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Energy Security and Nuclear Non-Proliferation

Volume 495: debated on Wednesday 1 July 2009

This is an important debate. I am pleased that somebody with such a keen intellect as yours, Dr. McCrea, is presiding over it because it requires such a tenor of adjudication. I am pleased to welcome the Minister to his new role. I know that he will bring his own brand of intellectual rigour, diligence and enthusiasm to the post, which he displayed as an able Back-Bench colleague.

The Minister and I have just left a debate on the Parliamentary Standards Bill. As constitutionally important as that Bill is, it is my conviction that the issues before us in this debate are more important than those being discussed in the main Chamber. The Minister holds an important post in what is perhaps the most important Department. There is no more important issue facing this country and the world than climate change. It is widely recognised by left-wing and right-wing Governments around the world that this country—and by definition this Government and this Department—is leading the international response to the threat of climate change.

Energy policy is the engine of our policy response in this field and is at the heart of the Government’s new industrial policy. Energy policy is one of the most pressing issues facing this country. Energy security and nuclear non-proliferation are at the centre of the issues we are discussing. I will outline the importance of energy security, the pressing requirement on us and other developed nations to formulate a solution to the threat of nuclear proliferation, the policy solutions that I believe the Government should pursue without delay, and the associated benefits of those solutions. We must recognise the reality of the situation and the opportunities presented by it.

The Sellafield nuclear facility in my constituency is the largest concentration of nuclear engineering skills, abilities and facilities in our country. The site is home to highly advanced facilities such as the Sellafield mixel oxide plant—SMP—and the thermal oxide reprocessing plant, or THORP. It is also home to tens of thousands of tonnes of uranium oxide and more than 100 tonnes of plutonium oxide.

I should declare an interest in Sellafield. Although I have no direct financial interest, I am a former employee of the plant. Its importance to my constituency is such that I should declare about 17,000 individual interests.

The Government’s policy in this area is right and I believe that we should go much further. Put simply, THORP reprocesses spent nuclear fuel from the UK, Japan and other countries. Reprocessing results in the separation of the unused uranium and plutonium from a spent fuel rod, both of which are stored at Sellafield in oxide form, which is essentially a fine granulated powder.

Certain customers who send their spent fuel for reprocessing at THORP stipulate that the materials extracted from their spent fuel, which remain within their ownership, be returned to them as fuel that can be used in their reactors. Such fuel is mixed oxide fuel—MOX fuel—which is the combination of uranium and plutonium oxides into fuel pellets that are installed into fuel rods, a number of which can comprise a fuel assembly and be used again in a nuclear reactor. That fuel is manufactured at the adjoining Sellafield MOX plant, which was rightly approved by this Government. That is in keeping with the fact that every major pro-nuclear decision in this country’s history from Windscale onwards has been taken by a Labour Government.

There have been significant processing problems at SMP, which have caused Sellafield management, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and the Government to assess the future of SMP for a number of years. That is not a new development. It is well known to the SMP work force and the wider community. Let me make my position clear: my constituents, this industry and our country cannot do without the services that SMP provides. It hosts a unique array of skilled workers with incredible technical, scientific and engineering competencies, which must not be lost to Sellafield or the nuclear industry in this country. Closing SMP without having a replacement facility simply is not an option. It has underperformed, but it will have a use until a new MOX plant is built at Sellafield.

If such a new facility were established, there would still be a role for SMP in immobilising the small quantities of plutonium that cannot be reused as fuel or fuel components. Fundamentally, there is strong market interest in bringing forward such a new facility, and there is a genuine desire for that from certain companies—they will be known to the Minister’s Department—which are prepared to invest their money to make that happen. I discuss these issues with them regularly, so I know they are genuinely excited about the possibilities before them, as corporate entities, the Sellafield work force and the country. Whatever SMP’s technical problems have been, the use of plutonium and uranium oxides to create fuel is unquestionably the right policy. There is no credible case for pursuing an alternative policy on environmental or economic grounds, on national interest or security grounds, or on the ground of effectively pursuing global non-proliferation policies.

It is beyond doubt that a new nuclear fleet in the UK would be central to securing our security of energy supply. Every reactor design being assessed by the nuclear installations inspectorate is capable of burning MOX fuel, and there is a huge and growing international marketplace for MOX fuel. Our policy response should therefore be obvious; indeed, it was recognised as such by the Prime Minister in his address to the International Nuclear Fuel Cycle conference in London in March, on the eve of the G20 conference. He is the only party leader who appears to understand these issues and their importance both to the country and to my constituents. He is also the only party leader to support nuclear development in the UK and in my constituency. I thank him for that, and for understanding and facilitating my constituents’ ambitions.

