whether it lies in fusion or fission is neither here nor there if we are not maintaining our R&D.

Perhaps the amendment needs a little revision to ensure that there is some working concept with other organisations. But the fundamental issue is that Britain should not fall behind.

Lord Davies of Oldham: I am grateful to noble Lords for their tolerance in a debate that has been separated by several days. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, for reminding us of one of the salient points he made last Thursday. He will not be surprised to learn that I checked carefully the official record of our proceedings last time so that I should have fresh in mind not only what he said but also what the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, said in her introduction to the debate.

I apologise for the fact that we left insufficient time last Thursday for the matter. I was under the mistaken apprehension that we had covered a fair degree of

22 Jan 2004 : Column GC378

general issues on research and that this debate might focus specifically on the NDA. I was proven woefully wrong in that respect. It is not the first time that my predictions have been somewhat inaccurate. Nevertheless, I want to reply to the whole of the debate now.

I begin by expressing my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Ezra. He is absolutely right. Are we discussing the wider issues of research with regard to "keeping the nuclear option open"—I think that is the phrase used in this context—or are we, as these amendments are directed at, looking at the issue of the NDA and its research function? In all fairness, we should take the amendments at face value where they appear in the Bill and address first the issue of what "research" means to the NDA because that is the purpose of the amendments, although there are wider dimensions to them.

We have never denied—and, indeed, we have been keen to stress to the contrary—that the research activity is an important and necessary function of the NDA. It cannot fulfil its principal functions without such research. Site licensees cannot carry out many of their activities on site without it. They need access to research output on safety and other issues that are relevant to the safe operation of their site.

The NDA needs access to research output to secure the benefits of increasingly innovative and cost-effective clean up, which is its main function. Accordingly, the NDA could be given responsibility for securing the operation of research facilities on designated sites, for carrying out research into matters relating to the decommissioning and clean-up of installations, sites and facilities and relating to its other functions. The power to make grants or loans to persons carrying out research in areas relevant to the NDA's functions is present in the Bill—significantly in Clauses 7 and 10(2).

The Bill clearly identifies the NDA's responsibilities in respect of research. The amendments relate to specific provisions for the NDA's annual plan and annual report to cover its research activities. The main purpose of the NDA's annual plan, which flows through to the relevant report, is to set out what the NDA has done and will be doing in respect of its principal functions—the decommissioning, clean-up and operation of its installations, sites and facilities—for the year in question. In effect, it is what the NDA will do in any year in order to deliver on its strategy. Progress on clean-up must be the focus of holding the NDA to account. That is its principal function.

By virtue of their inclusion in the NDA's strategy through Clause 12, the other functions and duties of the NDA, which include research, skills development, the promotion of competition, the adoption of good practice and socio-economic support to local communities, must also be covered in the annual plan. That plan sets out what the NDA is doing in any one year to give effect to its overall strategy. The strategy must include the operation of research-designated facilities under Clause 12(l).

22 Jan 2004 : Column GC379

The provisions relating to the NDA's annual plan and annual report already require it to cover research. Clause 13 requires the annual plan to cover all the functions of the NDA, which would include the research functions that I mentioned; likewise, Clause 14(3) states that the annual report must cover all activities set out in the annual plan.

The Government do not consider it appropriate or necessary to give any more emphasis to research in this context. The central focus of the NDA must be on the driving forward of the decommissioning and clean-up programme. All other functions are intended to support that primary purpose of the body. While they are an important part of the overall picture, they should not detract or distract from that prime responsibility.

Amendment No. 62 seeks to give the NDA financial responsibility for research and development. It is not possible to give the NDA financial responsibility in this way. After all, the amendment sets no boundaries to the proposed responsibility for the NDA. Having said that, I want to assure Members of the Committee that the NDA's financial responsibility under Clause 21, which includes the operation of designated facilities, extends to covering research facilities. This results from the operation of research facilities being a designated responsibility under Clause 4 and from the fact that the definition of "designated facilities" includes the facilities for which the NDA has been given a responsibility.

Therefore, the Government do not believe that the amendments can be supported. However, as noble Lords made clear, the representation has focused rather more on the question of what role research can play in keeping the nuclear option open. I believe that everyone accepts that the NDA is not the appropriate body to lead on this matter. It has research functions, which I have defined, but I hope that we can agree that it is not the lead body.

