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Nuclear Power

Volume 491: debated on Thursday 23 April 2009

3. What recent assessment he has made of the contribution made by nuclear power to a balanced energy mix; and if he will make a statement. (270300)

In the nuclear White Paper, the Government made clear their view that new nuclear should have a role to play in the UK’s energy mix. Nuclear is a low-carbon energy source that can help address the twin challenges of tackling climate change and ensuring security of energy supply. We are taking active steps to facilitate early deployment of new nuclear build in the UK by increasing certainty for investors and removing unnecessary obstacles.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Rightly, the Government are committed to a low-carbon future. Can he explain how the recent announcement of 11 potential sites for nuclear power stations will contribute to that low-carbon future?

My hon. Friend is right. It was significant that the announcement about the strategic siting assessment and the 11 sites was broadly welcomed. That is a sign of the way in which the debate on nuclear has changed. Many people who once had doubts about nuclear have changed their view in the light of the threat of climate change. The strategic siting assessment is important for taking forward our plans for new nuclear. It will be followed in the autumn by the national policy statement, which will have the strategic sites attached to it. This is genuinely a consultation. There will be a month for the public to register their views, which precedes the formal consultation—a proper 12-week consultation. So we want to listen to people’s views, but broadly the announcement seems to have been welcomed, including by those who live near the sites, which is a positive development for climate change and energy security.

As vice-chairman of the all-party nuclear energy group, I certainly join in welcoming the decision, which is not before time. However, it often takes as long to get planning permission for a new nuclear power station as it takes to build it. Can the Secretary of State reassure me that the Government’s Planning Act 2008 will do what it says on the tin and get planning permission through rapidly and effectively?

I can give the hon. Gentleman that reassurance. It is only regrettable that the Opposition did not think it appropriate to support the Planning Act and its Infrastructure Planning Commission, which is designed precisely to do what he says should be on the tin—to speed up the development of new nuclear. Just to make it clear to the House, the process will involve the publication of a national policy statement in the autumn with the strategic sites attached to it. There will then be a period of consultation—including, I think, with a Select Committee. The plan is then to designate by the spring. So, all being well, we have tackled the big issue around planning and I hope that we have done so in a fair way that gives people a chance to air their views. I am pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman’s support for our plans on planning.

Will the Secretary of State update the House on his plans for the nuclear waste repository? Will he tell us specifically where it is going to be, how much it is going to cost and whether it will be open before the first new nuclear power station is built?

I can update my hon. Friend. We should be honest about this: this is one of the two most difficult issues around nuclear. The other is to reassure people about safety. I can tell him that three councils have come forward with proposals for the site of the repository. Preparing the repository will be a long-term process, but those plans are on track and we are talking to those councils about the kind of financial help that will be required. This is important for existing and new nuclear waste. Another important point is that the cost of decommissioning will be borne by the companies; that is a very important part of the Energy Act 2008.

In answers to parliamentary questions, the Department has made it clear that the office for nuclear development now costs the taxpayer £72 million a year and has more than 60 staff. Answers to similar questions about the office for renewable energy deployment have been much less clear, however. Given the importance of renewables, will the Government reassure the House that the renewables office will be the same size as the nuclear office, if not bigger and better funded? Or is this simply the first concrete example of the Government’s commitment to new nuclear squeezing out resources for renewables?

Normally, the hon. Gentleman and I agree on a lot of issues, but we will have to agree to disagree on this one. In the debate on the low-carbon energy of the future, there is a danger that we might pick and choose between the technologies, when in fact we need all of them. We need renewables, new nuclear and clean fossil fuels. On the question of the size of the new office, I am sure that it will have the quality that it needs. The question about the renewables industry is completely right, and the announcements that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor made yesterday are significant for offshore wind, for the increase in the renewables obligation—which we intend to introduce—and for the funding for renewables. I can also reassure the hon. Gentleman that the office for renewable energy deployment—ORED—will be up and running and will make an important contribution to renewable development.

Following on from that answer, will my right hon. Friend give us the reassurance that microgeneration—particularly at domestic and community level—will form an important part of the mix? Will the same level of effort be put into microgeneration, given that it will surely play an important part in ensuring energy security?

I agree with my hon. Friend about this. Yesterday, the Chancellor made an additional £45 million available for microgeneration, to take us up to the introduction of the feed-in tariff in April 2010 and the renewable heat incentive in April 2011. Those are important steps to help the micro-power industry, from which we have had strong representations. Microgeneration can play an increasingly important role at individual and community level, and I hope that we are now putting in place the mechanisms that will support it.

We agree with the Secretary of State about the role for unsubsidised nuclear alongside renewables and gas and coal with carbon capture in a balanced energy mix, but does he recognise that the energy crunch will be with us by 2016 at the latest, as one third of our existing coal capacity is due to come offline before then, and that because of the Government’s failure to secure investment earlier, most of the new capacity, including all new nuclear, cannot come on-stream until well after that date? Does he understand why so many people believe that the Government’s failure to lead in carbon capture technology, their failure to secure adequate levels of gas storage and their over-reliance on onshore wind at the expense of other forms of renewables all mean that our energy security has been fundamentally compromised—and that without energy security, affordable and clean energy become much harder to achieve as well?

I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman, but it takes a real brass neck to say to us that we should have gone faster with new nuclear, when the Leader of the Opposition was opposing us on new nuclear and saying that it was a last resort; he was dragged, kicking and screaming, to support us on new nuclear. New nuclear will make an important contribution to our energy mix in 2017 and 2018. Carbon capture and storage can play an important role as well, as can renewables. We have plans in place to move towards low-carbon energy supply, and I am confident that we will meet them.