In his address, the Prime Minister acknowledged the need for a better, stronger International Atomic Energy Agency, and for the need to turn stockpiles of nuclear weapons into fuel for use in civilian nuclear power programmes. He said:

“Britain will be at the forefront of the international campaign to prevent nuclear proliferation and to accelerate multilateral nuclear disarmament.”

He went on to say that

“however we look at it we will not secure the supply of sustainable energy on which the future of our planet depends without a role for civil nuclear power. We simply cannot avoid the real and pressing challenge that presents, from the safety and security of fissile material to the handling of waste, a comprehensive multilateral strategy to allow nations safe and secure access to civil nuclear power is essential”.

Britain can fulfil its required role in those efforts only with Sellafield, THORP and SMP or a successor plant.

I repeat that the policy is sound. If that sounds remarkably like Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” programme, it is because it is. The expansion of civil nuclear power is clearly our best and most likely hope of effectively combating the problems associated with the proliferation of nuclear materials. In this country, there should also be utilisation, although not necessarily exclusively, of the closed fuel cycle, with the pursuit of new contracts for the thermal oxide reprocessing plant. Again, we know that the contracts are out there, and again, I know that the Government are sympathetically disposed towards them.

Other major policy implications rest on decisions relating to the use of plutonium in this country, and I must pay tribute to the Royal Society and its fellows for their consistent interest in this area and for their outstanding work. Many of their reflections and proposals run throughout this debate. The use of plutonium as a fuel component would necessarily mean that the vast majority of our stockpiled plutonium would be classified as an asset—a usable commodity of real value—rather than as a waste. The stockpile is currently classified as neither asset nor waste, but that position cannot hold, and I urge the Government to recognise the value of that asset as soon as possible. Indefinite storage—the current management route for much of our plutonium that has been produced by reprocessing fuel from British reactors and from the British weapons programme—is unacceptable for both the intermediate and the long term, and is incredibly expensive. In that state, those materials are a constant drain on public funds, yielding nothing, achieving nothing and doing nothing, but they could be earning the taxpayer billions of pounds, while helping to combat climate change.

It would be an absolute travesty if those materials were classified as waste. Current estimates put the cost of disposing of them at more than £3 billion, but again, that would yield nothing for the British taxpayer. It would represent spending without earning, and such a move would be entirely wrong in principle. As well as being both wasteful and expensive, those materials would have to be disposed of in a deep geological repository, which would materially affect discussions about that process that are already under way. However, that is the subject of another, lengthier and perhaps more contentious debate, to which I shall return. I cannot envisage any community, least of all my own, volunteering to dispose of those materials, given that real value, community benefit, environmental benefit and wealth could be generated from using them as a fuel source.

Let us be under no illusions. A decision to classify those materials as waste could jeopardise the establishment of a repository, undoubtedly leading to further public expense. Pursuing the policy route I have outlined would earn us billions, reduce our carbon dioxide emissions, increase the security of our energy supplies and help to solve non-proliferation issues. No other technological solution exists, and no other policy programme exists that could drive all those huge policy benefits and more.

It is essential to emphasise how that money could and should be used as a matter of principle, but particularly in the current national and global economic environment. After all, we live in straitened times. The billions that would be earned could and should be used to accelerate the decommissioning and remediation of the greatest hazards on the Sellafield site. The speed of progress in the work at Sellafield is limited by the availability of money and sufficient manpower. However, more public money is being spent at Sellafield now, by this Government, than at any time in history. The last time I checked, it was £1.3 billion a year, whereas the last time I worked there outside of Parliament it was in the region of £900 million a year. The better and best use of that money should, can and will be sought. I know that the work force are committed to doing that, and I am exceptionally grateful to them for all the work they do.

The policy I am suggesting includes a vision for Sellafield that means two new reactors being established on the site, powered by MOX fuel produced at a new facility on the site. That would not only lead to the socio-economic regeneration of my community, but would provide 6 per cent. of the UK’s base load electricity demand over 60 years. At the same time, it would solve our proliferation problems and, perhaps most importantly of all, would obviate the need to emit more than 500,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide over that period.

Sellafield is predominantly funded by the public purse, and I am utterly opposed to spending cuts there. Talk such as the Conservative proposals to cut public spending by 10 per cent. is entirely ignorant. Sellafield could not stand such a cut, and nor could the community whom I represent. Ten per cent. of £1.3 billion is £130 million, which equates to almost half the local Sellafield wage bill. Also, such cuts would necessarily result in decommissioning taking longer, and the general rule of thumb is that the longer decommissioning takes, the worse the hazards become, as do the cost to the taxpayer and the environmental hazards. Nobody of integrity, knowledge or honesty could possibly hope to sell such a ridiculous proposal to my constituents and the Sellafield work force.

