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Nuclear Fuel Cycle (Non-Proliferation and Public Liability)

Volume 508: debated on Wednesday 7 April 2010

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Secretary of State to make arrangements to reprocess spent nuclear fuel stored in the United Kingdom in order to meet non-proliferation objectives and to offset the decommissioning costs of major reprocessing facilities; and for connected purposes.

The Bill would promote the utilisation of the full nuclear fuel cycle and the facilities that underpin it in Britain, so that the costs to the taxpayer of nuclear decommissioning may be reduced, and the successful implementation of national and international nuclear non-proliferation objectives may be met.

Before beginning, I must point out that a number of my friends and family members work in the nuclear industry in my constituency, and that I am a former employee of the Sellafield nuclear plant, which sustains something in the region of 16,000 jobs in my constituency.

My Bill is designed to resolve some of the most important issues facing us, as a country, and some of the most important issues facing the British nuclear industry today. The Bill presents a series of policy solutions to certain complex and interconnected challenges that are currently before us. The complete resolution of all the issues outlined in the Bill will require interdepartmental co-operation in Whitehall and intergovernmental co-operation internationally. Fundamentally, however, the genesis of the solutions to these problems lies constitutionally and legally in Parliament, but technically and physically at Sellafield, in my constituency.

The Bill covers seven areas: the cost of nuclear decommissioning to the taxpayer; the potential of publicly owned nuclear facilities and materials to generate significant commercial revenue; the continuation of spent nuclear fuel reprocessing; the establishment of a new mixed oxide fuel manufacturing facility at Sellafield; the significant effect of that on the final radioactive waste inventory for the national deep geological depository; the management and governance of non-British radioactive materials in Britain; and, perhaps most importantly, the significant help that the proposals would give to our nuclear non-proliferation objectives.

The Government have taken the right decision on decommissioning this country’s ageing nuclear facilities. The estimated decommissioning cost to the taxpayer now stands at about £80 billion. This estimate could increase or reduce as decommissioning continues, as new techniques are developed and as expertise from all over the world is brought to bear on what are in some cases internationally unique engineering challenges. It should be recognised that a large proportion—perhaps the majority—of these costs have been incurred through our military nuclear programmes and not through our civil ones, although in the past that dividing line has sometimes been obscured.

The creation of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority was an important and necessary step by the Government, and the relatively new body continues to do good work in my constituency and elsewhere around the UK. The NDA recently announced its business plan for the new financial year. It has a budget of £2.8 billion, £1.5 billion of which will be spent at Sellafield. This is all public money, and the rise in spending since the creation of the NDA has been both dramatic and profound. By way of illustration, when I left Sellafield in 2005, its annual budget was just below £900 million. The fact that we need to spend £1.5 billion of public money at Sellafield in this financial year is beyond doubt and, in my view, non-negotiable. However, the principal question for any time—but even more so as we build economic recovery and emerge from recession—is whether all that money should come directly from the public purse. Is there not another or an additional way in which the money can be found? The answer is yes.

The potential of publicly owned nuclear facilities and materials to generate significant commercial revenue at Sellafield is enormous. The thermal oxide reprocessing plant, or THORP, at Sellafield is the single largest yen earner in the British economy. The plant is of vital strategic importance not only to the UK nuclear industry but to the UK as a whole, as it provides services that few facilities in the world can offer. Current reprocessing contracts at THORP—depending on operational performance—are scheduled to end in approximately 2020. THORP reprocesses spent nuclear fuel, separating out the reusable uranium and plutonium as oxides which are then capable of being made into mixed oxide—MOX—fuels.

As the nuclear industry expands across the globe—no one can now doubt the reality or speed of that expansion—the marketplace for the services that THORP can provide continues to grow. This is not a hypothetical marketplace; it exists now, and potential customers are showing genuine interest in pursuing the route that I am outlining. It is incumbent on us as a nation to extract every single penny of value from the facilities at Sellafield, such as THORP and the Sellafield MOX plant, which have been so heavily invested in by the British taxpayer. These facilities are enormous assets, and they can and should be used as income generators, and the derived income could and should be used to limit the decommissioning costs to the public purse. This is not just sensible; it is just, fair and in the public interest. There is therefore a copper-bottomed case for continuing reprocessing at THORP beyond 2020, and it is now in our interests aggressively to seek and pursue the commercial opportunities that exist.

