Skip to main content

Anglo-French Nuclear Co-operation

Volume 474: debated on Thursday 3 April 2008

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

At the Anglo-French summit last week, in order to improve the speed and effectiveness of nuclear development projects, our national regulators agreed to establish a joint project approach to the regulation of the European pressurised water reactor should it proceed to the next stage of generic design assessment. The project will include ways of dividing up assessment work on specific aspects of the design, sharing experience and technical findings from their safety and security assessments, and looking for opportunities for further staff exchanges.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for providing that level of detail. It has been difficult to obtain a copy of what was agreed, so will he lay a copy of that and any other details in the Library of the House for further study? May I seek his reassurance that, welcome as co-operation with the French is in advancing the cause of new nuclear reactors in this country, the agreement in no way rules out others, such as Toshiba Westinghouse, playing their part in expanding new nuclear capacity, both in the reactor design and the provision of fuel manufactured in the United Kingdom?

I will certainly ensure that there is a proper statement for the right hon. Gentleman and others who are interested to peruse. He is perfectly right to say that the UK Government are giving active consideration to other technologies and designs for new nuclear reactors. The agreement that we have made in relation to regulatory co-operation with the French authorities is a perfectly sensible one and I hope that it will shorten the time required for the important reactor assessment work, but we are also looking at other designs, and the agreement does not exclude proper consideration of other technologies.

In this brave new world that our Prime Minister and the French President have been fashioning, have they taken account of the full commercial cost of decommissioning and nuclear waste disposal? A report published by Ian Jackson just a few days ago estimated that unless the charges to the new nuclear station operators are kept at about 10 per cent. or less of the full commercial cost being charged to external and foreign disposers now, the whole project will be imperilled and we shall be adding yet further to the £73 billion national cost of cleaning up existing waste. That is not a very impressive equation, is it?

The Government are looking at and taking advice on a variety of different sources, as one would imagine, but it is important, as we have always made clear both in the White Paper and other ministerial statements, that we expect the operators of any new nuclear plants to meet the full commercial costs of decommissioning and waste disposal. Dr. Tim Stone, my principal adviser on the matter, is in consultation with the potential developers as we speak, a document has been published and the process is full, transparent and open. We are building a proper margin into the fixed price for waste disposal and decommissioning to ensure that the taxpayer does not meet any residual liabilities, and it is important that we are all clear that we should proceed with new nuclear development in the UK on that basis.

The Government claim 100,000 new jobs from new nuclear, presumably some of them British. Will the Secretary of State place in the Library a copy of the detailed analysis on which he bases that number, and will he undertake a similar analysis of quite how many more new jobs could be created from a credible renewables and energy efficiency strategy?

The hon. Gentleman and others want to present the argument as a choice between nuclear and renewables. My firm belief is that we should do both. Doing both will create significant economic and energy gains for the United Kingdom. I am happy to explain to the hon. Gentleman in more detail the numbers that he cited. However, in relation to renewables, there is a significant opportunity for significant engineering jobs as well. We should proceed along both tracks, not just one. If we can do that sensibly—and I think that we can—our people can look forward to a new generation of green-collar jobs that will provide an important opportunity for hundreds of thousands of British workers and their families to enjoy a prosperous future. We should embrace that.

Whatever the Secretary of State’s plans for a new generation of Anglo-French nuclear plants, he will be aware that a majority in the Scottish Parliament, including many from his own party, are thoroughly opposed to new nuclear plants. Will he take this opportunity to deny weekend reports that he is seeking to remove the Scottish Parliament’s planning powers in respect of nuclear stations?

I am not going to comment on inaccurate and ridiculous press comment. In relation to nuclear power, we have to think seriously about energy interdependence within the United Kingdom. My concern about the stance taken by the hon. Gentleman and his party is that there is a real danger that that interdependence will be compromised. It is one thing for Scottish National party politicians to strut around with their rhetoric about nuclear, but another for them to continue, at the same time, to rely on nuclear power generated in the United Kingdom.

Further to the Secretary of State’s answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), why has it taken until now for the Government suddenly to wake up to the fact that we should be co-operating with France over nuclear power? In 2005, for example, the Italians took a 12.5 per cent. stake in a major nuclear power plant right on the Normandy coast, our nearest geographical point in France. Is it not the case that over 10 years, the Government have been very indolent in planning for our nuclear power decommissioning and left the UK very exposed, given the length of time that it will take to build a new nuclear power station?

There has been significant co-operation for many years between French and UK regulatory authorities. What I announced today, and what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agreed with the President of France, Monsieur Sarkozy, was an acceleration of that programme, not its beginning.

On the hon. Gentleman’s wider point on nuclear matters, I must say that it is pretty tongue-in-cheek of him to come here and complain about dilatoriness in relation to nuclear power; I have counted four different policy changes on nuclear from the Conservative party in the past six months.

Order. I like to give the Secretary of State a little leeway, but we should now get back to ministerial replies.