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Lord Flowers: My Lords, I greatly enjoyed the two maiden speeches that we have had today and I hope, and expect, to hear from the two noble Lords frequently and soon. I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, for giving us this opportunity to speak about the merits of nuclear power and our urgent need of it in the circumstances of the 21st century.

I want to contribute to this timely debate by saying a few words about the radioactive waste inevitably generated by the nuclear process, which has to be isolated from man and the environment for thousands of years. It is a subject on which I last spoke in your Lordships' House just over a year ago in the debate initiated by my noble friend Lord Oxburgh on the management of nuclear waste. On that occasion, I argued that in today's circumstances the regrettable absence of a long-term nuclear waste strategy in this country should not in itself, contrary to current policy, prevent the Government and the nuclear industry revealing, and getting approved and agreed, their plans for the next phase of development of nuclear power.

In this country, the high-level waste is increasingly being stored in vitrified form, safe for many decades to come—a third of it is already vitrified. Other wastes are likewise being treated appropriately. The issue of how and where their eventual disposal is to take place—presumably in deep geological formations, which, as has already been said, has been demonstrated abroad, especially in Finland—is consequently now more a political than a technological matter. We can give ourselves a little time finally to settle precisely how and where in this country we shall dispose of nuclear waste, knowing that it has already been shown to be technologically feasible elsewhere. We have the geologists and the engineers; we can do it too.

That is not to say, however, that we can now all heave a gigantic sigh of relief, thinking that the waste management problem has gone away. It has not. It is very much with us still. The Committee on Radioactive Waste Management is trying to make progress with it and I hope that it succeeds. For there is no doubt in my mind that the people of this country will not approve the future development of nuclear power, desirable as it may be for other reasons, until they come to believe that a strategy for the safe, long-term disposal of nuclear wastes is at least within reach. They will expect that a definitive strategy can be announced and agreed by government, Parliament and the nuclear industry, certainly before the first new stations are commissioned and are therefore producing their own waste.
 
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Approval in principle of the preferred method and site, or sites, of waste disposal must not be left until some indefinite future date. Ideally, it should be announced no later than the announcement of a new nuclear build. That is still possible—just. But between the announcement of a new build and the commissioning of the first new reactor, there will be a period of about 10 years. During that time, the waste strategy must be agreed and promulgated, and the sooner the better. This obviously implies a degree of public trust in the Government's competence and integrity, and a great deal of hard work.

There are, as the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, has reminded us, some people who will always say "Nuclear power? Over my dead body!"—oblivious, perhaps, of the fact that we burn nuclear-generated electricity every day of the week; some produced here and some imported from France, where over three-quarters of their electricity is nuclear. But I believe that most people in this country are more sensible, and will sensibly accept a compromise of timing such as I have proposed, given all the weighty reasons—global warming, vulnerable gas supplies, severe practical limitations on renewable generation and soaring energy prices—that now exist for a new phase of development of nuclear power. There is a safe window of opportunity in which to decide on disposal.

I am trying to help the Government in this contentious matter. I shall be very interested in the Minister's response.

3.22 pm

Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, I should perhaps first declare an interest as patron of Trade Unions for Safe Nuclear Energy and point out in that connection that the TUC and CBI are both—and have been for a long time—in favour of a balanced energy policy. For the TUC, this policy has been able to withstand many challenges, even that of Chernobyl in April 1986.

I remember that at a TUC review at the time, and on earlier occasions, I had conversations with the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham of Felling, and visited his most beautiful constituency on several occasions. I remember walking around Wastwater; it could not be a more joyous place to visit.

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, on a predictably polished, level-headed and far-sighted contribution. We look forward to many similar contributions—perhaps on easier subjects, like transport policy and congestion charging or, as he has experience of Zambia, on Africa. There is no shortage of scope.

The general perception of the public is without doubt that it is the Government's duty to keep the lights on, as the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding—who we congratulate on this debate—will ruefully remember from 1973-74. It is not the perception of the public that it is the Government's duty to ensure an adequate supply of dog biscuits. It is worth seeing why it is necessary to say what the limitations of market forces are in this debate. There is certainly no wider social market externality that I can see in the supply of
 
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dog biscuits. But the question of what a market is, and what comes into it, is central to the arithmetic of the different forms of energy. I congratulate the DTI on its transparent approach to this and gently remind the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, that the Labour Party's precept is "softly, softly, catchee monkey".

Another factor is that a lot of the long-term calculations in the equation of generating costs per kilowatt hour were done at a time when gas was 23p per therm. The last time I looked, it was 55p per therm. One does not change the arithmetic every time the spot price changes, but it is self-evident that the long-term change in gas and oil prices will change the balance of advantage in the arithmetic towards nuclear.

To go back to dog biscuits versus keeping the lights on and why market forces have to be seen in a different light, we all recognise that there must be an energy policy. We need to consider the market externalities and how we bring in such questions as carbon dioxide. I have read a lot of the Green lobby's submissions, and it has been a little inconsistent. It thinks that energy policy should be market forces, and nothing but market forces—of course we say, "no subsidies"—but in other respects it demands as a central item of policy that all the environmental externalities be brought within "market forces". Our Kyoto obligations should also be brought in as market externalities in terms of "market forces". I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, and other noble Lords who have called for the renewables obligation to be drawn to the attention of the Treasury as something worthy of applying to the nuclear industry.

As the noble Lord, Lord Woolmer, said, a 60 per cent reduction in carbon in 50 years is, if not almost unbelievable, certainly getting on that way. It is difficult to see how we are going to do it. I was a member of the round table on sustainable development after Rio de Janeiro in 1991 and a member of the government delegation to the Earth Summit. I was on a committee with the Chinese and others and at that time we were saying that the Chinese and the Indians had to be brought on board. This is not a question of saying to the Chinese and Indians, "Stop your economy growing. Pull up the drawbridge". We must put a lot more leverage on the Americans, along with the Russians. President Putin is a very far-sighted player of this poker game, which is why he, with a cold Siberia in his backyard, wants to be part of Kyoto. He knows the name of the game.

The question is not whether we develop the nuclear industry, but whether we shut it down because if we do nothing, we are shutting it down. At the moment, it supplies 20 per cent of our needs; in 2020, it will be seven per cent; and 75 per cent of all electricity generating sets, whether coal, nuclear, gas or oil, must be replaced within 10 years. I have some sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, in calling for a lot more political courage in telling people that it will not be possible to blow London up as if it had been struck by an atomic bomb. Although public opinion is moving in a more neutral to positive direction, it is the responsibility of my friends in the Government to say that the worst case scenario is something a little like
 
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Chernobyl and that all the ideas about the genetic effects of low levels of radioactivity are scientifically unfounded.

The other public opinion point which has to be brought out much more into the open is about legacy waste and, indeed, military waste. We all know how the nuclear industry started, but it is there now and I support its development. But even creating 40 per cent, not just 20 per cent, of electricity by nuclear is only a blip on the amount of legacy waste that we have to deal with. The ethical questions raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham cut both ways. We have ethical consideration about CO2 for the next thousand years.

In conclusion, I remind the House that at the end of the Callaghan government, of whom my noble friend Lord Cunningham was a member, we had an energy commission with all the stakeholders. It is a pity we do not have such a body now. We need to secure the maximum amount of stakeholders within the big tent, and I hope that the Government will appreciate that that is the way to maintain a consensus as we go along.

3.31 pm


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