In addition, there exist at Sellafield tens of thousands of tonnes of uranium dioxide and approximately 100 tonnes of plutonium oxide. Consultations are under way on how to classify these materials. Put simply, there is a stark choice to be made: the materials are either wastes or assets. If they are classified as wastes, it will cost billions of pounds of public money to treat, store and dispose of them. If, however, they are classified as assets—which they undeniably are—their value as component materials to service the growing international demand for MOX fuel will be enormous, and they will be worth tens of billions of pounds to the British taxpayer and to the nation.

There is real interest from certain parties in developing a new MOX fuel manufacturing plant at Sellafield, and this should be pursued in the national interest. Using plutonium and uranium oxides in that way would certainly change the nature of the radioactive waste inventory that will eventually be placed into a deep geological facility somewhere in this country—potentially in my constituency. That decision would be entirely in the hands of local people, not politicians, but the status of the nuclear fuel cycle and the final inventory will inevitably have an effect on the process and on public attitudes.

So there is clearly an issue of definition with regard to British and non-British radioactive wastes. The definition is a simple one, and the legally binding substitution arrangements that Britain has with its overseas customers work well. This is a prescriptive and demanding process, and it should be so. However, such is the nature of the constitutional change experienced by this country that new draft arrangements should now be established for the management, storage and governance of the radioactive materials currently stored at Sellafield, in case the definition of Britain changes.

Clearly, as a British facility, Sellafield currently stores and treats materials that are generated within Scotland as part of the United Kingdom—and it has done so for many years. The arrangement works well. However, should the Scottish people opt to leave the United Kingdom—in my view, that is their inalienable right—these materials will cease to be classified as British. Such a move would mean that all Scottish radioactive waste stored and treated in Britain would have to be reclassified. Such a move would necessarily require new environmental, economic and policy arrangements. Potentially, all Scottish materials could have to be returned to Scotland at the cost of billions of pounds to the Scottish taxpayer. Such a move would probably require the creation of an independent Scottish Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, an independent Scottish regulator and an independent Scottish deep geological repository, and more.

Alternatively, Britain could enter into entirely new arrangements for Scotland and establish a commercial arrangement whereby Scotland paid Britain for its waste to be treated and stored—again, at the cost of billions of pounds to the Scottish taxpayer, but again, the revenue could be used to accelerate decommissioning in Britain or to offset the costs to the British taxpayer.

There are many more scenarios, and I hope that officials from the Scottish Government and Whitehall can meet soon to discuss potential eventualities and to develop a mutual way forward. These issues must be addressed in a calm, rational and consensual manner. To this end, I have written to the Scottish First Minister in the hope that we can begin this dialogue.

Finally, the strengthening of the industrial base, which facilitates the nuclear fuel cycle in this country, provides us with the single best chance we have of not only meeting our own nuclear non-proliferation objectives, but helping others, particularly the United States, to meet theirs as well. The same skilled work force, academic base, industrial supply chain and industrial practices that will and should help us to exploit our nuclear fuel cycle technologies are the same as those that will help us to put nuclear weapons materials beyond use. We owe it to ourselves and to existing and future generations to do this, and we owe it to the taxpayers of this country to maximise every drop of value from the nuclear investments they have made. My constituents deserve nothing less.

Question put and agreed to.


That Mr. Jamie Reed, Andrew Gwynne, John Mann, Phil Wilson, John Robertson, Albert Owen, Mr. Richard Caborn, Hilary Armstrong, Mr. Alan Milburn and Mr. John Hutton present the Bill.

Mr. Jamie Reed accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 23 April, and to be printed (Bill 103).