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The Duke of Montrose: My Lords, it is a daunting task to follow such a knowledgeable speech as we have just had from the noble Lord, Lord Woolmer of Leeds, but I must thank my noble friend Lord Jenkin for giving us such an early opportunity to address the consultation paper on such an important subject.

The paper sets two very demanding criteria: that we should secure energy that is not only clean but affordable. When the Minister launched the consultation in a Written Statement to the House on 23 January, he drew it to our attention that the review was considering both supply and demand. There is very little in the consultation that would let us know what the Government consider will be the demand in 2012 or 2020, two of the first years in which they have undertakings as to what percentage of total generation should come from renewable resources. In the review itself we are offered only a black-line graph in chart 13, which is supposed to indicate what gas consumption might amount to. Surely for an agency that is responsible for energy supply, there must be some working guide that would at least show the area in which the Government hope that demand will rest.

The year 2020 is of particular relevance to today's discussion because by then, we are told, nuclear generation capacity will have fallen from the current 22 per cent to 7 per cent of our electricity output without any further plant refurbishment projects. If one considered Scotland on its own, the future would look even more serious, as currently 39 per cent of Scotland's electricity comes from nuclear and almost half of that will have disappeared. We have heard of an extension
 
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programme that has been launched for the Dungeness B generating station. In an article in the Scotsman on 9 December, British Energy was quoted as saying that it is technically possible to keep the Scottish facilities running for much longer than their current expiry date. Can the Minister tell the House whether that approach is considered a cost-effective option and whether it is likely to result in any major increase in radioactive waste, compared to scrapping and building some of the more modern, efficient nuclear reactors?

Apart from the comment made a few minutes ago by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, I have regarded the cleanest energy—though not yet the cheapest energy—as still to be found in renewables. As a rural land manager, almost every aspect of this is liable to excite my personal interest. The Government are obviously counting quite heavily on the potential for obtaining energy from renewables in Scotland. The Scottish Executive have kindly obliged by setting themselves the renewables obligation target of 40 per cent by 2020; that has triggered the need for refurbishment of the Scottish grid system, including the interconnector with England, for which Ofgem has announced a £650 million programme. That is obviously just an initial cost before trying to equate the cost of connecting all the individual generating sites.

That and any future development along these lines should surely be weighed up against another source mentioned in the consultation document, micro-generation. I was interested to see that the figure produced by the Energy Saving Trust for the potential of micro-wind was 15 gigawatts. This, almost by definition, can be put in place with much less demand for long-distance conductors, and the output figure quoted is almost on a par with atomic power stations. I am sure the House is looking forward to seeing the Government's microgeneration strategy, which I believe they are required to produce by April this year under the terms of the Energy Act 2004. Will the Minister tell us if they expect to adhere to this timescale and whether they can include in the proposals some weighting for the fact that it will be less reliant on new infrastructure, such as I have described?

In the document on which this debate is based, it strikes me how little mention is made of securing energy from biomass. Perhaps that is just unfortunate timing, as the review was produced in 2005, but the Minister will be aware that there was a major report by the biomass task force in October 2005. Is the review's scant mention of this subject a reflection of the Government's opinion that there is not much future in biomass as a source of energy and of reducing CO2 emissions?

The biomass task force report opens up some interesting possibilities, with its estimates that renewables should be able to increase the proportion they contribute to the heat market from 1 per cent to 3 per cent by 2010. It also estimates that 1 million hectares of land could be available for non-food crop production with a potential yield of 8 million tonnes of energy crops, though it will be interesting to see if this proposal meets with less public outcry than other
 
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forms of energy production and distribution. Not far away from where I live, there was a proposal to put a woodchip-fired heat production unit on the island of Arran, which was turned down because the locals felt that pollution levels might be too great. The report also estimates that between 7 million and 9 million tonnes go to waste. Admittedly they see capital costs as the current economic stumbling block to making use of these assets, and the answer they favour is an appeal to the Government for capital grants. While both biomass heating and atomic energy can offer savings in CO2 production, they both suffer from being unable to benefit from the price premium available under the renewables obligation. Again, though, both can be seen as more economically justifiable as we enter a period of higher fossil fuel prices and insecurity of supply.

To pick up on the final point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham, we are seeing an interesting parallel these days between how we use resources and manage our occupation of the planet. Here in the south-east you have an imminent water shortage. Water companies are beginning to offer warnings about measures to overcome shortages. Perhaps soon they or the Government will have to issue instructions to every household. From previous experience, there is likely to be quite a generous and patriotic response. As a study in 2000 showed, British households have the fourth greatest demand for energy in Europe and the fourth greatest energy consumption per car. Should Her Majesty's Government not be doing more to focus the attention of the ordinary man in the street on the measures he personally can take to use less, and therefore cheaper and cleaner, energy?