If the policy platform that I have suggested were pursued—I repeat that it is my sincere view that the Government are sympathetic towards it—the cost to the public of operating Sellafield could be significantly reduced and alleviated, while total expenditure could be increased and clean-up accelerated. We have to make money to spend money, and the Government’s industrial strategy is the real-world champion of that simple fact. Energy security, the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions, world leadership in nuclear non-proliferation, massive benefits to the taxpayer and my constituents, and the opportunity to earn billions of pounds for the UK are all there for the taking—let us get on with it.

I am pleased to have this important debate under your watchful eye, Dr. McCrea, and I am sure that you will keep us in order throughout.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr. Reed) on choosing this important subject, and on his obvious commitment to his constituents and his constituency, which he has demonstrated in the debate. He has, once again, ably shown the breadth and depth of his knowledge of these difficult and important issues, and his constituents can truly be proud of him.

It is a challenging business meeting society’s energy needs in a world of more than 6 billion people and with a UK population of more than 60 million. For the next half century at least, the population is predicted to grow, as is the demand for energy. Of course, it is part of the UK’s strategy to tackle climate change that we should seek to become more energy-efficient. However, demand for energy will clearly remain strong for the foreseeable future.

The UK has been a pioneer in the field of civil nuclear energy production, and our aim is to maintain our position at the forefront of the worldwide nuclear energy renaissance that we are witnessing. In the UK and many other countries, interest has grown in recent years because of the twin challenges of energy security and climate change. Much of the UK’s early work in this field took place in west Cumbria at the Sellafield nuclear site. The area in which Sellafield is located has a long and distinguished history of contributing to the development of nuclear energy. In May 1956, the first reactor was started at Calder Hall.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming

My hon. Friend said how Britain led the world on nuclear power and I agree that, in Calder Hall, we had the first large-scale electricity producing nuclear reactor not only in the UK, but in the world. The site was also the location for the Windscale advanced gas-cooled reactor, the forerunner of the designs that currently form the majority of this country’s nuclear power generating capacity. Sellafield was also at the leading edge of nuclear fuel development and reprocessing, with a long and distinguished history of utilising state-of-the-art science and technologies.

We recognise that the redundant facilities on the site now form a substantial legacy of plant and equipment that will need to be decommissioned—that is, cleaned of all radioactive material and safely demolished. That work will last many decades and will secure work at the Sellafield site for many workers in my hon. Friend’s constituency. As a Government, we are committed to the belief that the Sellafield site is home to our nuclear skills, our nuclear expertise and many of our key facilities. As such, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has nominated a site adjacent to Sellafield as one of three potential sites in west Cumbria to be considered for new nuclear build. The NDA has started the sale process for the land on the Sellafield site and has called for expressions of interest from parties that may wish to invest in new nuclear in this historic region known as the energy coast. During construction, each new station built in the area could bring as many as 9,000 additional jobs. Once operational, up to 1,000 skilled long-term jobs will be created. That could be worth about £2 billion to the surrounding region and wider economy.

Meeting future energy needs will be increasingly difficult, especially given our commitment to reducing the damaging effects of greenhouse gases associated with the use of fossil fuels. In that context, nuclear energy is enjoying something of a renaissance, but we must take full responsibility to ensure that, in taking advantage of all that nuclear energy has to offer, both in the UK and worldwide, the risks of proliferation of nuclear material for non-peaceful purposes remain low.

The first part of my hon. Friend’s speech was about security of supply. The statistics on UK energy supply show the extent of the challenge. Nearly a quarter of our current electricity generating capacity—around 18 GW—could close over the next decade, as coal and oil generation become subject to increasingly stringent environmental standards and nuclear power stations reach the end of their scheduled lifetimes. Some of our existing coal-fired and oil-fired plants can be expected to close by 2016, because of the application of the large combustion plants directive. A further proposed EU directive on industrial emissions may well also have an impact on plant closures around 2020.

At the same time, our indigenous energy—oil and gas from the UK continental shelf—is in decline. New investment in gas pipelines from continental neighbours, plus the development of liquefied natural gas terminals, is encouraging, but it means that we will be increasingly dependent on external supplies of those fossil fuels. Major investment is also under way in gas storage, and significant new electricity generation capacity is already being delivered. The amount of renewable electricity generation has risen to 5 per cent. since 2001, and the UK is now the leading country in the world for offshore wind. Our supply of renewable energy from wind is still expanding rapidly, and that is a sensible development, given that the UK enjoys 40 per cent. of Europe’s wind. However, the supply is intermittent and, in order to meet our energy needs and carbon emissions targets, we will need to decarbonise our electricity generation system more or less completely. We will need all the technologies at our disposal, including carbon capture and storage technology, and efficient gas storage.

We will need nuclear power to be able to play a full role, too, and we are taking steps to facilitate private sector investment. Nuclear has been a vital and low-carbon part of the UK’s energy mix for the past five decades and that can continue in future. We have seen significant investment in the UK since “A White Paper on Nuclear Power” was published last year.