On that basis, perhaps I may address what the Government are doing to provide the framework for taking forward work in this important area. Such a framework was earnestly sought by those who contributed to the debate. We have already heard something about the new opportunities for fission research—announced as part of the research councils—and a sustainable energy economy initiative that will provide up to 5 million over four years. Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, that my honourable friend in the other place is aware of the representations that have been made about this figure, and he is looking at it again. Of course, the figure is to be seen more in the context of pump-priming activities. It is not the sole support of research across the board in terms of the nuclear option, but it is an indication that the Government are concerned that certain sums should be specifically allocated to drive forward areas of research.

In developing the programme related to this, the research councils consulted broadly, including with bodies such as Defra, the DTI, the NII, the NNC,

22 Jan 2004 : Column GC380

UKAEA, Rolls-Royce, the MoD, Nirex and BNFL. The scope covers three key things: maintenance of current generation capacity; fission as part of a sustainable energy economy, covering the socio-economic aspects of fission; and future fission power. This will add to existing research opportunities through the European Union's framework programme for research and development—FP6 EURATOM. Figures now available for the last nuclear fission and radiation protection programme show that the EC funded a total of 289 projects at a cost of 167.2 million euros. UK participations totalled 266, and these participants received 21.6 million euros of the available funding.

Significantly, EURATOM has recently joined the Generation IV International Forum and will incorporate this new research area into its current programme. The UK, along with eight other countries, joined the Generation IV International Forum in July 2001. The initiative foresaw a need for advanced nuclear energy systems in the future to help meet growing international demands for carbon-free energy. To meet public concerns, future systems, wherever deployed, must meet exceptionally high standards of safety, sustainability and proliferation assistance, while operating economically in open markets.

The aim is to develop a framework for collaborative research and development on Generation IV reactor systems that could be deployed from around 2030. UK participation in the charter is without commitment to building a Generation IV design in the UK, but we are playing our part in keeping that option open.

The framework for international research agreements under this initiative is currently being put in place and the extent of any UK financial commitment to research in this area has yet to be decided as part of the forthcoming Government spending round. It is important that nuclear fission research is seen in the context of wider energy research.

Nuclear fission is a mature technology that has been widely deployed worldwide. The chief scientific adviser's high-level group on energy research, development and demonstration is looking closely at energy research across the board in the run-up to the next Government spending round. It aims to achieve a co-ordinated approach to energy research across government and, of course, the research councils.

In addition, a new UK energy research centre will be established later this year. It will provide leadership and energy research and assist in giving coherence to the UK energy research agenda. It will have responsibility for establishing and co-ordinating a network across the broad spectrum of the energy research community of environmental engineering and economic and social scientists. It will act as the hub of the national energy research network which will link to other centres of excellence.

I turn to BNFL and its research capacity. We should not forget that BNFL's R&D currently employs around 1,200 people and has an annual turnover of more than 100 million. Its primary role is to carry out

22 Jan 2004 : Column GC381

essential R&D work to support BNFL's ongoing clean-up and manufacturing activities. It also performs important work for external customers and carries out broader strategic activities that are relevant to keeping open the nuclear option in the UK.

The implementation of the BNFL joint review addressed the future strategy for BNFL's research operation. As I have already indicated, BNFL's existing R&D facilities and a proportion of the associated personnel will remain with the NDA's site licensee companies. Their work will focus on the NDA's decommissioning and clean-up objectives. Beyond that, a new nuclear science and technology service will also be established, initially as a subsidiary of the parent company. It will provide services for the NDA, site licensee companies and third parties on a commercial basis. NSTS will also be a potential resource for research into broader strategic projects in the nuclear field. Those arrangements are consistent with the Government's policies on new build and keeping the nuclear option open.

Finally, notwithstanding my earlier comments, the NDA plays a supporting role in this area. In Clause 10(2) we have allowed the NDA to allow its research facilities to be used by others for any purpose—which could include NSTS, if it wanted to make use of the facilities. Indeed, we expect the NDA to make its research facilities available. In operating those facilities, the NDA has a duty to act in a manner that it considers most beneficial to the public.

Regarding the spare capacity of research facilities, which current usage indicates it has, the NDA will be expected to maximise revenue from third parties for the use of the facilities. That would also contribute to the preservation of the nuclear skills base that might be required for future decommissioning.

I turn finally—

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page