2.53 pm

Lord Taverne: My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, on his magisterial maiden speech. I agreed with almost every word of it, as I did with the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin. There are two reasons for pressing for nuclear power: security of supply and the need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. It is fair to say that, on recent developments, the second seems to have become more urgent. I do not regard the case that this is the most serious problem we face as conclusive, but it is certainly quite strong.

It is significant that so far in the debate no one has spoken out against nuclear power. Renewables obviously have a role to play and many people favour them, but they are, with one exception, still a long way off. The one exception, which is perhaps environmentally the least attractive and the least efficient, is perversely the one that the Government have favoured most; namely, wind power. The best bet for the next two or three decades seems to be nuclear. We do not have to design a new form of power station—feasible designs are available. If we press on, it should be feasible to build one within the next 10 years. I meant to look the figures up beforehand but I believe that either Japan or South Korea has built a station in fewer than six years.
 
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I am worried by the opposition to nuclear power. Much of it is emotive and based on misinformation, whereas the issue should be judged on evidence. Unfortunately, some of the NGOs that are most strongly opposed to nuclear power are somewhat cavalier in their treatment of evidence. One argument against nuclear power which has not been mentioned is that it will increase the danger of nuclear proliferation. That may be true in the case of Iran and North Korea but it cannot conceivably apply to the United Kingdom, Europe, the United States or, for that matter, China or India. Let me put the question this way: if we do not go for nuclear power, does that mean that Mr Ahmadinejad will then say, "Ah, well, in that case we are not going to go ahead either with our development of nuclear military power"? Of course, the argument is absurd.

Next there is the question of terrorism. One cannot entirely dismiss that. It is sometimes asked, "What would happen if you flew a 747 into a nuclear power station"? The concrete casing round the reactor would simply mean that the plane would explode. It is suggested that one might fly a 747 into the storage facilities at Sellafield. They exist anyway but the interesting thing about future nuclear power stations is that they will generate very little waste. Indeed, a year's production of waste could be contained within one cubic metre or, as somebody put it, inside a taxi. However, I do not see a 747 being flown into a taxi.

The next argument is often regarded as one of the major objections to nuclear power—the disposal of waste. CoRWM was set up to look at that although, given its terms of reference, it seems mainly a delaying device on the part of the Government. The Sense About Science organisation of which I am chairman has a panel of experts. Interestingly, they are unanimous that there is no particular problem about the disposal of waste—that is, deep geological disposal. Indeed, the Royal Society put it slightly more cautiously when it stated:

It was put rather more decisively by the Geological Society of London, which stated:

That is a solution which Finland and Sweden are going for, and which Japan and Canada are likely to go for. I do not believe there is any doubt that CoRWM will recommend that when it is in a more sensible frame of mind.

Then there is the argument about safety. This is often used as an argument against nuclear power when it is one of the strong arguments in favour of it. In 2001 the Paul Scherrer Institut—a Swiss body—did a comparison of the number of deaths per million million watts of electricity per year. Its findings were as follows: gas, 85; coal, 342; hydro-electric power, 883; and nuclear power, eight. People are scared of radiation. James Lovelock went to Sellafield with a Geiger counter and was rather surprised to find that the level of radiation there was very much less than in
 
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his native Cornwall, which comes in the form of radon produced naturally. Indeed, there is some evidence that small doses of radiation can be good for you.

Chernobyl is the greatest disaster one can imagine. In that case people disabled the safety mechanisms and then increased the heating. It was a badly built, incompetently managed station. It was a disaster, and it led to 51 deaths. None of the prognostications about terrible consequences have been realised. As far as safety is concerned, there is no evidence against nuclear power. That leaves the question of cost. Several speakers have recommended, and I completely agree, that the right policy is to create the right long-term framework with incentives for the reduction of carbon dioxide and then to let the market decide. What are completely irrelevant, although often cited, are the huge costs of decommissioning, cited sometimes at £50 billion or more. Decommissioning has to take place anyway. It is not part of the cost of building new nuclear power stations which, as many speakers have pointed out, create so very much less waste than they did in the past.

The Royal Academy of Engineering, after very careful consideration, came to the conclusion that nuclear power was only just more costly than gas—though since then the price of gas has gone up. Taking into account the need to back up wind power with fossil fuel power stations—because wind power is effective only part of the time—if you compare nuclear with wind power, it is two and half to three times less costly. It seems to me that there is a very strong case indeed for nuclear power and it should be judged on the basis of evidence, not on misinformed scare stories.

3.01 pm


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