The second part of my hon. Friend’s speech was about the impact on non-proliferation. Of course, many will argue that there is an increased threat of nuclear material falling into the wrong hands should we, or others around the world, increase our reliance on nuclear energy. However, it is not axiomatic that more nuclear power stations mean greater threats. A nuclear reactor per se is relatively straightforward to safeguard: nuclear material is in discrete items—the fuel elements—and the reactor core can be sealed while the reactor is operated and monitored remotely. Enrichment and reprocessing are the most proliferation-sensitive parts of the nuclear fuel cycle. However, an increased demand for enriched fuel can be met largely from expansion of existing facilities—one facility can serve numerous reactors—and there are precedents emerging for the transfer of enrichment technology under “black box” conditions, such that the fundamental know-how remains with the originator. Some countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, that have announced plans to proceed with a new nuclear programme, have publicly stated their intention not to build fuel cycle facilities, but to rely on others.

Even where enrichment plants are built, they will be subject to safeguards—measures to account for and verify stocks of nuclear material. The UK actively supports the IAEA in its work to develop safeguarding techniques and to train inspectors in a dedicated safeguards support programme. The UK is a key player in the global debate on multinational approaches to the nuclear fuel cycle. A number of potential ways to provide assurance of nuclear fuel supplies in the event of interruption due to non-commercial or political reasons have emerged from the international discussions.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

On managing the risk of proliferation, plans for various fuel banks—for example, those supported by the US, Russia, the EU and others—are well advanced, and the details of the UK’s nuclear fuel assurance to underpin existing enrichment contracts are also nearly final. With all those proposals, the purpose is to provide the confidence needed by new nuclear states not to seek to develop their own facilities. That will encourage the uptake in nuclear energy, because by avoiding expensive and unnecessary facilities, the cost will be less, and it will reduce proliferation risks.

I note that no potential new nuclear states have shown a desire to pursue reprocessing. They recognise that to do so would mean creating large, expensive, identifiable and commercially unnecessary facilities. For our own part, the Government have concluded that any new nuclear power stations that might be built in the UK should proceed on the basis that spent fuel will not be reprocessed and that plans for, and financing of, waste management should proceed on that basis. For existing reprocessing facilities, the policy is that the thermal oxide reprocessing plant will continue to operate until existing contracts have been completed or the plant is no longer economic. No firm proposals for new contracts have been received. If we receive any such proposals, their merits will be considered at that time.

What we do with existing stocks of plutonium is extremely topical, and certainly emotive. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has been working on options for plutonium since 2005. It recently considered management options, published a plutonium options paper for comment in August last year, and finally published its options paper in January this year. The Government are now ready to take forward the process and to determine a long-term strategy for UK plutonium. We are considering the basis for public consultation on long-term plutonium management, and we hope to launch it later this year.

Clearly, another view that might be considered as an appropriate long-term solution for dealing with the plutonium stockpile is to ensure that it is manufactured into mixed oxide fuel, which would require a new MOX plant, and thereby consumed in nuclear reactors. The other main option, other than indefinite storage, is to treat the material as waste. That would mean immobilising the plutonium before its eventual disposal. Again, the issues are challenging as likely immobilisation techniques have yet to be demonstrated outside the laboratory. I heard my hon. Friend’s choice of those options, and his views will be received, welcomed and considered, along with our consideration of other options.

The Government launched the national nuclear laboratory on 23 July 2008. Its vision is for a successful centre of excellence serving primarily the needs of legacy nuclear waste clean-up. The laboratory will, of course, also play a key role as a world-class provider of science-based technology solutions and research services.

Managing increased levels of radioactive waste is a key area for discussion as we advance with the development of plans for new nuclear reactors. The interest expressed in a potential geological disposal facility by Copeland and Allerdale borough councils and Cumbria county council is encouraging, and demonstrates further that region’s commitment to the UK’s energy programme. The geological disposal facility is a potential multi-billion pound high-technology project that would provide skilled employment for decades.

This debate emphasises the need to take decisions that will be durable for decades. It will be about seven years from the moment a decision is taken before a new nuclear reactor can contribute to the country’s electricity supply, and it will be longer for countries without the appropriate physical infrastructure or regulatory or administrative frameworks for nuclear generating plant, but those reactors are likely to be producing power in 50 years. As I have outlined, we have the structures and procedures in place, internationally and nationally, to ensure that proliferation risks remain low. We will continue to develop those, working through all the means available, to ensure that that remains the case.

The next review conference of the non-proliferation treaty in May 2010 will be particularly important as a time to take stock of global intentions on peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and to help to refresh our global approach to non-proliferation. Nuclear energy has an important future, but we will remain vigilant to ensure that it remains in safe hands.

I thank the hon. Gentleman and the Minister for their thoughtful help in managing this debate, and for their stamina in going backwards and forwards in the Divisions.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.