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Nuclear Power

Volume 448: debated on Thursday 6 July 2006

The outcome of the energy review with regard to nuclear power has hardly been the best kept secret in Whitehall. I assure the Secretary of State of the support of many Opposition Members during the difficult months ahead. However, in the light of the delays identified by the Environmental Audit Committee in delivering a new generation of power stations in the United Kingdom, does the right hon. Gentleman think we need to review the planning system in that regard before we embark on that route?

Yes, I do, and I have said so on many occasions. The planning system is a major obstacle to new energy generation, from whatever source. The right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) has highlighted some of the problems. Of course, we must allow people to make their voices heard if they object to a particular proposal, but it is not in the national interest that applications, many of them for wind farms, are being held up for years. Bearing in mind that possibly a third of our generating capacity needs to be replaced in the next 20 years, the planning system needs to be overhauled.

Given the Prime Minister’s confirmation to the Liaison Committee on Tuesday that the Government have decided that there will be a new generation of nuclear power stations in the United Kingdom, can the Secretary of State tell us today, please, how many the Government intend to build and at what cost, and what the time scale will be?

The Government do not intend to build any generating plant of any description. The hon. Gentleman will have to wait until I publish the conclusions of the energy review. I think, though—following on from the earlier exchanges—that a mix of generating capacity has served this country well over the past 40 or 50 years, and I believe that a mix will continue to serve it well in the future.

In answer to the original question, the Secretary of State recognised that there is a problem with the planning system, but he did not offer a solution. It took 20 years to get a spark out of Dungeness nuclear reactor. What does the right hon. Gentleman intend to do to ensure that that does not occur again?

I take the hon. Gentleman’s contribution to mean that he would support a reform of the planning laws. The last time the Government tried to reform the planning legislation, they ran into stiff opposition from the Conservatives and a great deal of opposition in the other place. I hope that this time, if we can get something approaching a consensus on how we generate our electricity, we can also get a consensus on how we achieve that. When I saw that the Leader of the Opposition had described wind farms as bird mincers, I began to wonder whether he was prepared to back his words on making sure that we have greener energy generation with the necessary action to ensure that we deliver it.

Does the Secretary of State agree that nuclear power is desirable in order to guarantee security of energy supply and also to meet our environmental obligations in the future? May I urge him to stop dithering on the issue and face down those on the left wing of his own party, who want to put dogma before the best interests of the country?

The hon. Gentleman might want to have a word with his own Front-Bench team. The shadow Secretary of State made it clear earlier this year that he was hostile to nuclear power. We will make our proposals fairly shortly, but the Conservative party had better decide whether it is for or against nuclear power.

I declare a registered interest. If the decision taken in due course is to replace some of our nuclear power stations as well to expand alternative technologies, we will clearly need expertise to take forward these complex sites. What reassurances has my right hon. Friend received from his colleagues in the Department for Education and Skills that efforts are being made now to develop such skills, particularly across the engineering disciplines which will be vital?

I agree with my hon. Friend. Right across the whole energy sector, there is a continuing need to make sure that we have people with the necessary skills and expertise. That does not apply just to nuclear. It applies to the oil and gas industry, for example, and to renewables—where, incidentally, we have an opportunity to show a lead, particularly in the development of wave and marine generation, which is underdeveloped so far. My hon. Friend is right: it is important that we build and maintain our expertise in that regard.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that there have been complaints from British manufacturing industry that it is the victim of an energy supply market, particularly in Europe, whose failure to liberalise has been a factor in increased prices in the UK? Does he agree that in order to reduce the vulnerability of British manufacturing industry, it is essential to have a varied range of sources of future energy supply, including nuclear energy?

I agree with my hon. Friend. We face two big challenges: first, we need to tackle climate change; secondly, we need to address the issue of security of supply. As the House knows, the supply of gas into this country was very tight last winter, and this winter will be difficult, too. Yesterday, I met representatives from the generating industry, the regulators and, importantly, consumers of electricity. We must ensure that we have adequate infrastructure to get the right amount of gas into this country.

My hon. Friend is right about Europe. People talk about the need to have a liberalised energy market in Europe, but there are far too many member states where that is simply not happening. We fully support the Commission’s efforts to make sure that that market works.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that coal will make a major contribution to the energy review. In my constituency, it is estimated that some 500 million tonnes of coal have still not been mined, and my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) has told me that more than 700 million tonnes of coal have still not been mined in his county. Does my right hon. Friend agree that clean coal can make a major contribution and that we should tap into that resource as part of the review?

My hon. Friend has made a good point. Coal is an important part of the generating mix. Scottish Power owns the Longannet power station, which is in sight of his constituency, and earlier this year it announced plans to install equipment to burn cleaner coal, and it is co-firing biomass there, too. We want to encourage developments and technologies such as carbon capture, which will be important not only in this country, but across the world.

The Secretary of State’s Department has been looking at the economics of energy in detail for some time. Will the right hon. Gentleman name any British nuclear power station that has been built on time, on budget and without any taxpayer or consumer subsidy? If he cannot do so, perhaps he will name such a nuclear power station somewhere in the world at any time, ever.

The hon. Gentleman has made a good point—although I do not think that he intended to make it—about the time that it takes to build any sort of power station, let alone a nuclear power station, which is partly due to planning difficulties. I commend what the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), who is sitting behind him, said earlier this year:

“Dogma about new nuclear power is unhelpful, for and against.”

He should reflect on those words when he responds to my proposals in due course.

Any company could today apply to build a new nuclear power station. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that the Government will not offer any subsidies whatsoever for the construction or operation of new nuclear power stations either directly in cash or indirectly through subsidies for waste disposal, guaranteed prices, guaranteed purchases, insurance liability cover and so forth?

I can see that my hon. Friend is anxious to get more nuclear plant built at the earliest possible opportunity. We will set out our position when I publish the conclusions of the energy review. In the meantime, we have made it clear that it is for the private sector to come forward with proposals in relation to any generating capacity, and we expect it to meet the cost.

DTI officials recently confirmed to the Public Accounts Committee that the DTI has ignored the Treasury’s green book in calculating nuclear decommissioning costs. Why?

I dare say that officials in my Department say many things. I am not aware of exactly what was said, but I shall check and then write to the hon. Gentleman.

Earlier, the Secretary of State said that there is an urgent need to take action to save the planet, and we clearly agree with him. When we asked about the time scale, however, he said that he would “announce it shortly”. What is the big secret about announcing the timetable for the review? The Prime Minister has given the lead, and we know what he thinks about nuclear power. Is it not time for the Secretary of State to tell us when the statement on the energy review will be made?

It is now three months since the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management said that Britain needed to find a long-term solution to the disposal of nuclear waste. Does the Secretary of State accept that regardless of whether new nuclear power stations are being built, we cannot go on drifting without that issue being addressed? What assessment has he made of the approaches being taken in other countries, particularly in Scandinavia, that are developing deep burial facilities and where, crucially, the open approach that they have taken means that they have managed to carry public opinion with them?

The hon. Gentleman is right that for many years, under successive Governments, there has been much debate on what we should do with this waste, which is with us regardless of what we do in terms of any new generation of nuclear power. CoRWM published its interim findings in April, and I understand that it will publish its final conclusions this month. It suggested a course of action in its interim statement, and I will respond to that when I deal with the energy review as a whole.