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Lord Tombs: My Lords, the Minister has succeeded in provoking me. My point about procrastination does not in fact relate solely to the question of building new nuclear power stations. It is seven years since the committee of this House reported on disposal of nuclear waste, which is a problem that has been with us for a very long time, and the Government's action has been to appoint one consultative committee after another for the past seven years. If that is not procrastination, I do not know what is.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, it is also a reflection of what we all recognise is the most difficult of all issues and, if I dare say so to noble Lords, of political issues. What was the first issue that the previous administration faced when they looked at the question whether they could find a site for nuclear waste? One of the most promising sites was in a constituency that happened at the time to be represented by the government Chief Whip. It caused an intake of breath—and the intake of breath and the pause lasted years. Identifying sites for nuclear waste is a very acute political problem, and there is no point in noble Lords simply bringing to this debate expertise about the technology that is required and the progress that could be made with regard to nuclear. I recognise how valid those points are, and how much today's debate would have enlightened the nation about the strengths of the nuclear case, but I also enter the obvious caveat that it is not easy to persuade the British people that the disposal of nuclear is not a major problem. Unless we are secure about that issue, we cannot expect the nation to regard the proposal to extend the nuclear industry in anything else except hostile terms.

The committee will be reporting this year. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, asked whether there would be a timetable consequent upon its report. I cannot give him that assurance. We need to look at the nature of the report and then evaluate how we move on from there. But the Government's review on energy issues will be related to the crucial report of the committee on radioactive waste management, and, as I say, there is no question of us being able to evaluate nuclear in the way that has been sought on many sides of the House today with regard to its potential merits and contribution, unless we have effective and convincing answers to questions about nuclear waste.

The review does not in any way change the principles on which we are conducting our energy policy, but the situation has moved on since we set up our energy policies in 2003, in particular the question of changes in our North Sea production. There have also been changes beyond our borders. We have seen an illiberal process in the European Community, to which the Government have reacted sharply. We expect and demand that the EC makes more rapid progress than in the immediate recent past. That has been a factor with regard to the supplies of gas to this country and the price that has been charged
 
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for them—again, issues that were referred to in the debate. We also have to take account of the substantially increased demands upon energy in global terms with the massive increase in the economies of China and Russia. So this review is not concerned with the immediate reaction to this winter, but with evaluating major features in the overall climate with regard to energy.

A number of noble Lords have spoken with considerable conviction and passion about the role of the nuclear industry, identified the inhibitions and limitations upon it in the past and expect to see those removed in the future. But we do not expect the review to produce easy yes and no answers for British energy. We all recognise that, even if changes occur with regard to component parts of the supply, we are bound to be dependent for as far any of us can expect to see on a mix of energy supplies, of which some will certainly be from outside the United Kingdom. With the percentage of gas we are reliant upon at present and our own limited resources in the North Sea, we cannot hope to see our situation transformed in the short term, so it is our role to guarantee security of supply and have the necessary investment to make possible a range of potential suppliers of imported gas.

I stress that the review will take that very much into account. However, nuclear energy is already part of the mix. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, emphasised in his opening remarks that unless action was taken, the part of the mix that nuclear energy occupies would decrease over time. He advocated that it ought to be sustained or even increased. Even by 2020, around 7 per cent of our electricity will still come from nuclear if we do nothing with regard to new build. New build would not require fresh legislation but it would require the approval of the Secretary of State. I cannot imagine that being granted without substantial public interest being reflected in very intensive debates in both Houses of Parliament. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, that legislation would not be required for an expansion of the nuclear industry.

I was grateful for the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Flowers. I believe that he was one of the first speakers to mention the important issues concerning nuclear waste. It is crucial for public opinion to be reassured on that point. It is one of the biggest problems and one that we all know has been considered by the committee for a number of years. It will be settled this year.

I thank the right reverend Prelate for his contribution. He mentioned the matter that we also need to address—whether the expansion of our energy demands is exponential or whether changes in public attitude will reduce some of the pressures in that area. None of us is facile about this issue. We all know that energy demands are generated in a growth economy. I was grateful to the right reverend Prelate for introducing that element as he put the consumption of electricity into context.

I reassure the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, with regard to Scottish nuclear power that decisions on power stations are commercial decisions taken by the generator concerned. It is not a question of
 
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government constraints in that regard or of political constraints but it is very much a question of economic constraints. Noble Lords identified that difficulty for the industry. If the review concluded that we had significantly to increase nuclear generation, we would require nuclear build. To get it we would need to change the terms of trade for the industry for such construction. Economic factors have been accurately identified that militate against the industry. I believe that my noble friend Lord Woolmer was the first to mention that but other speakers added that a level playing field would be needed.

Of course, I recognise the anxieties of the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, about aspects of the nuclear issue. He made clear where his party stands on that issue. It has its representative role in British public opinion and national life. If the case is to be made for nuclear expansion, that opinion needs to be confronted. Noble Lords advocating the case of nuclear in this debate were a little prone to being somewhat dismissive of the opposition to it that exists. It is easy to destroy the scepticism with regard to nuclear, but that scepticism is founded on considerable principles and experience of problems in the not-too-distant past. That is why we had substantial areas to cover in managing changes in public attitude.

I am not in any way, shape or form minimising the challenge that still is set before the Government on energy policy. I emphasise that the policy is on very sound foundations at present. I hear from time to time, and I recognise, that the margin of safety of supply in winters in recent years has been much lower than in the more generous past. It is also the case that the lights have not looked like going out, nor will they go out as long as a careful, considerate and intelligent government pursue policies based on a careful evaluation of the facts, which is exactly what the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, enjoined us to do.

We all owe the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, a particular debt with regard to the debate, which he initiated on this most timely occasion, and I will respond to his questions. He asked what the Government are doing to strengthen the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, which is already below establishment. I emphasise that the HSE and the inspectorate continue to review the complement to meet the changing business environment, which is part of the programme of continuous improvement. The inspectorate is taking steps to increase its productivity by better targeting inspectors' activity in securing improvements in nuclear safety. He asked me whether the NDA strategy document is based on the assumption that all nuclear activity is to cease and all sites are to be returned to green-field status. That is not entirely true. Of course, the NDA is responsible for the decommissioning of the United Kingdom civil nuclear legacy, which is made up of the facilities created some 30 or 40 years ago. That legacy needs to be dealt with irrespective of whatever decisions are taken on new nuclear build. We
 
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need to be able to show that we can deal with clean up and clear up as well as, potentially, extension and advance.

I emphasise that the Thorp plant will not restart until the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate is satisfied that it is safe to do so. I understand that the operator of the site, British Nuclear Group, hopes, subject to the agreement of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and the nuclear inspectorate, to be ready to restart the plant this summer. The noble Lord had a number of other cogent points that we all respected in his opening contribution, and those points were reinforced during the debate. I hope that I have met his points in my general response. I apologise to those noble Lords whose immediate points I have not directly responded to. The House will recognise that limiting a speech to just over 20 minutes would tax the abilities of almost anyone to respond adequately to such an extensive and well-informed debate; least of all me. I hope that if noble Lords have outstanding issues they will speak to me, and I will write to them on those further points.

4.24 pm


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