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Nuclear Power

Volume 467: debated on Thursday 22 November 2007

The Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform
(Mr. John Hutton)

We have consulted on the basis of a preliminary view that it is in the public interest to give private sector energy companies the option of investing in new nuclear power stations. The consultation ended in October, and I shall announce a final decision early in the new year.

But does the Secretary of State not accept that unless he moves quickly to announce the decision to go ahead with the new generation of nuclear power stations, energy companies will have no alternative but to invest in new conventional power if they are to fill the coming energy gap? Does he accept that there is growing public support for investment in new nuclear power, not least in communities such as Bradwell-on-Sea in my constituency, which have had long experience of living next door to a nuclear power station?

I am genuinely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those comments, and I agree with him about the need to make the decision as quickly as possible. The consultation shows that his view of where public opinion is moving is also mine. There is little doubt that people are concerned about both the challenge of climate change and the importance of future energy security for the UK. I hope that he will exert his best endeavours to persuade his right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition that nuclear power should not be a last resort.

Instead of building nuclear power stations, there is the possibility of using generating barrages—particularly in the Severn, but there are many other strongly tidal estuaries around Britain’s coast that could equally well provide power generation. Will my right hon. Friend look at those first, before he considers nuclear power?

I agree with my hon. Friend in many respects, and my view is that we must look at all these things simultaneously. The clock is ticking. Time is running out. We do not have the luxury of sitting back, luxuriating, to consider the various options. We have now got to make decisions. On renewable energy, I agree strongly with my hon. Friend that we should explore, as aggressively as we can, sources of tidal power. We have committed ourselves to undertake a series of feasibility studies that will extend not just to the Severn barrage, but to other projects across the UK that have potential, and I hope that he will support us in getting on with that as quickly as possible.

When the Secretary of State gave his very persuasive evidence to the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee on Tuesday, he indicated that planning permission exists for some 30 GW of generating capacity—I think that he was indicating section 36 consent—a very large proportion of which will not be constructed in practice. Is his Department’s view that there is a very large generating gap for which new nuclear, renewable or even conventional generating capacity must be built, and for which consent does not exist currently?

The National Grid produces an annual statement of its assessments of the gap, as the hon. Gentleman describes it, and of what is in the pipeline. Our information is that steps are being taken to ensure that the necessary margin of energy supply will be available to the UK when we need it. I hope that I have made the position clear to him and his Committee, and I thank him for the very nice words that he said at the beginning of his question.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best way to get the long-term investment that we need in both low-carbon and no-carbon energy is to set a high price on carbon? Is it his judgment that the next stage of the European emissions trading scheme will, in fact, enable that price on carbon to be set effectively?

Yes, I agree strongly with my right hon. Friend about the importance of the emissions trading scheme, and I thank her for all the work that she did when she was leading my Department. She did an excellent job. Our aim is to make the scheme the principal mechanism in helping us to meet the challenge of climate change and reduce carbon emissions. I agree with her strongly that the proof of the pudding will be in setting an effective market price for carbon—and that would certainly be higher than it is at the moment.

How do the costs of new nuclear power compare with those of other low-carbon or no-carbon technologies, and what kind of taxpayer guarantee or subsidy would be needed at current carbon prices?

We have published all that information in the energy White Paper, and I am very happy to send it to the right hon. Gentleman. All our work indicates that nuclear electricity will be a very cost-effective form of energy supply for the future. One of the significant challenges that we must also address is that we need our energy to be clean and secure, but the price must be affordable for consumers and businesses. The information is in the public domain; I will happily share it with the right hon. Gentleman, and if he wants to discuss the detail, I look forward to having that discussion with him.

I hear what my right hon. Friend says, but the basic integrity of the industry involves the people who work in it, and there is real concern in the industry about the number of jobs being lost and the increased reliance on contractorisation. Will he meet colleagues in the House who are interested in how we can maintain, and indeed restore, the vitality of the industry, so that we can prevent any future job losses and give the industry a chance in the future?

Yes, I am happy to do that, and to discuss the issues with my hon. Friend. I agree that among the most important assets of the industry are the people, and the skills they represent. If we are going to confirm the preliminary decision, we must make the right decisions to ensure that the industry, going forward, has the right array of skills to do its job properly.